On a Train Bound for Nowhere

I am trying to stay off the news today because the last week has been a little overwhelming with the constant updates and rapid changes. The chyrons on the local news station are giving me headaches unless I un-focus my eyes and look slightly to the side. Our 24-hour news cycles mean that every update – however minor – is given priority of place.

It comes as something of a surprise that anything not virus-related can really stand out in the constant bombardment of new cases and new lock-downs and new warnings.

This morning when I got up it was out there everywhere already. Probably because so many of the people I hang with on social media (and IRL when we’re allowed to do that) have similar tastes and experiences and memories, and the presence of Kenny Rogers in our shared world was basically a given. A randomly-cited lyric from The Gambler needed no explanation as to its origin. It is a rare person in my life who doesn’t know the song and won’t start singing along when provided with the opportunity.

That song has been played at pretty much every house party I have ever hosted. One of my bffs (now a semi-responsible financial advisor and father of two) performed an interpretive dance while wearing my mother’s wicker hanging planter on his head as he belted out the tune. I have pictures, if you doubt me. Another friend and I managed to get it into rotation in the post-meal singsongs at our camp when we were first year staff. Visiting years later, it was heartening to see that it remained a favourite – alongside The Ship Titanic and Charlie’s inability to get off the MTA. It still receives a ritual playing when certain friends come to visit, as a final wind-down to an evening of beers and talk.

The loss of one person – and a person who had a long, fruitful, impactful life at that – at this point in time, as we deal with uncertainty and anxiety and, in some cases, more immediate losses, might seem negligible in the overall scheme of things. But so many people have already left fond memories and feelings up and around the social medias I feel like I’d be irresponsible if I don’t add my double pennies.

I grew up in a house in which we were fortunate to be surrounded by grandparents and older relatives pretty much all the time. When we were very young both sets of grandfolks lived within walking distance – and they were all very much part of the fabric our of regular lives. I wrote about one of them here (back in the days when I will still pretending it wasn’t me that was writing this blog). Gramps loved Hee Haw. He loved the country music of the time – and the stories the songs told. They were closely aligned with his way of seeing the world and his own deep love of a great tale, well-spun.

I’m not sure when Kenny really hit my radar in a big way but I do know that I received his Greatest Hits record for Xmas the year I turned 10. I knew that record start to finish. I know that record start to finish, actually.

You see, I have this thing I do when I’m anxious or stressed or, as is increasingly the case, when I start getting concerned about my memory with the whole aging thing – a panic that can easily turn to paranoia about incipient dementia, given our family experience.

I’ve always had a thing for lyrics – I remember them easily and pretty much forever. Even songs I don’t like much get stuck in there. It’s a mixed blessing sometimes (looking at you Achy Breaky Heart). But it provides me with a fantastic stabilizing exercise – one that comes in very handy in weeks like the past few have been.

I run through certain songs more frequently than others – I have my standbys: I wrote out the words to Tears for Fears’ Mad World before every exam – high school to doctorate – and two from that regular playlist came to me from Kenny.

The Gambler, of course (a song as celebrated for its catchiness and sing-along compliant nature as it is underrated for the overall philosophy of life it presents) but Coward of the County has long been another of my go-to head-songs (since 1980!) in times of stress. I ran through it all while in the shower this morning, as a matter of fact. And I cried. Which, I understand, is at least partly in response to the stress all around us. Except that it always makes me cry. Always.

The words run through my head, but I hear Kenny’s voice singing them (I wouldn’t want to hear my own) and the emotion and authenticity with which he imbued the lyrics resonates completely. Still. I never doubted for a second that he had a nephew named Tommy whom folks called ‘yellow.’ Never. Just like I never questioned his chance encounter with the old gambler on that train. It happened. All of it.

Kenny – and others like him – helped shaped my musical taste in a very real way. I remain drawn to those singer-songwriters who speak to life experiences and general states of being on the planet, while reflecting on weightier issues of good and evil and love and hate. Small stuff to the very large. Basically all aspects of our interactions in the world with other humans.

Most artists rely on touring and merchandise sales to support themselves and ensure the continuance of their wonderful contributions to the world of art and music and storytelling – something that has been interrupted at the moment.

Spotify and the like are all fine and well and good for exposure to new music, but these platforms doesn’t do enough to support the artists who are creating the music. As we look for things to fill the days as we distance and isolate, this is something that we can actively do to change things for the better.

One of my very very favourite guys has a new album coming out on March 27. The songs he has pre-released for us are beautiful, heartfelt and representative of incredible growth in his songwriting trajectory. Brian Fallon was supposed to visit us at Danforth Music Hall in early April, but we’re not going to get to see him just now. We’ll make sure we’re there when he is able to reschedule, and I’ll make do with multiple playings of the new album in the meantime. Please check him out and buy Local Honey – and his other records – directly from his website.

Then there’s this other guy, who I’ve written about before. He was out on tour in support of his latest record (we saw him here in the fall) – but it seems likely that it will end sooner than anticipated. He released a new video this week – along with a remarkable article in Rolling Stone about the subject of the song – that notorious and remarkable songwriter, Shane MacGowan. Follow Jesse on his website for information about his tour and how to get Sunset Kids.

While I’m talking about Jesse, the opening artist at that show I talked about in the post was a singer-songwriter named Matthew Ryan. Since seeing him that night – and having the opportunity for a quick chat – I’ve followed him on twitter and the fb, accessing new tunes as he brings them to us and appreciating his thoughts on life, the universe and everything, He posts lovely reflections about his favourite songs – definitely a kindred spirit – and he sings about things that can break your heart. Give him a listen. You won’t be disappointed.

I can’t consider complete any reference about the overlap between story and song without noting that Mikel Jollet has a memoir coming out in May, concurrent with the release of The Airborne Toxic Event’s first record in five years. He was on the fb yesterday, live streaming and talking about favourite tunes and concept albums, and playing bits from the new record alongside some old favourites. He has been a significant and important presence on Twitter since that 2016 election – calling out all the things that need calling out, but it was wonderful to listen to him talk about the healing that music – and the completion of his story in order to share it with all of us – has brought to his life. I wrote about the band what seems like ages ago. Even then, I was reflecting on memory and the tricks and trials it can bring. Plus ça change, as they say. You can pre-order the book and the album here.

I love a good concept album (there are Pink Floyd records that make me shiver just to think about them), and there is no one, these days, better at that than Lord Huron. If The Gambler is a poignant short story, then albums like Strange Trails or Vide Noir are epic novels in which you can lose yourself completely. Ben Schneider, the driving force behind the band, trained as a visual artist and the tangible storied imagery of the settings comes through like individual paintings in every song. I can see the scenes and the characters as he sings about them. I wrote about the band, along with another guy you might’ve heard of, when I was hoping to get back into the habit of writing – and when I was searching for inspiration in the face of too much loss. Again with the plus ça change… Lord Huron is planning to produce a movie based on Vide Noir. I don’t know where those plans might be sitting, given all that is real right now, but you can buy the album – and lots of other fun merch – here.

It sort of feels like this train we’re all riding together right now is bound for nowhere. Or nowhere we’re going to like and want to stay, anyway. As I wrote the other day, regardless of what happens in the next weeks and months, change is going to be our new and continuing reality for the foreseeable future.

We might not be able to get out to see the musicians we love right now, but this time should be teaching us about our continued reliance on the artists that make the hard times less hard and who celebrate the good as it comes right alongside us. The best ones teach us something about ourselves as they tell us their stories. They deserve to be fairly compensated for all that they bring into our lives.

Support them directly, however you can, and spread the word about the songs and the stories that are keeping you going. Start playlists with friends – recommending and linking those musicians you can’t live without.

Stop taking for granted that their hard work and inspiration will always be there to get us through, and acknowledge the important role they play in providing entertainment, and inspiration – and in keeping anxiety in check when things are really hard and uncertain. Make sure they get the appreciation they deserve.

Pay the creatives.

We need them more than ever now, as we think about what is important to throw away, and what is important to keep.

Go gently, and with thanks, Kenny. I’ll keep those aces you dealt me held as tightly as I can.

Changed, changed utterly

It’s hard to know where to begin, here. It’s been so long. Those who haven’t seen me around these parts much lately but who remember the days in which I was far more prolific in my thought-sharing and voice-raising about all those things that unite and sustain us as human beings might also remember that today marks six years since we lost my Dad.

Six years.

There’s been so much change over that time. It might seem trite – and like I’m quickly becoming one of those oldsters who rails about the ‘good ol’ days’ – but a great proportion of that change hasn’t been positive. Please keep in mind that, although I might legitimately be approaching antique status, I’m also an historian – and therefore fully aware that there is no such thing as ‘good ol’ days’.

As an historian – and more importantly, as a human being – these last years have demonstrated a distressing level of social regression that has left me feeling impotent to do anything other than shout into the void of self-serving greed and insular politics that widen divides that had been diminishing as we became aware that there is more that unites us – one to another – as people living together on this planet than the opposite.

Shouting into the void is exhausting, and, I’ve found, serves little purpose.

Don’t misunderstand. I’m well aware that there has been change for the better. We started listening to voices that had gone unheard for too long. #Metoo, we cried. And perspectives from POC, First Nations, Inuit and Metis communities and commentators in this country, at least, are gaining exposure (if slowly, and not without a huge load of push-back from those who see their inherited privilege being threatened).

But.

Too long a sacrifice/ can make a stone of the heart.

When I look back over the posts I’ve put up here over the years – and all the wonderful interactions I’ve had with the valued friends I’ve met through this forum, I can trace a rise in the existential angst I was feeling in the lead-up to the conservative back-slide that has marked the time that we’re currently navigating.

It started, for me, with the mismanagement of my hometown by an unqualified populist who somehow ended up mayor. We are still dealing with the results of the inaction and pull-back from his time in office and the lack of progressive change under his replacement – who is more competent, certainly, but still unwilling to address the concerns and needs of anyone outside of his base of support.

And then…

Since November 2016 it seems as if a terrible tide turned, and all subsequent attempts at progress have been greeted with hostility and manufactured narratives designed to hold tightly to a status quo that protects the very very few while leaving the rest of us worse for wear. I need not identify the source, but I’m sure you’d agree that the consequences of that event started an acceleration of negative repercussions around the world (looking at you, in particular, Brexiters) and permitted hatefulness to flourish unchecked.

Continuing to contribute to my little piece of the internet became an exercise in futility and repetition. I was saying the same things over and over. And over. And screaming at my friends in the choir, for the most part. We all need to be careful of not falling into echo chambers – even if our intentions are well-meant. Writing about the world necessitated paying a lot of attention to the world, and the world was increasingly an unrecognizable and frightening place to me.

My particular privileges had kept me blind to aggressions – micro and those that are anything but – that are a constant fact of life for great swaths of our population. Suddenly, it seemed, no one was keeping the prejudices and biases and hatred in check. Rather, they were given free reign and were encouraged by those at the very top of our leadership structures and by people who should have known, and done, better.

I went underground. I admit it. Historically, I have had significant issues coping with anxiety – especially when it arises as a result of things over which I have no control. In reaction I started social distancing long before this health crisis mandated ‘staying away’ for all of us for our collective good. Sure, I was out in the world – interacting with others, maintaining connections and, even, from time to time, giving a good long shout into that there void about those things I find most egregious and upsetting. But none of those reactions have been productive. Not in any real, helpful way.

And certainly not in ways that live up to the example of my grandparents, my extended family and friends, my mother, and especially my father – who left us six years ago today.

But I’ve been noticing something this week. The enforced distancing and isolation (and maybe even self-reflection) that is accompanying responsible responses to the pandemic is producing a movement of support and positivity that I feared was buried beyond recovery in the rhetoric and intentional polarization that has been the norm over the last few years.

All of this socializing media is turning a corner, it would seem. Writers are sharing their work – reading from novels and engaging with their audience in impromptu book clubs to discuss the stories and their origins. Musicians are treating us to tunes recorded in their living rooms – since they can’t get out to come see us in person right now. Teachers are offering parents suggestions of in-home learning they can share with their children as their regular school routines are disrupted – and critics may even be starting to understand the important role that our teachers play in ensuring that our children are able to cope with the world in an informed and responsible way. And cats have retaken their rightful possession of all things interwebs. Okay. Dogs, too. Animals of all kinds, really (and don’t get me started on that sock puppet eating the cars…).

We are seeing communities come together – while remaining at a safely mandated distance – serenading from balconies, offering to drop groceries outside the doors of people who aren’t as mobile or who are at greater risk of exposure if they venture out for necessities. The pulling together stories seem to be outnumbering those that are about the endless tearing apart that has dominated feeds on the twitters and the fbs and the instas for the first time in forever.

Those still seeking to divide are increasingly being ignored – when they aren’t being shouted down in concert.

Resilience is a human characteristic that has been low in its visibility as we deal with people and governments and ingrained systems that remain determined to have us toe a line that continues to benefit those who hold the power – to the detriment of the rest of us. This time of trial that has us all caught in its grasp at the moment seems to be letting us bounce back into an understanding of the importance of community and support of one another as we live together in social groups both – IRL and online.

It’s leading me into something I haven’t felt in a while. Despite the anxiety and concern for those who are most affected by this pandemic – whether in increased concern for the continuing health of those at risk, or as a result of the economic impacts that are coming along with it, and the measures we need to have in place to stop it in its tracks – I’m feeling actual optimism, if cautious (under the circumstances, caution is called for in all things), that we can come back together and find the terrible beauty that is life on this planet with all of our human family.

We seem to be using this time to push for changes that benefit the many. We are offering support where it’s most needed. We are stopping and actually listening to one another when all those around us use voices to discuss experiences and perspectives that might differ from our own way of living in the world.

I realize I am fortunate to be in a country that is showing sincere and reasoned leadership. Even the unqualified brother of the unqualified mayor (who is, inexplicably, premier of the province) is listening to the people who actually know stuff and behaving like a responsible adult who understands the importance of aligning vision and action in this situation. I know that other people don’t have our safety nets – those extant, like our healthcare system, and those newly-created to offer assistance in this unprecedented global situation. I also know that other countries – some really close by – are hampered but the gross incompetence and rank corruption of their ‘elected’ leaders.

But I feel like that might be changing, too. Adversity can bring out the best in us – and, despite the toilet paper hoarders and the hand sanitizer re-sellers, we’re starting to see an increasing amount of good overall.

It’s not Easter, and this isn’t, exactly, a revolution that we’re fighting, but yesterday was the traditional day of the wearing of the green (if celebrated less publicly and enthusiastically than is the usual case) and Yeats’ words resonate through time, regardless.

Hearts with one purpose alone   
Through summer and winter seem   
Enchanted to a stone
To trouble the living stream. 

Social structures – with all their benefits AND problems – that we take for granted may well crumble under the new reality that this virus is creating. The lessons of the last years can – if we have been paying attention and if we act in accordance with the better natures that have been on display the last couple of days – lead us to rebuild with a conscious awareness of all the highlighted gaps in equity and fairness and community solidarity that have come to light in the face of this global emergency.

There’s going to be a long haul ahead – with new challenges and picking up the pieces once we are through to the other side, but, if we work at it, we can institute a new world order that builds upon these early glimmers we’ve been this week. It won’t erase the negativity and hatred that became somehow acceptable before we were hit with this, but perhaps we can take a lesson from this history (since it’s so recent and doesn’t involve reading texts written by the winners) and ensure that it doesn’t repeat.

Make music. Or buy it directly from the artists you love, who can’t tour at the moment. Read books – or get back to that writing project you’ve been putting off forever. Check in on one another – and take care of one another. Take this time of enforced social distancing to reflect upon the world we want to see when we can all come together again – following the examples of community support and working together for a common goal, in defiance of created political divisions and antiquated ideologies that are happening right now. Stay home and monitor the clouds and keep watch for their eventual dispersal – and think about how we can maximize the changes we are sensing and enacting as we weather this storm together.

Be the stone. Be the change. Stay safe and well.

A shadow of cloud on the stream   
Changes minute by minute;  
 
Minute by minute they live:   

The stone’s in the midst of all.*

*It occurred to me as I tried to sleep last night that I didn’t cite my source well at all – that should tell you how long it’s been since I’ve written anything. Bad form. The poem cited throughout is Easter, 1916, by my fave poet-dude, W.B. Yeats. He wrote it in response to the unsuccessful Easter Uprising against British rule in Ireland. Most of the revolutionaries who led the uprising were executed for treason. The poem is a reflection of Yeats’ support for Irish nationalism – even though he disagreed with violence as a means to that end – and his disbelief at the actions of the British following the uprising. It is an indication that the powers of the time (the British government) started – rather than stopped – a movement that continued to grow and develop through the act of executing the Irish republican leaders. The shock and horror of that act gave the revolution new life – and birthed the terrible beauty that would forever affect the course of Irish history and Irish-English relations.

An Open Letter to the Deputy Premier of Ontario

Dear Minister Elliott,

I am writing to you as a citizen of Ontario regarding my deep and thoroughly-examined concerns regarding the direction of this province that I love and have been, generally, proud to call home. I have a particular perspective – as a former educator (from a family of educators) and as someone who now works within the public health care system – that I’d like to share with you.

Please note that this letter is directed to you as Deputy Premier, not as Minister of Health and Long-Term Care (although that is pertinent to my concerns, as you’ll see), since I see no value in writing to the Minister of Education or the Premier, as neither has demonstrated any depth of experience or pertinent insight in the roles to which they have, beyond all understanding, been elected and/or appointed. I’ll abstain from any further comment about their lack of overall competency, since such is self-evident and clearly demonstrated every time they open their mouths.

As health care workers and community members gather in front of Queen’s Park to demonstrate their outrage at the closing of overdose prevention sites, and as Ontario students prepare to use their informed and concerned voices and walk out of classes across the province this afternoon, I feel I can no longer remain silent without asking you – an experienced public servant – to provide the rationale behind your continued support of this government’s increasingly-egregious agenda.

Despite differences in political ideology, I have held you in a position of respect over the course of your career, particularly as you acted as Patient Ombudsman for the province of Ontario. In that role, you acted as a non-partisan representative of the people of Ontario, providing us with a strong voice to express concerns about the direction of our public-funded health care system. I watched the leadership race last year with the hope that your experience and preparedness would assure us of competent direction (despite our differences of opinion – the carbon tax, for one) as we entered a sure-to-be-contentious election.

I was dumbfounded and disheartened by your defeat – not least because, as a resident of Toronto I have far too much experience of the type of politics played and the “leadership” displayed by your opponent. The lack of relevant experience and sound-bite-based campaigning, along with ill-examined irregularities in the voting system, permitted a questionable ‘businessman’ to lead the Ontario PC Party to the Legislative Assembly.

I admit that I, like many who found this turn of events inexplicable, took some comfort in your appointment as Deputy Premier and Minister of the MOHLTC, counting on your knowledge and background to mitigate the most dangerous planks of the newly-elected Premier’s heretofore unexpressed platform. It has taken a remarkably short time for such hopes to be dashed, and I, along with much of the rest of the province, are left to wonder, with concern, at the silencing of the integrity and ethics you demonstrated previously as a long-time participant in public service.

I could go on for page after page regarding my concerns about the policy decisions this government has made (the change to our license plates would barely merit a paragraph – nonsense of that nature is hardly worth the effort of commentary – although I’d like to propose DoFoMustGo as an alternative to the crassly-commercial and self-interested ‘open for business’, since one is as nonsensical as the other), but I will focus on those two perspectives I referenced above – education and health care.

It is more and more apparent that this government is interested in preparing our children for futures that seemingly require no exposure to higher critical thinking skills or to a balance of STEM courses and humanities classes that teach important values that help to describe our society and to highlight the places that call out for improvement. In making cuts to university funding, and imposing online courses for high school students, this government seems to be supporting the creation a future population that would be disconnected from the larger community and what it means to be citizens of Ontario, Canada and the wider world, and blindly accepting of the political rhetoric used to defend policies geared toward the benefit of a minority of citizens.

In my time teaching undergraduate courses at a number of Ontario universities, I saw a steady decline in some basic skills – reading comprehension, argument-support, effective citation of sources, as examples – with the removal of grade 13/OAC under a previous Conservative government. I fear that the results of your government’s proposed changes to our education system will have deeper and more problematic consequences than even that decision.

That said, the students are best-placed to vocalize their concerns about their education, and, despite the claims of the Premier that the walk out is a political contrivance of ‘the unions’, they are making it clear that they will not be ignored when detrimental decisions are being made on their behalf. They demonstrated that with a similar walk out to express opinions regarding the province’s health education curriculum. They were heard then, and once again they are saying ‘no’ – emphatically – and if Ontario Conservatives decline to hear that declaration, I don’t believe that this government’s relationship with the people responsible for the education of our children – or the children themselves – will permit anything other than considered and intentional regression.

I ask you, as Deputy Premier, to ensure that this government starts listening to the relevant stakeholders – with the most to gain or lose – regarding changes to education in Ontario. It seems that the Premier and Minister of Education are unwilling to do so, and it is increasingly apparent that they do not have the expertise to guide progressive reforms without more informed – and educated – support.

With respect to changes coming (regardless of input) to our health care system, I have only one request to share at this time. Please uphold the necessity of consultation with relevant stakeholders prior to the institution of Bill 74. Two-days notice (I’m being generous there) for public hearings – ONLY held in Toronto – is appalling. As is the fact that over 1400 requests to present were received, and 30 representatives were invited to participate. And the fact that the rush to pass this legislation seems unprecedented in its haste. To say more than that may endanger my current job, and being jobless in this government’s Ontario is a terrifying prospect.

I ask you, as one professional, engaged Ontarian to another, to hold to account the Premier and his Ministers in the same way that you have done in your past, much-appreciated, public service incarnations. If you cannot do so, I’d appreciate hearing your reasons why, outside of the environment that requires standing ovations and toeing of party lines, regardless of evidence-based assessment.

Many thanks for your time,

A concerned citizen of Ontario

 

‘The world spins, I’m part of it’

‘But I cannot make no sense of it…’

(this line, and the title, borrowed from Eddie Lundon and Gary Daly, from a song I have on a playlist I called ‘September Tunes’)

It’s true. I can’t. If there is sense to be found in most of what is happening around me right now, I’m sure as hell not seeing much evidence of intelligible reality. What I am feeling is lost – amongst the credulous, self-serving, soporific-imbibing portion of the population that saw/sees the current POTUS and Premier of Ontario as viable candidates for leadership. I don’t like feeling lost. It makes me angry.

I don’t think I’m alone in that since the world of social media is mostly vitriolic ranting these days. Some of it, to be sure, is justified. We need to rage against inequity in all its forms and the normalization of criminal behaviours and the spread of hatred. Most days it feels like demoralizing shouting into the void. Evidence piled upon evidence that we remain in the Age of the Selfie – encouraging the priority of the few – those who continue to control the narrative and the purse-strings – over the well-being of the rest of us.

This paradigm – and its trickle-down effect (strange how that works, when the economic theory named as such decidedly does not) – keeps the fires of society-wide narcissism burning as fiercely and destructively as the wildfires that are not, we are told, the result of climate change, yet continue to burn through California, B.C, Northern Ontario…

But this post is not, really, about how loathsomely inexplicable I find those who maintain their support of the jackasses-in-question – and I admit that our local jackass has been garnering the lion’s share of my focus lately. The ‘Murican jackass is a danger to us all, there is no doubt about that, but I can focus on only so much soft-headed tomfoolery and criminality posing as government policy-making without needing a good long lie-down. The DoFo ‘administration’ is poised to do irreparable damage to my city and my province and the 40% of the population that voted for him and his ilk are still buying the soundbites, petty proclamations, and bread-and-circus routine that are the only tools he can command in light of his complete lack of talent, insight, sincerity, and experience. He needs to be the focus of my complete opposition right now.

And it’s not about the horror I feel about the latest revelations regarding the cover-up of abuse in that anachronistic institution of equal parts illogical doctrine and outdated power structure OR the outrage against those that are spinning Apologetics that suggest fabrication and exaggeration, calling the evidence ‘myth’ – ‘fake news’, if you will – and saying that no institution has LESS of a problem with the sexual abuse of minors than the Catholic Church… I feel like I’m the embodiment of the rage emoji.

These things – serious, deleterious, and potentially-irrevocable as they may be – along with some others that are less-atrocious but annoying, nonetheless, have been causing me to react rather than act, lately. I could blame Twitter (and too much time spent watching that feed certainly is somewhat responsible), but the reality is that having so many things coming at me at once is contributing to a bone-deep anomie that has been hard to shake.

This time of year is always reflective for me. I can’t avoid the back-to-school/new beginnings ideation that comes with the winding down of August. I’m sure it’s partly to due with the timing of my birthday (the start of my own, personal New Year), but, despite having not set foot in a classroom in 8 years, I still feel the pull of the new start that defined my life for so many years. That 8 years thing is also interesting. 8 years ago was a milestone birthday, and, on a lovely celebratory getaway with one of my sisters, I spent a lot of time assessing my life as it was and contemplating next steps. The upshot of all that evaluation was a full-on change in career, along with some other life-altering decisions that are still rippling back at me now.

Cycles and such. 8 strikes me as less-symbolic a number than, say, 7 or 3, but I’m sure that some numerologists out there attach a divine importance to 2X4. Regardless, here I am again. Change. Decisions. New directions. I’m starting a new job – on yet another career path – right after the long weekend. I’m excited and hopeful and feeling that the challenges will be good for me. I’ve been stagnating for too long. And I’m thinking, in general, about all those things that aren’t working. Some of the things requiring assessment are the same as they were 8 years ago. I can be a slow-learner, at times. This is not always the most pleasant of exercises, but, if it helps me shift from reacting to acting in my life, it will be well-worth the self-examination.

Change can be hard. I think my Virgo-nature (or, if you don’t believe in horoscopes – full disclosure, I don’t – my tendency to stubbornness) makes change even more difficult. But, if I’ve learned anything about myself over the past decade or so, I can roll with punches. I don’t like it, but I do it. Change and chaos – that foundational element of human understanding of the world – are inextricably linked. I think that’s why we struggle with it so much.

Chaos gets a bad rep. I lost my own little personification of chaos – my Tiamat – back in June, and I did not enjoy coming to terms with that change at all (Canaanite kittens are helping with that, though). I know, because of all those years studying the stuff, that chaos is necessary. Without its latent presence there exists nothing but stasis. Too much is problematic, of course, but we need that trickle of unsettled alteration to drive progress and our work towards better things.

I think change is most difficult when we are in a situation of instability that permits chaos to seem on the ascendent. As the Mesopotamians told us over-and-over, the balance needs to be maintained. For that to happen we need to have clear standards of order. Right now? We do not. Those systems to which we cling for stability – our governments, religious systems, social organizations – they’re the very things creating the anomie and imbalance.

So what do we do when we isolate ourselves – behind phones and screens and pseudonyms – and our social structures fail to support our ideals and expectations?

Order and chaos is an important foundational dichotomy – more effective and representative of human nature than its later interpretation as good/evil. Not all dichotomies are bad. Some are, though. Good/evil is not useful at all. The narratives that one drives are ALL problematic, as I see things. And even worse than that one is us/them. I hate us/them. Us/them is creating far too many narratives in our dysfunctional governance and social-interactions.

We’ve lost all sense of the importance of caring about one another. Community is a concept that seems archaic – unless it is insular and exclusionary. Then we’re okay with it. We are so self-consumed that the thought of providing support to those who need it most is displaced by the selfish (and ridiculously unsustainable) desire for cheaper gas and beer. Relationships – created and dissolved online – are as disposable as the lives of people seeking sanctuary from war-torn places (despite the fact that we are culpable for the origins of those wars). The dynamic has shifted – rapidly and unfortunately. And if we do not feel supported by those around us, the waves of chaos are hard to navigate.

The feeling of disconnection is, if I’m honest, at the heart of my current self-search. Dissatisfaction is often isolating. One feels like one can only complain so much – before becoming burdensome or dismissed or just plain boring.

This week I was part of an example of the opposite of disconnection, though. And it has taken my reflection in a different direction in a matter of days.

I was privileged to grow up in a village in the heart of the country’s largest city. Decidedly (at the time) middle class, it was a wonderful environment – generally speaking. We had multiple parents looking out for us, close friendships that persisted from JK through high school and beyond, and a sense of safety that permitted us to run loose in adventures that rarely ended in injury or other harm. I will refrain from discussion of the sprained ankle and broken arm, both of which I blame on one guy in particular.

That guy grew up around the corner from me. We were in the same class every year from K-8, shared multiple classes in high school AND spent summers together at camp – as campers and on staff. He is a featured player in a ridiculous number of my best memories. And some of the worst ones, too. Maybe not quite a brother, but certainly more than a friend – in spite of the aforementioned injuries. To be fair, I was present for some pretty serious ones that he sustained, as well.

He moved to California a couple of decades ago, so we haven’t seen all that much of each other in the last while. One morning this week I woke up to an email from him. He’s been up at his folks’ cottage on Georgian Bay and came across three boxes of stuff marked ‘do not throw out’. Photos, letters, year books. I was on the receiving end of much of that discovered bounty three days running this week.

He’s not on social media – can’t say as I blame him when it’s as much a burden as a benefit lately – and he was hesitant about how/if to share some of the things he was finding. I made the decision for him – and posted two class photos from our primary school days. I added to the initial two as he forwarded more. That thread now has 163 comments and has spawned early plans for a reunion in September.

As he said, in an email when I told him what I did (easier to apologize than ask permission, and all that) “If it gives 1 person (or a bunch of people) an ‘excuse’ to reach out and connect with old friend/s… long lost friend/s… a brief escape to happier & NO RESPONSIBILITY times… then we’ve done a good thing”.

He also said “I am occasionally asked ‘what’s the toughest thing about leaving’ and the real answer (which I never give) has a lot to do with amazing roots and foundation of growing up in XXX in that era… unlocked doors, friends in every direction 2-4 blocks away, no social media/electronics etc… buddies & buddyettes who loved spending time together in person doing things, looking out for one another, covering for each other etc. Maybe it’s where I am, but have spoken to my older bro about this too… just don’t see kids having the same ‘code’ as we did… certainly weren’t angels- Jesus, far from it… but we were good kids, good morals, good sense of right & wrong and looking out for one another…”

His assessment might be a tad more idyllic in retrospect than it was in reality, but he’s not far off. Right/wrong is another of those dichotomies that serves a purpose. The response to the pictures demonstrates how lucky we were – and how we all seem to know that. We were, then, part of a community, and we remain, now, connected because of that community.

Another old friend posted on the thread: “It’s weird, I was driving home with my son the other day and we took a detour through XXX so I could show him my old schools, houses we lived in, etc. Was feeling nostalgic already, then I got home and went on Facebook to find all this.”

Perhaps it’s that time of year for everyone. I know I needed that reminder, in a week in which I lost the last of the ‘old folks’ who helped raise me, and as I contemplate changing up some personal relationships that sit in a stasis that is disallowing change and growth and/or just plain hurting my heart.

The world does, for the moment, continue to spin, and I am – we all are – part of it. The only way to balance the chaos of the world is to establish – or re-establish – those connections and communities that lead to stabilizing order. We need to remember that we all have to have look out for one another. There is no them, there is only us. Maintaining our connections is work – but it is worthwhile work.

Thanks for the perspective, JAS. Maybe brother is the right word.

 

 

Hiatus

Every once in a while it feels like my life is a word-a-day calendar writ large and realized. All the definitions of one particular word are eating at me today.

For my purposes, blogging has lost much of its gloss relevance. Despite the community of wonderful people that colemining has brought into my life, in this current-world-reality I feel like I’m simultaneously shouting in the wilderness and preaching to the choir, while the credulous, disingenuous and banally evil (and you know I use that word with caution) types run amok, spreading lies and hatred and ignorance as far as the reach of their followers permits.

I can’t rightly remember (without going back and checking) the last time I wrote something to share. There was, for a time, some continuity here. In the few lines I’ve written already, I hear echoes of past posts – reinforcing the idea that I’m ad nauseam-ing myself – and anyone who stops in for a visit – with the same old-same old.

An ever-deepening societal lack of attention span and the rise of vlogging and podcasting have made my long-winded comprehensive discussions even more obsolete than they were when I started using the blog-as-platform, way back in the dark ages of the internet. Since the ‘long read’ remains my go-to for hashing out thoughts and commentary, it’s been hard to justify the time and energy spent writing in an environment that seems geared to those who favour sound-bites and unsupported (unsupportable?) generalities as a means of communication.

So: 1. a break or interruption in the continuity of a work, series, action, etc.

Much of my academic career involved working with literary documents – and their historical development – from Late Antiquity. My Master’s research focused on a theoretical ‘document’ – Quelle or ‘Q-Source’ –  posited to be the origin of the ‘authentic’ sayings of Jesus in the gospels of Matthew and Luke. My Doctoral dissertation was about a gnostic apocalypse from Nag Hammadi – most of which is the opposite of ‘extant’. I spent a whole lot of time in my early adulthood filling in blanks and making things up, albeit in a reasoned, educated way.

From that perspective, it is fair to say that my years in higher education were spent dealing in hypotheticals – a fact that engages and irritates me all at the same time. I enjoy puzzles – and finding and assembling information in a manner that follows the rules of logic and rationality has always been one of the great joys of my life. Still, it was always at the back of my mind that we, as historians of ancient and biblical religions, were making up a lot of stuff and perpetuating foci on stories and histories that should, perhaps, be set aside in favour of study of those things that directly impact the world-as-it-is, rather than the world-as-it-was millennia ago.

That trend of thought has caused some existential angst. I love that stuff – and appreciate that I was privileged enough to study and teach it for as long as I did. I will continue to insist on its value for those who have the interest and wherewithal to investigate the ultimate origins of stuff that people still use as guideposts to living in the world – and the search for human meaning that lies at the heart of those guideposts.

But, if we’re really honest, and if living our lives in the glare of constant media – social and otherwise – has taught us anything, it’s that there aren’t many people who are interested in examining history and literature as means of understanding the world around them. Don’t get me wrong – lots of people love citing literature that dates back to Bronze Age nomadic desert peoples, but there is a complete lack of awareness that such pre/proscriptions for living are anachronistic in the 21st century.

The failure of education and critical examination that has brought us to this place in history is a symptom of the fact that we aren’t interested in learning about our recent history and taking warning from its messages. We, in the West, tend to insist in the rightness of ‘our way’ without having first-clue about the path that got us to this supposed-cohesion of social practices and policies.

I am an historian, but I have discovered lacunae in my own awareness of modern history as I witness the events and movements unfolding around us. I am attempting to rectify this, currently, by reading about the rise of Nazism and other totalitarian regimes, experiential Holocaust literature, Jim Crow laws and their application, and the history of the destruction of indigenous cultures around the world – including those that happened (and persist) in my own backyard.

2. a missing part; lacuna.

But even with my self-assigned syllabus of compulsory readings, figuring out where I fit in the discussions we need to be having about the social and cultural anomie that is the epidemic causality of the rise of the alt-right and a generalized shift to rampant ‘othering’ has been difficult for me. I don’t like the shouting. The abuse, and the trolls, and the cognitive dissonance that make up the majority of the ‘discourse’ that’s happening right now leave me feeling disconnected and voiceless.

Chris Stedman, an American atheist whose work I’ve come to know through his Twitter feed, has written an important reflection on his place in the noisome and fraught discussions, and issued a call to arms, of sorts, to those seeking more moderate and humanistic approaches to addressing the myriad issues that come at us all, from all angles, on any given day.

His article echoes the concerns I’ve been feeling as an ‘out’ atheist who uses, however occasionally, various internet forums to express thoughts and passing insights. I have been attacked by supporters of a particular UofT psychology professor, been told that my Twitter feed is ‘unbearably smug’ (or was it ‘insufferable’? either way…) by white males whose ad hominem  ‘arguments’ I choose to ignore, had followers of any number of religions and/or ideologies predict my ultimate fate – both in this world and the one they see as coming…

I don’t feed trolls. If people are willing to engage in informed dialectic, I’m all for discussing the truth or falsehood of opinions. Abuse will not be dignified with any sort of response. That’s why the ‘block’ function was created – and why irrational, raging comments should be deleted. Sorting the chaff from the potential wheat is usually time-consuming and soul-crushing, and is viewed, by some, as ignoring ‘both sides’ of a given subject.  I defend my refusal to strike back at – or acknowledge – the rantings of the confirmation-biased as being an exercise in futility. I’m done trying to fix stupid unexamined bigotry.

But Stedman’s summary point, ‘the difficult truth spotlighted by both Spencer’s atheism and the silence of other atheists is that, despite the late Christopher Hitchens’s infamous proclamation that “religion poisons everything,” religion was never the problem. It was always something more complicated. Something uglier, more primal, more deeply human. Something the internet, with all the good it can foster, often facilitates. Until atheists and humanists confront this Something head on, we will continue to struggle with people like Spencer who embody an atheism that got rid of the gods but put white men in their place’, speaks to our current social and political reality, and is strongly resonant with the direction of my own thoughts, lately.

I have spent my adult life studying religions – and the people who create those religions and use them to further social and political ideologies. That they are caught up – inextricably – in anachronistic, misogynistic, racist, separatist (I could continue listing ‘ists’ indefinitely) narratives is tautology. Which doesn’t mean that dismissive, offensive name-calling, by ‘young white men in particular—who feel disconnected, marginalized, and misunderstood (and are seeking) a sense of identity, belonging, and purpose’, should be getting all the ‘atheist airtime’.

It is trying, to say the least, to find a place – as a woman, an atheist, an academic – in an environment that is increasingly hostile to all of those things.

But middle grounds – that examine history and apply its lessons to the progressive and evolved ideals that people are standing for (in movements like #MeToo, #TimesUp, #NeverAgain… the list grows, daily) are finding voices and filling in the spaces between the extremes that divide and conquer us.

3. any gap or opening.

Stedman’s renewed commitment to activism – from a starting point that, in many ways, mirrors my own – has suggested an opening – and, perhaps, a new direction. As frustrating as demoralizing as it is to scream into the (seeming) abyss of ignorance and self-serving rhetoric, the answer to our systemic issues cannot lie in the hiatus of history. We have permitted constructed lacunae – repeated by our elected leaders (and those who weren’t, actually, elected), the media, and by anyone/everyone with access to the internet – to drive our collective narratives for too long.

It is not enough to push unthinkingly for change. As Stedman notes, we need to be asking difficult questions about the cultures of our movements, eradicating dogmatism and anger-driven reactionary messaging that adds fuel to the fires of intentionally-conceived divisions. In doing so, we all – atheist and otherwise – ‘have the chance to offer a robust, humanistic alternative… that affirms the worth and dignity of all people to an increasingly secular generation.’ 

Those are gaps worth bridging.

 

 

 

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Praying for Time?

Late last night, sitting in the basement, hoping that the latest bout of insomnia would pass, I got to thinking about some things. So doing was, admittedly, not the best course of action if I was looking to put myself to sleep, but what are you going to do? Brain is going to brain.

Spurred by an earlier chat with one of my dearest dears, I thought about the importance of words (a common theme – back when I spent a whole lot more time hanging about these parts) and the impact of time – in all its conceptual varietals – on the way we use words.

After what can be described, at most, as ‘fitful’ sleep, I woke this morning to discover that I wrote and hit publish on these words a year ago today.

Add to that the fact that ‘FOMO’ cropped up in conversation earlier today, along with my diligent attempts to keep to my goal of 1000 words/day in an effort to get shape and record the thoughts in my head (a narrative that includes a whole bunch of apocalyptic ideations, actually) sometime before the (increasingly likely) end of the world, and I’m starting to feel like January 11 has something in common with Groundhog Day.

So, while I ruminate further on this seeming pattern, here’s a revisiting of my thoughts ‘on this day’ in 2017.

colemining

These are the days of the open hand
They will not be the last
Look around now
These are the days of the beggars and the choosers

This is the year of the hungry man
Whose place is in the past
Hand in hand with ignorance
And legitimate excuses

The rich declare themselves poor
And most of us are not sure
If we have too much
But we’ll take our chances
Because god stopped keeping score
I guess somewhere along the way
He must have let us all out to play
Turned his back and all god’s children
Crept out the back door

And it’s hard to love, there’s so much to hate
Hanging on to hope
When there is no hope to speak of
And the wounded skies above say it’s much too late
Well maybe we should all be praying for time

These are the days of the…

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Monstering and #MeToo

With Hallowe’en just around the corner, it seems like an appropriate time to address something that has been bugging me for some time now. It’s a phenomenological extension of the ‘othering’ that is epidemic in the current climate of nativism and exclusionary rhetoric – things that have no basis in anything other than artificial constructs and institutions of power that belong in the past.

How’s about we stop calling people monsters?  Denying the humanness (detestable as that humanness might be) of actions while criticizing behaviours and/or worldviews abrogates the responsibility for those acts/beliefs. Attaching a supernatural element to the inimical suggests an inability to ensure its cessation.

Monsters are, by definition, MONSTROUS. Created (in our mythologies) by nature, by humans, by gods, to be inhuman scapegoats for all those crimes that we just can’t seem to acknowledge that we – us people – are capable of committing.

There has been a lot of monstering happening over the last week.

#MeToo is a powerful indicator of much that is broken in our societal system(s). The evidence – as presented by people who have been marginalized by our institutions and traditions – is reaching critical mass as we speak up and refuse to accept old adages about boys-being-boys while still being slut-shamed for having the audacity to wear whatever we want, when-and-wherever we want to wear such things.

The number of women responding through social media and identifying themselves with the hashtag started by Alyssa Milano (ETA – apparently the hashtag and movement was created – quite some time ago – by Tarana Burke) doesn’t – sadly – surprise me. Nor – again, sadly – do the instances of men leaping to condemn, using the same, tired, gaslighting that persists on university campuses, in workplaces, on city streets, and in darkened bedrooms during house parties. Everywhere, really.

That women experience harassment and assault on an ongoing basis is tautology. #AllofUs might be a better hashtag – if we’re trying to demonstrate the ubiquity of the issue. But that gets us into grey-areas of negation of the primary message (comparable to the offensive inanity of cries of ‘all lives matter’ when discussing systemic inequity and imbalance), and the primary message is important. Institutionalized abuse is not something that will be tolerated anymore.

Every #MeToo is representative of a lived experience – one that affected the humanity of the woman who experienced the abuse and/or assault. And each hashtag is deserving of respect and sensitivity to that personal – yet also universal – ordeal.

I applaud the awareness campaign – and the rapidity and comprehensiveness with which it has spread – yet I question the efficacy of the social media movement (of any such social media movement, really) since it sings, mainly, to the choir, while permitting the uneducable trolls to spread their vitriol, per usual.

Especially when we classify the humans (and let’s be real, here. We are, mainly, discussing men) as ‘monsters’, denying their culpability in mistreating their fellow-human beings.

We keep doing that.

As an example, since November of last year I’ve seen myriad and multiplying posts, essays and articles claiming that the IMPOTUS is a ‘monster’ for ignoring the circumstantial realities of the citizens over whom he claims leadership.

He is not a monster. He is an abhorrent and immoral and detestable human, who seeks nothing but the furtherance of his own selfish desires. A poor excuse for a human, to be sure, but denying his humanity serves no purpose in any discourse that will help to disempower him and his ilk.

Externalizing evil – and separating those who do evil from the rest of us – is the absolute best way to ensure that evil is allowed to continue. I’ve spent most of my adult life playing Devil’s Advocate (literally. It’s the premise of my forever-in-progress-novel, in fact) on this point.

I will defend to my dying day the assertion that the worst of the manymany crimes committed by the institutionalization of Xianity lies in the development of a supernatural entity designed to displace human responsibility for all the terrible crimes we commit against other humans.

Disclaimer: I’m well aware that the Xians didn’t invent the concept, but man, did they run with it. Those early Fathers and Apologists had a whole lot of internalized darkness that needed external repositioning. SMDH.

Falsehood, assault, mistreatment, inequality and inequity – all these things are human behaviours linked to human-created concepts of power and privilege that are being brought to light in significant ways through media that were un-dreamt of even a decade ago. This illumination deserves and requires immediate action, but we cannot construct new modalities for our social interactions if we cling to archaic personifications and flippant descriptions that permit the evasion of knowing responsibility by those who choose to engage in behaviours that are anathema to progressive society.

If we don’t change our language, we permit the continuation of narratives that allow people who act in opposition to those ideals that we know demonstrate the right and proper ways of interacting and cohabiting on this planet to continue to abuse the privilege we, collectively, refuse to revoke.

Men are already aware of the magnitude of the problem. They are the problem. Do NOT ‘not all men’, me, here. The power imbalance lies now, as it has historically, in favour of the male of the species. That is one of the artificial constructs that we must keep working to change.

#MeToo, and other comparable awareness campaigns, are not about beings with supernatural or superhuman abilities. Abusers are not monsters. They are people – with, presumably, the ability to learn and grow and progress, developmentally, beyond a state that permits (and, too often, celebrates) abusive and anti-social behaviour as it is directed against their fellow-humans – regardless of gender.

Do they need numbers pointed out to them – through the impersonality of the social media screen – to understand the extent of the damage that is still being caused? Are those who enjoy the benefits of institutionalized power – and the permitted violations of other people supported by those institutions – likely to give any weight to the experiences of those who participate and identify themselves through campaigns like this one?

I’m not sure my faith in humanity runs quite that deep.

But. #MeToo is a powerful illustration and empowering acknowledgement of the problem, if nothing else.

Societal permissions are not going to change unless and until we stop vilifying the perpetrators as creatures outside of the parameters of humanity. Which doesn’t mean they shouldn’t be vilified. All people who abuse their power (putative or realized) and behave in ways that negatively impact those around them must be held accountable for their actions.

But we need to check and define our terms. Language is, itself, powerful, and the words we use impact the ways in which we interact with the world. Labelling heinous human behaviours as ‘monstrous’ may make us, on some level, feel better about our own humanity and what that might mean – separating us from those who act in ways that seem incomprehensible and egregious – but it imparts a sense of invincibility, imbuing pathetic abusers with more dominion than is warranted, while attaching a strong sense of inevitability to their actions that is both deplorable and entirely unsupportable. No actions are inevitable. Anti-social behaviours are preventable.

Calling atrocious humans ‘monsters’ makes them seem inexorable and impossible to beat back. They are not. Progressive evolution and education – and the discussion that can come out of effective and affecting social media campaigns – necessitates the putting away of childish stories about supernatural entities that ameliorate all those bad actions which illustrate the dark corners of our shared humanity.

Unless and until we truly understand and inculcate the reality that we are perpetuating a status quo that continues to support the abuse of our fellow humans as some sort of unfortunate but inevitable side-effect of maintaining a standard of living in the pursuit of some nebulous, exclusionary, materialistic dream (American or otherwise), nothing will change.

People that engage in destructive and anti-social behaviours are not monsters. They are humans. Bad humans, but humans none the less. We can fight against the wrongs perpetrated by other humans. It is our responsibility to do so. Acting in concert and tearing down the structures that permit the continuance of such unchecked behaviours is the only way to invalidate that which is monstrous in our societies. Part of that tearing down requires a definition of our terms.

We are collectively responsible for the monstrous people who walk among us. In order to call to accountability and punishment those who have been permitted to abuse others the rest of us need to ensure that the conditions that nurtured such behaviours and attitudes are irrevocably destroyed.

That said, #MeToo. Too many times to count – yet each indelible occurrence lives on with me, integrated into my brain and body and impacting the ways in which I interact with others.

#MeToo – because I am a woman, and because I live in this world that humans have created – one that supports the continued ascendency of anachronistic constructs that place men above women, people of one skin colour over others, humans from some parts of the world over those who live in our own hometowns.

And one that permitted the election, by humans, of an admitted sexual predator to one of the highest leadership roles on the planet. As important it is to talk about the rampancy of abuse and assault in general (as spurred by revelations, long-ignored, out of Hollywood), we need to address the fact that the IMPOTUS was elected with full knowledge that he committed those same crimes.

Removing him from office and revoking his entitlement and heretofore un-checked privilege is the best way to make manifest the comprehension of the message that has been spreading through social media over the past few days. With the din of cognitive dissonance growing ever-deafening, it might be the only way to do so.

 

 

 

 

The tools we have to hand

20258081_10154588033600964_1306340685664480_n.jpg‘Todmorden’ by STEEN (used with permission of the artist – and the proud owner – ME!)

I’m not sure where the summer went – although, if we’re honest, this wasn’t the best of the best that we’ve come to expect ’round these parts. Still, there is something always-melancholy about Labour Day weekend. It’s been more than a few years now since I’ve returned to school, and I find myself missing the preparations involved in getting back into the classroom at this time of year more than at any other.

In retrospect, the past few months have had a melancholy tinge about them. Call it a mid-life crisis if you will, but I’ve been struggling with envisioning how this next part of my life might go. I don’t feel like I’m living up to my potential – however that may or may not be quantified.

Some of that reflection stems from missing my parents. It’s not a feeling that even really goes away, but their absence has seemed greater to me over the past little while. I’m not sure why that is – something I’m still trying to figure out – but it’s left me questioning a whole lot of stuff that I had fallen into the habit of taking for granted.

Couple that with the anxiety-causing nonsense to the south of us – and elsewhere in the world – I’ve been feeling like I need to get back to doing something that will permit me to make a move toward positive change. I’m still sussing out the parameters of that – and what such a move might look like, ultimately, but it is a work-in-progress.

A number of years ago I began following the FB artist page of a friend from the old ‘hood. The evolution of his work has been hugely interesting – and incredibly inspiring. Back in the Spring he exhibited at a gallery down on Queen West, and a couple of my friends and I went to check out the work we’d been seeing live-and-in-person.

I was blown away by both his vision and the incredible detail he inserts into every piece of art. In talking with the gallery owner, I started to think seriously about undertaking a commission – in support of Brandon’s continuing growth as an artist, but also as a tribute of sorts to my parents.

Dad was a great patron of Canadian art and artists. His collection of Inuit sculpture sits in my living room – in some cases, accompanied by letters from their creators. I remember being with him when some of the purchases were made. I feel a fair bit of ownership over one piece, in particular, since I fell in love with it from the moment we entered the gallery in Old Quebec.

Rather quickly I made the decision to begin the commissioning process, and Brandon and I had a wonderful chat – after many many years. He visited the house, and photographed some of Dad’s collection, and, over the course of another great catch-up session, gleaned a whole lot of remarkably keen insight into me and my family.

The result is at the top of this page.

I grew up within spitting distance of Todmorden Mills – in the Don Valley, and I live, currently, not that far away. I can catch a glimpse of the spire when we pass through the Prince Edward Viaduct on the subway commute every morning. It’s been a landmark in my life for as long as I remember.

The image on the large wall is Brandon’s representation of my favourite of Dad’s Inuit sculptures. Mom and Dad’s names appear in the graffiti. My little lost Dude smiles at me from the window. The centre mosaic of Grandpa’s ceiling at the ROM runs up the spire. My love (seemingly misplaced, this season), of my hometown Jays. Even the Spaghetti Monster is there – as a giggling nod to my personal (lack of) beliefs.

I continue to be stunned every time I look at it – and the glow I still carry from being privileged enough to be able to have participated in the process (in however minor a manner) of the creation of something so beautiful and so meaningful is a fully-realized reminder of the many great opportunities provided to me by my upbringing and the strength of those personalities that I’m lucky enough to call my parents and grandparents.

That wonderful experience is one element of this latest quest I’ve undertaken. I’m looking for new directions, career-wise, and questioning whether it is time that I get back into the world of pedagogy.

I’m trying to write more – some freelance articles that take me back to esoterica of my academic life, and (per always) the fiction projects that seem to change course every time I give them some time and (attempted) focus.

That last bit meant that I had to attend one completely practical matter. I needed a new laptop. If you go back through colemining posts, you might recall that my MacBook died, oh, close on three years ago now. Since then, I’ve made due with a hand-me-down I inherited when we lost Dad.

I never seemed to be able to just go out and make the purchase of the better tool – one that could hold a battery charge, that didn’t freeze if I had too many widows open at once, and that I could bookmark for ease of research and reference. I admit to being a master of procrastination when it comes to certain things (the things I just don’t want to do, for example), but my unwillingness to commit and purchase the new computer was starting to seem a wee bit pathological.

I bit the bullet a couple of weeks ago – largely because we were heading to the cottage and I wanted access to all the music that lives in iTunes but has been unaccessible to me for the past three years – since iTunes was another thing I refused to install on Dad’s laptop. He had his own account, and it felt like I’d be erasing something of him, if I replaced it with my own music.

A computer is a tool – I certainly do my best not to be chained to mine – but the reality is that the one I had been using had outlived its efficiency and efficacy. But it was Dad’s. As much as I LOVE my new tool (it’s SO fast! And I missed MacWorld. Regardless of what haters might say, it’s the best tool for the uses to which I tend to put the thing), the old one still sits on my desk, waiting to be wiped and recycled.

I’m not there yet.

It will likely sit for a time, still, until I’m ready to go through the files and revisit the ways in which Dad used it as his tool for so long (he may have been almost-74 when we lost him, but he was more computer-savvy than a lot of folks my age).

I’m trying to focus on the many – less-tangible, but far more important – tools that were bequeathed to me and my sisters by our parents and grandparents; the history and the wisdom and the experiences that helped in the making of us. Those things that have helped to create – and allow us to create new history, experiences, and, hopefully, wisdom, as we take up the tools we find along our own paths.

Brandon used the tools he has to hand – his talent, his discipline, his insight, his vision of our world – to complete a creation of beauty and remembrance for me and my family to treasure and pass on to those who might come after us. I will never be able to thank him enough for employing those tools as successfully and beautifully as he has done, for the delight of all of us.

My toolbox includes such things as a knowledge of the lessons of history; the importance of art of music, and the human expressions of our shared stories; the deeply-held belief that these arts and stories are the most important things that describe and define the reality that we are all more alike than different; an inclination (compulsion?) to string words together; and, if I’m honest with myself, the ability to teach about some small aspect of all of the above.

Those are the tools that I’m working to pick up again. They might be slightly disused, but I believe they’re still serviceable. I have an amazing example, now living on my wall, providing me with constant inspiration about what is possible when tools are turned to intended- and best-use.

Brandon Steen’s next exhibit is at the Elaine Fleck Gallery, 1351 Queen Street West, November 1-30.

“Et c’est facile a dire”

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Suffering, as I have been, from an existential recurrence of that thing that my beloved, eloquent, super-groovy Papa Nez calls high lonesome (more on that at some point soon – check out his wickedsharp memoir Infinite Tuesday, in the meantime), I’ve been doing my best to actively seek out the good; those things that bring me joy, and help me to share what I can of that feeling with my little slice of the world.

I’m starting with this. Let’s call it CanCon is Awesome, Part 1.

Back in a simpler, more peaceful, less-IMPOTUS-ridden time …

1982. I was a young Canadian girl trying to sort out my own tastes and direction and way(s) of dealing with my Torontonian preteen existence. It was smack dab in the middle of the second Prime Minister-ship of the dad of the guy who’s leading us now.

In addition to providing us with pretty cool stuff like The Charter of Rights and Freedoms, PET was big on discussing just what it means to be a Canadian. This search for a national identity was a big part of my personal bildungsroman, as guided by a set of parents and grandparents that made sure to emphasize their interpretations of Canadian-ness.

Music, even then, was the primary focus of my life, and I was trying desperately to find a niche that I could call my own. It was part of the search for meaning and identity that seemingly plagued my every waking moment. From what I remember, being 12 in the 80’s involved a whole lot of sensory overload. Picking wheat from chaff took some doing (although, with perspective, those days have nothing on today’s ADHD-inducing bombardment of stimuli. Being 12 in 2017 seems nightmarish in comparison).

I had some positive musical influences in my life – and there were certainly bands and artists that spoke to the nascent singer-songwriter appreciation that I was cultivating even then. CanCon was a big thing – and, as a country, we were representing bigtime with songs that have weathered well. I loved, even then, The Band, Leonard Cohen, Buffy Saint-Marie and Gordon Lightfoot. Haven’t/won’t stop listening to them. Check out an older post or two, if you’re needing support for that assertion. My Canadian band (and Band-)-loyalty remains strong.

In 1982, there was a whole lot happening in the world of music. Our proximity to the States, and the fact that we yet clung (cling. Plus ça change, and all that) to our familial relationship with the UK, meant that we were hearing a number of bands offering up ever-innovating styles of music. Some of my favourite artists got their start in those early years, or changed up an older formula, incorporating new genres and instruments. Most of the material on my personal playlists was coming out of England, Ireland or Scotland.

Which was cool. Still is. I still listen to most of those go-to musicians. But where was the Canada in all that? I didn’t get Rush back then (still not 100% sure that I do now…) – even when the prog-rock became more synth-driven (but I LOVE that Torontonians voted to name the babies of our recently-fugitive High Park capybaras after the boys in the band). Loverboy was funny and all… but they weren’t resonating with my identity-search in any real way. A few local offerings – Boys Brigade, Blue Peter, Platinum Blonde, The Spoons, to name the most obvious – were striking some chords but weren’t quite it, for me.

Then this band out of Montreal released a full-length album as follow-up to their first EP.

Game. Changer.

I bought the tape (because, back in the day, cassettes were the thing – I had a brand spankin’ new Walkman and tapes were THE way of expressing the angst-y nonsense that was specific to 12-ish-year-olds at the time. You could pop on the headphones and problems such as doting involved intrusive parents fell by the wayside oh-so-quickly.

Rhythm of Youth. I played that thing endlessly (still have it, in fact). On so many family road trips in the station wagon – exploring this country of ours. I had such a terrible childhood – parents who thought it vital that we see our homeland whilst still giving us the world. A prisoner, with my little sisters, of both the car and Dad’s radio selection (I didn’t appreciate CBC then like I do now) as we drove everywhere – and were forced to learn a little something about ourselves, as Canadians, with every family vacation.

Ivan’s baritone led the soundtrack of my life for much of that year – and beyond. From the opening piano chords of Ban the Game, the entirety of the album retained its wonder and got better with each subsequent hearing.

If you have been anywhere around North America since 1982, you’ve heard The Safety Dance. Deny it and I’ll call you a liar. But, while that tune remains pretty iconic as a representation of a particular place and time in history, it’s not, actually, my favourite.

I remain partial to I Got the Message. And Where do the Boys Go? And I Like.

Bits of so many of their songs had lyrics in both langues officielles – truly representing our histoire et identité bilingue and my own, perhaps naive, idea of what Canada was about. The extra-added bonus was that all the years of French classes (in English Toronto) were finally having some tangible pay-off!

The reliance on keyboards alongside the driving drum machine and guitars, typical of the New Wave of synthpop that seemed to be everywhere, meant that after being forced to practice piano for as long as I could remember, there might actually be some cool associated with that particular skill set.

And while they were admittedly infectiously poppy, the songs also had an edge of social commentary that fed my preteen intellectual pretensions.

Men Without Hats remained a constant on my playlists. We took them with us on our high school trip to the USSR – introducing them to a whole bunch of East German soldiers there on weekend leave (who knew that Leningrad was party-central of the Eastern Bloc?). The bartender/manager of our hotel bar got a kick out of the Canadian kids, and let us control the music as long as we kept drinking his ‘screwdrivers’ (vodka and orange pop does NOT a screwdriver make). More than a few German- and/or Russian-speakers were able to sing along to Pop Goes the World by the end of the evening.

Unlike some other die-hard fans, I quite enjoyed their change of direction on 1991’s Sideways album. The electro-pop was replaced by more driving guitars, but the ever-apparent musicality (Ivan and Colin are both classically-trained) of the songs, and Ivan’s inimitable voice still struck chords of familiarity and appreciation.

A couple of weeks ago the latest iteration of the band – led by Ivan and Colin, as in the old days – came through Toronto. I wasn’t sure what I’d make of their show at the Phoenix (I’ve seen a couple too many retro bands make a truly unfortunate return to the stage – nonamesmentionedRationalYouth…), so I was a little concerned about whether or not the love would have lasted down through all these years.

Did it ever. Wow. That was a fun night. Me and my BFF went in without too many expectations and came out completely buzzing with the slice of joy the band shared with us so generously. Ivan’s voice remains a stalwart and much-loved aspect of my idea of Canada. The energy was infectious, and his stories – between all the songs I wanted to hear (although Sideways was, sadly, missing. But the cover of those timeless ‘prog-rockers’, Abba, was just. so. great.) – kept us grinning pretty madly.

In a world that is, currently, dominated by the infamy of the place to the south of our border, Men Without Hats reinforced the thankfulness I’ve been feeling about my Canadian-ness – as I investigate, yet again, exactly what that identity means to me.

We have work yet to do – as a country made up of individuals who have yet to concur on just what, exactly can be defined as a collective identity. I hope that I can contribute to that work in some realized way as I continue to explore and interpret my connection to our history and future.

Part of the take-away from that night at the Phoenix – with my re-introduction to wonderful old friends and the reminiscences the experience garnered, is that I remain a proud Canadian. And that is easy to say.

 

 

Rehumanizing

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Pay my respects to grace and virtue
Send my condolences to good
Give my regards to soul and romance
They always did the best they could

And so long to devotion
You taught me everything I know
Wave goodbye, wish me well
You’ve gotta let me go

-The Killers

As one of my favourite troubadors/political commentators tweeted today (check him out on Twitter if you want some keen reflections on WTF is happening in the Bizarro World @Mikel_Jollett), “the idea that your political rivals are inhuman is the core idea of Nazism.” Responding to a criticism of that assertion, he also noted that “fascism is a PROCESS. Dehumanization of rivals is a step in that process. By the way, ignoring the SIGNS of fascism is also part of (the) process.”

Mikel Jollett (I’ve talked about him before. He wrote the single best song about regret ever. In all of history. You think I’m exaggerating, but listen to it and try to tell me otherwise: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=UYPoMjR6-Ao) was referencing the situation that is unfolding south of the border – specifically, on this occasion, the ignorant rantings of the son of the IMPOTUS, who suggested that those who stand in critical opposition to his father ‘aren’t even people’.

Yeah no.

So it seems that, once again, I must call attention to the myriad dystopia-creating patterns underlying the election of that guy to the highest office in the land (and to the former leadership of the Free World – I say ‘former’ since it was made clear-as-crystal, after his recent European holiday, that no one outside the US regards him as fit to lead anything at all), epitomized in that insidious little ‘Again’ that follows ‘Make America Great’.

That one word advocates for a return to something that those of us who know anything about history know wasn’t, in fact, the best of times – as such things can be determined by any sort of measure. I’ve written about the fallacy of the ‘good ol’ days’ before. Yet the perpetuation of such idiocy is being taken to the nth degree by the nutbar now sitting in the IMPOTUS’ office.

Leaders like Trump (and Hitler) are allowed to rise to power because they legitimize ideologies that are ugly – and promotional of a group psychology that encourages complicity to ever-larger atrocity – by beginning with a mandate that reactionary simpletons can get behind. Trump’s uneducated (or self-serving) masses want to hear that someone is willing to return them to a gilded time when they held some level of ascendancy over some ‘other’ types of people.

Essentially, the social identities of those who voted for him have been shaken by progressive movements advocating crazy things like social justice, equality and equity.

Othering is nothing new. I talk about it a lot (seriously. There are a lot of posts here in the wide world of colemining that deal with Us vs. Them, scapegoating, the personification of Inhuman Evil … I think I’m stuck on a theme). It is the basis of all institutionalized Western religions (and some that aren’t so institutionalized). It is the justification for the enslavement of those who are not identified – in a specific temporal or geographic context – as ‘one of us’. It is the manifestation of a pattern of dichotomy and polarization that permits the rise of fear-mongers and seekers of illicit power.

It is representative of a continuing trajectory of the legitimation of hatred.

I’m an historian. I know too much about that level of complacent culpability and othering, and the acceptance and/or dismissal of the banal wrongness that comes along with it.

Entire communities of people are still being told that they are less than – because of the colour of their skin, the place they left in search of a safer/better life, their gender, their sexual identity or orientation, or the fairy tale deity in which they choose to believe (in a country that, supposedly, trumpets the separation of Church and State).

A significant part of the failure of education that has led us, as humans sharing a planet, to this place in time is the mis-remembrance of history. The ‘Again’ word, as part of the IMPOTUS’ sloganeering, permits the continuation of an illegitimate portrait of world events as they really happened. It helped to create the false narrative that he presented throughout his campaign and persists in dictating now that he is in office.

Coincident to the mess that is unfolding in the US, I’m dealing, currently, with a situation that represents that whole inter-connectedness thing that I go on-and-on about. It’s kind of Platonic – ‘as above, so below’ – or representative of a demonstration of the whole micro-macro paradigm.  People in my little workaday world are being taken for granted and stretched to ever-increasing limits by unreasonable expectations driven by something that the higher-ups keep calling ‘resourcing issues’.

I hate what is happening for many reasons; there is a lot going wrong. But the key thing that is sticking in my craw today is the use of the term ‘resource’ to describe actual human beings. Commoditizing people is wrong on manymany levels (see above, especially that whole bit about enslavement). But, at its worst – in this context, anyway – it reduces inherent value and person-ness in support of fiscal/economic expediency/excuse-making.

Yet, for some reason that continues to escape me, this is common parlance in the world of so-called ‘human resourcing’. Humans, while resourceful, are not resources. They are people.

As of today, I am refusing its use and testing more acceptable alternatives. At the moment I’m going with ‘under-peopling’, as in, ‘a decline in the quality of the stakeholder engagement is a direct result of a continuing trend toward under-peopling.” We’ll see how that goes over.

The process of dehuminzation remains a surreptitious go-to that permits the villainization/dismissal/subjugation/murder of other people. We accept it, unthinkingly, in certain contexts – like the one at my day job. We have a human tendency to call people names that serve to keep separate those we perceive to be different from us, or to express displeasure at the thoughts/words/deeds of someone else.

I have a tendency to call the IMPOTUS by anything other than his name (since he loves that name so much, I take perverse pleasure in not contributing to any further development of his brand) but I do not deny his humanity when I do so. In fact, I frequently point to him as an exemplar of humanity. An exemplar of the worst of humanity, but still people.

Tomorrow should see the beginning of the end of this most recent failed experiment in regression and anachronism. Whatever comes out of the US Senate hearings (let’s hear it for impending impeachment!), we have to acknowledge that words matter. Engendered violence has no place in evolved society, and history has demonstrated, too many times to count, that dehumanization is, by definition, discriminatory, and the first step on the path to institutionalized injustice and genocide.

Time to start watching our language. And the ideologies that drive it.

 P.S. If you’re in need of some music therapy after Comey’s testimony, have a listen to The Airborne Toxic Event’s album ‘Songs of God and Whiskey. It’s wonderful.