Of Dolphins and Dancers and Teachers and Tricks

The Elegant Bastard believes that Ken Kesey’s protagonist, Randall Patrick McMurphy, was correct when he told his friends that those who lose their laugh lose their footing. But there are times when laughter must be tempered. This is one of them.

(Dedicated to the public school teachers of Ontario, Canada)

 In which the Elegant Bastard explains to the governments everywhere the essential importance of flowers and fish chunks to all our futures.

Imagine a dolphin, elegant and graceful master of sea and air, leaping forever into a succession of suns, scattering diamonds across the sea’s surface as it rises and returns, rises and returns. Nearby, the crowd is enthralled. Later it will speak of symmetry and strength, power and poise and beauty.

There will never be any mention made of the chunk s of dead fish the dolphins’ choreographer will subtly distribute to each performer after each trick. The chunks seem distasteful. They deny the magic. But for how long would the dolphins climb the air for the benefit of others without those less than elegant chunks? We all know the answer. We understand what we would rather not see. No chunks; no tricks.

Now consider, Dear Reader, the following question. How different are teachers – or any of us – from dolphins? No different at all; this we know. What? You do not like the dolphin metaphor?  Then consider a dancer. A partner approaches, perhaps with flowers. At the sound of the music, the two enact a graceful pattern across the shimmering floor. The crowd marvels at the intricacy, the shared confidence, the natural flow and the subtle shifts. No one notices the sweat or realizes that one of the dancing pair experiences the pain of a blister on one toe.

The teaching arts, done well, are always subtle, always natural. However, they are also transactional and because they are so, fair exchange must be involved. In fact, exchange is part of every transaction in life, so much so that we overlook its fundamental nature. As much as we may wish to believe that others are driven solely by Truth or Beauty or Duty, we know that at a fundamental level it all comes down to fish chunks or flowers. We ignore that at our peril.

Canadians have always seemed more aware of the fish and flower dynamic than most. Thus I was surprised when the Government of Ontario, a province generally as far away from Wisconsin as Neverland is from the Middle East, decided to run a Scott Walker steamroller over its teachers. The vehicle was nicknamed the “Putting Students First Act”. Essentially, this piece of legislation eviscerated the idea of sick leave and retirement gratuities, froze teacher remuneration for two years, and reduced the concept of collective bargaining to a charade for the same period of time. The Premier of Ontario, then one Dalton McGuinty, a liberal, said that this was necessary to preserve the progress made in education over his tenure.

(Here I notice a few readers yawn, mutter “about time!” and turn on their cell phones to see if they can access NetFlix. Please – a moment or so longer!)

I do not doubt that Ontario faces difficult financial times. In my own situation I am also made to exercise financial “restraint” by greater powers.   I do not like it, but if this genuinely and demonstrably serves the Greater Good, I might find it in myself, if asked very nicely, to agree. If a convincing case can be made that some long cherished entitlement must go the way of the dinosaurs or at the very least evolve dramatically, I may summon forth a stiff upper lip and try not to cry too loudly. But please, Mr. McGuinty, Mr. Walker, Ms Merkel and the many other Mr’s and Ms’s, hear this.

I will not do so alone.

Neither I nor Ontario’s teachers nor New York’s bus drivers nor D.C. Walmart workers nor Greek pensioners will walk down this path without protest so that those who govern and those who seek to govern can spin competing narratives. If, in the Ontario example, Premier McGuinty was cruel in introducing the Act, his opponents, social democrat Andrea Horwath and (Tea Party style) conservative Tim Hudak, responded with predictably sycophantic and self-serving drivel.)

Why ?

Let us pause for a moment and consider the nature of the average voter in the average western democracy. Ontario, like any other similar state, is comprised of people who, while they can rise under duress to benevolence and even sacrifice, are essentially self-focused. In fact, Dear Reader, we all on occasion chant some part of the following mantra.

No one works harder than I do. No one is as abused as I am. No one is as underpaid and overlooked as I. Those who have more than me stole it. Those who have less don’t deserve what they have. Everyone else is in it for what they can get. No one has ever been so screwed as I have been. Canonize me now you bastards. (By the way, that’s why I cheat on my taxes, steal grapes at the supermarket, speed and watch porn on my office computer.)

An occasional recitation of the above – accompanied by several Coors (not light), a good sized bottle of Seagram or a box of  the best Lindt – can actually restore our battered egos and drive away those nasty niggledoubts that attack us all.  (Repeat after me: Catharsis is King!) But eventually, the vast majority of us recover our equanimity and return to our less selfish states of mind where we are ruled by sweet reason.

The problems emerge because many, many others are permanently caught up in this “Haters” mentality. Their  jaundiced eyes see the external world as filled with those who have so much more than they: a pompous Lord Black “jailed” in a mansion, an arrogant Justin Beiber scampering away from traffic tickets , a randy Prince Harry with a better butt than theirs, a long-haired patched-jean university “student” with his grant in one hand and his dope in the other, the welfare bums with booze bottles and all the others who seem to laugh as “We” (Haters are always “We”) work our fingers to the bone.

Inevitably, the Haters notice the teachers. Now their anger creeps up another notch.

What a sweet deal, eh? A six hour work day. Spares.  A big salary.  A massive pension (that “We”are paying for.) A union that keeps the lazy incompetent bastards from getting fired. Sick days. Summers off. SUMMERS OFF! And now they want more? Screw ‘em!

Enter Mr. McGuinty, Mr. Hudak, and Ms Horwath, bellows in hand. Let’s stoke these fires, boys and girl. There’s votes in them there embers.

I was once a teacher, by all reports a reasonably good one. I remain proud of my former profession. But to the Haters out there – and you, Dear Reader – I admit the following. Villains do walk among the teaching ranks. There are incompetent teachers and they are more dangerous than bad doctors. Doctors kill one at a time; teachers can massacre whole classrooms. Yes, there are lazy teachers in the world, so many that other teachers have nicknames for them, like the “3:00 P.M. Track Team”. Oh yes, teacher unions are often appallingly amateurish, riddled as they are by “I Hate The Man” refugees from badly re-formatted 1960’s socialism. And if you want more to hate in public education, try cowardly Supervisory Officers, petty ego-driven Trustees and self advertising Directors who can’t even copy well.

However, we need to remember this. Every Hater and everyone else can remember the dedicated Teacher. Imagine this heroic figure, preferably clad in a flowing toga and carrying a golden sword. Let us add a blizzard raging all around. We’ll have a few ravenous wolves circling for added effect. Does our heroic teacher falter? Never! The lessons are always compelling, the voice caring, the hand on the shoulder comforting, the marking effective, the grades fair, the smile genuine and the hours of work endless. The impact, finally, is enormous.

Nor are these heroes few in number. In my experience, they actually outnumber the villains, albeit not by the desired margin. Why then did the mass of Ontario citizenry not respond to Mr. McGuinty’s “Putting Students First” and Ms Horwath’s sneers and Mr. Hudak’s histrionics with loud outrage? Why did so many in Wisconsin, apparently a quite mild-mannered place in the best of times, leap on board their governor’s bash-the-unions juggernaut? Simply put, hate and fear are more powerful than fond memory and gratitude. Every politician knows this.

The Ontario government knew if it offered up teachers (“lazy and overpaid”) and their perks and salaries, followed by the doctors (“greedy and REALLY overpaid”) as scapegoats for all that ails Ontario’s economy, the Haters would coalesce. They would enjoy what they see as vengeance obtained on those who dared to be better than they.  Ms Horwath knew that if she claimed that the government was “absolutely” doing this to serve its own selfish and hidden agenda, Haters and conspiracy theorists would believe her and revel in their own now validated cynicism. Mr. Hudak knew that by declaring he would act even more decisively against teachers, he would remind the “Give everyone except me Hell!” Haters that he was of their tribe.

The fact that “Putting Students First” didn’t in any measureable long-term way put students first is irrelevant. Politics is optics and even teacher strategists conceded the optics here were brilliant.

What political leaders in Ontario did to teachers is precisely what class has done to class and race has done to race and ethnicity has done to ethnicity and sect has done to sect and damn near everyone has done to the Jews: make one group the target for all resentment, fear and self loathing. If you want to see the same drama enact itself with far more bells, whistles and music, watch the Pro and Anti gun people rip each other apart in the US for the foreseeable future.

And when all is said and done, what’s the harm?

The harm is profound. McGuinty and the others did not start this rot, nor will it end in Ontario, but they have caused it to spread. They have done so by splitting society into good and evil groups. Even the name of the act, “Putting Students First Act”, is divisive, implying that all who opposed them were nothing more than so many greedy guts lined up at the public trough! After the teachers and doctors have been scapegoated, who will be next? The civil servants have been butchered, roasted and well picked over already so will it be other union contracts? Corporate pay scales? Expense accounts? Pension indexing? Why not? I can hear the Haters now:

Lazy union labourers! Cheating business people. Seniors who got us in this mess with their cushy pensions. And while we are at it, let’s make all those drug taking students pay “their fair share”.

(To Haters, everyone else’s unfair share is exponentially larger than their own.)

In these times when restraint seems a necessary option, politicians from all sides could sit down with representatives of all interests groups and together produce something like a Restraint Act. Had this happened in Ontario, perhaps everyone there would have made some meaningful but not grossly expensive contribution to balancing the books. The pain and the potential gain would have been shared.

Perhaps we would have seen the rise and spread of Restraint parties, Restraint parades, Restraint awards and Restraint buttons, scarves and beads. We are an enterprising people, are we not, and as I said earlier, we can rise to compassion and sacrifice if the need is there. Teachers and everyone else would have shouldered the burden.

But no. That scenario would provide no useful optics, would offer nothing to entrenched political machines. Instead there was finger pointing and organized teacher bashing.

Again, what’s the harm? Think back to the dolphin and the dancers. Ontario wiped the blood from its corporate hands and turned back to its teachers, expecting the same tricks, the same shared music. Instead they found seething resentment, the elimination of extra-curriculars, an unwillingness by many to do anything that sounded remotely voluntary, and a whole new cynicism. Teachers will continue to teach just as dolphins will continue to swim. But there will be no tricks or worse, much worse, the tricks will be done badly.

Nor will the dancers leave the floor. But their message has been made clear. When you step on our feet or dance on our heads, then you will dance alone.

And you, Dear Reader, now sitting in the audience and more than a little disappointed in the performances you’ve seen lately, look about you. Look at the legion of Haters grumbling in their seats. Do they make you nervous? Do you wonder, “Am I next?”

Ah, Dear Reader. Yes. You are.

Do You Want Bieber Chips With That?

In which the Elegant Bastard rejects the concept of edible nationalism

Canadians are a very resourceful people.

We understand that our signature politeness can get a tad dull, and so we have created hockey loyalties as ferocious in tone and as capable of producing mayhem as any other religion practiced anywhere. We understand, too, that North being North, we will have more snow than making angels and snowpersons requires,  and so we have convinced millions of foreign others that the most wonderful thing to do in winter is come and spend enormous amounts of money to play in our snow. (There’s room for them, of course, because we all go south. Sneaky, eh?) And we are generally aware of the fact that as a people we are shockingly unaware of our own and the world’s history, but we have cleverly laughed so loud and long at Americans looking for icicles in July, French in Toronto or polar bears anywhere that our ignorance has by and large escaped notice.

As well, we rise to challenges. For example, upon discovering that our venerable CN Tower was no longer the world’s Tallest Ugly Thing (TUG), we sat down – likely in focus groups (again, we are polite) – and looked at our alternatives. Having only the world’s third TUG in our midst did not sit well with either the patriotic or the phallically obsessed but what could we do? Watering it to make it grow did not seem an option. Adding to it was just so déjà vu. We could have demolished it and sold it chunk by chunk as souvenirs but really, would you want a piece of it in your living room given where it’s been?

Instead, we added the “Edge Walk” and set about convincing thousands to spend hundreds for the right to dangle hands-free 356 metres in the air while wearing a red suit bright enough that should they fall, we will all be able to track their progress to its crimson conclusion.

Proving yet again, Dear Reader, that if you sell it, they will come! (And if fear or nausea prompts participants to lose anything more than composure, it will all be blamed on seagulls or, if the winds are strong enough to reach North York, pigeons, neither of which can be sued.)

Yet inevitably there are those who will seek to profit from the talents of others, who will use and abuse the most precious elements of a nation’s character to serve only Mammon. We had all thought that such jingoistically justified greed was the private preserve of political parties, NHL teams and the International Olympic Committee, but we were apparently deceived. Charging ahead to the front of the wave-the-flag-for-money line is Frito-Lay and their shrill new shill, Martin Short. Apparently they have determined that all Canada’s previous accomplishments need to be capped by one more – our own chip flavour – which, they burble enthusiastically, we get to choose!

What astounds me is how little they know about Canadian diversity. Let us assume that Lay announces the new Canadian chip flavour will be poutine, or maple syrup or tortiere. (They would be wise to have Short make the announcement as he is the smaller target.) Immediately Anglo voices would sputter that once again we were all being forced to kowtow to Quebec and won’t people just please please remember the Plains of Abraham? Quebec would respond with Gallic sneers, condemning such blatant stereotyping and demanding that the matter be referred immediately to the United Nations – which they’d belong to if only the rest of the country would just see things rationally. All other varieties of the Canadian hyphe-nation would reject the choice as evidence of rampant neo-colonialism and would insist that everyone else submit immediately to equity retraining.

Do we really want this chaos to occur primarily for the benefit of Frito Lay, a corporate entity whose only claim to fame is its success in encouraging millions of people to be much larger than they really need to be?

Still, assuming the new flavour is chosen carefully, some good might possibly come of all this. It would depend on what secondary benefit could be derived from the end product and how widely distributed it would be. It is therefore in a truly utilitarian spirit that I make the following suggestions. I encourage other Canadian readers to add to the list.

(The rest of you can go get your own freaking flavour and by the way, we are not all polite!)

Pine flavoured chips would likely be an instant hit, especially if ground pine needles were incorporated into the mix prior to frying. Imagine the benefits for millions. Are you stuck in a hot car crammed with Happy Meal addicts or a small elevator stuffed with the unhappy and un-deoderized? Rip open the chips and you are instantly in the middle of the Great Canadian Pine Forest! Bliss!

Tar Sand Chips would also do well, particularly in Alberta. And since they already breathe tar sand affected air and drink tar sand affected water, eating the stuff is really just the next logical step.

Whiskey and tobacco flavoured options would allow those who desire such things to indulge their habits safely and without endangering the rest of us. True, those who chose this snack would not smell very nice but they don’t anyway so there remains a net gain.

Hockey flavoured is another deserving candidate. The recipe would again be a bit demanding – equal amounts of sweat, broken tooth enamel, leftover Don Cherry wardrobe errors and ground up money – but this would go well with socially sanctioned beer guzzling, the primary reason people watch the game.

We shouldn’t overlook Canada’s beleaguered animal symbols, some of which could use a little positive media spin. Moose and Canada Goose chips spring to mind. Beaver flavoured would be a runaway best seller, especially if wood fibres were blended with the other ingredients. The final product would at least be good for the Canadian colon, itself an endangered species.

And then there’s the obvious – Bieber chips. These would be the easiest sell imaginable. They’d be beige, noisy and utterly tasteless.

Hopefully my modest efforts here will spur others of my tribe to answer the call. And perhaps if Frito and Marty discover their error they might turn their corporate and comic talents to providing Canadians with the chance for real change. For example, they could offer us the choice of a new snow colour, its current whiteness being basically boring, far too bright and absolutely impossible to keep clean.

 

 

 

 

The Devious Daylight Murder of “O Canada”!

In which the Elegant Bastard points out to singers and song stylists everywhere that while the national anthem is our national anthem and even my national anthem, it is not your ticket to stardom!

Somewhere around the 6th grade, I stopped singing the Canadian national anthem. I had not abandoned patriotism, nor had I intellectually evolved to rejecting the concept of nations entirely. (That happened at 18 during my annoying years.) About all I had turned my back on by age 12 were broccoli, short pants and fried liver.

I stopped singing “O Canada” simply because all the other boys in my class stopped. The classic symbols of manhood were only vaguely understood by then – and in that culinarily challenged time, none of us knew what quiche was so we could hardly refuse to eat it as part of some gender based protest. But we all seemed to know that singing a national anything was not part of “male cool” and that was enough. If proof that men didn’t sing was necessary, all a boy had to do was watch a televised hockey or football game. True, the anthem might provoke a tough jaw-clench, but in no male faces was there any indication that they even knew the words. (In fact, during many subsequent visits to various sports parks where large portions of the male audience seemed to sprawl in their seats, their great beer bloated bellies raised to the glory of God, I wondered whether they knew any words at all.)

My 12 year old self had not rejected singing entirely. My friends and I had learned that singing Presley and the early Beatles allowed us to practice our (at that point purely hypothetical) pelvic-thrusting. (One had to start somewhere!)

And I’ll admit than on September 28, 1972, when Paul Henderson fired “the goal heard round the world”, myself and a crowded dorm room full of buddies tried (unsuccessfully) to belt out our nation’s song, but that was more booze and brotherhood in action than any pure love of country.

Yet in the years since then, I’d like to think that my male ego has grounded itself primarily north of the belt buckle, despite the efforts of Abercrombie, Fitch, Diesel and Levis to keep it south. I’d like to think that given the right chance, I’d be ready to “stand on guard” loudly, proudly and as close to on-key as anyone. And in fact I was more than ready to. I wanted to. And so, on February 12, 2010, I tuned in to the opening ceremonies of the Vancouver Winter Olympic games and cleared my throat. Who cares how the athletes might have been feeling. I was pumped. I’d even googled the words – just to be sure.

And then Nikki Yanofsky destroyed the dream.

Perhaps she has a great voice. Perhaps some publicity agent told her to do what she did. Maybe she mistakenly thought – or had been informed – that everyone was really there to see her, and all those flags were flapping around just to keep people warm. Whatever the cause, there – in front of tens of thousands of Canadians crammed into the stadium – she rendered the national anthem unsingable. It was impossible to even hum along.

From the opening dirge-like bars to her closing it’s-really-a-pop-song-and-it’s-time-to-BELT-IT-OUT style, it wandered in pace and pitch with a few vocal pyrotechnics thrown in – usually just when I thought it was safe to join in. And as she sang, it became increasingly clear that this was not about Canada. It was not about the Olympics. This was all about Ms Nikki, and anyone with the nerve to try and share the moment was going to be made to look – and sound – like an idiot when the anthem went off in yet another unexpected direction.

I’m not suggesting she was unique in this. I’ve Grey Cupped and Stanley Cupped and Super Bowled. Hell, I’ve even Brier-ed; I‘ve heard O Canada and Oh Say Can You See in rock versions, country and western versions and even one operatic version.  To me, those were merely sports moments and my inner patriot snoozed on. But this moment was, to me at least – and I think to many others – a moment of the Nation, and something in my quintessentially Canadian psyche wanted to cast off reserve, modesty and even politeness and just bawl out boring old “Oh Canada” to myself and to the world. I didn’t care about the billions spent. This was our time. We had long been misunderstood. Now was finally rooftop time and our collective barbaric YAWP was ready!

Then the lady sang.

And the anthem died in my throat.

Closely Watched Bums

In which the Elegant Bastard discovers that even on a crowded bus, Life’s Lessons can be Learned!

The number of synonyms available for any particular body part varies in direct proportion to the amount of interest that particular part arouses. Butts, therefore, have acquired an enormously long list of names, especially when you compare them to the much overlooked fingers, arms and esophagi.

But not all synonyms for the gluteus maximus are equal. “Asses”, for example, get kicked. “Backsides” are smacked or simply sat upon. “Buttocks” are of interest only to medical professionals. (Come on, when did you ever hear someone wishing to get a feel of that “buttock”!)  And no one has had a “derriere” since 1982.

Bums, however, are beautiful – round and cheekily perfect globes that can fire the spirit of Columbus in us all. Let them dance and the watchful mind stops; let them rest and it’s the mind’s turn to dance. If, as the poem tells us, Cortez really did stand silent upon a peak in Darien, doubtless his eagle eyes had spotted a New World Bum close by. Robert Frost tells the world to take the “road less travelled by.” I am sure he wanted to write “Bum”.

Have you noticed, Dear Reader, the similarities between digressions and obsessions? No? Consider it.

So when two of the nation’s twenty-somethings boarded the same crowded bus as I and came to stand a short meter from where my eyes were scanning the New York Times – and then turned their backs – I immediately confronted Plato’s fundamental error. He tells us – with a certain degree of smugness – that the “Perfect Forms” exist so far away that mere imperfect human beings (like us) may never see them. Well, Plato old boy, that might be true of Perfect Truth and Perfect Beauty, but not of Perfect Bums. A pair of them, each tightly Levi’d, had arranged themselves so close to me that Diana Ross’s old lyrical commandment to “Reach out and touch somebody’s hand” was in danger of being instantly rewritten.

I did not drool. No, I tell you that I did not drool. My interest was not at all lascivious. I am simply a lover of art in public places and felt it would be almost disloyal to that cause to turn my eyes away. Besides, they were clearly Canadian Bums and I am Canadian.

So, apparently, were most of my fellow travelers, for I noticed many of them were intent on being as patriotic as was possible given the limits imposed by good manners and various unimaginative laws.

Still, one fellow did seem unmoved. Youngish, a little chubby and unhealthily pale, he sat rigidly behind me, muttering strange words, his head bowed and his hands firmly grasping a slim black rectangle. I could not say he was fondling the device for thumbs have little fondling ability. But whatever thumbs can do, his did, and they did it with the same devotion my eyes were giving my two nearby icons.

He, however, did not see them. Instead he appeared to be calling up app after app, each to be toyed with briefly and then banished, another then taking its place. And as he browsed, his legs vibrated up and down. One of his knees seemed imperfect for it clicked as it quivered. The Bums could have been on Mars for all that he would know. As if to make up for his slight, I turned my attention back to them.

Their presence was innocent. Nothing about their owners’ poses or behavior suggested that they intended to arouse interest, comment or anything else. They were simply there, a momentary gift bestowed on all of us by an exuberant Nature so very clearly pleased with herself. “Behold!” she cried to us, and we all obediently beheld, all of us but clicking boy who was checking out the time of day in world capitals.

Eventually the couple moved to the rear doors and disembarked across from a shopping mall. The traffic light was green for them – how could it not be? – and this gave us all one last chance to watch them ripple across the sun dappled avenue before our bus rumbled into motion and took us away into shaded suburban streets. As we picked up speed, I turned my attention back to the Times and its attempts to keep me informed about who was killing whom wherever.

But I caught one last glimpse of the head behind me, bent low over his black box. He had apparently located a GPS app and was now busily trying to discover where he was.

As a devotee of a political grouping called The Mushy Middle, the Elegant Bastard despairs when his own city is in the grips of any form of political extremism. Those also suffering under the rule of moronic mayors might enjoy this explanation of whose fault it really is: http://wp.me/p3cq8l-1B