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Getting stopped in your tracks…

June 29, 2017

Occasionally you come across a new writer – more accurately you discover a new writer for yourself – who stops you in your tracks.

And you get that giddy silly feeling all over again.

You know the feeling. When you first come across a writer and you are immediately ensnared in their story. Made especially delicious because I had never heard of them before.

Growing up on a farm there were a lot of writers and thinkers I had never heard of, and so now, thinking back, I still remember where I was the first time I came across writers who moved me. I used to think of them as the books that made me vibrate.

When I was a 19-year-old archipelago about to leave my eastern Ontario childhood to fly to Saskatchewan to 1) work on a reservation and 2) then fly on to Indonesia where I work on some rural agricultural projects (through Canada World Youth), a 30-year-old friend of one of my uncles gave me two books to take with me.

He told me they weren’t the greatest books he had ever read, but he thought that I might find them interesting. I remember at the time thinking “what the fuck would I do with two books?”.

The only books I had seen up to that point in my life were my dad’s Louis archipelago and my my mom’s Harlequins, and those that were force-fed us by a bitter spinster of an English teacher I had in high school. (She scared a great deal of us farm children off ever reading again.)

Of the two book, I started reading Atlas Shrugged while living in Prince Albert and working on a wild rice program at the Little Red River reserve.

You can say whatever you want about Ayn Rand and her fascist politics, but any intelligent ambitious person can identify  with Dagny Taggart and Hank Reardon, the two protagonists of Atlas Shrugged, and all the incompetent bureaucrats, inept parasitical politicians, and egotistical assholes of the world who get in your way.

The game is stacked in favor of complete mediocrity and mindless conformity – and it’s practically a superhuman task to break free from it.

Imagine then watching Indigenous communities dealing with the local white community and with white politicians – while reading Atlas Shrugged?

The provincial government of the time didn’t like how much money the reservation’s wild rice project could potentially make for the community (“they wouldn’t know how to spend it “properly”), and when a local 17-year-old Cree girl made the local news because she signed a big fashion contract, two white girls slashed her face one day soon after in the bathroom of a Prince Albert high school.

Talk about Greek Tragedy!

I read the second book Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance (ZAMM) while living in a hand-to-mouth remote village in the Indonesian archipelago. A six hour jet ride from the capital Jakarta, a 24 hr boat ride from there, and a 2 hr drive into the jungle, you then come to a village where the local officials were more concerned with making sure everyone went to prayer 5 times a day than if everyone had enough to eat.

Robert Pirsig, the author of ZAMM, was the first “thinker” I had ever read. He laid out many ideas that up to that point I had only ever intuited, or maybe glimpsed but never understood in any real way. There was a straight line from first reading Pirsig at 19, and then being the first in my entire family tree to go to university 6 years later.

He was the first who deconstructed for me such fundamental questions as “what are we doing as a society?”, “where are we going?”, “what does quality of life mean?”, “where do we come from as a culture, what is our History?”

To ask these questions while in a village where for the first three weeks I was there all everyone had to eat was a twice daily meal of white rice and a small portion of fried fish; where your closest source of drinking water was a 2km walk away – which, for the villagers was a walk of great communal pleasure – Pirsig’s questions of what does Quality mean blew the top of my head off.

One morning in the village I was invited to sit in the circle while a new baby was baptized into the village. Two weeks later the baby died of a simple fever. The village went about its business. The children chased a big lizard that had tried to eat one of the chickens.

The villagers were furious with me, early on, when one day I had decided to walk to the local beach and go for a swim. The family I was staying with explained to me that I had insulted the water Gods for not first asking permission, that very bad things could have happened t me, and to the village for such arrogance and stupidity.

Quality of Life?

What does it mean?

Anyway, a long digression from the idea of discovering new authors, and how they can stop you in your tracks.

Which brings me to Rachel Cusk.

Harper’s Magazine recently had an excerpt from Cusk’s new book Transit; I was caught in the headlights of an on-coming train.

Joan Didion, Annie Dillard, Guy Davenport – Rachel Cusk.

They write like surgeons.

Dissecting the space between poetry and prose.

Fascinated by human behavior, metaphor, of like imitating art. Sorrow. Loss. Memory. Love.

Masters of Refuse. Dissecting the baggage, curious about everything.

According to the Greeks we all thought like this once upon a time. Hebrew scripture suggests the same. Apparently we have been forgetting ever since.

It was John Ralston Saul’s Voltaire’s Bastards where Saul blamed the art of forgetting on Aristotle. Or rather, that because Aristotle wanted to bring order to the apparent chaos around him, he set out to classify everything. We have carried that mantle of clarification ever since, further losing ourselves from the big picture of life, increasingly focused only on the minutia of sub-categories 8 times removed from the main heading.

How can we understand the question “quality of life?” when we now don’t even know what the word quality means? How can you know anything about anything if you don’t have a basic undergraduate degree in etymology?

Kundera. Dostoevsky. Garcia. Borges. David Foster Wallace. I remember exactly where I was when I first discovered these writers.

To come full circle – 30 years after I left the farm for that reservation – to sit on the farm porch and read Annie Dillard’s Pilgrimage to Tinker Creek!

Right after having studied Lao Tzu, and the Chinese masters.

Boom!

Rachel Cusk.

I’ve only read the first chapter…

Boom!

 

 

 

 

 

 

Last Sunday in Parkdale…

June 20, 2017

Ran into an old friend while I was in Parkdale last weekend. I was at a local cafe, getting an early morning coffee while everyone was still asleep back at my sister-in-laws.

An old friend over a great distance of time. Works with the homeless. Mohawk. Still speaks the mother-tongue. Rolls her English in that Indian way.

“What’re doin douwn heire?” she says with a big smile and hug.

“Oh, ya know, visiting the rez.”

“Don’t ja know it. The largest rez in Canada.”

She gives me the five minute update on life and love and work. I tell her we are moving to Chicago, getting married next month, of our sabbatical living back on the family farm, running a small cafe in my old hometown.

We hadn’t seen each other in maybe 15 years, we don’t know what to say next, the conversation sputters, she has to go meet a friend for breakfast.

“Miss seeing ya again.”

“You too.”

I watch her walk until she turns the corner at King.

Man she brings back memories. How feverish we were back then. We had assumed we were joining a cause, fixing a problem, moving forward. Homelessness. Indigenous rights. Youth in crisis. Women’s rights.

Sure, we thought, the older generation may be intransigent, or ignorant of the colonial/capitalist structural problems involved – an awareness of how the economic/social structure itself was causing the cancer – and that once we showed them – people in power would make it right.

We soon discovered that most people in power didn’t want to change a damn thing. That their bookshelves were already stacked to the ceiling with the advice of those who had come before us. The university reports. Non-profit summaries. The United Nations. Sustainability experts. Despite best practice results in European countries that put our statistics to shame – the people in power here were indifferent to it all.

There’s still too much relying on the lies. Too many people are still allowed to get rich off the current system. I’ve watched politicians throw reports straight into the trash on their way out of a homeless committee meeting. And the politicians who do care, are quickly marginalized within the system, dismissed for being unrealistic, a pain-in-the-ass, a liberal.

~~~~~

 But this early Parkdale morning is pure sunshine, with mid-summer temperatures, and running into an old friend at the cafe. The air today is coming in off the lake as soft as a baby’s bum. This week was warmer than last. Kids are waking up knowing there is only 2 weeks of school left. It’s about early morning dog walkers, babes in strollers, yesterday’s addicts already out and on the prowl. It’s about two old lovers running into each other and sweet fitful nights sweating and grasping in the dark.

The lakefront trees are as alive with the sound of birds as they are back on the farm.

When you focus, you can hear them.

They are too easily lost – in the white noise energy of the megalopolis.

 

I need a suit…

June 7, 2017

After 40 years of reacting to, and opposing establishment corruption that is leaving so much of the world on the brink of collapse – I feel a little-bit like a sellout walking into a men’s suit store.

We all wear our uniforms, and “the suit” – for my entire lifetime – has been the uniform of the Oppressor.

Worn by the politician, the highly-placed bureaucrat, the banker.

You know the kind of men what I mean.

But just as a young black man takes back the word Nigger, or young feminists repossess Bitch, I reclaim the suit for the Knights of the Round Table.

I reclaim it for the ideals of style, culture, tradition; the bedroom.

A man’s wedding suit is nothing, if not about ideals. Marriage. Romance. Family routines. Community.

To walk hand-in-hand with your lover. Your best friend. To see eternity in a smile, to feel safe together in a very large and too often dark world.

To celebrate with friends and family and other odd assortments of people who have come together to congratulate you.

The occasion demands a reclamation!

~~~~~~~~~~

Image result for tom's menswear torontoTom’s Place for Men’s Suits, on Baldwin Street, in the heart of Kensington Market in Toronto is like walking into a time warp – of the very best kind.

My salesman, about 65 years old and of Portuguese background, has been a clothier all of his life. He is meticulous, generous, cultured, a man who understands craftsmanship.

He knows how to get you to buy just beyond your budget, yet leaving you feeling like you got a good deal.

“Look at this one. It’s a classic. It’s a masterpiece. Think Cary Grant. It’s $895, but it’s your wedding – I’ve been married 48 years – can you believe that? – and you work with youth – that’s good work – for you I’ll give it to you for $675. No, $650.

“Deal!”

~~~~~~~~~~

Of course there is that other suit, as well. The one we are all too familiar with. The one that comes in green, often of a camouflage design.

That particular suit comes with medals you can pin on your chest – for heroism, patriotism, honor! Most often worn by men with a taste for war and pillage. Dangerous men, of which our history books are full.

Five million people die every year – under the thumbs of these men, in our world filled with hate, intolerance, fear.

But let’s not digress on such a happy occasion. Today is about soft cotton shirts and silk ties. Proper measurements and discussing different cuts.

We agree that professional hockey players don’t know how to wear a suit. They always walk in front of a camera like they are off to their first high school prom. Professional soccer players, on the other hand – especially the Argentines and the Spaniards – know how to wear a suit. Suave. Cool. Self possessed.

Bureaucrats tend to wear a suit like they’re wearing a tee-shirt. The men who look puffy, scratch themselves more than most men, play a lot of video games.

There are the Bay Street Bankers, hive men of the 80 story bank tower. So me of those men come to Tom’s, but most find the neighborhood too riff-raffy, and so they go to Harry Rosen’s in Yorkville instead. Or Moore’s.

There are the politicians in suits. The salesmen. The doctors who wear suits.

The used car salesman.

The saddest suit of all.

In my daily work life, I’m so glad I don’t generally have to wear a suit.

The suit is great for special occasions. But God, everyday? Uhg!

Uniforms, by their very definition, are about conformity, bureaucracy, totalitarian tendencies.

My mom says I’ll be judged by the kind of friends I keep.

My father-in-law, also here with me to get a new suit, tells our antiquated gentleman seller of suits that he wants a suit he can use for his daughter’s wedding, as well as for the many funerals he knows are coming up in his future. Including his own.

He tells the salesman (as he looks at himself in the mirror) he wants a suit he can be buried in.

~~~~~~~~~~

My humble gorilla act of suit reclamation, I know, will not succeed, or even be able to impact, in any significant way, how and why men wear suits.

There have always been those who like to enforce a dress code on others.

But for the day we will disregard these types of men, and the kinds of suits they wear, and we aspire to our higher angels – to a well-made and well-sold suit –

worn as a declaration of love, friendship, and family.

If only every night were like this one…

May 29, 2017

Last night: Not sure what woke me.

But I awoke.

There was a burst of lightning, illuminating the bedroom, I see flashes of paintings on the wall, the white cat sleeping on the clothes strewn on the floor. But the thunder dragged far behind – the storm was still far off, down the valley.

It is so dark I cannot see even my hand in front of my face.

Had it been the lightning that woke me? In my sleep-fog I had thought there was something else.

Another flash. And then pure darkness.

There it is! Suddenly alert!

Coyotes up in the hills, calling to the storm? Collecting the family to the den? The low growl of our dog from the porch, just outside our window.

The coyotes yip in waves, fade away, call again.

Last night we had stood outside in the wonder of a vast domed roof of northern lights and chirping frogs. A great white campfire that flamed and ebbed across the northern horizon. Waves of white flames, ghosts escaping into the universe.

Flash! Bam! My partner stirs from her deep slumber beside me.

“What was that?” she says, not waking.

Thunder, I say softly. There’s a storm coming.

“Yum”, she says, and snuggles in close to me. The other cat, on the pillow beside her, begins to purr.

Northern lights and thunderstorms.

I hear the rain coming up the valley. A hiss. A tapdance on the barn roof.

A breeze blows up, bringing in the window the smell of fresh lilacs, just off the porch.

I fall asleep feeling like a child, safe in my wonderment, a harmony of awe and fragrant peace; God’s eternity caught in the palms of my hands, five minutes before daybreak.

Cultural appropriation and the aristocracy of stupidity…

May 21, 2017

https://www.thestar.com/entertainment/books/2017/05/10/editor-quits-amid-outrage-after-call-for-appropriation-prize-in-writers-magazine.html

Many of the white folk who have positions of power at various Canadian media and literary outlets, who made the deeply insensitive comments last week about their indifference to the concept of cultural appropriation – coming in the midst of a national debate about Canada’s 150th birthday, and how the nation was built on the genocide and oppression of Indigenous peoples who already lived here – was clueless on so many levels I am almost too overwhelmed to respond.

What strikes me, is that these white men (yes, there was at least one white woman involved as well – but as with all positions of power in Canada, this is first, and foremost, a tale of white men) are completely clueless to their own positions of privilege, to the history of who has voice in Canada, as well as a seemingly total ignorance of the price indigenous people have paid for the military occupation of their land, and the almost total eradication of their culture.

What baffles me is that these are white men who are, more or less, in my age range. These are men in their mid 40’s through to their mid 60’s, men in their peak career earning years, men with corner offices, men who are seen at all the top literary and journalism events. Men of the Arts and Culture Scene in Canada.

Many of these men were in journalism school around the same time I was. They all have the past 30-40 years of participating in the cultural zeitgeist we call Canada. Sure, that dominant zeitgeist is white – Tim Horton’s, Shopper’s Drug Mart, Margaret Atwood, Hockey Night in Canada white – and yes, at the heart of Hal Niedzviecki’s infamous editorial was a call for white writers in Canada to step out of themselves and stop being, well, so white! Still, have they not listened to the news of their own outlets, read the discussions about cultural appropriation in their own magazines, empathized with the national tragedy that is Canada’s indigenous community.

This is where Niedzviecki’s editorial completely falls off the rails – being blinded by his own ignorance and privilege and general lack of intelligence and common sense (or, just plain stupid), he assumed that the problem of too much whiteness in our literary circles could be solved by white writers assuming the perspective and viewpoint of the Other – “not white” people.

Rather than calling for the opening of Canada’s tightly-clenched white sphincter of privilege to people who are “other”, to allow them space and voice, he calls for white writers to be more indigenous, or Black, or Asian, or Chinese.

What better example do we have for understanding ongoing white-centric cultural neocolonialism?

Of course as writers and thinkers we should all try to embrace the other that we encounter and relate to, but Niedzviecki speaks as if all people on the spectrum are on equal ground, with equal access to voice.

Which is so obviously not true. Can you name even three Indigenous Canadian writers? Poets? Movie directors? Television personalities? Radio show hosts? Newscasters? Friends?

Of course, all last week the Globe and Mail, Toronto Star, and CBC (TV and radio) have rolled out indigenous personalities to voice their disappointment and anger at Niedzviecki’s editorial and the subsequent pro-appropriation response it provoked from within certain Canadian literary circles. But where are these voices the rest of the time?

Shut the fuck up with your feigned liberal outrage and intolerant righteousness when next week these same voices of tokenism are relegated back to the Rez.

It’s hard being reminded, that 50 years after the Civil Rights Movement started, 35 years after Canada got a new constitution, and 10 years since we started talking about truth and reconciliation that we are, at heart, still so white – so dramatically white, that we are still so blinded by our privilege and our access to voice that in a magazine that was supposed to be celebrating indigenous writers in Canada, the editor-in-chief asked that white writers appropriate indigenous culture. And, that there should be a prize for the one who could do it best. And!, that other white men (and white women) would tweet their support for this appropriation initiative and even pony up some of their own money for the prize.

But it’s more than that as well. It’s as if we are actively not listening to what other people are saying; that we willingly wear blinders to keep the periphery out of sight, out of mind. That the marginalia will be happy with their yearly film festivals, their pride parades, their weekly slot on CBC Radio, or with one issue of the Writer’s Union Magazine being dedicated to indigenous writers (a magazine which, until this week, most of us had never heard of).

Some of my liberal white friends – forever optimists – say that, at least, things are slowly getting better. That this would not have been an issue of national debate 50 years ago. That at Canada’s 100th birthday party no one ever considered the implications of that celebration on our indigenous communities.

They point out that Niedzviecki was forced to resign for his stupidity. That other supporters lost their jobs as well.

They point out that we have had a Truth and Reconciliation Commission, are now having a national inquiry into missing and murdered indigenous women, that many of us have at least heard of Motorcycles and Sweetgrass.

A round of applause I say.

Let’s pat ourselves on the back. Let’s thump the parliamentary podiums with a “here here!”

The ruling aristocracy loves to vindicate itself by throwing breadcrumbs to the pigeons.

Of course incremental change has happened. But how little things have actually changed, by 2017, is embarrassing.

After 400 years of colonial occupation this is the best we can do? Pat ourselves on the back for at least talking about cultural appropriation?

Maybe in another 400 years Canada’s indigenous communities will finally get safe drinking water. Basic housing. The same standard of education that white children get. Maybe we will stop taking their children from them. Maybe.

A lot can happen in 400 years.

Or not.

You are judged by what you do, not by what you say…

May 15, 2017

Jeff Sessions is on the official record as opposing same sex marriage, and the military’s “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy (all queers should simply be expelled from military duty). He is against the Voting Rights Act, and opposes (on principle) anti-discrimination laws.

He is anti-immigration, pro-military, and anti-union…

As the new United States of America’s Attorney General, Jefferson Beauregard Sessions is now the most powerful law maker in America!

18446596_10209430639344006_425097736199268468_n.jpg

https://www.washingtonpost.com/…/read-the-financial-discl…/…

 

 

rural living…

May 13, 2017

City Folk have come to expect art on their lattes. Expect in the merest sense of the word, like its nothing more than a sign of modernity, common sense, the least a decent cafe should be doing to meet expectations.

Local folk are equal parts amazed and perplexed that we have come to this: putting art on our coffee.

Some of my childhood friends, those who grew up with dirt floors, are the most confused by the state of the world; friends who never left local, and now live amongst million dollar cottages and $5 latte art.

Occasionally one will walk into out cafe, they heard I was back in town, want to have a quick chat, catch-up, talk about the old days. I’ll make them a latte – what’s that they say?

Love it, or hate it, they are bemused by the art. What will they think of next?

Talking to some of the old ones up here – there’s a 94-year-old mother (grandmother, great-grandmother, now great-great-grandmother…) of 21 children up here – who by the way can still tear it up at the UNAF dance – talking to her is like the time, back in the ’90’s, when I got to talk to three old guys sitting on a bench in Clarkesdale, Mississippi, and asking them what life was like in Mississippi, 30 years after Martin Luther King Jr., and the Civil Rights Movement.

“Shit boy. What do you know of such things?” And then they would all laugh and smoke their cigarettes and look off into the middle distance.

The old ones up here can be like that too. Remembering the street fights between the Catholics and the Protestants. Trees as wide as houses. Getting through the winter on potatoes and cabbage. Tongue soup.

Latte art…

What will they think of next?