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Amerika – Six months in…#3

March 16, 2018

Image result for racism in americaIf there are two things about America, and Americans, that we – the rest of the world – the world who by the very nature of Empire, must watch (somewhat helplessly) from our ringside seats – the two things we do not fundamentally understand as it applies to America is 1) what is understood here in America as “race”; and 2) American’s fetishistic attitudes about guns.

What can I possibly say about race in America that has not been said before? The White man’s “fear of the Other” combined with America’s individualistic Will to Power is perhaps the most lethal combination of socially and politically destructive traits on the American condition.

TImage result for racism in americahat people will hold others as slaves, and would so easily do so again – if allowed – as one can so readily see in Social Media posts – saddens me to the very depths of my being.

And it is near impossible for outsiders to understand how racism plays itself out in America on a daily basis. Of course we understand racism. We have racism in Canada, and in Europe, and many other places. We understand the concept of racism, we watch how the Black community is over-policed, we see the violence on our evening news.

But in America, it is like race has been on a steady steroid injection schedule for 400 years. My white concepts and understanding of what it means to be Black in America is the equivalent of seeing the tip of the iceberg.

The Black community in Chicago, mostly confined to certain districts in the south and west-end of the city (think about what I just wrote) – pay more for water, electricity, and property taxes; receive a disproportionate amount of traffic tickets, receive 70% of all cycling tickets given out in the city, even receive the largest number of snowfall infractions for not shoveling their sidewalks properly this winter. All of this reported in the Chicago Tribune newspaper. It’s not like it’s a secret.

Because Chicago is laid out as a pure grid system of streets, there are endless 4-way stops you encounter driving or cycling around the city. I quickly realized that few cars and no cyclist in the north-end (where I live) actually stops at a stop sign, unless there is a car who is already there and has the right of way. Everyone just drifts through them. I’ve drifted through at least three of them when a cop saw me do it. They didn’t even blink. That, my friend, is but one small example of my white privilege in action.

But racism goes even deeper. I recently watched a community video some Black youth put together that examined the following thesis: should their southwest-side community have street lights? At first I was confused. What did they mean, should they have street lights? We live in Chicago. How do you avoid streetlights?

It turns out that they have street lights in their neighborhood, it’s just that the city can’t be bothered turning them on. The youth live in an 8 block square that has no street lights.

Think about that for a moment. How would you feel walking to the corner store after dark? Or going to your friend’s house to work on homework?

Don’t think about the fact that this neighborhood also has some of the worst poverty levels in the country, don’t think about the violence, the lack of opportunity – statistics that are overwhelming and therefore numbing.

No, think about this: I live in a city supposedly as great as Chicago – home of the Blues, Jazz, the Cubs, Frank Lloyd Wright architecture, the Art Institute of Chicago (one of the best art galleries in the world), home of the University of Chicago and Northwestern University – two of the best universities in America (ranked #9 and #12 respectively) – and Chicago was just ranked as the best restaurant city in America.

This great city has turned off the street lights for an entire neighborhood of Black people.

When the Chicago Tribune reported that Black communities pay more for their city water, the city argued that the infrastructure is so bad in the south-end that at least 1/3 of the water is leaking away through the faulty city pipes. Someone has to pay for it. As if, somehow, it is the Black community’s responsibility to fix the old water pipes.

Meanwhile, the city is going to break ground this summer, in the north-end of the city, on construction of a state-of-the-art multi-million-dollar elevated cycling lane that will connect many of the northern communities.

This winter Baltimore police officers admitted that they carry toy guns in the trunk of their cruisers, which they can plant on unarmed dead Black men, after they have been shot by the police.

Think about that. This is an admission of premeditated murder. As in “let’s go hunt us some niggers.”

Race is just so fucked up in America.

I can look at these examples, and a hundred more I have heard about, read about, watched in the news – and yet, I still will not ever existentially know what racism means for the Black community in America.

How can I understand? No one watches me in a store. I have never ever had an encounter with a police officer on the streets – simply because I was walking on the streets. I will never be carded.

Race is the great sickness in America. It is what sustains the NRA and its rhetoric of open and free access to guns; it is what motivates police forces to allow the flow of guns and drugs in Black communities (Chicago’s anti-drug police task team just got busted by the FBI for operating as a gang in the south-end. The task force was controlling the drug trade, supporting certain dealers, incarcerating and killing those who got in their way or threatened to snitch on the cops. It’s fucking unbelievable!)

Image result for guns in americaWhy do you think I can simply walk into any gun store and buy any gun I want no questions asked? Because I am a white man, and I need to protect myself, my family, my property from roaming gangs of Black men, and Mexicans, and Liberals who want universal healthcare. Fucking communists!

As of today, 7,138 students have been killed, while in school, in America, since 2012. More than 1,000 kids a year (1,298/yr actually) have been shot while attending school! That’s more than the entire world’s population of school kids being killed by guns while in school. By a factor of 1000! I doubt that more than 100 public school kids have been killed in Canadian schools in the entire history of Canada.

More people have been shot and killed in America in the last 50 years than all the soldiers who have died in all the wars that America has ever been in, in it’s entire history as a country.

It’s almost impossible to fathom.

And the American politician’s unwillingness to address the issue (either Republican or Democrat) is like looking into the abyss of political cynicism.

It’s more than just saying politicians have been bought off by the NRA.

It is the behavior of sociopaths.

But then, 80% of the gun homicides occur in the Black and poor communities, so, really, who gives a fuck?!



Climbing Proust – 2

March 14, 2018

This is my second post in an on-going series about reading Proust’s Remembrance of Things Past).


Image result for marcel proustOne mustn’t think about how far one “is” when reading Proust’s Remembrance of Things Past – RPT – (or, more recently published as In Search of Lost Time), for if you are the type to always have your eyes on the end – as if the finish line is to win a prize – even if this prize is purely metaphorical, only for yourself, and for few others to see or feel – then, with Proust, you will only ever be discouraged, for a very long time.

For, as I just pass the 500 page point, I realize that I am less than 1/6th of the way in. 500 pages and I’m not even 17% of the way through this novel.

No, you can’t think that way. You’ll just want to throw the book away, and in the process you will throw-out your rotator cuff, and break something when the tome hits the floor.


The ease at which words pour out of Proust – at least as they appear to the reader – is astounding. I can only imagine if this talent was loved by Proust, or did it often drive him mad?

How would you feel if you saw the world in all its infinite detail – always, and every day? Would the world simply explode in front of you, continuously, in all its succulent detail? Or, would you grow mad, because you could not focus on anything larger?

It’s the old “can’t see the forest for the trees” dilemma.

When you start RTP, being unfamiliar with such long-winded detailing of all the minutia one could go on about in life – Proust goes on for 5 pages about a pregnant servant, 10 pages about a simple country church steeple, 50 pages about Swann’s state of jealousy for Odette – it can be more than a little exasperating.

“Get on with it!” I often hear myself saying.

But at some point, I think it was around the 300 page mark, I began to feel like some WD-40 had been sprayed on that rusty part of my brain that takes in the words – like an old bike chain, now oiled, running ever more smoothly over the gears and sockets the further down the road I road.

Reading Proust is like the Zen parable of water flowing over rock – eventually the rock gives way, its edges smooth, its luster is revealed.

(A Zen parable and at the same time tedious – I think there is a Koan in there somewhere.)

Remembrance of Things Past is the last epic novel that reveals the world before the telephone, before motor-cars, before film, (they will all make an appearance before the end of the novel, as Proust wrote the novel between 1909 and 1922).

It is an incredibly bourgeois novel, of the artificial and often inanely superficial world of the French upper classes – both financially and intellectually.

It begins in the world of people who have little to do except worry about their own social standing, wiling away the endlessly tedious days gossiping about everyone else.

But I think this may be the point Proust is trying to make as he captures in amber the last days of the belle epoch. Much of the outside world, is far beneath the feet of the late 19th century French intellectual, further still beneath the feet of the French aristocracy. That outside world is an almost total abstraction – if and when it is ever thought about at all one must do so only ironically and with great distaste.

For, in this world, if one is not outstandingly rich, and well connected, one was not simply thought of – in fact, it would be quite scandalous for the French elite to do so, dangerously revolutionary even.

Feel free, if you wish, to skip pages. When Swann goes on for 50 pages ruminating about his jealousy for/at Odette; circling back repeatedly as one does when one has a fit of jealousy, it becomes quite more than enough for the reader who has no stake in said jealousy to throw his/her hands up in despair.  Eventually I grew quite impatient with the repeated circling back on the issue – I understood that Proust was showing me how jealousy burrows into our brain, how our rational thinking is powerless in the face of irrational forces, but at some point I had enough and started skipping through, looking for that spot where Proust moved on to something else.

What is interesting is that the novel is both brilliantly done and yet often tedious at the same time – like the rarefied world Proust is trying to show us. If you watched the recent television series Downton Abbey you will better understand what I mean.

Downton Abbey was incredibly well-crafted, sumptuously set, yet nothing, really, ever happened. We know that from 1912-1930, when the show was set, incredible things were happening in England, and in the world. But you would rarely see any of these happenings in the heavily insular and conservative world of Downton. As if Downton Abbey was itself ensconced in a giant egg shell which the outside world could ever barely penetrate – even the great War was but a backdrop to the goings on – the love interests and love scandals at Abbey.

But then, the world has always been little more than a backdrop theater set for the wealthy.

This too is the world of Swann’s Way – the first of the seven volumes that comprise the larger Remembrance of Things Past. Only the characters are French instead of English – and are even more self-righteous than the English aristocracy. (At least, and unlike the English Abbey crowd, the French have sex, enjoy having sex, and eat better.)

RTP is not for everyone, and it may not even be for me, ultimately. My brain is too post-colonial for the wretched racism that occasionally surfaces in the novel (not Proust – I have no idea what Proust himself thought of race – but by the way he has certain characters speak about it leads me to think he had little time for racist people). I grow too impatient at the tedium of obsessive social ladder-climbing, the offense one would take if hot chocolate were made available at “tea time” (only one who consorts with commoners would do such a thing), knowing the infinite minutia that separates the many tiny ladder steps between the rich and well educated and the dull-witted but socially higher positioned aristocratic buffoon.

Where’s the guillotine, I often catch myself thinking, when you really need it?



Trigger warning…

March 13, 2018

Trigger warning…

I don’t use trigger warnings often. Not that I dismiss them. I have been a crisis counselor for most of my adult life. I understand triggers. I understand the idea of trigger warnings.

Some things are hard to digest. Difficult to comprehend. Knowing certain things can take your breath away.

There is a general misunderstanding that trigger warnings are about censorship. They are not.

It’s about being prepared before receiving some harsh news.

In the days previous to the concept of “trigger warning” we still had trigger warnings – they just didn’t come with a label.

“Bob, you better sit down, I have something to tell you.” The classic trigger warning.

Or, when I was in high school, and the day my teacher came in after being called to the office, to say “Can everyone put away what they were working on. I have some serious news to discuss with you.” And then she waited for us to organize ourselves, before she told us that a classmate had died in a car accident. That was a trigger warning.

We knew something serious was about to go down – we could see on our teacher’s face, in the way she told us to put our work away.

That is why I open with a trigger warning.

I think it is almost too much – it’s too too hard – to comprehend what is going to happen to the environment and consequently to the majority of living things and humankind over the next 100 years. Even five minutes with the facts brings one to tears.

Every year hotter than the last. Every decade hotter than the last.

Image result for pictures of great barrier reef before and afterThe fact that 70% of all ocean life is now gone. The Great Barrier Reef that I once snorkeled over – that magical world of color and multitudes of fishes – is now mostly dead.

70% of the world’s forests are now gone.

The United Nations now reports that 150-200 species of plant, insect, bird and mammal become extinct every 24 hours. This is Image result for pictures of great barrier reef before and afternearly 1,000 times the “natural” or “background” rate and, say many biologists, is greater than anything the world has experienced since the vanishing of the dinosaurs nearly 65 million years ago.

We are in what scientists now call, the dawn period of the 6th Extinction Event – the 6th time in world history where a catastrophic event will eliminate at least 80% of the planet’s organic life. It is estimated that the meteor that took out the dinosaurs also took out about 98% of all living matter.

For the planet, the 6th Extinction Event will be but another phase, epoch, era that it will go through. New life will emerge over the coming millions of years. For humanity, it will be catastrophic!

There are 17th century naval accounts of great schools of flying fish that went half-way to the horizon.

Image result for deforestationCarrier pigeon flocks used to be so large, early European explorers of North America said they could block out the sun for 20 minutes while they passed overhead. They were extinct by 1900.

The prairie white-feathered goose once flew in flocks that were 10 square miles in size.

Archeologists know that 50 years after the fall of Rome, people were eating grass.

You don’t think that will happen again? Or that it will only happen in Africa? Or Asia?

Consider only these four things.

1) Bee populations are collapsing all over the world. Bees account for 75-85% of the world’s crop pollination.

2) The glaciers that feed the Yangzi and Ganges River basins are expected – at current rates of global warming – to be dry before the turn of the century. And most likely sooner, as scientists admit that climate change is an exponential change – each change accelerating future change – that environmental collapse will happen much sooner than first predicted. Approximately 2.5 billion people live along and/or depend on the Yangzi and Ganges Rivers for their sustenance.

The so-called Middle East has less than 50 years of water left. The Syrian civil war started – way back in the beginning – over a shortage of water which the farmers believed the government was doing nothing to resolve. This initial protest of farmers was exploited seven ways to Sunday, but it started over a water crisis.

Israel has cut the Palestinian water supply by 80% over the last decade as a way of dealing with its own growing water crisis. They plan to cut it even more.

Desertification is happening in Central Europe, the American southwest and California, in Chile and Peru.

Image result for growth of sahara desertThe Sahara has expanded by 20% in the last decade. Cape Town in South Africa will be out of water within the month.

What do you think will happen when there is no more water? What do you think people will do? Do you think they will sit around quietly, drinking imported Coca-Cola. Where will they go? Who will take them? How will you stop them?

Global warming will also release the great stores of methane currently locked in the permafrost and in the ocean floors. Methane is 20’s more lethal than carbon in contributing to global warming.

3) We have cut down so much of the world’s forests that the remaining forest may actually now produce more carbon, than the carbon it absorbs.

4) Conversely, 65% of the world’s population (5 billion people) live beside oceans. ¾ of these people will be homeless within a century due to rising ocean levels.

Paradoxically, ocean-side cities are about to drown, while dying of thirst as ocean salt water enters underground freshwater aquifers. Miami is expected to be the new Atlantis within the next two decades – its fresh water supply expected to undrinkable within a decade.

Numerous Pacific islands have already disappeared due to rising sea levels, and Indigenous people who have lived on certain Alaskan islands since time immemorial, have voted to leave and go to the mainland, as their islands are expected to disappear over the next 5 years.

San Francisco has already banned any new property developments on its coast – as being pointless. Most of San Francisco’s shoreline is expected to be under water by 2025.


I watch as bumblebees crawl over the face of my mother’s sunflowers, then work their way through goldenrod that grows down the fence line – we watched a new beaver build his dam that re-floods 40 acres of wetland – two geese who started visiting us 25 years ago, has grown into a flock of about 60 that visit every April and September, staying for about 4 weeks, eating in the fields with the horses, happily flushed out by my mom’s dog who has loved them ever since he was a pup – and when he was younger, he often jumped into the air as he ran after them – as if he could take off with them. The dog who wanted to be a goose. A children’s story, just waiting to be written.

European starlings are the last bird to remind us of what great flocks of birds once looked like.

I try to counter my pessimism by the many small fantastic local re-imaginings that I see and hear about on a daily basis.

The fact that community gardens have grown exponentially over the past decade. There has been similar growth in solar, wind, and wave technologies. I expect Europe to be completely off fossil fuels by 2030. Electric cars, solar power, wind power.

Image result for solar farms chinaChina is currently planting 100 million trees a year. India hired 1.5 million people last week to plant 60 million trees in a day. China is building solar farms that stretch to the horizon.

Off the grid lifestyles. Tiny homes. Permaculture.

Lots of people can read the writing on the wall. There are many who are not the types who will sit around and feel sorry for themselves – they are looking to re-build communities based on real sustainable solutions – in the face of the larger emerging reality.


Image result for american suburbs

Typical American suburbs

Doing nothing is not an option. Expansionist capitalist consumer lifestyles are not an option. Learning to live with less – that will be the true educational experience of the 21st century.

Will the baby boomers die off fast enough, will the near zero population growth currently being experienced in the western nations help soon enough, will we learn how to turn our capitalist economy into a long-term sustainable economy – what would that even look like – before the worst of the worst hits the fan?

In small pockets yes – but for large urban centers where 70% of the people now live – not likely.

Who knows what will come out the other side. A great second Dark Age? Preceded by a Zombie Apocalypse, hordes of people wandering the countryside, foraging like wild beasts – a return of the medieval village fortress – putting down the draw bridge at dusk?

Image result for wealthy survivalist homes arizonaWill there be pockets of modernists – and all the accoutrements of modern living – in semi-desert fortified communities, patrolled by armies of robot soldiers, and drones that will spot you 10 miles beyond the electric fences?

Two things are for sure. It will get much worse before it gets better.

And people will be eating grass.



6 months in America…#2

March 10, 2018

We can understand the basic statistics – the fundamental facts – that America spends more on its military than the combined spending of the next 13 largest military spenders in the world – more than China, Russia, Germany, Britain, France, Saudi Arabia, Japan, India, Canada, Australia, and others combined – maintaining 100’s of military bases around the world –

– yet it is still so much abstraction for most of us. What does $800 billion in military spending per year even mean?

Look at it this way – America’s military budget is larger than the entire Canadian federal budget.

It is an insanity that is almost impossible to comprehend.

So where does the money come from? It doesn’t take long to see. The interstate highway from Detroit to Chicago was in worse shape than most county roads I had traveled over in Canada. The trucking industry has been pleading with the government to do something about the sad state of the highways. Public schools need billions in repairs, Baltimore schools had no heat this winter, while most teachers work for $15 an hour. Bridges are beginning to collapse, sewer systems are backing up, Chicago is losing approximately 1/3 of its water to leakage.

Government services are so underfunded and overwhelmed that it is impossible to convey what it is like to get a simple service like a new social security card, or transfer my Ontario driver’s license to an Illinois license (which I need to do to get a background check done for work).

There is only one DMV (Department of Motor Vehicles) office to serve the entire north Chicago area. For my Canadian friends, imagine that there was only one license bureau to serve the entire downtown Toronto community, and you had to drive to Scarborough to access it.

The DMV is so busy you literally have to book a day off work to go there.

I arrived yesterday, a typical Friday, at 11am. The line-up is out the door – but this is merely the first line you encounter – the line that snakes through the interior just to meet with a person who will give you a specific number for your purpose. This line was a hour and fifteen minute process.

Finally, I get to the young man working the booth. You can see in his dead eyes that his life is already over. We are in a massive window-less room, with long rows of fluorescent lighting, bad ventilation, surrounded by a multitude of cultures, smells, intellectual abilities. (Remember, America also has the poorest public education system in the western world – there were many I saw while I was waiting in line who were functionally illiterate.)

You realize, while you stand in such a space, where the term “going postal” comes from. People stood in line for more than an hour only to discover they didn’t bring the right paperwork – they are furious with the bureaucrat who has just told them they will have to come back with the papers, they are furious with themselves for forgetting the right papers, the bureaucrat blank-eyed, watching the clock until lunch break, wondering about his own state of sanity.

I know this feeling because the last time I came, I did not have my Visa paper – I had my passport, my Ontario driver’s license, proof of residence – but I did not have my Visa – which I had been told by Homeland Security I would only ever need when crossing the American border. Of course, I wasn’t told this from the man in my first line. I did that hour-long wait and all he did was give me a number and told me to go to the booth #16 line – which was then another 2 hour wait. It was only then, after 3 hours, that I was told I needed my Visa papers.

At least that woman sympathized and apologized when I told her that the website did not say I needed to bring my Visa. The website, she said, had not been updated in at least 5 years.

But I am still fresh-faced to Chicago, I had used the 7 mile bike ride to the DMV as a way to explore some of the neighborhoods of north Chicago. It was all part of the new experience.

So, yesterday, before I left home, I double-checked the website, had my Visa papers, had my bottle of water, my Proust, my iphone music – it was a beautiful sunny day for an early spring bike ride – I was ready to joust with the DMV – round 2.

Three and a half hours later I am again standing in front of the man at booth #16. I try to cheer him up with some friendly banter – I know his life sucks. I’m in luck. He is Chinese-American and his daughter is married to a Canadian in Toronto. He loves Toronto! He loves Toronto’s Chinatown! Why would I ever move to America, he asks?

He takes all of my things, they look in order. All he needs, he notes, is my social security number and he’ll get me done.

What? There was no mention of a social security number. I only just applied for that yesterday (another 3 hour standing-in-line process) – I couldn’t apply for that until I had a job offer – they said it would be at least two weeks before it comes in the mail. (And don’t even get me started on the United States Postal Service – who have lost at least 5 packages since we moved here!)

Let me double check with my superior, he says. Maybe we can do it without your social security. He disappears into the back – through the open door I see a sea of cubicles disappearing to the horizon.

He comes back out, bad news written on his face. I am sorry my friend. But you need to come back when you have your social security number.

I look around at the 2-300 people shifting in chairs, leaning against the walls, I look at the line-up that snakes out the door – the whole place smelling of frustrated people trying to move through airport security when everyone knows that their flights have been delayed and I think THIS IS THE PLACE, this is the situation and the place where nerves fray, where mix-ups in communication are easy, where you have large numbers of people who are already tense, angry, crowded, restless – this is a state that allows open carry of handguns – this is a state where you can buy a gun with practically no ID at all – where you can buy a gun no questions asked – this is the place we had promised ourselves we would try and avoid at all costs while living in America – this is the place where there are no metal detectors at the door, where the security guards are all in their 60’s – this is the place where it will all go down one day – this is the place, because the government is spending so much of its money on its military hard-on and preserving an economic empire that is crumbling by the day – this is the place where bad things will happen, simply because the government is too stupid to spend money on its own infrastructure – in a culture that is obsessed with the car, where the whole city is designed first and foremost for the car, in a city of 3 million people, there is one DMV office for the entire north-end – a DMV that is severely understaffed and completely overwhelmed by the sheer quantity of masses who come day after day, lined up to the parking lot before the doors even open – this is the place where someone will go postal – for all the world to see.



March madness…

March 7, 2018


the grey omniscient days pile up to the April horizon,

madness washing ashore from Lake Michigan,

coming on a prairie wind that blows relentlessly across these

flat, indistinct lands.

Grey piled to the stratosphere,

the trees naked pencil sketches

shimmering indifferently, impatient for a new year to begin.



In praise of a book I have not yet read…

March 6, 2018

I saw the three-book-set in a used book store in downtown Toronto. We were visiting our mother-in-law, we were in from the country, and to escape, to have some small piece of respite, I ducked out for a happy jaunt to the bookstore situated next to a local café. The plan was to find something new, sit by the window with a coffee, read away the next hour or so, before returning for dinner.

The set of books were being offered up on the half-price table! I backed away from them, choosing instead to wonder around the shelves, looking at my various options; perhaps The Anthologist by Nicholson Baker, or one of the many James Baldwins I had not yet read, or, this yummy hardcover of Joan Didion’s White Papers. It is in much better condition, I think to myself, than the soft cover I already own (I am a hoarder of all things Didion; plus I’m a sucker for hardcovers). I try to ignore the half-price table. But I keep finding my way back. I admire the sets’ vintage covers, the art nouveau styling. It is the classic Moncrieff and Kilmartin translation.

The clerk – the owner of the bookstore – must have noticed me repeatedly coming back to the table, watched me as I fingered and studied the set. She comes over and explains that she wants to move them, to make room, she said, for books people would actually buy. They’re quite famous, you know? I do know, I say back to her. Doesn’t everyone know? You’d be surprised, she says, a dejected look sweeping over her face as she thought about those who don’t read, who don’t know what they are missing by passing over a classic. A few people pick them up and look at them, she says, but they always put them back down. They’re too intimidating. Too colossal an enterprise to get involved with. There is a bookclub up in the Annex, she tells me, who read the novel at a pace of ten pages a day. It takes them almost a year.

Ten pages a day sounds sensible to me, I say to her.

You’d think so, she says while neatly, absently, arranging misplaced books. I’ll tell people about the bookclub’s approach, but I’ve had this set for more than a year. No one believes they have the time for them. I’ve read them. He uses ten pages to describe a simply country church steeple. There’s a dinner party that infamously goes on for a hundred pages. Who has time for that? It’s like getting married. There’s over 3,300 pages in this version. The original translation was over 4,000 pages. The original was a seven volume set. It was a staggering project that consumed the writer’s life. Did you know he wrote “The End” the same day that he died? Did you know that? No, I didn’t know that? Did you know, she muses further, that a German publishing house once hired Walter Benjamin to translate the original into German, but the publisher went bankrupt after volume three? You act like you want them – I’ll take an additional 20% off. I really want to get rid of them.

How about you leave them at 50% off and throw in this Didion?


A three volume set of Marcel Proust’s Remembrances of Things Past for $15. How could I refuse?


fullsizeoutput_c53Is there any brief way for me to describe the enormity of Marcel Proust? Can I say anything about this literary God, who, along with Joyce, Kafka, Borjes, Woolf, is among the most admired and studied writers of the 20th century? Virginia Woolf said Proust had a sublime simplicity of prose that made her weep. Somerset Maugham proclaimed him the greatest novelist who had ever lived. Graham Greene noted that the 19th century had Tolstoy; the 20th century had Proust. Alain de Botton went so far as to write a book about “How Proust Can Change Your Life”! Acclaimed by Nabokov, Brecht, Mailer, Nin, Kundera, Camus, and a thousand more, Proust’s impact on 20th century writing has been staggering.

Philosophers too – Derrida, Benjamin, Bergson, Sartre – have all mused on the importance of Proust, for his examinations of memory and perception, sense of self and self-deception in the modern age, for asking us what is knowledge, consciousness, time? Modernity, it is generally agreed, begins with Proust!

But it’s likely that you’ve never read À la recherche du temps perdu, first translated into English by Scott Montcrieff and Terence Kilmartin as Remembrance of Things Past.[1] It has since been more accurately translated as  In Search of Lost Time. You’ve probably never read the original  seven volume 4,000+ page novel with its 2,000 characters, because, well, it’s 4,000 pages and you have a life; you know, there is laundry to do, kids to put through school, a roof to pay for.

fullsizeoutput_c52It’s not the kind of book you can read in the bathroom. You’re not going to drag it to the beach. I’ve tried to sit with it in bed. It quickly gets uncomfortable, your arms grow numb, you shift it around until you drop it to the floor with a loud thunk! No, unless you are an unemployed lit major, a masochist, or someone who likes to brag about the size of your book at your book club, you, like everyone else who came into this book store, will pass right over this behemoth of a tale and pick up something in the realm of sanity. How about Don Delillo’s magnificent White Noise (a breezy 325 pages), or Marquez’s One Hundred Years of Solitude (a paltry 422 pages), or Annie Dillard’s Pilgrim at Tinker Creek (a brisk 270 pages)?

There is a strange mixture of curiosity and vanity when you pick up such a tome, and carry it home like a Sherpa with his backpack, climbing a mountain.


Born at the end of the Franco-Prussian War in 1871, Proust was a sickly child, having chronic asthma. A particularly acute attack at the age of nine nearly killed him. As a student he was a scholastic underachiever. He was from the French middle class, he was gay, and he lived in Paris. What was a young man to do? But he had a keen interest in ideas. Ideas too big for a mere public school to bother with. He was fascinated by memory, and through memory how we live in this virtual stream of consciousness which forever runs through our head. He was interested in understanding the role of the artist in society, the social hierarchies, the transitions an old imperial France was making into the new uglier technological age. He was a fan of Plato, Ruskin, Flaubert. By his early twenties his writings caught the eye of such philosopher heavyweights as Henri Bergson, and Walter Benjamin.

Benjamin was fascinated by the Proustian dichotomy of where memory ends, and poetry begins. How much of our memory is lived experience, and how much of our memory is “the interweavings of memory itself”? And how much of this, ultimately, is about forgetting? The “daylight” of memory slowly gives way to the “nighttime” of forgetting, Benjamin noted, and out of this transference, poetry grows. It is in this poetry where the world becomes more than it ever was.

Not that the recognition of such giants as Benjamin and Bergson accounted for much. When Proust tried to publish the first volume of Remembrance of Things Past (Swann’s Way), he had no takers. He had to self-publish. Swann’s Way was considered too experimental, too long-winded, too lacking in action. It broke too fiercely with the established rules of literary writing. The French writer and Nobel Laureate André Gide, famously told the French publishing house Gallimard to reject the novel. He later said it was the worst mistake of his literary career.

A quick Google search will give you just over 14.8 million Marcel Proust hits. Amazon Books had 31 webpages of books available which have been written about the man: Biographies, Introductions, Understandings, graphic novels, Proust and Modernism, Proust and Psychology, Proust and 20th Century Philosophy, How Marcel Proust Will Change Your Life!


I carry the three beastly books home – all 3,365 pages of them, and proudly put them on our bookshelf.

“Good lord,” my girlfriend said when she saw them. “What are you going to do with those?”

“Read them,” I say proudly, majestically.

“Sure you are,” she said as she turned and walked out of the room.


It has now been more than 7 years that they have been taking up space on our bookshelf. They have been untouched. Occasionally they have been dusted, or shifted a little left or right to make room for other books, a new Orwell and a Joyce Carol Oates on the left, a new Pynchon, a Pamuk to the right.

At first, they were like a talisman, my acknowledgement that I owned one of the high marker moments in western literature. It sat proudly with The King James Bible, Don Quixote, Dante (another trilogy I have not yet read), War and Peace, a collection of Borges’ short stories, One Hundred Years of Solitude. I was filled with a quiet youthful pride when someone pointed them out. We would laugh self-consciously at our mutual admission that we had not yet read Proust. Who has the time, we would say? Maybe when we retire. Laughs all around.

Purchased in Toronto, they have been bundled and boxed and hoisted and grunted over in subsequent moves to Halifax, back to the family farm in Ontario, and now to Chicago. For two years they sat quietly and patiently in my mother’s basement. Now they are back on a bookshelf in a south-facing Turret-styled sunroom in the north-end of Chicago. Pulling them from the box, I looked at them like a child being reproached by a favorite grandparent. I had forgotten all about them.

They remind me of my lack of self-discipline, my casual laziness, my once youthful notion of being part of something larger and grander than myself. What high point in western literature, I ask myself? I think of the subsequent great wars, our colossal indifference to violence and tragedy, and of the multitude of post-colonial writers who have forever erased the façade of western enlightened good breeding and bourgeois intelligence. So too I sense my growing sense of irony and quaintness – “Oh, look, you have some Proust! Aren’t you an ever-so-clever fellow?”


My wife dragged me to a furniture estate sale – of the kind estate companies hold in abandoned warehouses – dark, gloomy, dusty spaces in some stretch of forgotten industrial wasteland in north-west Chicago – where antique dealers and those, like my wife, who have a sharp eye for a deal love to spend a Saturday morning sorting through the detritus of someone else’s life, looking for a good steal.

“We’ve been in Chicago for six months,” she proclaimed. “I’m tired of not having any furniture. I’m tired of everything still being in boxes!”

It was she who first saw the immaculate 1950’s winged-backed reading chair. We had just snagged four bookshelves, an art nouveau era floor lamp, a coffee table, and a set of end tables, all for $150. I take a seat. It is beautifully firm. “How much for the chair?” she asks the clerk with that curious smile she gets when she sees something she really wants. “We were asking $50, but we have a ton of these Georgians in the back. For you, how about $35?” Deal.

And so, our $35 reading chair now sits by the window of the yellow birch, accompanied by the lamp, a side table for tea, the room filled with plants, and cats sitting in sunbeams. I am finally ready for my Proustian adventure.

I begin with a plan to shut down my social media, my Netflix, my cell phone for an hour a day – I plan to relearn how to sit and read one long thing, to re-discover how to slow down, to observe, to be patient, to read, and to listen.

“For a long time I used to go to bed early. Sometimes when I had put out my candle, my eyes would close so quickly that I had not even time to say to myself: “I’m falling asleep…”

Only 3,365 pages to go.



Shameless self-promotion…#3

March 5, 2018

God moves the player, he, in turn, the piece.

But what god beyond God begins the round

of dust and time and dream and agonies?

– Borjes

Late August. A West Virginia campground. A pale blue tent sits slightly left of centre-stage, amongst a scattering of basswoods and beech trees.

The air is heavy. Humid.

Crickets and other night insects chirp endlessly. The occasional moth flits around the campfire, slowly circling in, spiraling down toward the fire, disappearing, leaving behind a brief faint wet crackling hiss.

Isabella and Milan are lying between the tent and the campfire on a white tattered quilt, with edges frayed by long years and much love. A blanket sewn by an unknown great-grandmother long since gone. Milan is propped on an elbow and he is softly running a finger along Isabel’s arm. She of the caramel skin – soft, like warm nugget. With eyes that promise earth and fire. He smiles at her small frame.

Milan lies back down, beside her, and together in the hot space between the campfire and their tent, they look up at the midnight Milky Way unfolding in all its wondrous beauty.

“It still takes my breath away,” Isabelle remarks, looking up at the vast sea of stars before her.

“Staggered by my insignificance. By the great silence of it all”. 

 “Do you believe in God?” Isabella asks Milan.

“Can you be more specific?”

“Oh, you know what I mean!” Isabella says thrusting her hands up to the heavens. “God! Do you believe in God?!”


“Oh, you mean “God”. No, I don’t think so.”

The campfire crackles and occasionally pops, hissing softly in the background.

“What do you mean you don’t think so? Either you do, or you don’t.”

“Maybe I did once. I don’t know…”

Silence extends between them.

Isabella rolls over and onto an elbow. She looks down on his face. “What happened?”

Milan lays there for a moment, reflecting: “Probably lots of things. Reading. Thinking. Santa Clause. The Easter Bunny. Masturbation. The Indian Act. They all started making the God idea seem a little ridiculous. Milan pauses. Isabel runs her finger over his chest. “…I remember one summer. I think I was about ten or eleven, and I was awakened one night – just before dawn – by the most evil sound coming from just outside my bedroom window. It moaned like an evil spirit in a horror movie. It scared the shit out of me. I didn’t know what to do! Then it did it again. It was the most horrible sound. I definitely remember believing in God then. I was all “Hail Mary, full of Grace, pray for my sins…as I dove under the sheets.” I prayed so hard I thought my knuckles would crack.”

Milan sits up and looks at the fire. “I didn’t think of it until much later – when I was older – but that sound kept coming back to me, often at odd instances, at work, while having sex. It was the sound of something so horribly sad and alone. As if the beast in its anguish was tearing out its own heart. I couldn’t describe it really, at the time. I was just a boy. I didn’t understand.

I knew my sheets would be powerless to stop this beast from hell, whatever it was, but I remember hiding under them anyway. I remember lying there, hiding, absolutely still, believing in God with all my might. I had to pee, and I was scared that I was going to wet the bed, but I knew my dad would be furious with me if I did. But I was also too afraid to get up and go to the bathroom. So I just lay there until daylight started. 

 “What was it?”

“I didn’t know it at the time but it was a lynx in heat.”

Isabella leans over and gives Milan a hug. “Oh, you poor thing! My scared little boy! Come here.”

“All right,” Milan says, pretending to struggle out of her arms. “It was a long time ago.”

“You would have been so cute under your little blankets. How do you know it was a lynx?”

“I didn’t say anything to my parents because I didn’t want my dad to think I was imagining ghosts. But it happened again the next night when we were all still up late watching TV.”

Milan smiles at a thought: “I remember our old tomcat instantly jumped up from the couch and the hair on his back went straight up as he raced to the window in a fury. I’d never seen a cat do that before. Our dog jumped up from under the kitchen table, slamming against the chairs,  barking madly and raced for the door. My dad hit the porch light before he let the dog out and we saw this lynx leap through the light in two great bounds and disappeared back into the woods.” Milan pauses for a moment, looking up at the stars. “Seeing that wild cat – those two graceful fleeting leaps – before she disappeared into the dark woods was pure magic…and then my parents explained to us what it was. And that was when I grew up. I hadn’t heard a ghost. It was just a wild and lonely cat, howling out its craving, for a mate in the night.”

Milan reaches over Isabella for the lighter and re-lights a joint. He inhales and looks up at the stars. Isabella looks at him intently. Milan turns and looks down at her and smiles. “But my mom still believes in ghosts. She’s Catholic, and she still believes in God too. Though she has nothing good to say about the Vatican. And lots of people say that they have seen God. Or felt Jesus move through them. Just like kids who’ll swear they’ve seen Santa Clause. But after that lynx… that was the beginning of the end for me. Now, when I think of it, that pre-dawn wail, and seeing that cat move so effortlessly…”

“Do you ever miss it?

“Miss what?”


“No. …Maybe. I don’t know. There was a part of me, I realized later, that was sad that it was only a lynx making the noise. That it wasn’t something even more magical.”

“What do you mean?” Isabel asks. “That sounds pretty magical to me.”

“I was a boy. I wanted more. Hearing it in my bed tormented me to the point of almost wetting myself, but it was also exciting – like I really was listening to magic. I didn’t want that magic to end. Something very real and raw had come out of the forest and it was like I was in a Grimm fairy tale. That cat sounded so tormented. There was so much sadness in her lamenting wails that I have since nearly wept for her. She had such feelings of nostalgia. For something she once had, but was afraid was now gone forever. It was almost spiritual hearing her. Yet, I lost my religion through that experience… I suppose, like everyone else, I get nostalgic for the Christmases of my childhood. The joy of believing in something wonderful, believing in the magic of the world. Believing in something simply on pure faith.”

Milan hands the joint to Isabel. “I stopped going to church after that night. My mother didn’t like it much when I told her of my decision, but as a family we had stopped and started so much by then that it kind of seemed inevitable. She said I was old enough to decide for myself. …It was a long time ago.”

Isabel lies on her back, quietly admiring the vastness of the universe. She then gets up and pours herself some wine. “I did a science project once for the science fair,” she says, sipping at her glass. “I was in Grade Eight back then – and all the local public and Catholic school kids’ science projects were brought together and put on display in a local community centre. Isabel pauses at the thought, smiles, plays with the fire with a stick. “That science project was one of the hardest efforts I ever made in school. And that includes university. …I was really into anthropology in those days. It fascinated me. “Who are we?” “Where did we come from?” “How did we get here?” “What have we learned?” It was fascinating stuff.

“So I did this elaborate examination of our physical evolution. I remember our little school library didn’t have much to add to what I could find in the encyclopaedia, but the woman at the town library had put me on to the ideas of Darwin. And she had a great old book that gave really detailed images of all the early humanoids. So I traced detailed pencil drawings of a chimp, and then early Australopithecus man, right through to Neanderthal and Homo Sapiens to show how we had evolved.”

Milan holds up a finger, like a child in class. “Does it start with Australopithecus?”

She just shrugs her shoulders. “I don’t think it matters” Isabella says as she hands him back the joint. “Australopithecus or Adam. It’s the same idea.”

Isabel continued: “I moulded replicas of skulls, built a model village from hay and wild grass. I had a timeline looking at the great discoveries: fire, religion, agriculture, mathematics, astronomy. I think I drove my mom insane working until three in the morning for two weeks straight.

“The science fair had prizes for the three best projects in every category of the fair. There were categories for biology, physics, natural sciences. And the first place champion in each category went on to the “Science Fair Regional’s” in Fredericksburg, or Charlottesville, I now can’t remember which. Even fourth place projects received a certificate for honourable mention. We are millennials after all, we get awards for just showing up and trying. There was even a grand prize trip to the nationals in Nashville.”

“Ouou! Exotic!?” sputtered Milan.

“Hey, I was twelve. I’d never been anywhere. Nashville was the coolest place I could imagine going to.”

“It is cool” Milan interjects.

“Anyway,” Isabel says, pretending to be irritated with Milan, “when I discovered that there was only one other kid in my category I was thrilled. I couldn’t lose. I’d at least come in second.”

“That’s the spirit.”

“I remember this other boy’s project had something to do with plants but his project was a real pile of shit. I can’t remember what it was about exactly but I remember he had taped bristle board together and they kept falling apart, and they would then tumble off his table and onto the floor.

“They kept crashing to the floor and every time they fell off the table they’d knock his plants over in the process and so they got pretty battered and there was sand everywhere. I remember Mr. Thompson, our science teacher, coming up to him – I think the kid’s name was Peter – and he lectured this kid Peter for having obviously put it all together the night before. I felt sorry for him, having to stand there and take what was probably just another one of those “I’m very disappointed in you” speeches asshole teachers like to make to little twelve-year-olds.”

“But my display was mounted on half-inch plywood”, Isabel said proudly. “My aunt got me the wood and the hinges from the lumber yard where she worked as a secretary. My uncle helped me put it together. My writing was immaculate. My illustrations exact. I even bought stencils at the five-and-dime for the headlines. I was feeling very smug.”

“Were you a little Lisa Simpson?” Milan asks playfully. “And was your little science opponent Ralphie?”

“Totally! I can still see myself standing there and feeling the excitement of watching the judge coming down the isle of projects. And I can still see the rows of projects running parallel down the long isle of the that community centre’s gym. I can still see the big gym lights gleaming high overhead. And all the parents walking around with hotdogs and cans of pop.

“I looked up at my mom with a start because she had muttered “oh shit” when she had turned and saw the judge coming.

“She said hello to the judge in that formal polite kind of way that adults did and then left me to answer his questions. And at first I aced every question he asked. But I could tell he didn’t like any of my answers. And for some reason he didn’t like my project. Then his tone suggested that I was somehow in trouble, his voice had that bad vibe thrown at you for doing something you’re not entirely sure what you did, and now you’ve been hauled before the principal to justify your actions. But you have no idea what you did wrong.”

“Oooh, very Kafka-esque” Milan said.

“Yea, Kafka for twelve-year-olds. Apparently I had done something dreadfully wrong but I had no clue what it was, and no one was telling me what it was.”

“So what happened?” Milan asked.

“The judge finally looked down at me and said “Do you believe in God?”

“Really?” Milan interjected, looking up at Isabella. “What did you say?”

“I was twelve. Of course I believed in God.”

“Have you read the Bible?” he asked.”

“I was twelve! Of course I hadn’t read the Bible.”

“Your project is an insult to Christian values” he said to me, and walked away in a big fucking rooster huff.

“I didn’t have a clue what the hell he was talking about. I didn’t know why he was so upset. But at the time it didn’t seem to really matter to me. My project was obviously so much better than my opponents’, and besides, there were prizes for the top three and there were only two of us, and the other boy’s project was a piece of shit. I’d win something.”

“Something tells me you’re going to be wrong about that” Milan observes.

“Yea, well, later that evening they gathered us around the main stage to announce the winners. They announced them in reverse order from third to first. Then they’d mention the Honorable Mention. Which I have since found strange. They started with the Grade 6’s. Then the 7’s. When they finally came to the Grade Eights and then to my category it was announced that the other boy would be awarded the certificate for “Third Place.” I thought I had won! I was deliriously happy. I’d never won anything. Ever! But then the announcer said that there would be no other awards for this category. He immediately went on to some other Grade Eight category and that was that.”

“Fucking bastard” Milan remarked.

“I asked my mom what happened. I didn’t understand. “They forgot about me,” I said looking up at her. “We have to tell them that I was in that category.”

“They didn’t forget,” she said. “Your good judge Father O’Reilly is just a small-minded man. He’s doesn’t know his bible from his asshole, that’s all. Why the hell they’d ask a priest to judge a science fair is beyond me. Come on,” she said. “Let’s go home.”

“Are you serious!?” Milan says, smiling at Isabel. “You’ve never told me this story.” He jumps up and bows before her. “I feel like I’m having an audience with Galileo. You showed them, but they did not want to see!”

“I had no clue what had happened, and it took me a few years”, she said, looking back up at the stars, “before I realized why it was that a twelve-year-old girl couldn’t teach evolution to a Catholic Priest.” Milan gets to his feet with a heavy sigh and goes into the tent to get another bottle of wine.

“After my father left, God was everywhere in my childhood,” she says taking the wine from Milan and turning back to look into the fire. “My mom had Jesus on every wall in our apartment. His eyes would follow me everywhere. I couldn’t get dressed or undressed without Him looking down at me. Always watching me… When I was young it was comforting having him always around. But then I got boobs and I was embarrassed getting undressed in front of him. Once I started thinking about masturbation, I had to take him off the wall and put him in my closet. It was just too creepy having him watch me. We had a Sacred Heart Jesus, a Fat Jesus, a Beseeching Jesus. There was no escape. And my mom had little saints stuffed into the apartment everywhere.”

“What? What do you mean, that you had a fat Jesus? A beseeching Jesus?”

“You’ve never seen Fat Jesus!?” Isabella said, smiling down at Milan. “Fat Jesus is like a Botticelli version of the crucified Jesus. He’s a good hundred pounds overweight, yet you can still see all of his ribs. Fat Jesus is pretty wacky. He’s popular in many places in South America.”

“And a ‘beseeching Jesus’?”

Isabella rolls onto her knees in front of the fire and slowly begins to lift her outstretched arms to the heavens. “I saw him the first time I went to Buenos Aires. At the Basilica in Recoleta Cemetery. Our Lady of the Pillar Church. I’ll take you there when we go in November. The Recoleta Cemetery is a beautiful and magical place. (She slowly begins to tilt her head slightly to her right and lifts her eyes to look up to the heavens.) It’s a magnificent cemetery. It’s considered one of the most beautiful in the world. (She turns the palms of her hands outward and begins to lift them to the sky.) Beseeching Jesus is a life-size statue just off the right-side of the church entrance. (She lifts her arms higher, as if she were begging God for forgiveness.) It’s the richest church in Buenos Aires and here you have Jesus on his knees, wearing a red robe, and his hands are extended up in front of him, and he’s looking forlornly up into the sky, and he’s wondering why he’s been picked to be the forsaken one. The burden seems to be overwhelming him.”


“Yea, that’s what he looked like to me” she said as she smiled at the heavens. “Jesus looks like he is totally bummed and unamused at what was happening to him – no, unamused is the wrong word. Jesus is pleading, defeated, like he’s just clued into the fact that he is really going to die, and that his father really is not going to save him. And he knows that his father also knows this. It’s his own father doing it to him. Just like Abraham, He is willing to sacrifice his first born. Only this time it’s his own child; he’s not granting any last minute reprieve.”

Milan is amused at the image. “I never got to meet any of those Jesus’ in my upbringing. I only grew up with Dead Jesus. A massive dead Jesus, beautifully carved in wood, nailed to the cross, a huge dominating cross high above the altar of our Catholic church. My Jesus has always been dead, head limply slumped, his arms stretched out on the cross. His muscles sinuous and his shoulders tilted forward and slightly off the cross, the huge nails in his palms holding his arms back behind him. My Jesus only came dead. He wasn’t fat. Or beseeching. Or anything else for that matter. He was only ever dead.” 

Milan watches Isabella as she stands up and brushes the dirt from her knees. She turns and asks, “What would you sacrifice, for your beliefs?”

“Not my fucking first-born! That’s for goddamn sure.” Milan bursts out. “Why are their beliefs all so damned rigid? How is your faith more important than your own child. Your only son! Why are their beliefs so tied into Sacrifice? Law? Submission? Patriarchy? What’s it called? Noble obligesse? Noble obligations.”

Milan lies back and looks up at the sky. “You’d think those guys would have discovered Moroccan hash at some point in their Mediterranean proselytizing. Mellowed out a bit. Become Gnostics.”

“Yea, right” Isabella says as she kicks at some fallen cinders with her toe. “Guys like that are scared shitless of real spirituality. There’s too much fear in that sort of self-analysis. Standing naked, face-to-face with God. Too much doubting if you only take the Bible stories to be metaphors for deeply hidden wisdoms. Gnosticism is about an individual’s relationship with God. There’s too much to fear in that sort of individualism. There’s too much to fear in that kind of honest relationship with God. Where’s the power? The hierarchy? It’s too hard to control people in that kind of world where people are expected to self-actualize their own relationship to God. That’s why they whacked all the early Christian Gnostics in the head. Or chased them into the eastern edges of the Syrian Desert. That’s why they prohibit smoking herbs.”

“And dancing, don’t forget the ban on dancing.”

Isabella falls silent for a while, instinctively toying with the tiny Saint Jude hanging from her necklace. “I’d find Jesus chotskies in my toy box. My mom put them in my closet. She even stuck them in my panties in my drawer. When I was older, she thought she’d be a smart-ass, so she put one in my box of birth control pills. But she said that that was just for laughs… God wasn’t something you could opt out of in my house. My mom would stick them everywhere to remind me of my guilty intentions. But it was more than just believing in God. Religion was how we defined ourselves as a community. We were poor Latinos in America. The church was all we had.”

Milan looks up at the stars: “Most of us are still running around like scared little seven-year-olds in the dark. We want God to fix our problems so we don’t have to take responsibility for our own actions.” He sits silently for a moment. He then turns to her “Do you ever miss your father?”

“How can I miss what I never had? Its only ever been me and my mom.” Milan watches her, noting how her eyes drift with the campfire. “I have no memory of his face. Of ever holding his hand.”

Isabella comes back over to settle in under the blanket with Milan. She lies beside him with her head on his chest. “I’ve been in mountain villages after a flood, you know? Or after a forest fire has swept through and destroyed everything. Do you know what’s the first thing people do? They pray. Standing arm-in-arm they lock themselves together like a wall of granite, and they pray. How do you look at that and not see that there’s something bigger?”

Milan strokes her hair as he looks up at the stars. “Sometimes I envy that kind of faith. Annie Dillard once wrote about 18th century Hasidic Jews who kissed their families goodbye every time they went to pray, lest their praying should kill them. Should God strike them down before they had a chance to beg for mercy. Sometimes I hate people for that kind of ignorance. I have always thought that it would be nice to be sheltered by a temple. To have my weaknesses caressed, propped up, told that everything will be okay. But I don’t have whatever that is. I went to school and discovered physics and history and hand jobs at the back of school yards. I stopped believing in Santa Clause. And I stopped believing in God.”

Isabella snuggles in closer. “Why can’t you believe like that?”

“I don’t know. I’m not like you. I don’t believe there will be any post-modern peasant revolution. I think it’s too late for that, or for any kind of revolution at all. Our ideas and our images and our thoughts and our music and our poetry has all been commercialized, and sold back to us as consumer product. The revolution sells distressed blue jeans in Vanity Fair magazine. A real individual listens to vintage Bob Dylan while out shopping on Queen West. I meet people in the cafe who think about how a stint volunteering with Doctors Without Borders would look good on their resumes. You know what I mean?”

“I hope you’re wrong”, Isabella says looking into the fire. “In my work, when someone gets shot in the head over an idea, they still die. It’s not just a TV show. It’s not just advertising.”

“Hey, I know that,” Milan says to her. “But in my world hunger is only a picture of a starving baby selling charity for some lost cause in Africa. In an obese society, we are being sold the idea of hunger. It’s just another image on a charity envelope. Don’t forget to get a receipt. Write it off your taxes.”

Isabel sighs softly. “I’ve seen people punch their own children in the face for a scrap of food,” Isabella notes sadly. “Deprivation makes the body go mad with desire. I hate all of that North American hipster-post-modern ‘an-image-is-more-real-than-reality’ – ‘everything-is-ironic’ – bullshit.”

“Yea…well…” Milan remarks as he re-lights their joint, “welcome to the belly of the beast baby.” He inhales deeply, passes it over to Isabella, and looks back up at the night sky. “I think we would have better luck changing the world if we just lie here and try to count the stars.”