Enough About Politics! Back To The Wine!

The Elegant Bastard acknowledges that many who read these posts are beneath the legal drinking age in their various jurisdictions. However, we force young people to pick their careers before they can have them, learn about cars before they can drive them and draw plans of bridges before they can build them. Why not introduce them to wines before they can drink them? In fact, when better?

I received an amusing letter yesterday. It commented favourably about a recent post concerning Toronto’s mayor but then concluded by saying to me, “Ok, we get it. You don’t like Rob Ford. Now let’s get back to the wine talk.” In other words, enough with the gripes. Get back to the grapes.

I agree! It’s time. For now there are no more mayors. With our corkscrews in one hand and our Riedels in the other, let us all go forth and together be wise. Here is the first of a series of reviews about white wines currently available in Ontario. (They are also likely accessible in other regions.)

Rabl Kittmansberg Gruner Veltliner (Austria) 2011, $14.95: When I first sniff a glass of wine, I do so with all the delicacy and finesse of a dog greeting a new best friend. My nose is not near the glass; it is in the glass. My inhalation is not subtle. It’s deep. I am a man looking for metaphors; let no one interfere.

As per usual, the first sniff of this wine suggests fruit. Is it apple-y? A tad. Pearish? A bit. Then the truth arrives. It’s peachy – the restrained suggestion of an under ripe peach that danced quite closely with an overripe melon while holding a flower in its teeth. (Yes, I know peaches don’t have teeth. If you’re going to be like that, go away.) The aroma is not at all cloying but I still worry. This much fruit on the nose might be a warning that the wine is sweet, and I generally do not like sweet.

Then another scent begins to manifest in the glass and now I get eagerly and noisily nosey. The epiphany strikes on the third inhalation. It is suddenly a bracing spring morning on the cobblestone streets of Old Montreal and I am there, breathing in the familiar odour of old wet stone.

The first tastes confirm my hopes. The fruit is mellow and almost rich but there is no hint of syrup.  The wine is dry but not at all puckery. There is no hint of the unpleasant astringency that turns so many away from white wines. Instead the combination of fruit and minerality gives the wine a balance rarely obtained at this price point. There’s even a hint of pepper contributing a pleasantly subdued “burn”. The taste lingers and seems to cleanse the tongue with each sip.

As many wines must, this one had to do duty a second night. One day later, it was still intriguing, not bad given that so many wines go flat within a couple of hours of being opened. Day one it paired with basil and lemon braised chicken; on day two its tangy undertones went well with a sage and tarragon flavoured smoked turkey and split pea soup.

When friends and I encounter a new wine, we will often assign it a “personality”. We decided that if this wine were a person, it would be a pleasantly witty and slightly acerbic dining companion (or an advisor of some sort) who arrives dressed in a sophisticated version of business casual. The talk would be all about interesting events and unusual people, with perhaps some wry political commentary tossed in to keep the mood light.  Were any business to be done, it would of course be dealt with successfully. (Professionalism always shows!) The two of you would then stroll together through the light rain to the nearest subway station where you would part, already looking forward to the next encounter.

Cheers!

(This wine is currently available in some Toronto LCBO locations. Its product number is 346007. Rabl is the producer. Gruner Veltliner is the grape and this was my first – but hopefully not my last! – encounter with this varietal.)

To the Reader: As Facebook attempts to deal with its unpleasant economic realities, it seems to be changing the way it serves its members. If you enjoy “The Elegant Bastard” and wish to know when new material is published, you should consider going to its Facebook page and “liking” the page ( not just a specific post.) You will then automatically be notified when new posts occur. Here is the link: https://www.facebook.com/theelegantbastard

As always, I love your comments. There are also two earlier wine pieces.  “All’s Fair in Love and Wine” is at  http://wp.me/p3cq8l-3M and “Of Red Wines and Dancing Partners” can be found at  http://wp.me/p3cq8l-23

Sticks Up The Bum, mr. putin!

A word of explanation: the Elegant Bastard acknowledges that this is the second consecutive post involving foreign objects being inserted in various body parts. This should not be regarded as a trend. The “fly up the nose” of the previous post was a committee decision, one made after more than one bottle of a good Ripasso. As for “Sticks up the bum”, that phrase came (as does so much that is wise) directly from the mouths of babes.

Oh mr. putin, mr. putin, mr. putin. What are we to make of you, eh? Here it was, a lovely Friday morning, one so sunny and so mild that here in Toronto we could all sit back with our morning beverage, gaze at the whimsical flurries of snow  and imagine a ford-free future.

And then you had to spoil it all by saying something stupid like, “Gay people will be safe at Olympics if they ‘leave kids alone’.

Now really, mr. putin, what was that all about? Did you grin at the image of outraged crowds rushing to all available microphones, ranting and raving about homophobia, your own abuse of children and your latest insult to the Olympic spirit? Did you smile and envision hordes of commentators spluttering in fury and waving the reports that completely invalidate your scummy accusation? Did you giggle in anticipation of the storm?

Look around, vlad. Listen carefully. It’s only one day later and – guess what – no storm. Where are the offended masses?

They’re walking dogs, vlad, or they’re watching football, or studying, or, in my case, prepping an upcoming post about some recently encountered white wines.  And why not? You’re the boy we’ve called “goof” once too often for there to be any chance we would take you seriously. Oh, there might be some minimal “analysis” or “commentary”. It’s a Saturday, typically a slow news day and something’s got to keep the ratings up. But most of us will, I think, just shrug our shoulders and see it as yet another bad vlad day. That’s how irrelevant you’ve become.

And in any case, mr. putin, we know you were not posing an argument. You were performing. For you as for Iran’s ahmadinejad, North Korea’s un (and recently its rodman), Syria’s assad, Toronto’s ford, and all the other piggy-eyed little chinless wonders who periodically find themselves on the world stage, it’s not about the content, is it? It’s about the noise. You are there to make noise and any noise at all will do. What’s fascinating is the motive, this question of what makes putin “tick”?

Just who are you, mr. putin? At first I saw you as a modern day Iago, that great villain from Shakespeare’s Othello. For readers who have yet to experience the play, here’s a brutally brief synopsis of Act Three, scene one. Othello, a Moor (and therefore non-white) has married Desdemona (quite white), the young daughter of a Venetian nobleman (very, very White!) All the affected and offended parties (largely white) storm into the palace to see who (or how many) will end up headless. Every Grand and not-so-grand Poobah is there. So is Iago (kind of pale grey or off-white). He is Othello’s servant and a truly nasty little man.

In the next few minutes, everyone – except Iago – gets to speak: the ruler of Venice, the Moor, some senators and even a teenage girl! Iago clearly feels this is an insult because as soon as the stage is empty, he struts, frets, threatens, pronounces, fumes, cackles and even adds an occasional mwahahaha to show himself what a big bad boy he is. He basically behaves like a poster boy for erectile dysfunction.

That’s more or less how I saw putin – Iago without the cool iambics. In short, he seemed to be the classic little man. Throw in a big case of penis-envy and you’ve got someone the NRA would love to get to know.

But that idea didn’t work. Oh it explained the most recent anti-gay slur and his unsubtle bullying of the Ukraine. But these acts were obvious and clumsy, akin to our ford’s attempt to toss a football or run a lap in the council chamber. The original Iago could be subtle when necessary, and putin doesn’t do subtle.

I next imagined him as a little boy wearing his daddy’s shoes and demanding to be allowed to sit with the grown-ups. His manners are so terrible, however, that he is banished to the children’s table in the pantry. Here, instead of throwing potatoes at his sister, he sells arms to Syria.

Whether little man or little boy, the key word here is “little”. It’s clear that putin, like our ford, feels his smallness. In one famous television scene, he and America’s Obama are sitting beside each other on a stage.  putin gets to his feet. Then Obama stands up – and up – and up, up, up. The look of absolute hatred on putin’s face is almost shocking. Rumour has it that putin’s photo shoots are arranged to ensure that no one taller than he is included in the scene. (Apparently this makes it difficult to assemble much of a crowd.)

Yet there was something about the “little” variants that still didn’t quite satisfy me. “Little” came close to expressing his essence but something essential was missing. I discovered the secret in Prague.

The Czechs are famous for puppet theatre. A year or so ago, I had the opportunity to walk through a showroom created by one troupe of performers. Here we could see the puppets at rest. They were all standing and with most, the strings were evident. But a few had the strings folded and placed neatly beside them. How then, I wondered, did they stand erect?

One little girl, clearly bursting with scientific curiousity, decided to find out. To the crowd’s horror, she slipped under the guard rope, ran up to an elaborately dressed puppet king and lifted his gorgeous robe. She then called to her mother, revealing the answer to all (who spoke Czech.) However, translations were made available and the whole room soon dissolved into multilingual laughter. What had the little girl said?

“Mommy. He has a stick up his bum.”

In fact, he didn’t. The puppet was simply mounted on a cleverly designed stand. Still, the little girl’s mistake was understandable. And as I reread the story of Putin’s gratuitous and boorish insult to visiting gay athletes and spectators, I am reminded of the little girl’s comment. It captures the missing piece of the putin puzzle  and is equally true of assad and ahmadinejad and our ford. They are puppets, caricatures of power, each held in place with a stick up its bum until its time for it to dance,  twirl, kick, or fight according to its masters’ dictates.

What part of putin made the comment about gay visitors – the Iago, the little boy, the man on a stick? It doesn’t matter. It’s noise. What can we do about it? I suppose it would be nice to expose those who pull the puppets’ strings or manipulate the stick. That would help. Oh yes, and one more thing.

 We could stop electing them to high office.

To the Reader: As Facebook attempts to deal with its unpleasant economic realities, it seems to be changing the way it serves its members. Whether the issue is capacity or shifting priorities, fewer and fewer people are notified when members post. If you enjoy “The Elegant Bastard” and wish to know when new material is published, you should consider going to its facebook page and “liking” the page ( not just a specific post.) Apparently you will then be notified when new posts occur. Here is the link:  https://www.facebook.com/theelegantbastard

 

 

What It’s Really Like Living In Toronto Under Rob Ford? Imagine A Fly…

In which the Elegant Bastard promises to avoid fat jokes as he explains to those unable to live in Toronto what it’s really like having Rob Ford as mayor.

Over the course of this thing we call life, others occasionally ask us to help them understand the essence of some experience we take for granted but that they are unable to share.   For example, I am a Canadian living in Toronto. Many are not so fortunate. I am therefore often asked to describe my world so that they might at least know what they are missing.

Examples are legion. A group of Detroit school children once insisted that I define and pronounce – repeatedly – that ultimate expression of our nationalism, “eh?”[i] (I understand they attempted a choral rendition when they returned home.) Two tourists from the UK loudly demanded that I show them dangerous bears or badly behaving Biebers and seeing neither, accused me of having deliberately hidden them. (I pointed out that we’d tried that with the Bieber but he kept getting loose and trying to sing.) And one unenthusiastic guest from New York  inquired as to whether we had anything to eat “up here” other than 1) wind 2) snow and 3) poutine (which she regarded as even less edible than the wind and the snow.) [ii] Add to these the usual stream of astonished “My God, just how big are your feet!” comments and it becomes clear that I should now be an expert at helping those who are busily trying to expand their minds and improve their educations.

Still, I do occasionally encounter a question I cannot answer easily. And by far the most challenging of these is also the one most frequently asked. To date, people from Paris, London, Chicago, Bruges, Vienna, Bratislava and something called Oxnard have declared their urgent need to know the answer to the following: What is it like having Rob Ford as mayor?

I can understand this curiousity. After all, the world has very few Rob Fords and they are all, not surprisingly, quite busy. Russia has its Putin[iii] but his hands are full beating up orphans, quelling pussy riots, harassing homosexuals and preparing to embarrass the entire Olympic movement. He can hardly be expected to run from one foreign city to another giving everyone a “Ford for a Day” moment. Dennis Rodman[iv] is America’s much taller version but he too seems to have landed a permanent gig pretending to play basketball for short North Korean dictators who are trapped in perpetual Bad Hair days.

That just leaves Toronto’s One and Only Original Ford.  And not only do we get to have him all to ourselves, we also have a spare in reserve! (Let’s call him Tweedledoug.) I fully understand that some of you may see this as completely unfair.  If so, I can only suggest that you play upon a key Canadian character trait – guilt.  If you first make us feel bad and then ask us very nicely, perhaps we would be persuaded to let you rent one of them for a while. I don’t think we’d charge much – certainly not by the pound[v]. In fact, a two-for-one deal is a strong possibility! And if you were willing to take Conrad Black, the CN Tower and the Maple Leafs as part of some overall package, we might even be willing to dispense with payment altogether.

Should you accidentally keep them all past the return date, don’t worry. Our other national trait will ensure you barely hear our protests for as you all know, Canadians are polite!

However, such complex trade negotiations are best left to others. You want the original question dealt with now and I think I have discovered a way to answer it effectively. You will, Dear Reader, be required to exercise a little imagination but having read your letters, I know that this will pose no problems whatsoever.

So, what is it like having Rob Ford as a mayor?

Imagine a fly. It is a very large fly, perhaps the largest you have ever seen. You are sitting quietly in your kitchen when you first notice it. You groan for you realize you have once again left the patio doors open, thus providing the creature with a window of opportunity.  Having achieved entry, it now flies in awkward and ungainly circles about the room, periodically bumping into walls and crashing into furniture. It lands and appears to stumble before it scurries off, first in one direction and then another, as if searching frantically for something. You notice a tiny puddle where it landed and you hope that it was there before.

The fly now spots a bag of icing sugar and instantly climbs upon it, buzzing excitedly and stamping its many feet in some bizarre version of a happy dance. But sadly (for the fly) the bag is sealed.  Now the buzz becomes louder, almost angry. It’s as if the fly is swearing. Suddenly it returns to the counter and stomps its way towards the window, trampling an innocent ladybug on its way. You notice another tiny puddle.

You are beginning to think it’s time you did something about the number of insects taking up residence in your kitchen. You are idly pondering whether or not to take a course in Effective Door Closing when suddenly the unthinkable happens. The fly flies up your nose.

In that brief moment, the once great world collapses inwardly upon itself and disappears. The planets are gone. The stars have disappeared. Asia and Europe have lost their romance and Africa its mystery. All is gone, all. Only two things remain: you and the fly up your nose.

You briefly wonder why it chose to do this to you. Was it cold? Was it hungry? Did it look up at your nostrils and imagine them to be two subway tunnels? But then you stop seeking understanding. What does “Why” matter when you have a fly up your nose?

Solutions begin to present themselves. Blow your nose. But wait! Blowing out requires first breathing in. What if you simply draw the fly in deeper? And nose blowing requires nose gripping! What if you accidentally crush your unwelcome guest? What’s the only thing worse than a fly up your nose? A dead fly up your nose!

An agony of indecision invades your entire being. Meaning is lost. So what that you have access to concert halls, opera houses and glorious shopping malls? Who cares that thousands of restaurants wait to serve your every need or that there are legions of pubs and bars and coffee houses dedicated to various forms of stress management? Forget the promotion, the deal, the bonus and the perks! What does life mean any more?  There’s a fly up your nose.

And as you writhe in helpless torment, you hear a sound. It’s a sinister new drone and it’s approaching fast. You close your eyes in denial; you grip your chair in fear. Nothing can save you now. A moment later you discover something much worse than even a mutilated fly up your nose. Its brother has arrived. A fraternity of flies is now camping in your nose!.

Nor is your situation helped in any way by the fact that three million other souls are also suffering, each with its own two-fly burden. Knowing the state of my neighbour’s nose brings me no comfort. In moments like this, I am my nose and my nose is me. A fly enters one nostril; love, sympathy, sharing and compassion instantly fly out the other. And even if I were that rare individual who could see past his own nose and gaze in brotherly sorrow upon yours, what practical good is such empathy? Are you expecting a helpful finger? It’s not going to happen.

In fact, a flies-in-the-nose epidemic like Toronto’s instantly proves false the notion that misery loves company. If anything, tensions rise dramatically. Approximately one third of the population either refuses to admit it has flies up its nose or claims to be enjoying the sensation. Another third is obsessed with denying any and all personal responsibility. They proclaim themselves innocent victims, undeserving of their flies. And the last third strides around the city, pointing sanctimonious fingers at others and chanting, “Who let the flies in? You let the flies in!”

Then, slowly at first, but soon with increasing speed, things fall apart.

And the low grey sky teems with grieving crows.
A brooding pathos in my dark soul grows.
Are there some who would stand and strike brave blows?
I won’t.  You see, there are flies up my nose.

And that, Dear Reader, is what it’s like having Rob Ford as mayor.

Any questions?

As always, please feel free to send me your comments. If you enjoy the post, by all means :share: it or :tweet: it. You could also print it, roll it up and use it to ward off furious flies.

Since the links in the footnotes are not hyperlinks, I’ve provided them here. The definition of “eh” can be found at http://wp.me/p3cq8l-6n

The piece concerning new Canadian snack foods can be accessed at the at the following: http://wp.me/p3cq8l-1K


[i]  For the definitive definition of “eh” and other small marvels of meaning, see The Elegant Bastard’s “Dictionary of Helpful Words and Phrases” here: http://wp.me/p3cq8l-6n

[ii]  For the answer to her crudely put question, see The Elegant Bastard’s learned treatise on the subject of potential new Canadian snacks. The piece is called “Do You Want Bieber Chips with That?” and it can be read here: http://wp.me/p3cq8l-1K

[iii]  Yes, I know his name is Putin, not Ford – but as Juliet reminds us, “What’s in a name?”

[iv]  See Juliet’s comment above.

[v]  I’m sorry. I said no fat jokes. But I’m only human. I made a mistake. Nobody’s perfect. I’ve apologized. That’s all I can do.

The Harvard Conspiracy

In which the Elegant Bastard argues that myths, gods and conspiracies, by and large, are not at their best when seen in their underwear.

The great conspiracies are those that operate openly, accompanied by neither shame nor apology.  They are born in the minds of master manipulators, accomplished story tellers who turn away from secret handshakes, sniff at the very idea of initiation rites and loudly ridicule funny hats that come adorned with strange insignia. No modern Machiavellian worthy of the name would waste time discussing grassy knolls, Elvis sightings and alien landings in Roswell. These are petty intrigues, mere games for children. Genius seeks greater challenges and truer tests. It sets itself nearly impossible goals, such as that achieved by whatever assembly of fine minds fashioned the greatest intrigue of them all: the Harvard Conspiracy.

For generations, a mysterious international network has worked to establish this institution’s unparalleled reputation for excellence. So successful have its previous agents been that subtlety was abandoned generations ago and even the name of the university has been made to serve the myth. Rumour has it that this strategy was devised in some dim and murky past when it first became clear that there remained a few mortals who had not accepted the equivalency of Harvard and Heaven. Despite the fact that each destination had a two-syllable name (nudge, nudge) and the syllables even began with the same letters (wink, wink), quibblers insisted on making much of a minor difference. They pointed out that Hea – Ven named itself in two perfectly equal halves, each composed only of elegantly mellifluous letters; Har – vard’s unequal split had to limp its way around a pair of mundane and unmelodious “r”s. Clearly this would not do!

It is possible that formally changing the spelling of Harvard was considered and rejected as too expensive. Great sums of money had already been spent engraving the name in inconveniently obvious places, and brass and stone do not accept erasures well. And so it was that a few great minds – this was Harvard after all – discovered the far simpler strategy of changing the way the world pronounced the word.  Har – Vard became Hah – Va(h)d, equivalent (given that the second “h” is silent) to “Heaven” in every way but one

It’s harder to get into Harvard

That fact is made clear every year about this time. Forget Christmas Day. A short week later comes the Common Application’s Regular Decision deadline. This is the last opportunity for tens of thousands of adolescents all around the world to let the cool schools know they’re out there, and they throw every last ounce of their beings (and substantial amounts of their parents’ money) into a grand final assault on the gates of the Ivy League.  And no one’s gates are hammered at harder than Harvard’s!

My experiences working with young Canadians applying to this pantheon of great schools has taught me that here in Toronto at least, one of these vine crusted places is not like the others. I have consoled those who whimpered because they “only” got into Princeton. I have assured others that Cornell really is a university and look, it even has a Starbucks. I suggested Dartmouth to one young woman, only to be told that she didn’t want to live in Nova Scotia. And I’ve watched Wharton and Yale rise and fall as trendiness waved its fickle wand first at one and then at the other. But in all my years of working with its potential acolytes, I have never seen Harvard’s status waver. It simply is. It stands unmoving and unmoved.

What legions of silent and invisible hands are needed to maintain this miracle? No other modern deity seems able to maintain so permanent a hold on students’ souls – not boy bands, not athletes, not billionaires, not twerkers. Not even the great religions can count on no-questions-asked devotion any more. In fact, most modern young people seem to approach God as they might some shady street vendor peddling bling. They bargain before they buy. Imagine the bartering session:

“So, God, if you could, you know, like lose the omniscience bit. Guy, it’s getting kinda lame and no one likes a know-it-all, ya know? So lighten up a bit and maybe we’ll go along with the fire and brimstone stuff, ok? But only if we really piss you off! Incest at least. Oh, and while we’re talking sex, can we, like, revisit that whole Gay thing? Whadd’ya say? Coffee? Hey,  Dude! , Ya got skype?

They would never talk to Harvard that way.

This persistent reverence intrigued me and I decided to see if I could finally identify its source.. I had various “ins” available to me. Many of my former students had studied there – without apparent ill-effect. They could be canvassed. Cambridge has some acceptable restaurants. I could check out the menus for hidden symbols. “The Crimson” newspaper has its very good days so I would enjoy reading between its lines for clues. (There is reportedly a football team but I quickly dismissed this as a deliberate distraction.)

I knew the job of dragging the conspiracy out into the light of Truth would not be easy. After all, this was a university that had the balls to hire a president named Faust. I would need to employ stealth. Still, it quickly became evident that Harvard itself seemed to have very little to do with its own “mythification”.  The admissions department did not demand that candidates send photos of themselves genuflecting. No one was required to recite incomprehensible chants in ancient languages. And if an applicant really did need to sign over its future first born, the required paperwork was not available to prying eyes. In fact, the more I searched, the more it became clear that while Harvard was aware of the greatness it had achieved, it seemed to take itself pretty casually. Whoever or whatever lay behind the Harvard Conspiracy, it didn’t appear to be Harvard. Who then were its masterminds? Its architects?

This prompted me to take a closer look at those who wished to go there. My chance came one afternoon when I sat down with a group preparing Harvard applications. As we talked about supplementary questions and reference letters, I noticed that the banter and humour of the previous week’s prep session for other Ivy League schools had disappeared. Once witty and probing essays had been replaced by dry little pieces in which puns had been replaced by pleas. And a little reverential glow now seemed to emanate from each hunched body and every weary face. All that was needed was someone singing “Nearer My God to Thee.”

It was then that I dismissed the idea of some vast cabalistic network serving the telepathic commands of a  Crimson King concealed in the basement of Widener Library. That a conspiracy did exist was absolutely true. That it worked to ignore any failure, flaw or fart that dared deface the Harvard aura was also true. And yes, its members were legion. The only thing false was the idea that this was all organized by Harvard – or even that it was organized at all.

For every single student in that room was a self-contained conspiracy of one.

I think even Harvard itself would argue that a little therapeutic blasphemy was both necessary and long overdue, but how to provide it without being extraordinarily cruel? So I asked them if they would like to hear some lesser known facts about Harvard. They hugged themselves and shivered and then whispered that they would. That’s when I told them that the Unabomber had gone to Harvard.

They knew that and were ready. All this fact did was prompt a long and reverent discussion about the glories of Harvard Engineering, followed by speculation that Harvard Law graduates likely helped track him down. I tried again.

I asked them if they were ready for “Primal Scream”. Asked what this was, I explained that prior to final exams, hundreds of Harvard students would strip naked and run around Harvard Yard. This occasioned a moment’s silence. They all glanced surreptitiously at each other – and then immediately pretended that they had not been imagining precisely what they had all been imagining. The outcome was unanimous (if hesitant) support for the notion that a liberal education demanded the casting off of old ideas. Underwear was an old idea. Next?

I tossed out other feeble bits and pieces but all were similarly ineffective. Did they know the unwritten rule about Harvard’s entry gates? Yes. Did they know about “The Statue of the Three Lies”. Yes, yes, yes and yawn. Had they been told to be careful when rubbing the statue’s foot for luck since Harvard undergraduates were notorious for peeing on it after late-night drinking parties? That prompted a whisper session with much snickering and giggling. Apparently one of the boys had visited his cousin at Harvard the year before and they had all gone drinking and … well … you know.

I tried one last time. Did they know that George Bush had also gone to Harvard? Yes, but they blamed him on Yale since he’d gone there first. I gave up.

What came next happened entirely by chance – or perhaps a disgruntled Heaven finally decided to hit back at Harvard over the whole syllable scandal. One of the students mentioned that the latest Bieber song was the “dumbest song ever.”  Another responded that that honour had to go to “Call Me Maybe”. A third nominated “Gangnam Style”. They all then looked at me, apparently assuming that if a “world’s worst song” existed, I knew it, could sing it and probably had written it.

As it happened, one popped immediately into mind. From childhood I have hated the American folk song, “Polly Wolly Doodle”. It’s a repetitive bit of nonsense involving a chicken that sneezes his head off and a narrator who spends far too much time “behind the barn upon [his] knees”. Add to the mix a grasshopper with both teeth and a poor approach to dental hygiene, and you begin to understand why some religious groups want to ban music.

I sang a line of the chorus. The Harvard posse decided I was making it all up. I assured them I was not and the matter was immediately referred to Google. And lo, the answer became immediately clear. Silence reigned. Jaws dropped. Not only was “Polly Wolly Doodle” very real and very, very bad, it was first published at Harvard! More, it was part of the official Harvard Student Songbook in 1880!

It no longer mattered that Harvard was the alma mater of eight presidents, sixty living billionaires, and dozens of Nobel laureates. It had also given the world “Polly Wolly Doodle” and the mental image of hundreds of streaking Harvard students bellowing “Oh I went down South for to see my Sal, Singin’ Polly Wolly Doodle all the day” was enough to demythify Harvard instantly and irrevocably.

This knowledge did not in any way dampen student ardour. They all went right back to the Harvard admission essays with the same determination as before. But in some subtle way, the discovery that there was just a little silliness in Harvard’s closet lightened the tone. Jokes were now acceptable. Someone spoke highly of Yale. McGill was mentioned! And the essays came back to life and breathed a little (polite) fire.

My father once told me as I nervously prepared for a public speaking contest to imagine the judging panel sitting in its underwear. I did. I grinned, I relaxed and I won. I think that’s what happened that afternoon. Prior to that moment, every student in the room had created an image of  Harvard as some larger-than-life “Being” with flowing grey locks, a stern expression, and shoulders stooped beneath the weight of its accumulated wisdom. Its crimson robes were likely lined with ermine and stitched with gold. And then – in a split second – Polly Wolly Doodle leapt out of Harvard’s closet.  Suddenly and briefly, they all saw Harvard in its underwear.

And that is more honesty than any conspiracy – even those we fondly create ourselves – can withstand.

This post is dedicated to those young people who will devote much of their Christmas Break to the task of completing their Common Applications. In all sincerity, I have enormous respect for each and every one of you. Good luck!

Dances with Buses

In which the Elegant Bastard encounters a bus, signs his newest work of art and brings order to the relevant portions of the universe.

I had ordered a chicken. Those who arrange such things had promised it would be ready upon my arrival. It was therefore clear that I needs must shake off lethargy, seize the day – or at least what remained of the morning – and head out into the world now busily unfolding itself outside my window.

I considered what I thought were all relevant factors: the weather, the most pleasant route, the availability of good coffee along said route, the wisdom of wearing shorts in late September, the likelihood of encounters with maniacal dogs.  I glanced at the television and noted that while Syria was still being Syria and Nairobi had definitely become Nairobi, there was nothing really new I needed to worry about. I gathered up my shopping list, secured my wallet and my phone in the appropriate pockets, made sure I had my lottery numbers, donned my helmet and set off on my bike. Ahead of me stretched a row of green traffic lights. Things were underway and all was good.

I had not considered buses.

I never really do. They chuff and belch and fart their way along in the appropriate lane and generally ignore my presence. They are ungainly creatures, not much given to elegance, and when I come across one that is resting, it strikes me as something akin to a giant prehistoric cow, chewing its cud complacently and waiting to be driven somewhere. Coming up behind one in traffic can be vaguely annoying, rather like being in the supermarket express line behind a shopper with three too many items and a heavy change purse. I sigh and lean on the handlebars and wait for normal traffic to resume. Ah well. Tant pis. Let’s think of pleasant things. What wine with the chicken tonight? Or what was the name of that pastry shop in Paris, the one with the lemon macaroons?

So when the Don Mills 25 decided it wanted to dance with me, I was unprepared. The world shrank. Paris was gone and so were all the world’s macaroons. It all came down to me, one street corner and a twelve ton beast that apparently wanted to reach out and touch someone! It came up suddenly on my left, sped past and turned right. A leisurely discussion of alternatives did not seem to be an option, especially since the bus’s back door had grabbed my handlebar in passing and was now using it to propel me towards a rapidly approaching concrete post. I wrenched my handlebar further right, braked hard and leaned toward a gap between parked cars. Somehow my bike popped free of the bus’s embrace and came to a stop. I was on the ground, the bus was moving on, a woman was asking if I was all right and somewhere a dog was barking.

When a cyclist falls on asphalt, does he make a noise? Yes, Dear Reader, he does, and fortunately others decided to join in. In due course, we became a loud assembly, a group composed of me, my battered bike, a now parked bus with its hazard blinkers flashing, a bemused driver, a cynical transit supervisor, two sympathetic police officers and assorted members of a chorus who watched and muttered and nodded. Interviews were conducted, forms were filled out and statements were signed, proof yet again that, as a species, we are much better at and more comfortable with “afters” than we ever are with “befores”. Finally a general feeling that enough had been done took hold and the street corner began to clear. I was wondering how to get my bike to a repair shop when an older gentleman came up to me, grasped my shoulder and told me I was lucky that the bus had not had my name on it.

It was at that point that the absurdity of it all became more profound than Paris and more delicious than lemon macaroons. I began to laugh. How could I not? I had set out on a quiet quest for chicken and I’d been hit by a bus. Yet here I was, interrupted and delayed but quite unharmed. True, something had rumbled across my path and delivered me a glancing blow before moving on, apparently untroubled and uncaring. But how could it be seen as God or Fate. If Gods there must be, then I want them coming after me with fanfares and shields and spears. At the very least I want them equipped with thunderbolts. No God worthy of the rank delivers a message via bus! Fate might well choose to write our epitaphs with Time’s moving finger, but with a moving bus?

I even thought for a moment of the world’s terrorists, those random young men rushing about looking for the penises they never had and brandishing their Uzis, bazookas, missiles and other borrowed phallic symbols. How long would they love their various silly causes if they were sent out into the world to wreak holy havoc with a bus? Try shoving that down the front of your pants.

No, I was as I had been before:  entirely free and just a little more aware of that condition. Nothing malignant had taken aim at me. No force was either with me or against me. No fickle sickle had left its mark.  Of the two primary participants in our little street corner two-step, only I had entered with design, purpose and destination. I would leave with all of them intact. In fact, the bus had merely lurched; only I had danced.

And then a new and wonderful thought occurred to me. I wandered over to my still blinking partner and examined its side closely. There it was, a long straight scar where my bike’s handle bar had scratched the paint. As da Vinci had his Mona and Warhol his Marilyn, I had signed my bus!

An hour later and I had walked my wounded warrior to the repair shop. For the brief time that it took them to restore it to its previous perfection – and give it a clean and a polish – I sipped an Americano, finalized my wine list and used my phone’s internet browser to discover the location of a store selling lemon macaroons. On the way to the bike shop, I bought my lottery ticket and, moved by my love of all things ironic, some bus tokens.

As I sat myself back on my bike and adjusted my helmet, I suddenly remembered the Lone Ranger, an iconic figure from the myths of my childhood and I smiled at the memory. I wondered for a moment how I might look in boots and spurs. Then I shook my head and moved back out into my lane. I had places to go. And out there waiting was a chicken with my name on it.

Those attracted to this kind of existentialism might enjoy the argument that we all acknowledge our inner sluts. Read about it here: http://wp.me/p3cq8l-6l

Of Vladimir Putin and Rob Ford: Brothers Under Our Skin

In which the Elegant Bastard argues that boycotts and demands for resignations are not enough.

I doubt that many of you need to be told who Vladimir Putin is, but readers not fortunate enough to live in Toronto the Good may wonder who this character called Rob Ford might be, and why am I suggesting that these two sad little men are in some way siblings. More, why do I firmly believe that Olympic boycotts and mayoral resignations will do nothing to address the issues associated with each man, both of whom are nothing more than symptoms, festering growths  on the surface that distract our attention from the breeding germs  at work beneath our shared skin.

Robert Ford, the mayor of Toronto, does not so much move around the city as much as he lurches, stumbles, and oozes. Reportedly a failure in nearly everything he has ever attempted (other than running for mayor) and seemingly a classic example of self-loathing mixed with self-hatred, [i] he is a seething and obese ball of platitudes, prejudices and panderings, all designed to keep his legion of haters –  often called “Ford Nation” – submissive, obedient and ready to leap to his defence.

His role in their lives is important. He embodies and celebrates their failings, calling them in from the margins and placing them vicariously alongside “their boy” at city hall. Let him mouth his racist and homophobic (or, in the case of cyclists, cruel) comments. He merely says out loud what they are terrified to say in whispers for fear of censure. Let him wander aimlessly and apparently intoxicated along the wrong stretch of a Toronto street festival, where he is filmed and ridiculed far from his panicking handlers. His followers will morph him into a “hard working boy” letting off a little steam – just like them! He is the little man of the little people and those who think he will be easy to remove are politically naive. For as much as he may be one Torontonian’s nightmare, he is another’s wet dream.

Mr. Putin is cut from the same bolt of cloth – albeit a much smaller piece. An authoritarian and petulant narcissist, he would be a sad and silly figure on the international stage –  if only he had less oil and fewer nuclear weapons. As is, he repeatedly gives the world reason to roll its eyes and wring its hands.  This past year or so, he’s been quite a busy little boy.  He has in off-hand and almost cavalier fashion supported the brutal Assad regime in Syria. He has used Russian orphans as a political tool against the United States. He has established bureaucratic networks that assault and/or imprison all who protest against the increasingly undemocratic structure of the Russian state. And he has allowed virulent homophobia to be enshrined into law, even to the point where it threatens to profane the upcoming Sochi Winter Olympics.

But his pathos becomes more evident than his politics when Putin attempts to show us the man that he would like to be. Among many many other carefully created images and anecdotes, we get “heroic” pictures of him crouching beside a (tranquilized) tiger, posing in a (stationary) race car, sitting bare-chested upon a (walking) horse and wearing a hockey uniform in the company of real (and much younger) players prior to a game.[ii] His overt need to have his masculinity validated at every possible location becomes first ludicrous, then wearisome and finally, troubling. He is a man in search of his own penis and world affairs are apparently a means to that end. (Mr. Ford must make do with a mere city.)

Just as there are childhood issues behind the accidental and self-abusive buffooneries of Toronto’s Rob Ford, so too are there multiple dynamics at work creating the putative super-hero, Vladimir Vladimirovich Putin. But whether he was made by the horrors of post-war Leningrad, the fact that he was born to doting older parents, the relative poverty that meant he was raised as a slightly built skinny child in a neighbourhood of violent toughs, or the Soviet hierarchy that condemned him to impotent decades of mindless bureaucratic tasks when he wanted so badly to be a spy, [iii] this “leader” – who proudly claims to have been a childhood “thug” – seems somehow incomplete as a person. Small wonder that he “despises” the comparatively elegant and confident Barack Obama. We need only look at a recent picture (http://www.nytimes.com/2013/08/08/world/europe/obama-cancels-visit-to-putin-as-snowden-adds-to-tensions.html?pagewanted=all&_r=0) of the two together to perhaps understand the real reasons a gleeful Putin will keep Snowden safe in Russia. Obama has not even unfolded to his full height and he already towers over the vengeful little man beside him, the one whose face shows the strain as he tries to puff himself just one centimeter higher.

Yet just as Fordian bigotries appeal to the weak in Toronto, Putinian myth-making resonates in a Russia where many remember and long for the superpower status of bygone decades, the time when the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics stood toe to toe against the Yankee behemoth and nearly won the Cold War. Putin is their manufactured poster boy, the man who tweaks American and European noses at will and gets away with it.

It is this essential similarity – the ability to siphon political strength from the weakness of others – that makes a Ford or a Putin so difficult to defeat. True, the actions of each appal us – and rightly so. Offended at every possible level, we call for the resignation of the puerile mayor and a boycott of the Olympics so dear to the heart of the pathetic president. But these strategies will not work.

Many of my friends are calling passionately for action against the Sochi games and I share their anger. But I cannot support a boycott of the games. It would be a dramatic gesture, yes, but not much more. We would be “seen” to act, but others – our athletes – would pay the price of our “action”. No cost would accrue to us. It seems unfair to let others bear the brunt of our outrage.

A boycott may also backfire. Action creates reaction. Outrage breeds counter-outrage. Is the Russian response to a Sochi boycott likely to be the nation turning against Putin en masse and wagging a remonstrative finger at him, saying “Now look what you’ve done!” Or is it more likely to be a nationalistic and xenophobic slam right back at us – and the lionization of Putin into the Hercules he so clearly needs to be. What then might be the fate of Russian gays and lesbians when they face not just discrimination in the Duma[iv] but energized anger on the streets?

This power of counter-outrage is evident here in Toronto.  It is one of two forces keeping the grotesque little mayor politically alive. Every time angry voices demand his departure, equally angry armies thunder back, calling Ford’s attackers “leftist losers” and Ford the “BEST MAYOR EVER”. As I write, posted comments in response to his allegedly drunken appearance at the street festival are running in his favour! He may very well be re-elected next year.

The other force keeping both men in power – and it too argues against boycotts and resignations – is the political powers arranged behind Ford and Putin. Each man is a puppet. Ford is the front man for a powerful right wing cabal that loves the appeal he has to a large segment of Ontario’s voting population. They hope that with his “Nation” and their marketing, a right wing government in Ontario, in concert with its federal cousins in Ottawa,  will start removing a lot of the “anti-business” regulations that currently restrict their unfettered (and unprincipled) version of capitalism. A man named Tim Hudak – a slightly better dressed Ford clone who expresses the same hates but with more syllables – is even now busily being groomed to take power at the provincial level.

As for Putin, he is nothing more than a desperate move made by desperate men seeking to protect and enrich themselves. As President Boris Yeltsin began to fall apart, his backers elevated the unknown Putin, even though he was seen as “kind of small”, because he would be loyal, not to Russia, but to them. It is Russia’s oligarchs and its emerging upper class that manipulate and maintain Putin now. Even if we savage Sochi, they will be relatively unscathed. If anything, the fallout might enrich and empower them further.

Ford and Putin are assailable, but there will be a cost. If the villains in Russia are more the billionaires in their mansions than the bigots in the streets, then our actions need to be directed at them, a move that could cost us revenue, investment and growth. There would be political scandal when the degree of our own governments’ complicity in Russian corruption – including Putin – becomes evident.  If Ford is to be brought down, he has to be made a political liability rather than an asset to those financial and media forces who benefit from his polarizing presence. Our mockery must be directed at them as much as him. Again, there will be costs as unsavoury links are revealed. Still, if we want there to be a fight, it is up to us – and not our surrogates – to pay the price.

I am not counselling radicalism. I am far too comfortable here in the political mushy middle for that. But if we are truly outraged at what is happening in Toronto, Russia and so many other places in the world where gestures calm anger and allow business as usual to go on, we need to move away from feeble “shows”. We need to rise from our couches. We need to bare our teeth and show our claws and run the risk of wounds. Otherwise we may as well remain silent, for no successful wars were ever fought with noisy fireworks set off by unpaid and unwilling mercenaries.



[i]  For an admittedly somewhat biased but nonetheless fascinating story of how Mr. Ford became what he is, see http://www.torontolife.com/informer/features/2012/05/15/rob-ford-the-weirdest-mayoralty-ever/

[ii]  For more of these quite accidentally hilarious images, go to http://www.theatlantic.com/infocus/2011/09/vladimir-putin-action-man/100147/

 [iii] For a riveting biography – decidedly unauthorized – of Putin, see Masha Gessen’s much admired The Man Without a Face,available here (http://www.chapters.indigo.ca/books/the-man-without-a-face/9781594488429-item.html) or at Amazon.

 [iv]  The Duma is the Russian parliament

The Mayor’s Guide to Sexual Harassment in the Workplace

To assist mayors, would-be mayors and office managers everywhere, the Elegant Bastard patiently explains why people do – and do not – bring their genitals to work with them!

As the last song finishes at the concert of your favorite star, do you rise from your seat and sound your approval with an enthusiastic fart? No?

Do you stalk the squirrels in the closest city park? You don’t?

Do you enter hotel lobbies and rearrange the chairs into patterns more pleasing to your eye? Never?

Neither do I.

Nor did I pee in the Fountaine de Mers in Paris, regardless of an urgent need. I did not – hungry as I was – mug the little old lady in Vienna and dash away with her sachertorte. And even in the midst of a mid-morning shower when I suddenly realized I was late for an important interview, I did not rush naked and dripping to the bus stop. I put on my shoes first.

So how is it, Dear Reader, that you and I are such constant models of restraint? What wisdom do we possess that prompts us to voluntarily set our own needs aside? Paris had no signs saying “Please do not piss in the fountains”. Prague saw no need to post notices asking hungry tourists not to assault pastry possessing seniors. Nowhere in Toronto’s public transit system will you be formally notified – in writing – that clothing is required. And I doubt that the squirrels in your city come equipped with stencilled “Do Not Molest” collars. (And if they do, you might want to consider relocating.)

It seems that most of us understand that certain rules of behavior do not need to be hung up upon the wall. They are obvious. Yet the mayor of San Diego, Mr. Bob “I’m a Hugger” Filner, claims that the charges of sexual harassment he faces are to be blamed on that city’s failure to provide him with proper information concerning the nature of “unwelcome sexual advances”. How, Bob wonders, can he possibly be held responsible for unknowingly crossing some arbitrary line in the sand? “Look,” he seems to say, arms spread wide in contrite surprise. “There are no signs! They never put up signs!”

Well, Bob, perhaps you have a point. Perhaps, overwhelmed by the stresses related to your job, you just assumed that a woman’s breasts were an office perk, like a stapler but softer. Or in the spirit of brotherly love and compassion, you just felt a need to reach out and touch someone. Is it your fault that San Diego foolishly keeps all its STOP signs outdoors? And maybe we should also offer sympathy to New York’s Antony Weiner? I doubt that anyone posted anywhere a notice reading “No Sexting Until Elected.”

Clearly, remedial action is necessary, and the Elegant Bastard, ever mindful of his weighty responsibilities regarding the moral education of lesser souls, has not only agreed to provide a simple six-part guide concerning sexual harassment in the workplace but has also promised to provide it free to mayoralty candidates all around the world.

One: Understanding Why People Bring Their Genitals to Work: As a mayor, you will need to be aware that while objects and people are both found in offices, they are not the same. For example, if I choose to bring cookies to work and place them in a public spot with a sign attached saying “Help yourself”, you are free to do precisely that. I may one day bring fresh apples or a case of bottled water. These are optional objects. Crunch yourself silly or slurp ‘til you burp.

However, when I bring my buttocks, my breasts or my genitalia with me to the workplace, I do so because it is not really possible for me to leave them at home. They are with me necessarily.They are not accessories. It is therefore unwise to assume that their presence means I am offering them to you instead of butter tarts.

And you should not assume that any reference to non-human objects is acceptable. If I have pictures of my children on my desk, by all means tell me they are sweet. Do not offer to help me make another. Asking me if you can borrow my Harry Potter is acceptable. Dumping your stained and ragged copy of The Joy of Sex in my lap while breathing heavily is not. Praising the colour of the mittens that I knit at lunch will earn you a smile. Offering to show me your other body parts in need of warming will likely result in your parts and my needles achieving instant intimacy.

Two: Sexual Harassment via Eye Contact: Invariably, mayors encounter people and some have even learned to speak when doing so. This leads us to the issue of where to direct the eyes while conversing. Since eyes are considered the window to the soul, face-to-face contact is the safest and most useful strategy. It suggests intelligence, honesty, respect for others and even a certain poetic spirituality, especially if you avoid drooling while gazing. Chests, buttocks and crotches cannot properly be regarded as windows to anything you need to see, and mainstream religions will resist your efforts to declare them holy. Claiming to be the founder of a new cult will not fool anyone.

Three: Sexual Harassment and Touching:

It is possible you might feel that ass-slapping is a common way to offer congratulations or encouragement and that your role as a city manager entitles you to motivate others any way you can. However, you need to remember that few – if any – of your duties will be performed on the volleyball court or the football field. As well, a quick look at relevant “You Tube” videos should make it clear that while even pro-basketball players engage in public ass-slapping, they have yet to start ass stroking, fondling, pinching and kneading – at least in public. Finally, just accept the fact that not even a last second winning goal in the Stanley Cup final would justify nipple-tweaking, crotch grabbing or pelvic thrusting. It therefore seems logical that you avoid such actions altogether and restrict your efforts at physical contact to the occasional hand shake, remembering, of course, to let go.

I will concede that hugging or patting is not always “lewd and improper behavior”. Still, it is best to be safe. If you must hug, why not arrange to have trees of the appropriate size scattered about the office and the city? If you must pat, rent a friendly dog. If necessary,you could periodically pat your own ass. Or stroke it. Or fondle it. It’s your ass. That’s the point!

The ultimate solution for real touch-addicts would be buying an inflatable sex doll and keeping it in your office closet. As long as you remember to close your door, turn up the music, and indulge only during lunch hours, you will likely be safe. The other major advantage of these toys is their inability to hire or pay for lawyers.

Four: Sexual Harassment and Terms of Endearment: It has been my experience that many people come with names already assigned. Efforts to replace those names with terms like “Honey”, “Tootsie”, “Studly”, “Cupcake”, “Woody” or “My Little Strudel” will likely encounter some resistance. Your peers may point out that they were not hired because of their sweetness, their curves, their bulges, their crumbly texture, their hardness or their lavish icing. A quick glance at their job descriptions should convince you that they are right. And referring to them with terms like “Bimbo” or “Tight Ass” will likely result in many new names for you, among them “The Accused”, “The Convicted” and “Inmate 2136421”.

Five: Sexual Harassment and Comments about Clothing: Some people appreciate a compliment when they wear a new or expensive or symbolic article of clothing. And most will respond well to comments like “That green matches your eyes” or “What a lovely scarf”. Go beyond that and you could stray on to shaky ground. This is likely because as a mayor, you are expected to focus your attention on issues like lowering tax rates, repairing bike lanes and creating new jobs. If your constituents do want you involved with porn at all, they will likely want you stamping it out rather than making more. Whistling at someone’s jeans, hollering “Sexy!” at the sight of a short skirt, suggesting that Fridays be made underwear free days or responding to someone’s new jacket by whispering that your favorite hobby is sucking polyester should all be regarded as actions that are career limiting.

Six: Sexual Harassment and Headlocks: San Diego’s Mayor Filner apparently put one of these on a female staffer whom he then led around the room while discussing city business. One wonders how he would have responded to her grabbing his testicles and leading him to an open window while discussing the effect of gravity on falling objects.

Mayor Filner’s actions prompt me to make the following suggestion to potential office seekers. If what you are thinking of doing to another person is normally an action performed by a professional wrestler, a masseuse, an exterminator, a terrorist or a surgeon, take a deep breath, a large drink and a running jump – alone! The outcome will likely be less painful for all concerned.

Let me close with one last piece of advice. Careers in the public service are not for everyone. Being a mayor – or any office holder – means tip-toeing through potential minefields on a daily basis. If, despite my efforts in this handbook, you still believe that your sexual advances will always be welcomed, you might wish to choose a career in prostitution rather than politics. The hours are about the same, many of the duties are similar and you will rarely be required to make long speeches.

 

Of Demons and the Death on Camera of Sammy Yatim

All of us battle the demons, whether we are boys with baseball caps and knives or men with uniforms and guns.

We are deep in a Toronto night. The video begins without sirens. I notice their absence.

Men and women dressed in black and armed with guns move back and forth or stand outside an eerie yellow haze that cannot properly be called light. Another figure, an apparent man-child, half in black and half in white, moves back and forth within the stopped streetcar.

Now I hear the sirens. They seem faint and far away, muted voices rushing to the scene, noises in the night.

The video images are vague but I am the parent of young men, and in Sammy’s posture I can see what might be arrogance mixed with fear – that, or the failing struggle of someone much too young to keep the demons in or out alone. But whatever else I see, I see a boy. For all that he may be spewing foul words or waving about a knife, he is a boy. He is one boy. The calling sirens still sound distant.

I was not in that streetcar on that street. I do not know who lost the struggle first. I know that shots rang out – first three and then six more – and Sammy was no longer there. I notice his absence and I peer closer, searching. He is gone. The boy has disappeared. The remaining men and women mill about, as if not certain where they are or what they’ve done or what they are to do.

The noise now finds its power, and it grows. Its howling invades the night, rising and falling and pulsing. It does not feel as if it came closer; only that it grew louder. It seems to be rushing everywhere at once and for a moment, I can almost believe that it is gloating.

Some will be disappointed with the video. They came to it because of media warnings that promised it was graphic. They wanted horror, obtained with a free ticket and savoured in their own homes. Let’s have some blood, some louder screams, and just a little crying please? But there was none of what they wanted.

They do not see the horror that is there for them to see.

When the man with a gun killed one boy with a knife, those nine bullets ripped a hole in the walls of our world. They left a tear large enough that, as  Sammy slipped away from us, the demons could enter, dancing with others of their tribe, screaming out the news of their victory and madly rising higher in our now much darker sky.

 

 

Of Bicycles and the Taxonomy of Cyclepathic Behaviors: Part Two

In which the Elegant Bastard spokes fun at a few myths regarding cyclists, refuses to hug vegetation and declines a starring role in other people’s fantasies.

Those of us who have evolved beyond the need for four wheels and claimed our spokes would all agree on one important fact: a bike alone doth not a cyclist make. The same may be said for spandex clothing, irritating bells, clumsily positioned water bottles and the four letter words needed to deal with badly parked cars. Any of these, properly used, can be a wonderful accessory but none is essential.

The first thing really necessary for successful cycling is dirt. Fortunately, dirt is readily available and can be found underfoot almost everywhere. Urban dirt in its original condition is rarer but can be accessed in tangled ravines, forested hill sides and grassy margins. Here can be found a species of cyclist that plunges and pumps and sweats and terrifies small wildlife. Do not assume, as I once did, that they are lost and simply need clear directions to the nearest road, or that local governments have taken an imaginative approach to the punishing of criminal behavior. They do this because they like it. And why not? Those who would sniff disparagingly at them should keep in mind that there are other folk out there who like large snakes, fried liver and Michele Bachmann. Who’s crazy now, eh?

“Dirt in its original condition is free. It’s only when someone starts calling it real estate that problems begin.” T.E.B

I prefer paved dirt.

Since many of you might live in cities that take their paving seriously, I should mention that here in Toronto, “paved” is a relative term. We are a tough breed. Comfort and safety are both anathema to our wild inborn spirits and we prefer to punctuate our daily lives with as many opportunities for disaster as possible. This explains not only the state of our roads but also the outcomes of our municipal elections. That being said, I still prefer paved dirt if for no other reason than the presence of paving implies the possibility of direction and therefore, destination. And destination is the other essential element in cycling.

Once upon a time, our predecessors lived in a very simple world. All of Life as they knew it occurred at Point A. It was there that they would sit in their caves stoking the fires, wearing bits of vegetation and eating whatever didn’t manage to run away.

Then came the fateful day when one of their number – perhaps growing tired of the same dreary wall paintings or the overall smell – marched out into the world beyond and discovered Point B. Life as we know it was instantly born. Point A was no longer enough. All around that once small world a new cry went up: “To B!” And since they were not by nature a philosophical bunch, no one thought to pose the alternative, “Or Not To B?” Within days, roads were born, travel insurance was invented and McDonalds came into being.

It is this concept of destination – a preferred Point B – that fuels my need to cycle. Contrary to various urban myths, I do not cycle only to cycle any more than I eat to eat or drink to drink. I cycle to achieve my definition of Point B. Yet there are those who attempt to find in my pedalling some higher and nobler motive.

“Toronto will become a world class city when it abandons an obsession with cars so strong that one begins to think it is sexual in nature.” J.T.

Some suggest that I cycle to escape the modern world, its hectic pace and its rampant consumerism. Instead I choose to seek out verdant spaces, rolling hills and oxygen spawning trees, in the company of which I can rest my tortured soul. Others salute my dedication to the environment and applaud my decision to reduce my carbon footprint. And finally there are the fitness gurus who hold up for emulation my obvious commitment to personal health and well-being.

As much as I admire the Romantic Movement and regard fairy tales as narratives necessary to the survival of western civilization, I’m going to have to reject any role offered in these fictions. I am a city boy, born and bred. Put me anywhere without smog and my lungs threaten strike action. I do not actively dislike trees but I also feel no compulsion to hug them, an attitude that may change if they ever invent one that grows good wine grapes and/or inexpensive caviar. And as for exercise, sorry folks, but I’m chasing rich food and fine wines, not chiseled abs or anything remotely cardio-vascular. When I am on my bike, I am not looking for Arcady, Nirvana or Eden. I am looking for Starbucks, Walgreen’s and a good dry cleaner.

In short, cyclists tend to be real people in search of real goals. Our concern for Nature, health and a happy life is a cause we share with pedestrians and yes, responsible motorists. We are not hippies, weirdos, anarchists or fanatics. It is time that wannabe world-class cities acknowledged that fact and shared their roads accordingly.

“It is wise to approach sweating cyclists cautiously. You might be dealing with a cyclepath.”

However, it is with sadness that I must admit that there are those members of the cycling community who exhibit one or more of the various cyclepathologies that plague our species. In the interests of maintaining the health and well-being of society in general, I will provide a list of the most dangerous conditions in Part Three.

Part One of this series can be found here: http://wp.me/p3cq8l-5B

And those wishing to read the true confessions of an unrepentant City Boy may do so at “Bubble Time in the Big City.” It can be accessed here: http://wp.me/p3cq8l-3X

Finally, if you enjoy Elegant Bastard posts, please consider “sharing”.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Sunday Morning Coffee 4: The Elegant Bastard’s Dictionary of Helpful Words and Phrases

In which the Elegant Bastard undertakes the Herculean task of addressing past instances of word abuse, and vows to continue this crusade until death or the availability of really good ice cream.

Words, like people, are dynamic things. They live. And since they live, they appear to be very good at doing something else people do. They change. They do this arbitrarily, more often than is really polite, and generally without my permission. I find this to be unreasonable. I see nothing wrong with expecting words to stay quietly in one place for several consecutive centuries. In fact the world would be a much better place if more people did the same thing.

I suppose I would be less agitated if words went about changing with a little more honestly. Instead, words stroll around as if all were normal, whistling innocently with a “Who? Me?” look plastered across their oh-so- innocent syllables. They even maintain their spelling and pronunciation.  Then, suddenly – WHAM – they shift their meaning. Some see this as subtle. I call it sneaky!

That’s also why I resent it.  I like meaning. Meaning and I are good friends. Meaning is the reason why, when I order tortellini, I don’t get tofu. It’s ensures that people are not able to safely refer to others with terms like “ferret-face” or “toad-breath”.  It’s why STOP signs contribute positively to population growth. It’s all about stability. I like stability.

It’s when words don’t mean what they used to mean that we get wordquakes. I don’t like wordquakes. They make me nervous. When I get nervous, my palms sweat, I start to mutter and my eyes roll unattractively. I conceal myself in small dark places and eat all the chocolate cookie dough ice cream. These actions create tension in those closest to me. They share it with others, it spreads and eventually there is turmoil in Egypt. I think this is unfair. I like Egypt.

It is to prevent situations like this that I urge everyone to try very hard not to mess with the meaning of words. Then, when the man on the street corner tells us that our duck is mooing at the barking cat ‘cause Obama’s wearing boxers and the snow is firing bullets in Barbados, we can assume with some certainty that this is not “Breaking News” from CNN. We can start cautiously backing away from our informant while uttering soothing sounds and perhaps promising to bring candy when we return with the nice people in the white coats.

Sadly, all our vows of proper verbal behavior in the future will do nothing to eradicate the mess we created in the past. Therefore, to assist those few still hoping to make sense of the world they must live in, I humbly offer my services as lexicographer, providing periodic lists of those words and phrases that have escaped and are preparing to betray such innocents as you, Dear Reader. I will accept no payment for these efforts, heroic though they may be. However, should you encounter me on the street and wish to reward my efforts with a smidgen of foie gras, a sip of fine burgundy or a spare Twinkie, who am I to deny altruism its due.

The Elegant Bastard’s Dictionary (Part the First)

Beer: A word once denoting a beverage associated with hot days or hard work, its meaning has been usurped by vacationing college students and obese ballpark residents. Beer is now to them as a ball is to a dog – the reason they will Fetch, Carry, Roll over, Lie down and Play Dead. Sadly, dogs do it with more class and with less noise.

Mayor: Once a title referring to the holder of municipal office, in Canadian cities of more than 3 million the word now means “has been or is about to be arrested.”

Liberalism: In an apparent Hollywood variation, Liberals are those who condemn Paula Deen’s use of the “N” word but remain silent as Alec Baldwin launches an obscenity-laced violence-filled homophobic rant viewed by millions on Twitter. This should be regarded as a very liberal definition of liberalism.

(Yes, I promised a dictionary. No, I did not promise it would be alphabetical.)

Leak: An unfortunate event occurring when levees are badly built, children are tickled and narcissists are left unsupervised near microphones.

Religion: While traditional notions concerning love, charity and hope still dominate, in both the Christian and Islamic worlds there are now large groups believing that religion comes in the box marked “Guns”.

God’s Work: is what happens when they find the box marked “Bullets”.

Underwear: Once a garment worn beneath outerwear for reasons of support, comfort and hygiene, it appears to have become an optional accessory, like cuff links or good manners. On its own it is now deemed suitable attire for talk show guest appearances. Once used, it can apparently be sent through the mail as a souvenir or a greeting card. The Elegant Bastard requests that all friends continue to express their affections through Hallmark rather than via Hanes

Pope: A title not yet bestowed on either Julian Assange or Edward Snowden, but both gentlemen seem to believe that this is a temporary oversight soon to be corrected.

Weather Forecasts: In newspapers arranged from front to back according to likely accuracy, these are found just after the horoscopes and just before the ad for Harold the Jewelry Buyer

Pakistan: A chaotic mix of tribes, clans, hates and prejudices that periodically pretends to have an interest in democracy. This is done to ensure that other countries keep sending the money needed to finance the tribes, clans, hates and prejudices.

Afghanistan: An alternative spelling of Pakistan

F#ck: For several hundred years, the word meant to have sexual intercourse. Since people who regularly have sexual intercourse do not spend all their waking moments talking about sexual intercourse, the word occurred less frequently than the act. It now appears that many many millions are having little intercourse of any sort since the word is being used more frequently than the verb “to be”. It can now mean “Oh my goodness” or “Are you teasing me?” or “Please go somewhere else and pass away” or “No I don’t want broccoli” – in other words, almost anything other than “have intercourse”. This state of affairs is unlikely to change as it can only really be resolved by better sex education and/or better sex and very few governments are willing to provide either.

Waiting Room: A space set aside for 1) those wishing to be ignored by medical professionals 2) those too cheap to buy their own magazines and 3) those waiting to be invited to live in countries no one else wants to visit.

Better: For most Torontonians, the word used to describe conditions everywhere else.

So ends Part One. The Elegant Bastard would like to acknowledge the kind assistance of others who are committed to the same great cause. We will return but for now we sheathe our semantic swords. Heroics are a tiring avocation and the really good ice cream has just arrived.

And those wishing to read the inspiring and heroic tale of the Elegant Bastard’s triumph over the biggest of the Big Banks may do so here: http://wp.me/p3cq8l-58

Sunday Morning Coffee 3: Of CNN and Doo, the Truth Revealed

In which the Elegant Bastard shares with his readers the truth they had always suspected was out there.

(Note: The Elegant Bastard accepts as a given the fact that this is Monday but argues that since it is Canada Day it deserves to be regarded as an honorary Sunday.)

It did not begin as an auspicious day. Toronto seemed much the same as it did when I’d put it away the night before. The sun did not rise in a different sky. The city’s potholes had crept further but not noticeably faster. Mayor Ford had neither lost weight nor gained wisdom.   True, the Starbucks across the street had opened five minutes early – a sure sign that the universe was preparing some surprise or other – but I was too busy yawning my way from kettle to computer to television to think much about the significance of this omen.

The only thought that really did force itself to the front of my brain where it stood and swore loudly was the one that threw the same hissy fit every day. Why had I turned on CNN – again? Was there not already an overabundance of big teeth and artistic hair in the word? Did I need a dose of pablum with my decaf?  Had Truth been sent the way of DOMA?

This time, however, I found myself listening to the strident inner yapping. Why had I turned to what claimed to be a news channel? I knew what happened in CNN land. People cried, people sighed, people died, and people lied. They did this individually, in groups, in several countries and for no really good reasons. Why start each day with this televised proof that evolution wasn’t working anymore?

That thought sparked another. I found myself wondering how the world would look and sound if some benevolent form of AI took over. Something along the lines of HAL 9000, the sentient computer in 2001: A Space Odyssey would be great – if we could just get him over his unfortunate habit of killing people (albeit only for the best possible reasons.)

HAL’s name once sparked a controversy. People with nothing better to do had played with the three letters H A L and discovered that if you moved each letter one space over in the alphabet, you obtained IBM. Well OMG said millions! Does this mean HAL the killer computer is really a statement about the corporate ethics of the great and powerful computer giant? LOL but NO said the film’s director, script writer and producer all at once; proof that yes, that’s exactly what happened. (Don’t you love conspiracy theories?)

It was thus inevitable that my by now seriously bored brain would start playing with acronyms. This proved less than entertaining. The UN makes no more sense as the VO, nor does NATO gain more street cred as OBUP.  ATM’s become BUNS, a giggle I suppose to those who are bread or ass obsessed.

Then came the real discovery. I stopped dead. I gasped. I dropped three eggs. If you take the letters C, N, N and move one letter to the right with each, the outcome is D – O – O or doo[i], as in – forgive me Dear Reader but these words are sometimes necessary – shit! CNN is one short step from shit!

Yes, yes, I hear you. The fact that CNN is so close to Doo as to make no difference is not really much of a surprise. We have all watched breathless reporters standing in front of a storm that didn’t happen or asking the relatives of murder victims how they “feel”. We listened to broadcasts that warned us outcomes could change if the winds shifted (they didn’t) or a last county reported (it never did). We have been fed the endless trivia of what one Star or another said, bought, believes, married, slept with or gave a weird name to. We have been given images, sound bites and videos that contain nothing we can really use to accomplish anything more than deep depression.

In fact, we have all long known that CNN is not merely doo; it is the enormous pile of doo generally referred to as “deep doo-doo”. I’d take it even further to the sinister sounding “doo doo doo doo” series of musical notes that always signifies the approach of something evil.

What does shock me – and no doubt you as well, Dear Reader – is the sheer effrontery of CNN/Doo. For all that they strut around with their silly sombre faces, mouthing platitudes about running “ Situation Rooms” and doing “360’s” and being “Live”with all the “News”, they are not only doo, they don’t even bother to conceal the fact that they are doo. I mean, come on, one letter away?

Now we know why we had three days worth of updates on “Alec Baldwin’s Twitter meltdown” or so many wonderings about leaker Edward Snowden’s location that the publishers of Where’s Waldo are thinking of suing. We discover why Winnie Mandela is described as “regal” and “emotional” without anyone pointing out that she’s a convicted fraud artist and suspected child killer. We understand why we get to meet Trayvon Martin’s “real” mother and hear about George Zimmerman’s weight gain and we get to do so “Live”! And we finally learn why we get endless images and videos of everyone crying everywhere.

Because it’s doo!

I am glad to be able to share this with you all, Dear Readers, but as I said, I am sure you were all on the verge of the same discovery on your own. You are therefore correct when you point out that merely informing the world of what it already knows is not an action that in and of itself makes a day auspicious. You are quite right.

Yesterday was an auspicious day for the following reasons.  I found a new bodywash with enough eucalyptus and mint in it to send me storming out of the shower singing and grinning simultaneously[ii]. I got to stroll along Toronto’s streets in non-humid sunshine. My favorite olive store had my favorite isplanaki borek[iii]! I had the opportunity to watch and cheer as twelve of my former students marched in Toronto’s Pride parade – along with the Premier of Ontario. I found three street musicians in a row who could actually play. And I got to share a phenomenal red wine[iv] with some phenomenal minds.

Why is that enough to make a day auspicious?

It all fit nicely into my small world. I could use each event to grow me up and out just a little bit. It was all real.

And none of it was doo.

 

For Toronto based readers, I include some possibly helpful information in the end notes.



[ii]   MensEssentials, 412 Danforth Avenue. At last, a store for men who take their shaving seriously.

[iii]  The Best Olives in the World, 974 Danforth Avenue. Incredible olives in the midst of a group of stores and restaurants that deserve more notice.

[iv]  Secolo by Sebastiani, Vintages 35402 $42.95 An unqualified WOW!

Cry Pity for Gargantupeds

In which The Elegant Bastard urges others of his big footed tribe to join him in leaving their sorrows in the closet and to come out Stomping.

Most of us now live in politically correct communities.

Here we have no obesity, no lazy folk, no bald guys, no bad boys, no dumbies, no pet owners and no Christmas. Instead we have persons of size, the alternatively motivated, the comb free, the morally challenged, the differently “wisdomed”, animal guardians who walk around with little plastic bags in their hands and, my favorite, Winter Holidays (if you happen to live in the appropriate hemisphere).

The tall no longer need to hear the wit-deprived ask about the weather “up there”. The short are no longer asked what they and their six brothers really wanted to do with or to Snow White. The bald no longer have to “polish it up for us”. No large breasted woman is told how fortunate she is to have a built-in tray on which to rest small objects. No one’s disabled, no one’s nasty and no one ever ever fails. If Evils of any sort do exist, we have all agreed not to speak of them by name.

Are there those who remain unenlightened, who wander about in their own dark, refusing to believe that  “compete”, “win”, “earn” and “best” have been replaced by “differently”, “alternatively” and “otherly”? There well may be but if they are wise, they do so quietly.  The Gods of Happy Clappy and Hippy Dippy are jealous gods and they carry big not-so-inclusive sticks!

Yet as this spirit of Undifference sweeps across the land, loading us all into one giant Procrustean bed where we will all learn to play well with others, one group is left behind. And upon encountering members of this last lost tribe, the legions of the Variously Abled raise their chins, look down their noses and curl their upper lips. For here in the beige halls of Brave New World, there are none to cry pity for Gargantupeds.

I am one of these and have been so since birth.

I am not sure when I first realized I was different. Perhaps it was when I turned five and saw my mother turned away from the Childrens’ Shoe department at Montreal’s Eaton’s. She was told to take me over “there” where they might have “something” suitable. Or it could have been the time I kicked back at a bully (with spectacular results!) and my father was subsequently told by my principal to “have those bloody great feet of his licensed!” I can remember entering a Toronto friend’s home one fine summer’s day, only to have his smiling brother ask me to leave the skis outside. Even my own uncle, a sea plane enthusiast, once opined that while I might not ever be able to walk on water, I could likely one day land on it. Certainly by the time I reached adolescence, I was fully aware of my own Gargantupedia. I had crossed far beyond the bounds of normal and stumbled around my world on  feet sized 13 and a half (47 in Europe.)  Even my best friend, after a day spent fruitlessly searching for new sneakers, suggested I give up and just wear the boxes his came in.

As parents do in cases like this, mine assured me that the steady stream of comments was motivated by the jealousy of others. I smiled silently in response to this – Gargantupedians always smile silently – but I did not believe them. Had I been overly sized with respect to some other bodily appendage, I might have bought that fiction. But in the hierarchy of highly valued human parts, feet come very near the bottom. We struggle for big muscles, are made maudlin by big eyes, gaze surreptitiously at big breasts, flaunt big bulges, encourage big hearts and call upon others to give us that big smile. Not only in the male world does size matter. Big rules everywhere, except in the kingdom of the feet!

This prejudice is evident even in our language. We are never asked to lend a helping foot.  We congratulate no one for hitting the nail on the foot. Armies are not armed to the feet,  friends never cross heir feet to wish us luck, and no one ever learned a poem by foot. Our society stands condemned by its own common utterances.

A few friends tell me there are logical reasons for this unfair treatment of feet and by extension, the differently footed. Things would change, they tell me, if we reached for the heavens with our feet and ran like hell on our hands. Yet even in activities where feet are essential, they are ignored. A large group of young women I observed paying rapt attention to Christiano Ronaldo in the World Cup assured me that they were not watching his feet. I can pick up a dime with my toes and yet, Dear Reader, you would be shocked to discover how few people ever want to see me do so!

One colleague tells me it’s all about fear. I reject this. What fearful things can feet do? I cannot pick a pocket with my feet. I cannot shoot a gun. I could, I suppose, start stomping things indiscriminately but this would inspire more hilarity than horror. Of all the great monsters in our world, the only one we laugh at is – you guessed it – Big Foot.

Another suggests the culprit is the classical hero, Oedipus the King, for as we all know, the name “Oedipus” means “swollen foot”. Would anyone, my friend points out, want to get really close to a guy who might at any moment indulge in unrestrained father-bashing or mother-marrying?

Most, however, simply ignore my efforts to highlight the plight of Gargantupeds. I am patted on the shoulder, offered a stiff drink and told it’s all in my head. I wonder for a while if they are right, if in fact there is no conspiracy, no deliberate attempt to break our spirits and shove us into society’s closet, an almost empty place now that virtually everyone else has come out.

Then I went to Paris and discovered the horrible reality first hand.

It had been a good day. I had strolled though Notre Dame, lingered in the Louvre and decided that the Eiffel Tower did indeed tower. I’d had innumerable cups of coffee, all of them too small. Now it was time for the real pilgrimage, my own journey to my own Lourdes. With shopping bags in one hand and wallet in the other, I made my reverent way to the world’s ultimate department store, Les Galeries Lafayette.

The crowds were enormous. Fewer people go to Mecca. I could understand this better than most, for I knew that here in this temple to commerce I would find the world’s largest shoe department. Here I would finally find my fit. My True Faith would be welcomed, heart and body and soul and sole. All my saints could be found within: Sargent, Ferragamo, Bally, Westwood, Nichols, Choo and more. Great hoards of other worshippers streamed around me. Euros flowed like wine and prayers were murmured.  Finally an Armani-clad and Prada-shod priest approached and asked if he could help me. I took a calming breath and spoke.

“Could I see something in a loafer, size 47?”

He stared at me. I saw his lip twitch. He called another over. They looked at each other, at me, at my feet and at the sky. They shook their heads. It was not possible. A 45 perhaps if one had been sent to them in error but this, no. This was too much.

They did not scoff. They did not sneer. They even seemed to offer the kind of Gallic pity normally extended to those allergic to wine or foie gras. But the ultimate outcome was clear. There was no room for Pharisees in their church. I had been mocked in Montreal and teased in Toronto but here in Paris I was doomed to go barefoot.

I am home now but one cannot undo an epiphany. I must respond. Will I do so with bitter tears? Perhaps, and I may add to that loud wails. However, I will go further. I will also do what so many have done before me when they uncovered evidence that society had deliberately and with malice targeted and maligned their Otherness.

I will accept the fact that I have done nothing wrong, that I do not deserve this treatment, that I need not feel shame. I will remember that a strangely dressed lady came to me in a dream to tell me I was born this way.

I will have justice. I will demand my rights. I will step forward knowing in my heart what the down-trodden have always known.

Somewhere out there, there is someone I can sue!

Of Teachers and Old Sisyphus

In which the Elegant Bastard makes the necessary argument that one cannot buy or bully a rolling stone.

Like the wars of religion, debates regarding the duties of teachers return to plague us time after time. Nowhere is this now more hysterically true than in normally calm Toronto.  Here the usual armies are fighting over whether teachers do or do not have a duty to provide extra-curricular activities. On the extreme Yea side we have those who cite the skills gained by students, the relief offered to working parents and the extraordinarily generous salaries and benefits given those”lazy-overpaid-pension-thieves-who-don’t-even-work-during-summers-like-poor-me-has-to!” The more rabid Nay Sayers are those few teachers and those many teacher union voices who talk incessantly of noble sacrifices, ungrateful parents, self-serving politicians and all the other “take-us-for-granted-and-pay-us-crap ingrates who refuse to genuflect to us even when asked nicely to do so”.

Strangely, issues of this nature are often best understood from a great distance. When forced to see things from a different place and a different time, combatants might achieve a new clarity and a greater wisdom, and if not, they are at least blessedly far away from us and so we may once again sip our lattes in peace and quiet companionship. It is in that spirit that I suggest we use the ancient story of Sisyphus to help us understand the wars now being waged on the shores of Lake Ontario.

The original story involves three main players: Sisyphus the King, the largest rock in the world, and a variety of old Greek Gods who were as usual behaving badly. For whatever reason (and there are several different accounts) poor King Sisypus ticked off either the wrong God or too many Gods and ended up condemned to forever roll the afore-mentioned rock up some mountain somewhere. Sadly, just as he neared the mountain’s summit, his rock would escape his grasp and roll all the way back down to the bottom. Sisyphus would have to start again, and again, and again, and keep doing so for all eternity.

What has all this to do with teachers and extra-curricular activities? Let us assume that the rock represents all those activities – the clubs and sports and trips that teachers labour to provide. The teachers are, of course, a modern day version of King Sisyphus, one who has acquired labour contracts, social networking skills and nice shoes. We will not identify the Gods just yet.

Now consider. Our modern Sisyphus rolls the rock for one of three reasons. The first would be because the old Gods command it. But if this is so, then all our freedoms are mere illusions, debate becomes a charade, and we will have put up with election speeches, hockey wars and telemarketing calls for no valid reason.  Let us all agree not to raise this possibility again.

The other two reasons are more useful. Sisyphus either enjoys the suffering he endures while pushing the rock or he simply enjoys pushing the rock. The first of these is problematic for those arguing the noble selflessness of teachers, a concept that necessarily involves suffering. If teachers did not enjoy suffering, they would stop. And if they do enjoy suffering for its own sake, the rock becomes irrelevant. Other far more creative and less strenuous ways to enjoy the suffering sensation are available. There is no need to hang about in smelly classrooms or on poorly manicured playing fields for days and weeks and months on end while supervising other people’s loud children. They could pierce new body parts daily (or the same one repeatedly). They could shop endlessly at Walmart. The truly masochistic could listen to the collected speeches of Rick Santorum (or in Toronto, Rob Ford) over and over again. What glee club or football team or museum trip could possibly provide so intense a pain as these?

However, the third alternative seems to offer even less support for the teachers’ side. If Sisyphus enjoys pushing his rock, then teachers enjoy the extra-curricular activities they provide. Running all those clubs and teams is therefore a selfish endeavor.  English teachers actually like debate and journalism clubs. Gym teachers truly value the respect and admiration young athletes often bestow on coaches. Arts teachers really relish the opportunity to guide a new Picasso or Yo-Yo Ma to maturity? Whatever the teacher-activity combination may be, if teacher egos get great big wet and sloppy kisses from all the extra-curricular activities they lead, isn’t it time they just shut up and got on with it?

Ah, but it is at this point that the Yea side loses control of its own rock and has to watch it roll down the hill. It is precisely because teachers enjoy pushing their rocks that we need to take the withdrawal of extra-curricular activities seriously. Teachers do not suffer when they perform these tasks; they suffer when they are forced to stop them. This suffering is not enjoyed and is therefore significant.

Examine every club or team that stopped during the recent labour strife in Ontario. Yes, you will see the disappointed young people and hear the angry adult voices, but you will also note the dejection of teachers who created these opportunities out of passion, conviction or personal need. And while you think on this, consider the fact that while parents and teachers experience one academic year of disappointment, the cancellation of an activity can destroy years of prior work by its teacher mentors. No gardener happily destroys the living garden.

What forced the cancellations? The answer to that goes far beyond mere money. The freezing of salaries during a period of restraint is not exactly anyone’s Happy Pill but most teachers would have swallowed that with the Grin-and-Bear-It stoicism we can all occasionally muster. However, when employers start clawing back, when government campaigns question dedication and professionalism and when hate-filled public voices make it all very personal, the insult is not to dollars but to dignity and self-worth.

This is the essential point and fully understanding it requires us to finally identify the Gods who gave our modern Sisyphus that extra-curricular rock. The answer is not the usual set of suspects: governments, taxpayers, children. The Gods at work here are private dieties.

Think of the homemaker who sings operetta, the chartered accountant who runs marathons, the chef who volunteers at the local animal shelter or the CEO who has spent twenty years developing a rose. Each serves two masters. The first we will call Work. The other – the After Work master, the private God – lives in the private Soul. The physics teacher who organizes after-school hockey tournaments is not just a public servant obeying some school board, nor is the English teacher who organizes after-school theatre trips or the mathematics teacher who provides after-school bridge lessons. Do not let the setting fool you. When the 3:30 bell rings, the Public Servants leave the building and in come the Sisyphi and the rocks their Gods have given them! (Oh they may look like hockey sticks and ticket stubs and playing cards, but trust me, it’s the rocks.)

This is why cannot legislate extra-curriculars as a duty. “Extra” is precisely that. We can no more force a teacher to run an after-school Gay Straight Alliance than we can force CEO’s to invent new roses. And when we try to make these after school gifts compulsory, we demean the giver and the gift. We trample down dignity. We insult the Self. We sneer at the Rock.

We can, I suppose, continue to coerce and batter and bruise our teachers if we choose, although to do so seems self-defeating in the long term. And when all the shouting stops, one consequence will immediately be clear. Public servants will remain.

But Sisyphus will have left the building.

Of Rob Ford and his Tribe of Little Men

In Which the Elegant Bastard Determines that Size is Not Everything!

Despite my status as the oldest (only) male in my family, I have made it a point to impose few rules regarding the behavior of others. True, this has as much to do with the fact  my family regards rules as bulls do red flags, ants a picnic and televangelists a dollar than it does with any notion of “live and let live”. Still, I have on occasion drawn my own lines in the sand, circled my wagons (difficult as I have only one) and stood with my back to my wall.

The issue is simple: the naming of descendants.

People being people, the need to name babies comes along fairly regularly. I am rarely asked my opinion regarding whether or not new off-spring will be sprung off. Therefore, given that I will be required to share with these new arrivals everything from a last name to the scandalously small amount of dark meat on a turkey to post-mortem unspent money, I claim and defend my right to exercise certain naming rights.

My rule is this: under no circumstances will any child whose diapers I might change, buy or stand within olfactory range of be named Genghis. Attila is also off limits, as are Napoleon, Charlemagne, Tamerlane and Thutmose. I do not jest! Let those with expectations of beneficiary status take warning – I ain’t just whistlin’ Dixie here. (I will also not allow the name Dixie.)

My intransigence has nothing to do with iambic or alliterative weirdness, although none of these first names would go well with Smith, Ali, Singh or Li. It simply acknowledges the fact that children named after the great military heroes and butchers of the past rarely go on to great and glorious lives in the present.

Allow me to offer two final proofs of the above. The first is self evident. Have you ever met a cute little sprite with blond curls, a pink dress and a lollipop whose parents had named her Boadicea? Of course not! Add to that fact the following:  Toronto, the Big Little city on the shores of the Big Little lake is experiencing some fundamental and profound pain. To many, it has gone from wannabe World Class City to Local Joke, even as its downtown towers multiply and grow taller. (Our city planners seem to have decided if they can’t have the biggest they’ll at least have the most!)

The reason?  In 1969, a male child was born and carelessly named. Here follows a tiny bit of Scottish history.

In the early 1300’s, a man by the name of Robert the Bruce, born of a powerful mother and an obedient father, spent much of his early life joining whatever army happened to be winning at the time. He ended up being both King of Scotland and a major figure in that nation’s roster of heroes. Legends abound, not the least of which was one cackled often by my grandmother, who delighted in telling me that Scotland’s greatest king was famous for gnawing on the bones of those he slaughtered, something that I never doubted given my own early experiences with Scottish cuisine. Still, while this might explain my attitude towards haggis and oatmeal, how does it relate to Toronto’s recent history?

Because, Dear Reader, our large and decidedly imperfect mayor is named Robert Bruce Ford. The poor wee mite never had a chance.

A large group of over-weight men are outside trying to determine what exactly one does with a football other than bounce it noisily and repeatedly off the pavement and each other. Forgive me while I go and make a suggestion.

You shake your head at “wee”, I know, but size is not merely to be measured in vertical achievement, horizontal displacement and in the case of Wee Robbie, tonnage. The breadth, height and length of things may interest engineers, cooks and the occasional pervert but those of us in search of Truth know she will not be quantified so easily. And so we recognize that ‘wee” here refers to the inner Robbie, the one we have observed wolfing down KFC, giving the finger to passing motorists, introducing adolescent football players to maiming tactics and public transit, suggesting that cyclists killed in traffic were asking for it, and otherwise making it perfectly clear to all that he is no renaissance man – or even a renaissance mouse!.

A recent article in Toronto Life alluded to any number of reasons why our Robbie does not generally play well with others. There are references to a powerful mother, a father at once too generous and too demanding, an older bigger brighter sib (o.k., not bigger!), a mother-in-law who makes all the stereotypes too true, a failed football career, and a mound of other baggage designed to make one both little and aware of one’s own littlehood. And so perhaps it is to compensate, to appear to be as large as he wishes he were, that he turns – as so many have before him – to the public stage, or in his case, the political arena. Which forum is chosen matters not at all; the essence of both is performance. And Robbie performs.

Sadly, he achieves mostly faint sound and feeble fury. As he struts and frets, as he smoulders and gesticulates, as he stabs his finger at invisible enemies and thrusts his belly forth in an awesome display of … well … belly, he achieves only noise and in a very limited way, spectacle. It’s as if a gladiator arrived at the forum without his sword or a lion without its teeth. In his mouth, language is badly served, and his mix of fatuous argument and flatulent style will no doubt give birth to whole new synonyms for fart. Yet he will persist. He will flail and fail. He will run after his name and his dream of greatness. For once the “Chain of Office” is well-named.

Does it appear as if I pity Wee Robbie? It would be easy to do so. I recall seeing him on his feet at Toronto City Council, spreading his arms as he made an entirely forgettable point, and he did rather look like a man attending his own crucifixion.

But I don’t. One cannot pity a puppet. And whatever else Robbie may be, as gross and gargantuan and ghastly as he is, he is not his own man. He is servant to a larger master. As soon as he entered the public consciousness as something potentially more than a crackpot voice from the wasteland, he was seized – caught – captured. He was taken by … The Other.

Some of us will now spend a brief moment or two exploring the existential concept of “The Other”. The rest need feel no guilt whatsoever if they choose to explore either naps or chocolate.

The normal example used to explain “The Other” requires you to imagine yourself as a peeping Tom, or, in the politically correct 21rst Century, a peeping Mary. As you kneel at your peephole, staring at whatever or  whoever busily doing whatever, imagine that you hear the floor creak behind you. Dying inwardly, you stumble to your feet while desperately fumbling with any loose ends. Shame thrusts itself upon you. You turn to face the judgmental gaze of … The Other.

In that moment, you have been captured, judged, labelled and defined. You will now be forced to rebel against that judgment, thereby being weirdly controlled by it or you will take the easier road, yielding to it and playing out the part it assigns. Wee Robby took the second path.

Yes, Dear Reader, I hear you.  Who, you ask, is Robby’s Other? Sadly, it is us, or rather, some of us, or rather, many of us, or rather, most of Etobicoke, Scarborough, York, North York and large chucks of Toronto. We are Wee Robby’s Other. We pull the strings to make him dance.

Have you ever trained a puppy? Puppy does his good boy dance and we lean forward, praising and offering a cookie. Puppy does a different dance and out comes the rolled up newspaper. (Be advised that this is a metaphor and that this technique does not work well on real puppies. It will, however, work superbly with Tim Hudak.)

Consider Wee Robbie in this light. He mutters about liberal downtown effete elites who screw the working stiff and tens of thousands of self defined stiffs lean forward offering cookies. He argues that subways belong to Scarborough by right and act of God and only Fat Cats and Pinkos would deny them their due. Scarborough chucks him under his little chins and offers even more cookies. He slams the lefty conspiracy (gays, cyclists, environmentalists, light rail lovers, men who don’t spit) that unfairly has more than you do since they have tickets on the gravy train and cookies avalanche in from everywhere. In short, he embodies the oldest commandment of all: Hate Thy Neighbour.

What we call Ford Nation is largely a Nation of Haters. They seethe inwardly, attributing the loss of their dreams to all around them. Everyone else is “in it for themselves”, a “rip-off artist”, “selfish”, a “cheat”, “not a real man” or  “a bitch”. Only they are patriotic hard-working Joes blessed with a little common sense. (And if they cheat a little on their taxes, so what. It’s their “hard-earned” money and “everybody else does it” eh?)

Wee Robbie simply says out loud what they may only whisper. And if he someday chooses not to speak the words they dare not, they will abandon him to his former littlehood. In fact, in the same way that Don Cherry’s jackets will need to get louder, so will wee Robbie.

Shouldn’t we then pity Ford? But why? Look at the man! If anyone were ever over-cookied, it is he! He will waddle on. Wrapped in self-love and swollen with the bile of others, he will avoid self knowledge unless some inconvenient law finally swats him down. Even if that does happen, he will seize on Noble Victimhood and charge thousands to deliver after-dinner speeches. Wee Robbie shall have cookies wherever he goes.

No, save your pity for Ford Nation. They rally around him as they have around others like him and they will continue to do so, worshipping in him their own unspeakable image.

And no one ever gives them cookies.