Bread and Circuses Pt. 2 or Finnegan Begin Again

5 weeks in and this staying home stuff is getting challenging. I have nothing to complain about, really. Lots of space in the house, tiny little green space out back (and the hope of some sun and warmth tomorrow), cats, food, music, books… more than enough to keep on keeping on as things remain dire in the outside world.

I’ve had to turn off the tv for the most part. I can’t take the broadcast news – the constant sound-bite-and-click-seeking asinine questions from (many) reporters following every press conference and the increasing dramatic dialoguing from some of our elected leaders is wearying – and I’m already exhausted. Don’t even get me started on the abrogation of responsibility of much of the media in the US – failing to hold the mass murderer-in-charge to any level of responsibility.

(I realize that last paragraph makes me seem anti-journalist. I’m not. Really, I’m not. Almost became one, myself. And I could list many who are doing a great job weeding through the bullshit and constant changes of the past month and a bit – some close friends among them. But too many are nothing more than ‘content creators’ looking for ‘gotcha’ moments, when they aren’t intentionally selling an anti-science narrative and I’m just done with that level of bullshit. Done.)

I can’t watch the updated statistics anymore, or hear about those still refusing to do the right thing and put aside their personal wants for the benefit of us all – and especially for the safety of those who have no choice but to be out there making sure we come through this thing.

I’ve made the conscious decision to avoid getting caught up in any of the myriad streaming services and the shows on offer. I’m spending way too much time sitting in front of a screen – what with the working from home and trying to catch up on some writing projects – as it is. So if it’s on, it’s in the background (now that Schitt’s Creek has run its course). I’m hearing second-hand accounts of some interesting-sounding programming – coming to us from the creators we are all relying on to entertain and distract and comfort us in our current circumstances.

But there’s some weird-ass stuff out in the ether as well, and, like all those people who flocked to Florida’s foolishly (unintentional alliteration there, but I’m keeping it anyway) reopened beaches today, it’s causing me to question some aspects of our shared humanity and alleged capacity for rational and civilized thought.

I admit that I’ve been hoping that this crisis will prove to be a wake-up call – shining lights on inequity and inanity, both, and showing us that need the one and should disdain the other. I was really looking forward to a new world order that consigned reality tv stars to the trash heap of irrelevance where they have always belonged. All of them – even if they are, somehow, Leader of the (formerly) Free World.

Given the inexplicable popularity of a show about the revolting abuse of big cats (the most apt description I head likened watching it to licking a subway pole), I’m significantly less certain about the positive strides we might be making in deciding what is worthwhile and what is detritus without which we are better off.

This dispiriting realization called to mind a post I wrote in 2015 about the Juvenalian concept of bread and circuses. Back then we were in the lead-up to a federal election, and the behaviours of the people running for office and those who fell on one side of the electorate equation in particular, were spouting a whole lot of nonsense and generally pissing me off. Juvenal used ‘bread and circuses’ to denounce what he saw as the self-involved nature of the ‘common people’ and their willful ignorance regarding 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 the people thought they wanted as a means of garnering support. The federal Cons were doing a whole lot of that in the summer of 2015. Sure, the election that happened the following year to the south of us would make their attempts at propagandizing and displacement and outright lying seem, well, juvenile in comparison.

But.

Plus ça change. I recycled bits of that earlier post, here, because it is resonating with me really strongly right now. And I’m all about the connections.

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. That buffoon in the States has made a career – and managed to win the Presidency – based on these principles, such as they are.

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 serve to distract us and take our attention away from what is really going on. Large corporations and banks and politicians and religious institutions and media groups – anyone, really, who has been given power under the social structures that these groups have contributed to building – continue to throw shadows to disguise their underlying intent of self-promotion and the furtherance of personal agendas.

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. Certainly, right now, we need all the entertainment and distraction we can get. It is keeping us inside and safe. But there is so much that is better out there than that trailer park trash fire that is making the rounds.

In my favourite book by my favourite Canadian author, 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 under his 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 to the irrevocable damage that they’re doing and attempt to 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. Once we are freed from our actual ‘caves’ we need to work on getting the hell out of the figurative ones.

In the background as I write this the local sports channel is showing Game 5 of the 2015 ALDS (seems to be a 2015 sort of a night). For those who might not remember (if you’re not from Toronto) it’s the game with the craziest 53-minute 7th inning in the history of the sport. A game that lives in the hearts and minds of every fan Jays fan. The game that featured the bat flip heard ’round the world – and solidified my abject hatred of Texas’ 2nd baseman (I really hate that Odor asshole). Our Canadian catcher-man was behind the plate, and that weird dude (he was our weird dude, though) who would go on to be MVP that year was on third. Out in right field was the guy who hit the run (and flipped the bat) that took us to the next level – and who had kept baseball a thing through too many years of mediocrity in Toronto, and in centre was a fielder who was well on his way to earning his cape. Our DH DH’d and tied the game in the sixth – running the parrot around those bases. And then that 7th…

When it was happening in real time, I was a bag of nerves and tension. Sudden death for the Jays in their first post-season in a thousand or so years (felt that way, anyway) was a Big Deal. Watching it tonight is a different type of distraction – it’s nostalgia and comfort and excitement and remembrances of a great group of guys whoo held the city captive for a season (or two). It is real entertainment seeing it now – not the potential end of a run that brought this town together for a time – a warm memory made more poignant as we are all forced to be separate right now (I’m choosing to ignore the shameful 18+ minutes during which people threw stuff on the field. I maintain that they weren’t real fans. Probably not really Torontonians. They certainly don’t know how to behave). I know the good guys are going to win. I need that sort of thing right now. We all do.

Other than spending time with my boys of summer in repeats, I’m spending a lot of time listening to music – and watching some of my favourite artists sing and talk to other favourite artists from their living rooms – and reading. The value of creators and what they bring to our lives has never been more apparent to me than it is now. Those same creators are paying a heavy toll – as tv shows can’t be produced, theatre and music cannot be performed live, visual artists can’t have showings of their art, craftspeople of all kinds are unable to share their work, writers can’t support new releases by touring and doing book shows and signings. We need to support the ones providing the talent – not the conglomerates that benefit from their gifts. They need to be supported to the extent of the support they provide to us at the least especially now when we are desperate for their creations.

I wrote about calliopes right around the same time I was thinking about old Romans and their take on society. Interestingly, that post remains one of my most frequently read (people searching for the Boss and ending up with me). 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. 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. The value of distinguishing the art from the purposefully-designed chaff is something we all need to keep in mind as we look for distraction to fill all this time we have to hand.

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.

Regarding the inherent value of creativity and art

That first couple of days back to the grind after a long weekend can certainly be, well, grinding.  This is sort of where I’m at right now- feeling like there are gears rubbing together to their detriment rather than as an effective means of propulsion.  It’s likely not helping that we got MORE FREAKIN SNOW yesterday, but today the sun is shining and the temperature has crawled above the freezing mark, so I’m trying to let that inspire me to get some work finished up.

February is my least favourite month- for any number of reasons, but most of all because- despite the fact that it has the least number of days- it seems to be the lo-o-o-o-o-o-ngest by far.  And it’s generally cold.  And slushy.  And overcast.

I know.  Complaining about the weather is a particularly futile exercise, and I’m really trying hard to get off the complaining-to-no-purpose train.  If I have a complaint it should be about something tangible, and about which I should be able to do something.

2014 is the year of change and action, after all.

Anyhoo.

I saw two movies at the theatre this weekend and finished a couple of books- so I admit to having had more than my fair share of leisure time mixed in with the usual running around and seeing to responsibilities and proactive measures to affect the change I’d like to see, both in my own life and in the world as a whole.

As it turned out, both films very much jibed with the way my thoughts have been cycling lately.  Creativity and art and expression and music and magic and wonder… we NEED more of these things.  And yet, those who undertake these most important human constructions and creations (and those who pursue studies about these most important human constructions and creations) are told- over and over and over again- that there is NO PRACTICAL VALUE in doing so.

Really?  Really!?!?

The first movie was just for fun- but turned out to be more than that.  The Lego Movie featured a pretty cool message- about the need for creativity and the desire to work outside of pre-ordained and restrictive societal norms.  That cookie-cutter buildings, ‘reality’ television shows about the banality of life and prescribed over-priced coffee may resonate with the lowest common denominator, there remain those among us who strive to create things of beauty and value- and that those things can be at least as practical as those that are mundane and conformist.

I loved it.  It was fun and it was clever and it hit all the right notes.  I can’t get that freakin Everything is Awesome song out of my head, but this is incidental.

On Monday we opted for something a little more serious but, interestingly, along the same lines.  The Monuments Men tells a mere slice of the story of the quest to recover art and artifacts stolen by the Nazis over the course of World War II.

I’ve seen a lot of not-so-great reviews of the film and, honestly, not one of them remotely deterred me from checking it out.  For one thing, how do you not love that cast?  And the idea behind it (the movie and the real life events that the movie is based on)?   That crushing the Nazi onslaught and ridding the world of the repulsive ideology that drove the power and land grab- evidence of some of the worst of humanity- would have been an incomplete victory if they had been able to destroy the art that is an expression of the best of humanity?

That.  Exactly that.  How AWESOME and inspiring and affirming is that?!?!

Some have called it ‘preachy’ (ineffectually preachy, actually).  Others suggest that no work of art is worth a human life.  Those who lost their lives (or risked imprisonment as collaborators) in the pursuit of the preservation of some of the greatest art known to humanity begged to differ.  They understood that destroying that which defines us as human- those creations of beauty and insight and appreciation of our world and history and stories- leaves us bereft of a vital element of our shared experiences.

The movie also served to pique my curiosity about the subject and the events and the history of this group of scholars and artists, who, like me, see incredible value in the great works we leave behind us.  The Monuments Men website offers all kinds of resources for education about the men and women of the MFAA (Monuments, Fine Arts and Archives) who succeeded in saving so many of Europe’s great cultural and artistic achievements.

I am, primarily, an historian.  I learned about World War II- mainly about Canada’s involvement and through my studies about the Holocaust (from a Religious Studies perspective, for the most part), but the story of the preservation of our art and culture- and the ideology and spirit behind those who successfully emphasized the NEED for the preservation of the art and culture?  This is a new and wonderful lens into an important battle that was fought and won through sacrifice and determination.

In a society that is increasingly determined to insist that everything is disposable commodity, the actions of these men and women- scholars of art and architecture and literature and history- as presented for the popular media in the form of a Hollywood movie (a sincere thank you, Mr. Clooney) is incredibly timely and important.

With every ongoing conflict and new outbreak of violence in the world we are in danger of incrementally losing our shared humanity.  Not just through the egregious and shameful disruption and taking of innocent lives, but through the destruction of our shared history and its important remnants- be they literary, artistic, historical or architectural.

I cried when the Buddhas of Bamiyan were destroyed by the Taliban in 2001.

Syria’s ancient treasures- along with its people- are being systematically destroyed, just as happened in Iraq over the course of that ‘conflict’, in the name of political and religious ideologies that are all about power, influence and economics.  Please note that the ideologies driving these wars and atrocities are being enacted IN ALL CASES for the benefit of the few without consideration given to the lives and heritage of the many.

I loved the movie.  I’ve bought the book.

Some reminders for those who persist in refusing to see the necessity of the Humanities.

I have some reading to do.