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.

Ex Libris

Still in recovery mode after a wonderful cottage weekend.  Read BOTH books and started a third- which, thankfully, one of my friends had brought and finished.  Responses to the stories will come but I’m having a bit of trouble shifting my brain out of glorious neutral right now.

I was thinking about the conversation that I had with the young woman at the bookstore checkout last week- how the Kobos et al are great tools but that things like a long weekend on a dock somehow demand the tangibility of an actual book- and the following piece came to mind.

It was submitted as an entry to the latest Canada Writes creative non-fiction competition.  I remembered that it hit on the very discussion I had with the cashier and echoed my recent post about Cat Stevens.  That type of synchronicity should not be ignored.  

Our stories connect us and help us through difficult times.  Whether they reflect musings about the unknowable/incomprehensible aspects of life or recount slices of our personal and collective experiences, they are worth recording and retelling.  We are all storytellers- after our own, particular,  fashions.  We tell our stories to each other, and on behalf of others who can no longer do so.  This is one such storytelling slice- about the power of memory and the joy and comfort of books.   

One wall of my basement apartment living room is lined with bookshelves.  To the casual observer there is no rhyme or reason to how the thousand-plus volumes are displayed.  There are a dozen shelves that are reserved for the texts that represent my former life as an academic- including the 250-page dissertation to which I devoted so much of my adult life.  But while the rest appear to be haphazardly placed, I can find any given book immediately should I go searching, something I do frequently.  Friends who visit often ask about the collection (as do the family members who had the misfortune of helping me move), and the questions have only increased with the advent of e-books and tablets that are rapidly replacing the more traditional forms of the published word.

I have no problem with the new formats- anything that makes reading convenient and accessible is an invention of great worth, but I believe there is an inherent, and almost sensual, aesthetic value to a book.  The feel of a book, the substance and weight of a treasured hardcover by an author I love, the slightly musty scent of an older volume, and the joy of physically turning the pages evoke an almost-atavistic response that a touch screen will never replicate.  But more than that, for me, books can be old friends, and not just for the stories they tell but for the memories they evoke.  They are markers of time, reminders of when they were first read.  I am a consummate ‘grab whatever is at hand to use as a bookmark’ artist and so I often come across surprises when picking up an old friend to revisit.

I remember the first reading of a story rife with the language and images of a tropical climate, but with a subtext of mothers and daughters, and history.  Delighting in the beautifully crafted pages, detailing a love affair with a city, and offering insights about mental illness, dementia and getting by in the context of things outside our human control.

The book returns a sense of time and place; specifically the ratty armchair in the basement apartment, occupied for the first reading of the book on the night the little tortoiseshell kitten came home.  Drinking bourbon, because that’s what the book suggested.  Even if I was in Ottawa and it was autumn, and chilly outside.

Then, years later, on a day off from a loathed job when I should be accomplishing things of substance- cleaning, buying Christmas presents, applications to jobs more suitable and challenging- there it was again.  Glimpsed out of the corner of my eye while dusting, and despite all good intentions I was pulling the novel from the shelf to enjoy a day just for me- to revisit old, fictional friends and luxuriate in beautiful language as an antidote to the day to day mundane and ridiculous crises that have become my working existence.

A chapter or two into the novel I found the bookmark.  It was an email dating from a time before emails were a daily reality, things to be read, answered and forgotten.  Or used as communication with friends in far off places.  This one came from my Dad, addressed to the three of us, me and my sisters.  A short note detailing the first diagnostic definition of what we had all been sensing for some time. A name for the awareness that something was seriously wrong with Mum, the woman who had been the foundation and heart of our family.  12 years ago; the very beginning of the complete loss of her, finally giving that loss a name.

Subject: Mother

Date: Fri, 27 Oct 2000 17:26:10 -0400

“Dear girls,” he wrote.  “Last week I sent a letter to Dr. Matthews concerning mother.  Today, at her previously arranged appointment with him, I invited myself to go along, having given mother the letter yesterday.

The upshot of this is that the doctor’s diagnosis is that mother is suffering from dementia.  ‘Dementia is a condition characterized by a progressive decline of mental abilities accompanied by changes in personality and behaviour.  There is commonly a loss of memory and skills that are needed to carry out every day activities.’  He tells me that he believes the form that she has will cease further loss at some point as contrasted to Alzheimer’s, in which the brain progressively loses its ability to function.  He is attempting to have other expert doctors at Sunnybrook examine her to try to determine what form of dementia she has.  But this could take up to two years.

 He advises that at this time the dementia is not treatable.

 Dad”

Taking a break from my reading, I mentioned, also via email, that I had found the letter in the book to one of the true, flesh and blood, friends of my life.  She asked how it made me feel, cutting to the heart of the matter as she is so good at doing.  Almost 40 years of friendship makes that kind of directness possible, and necessary at times.  The distance between us melted away with the question, and recalled how the distance between me and my parents and sisters seemed at once negligible and insurmountable when I first received the email in 2000.  I was at a remove in all senses of the word, and at a loss as to what I could do to make it all go away.

Of course, nothing could make it go away.  What followed was seven years of confusion- of watching a loving, beloved, active, amazing woman slowly and painfully lose all connection to those who loved her, and to those whose lives were touched immensely by her presence and grace in the world.  But they were also years of learning about immeasurable depths of love and compassion in my father as he gently cared for her until the very end.

Coincidently my Dad, who is more computer savvy than some people half his age, forwarded one of those infernal ‘feel good’ email chain things that afternoon.  It was about being in the winter of his years, and about appreciating life, good health, working for what you feel is important and getting past regrets and moving on.  Since I had just had a disappointing series of interviews that didn’t end in the job I was hoping for that week, I couldn’t help but feel that the message was directed at me specifically, despite the fact that my sisters and others from among his many friends were copied on the email.  Somehow the guy manages to keep us all going while embracing life with an enthusiasm that leaves the rest of us feeling as though we are irrationally bogged down by pettiness and irrelevancies.

That night I re-read the novel, by an author I have loved since I first encountered her work at the Leaside Library as a teenager.  I spent the afternoon, and then the evening, sitting on my couch while Cat Stevens played in the background, and as I drank a Kilkenny- no bourbon this go-round- with the first light snow falling outside my window as Toronto became blanketed for the first time this year, I thought about Mum, and family and the holiday season fast approaching and counted blessings for the first time in a long time.

I petted the two cats I have now, the grey and the black (the little tortoiseshell and the tabby I had when I first read the book are long gone, yet remembered with love), and I took comfort from them and from my family and friends, my memories and the awareness that I was inside on a cold winter night, the first harbinger of even colder winter nights to come.  There is music and beauty around me.  And always, and forever, there are the books that take me back in time and memory as I continue on my “road to find out.”

As the music on the iPod shifted to a Skydiggers song, one that I would certainly hear at the annual Christmas show at the Horseshoe, I was overwhelmingly thankful.

I love my books.  They are markers of my history, my present and my future.  A residence without books can never be a home to me.  The knowledge that there are new stories, and friends, out there waiting to be discovered is a miracle I take for granted, but I will always return to my old friends and the comfort, perspective and memories that they bring.