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When two tribes go to war…

September 19, 2017

So, if you pay attention you will see that it is currently very much in vogue in the mainstream media to highlight that the current political unrest in the world – and the rise of right-wing quasi-fascist nationalist sentiment – is a reaction to Enlightenment principles – that we are at the end of the 300 year historical process known as the Enlightenment era.

Some even argue that the Enlightenment itself is a colonial relic that needs to be discarded into the dustbins of history – as if it were only white Europeans who discovered and built upon the ideas of equality, human rights, environmentalism. (A concept which you may note is itself racist and colonial.)

Far better it would be to cast out the principles of enlightenment than discuss the elephant in the room – global capitalism and its inherent structural contradictions, which, when unregulated, leads to the crisis of capital accumulation (where too few people sit on (horde) too much of the money), which subsequently leads to widespread poverty amongst everyone else, that can only deepen over time as this fundamental contradiction continues to play itself out – like a cancer killing its host.

If say McDonald’s can increase its profits by eliminating all of its workers through a full automation of the burger-to-mouth process (which it is working on as we speak) – at a very basic economic level this is good business. That this completely disregards the notion that fewer people will actually be able to purchase said burgers due to increased unemployment seems to be beyond their understanding of quarterly profit reports.

When most jobs are automated in what some people are calling the largest impending disruption of employment since the Industrial Revolution – who will buy the goods? Six million jobs are expected to be lost in the world over the next 10 years due to increased automation. Some argue that over the next 25 years, at least 100 million jobs worldwide will be lost with the arrival of self-driving cars and trucks.

It’s not surprising that much of corporate media would avoid any real de-construction discussion of capitalism as they are part of the corporate structure themselves – especially with media outlets increasingly concentrated in fewer and fewer hands (also part of a deregulation that began under Reagan in the US and Mulroney in Canada).

When Canada’s national newspaper is owned by one of the richest families in Canada (the Thompsons) you are not going to see any discussion about the failings of capitalism.

Even the CBC, in highlighting today that the use of food-banks in Canada is up 9% this year, despite Canada’s so-called booming economy, there was no discussion about stagnant wages, or receding wages (the minimum wage is worth only about 1/2 what it was in the 1970’s – less than a 1/4 of its value in some American states) – nor did they connect the strike at a GM plant in Ontario where production has been gradually siphoned off to cheaper wage workers in Mexico.

They did mention the high cost of housing but with no analysis whatsoever as to where the high cost of housing comes from – who profits from the high cost of housing – or how governments work with developers to maintain the high cost of housing.

No, the mainstream news does not connect the dots for us. Any more than they connect the dots when it comes to global warming. (Sidebar note: In a review of media coverage here in America of media coverage of Hurricane Harvey and Hurricane Irma – two hurricanes described by scientists as once every 500 years type storms – none of the big American media players ever mentioned – even once – climate change in their coverage.)

There’s just too much at stake for those who continue to make enormous wealth, and gain global power, from the current system, for there to be any real examination of what the current economic model is doing to the 98% of the world who are being economically marginalized, or the price the planet has to pay for their exploitation.

Should we be surprised that nationalist unrest here in America is located primarily in those parts of the country most adversely affected by the past 30 years if neo-liberal capitalist policy? It is the same in financially marginalized regions in France, Spain, Italy, Germany, India, China, and Russia, where the majority of nationalist protests are occurring.

History has shown repeatedly that when the workers get squeezed to the financial brink, they start reacting by blaming “others” – minorities, immigrants, women – failing to see the larger forces at play.

Nationalism, fascism, authoritarianism are never far behind…we ignore the structural contradictions at play in the current global economic model at our own peril…

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Three weeks in…

September 18, 2017

Surprisingly, the hardest thing to come to terms with in Chicago (so far), is just how damn friendly and talkative Chicagoans are.

It’s really irritating sometimes!

Especially if we are in a hurry, we just want to find something, make a purchase, get on with the errands of our day.

We’re Canadians after all – there are so many things we have to do. No time to say hello, goodbye, we’re late, we’re late, we’re late!

Needed a new night light for the bike – so my partner can cycle to her night class in peace. At our local bike shop, I must first maneuver through a 25 minute discussion on the state of cycling in Chicago, the history of bike lanes in Illinois, the best route to get to Northwestern, and how much the neighborhood has changed (gentrified) since the guy opened his bike store in 1981.

We are walking to a local cafe. Across the street an African man (wearing a dashiki) is gardening in his front yard, clearing weeds with a machete. He smiles at us. I give him a thumbs up, he smiles broadly and says “It’s a beautiful day, is it not?” A neighbor lady, watching him work, greets us with a “Good morning, how ya’all doin this mornin?”

At the cafe the barista says she doesn’t recognize us, we tell her we have just moved here from Toronto, she takes the next 15 minutes to tell us about the neighborhood, who has the best beer, pizza, breakfast menu, where to watch the Cubs, where the best new theatre is happening, what she thinks of the mayor (at least he’s not Trump), and with the mention of Trump the cook comes out from the back and others pipe in with their hisses and boos and a whole new conversation begins (we still don’t have our coffee).

But we’re Canadian! You’re making us terribly self-conscious with all this stranger talk, just give us our coffee, leave us to our polite solitude and political meekness. Can’t we just apologize for being new to the area and get on with our day?

“I think she was hitting on you,” my partner says to me after we finally sit down.

“Me? I thought she was hitting on you,” I say back to her.

“She must have been hitting on one of us”, she says. “Why else would she talk so much?”

Because we love to buy most of our major household needs from Craigslist (there is no Kijiji down here), we’ve learned to schedule in an extra 1/2 hr when we go to someone’s house to look at lamps, or bookshelves, or a vintage reading chair someone no longer wants.

This wonderful old plant lady out in the old 50’s style burbs just west of us, first has to take us on a grand tour of her gardens, tell us about her daughter (who also went to Northwestern), how her husband and her came to the U.S. from China in the late ’60’s – finally we point out to her that we have a car rental – by the hour – “okay, okay, okay” she says, and then invites us in to try a certain fruit she has just harvested from one of her trees. My wife pulls out her cell phone and uses the car rental app to extend our rental another hour. What else can we do?

And yet…

And yet, despite this friendliness, this eagerness to engage and chat, there is a deep American paranoia of the “other” and a great lurking rage just beneath the surface of American culture.

The triple-locked doors, the wrought-iron fences, the “beware of dog” signs we see in so many porch windows. The gun violence. We watched as two women got into a full-on fist fight in our local supermarket.

The binary extreme so many people here seem to live with.

But there is also the cultural space allowed for such extremes not usually found in Canadian culture.

My gut reaction is that universal healthcare, paid maternity leave, a more widely applied social welfare support system, more physical space, less people, all help smooth out the harshest of edges off the psyche. By no means is Canada a perfect system (don’t get me started), but it does impact how Canadians see ourselves and others vis-a-vis how Americans see themselves.

Americans have either a complex relationship with joy and fear, or a very immature one. Point of view is everything. They are both there in abundance. The switch can be flipped instantly.

But it would be nice if Canadians – especially Torontonians – learned how to socially relax a little bit more, discover the joy of chatting with a total stranger at a downtown cafe, have an actual opinion about something on occasion.

We are often understood by what we are not. By our negative space.

Americans are chatty. Canadians are not.

Canadians demure. Americans do not.

Somewhere in between these two poles…


September 13, 2017

_MG_5730Well is was a crazy summer of transferring the cafe to new operators, planning our wedding, organizing our move, moving to Chicago. Poor old Sisyphus was abandoned for great stretches of time. Necessarily abandoned but not forgotten. Many scribbles were collected with a view to fall reflections…

Here is a random assortment of ideas, thoughts, observations – read, overheard, dictated…gathered like bread crumbs over the summer…

  1. “What is Google, if not the suggestion that, in principle, there are no more questions?” Daniel Brandis
  2. “Meaning today has been reduced to regulating and securing.” Daniel Brandis
  3. “We live in the era of the growth of forgetfulness – from the openness of the Greek entering the world to an increasing forgetfulness, our increasing withdrawal from the world.” -Bertrand Russell
  4. 300568._UY630_SR1200,630_.jpg“This may be the most valuable act we can perform: to make peace with the only reality fate has given us.” -Guy Davenport
  5.  “English is a romance language the way a porpoise is a fish and a bat is a bird.” -Guy Davenport
  6. “Greek time is in the eye, anxious about transitions (beard, loss of boyish beauty). Hebrew time is in the ear (Hear, oh Israel!). What the Greek gods say does not make a body of quotations, they give no laws, no wisdom. But what they look like is of great and constant importance. Yahweh, invisible, is utterly different.” – Guy Davenport
  7. How much of the world one sees in one’s lifetime will depend entirely on what one can tolerate in public washrooms. -based on personal experience
  8. IMG_8144.jpg
  9. (July) The sun, by 7pm is in the western sky. This being mid-summer it won’t set until well after 9. I am sitting on the porch, reading, facing the sun. I hear the horses before I see them, galloping into my view stage right, exiting stage left, circling at the creek and then accelerating back up the length of the field – snorting and playing with each other as they go. The dog jumps from his slumber under my chair and happily takes off after them, eager to join the fun.
  10. (8.a.) “Being with animals, you feel something grander.” -Claire Matin

taking the 18 bus…

September 12, 2017

Went down to the Third World today – otherwise known here as south Chicago – on the hunt for a warehouse-sized used office furniture store located at Cicero and Roosevelt.

Now Cicero and Roosevelt is no ghetto, it’s merely a hard-earned working class neighborhood – but our bus took us through about five straight kilometers of ghetto getting there.

It’s unbelievable, almost unfathomable, that north Chicago and south Chicago can both say they are Chicago.

And relative to further south and west in Chicago, where we were today is considered not all that bad. We were only in the north-end of the south-side. There are areas further south that are strictly no-go zones, even in the middle of the day.

Funny how all the little privileges we take for granted in the north end are absent in the south.

Up here we are surrounded by beautifully manicured parks – some more than 100 acres in size. Every two weeks the city posts flyers on our street to remind us that the street cleaner will be coming through in a few days so park your car somewhere else between 9am and 2pm. Practically every street up here is tree canopied, clean, filled with pedestrians and restaurants and businesses of all kinds. Welcome to Pleasantville!

Do the street cleaners not work in the south end of the city?Are there no maintenance people to clean the garbage, trim the hedges, cut the grass? Seriously!?

We saw no park today where we were in the south end. Young Black men stood on street corners, their eyes hard, pissed at the world for giving them the short straw, uneducated and unemployable, hustling, waiting for Godot.

Even the subway line out to Cicero has the oldest shittiest cars in the system. Seriously? Our red north line has the poshest cleanest newest cars in the entire system. The ghettos get the 40-yr-old rattlers and the Cicero subway station looked like it was transplanted here from some impoverished neighborhood in India. The entire structure looked like it was ready to crumble into dust at any moment.

Should I mention that we were the only white people on the bus today? In the entire neighborhood? Or is this so obvious when you are talking about these neighborhoods in big American cities that it’s not worth mentioning.

Black cyclists in Chicago are three times more likely to be stopped by the police than their white counterpart peddlers. Nine times more likely to be charged with a cycling infraction. Black youth in Chicago are 15 times more likely to be charged for possessing marijuana than white youth. Black men 5 times more likely to be stopped while driving a car. Somewhere on Facebook someone is about to post another video of an unarmed Black man being shot by the cops somewhere in America.

But we know all of this already. Race and class dispossession are the open raw wounds that rips America’s soul.

Up here the $5 indi-cafe lattes flow, young men play football in the park, students go about the business of going to one of the numerous neighborhood universities – everyone healthy, as if dipped in yogurt.

And yet, on the bus, or on the street, when we needed help as to where we should get off, how to get to the subway for the trip back, all we got was that friendly American charm and chatter we find (as Canadians) so disarming.


September 10, 2017

I thought it was a very neat hijacking of the dialectic when it was decided that North Americans – neither conservative or progressive – Jews and non-Jews alike – would be understood as to not have any opinion whatsoever on Israeli political affairs – not on internal politics, and most especially not on Israeli foreign affairs – because to have an opinion, or an idea, or even a concern, was in itself, inherently, anti-Semitic.

And at what point in our post-modern anti-colonial white guilt halcyon days of yore, did we agree to this idea that just because we want to call Israel on some of its bullshit – in the same way I want to call out America, or China, or Russia, or my own government – since when did I become anti-Semitic simply because I want to ask Israel “why”?

America – first week in…

September 2, 2017

fullsizeoutput_337Port Huron Customs Office: standing in line – bank style – when three customs officers check a camera screen above their heads and burst off through the back door, returning a couple of minutes later with a brown-skinned man who had made a run for it back to Canada. His wife and three children are pulled from the line behind us and all are taken into Interrogation Room #1.

Michigan Gas Station: two white police officers – the size the ex-NFL linebackers arrest a Black man in the gas station yard (reasons unknown). The one officer doesn’t like the Black man’s baseball cap so he removes it, checks the lining for contraband, and then throws it on the ground.

An old truck pulls up to the pump beside us. A middle aged man with no dental plan gets out and takes in the view like a bully who’s used to getting his way. The bumper sticker on his truck reads: “Guns Guts Glory. USA!”

Welcome to the freak show.

The gas in Michigan is about 60 cents per litre Canadian (when converted). But the interstate freeway in Michigan is mostly shite. County roads in Ontario are in better shape. Cheap gas. Pothole filled freeways.

NPR Radio (and American press in general – not including FOX News): The previous night to our arrival Trump gave a belligerent (some say fascist) speech in Arizona where he demonized for an hour both the mainstream press and cartel-linked Mexican immigrants who are all rapists and criminals. He threatens to shut down his own government if the new federal budget does not include start-up money ($2 billion) for his wall. Comparisons to early Hitler speeches fill the airwaves of NPR.

The next day Trump pardons Sheriff Joe Arpaio, who the Arizona state courts had found to be in contempt for his refusal to follow court orders related to Arpaio’s on-going illegal harassment of Mexican immigrants, journalists who oppose him, and his treatment of people in the prison system. Arpaio is openly racist and proud of it.

Trump’s approval ratings fall to all-time lows.

North Chicago: We found an apartment on the edge of Little Mexico in Roger’s Park. The people are tremendously friendly and chatty. We can’t get out of the local market without the cashier telling us her life story. As former Torontonians it puts us on edge. We are too polite to say anything and just wait until she finishes her monologue.

IMG_8343We are reminded at the bank that guns are not allowed in the bank. If we bring a gun into the bank our account will be terminated immediately. There are no handgun signs on every restaurant and university campus we visit. Even the Women’s and Children First bookstore has a sign in the door. Very weird coming from Canada.

There are anti-hate lawn signs everywhere. Chicago has declared itself a sanctuary city and refuses to use its police force to do Trump’s anti-immigrant dirty work. Trump says the federal government will retaliate this fall with financial penalties to all sanctuary cities. So far federal money slated to buy new police cars has been cancelled. The mayor of Chicago has filed a law suit against the president for endangering the lives of Americans.

IMG_7795All the press – even the conservative press – are now on a Trump death watch. Every day there are articles about the imminent resignation of Trump. Vice-president Pence steps up his public speaking engagements – trying not to look like he is bailing on Trump, yet trying at the same time to look presidential.

The freak show continues…




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.


Rachel Cusk.

I’ve only read the first chapter…