Bread and Circuses

Sticking with thoughts about calliopes*- in particular, their ability to draw in the listener, their encouragement of us rubes to come and join the fun of the midway- and the chasing of said music machines, I’ve noticed a certain thematic recurrence featuring circuses and such like things ’round these parts.

It’s partly the time of the year. Any day now- with the summer spectacle of the Pan Am and ParaPan Am Games a fading memory (a hearty ‘well done’ to all the organizers, volunteers and athletes, by the way)- the ads for the CNE will begin to dominate the airwaves (if they haven’t done already- I’ve mainly avoided the airwaves lately. More on that later) marking the end of the summer.

It’s not feeling like the summer is anywhere near its end right now- we’ve had a stretch of crazy hot-and-humid sort of days (all fine with me)- but there is a shift in the type of energy- and a definite sense that back-to-school and the winding down of all things summery is in the air.

It’s hard not to get caught up in a new energy. My next door neighbours are creating quite the sensational fuss, what with being (currently) two games behind the Yanks in the AL East and turning up the heat as contenders for the first time in decades. There were 40+ thousand people down around my house every day last weekend as the Jays hosted those guys from NYC. That’s a whole lot of people creating a whole lot of buzz (I’ll refrain from stating the obvious- that more than a few were certainly ‘buzzed’- on expensive SkyDome beer…).

Please don’t think I’m hopping on a bandwagon here. I’ve never, really, jumped off. Not fully, anyway. Some of my fondest memories are of shivering in the cold at Exhibition Stadium in the days when the Jays first arrived in town- and before they moved to the Dome (sorry Rogers-types- it will ALWAYS be the SkyDome, as far as I’m concerned), with its ability to shield us from the elements somewhat.

1985, for example, was a banner year for the club- marking the first time we won the division championship- and the accomplishment was marked on the weekend with a celebration of the players that made that happen. The nostalgia was pretty phenomenal. Good to see all the faces that marked the shift to the Jays becoming contenders and welcome them back with some big love.

And then there was ’92 and ’93. I was in the early years of my exile in the Nation’s Capital (what was I thinking?!? Hindsight and 20/20 and all that), so I missed the electricity that powered the city as the Jays won back-to-back World Series- led by some of the greats of the game (Joe Carter remains a personal hero of mine- for reasons that go way beyond his ability to swing a bat and catch a ball- but, oh, that home run and that catch…). But I yelled and screamed my support from various couches and sports bars in Ottawa and cried with the rest of my hometown when the boys of our northern summer brought home the Canadian bacon (as I laughed at the ineptitude of the folk in Atlanta who hung the flag upside down. Ah, ‘Mericans. Gotta love ’em).

And I’ve attended a few less-than-stellar outings since I came home and moved in next door. Even bought a cap with their ‘new’ logo a few years ago (although I really like the one with the Maple Leaf a whole lot better).

I’m getting cautiously optimistic. Torontonians are wise to temper their sports enthusiasm with some caution- our teams are notorious for their shared ability to trounce all over our raised hopes and dreams. But I am getting a little caught up in the excitement- while yet holding on tight to my oft-broken heart.

I’m also a little distracted, and I’ve now distracted you with my talk of my local sports heroes… Let’s bring it back to the point, shall we?

The late-season surge in energy and hope for contention is also indicative of the fact that we will be setting aside our summer-dreaming (for those of us privileged enough to have been able to take breaks from the norms associated with ‘making a living’ and all that adulting-type stuff) as the cooler practicalities of the fall start to set in. A last hurrah, as it were.

Although I’m now five full years out of the classroom, I still feel that back-to-school pull- the nervous energy that comes from course set-up and the preparation to meet all the new minds that I might be permitted to influence. A new year- in a sense that is more real, somehow, than the changing of the calendar that we mark in the dead of Canadian winter.

As I’ve mentioned, I’ve been suffering from a significant pulling-back and sitting-out of late. Through an (on-going) process of introspection and general examination, I’ve isolated some of the reasons behind this ennui. One cause that keeps rearing its head is a need I’m feeling to distance myself as much as possible from the calculated distractions that are offered up everywhere we turn. It may seem a tad hyberbolic, but I really think that my recent avoidance of things of import is a reactionary and somewhat unconscious recoiling from the nonsense on television and elsewhere in the media these days.

The lead-up to the election is a big source of disgust disquiet- and I’m certain that our soon-to-be former PM is not unaware of the general public malaise that is sure to be the foregone result of a campaign lasting eleven freakin weeks.

Which calls to mind that wondrous old Juvenalian concept of ‘bread and circuses’. He used it to denounce what he saw as the self-involved nature of the ‘common people’ and their willful ignorance about wider concerns and matters pertaining to things like civic duty. Not one to pull punches, was Juvenal.

Master of satire that he was, he employed the metonym to describe the unwillingness of 2nd century CE Romans to understand, or even acknowledge, their history and the need for their political involvement in order to ensure the health and well-being of the system. He said, essentially, that the People have abdicated their duties, in favour of sitting on their butts hoping that they will be handed bread and invited to circuses- state-provided food and entertainment.

Were the people culpable for their anomie and disengagement? You betcha. But the fact of the matter is that even wayway back in Ancient Rome (one of the cornerstones of the democratic/republican- using both terms in their original senses-systems that we hold in such vaunted esteem), leaders opted to give the people what they think they wanted as a means of garnering support.

Plus ça change. The satisfaction of shallow desires- for free refreshments and hollow entertainment- remains the biggest tool in the kits of contemporary politicians. And the owners of media conglomerates. And heads of national and multi-national corporations.

If they all, together and separately, keep us diverted by the next big show streaming on Netflix (or by a story about a wonderful show- one that was produced with the intent of making early education accessible to children from all socioeconomic backgrounds- moving from a publicly-funded broadcaster to a pay-for-service cable channel), encouraging support for the local college football team (as we funnel money into such programs while things like actual educational standards at the same college suffer from lack of funding), or just by being a buffoon that appeals, inexplicably, to the ‘real’ people, then we mightn’t be inclined to delve deeper into the issues that are driving the continued inequities and flat-out wrong directions in which they are attempting to take us.

Bread and circuses generate support that is not based in silly things like exemplary service or concern for the good of society in its entirety, and to distract us and take our attention away from what is really going on. Large corporations and banks and politicians and religious institutions- anyone, really, who has been given power under the social structures that these groups have contributed to building- can continue to throw shadows to disguise their underlying intent of self-promotion and the furtherance of personal agendas.

The other day a friend posted a link to an article talking about how a developer is planning on building a hotel on the grounds of the CNE (former home of those Blue Jays). Jaded as I am by the state of development in this city, it didn’t really surprise- although it did appall more than a little since that place is sort of sacred ground for a lot of Toronto-folk. When I thought about it a little more, though, the symbolism of such a thing seemed insidiously apt- building towers so that the populace can actually stay overnight ON the circus grounds? Why didn’t someone think of this before?

Of course, all these ‘leaders’, public and corporate alike, will claim that the distractions are well-intended and meant to protect us and our best interests.

Sure.

In one of my favourite books by one of my favourite (Canadian) authors, one of the primary characters, a military leader and soldier (among other things) entertains two small children in his care by casting shadow hand puppets on a wall. The show is meant to divert the children’s attention from the assassins that have been sent to their house to kill them- and to cover up the sounds as the men in Ammar’s command dispatch the ‘bad men’ and keep them safe.

As in Plato’s Allegory of the Cave, the shadows on the wall are meant to distract from the reality of circumstances. In the situation in Guy Gavriel Kay’s The Lions of Al-Rassan, the attempt is well-intentioned- they were protecting children from political machinations, after all- but ultimately doomed to failure. Though young, one of the children understood the puppet show for what it was- and asks, at its end, if the bad men have gone.

We are not children- and yet we seem to be more than willing to let our leaders distract us with shadows on the wall, with bread and with circuses, rather than to pay close attention and free ourselves from the cave of superficial perception.

The light of the fire that is the source of the shadows may be hard, and uncomfortable, to look at, but we need to stop shying away from those things that are ‘hard’. We have to accept our responsibility, as citizens who participate in the structuring and furtherance of our societies, to weather the discomfort of escaping the cave and the pain of the initial exposure to the sun and its light, in order to clearly see it in all its truth- and to take that truth back to those who remain entranced by the shadows on the wall. They will resist- Plato had that much right (and how little has changed)- since the journey is full of challenges and inconveniences and we have become intellectually lazy-beyond-belief. But we still have to try.

I needed to re-learn that piece of Socratic/Platonic wisdom. When chatting with my wee sister on the way to Sunday dinner, I admitted that I have had to ‘unfollow’ certain friends on the facebook, what with the lead-up to the federal election. I’m having issues with seeing posts in support of certain soon-to-be-former PMs and the rest of his merry misfits.

Wee sister commented that she keeps such peeps around in her feeds- since she likes to examine arguments from all angles. Ouch. That one stung. I like to think that I am past-master of hearing all sides before deciding my own perspective, but I have to say that certain attack ads and the front-and-centre-ness of a whole lot of rhetoric on the parts of all of the federal political parties has made me want to turn off the tv and tune out of the written articles permanently.

That, combined with a little article I saw in the New York Times yesterday morning, have reminded me that the examination of the whole has to be taken in consideration, regardless of how obvious our own conclusions might seem to be. Overcoming confirmation bias- when we aren’t even aware of it- is a trickytricky thing, sometimes. It’s easy to see all those places in which we are right. Identifying the wrong bits… that involves looking at things from all sides- and in all lights.

Which means checking back in. I’ll have a look at and listen to all the posturing and politicking- whether or not it reinforces what I already think is the right answer- and re-engage in the process. Looking beyond the shadows on the wall isn’t always fun, or easy, but it beats becoming blindly subject to the bread and the circuses that they use to mollify us and keep us quiet. And maybe, just maybe, by doing so I might manage to drag a person or two out of the cave to join those of us who aren’t satisfied with what the mollifying shadows might be selling.

(Yes, it’s that Mike Oldfield guy again)

Treat me like I’m evil
Freeze me ’til I’m cold
Beat me ’til I’m feeble
Grab me ’til I’m old

Fry me ’til I’m tired
Push me ’til I fall 

Treat me like a criminal.
Just a shadow on the wall

The plan: ignore the shadows on the wall- flailing desperately, as they do- while they try to convince of their ‘truth’, and head back into the light, and reality. Pulling whomever I can grab along with me.

And what the hell. What’s life without a little hope?

Go Jays Go!

*Another indication- should you need more- about that whole interconnectedness thing about which I tend to go on and on and on… Having eschewed television (for the most part- baseball games don’t count- and they lost to the Phillies (!) last night- I popped on my rally cap and everything!- so I might have to rethink my optimism a little. Although it was an interleague game, so it doesn’t really count…) I’ve been reading a whole lot lately- and that reading has been focused on authors who create great characters.

Since Mr. Stephen King is pretty unmatched when it comes to introducing us to people who leap off of the pages, I decided to give ‘It’ a go. I thought I’d read that one- years ago, actually- so I was expecting a re-read (I definitely remember the cover of the novel- with Tim Curry as Pennywise) but this is my first immersed visit to the town and its folk. My memories of the story come from the miniseries- which starred EVERYBODY! What a cast that was!- so getting to know the characters through King’s written words has been excitingly brand new.

Anyhoo… one of the characters first encounters the big nasty that plagues the town of Derry after he follows the sound of a calliope playing ‘Camptown Races’. Fortunately, Stan manages to escape the manifestation of the festering source of all that is wrong in Derry, but the incident marks him for the rest of his life. Calliopes- with their associations with the liminality that has always been a feature of the carnival and sideshow- can draw us to things better left unvisited. Mr. King is wise in his warnings. Stray tunes, carried on the wind- or drawn from memory- can be harbingers of a great deal of trouble.

Figuring out which song is safe to follow can be dangerous business. Yet taking a risk has to be better than stasis and stagnation…

 

 

‘The Calliope Crashed to the Ground…’


One of my very best BFFs seemed to be reflecting upon a park in New Jersey last evening, and posted a line from a particular little ditty as her status on the facebook. It got the song running through my head, of course- the super-rhyme-scheme is catchy as all get-out, but the version that popped in there was Manfred Mann’s cover of the tune, rather than Bruce’s original.

Which, while not surprising perhaps, got me thinking some interesting things about creativity and muses and suchlike.

Before she became a brightly-coloured musical instrument (usually associated with circuses) Kalliope/Calliope was the Muse in charge of cool things like epic poetry and eloquence. Capital-M Muses were the Greek goddess-types who provided the inspiration for all those things I like best- art, literature, music, history- you know, those things that we create that connect us as humans.

Shrines to the Muses- museums– are pretty much the closest I tend to get to entering places of worship on anything like a regular basis, and as anything other than a tourist. I like museums. A lot. They are places of reverence, to me. And they feel like home. The Muses are definitely ladies after my own heart- even if I have seen neither hide nor hair of their influence lately.

The Romans picked up on the idea of the daughters of Zeus (the Big Boss) and Mnemosyne (Memory- in goddess form) and assigned them particular roles. Historian that I am, I’ve always been a wee bit partial to Clio (with her scrolls and all), but all props need go to Kalliope for inspiring the epic-ness of Mr. Springsteen’s well-rhymed song.

Kalliope is generally pictured with a writing tablet- reflective of her importance to those who wax poetic- and was called, by peeps as important as Ovid, the Chief of all the Muses. She was mother to Orpheus, and the inspiration and whispering Voice in the night that drove Homer to write a couple of well-known ditties, about a guy named Odysseus and about a conflict in a town called Troy, of his own.

My beloved Dante spoke well of her: But, since I am yours, O sacred Muses, here let dead Poetry rise again, and here let Calliope sound, a moment, accompanying my words with that mode, of which the Pierides felt the power, so that they despaired of pardon…’ (Dante references the first Battle of the Bands- won, natch, by the Muses, who then turned the upstart Thessalonian daughters of King Pieros into magpies for their extraordinary presumption in challenging them to a sing-off. Think Glee/Pitch Perfect, but for keeps).

Kalliope is usually described as the eldest of the sisters- something I know a little something about. She’s also considered the wisest… but I’ll leave that one alone, lest my sibs take offense (Happy Middle Child Day to the mid-sis, BTW. Who knew there was such a thing? I guess I missed the notice while I was busy celebrating International Cat Day on the weekend. We humans are ridiculous sometimes…).

I’ve been more than a little short on the inspiration and harmony lately. I mentioned all that a couple of weeks ago (has it been weeks, already? Time does fly when you’re out of creative juice…), but I have been trying to pay closer attention to the things going around me since then, so I suppose some progress is being made.

Complete aside, but somewhat indicative of my re-engagement with things that matter… we’re in the throes of the longest election campaign in our history (thanks current, but soon-to-be-former, Prime Minister for that ill-use of our taxpayer dollars) and I had the opportunity to challenge my MP- who never did answer my letter (written after receiving the inadequate response I talked about here), inquiring about just what the Hell he was thinking in backing the current, but soon-to-be-former, Prime Minister’s ill-begotten, fear-mongering, Bill C-51- when he knocked on my door a couple of nights ago. More fool him. After the first 10 minutes I’m quite sure he was reallyreally wishing he’d just left the little card without venturing a knock… He has less than 10 weeks to convince me that his party deserves my vote- our convo certainly left me doubtful he’ll be able to do so. We’ll see how that turns out…

I’ve given some thought to sources of inspiration and creativity- and, funnily enough (that interconnection thing again), I flippantly referred to a friend as my (small-m) muse, since he was more than a little responsible for my last post. I used a winky-faced emoticon when I said it, but some emoticons hide truth, sometimes, methinks.

Bruce wrote Blinded by the Light because his record company insisted that Greetings from Asbury Park, N.J, his debut album, needed something a little more single-y, more hit-esque, than the songs he’d already come up with. He wrote the lyrics first- unusual for him- using a rhyming dictionary. The result is pretty damn clever, indeed- especially for someone like me who loves playing around with words and who can recognize mastery of the craft. The language-play is full of images and stories that leap at the listener as the song unfolds, reminiscent of some of Dylan’s coolest poetry-set-to-music.

For all Bruce’s undeniable prowess, Manfred Mann’s Earth Band’s version is better-known -and contains one of the most frequently misheard lyrics of all time. Interesting how certain things translate well, while others can become indecipherable when the origins are messed with. The piano line(s)- and the interlude of Chopsticks– are instantly recognizable.

The steam piano that, with unpleasing sneezing and wheezing, crashed to the ground, is noted for its volume. Powered by steam or compressed air, calliopes were primarily used on riverboats and circus carousels and the music carried for miles, suggesting that listeners should come closer. Check it out. But, since pitch is affected by the steam, they are almost always out-of-tune on the higher register.

So. Loud and off-pitch. And associated with circuses and all the, uh let’s say down-homey, atmosphere that they can conjure. Sort of totally the opposite of that other Kalliope- what with all her wise, grand, poetic harmony… Yet the instrument entices, and encourages, and draws us in, as it rasps across great distances.

My fave lyric from the original doesn’t appear in the single version- or the cover- of the tune:

‘Yes and Scotland Yard was trying hard, they sent a dude with a calling card who said, “Do what you like, but don’t do it here”
Well, I jumped up, turned around, spit in the air, fell on the ground
Asked him which was the way back home
He said, “Take a right at the light, keep goin’ straight until night, and then, boys, you’re on your own”‘

The play on light and darkness, and the implied aversion to creative expression in the person of the police officer, evoke so many cool things that resonate with the paths down which my thoughts have been traveling.

Inspiration can come from any number of sources. I tend to find mine, most often, in other people. With our contemporary state of communication being what it is, social media can be, for all its faults, a sometimes-useful tool to catch up with the important peeps and tap into those things that are driving them forward. Or just keeping them going.

Our muses can be myriad- if we take the time to pay attention. I’ve been bad at that lately. But I’m working on it, and listening to those Voices I love. Even if the things they say are off-hand, or ‘thrown-away’, or representative of nothing more than a current playlist- it’s a pretty fruitful place to start.

As is memory- that Mother of all Muses- perhaps especially when the memories seem to be placeholders of regret. The ‘way back home’ does, at times, require treading in the darkness of night, but we shouldn’t be hanging out there, eschewing the light, for too long.

‘Mama always told me not to look into the sights of the sun
Whoa, but mama that’s where the fun is’

What sights does our sun see when it looks down upon its third planet, after all, but the wonder that is us, and all our human potential? Whether it involves cutting loose or revving up (though not, hopefully, ‘wrapping up like a douche.’ Never that…) it’s time to listen to those shooting stars, sitting in sidecars, humming their lunar tunes, and realize that I will, with help, make it all right. And, perhaps, make things all right. Even when those boulders on my shoulder get me feeling older.

Bruce knew what he was talking about. It starts with sticking together and being sources of inspiration and creativity to one another. All runners in the night- chasing our Kalliopes, and calliopes, wherever they may lead.