(if you’re in, or can make it to, Toronto this November 15th.)
FECKLESS BOY THAT I AM, I HAVE NEGLECTED all this time to arrange a real, bona fide grown-up publicity campaign for my book. This means that my method of selling my book to date has been to purchase copies and give them to friends on the strict understanding that they would write an honest review for Amazon, which they then failed to write.
If you actually knew me, rather than being obliged to stand outside my apartment with your autograph book, a bottle of poppers and a fishing net, you would know that this is simply what I do. You would appreciate the inherent charm, shambolic and lovable as I’m assured it is.
But when I finally get around to things, Murgatroyd McGraw, I tell ya—! I tackle those things with the myopic optimism of a flat-earther walking his feral cats on a leash and the whacked-out persistence of a Stepford Wife stuck in a malfunction loop opening and closing the refrigerator door.
But it’s OK. I have clonazepam.
Be it known, then, that I will be reading from my incomparable collection of short form satire and witty personal essays on Friday, November 15th, at my crumbling mini-Xanadu in the sky, 392 Sherbourne Street, in Toronto
There will be refreshments, sparkling wit, moist eyes, or at least some part of your anatomy, and copies of my book for signing in both paperback and hardcover form. You’ll want to be there, but if you can’t physically you can virtually for I will also live broadcast the event.
Scan the above QR code to send details of my book launch and reading to your mobile device.
I don’t know why you’d do this instead of just manually doing it. I just created the code so that I could pander to you, the millennials of today.
I will add that a millennial is anyone younger than me, which is just about everyone who’s not in an ICU with a “do not resuscitate” order.
IT BEING MY BIRTHDAY COMING UP and all, I treated myself, as one does, to a little bit of narcissistic self-analysis, in the form of the Myers-Briggs personality test.
The Myers-Briggs personality test is perfect for when you’ve gotten tired of astrology or palm-reading, want a little more cachet, but don’t want to burden yourself with anything too accurate or scientific.
Myers-Briggs is the deal, having been concocted by the mother-daughter team of Katharine Cook Briggs and her daughter Isabel Briggs Myers in the spare time they could find between un-moulding the jellied ambrosia salads for the church social and retying each other’s corsets, and based on tinkering with the poetic but utterly unscientific, even dotty, theories of Carl Jung.
Myers-Briggs is routinely referred to as pseudoscience, has poor predictability, poor repeatability (you can easily get a different result if you try again), it doesn’t account for neuroses or any personality disorders, and basically it’s just a load of old codswallop that’s maybe fun to administer to your friends when you have your Monopoly nights.
In the end I self-diagnosed as an extraverted introvert, meaning I’m constantly on a knife edge of confident self-doubt. I don’t quite know why I fall into this two-headed, comic-tragic, hi-lo self-esteem upward-downward spiral. I realize that everyone is unique, everyone has value and everyone’s story is different, which is why I should never compare myself to anyone and goddamnit how come he has over one hundred thousand followers of his blog while I have just over two hundred after five years?!
But that’s typical of an extraverted introvert with a knickerbocker twist. I’m the kind of guy who writes a kick-ass book, then fails to publicize it, which means I’ve sold three copies in the year since I bore down in a bathtub full of warm gin and tonic and Lamaze’d it into being.
Meanwhile I keep re-reading it, which means I keep nit-picking, and of course there’s no longer any hope of responding to my own humor in a spontaneous way. The whole project feels limp, deflated, like the balloons the day after your birthday party.
My birthday party, for which I intend to knock back a gin cooler or three from the liquor store and practise the Beethoven Opus 126 Bagatelles, will be this Saturday, September 21st. I’m going to be sixty-four years old. You may, in your imagination, kiss my gnarly hand and tell me how much I don’t look it, then slowly withdraw, because, and I know you can take the truth, you’re not on the list. Actually, no one is—just this once I’d like to experience an important milestone that isn’t all mucked up with guests.
The only invitee is my five-year-old self, who’s always here anyway, gazing out through these astonished eyes the way a fish trapped in its goldfish bowl gazes at the shimmering, wavy world beyond.
I feel the inside of my crusty iguana-skin, I stomp my webbed feet and I wonder what happened to the pale, milky-cool velvet integument of my childhood. I still reach out with the arms of a five-year-old, still love like one, still break down like one.
I once loved someone so much that when they left me, I literally thought I would die. I cried for a day and a night, for a week, for six months, for a year; I cried until I flipped inside out and stood like a long-forgotten martyr flayed for a lost cause, my heart and guts and liver and every internal organ that could feel pain dangling, glistening red and purple, from my bloodied trunk. I was stunned, slaughtered and butchered in the abattoir of love, and yet I didn’t die.
I didn’t die.
But I never slept in my bedroom again.
I’m persistent despite the odds; I’m lichen on a tree stump, moss on stone; insistently unlovely. I have grim determination, which means I’m handy to have around when you need someone to open that pickle jar.
What’s up with me at sixty-four? I’m shocked as the ghosts of my lost friends start to crowd around me at night, whispering that it’s OK and they’ll see me soon. I listen to Beethoven’s last five string quartets, his final confession and urgent advice to the future; mankind’s only necessary music.
My parents are dead, I’m estranged from my siblings, I’m currently sharing my one-bedroom apartment with three charming renegades, the tax people have garnished my monthly government pension and, all in all, life is way more interesting than I had any right to expect.
We’re approaching the day when the Canadian Federal Election limps across the ever-receding finish line—oh, sweet Jeezus, no, I don’t know the date though it may have something to do with Canadian Thanksgiving or it may not.
How the election campaign begins is: we simply flip the switch to “on” and sit back. No primaries, no ticker-tape, no accusations of rape, or mass shootings or failed space launches. Just FLIP, ping! and we’re good. You’d have to have the compound eyes of a deer tick to notice any change.
“Hey, what was that tiny pinging noise?” “That’s the Canadian Federal Election starting!” “Are you trying to be funny?” “I wish.”
This non-startiness is because we’ve spurned the American M.O., which is: de-educate your citizens, yell at the black people, make up stupid shit and Tweet about it, enlist foreign powers to destabilize the country by exacerbating social tensions, make up some more stupid shit, declare your press enemies of the people, declare your closest allies enemies of the Prez, discipline the weather agency for contradicting you, show contempt for the judiciary, yell at the Mexicans, stack the Supreme Court, then give everyone permission to donate as many billions of dollars as they want to buy the election for the candidate of their choice, which all makes for lousy democracy but superlative theatre.
Democracy… Theatre… Democracy… Theatre…
You can see how easy it might be to get conflicted about this.
Of course, this means that Canada, with its geeky rules about political donations (they’re limited to $1,500 per person, and labour unions and corporations can’t contribute) must be socialist, at which epithet I chortle heartily even as I struggle to hoist my liver-spotted, chain-laden arms to the keyboard.
Ayn Rand, who conservatives worldwide keep mistaking for Milton Friedman, would have said we’ve “sold our rights for free healthcare!”
Ms. Rand was scarred by her experience with the Bolsheviks, so we can forgive her confusing authoritarian state capitalism, i.e. “communism,” with citizens voting for a benefit to which they willingly contribute their tax dollars, which they all love, and which results in happier, healthier participants in the consumer economy.
Take that, crazy-novel lady, and here’s a shout-out to your awkwardly named characters: Dagny Taggart, Ragnar Danneskjöld, Wesley Mouch, Howard Roark and Gail Wynand (a man). Rand may have had a certain vision and a dollop of sheer audacity, but her ear was pure tin.
I’ve been in total avoidance mode about, well, any of the alternatives to Justin Trudeau, frankly. But it’s time to man up and think about— UGH— Maxime Bernier, our very own Québec-grown authoritarian-nationalist white supremacist-misogynist candidate, the leader of the People’s Party of Canada. (We don’t, by the way, elect the Prime Minister; we vote for the party of our choice, whose leader then becomes PM.)
We are in the tradition of liberalism up here, which, like the development of common law, is a slow, dare I say, conservative process. We don’t throw everything out and start fresh. We don’t talk revolt or tyranny. We like nuance, interpretation, shades of grey. We don’t nail everything down. It takes us a century to ask for our own flag, even longer to repatriate the constitution. We like “peace, order and good government.”
We are not republicans, up here in the cold-as-a witch’s-penumbra north. We are loyalists, which means we rebel by not rebelling; this means we are not a country, just the idea of a country, a possibility.
The last guy who cared very much was Pierre, Justin’s dad. When Canada was about to unravel he gripped that idea with both hands and he held us together by the force of his will and by his arrogant belief that we should get what we needed, not what we wanted. He would not let us disintegrate because he could not let the idea of Canada die.
That kind of certainty is rare. Mainly we are full of self-doubt, unlike our British forebears with their five-hundred years of lawns hand-rolled by Capability Brown and tarnished, inherited silver services for twenty. The least little remark from a snarky American who hasn’t read the playbill about how we’re coolest on the block can send us, by which I mean me, into a tizzy of defensiveness.
Why, just this week on Twitter a creature called “Diana Death” (@TheeDianaDeath), a self-styled “rock musician and politically incorrect humorist”, invited herself to an exchange and told me that Americans “don’t give a scintilla of shit about your cheesey Charter;” and how could I respond except to point out:
“Diana, take it from a gay guy: You have the wrong kind of tits for that outfit.”
But getting back, reluctantly, to Maxime Bernier and the election: Maxime is the sweet, or angry, or reasonable, or vicious, face of the People’s Party of Canada.
Now I ask you—does that not sound promising? There couldn’t be anything ironic about having “people” (or “democratic” or “republic”) in the name of a political party, right? And anyway, everyone has to have a “People’s Party” these days, darling! Don’t be left behind! Don’t be caught flaunting some tatty, worn out, twentieth-century human rights thing; brown shirts are the new navy blue of conservatism worldwide!
It’s People’s Parties, and For the People, common people and right-thinking people and particularly white people. Good honest, hard-working people! Not rapists or gang members or illegals or invasions or infestations!
People—!People who need people—! ♫ are the most right-wing people—in the world—! ♪
Maxime’s for people, except when people are teenagers, female and refuse to shut up about climate change. He thinks it’s good politicking to bring out big ammunition to crush Greta Thunberg, a sixteen-year-old girl from Sweden who’s so fired up about this disaster, she’s traveled the world on a yacht (zero carbon profile!) to raise awareness. Bernier thereby demonstrates what teams of researchers in Sweden, studying climate-change denial (yes, it’s an actual subject for academic study now) have found: That there’s a direct correlation between climate denial and being a white-supremacist misogynist male, that there are guys who believe the planet was given by a white, WASP god to white, WASP men to abuse and dominate the same way they abused and dominated their womenfolk.
These are the guys who are threatened that their place in the sun has been taken over by a new generation terrified and angry about this chaos that’s been dumped in their laps.
This is Bernier’s EIGHT-PART Tweet diatribe against a 16-year-old climate activist.
It’s a shameful sight. Many Canadians, noticing that he’s polling at only three percent, don’t take him seriously, but I do. I remember how little we took Trump seriously. Do you?
And if that doesn’t make your ovaries descend, think of this: It doesn’t matter if Bernier’s party, the party of white supremacy and “pure laine,” falls into the ditch. He will have done his work, which is to make racism a topic, to normalize the discussion and make us ponder whether there might not be “good people on both sides,” and now it sounds like a legitimate comment when we say it’s the Chinese buying up all the condos; though no one is ever able to explain to me what the problem is with Chinese people buying condos, even all of the condos, as opposed to white people buying condos. The problem, apparently, is self-evident to everyone but me.
I’m being precious, of course, because we all know very well that the problem with “Chinese people buying all the condos” is that the Chinese people are all Chinese.
We do things our own way up here: In ‘Murica ya got yer slavery, up here we have the Canadian tradition, dating back to the eighteenth century, of head taxing Asians, throwing them in internment camps and working them to death, literally, laying track for our glorious Canadian Pacific Railway so our superiority can gleam from sea to shining sea.
But there I go, standing on the wall and screaming at wooden horses again. The body politic are like boulder-headed teenagers: You long to save them from the fatal mistakes of your youth, but they’re too busy buzzing their hair into Mohawks and hiking up their tartan schoolgirl skirts to listen to your desperately uncool warnings.
Every generation thinks they’ve nailed it, and we dinosaurs have to sit back and endure their predictable screams of outrage as we watch them climb those stairs to the attic room and open the very door, the only door, they were forbidden to open. It’s almost not worth the pleasure of saying “I told you so.”
We now head west, for the next plate of canapés in my tasting menu of annoyance will be served in the cloakroom: that ever-so-flat, barely-remembered Cinderella of Canada’s provinces, Saskatchewan. But first I have to stop for a little joke, OK? Bear with me.
An American couple have just collected their luggage at the airport and are figuring out where to go next, when they spot another couple, both dressed in heavy winter overcoats, tuques, gloves, snow boots, scarves, the full get-up.
The American wife says to her husband, “Oh, Harry, look at those inneresting people! Do you think they’re Canadians? I’m gonna go find out!”
She walks over to the couple who are all decked out in their winter clothes, and she says, “Excuse me, but would ya’ll mind tellin’ me where you’re from?”
The startled winterized guy looks at his winterized companion, then back at the American woman. The two of them say to her, in perfect unison, “Saskatoon, Saskatchewan!”
The American woman, taken aback, returns to her husband’s side.
“So,” he says to her. “Did y’all find out anything? Where are they from?”
“I dunno,” says the wife. “They didn’t speak any English!”
So it seems that in Saskatchewan a Registered Nurse made a complaint on Facebook about the allegedly poor treatment her grandfather received while in palliative care. Here’s a little of what she wrote:
“It is evident that not everyone is ‘up to speed’ on how to approach end of life care … or how to help maintain an aging senior’s dignity (among other things!)… To those who made Grandpa’s last year’s [sic] less than desirable, please do better next time!”
Now, this seems fairly innocuous, right? Not to the Saskatchewan Registered Nurses’ Association, several of whose members launched a complaint.The nurse, Carolyn Strom, was brought before the SRNA’s Tribunal accused of violating their code of conduct for social media and bringing the nursing profession into disrepute by her remarks.
Strom was fined $1,000 and asked to pay the $25,000 cost of bringing her to the Tribunal. A Court of Appeal reaffirmed this decision (courts are reluctant to contradict the decisions of self-monitoring professional bodies). Strom, who has been dealing with this fallout since 2015, is due this week for a final appeal.
I feel that I need to justify my interest in this rather obscure case. I can only tell you that freedom of speech, and other rights, become very interesting when they come into conflict with others’ rights. How are we to decide whose rights get precedence?
Let’s think about this. Ms Strom took her complaint and aired it in public. On Facebook. What is it about this crass social media platform that is so seductive? It’s ugly in design, puerile in attitude, its algorithms can’t tell the difference between art, news and spam, it’s run by an entitled brat who sells our data to private companies and feigns surprise when it’s revealed that mysterious PR firms are rewriting reality in order to subvert democratic elections, and yet where do we run to?
We literally don’t seem to care how sinful it all is; I say “sinful” as only an atheist can say it, as a crime against the natural and good. Facebook makes idiots of us all, every time we use it.
Carolyn Strom made an idiot of herself when she broadcast her complaint on Facebook. She was seduced by the irresistible urge to give shade, to take her grief about her grandfather and neutralize it, turn it into a brisk efficient trip to customer service.
Because here’s the deal: by all accounts, Ms Strom did not once, ever, voice her complaints to the nurses at the facility during her apparently infrequent visits. We’re in the realm of guilty until proven innocent, trial by public opinion.
The nurses, unnamed by Strom but for all practical purposes easily identifiable by anyone who cared to make the effort, have been accused—but which of them and of what? They have no way to defend themselves against what is just insinuation. Every one of them is now under the shadow of this vague complaint, competent and “incompetent” alike.
Bad enough for a member of the public to complain this way, in a transparent, at least to us, attempt to obtain sympathy for her relative’s death. For a member of the nursing profession to do so, knowing full well that her actions were in defiance of professional standards and procedures she was bound to uphold, is unfair, unjust, and just plain tacky.
Welcome to social media, where everyone’s the star of their own monodrama, where we’re stuck in a twilight world of my side and your side, but rarely the point in the middle where the truth lives, messy and shaded with grey and letting no one off the hook.
Communication is a hard slog. Voicing your complaint to a real person, in the flesh, in real time, you can hear your self-justifications and convenient white lies fall flat in the dead space between you and them. Seeing someone’s skeptical face, experiencing their lack of investment in your innocence, is bracing as well as humbling. Unless you’ve truly been horribly abused with no provocation, you’ll feel like a kid who’s lying about who broke the window with the baseball. You’ll feel that most public of emotions, shame.
Far easier to sing your aria in an echo-chamber to a hand-picked audience of sympathizers, who’ll co-opt your story and take up your “cause.” Then you can all tut-tut together. Why solve the problem when it gives back so generously?
I have noticed over the years that some people crave negative experiences, even gladly paying for a fancy version that will impress the neighbours. Strom’s bill, at $26,000, with the luxury extras of a self-critical essay and a mandatory course in ethics, makes this the Rolls Royce of disappointment.
So, Merry Birthday to me, god bless us every one, vote anything but Conservative and don’t take any wooden nickels.
I’M A CANADIAN WHO TAKES A KEEN interest in American politics, out of necessity (q.v. “in bed with an elephant,” the phrase coined by Pierre Trudeau, father of Justin, back in the day when Trudeaux — is that the plural? We’ll say it is — still had some clout and even left the house occasionally), and also out of the natural human fascination with fresh train wrecks.
I was in awe of Elizabeth Warren at first sight, as she vilified, to their faces and on live Internet feeds, the big little boys of Wall Street. It was a messy, unpleasant, but essential series of interventions, and as I watched I felt the same kind of sick thrill I felt when I discovered that the source of the nasty smell in my apartment was a pound of ground beef my roommate had hidden in his closet, then forgotten about.
(Sometimes the stench of evil is so pervasive, and the modus operandi so bizarre, you have to become habituated just to save the day and summon up the courage to carry on. “Doesn’t everyone keep a stash of ground beef in their closet? No — ?”)
But my heavenly mind-marriage with Liz was consummated on the day, sometime back in the Golden Era, the misty, nostalgia-glazed Arcadia that was pre-November 2016, when she declared Trump
a loud, nasty, thin-skinned fraud...
In normal circumstances, whatever those look like and if there even is such a beast anymore, Warren would justifiably be accused of making an ad hominem attack. But these are tryin’ times, oh yeah, and in making this statement she’d laced up her boxing gloves and stepped into the ring, having simply revealed herself as a shrewd judge of character with a refreshing lack of inhibition.
With a presidential candidate who had exactly zero qualifications for the job, in fact, negative qualifications that actively screamed about how completely unsuited he was to be President — six times bankrupt, business fraudster, classic misogynist (and, it would be revealed, sexual predator), white nationalist, lack of any experience whatsoever in any government role and lack of understanding that he was not going to be running a business but making decisions in the public interest — with his qualifications hovering at around minus thirty-eight, what was there to work with except his character (assuming that having no character is, in itself, a kind of character)?
Warren has a passion for justice, the zeal of the convert (as a young woman she was, by her own description, fiercely conservative), a lawyer’s ability to summarize evidence and build a convincing argument, and a constructive, righteous anger that makes her speeches electrifying.
And she is focusing on an issue — the financial terrorism perpetrated by the cowboys of high finance on regular, middle-class Americans — that the 99% (that’s us) can understand, and that avoids the trigger topics of religion / sex / gender / race (not that those issues aren’t of primary importance, but we’re talking electability. Let’s save the polarizing arguments for when we’re all tucked up safely in bed).
If there’s one thing the Dems need, it’s focus. Oh, Minerva! Focus, and a compelling, unifying narrative. They’ve been stuck, for what seems an eternity but is probably just decades, in a reactive position, always limited by the intellectual boundaries imposed by an increasingly illiberal and intolerant right, or hampered by internal disagreements and the self-serving machinations of narcissistic old men (a.k.a. Bernie Sanders, The Great Spoiler).
(And what irony that, in his insistence that his way was the only way, all or nothing — offering the total Scandinavian Social Democratic smorgasbord with lingonberry sauce to a population that goes apoplectic at the mere thought of universal health care — Sanders showed himself to be just as intolerant and polarizing as the buffoon he more or less single-handedly put in office.)
Every time Warren explains, » as in this article on Medium, the blunt, ad hoc strategies of the financial sector, those make it up as you go along cash grabs they’ve tried to convince us are the arcane, untouchable workings-out of eternal laws, I find myself gobsmacked anew by how much Washington is in thrall to Wall Street, up to its withers in dirty money and daily, normalized corruption.
And I’m mystified by how much America, self-proclaimed land of prosperity and opportunity for all, regardless of origins, seems to have bought the neoliberal economic horse droppings of that other obnoxious bargain-basement Messiah, Milton Friedman, Mr. Trickle-Down.
The problem is one of heuristics, those mental short-cuts that enable us to make snap decisions without starting every dilemma with Adam and Eve and working forward. What is most available in our minds becomes our preferred solution and availability is determined by how often we have it pounded into our brains. That’s why marketing is a never ending competition to be the most salient brand, what advertisers call “top of mind.”
What do we have available? For years now we’ve heard the mantras of small government, de-regulation, austerity, and the dire warnings about socialism (forever associated in people’s minds with autocratic communist regimes such as Soviet Russia, in actuality a form of state capitalism). We’ve absorbed the sneering pejoratives “PC”, snowflake, libtard, social justice warrior, so thoroughly that many progressives themselves, suffering from insidious Stockholm syndrome, begin to babble about the terrible chilling effect on freedom of speech caused by the use of respectful language towards minorities.
The relentless focus of the right wing has caught progressives sleeping, and cast us as the villains of their narrative. What we’ve been missing is our own narrative and a voice as passionate for economic and social justice and inclusiveness as conservative voices have been for the status quo and status quo ante.
Elizabeth Warren has spun a personal and political narrative that reeks of common sense, and in a voice that means business; it’s your mother about to scrub your face really, really hard with a rough, damp face cloth. It’s a voice even grown men can’t discount. The only comparable voice I can think of is that of Maxine Waters. Hail to the Giga Moms!
Ms. Warren, you are the scrappy pit-bull of justice and may your bite be as sharp as your bark; you are the middle class’s fierce Emmeline Pankhurst, hurling rocks at the tinted privacy glass of the elite’s limos; you are the liberal pundit’s unlikely seventy-year-old pin-up girl. You are sublime.
If you don’t get the nomination, I think I will lose hope — not for Americans, never for Americans, but for America.
THE YouTube-IVERSE IS ALREADY BEATIFYING Sanders, Mr. Me-or-Nothing, and excoriating Warren as being in the pockets of “the Establishment.”
Now, I ask you. Why would Liz be courted and artificially pumped up and promoted by the very establishment she is hell-bent on taming and regulating? Does this make sense to you? Of course it doesn’t!
“Why is Joe Biden in first place?” asks one confused lady.
Umm, because he’s an old, white male. Next question? Old white males gotta run, gotta sing, gotta dance. Old white males are the flavor of the past, and the past — when men were men, women were seen, whistled at, slapped, pinched, tickled, assaulted and condescended to but not heard, people of color knew their place, and The Gays were thankfully invisible — is Shangri-La, the lost Promised Land.
Joe’s a Regular Guy, having already played the warm-hearted doofus to Obama’s patrician straight man, in an uncomfortable role-reversal: Now Obama was the plantation owner and Joe, in white face, the comic field hand and simple light relief. Joe was suitably butch enough to counterbalance Obama’s ever-so-slightly-gay reserve, intellectualism and faint yet unmistakable ever-present air of fastidious distaste at having descended to the earthly plane.
Joe’s still at it: Fondling women, making inappropriate remarks about women, and wondering where the good old days have gone where a man wasn’t called on the carpet for every little off-color joke or well-meant love pat, however undesired.
Joe Biden has been on the wrong side of history much of the time: he was for the Defense of Marriage Act, for banning LGBTQ in the military; subsequent reversals notwithstanding; for capital punishment and increasing capital offenses; for abortion partial bans and the Hyde Amendment, which bans federal funds going to providing abortion.
Is this really the antidote to Trump?
And Sanders! Sweet mother of Liza! Sanders single-handedly handed the U.S. four years of Trump because his ego kept him hanging on, incensed that Hillary was touted as the more attractive option. Too late he told his followers to back Hillary, in a passive-aggressive, thinly veiled plea for loyalty to him and him alone, voiced as a plea for party unity — but with oh so much patent insincerity. It’s like his mom told him to stop being so mean to the mentally-challenged girl who wrote him mash notes and kept trying to hold his hand after class.
Guess what? Misogyny rears its tired old, white, male head. And it’s feeling uncomfortably like the beginnings of déjà vu all over again.
I’VE BEEN FEELING MIGHTY GUILTY about taking a little summer staycation in my hot, moist hometown of Toronto, Canada—a city of cheap condos that rain sheets of glass curtain wall onto the bed of a lake that evaporated ten thousand years ago—because, as I swelter in my kinky Mormon undergarments that I purchased second hand from Kijiji Salt Lake City and drink Fresca Shirley Temples garnished with parasols, I am neglecting to regale you with tales about my unfiled taxes, the last of the summer strawberries and the current roommate—whose confidentiality I will breach just a little by saying he is awaiting a bed at St. Michael’s Hospital for his emergency personality bypass.
Then it hit me. Hit me like a hockey puck hits the forehead of a disabled boy in a wheelchair attending his first, and last, Stanley Cup game. Hit me like Andrew Scheer hits his handmaids in the uteri with The New English Bible, Basic Vocabulary Edition: FOBBING OFF.
Fobbing off is when I appropriate something from the innerweb that moves, because I heard you like things that move. I haven’t moved since 2013, the year my ambition was shot, and, for the record, it was a conspiracy, and, for that matter, do you remember where you were?
Things That Move that I might share include an endlessly looping animated GIF of a parakeet feeding French fries to a puppy; a purloined documentary about the Illuminati’s plans for an underwater theme park on the former site of Miami Beach and for which I fail to honor the Creative Commons license; a YouTube video explaining how to earn money making concrete ashtrays or touring with your Nazi volleyball team.
These are just off the top of my head. Then I take The Media That Moves and tart it up with some sassy, possibly even relevant, commentary to distract you and make you think I’m actually doing some work, here. If I’m lucky, you may actually think I have depth.
So, fobbing right along, let’s pay homage to a member of the “27 Club,” a sweet misfit, a woman struggling with substance abuse even as she brushed her dirty fingernails against the stars; a big little girl from Texas named Janis Joplin. Watch and marvel as she gobsmacks her stunned audience at Monterey in 1967 with her raspy, miraculous caterwauling that can switch effortlessly and unexpectedly to a pure, perfectly placed phrase worthy of Schubert. Musicians of this era still knew music, all music, and you can hear operatic arias and counterpoint as much as blue grass and soul. Music still resonated with history.
Included in the footage are shots of Mama Cass in the audience, her jaw dropping as she watches, then at the end mouthing “Wow!” twice to her companion.
Janis Joplin had a pudgy, pock-marked face, she was “kooky,” because she wore jeans to her university classes and carried a guitar. She was once voted “Ugliest Man on Campus” by the ugly men on campus. She once joked about this on the Dick Cavett Show, but it was obvious that an insult that crass could get under anyone’s skin; with someone as emotionally vulnerable and isolated as Joplin, it must have been a knife blade in her brain.
I want the men who bullied her so nastily and so unnecessarily so wake up one morning and realize what they did. I want them to realize what they did every time a woman comes forward who’s been abused; every time they see a young woman with anorexia; every time they hear of addiction or suicide. I want them to look at their wives or daughters or sisters and recall a time when they were distraught, helpless or sick.
I want them to know that emotional abuse can be fatal; it’s always harmful, sometimes irreversibly. I want them to cry a thousand tears for every tear that Joplin cried and feel that agony.
In a society that treasures women’s docility it is a big deal for a woman not to be docile; in a society that judges women by a standard of beauty set by entitled men, it is a big deal for a woman to be judged publicly as ugly. When men call the shots and are the final arbiters of your worth, to be a woman and judged worthless is capital punishment.
I used to think that such an intense gift can burn itself out, especially when the gift, calibrated to limn the territories of psychic pain, creates a perpetual cycle of increasingly spectacular highs and reckless lows. Maybe with art this raw, with a flame burning this bright, you can only last twenty-seven years. Maybe artists have an innate sense of how much time they have…?
But these days it’s more my style to resist layering narrative onto the sheer sketchy randomness of our lives. An artist’s early death does not unfold according to an arcane watchmaker’s directive; it’s not the demonstration of an orderly clockwork universe—it delivers the anarchic shock of an assassination.
Mozart’s eccentricity was tamped into a classicizing container, both musical and societal. He had the consolations of religion, and, fortunately, a rock-solid sense of his own worth. This core of self-assurance helped him survive the suffocating neediness and emotional blackmail of his father, whose neurotic possessiveness threatened to cripple Mozart’s independence and creativity. Born two centuries later, he could have survived the rheumatic fever that killed him at thirty-five, using our science-based medicine that does not bleed you or force upon you curatives like “a pinch of the black powder in a glass of Sekt.“
Beethoven would have written twenty symphonies and invented Viennese jazz if he’d gone to rehab, tried cognitive therapy, stopped going to swingers’ parties and sleeping with his groupies’ wives, and rejected his family doctor’s advice to bathe in the damned Rhine. (You can make up your own what-if scenarios for your own treasured artists.)
That’s the tragedy. There was so much more for them to give before they slipped on banana peels and got run over by the clown car. I’m recalling a news item about a woman who purchased a can of beer, drank it straight from the can, and died: because in the warehouse where the cans were stored, a rat had urinated on this particular can, thereby depositing traces of the rat poison which it had ingested.
I don’t know if this woman was an artist, but I know that no one deserves to crack open a cold one and die from arsenic poisoning. No one deserves the bathos of quotidian, cocktail-hour death.
We should do artists better. We should create safe communities, idyllic retreats in which we could coddle them, nourish them, give them smooth passage, protect them from life’s fault lines, and from themselves. (But without a history and experience, would they have anything to sing about, paint, write?)
Instead we treat artists —the truth-tellers, visionaries, iconoclasts, the most emotionally vulnerable of our species—as though they’re just like everyone else, when they’re skirting the edges of insanity. We’re like parents who blindfold our children and send them running naked through a firing range.
Janis Joplin, as was the case with Amy Winehouse, traveled in tandem with her self-doubts and her drugs and her art. She set her locus of control to other and filtered out anything that called her good, talented or beautiful. Her self-doubts, drugs and art egged each other on and dared to walk on broken glass on the edge of the cliff until they all fell together.
I’m not brave or talented—if this performance is any baseline for bravery and talent, I’m just a broken, craven old stick—but I’m eternally grateful for the blood splattering on my awestruck face.
Flash mobs of stupid conservative bigots are monopolizing our headspace
OCCASIONALLY, DEAR READER, I AM FORCED to come up with a statement of principles. This usually happens when I’ve been online, getting exasperated by and attempting to respond to the comments of conservatives who are all in a panic about some class of people they disapprove of, like gay people or liberals or women, being happy and exercising their rights.
If there’s something a modern-day conservative hates, it’s people they disapprove of being happy and free and shoving their equality down everyone’s throats. Man oh man—!
My incessant life’s work is grappling with, untangling and decoding conservative “logic.” Conservative logic is an act of contortion that the Cirque de soleil would have rejected for its latest Vegas show as being too demanding, for conservative logic is always trying to prove that some minority’s insistence on the right to live their life with the same rights, benefits and protections as anyone else constitutes a denial of the rights of conservatives.
The assumptions underlying this logic are never clearly articulated, either because conservatives are too entitled to bother thinking through the implications of what they’re saying, or because they understand the implications perfectly and sense how outrageous they are.
These assumptions are that only a select class of people, the best people—the aristoi—have rights; and that these best people are by definition WASP, heterosexual and male. To allow other, non-best people—the demos—to have rights devalues those rights.
It’s like a conservative’s wife seeing her immigrant housemaid dressed in a replica of her Christian Lacroix ballgown, a cheap imitation that the maid constructed herself during her coffee break using plastic tablecloths from Dollarama. And here’s the galling bit: it looks better than his wife’s, because she’s happy wearing it.
Relentlessly co-opting street culture and sucking it dry of meaning, the conservative’s wife runs out and buys a plaid Vivienne Westwood number bristling with sterling silver safety pins and randomly-placed zippers that have no function and calls herself a punk, even though if the conservative saw an actual punk approaching their front door he’d grab his assault weapon and shoot them.
This is the analogy. Anything the grimy hands of a non-conservative touches is tainted forever. So, if I, a gay male, get to marry my partner, I’ve spoiled conservatives’ exclusive right to and definition of marriage: “One man, one woman.” (Unbelievably, no one consulted me about this definition.)
For women to get equal pay is to destroy the idea that men’s work is inherently more valuable, usually expressed as “all of the businesses in the universe will tank from the expense of paying women equally, so, like, we can’t.”
Included in this argument is the lie that “there isn’t enough money,” because there’s always room in the savings account for a nuclear warhead or a gerrymandering project, to name two.
Missing from this argument is the concept that people’s rights aren’t subject to budgetary constraints. They’re not expendable if they are expensive. They need to be recognized, and now.
Conservatives are depressingly similar: a tight-assed gang of spoiled brats and shrieking bullies in Lacoste polo shirts who can’t bear to think about women having abortions, me getting married to a dude, gender identity, anthropogenic climate change, up-to-date sex education in schools or national anthem kneelers; anything that reminds them that they’re in the twenty-first century.
We do try. We want to be good parents to these maladapted children. We strap them into the high chair, we feed them the nourishing creamed spinach of inclusiveness, “this is the airplane coming into the hangar!” but they spit it right back in our faces.
My doomed attempts at educating the insistently ignorant and the perpetual onslaught of their thin-lipped rage has caused me the type of frustration that can only be relieved by bending forward and smacking my face repeatedly on the surface of my desk.
The more I do this, the more I resemble a fourth Trump son, sibling to the two Frankenstein Foreheads. Frankenforehead the Fourth, who you don’t know about because they keep him hidden in the White House attic, is the Washington, D.C. version of the first, mad Mrs. Rochester, except instead of emulating her and setting fire to the place, he stomps around with a lighted candelabra at the stroke of midnight and whispers tweets and other assorted sound-bytes in Donald’s ear.
“Psst! Don’t forget to call the Swedish Prime Minister and guarantee bail for A$AP Rocky! Even though Sweden doesn’t have bail and their leaders are forbidden to interfere with the legal system, but they’re SURE to make an exception for you!”
“Psst! Homeboy! When you make your Fourth of July speech, don’t forget to include how George Washington closed all the airports during the American Revolution! Yep, just throw that in any old where! Oh boy oh boy! This is gonna be even bigger than your inauguration! Biggest audience in, like. The history! of Time?!”
So that’s how the process goes that leads up to my statement of principles. I beat my forehead on the desk. I push back, I untangle. I decode. I attempt an answer. I beat the forehead again.
Also I cry. Let’s not forget the crying. And I’m not talking polite, “excuse me for a moment while my lips quiverand I sincerely hope my suicidal ideation and free-floating misery wasn’t too much of a downer, eh?” apologetic, Canadian-style crying, either.
I’m talking Man-Sobs: great, honking, moist, gasping, choking, snot-flying asthmatic gulps and mucus-y snorffles that would make you back away in alarm, fearing that this heralds my projectile vomiting onto your Yves St. Laurent smoking jacket, whilst literally an entire St. Lawrence Seaway of tears and saliva and invasive species pours down my face.
When I Man-Sob, my face looks like an open lock on the Welland Canal, if the locks on the Welland Canal were made of aging human flesh and covered with patchy, unkempt hair.
If only I could figure out how to make all of this aerobic. Or, failing that, just monetize the shit out of it.
PUBLIC DISCOURSE HAS BECOME POLARIZED to the degree that it’s scary and stressful to broach certain subjects with people, even worse when someone you thought you knew, your mom, for example, or your co-worker, initiates an exchange clearly assuming you hold the same bigoted views.
And I’m pushing back with less and less energy. I’ve lost some of the, how can I put this, spunk. I have less piss and vinegar. My responses are weary.
Instead of just slipping into my nuclear-grade conservative-proof overalls and flailing my hands at the keyboard, or in the face of the bigot, I first pause and consider what I might be getting myself into.
Do I want to be rolling on the ground at the bus stop, mud wrestling with a supporter of Andrew Scheer as we each attempt to bite off our opponent’s nose and pull out handfuls of each other’s hair?
Was it really on my agenda to have my face shoved into my plateful of gazpacho and my ears lobbed off with a vegetable peeler?
Did I willingly wake up this morning to the delighted realization that “I promised myself that today I will deliver a sharp, corrective thrust of my Doc Martens to the groin area of a Christian who’s decided gay men are Satan’s secret sauce! Yippee!”?
There is very little consensus remaining about our fundamental rights. When Lyndon Johnson kicked off a War on Poverty, or Pierre Trudeau affirmed Canadian multiculturalism, people supported them, or if they didn’t, at least they didn’t let on. These were not controversial ideas, they were mainstream.
I know that everyone says it’s Trump’s fault that there’s more polarization now, less agreement, more hatred and bigotry and stupidity, but that’s not entirely correct.
Don’t blame Trump for bringing bigotry into the world. The bigotry was there. The stupidity was there. He just took out his Stupidity Wand and went dowsing for Kellyanne Conway; he put on his hard hat with the lamp on it and went down the historical mineshaft to extract humungus ante-bellum boulders of bigotry.
Trump did not add to the sum total of bigotry and stupidity. He validated the bigots and the stupid people who’d been there waiting for him. He role-modeled, he set the gold standard for bigotry and made it super awesomely cool to be stupid.
For stupid, bigoted people he was aspirational. Now stupid bigoted parents could look at their stupid, bigoted kids and say, “Look, Thelma! Maybe one day you could be stupid, bigoted President! Isn’t that nifty? Oh, except that will never happen because, you know. Girl.”
Previously all the stupid people and bigoted people were in the closet, figuring out ways to “pass.” They had a suitable sense of shame about their condition.
They cocooned, developing economic theories that proved the market would effortlessly provide all of our needs in just the right quantities and at just the right price points if we stopped regulating it. This was the Stupid Theory of Economics, now taught worldwide, cooked up by Milton Friedman, a Stupid Economist.
This theory, incidentally, is the reason you and your extended family are now migrant workers sleeping in an abandoned railway car underneath the Bloor Street Viaduct.
Because stupid people get bored easily they need to fill every last minute of their waking lives, and then some. In the old days, traveling incognito, they would dress up like “Libertarians” and “Neo-Liberals” and convene in small groups to study the Second Amendment. These became the members of the Stupid NRA, who were astonished to discover that, although this Amendment is on the surface clearly referring to an 18th-century volunteer militia using muskets as a last-ditch effort against an oppressive, warring government, it is also effective at subtly conveying the Founders’ unmistakable intent that everyone in America should be issued a recreational automatic weapon at birth.
For geekier, computer-type fun they’d log on to ICQ chat rooms and make thought-provoking statements like, “I don’t think the earth can be round because we would just, like, fall off, I know, right? Pass it on.”
Now? The stupid bigoted people, swarming on Twitter in a new Day of the Locusts, have taken their cue from The Big Man, The Great Mouth Breather. They’re empowered, they’re vocal as hell, they’re no longer ashamed, and they’re gradually drowning out all but the most persistent liberal voices. They’re not going to take it anymore, whatever they’ve decided “it” is.
This is the kind of transformation that can happen when the leader of the most powerful nation on earth endorses something, like steaks or hooker sex or capital punishment.
Or stupidity and bigotry. Shares are through the roof!
ONE OF THE MANY WEIRD CONCEPTS going around is that freedom of expression is under attack and that people are being censored and silenced by the intolerant left (a concept usually expressed by someone speaking to their audience of millions on YouTube). The idea is that expressing an opposing viewpoint to a progressive is like thrusting a head of garlic and a cross into the face of a vampire, that we’ll explode, or whatever it is that vampires do in those circumstances.
Hence our “safe spaces,” our “political correctness” our “snowflakiness.” YOU are the fascists, the right says to us.
I don’t have time to personally address every single stupid and/or bigoted person, though I know some of you walked miles through a tornado then grabbed an Uber to get here today. Please try to understand, though I’m not holding my breath. I need to make this shit scalable.
I want to provide a public service at this point and define for you what is, and what is not, a difference of opinion.
Here’s Example One:
“I think we should provide healthcare by allowing people to keep their private insurance if they want.” / “I think we should provide healthcare using a single-payer model, like Canada and Britain.” / “I think government should stay out of the business of providing healthcare. The market will provide the best price and options if we just leave it alone.”
Those are differences of opinion. Although I strongly disagree with the last one, (because the evidence doesn’t support it) vive le difference, it makes the democratic world go ‘round. We’re smart enough — I think — to weigh the evidence and vote accordingly.
“First-past-the-post voting is a disaster, because the party that gets into power doesn’t always have a majority of the votes.” / “Proportional representation is a disaster, because you end up with coalitions that give the third-level party undue influence on policies.”
Those are differences of opinion. They’re both concerned with a fair outcome to elections, an outcome that would best represent voters’ wishes.
With me so far?
Now let’s look at the following examples:
“ Women who have abortions should receive the death penalty. They should be hanged.”
is not a difference of opinion.
“If people want to criticize the government, they’re traitors.”
is not a difference of opinion.
“If you don’t like it here, you should go back to your shithole countries.”
is not a difference of opinion.
“Homosexuality is a sin and the gays [sic] shouldn’t be able to marry or adopt. They’re bringing about the downfall of society.”
is not a difference of opinion.
I feel almost embarrassed to have to spell this out, but:
If we want to live in a democratic society, if we want to work together to expand the scope of rights, equality, dignity as our understanding evolves, we have to agree on certain fundamental, inalienable human rights, and to do this, we ehshrined these rights in an authoritative document from which flows the entire rule of law: a Constitution, a Charter of Rights and Freedoms, a Bill of Rights, a Universal Declaration of Human Rights.
We have differences of opinion when we discuss how to implement these fundamental human rights we have agreed on, these rights that may evolve, but which by common agreement can never be rescinded.
Rights may be expressed in the broadest terms, but their implementation is always specific, their meaning clarified within a matrix of situation, context and community. Always the question is: does this law, does this judgment, finally include whoever has been excluded, relieve the oppressed from their oppression, provide justice where justice has been denied?
If you don’t believe that women should control their own bodies;
if you don’t believe in the free expression of non-violent protest;
if you believe that some people are less than human or less than equal because they are different in their sexuality, gender expression, skin color, religious beliefs or any other trait and you counsel others to oppress and discount and exclude them;
if you advocate violence against a class of persons,
you are not expressing a difference of opinion.
You might actually be engaging in hate speech. This follows from the concept, noted by the Ontario Human Rights Commission in their literature about balancing conflicting rights, that “the private expression of the right is more protected than the public expression.”
Yes, there is freedom of expression. You are free to express in private whatever you care to express, no matter how reprehensible, but when you express the same idea publicly you may be causing a whole lot of mischief. Your right, exercised in public, to call for death to women who’ve had abortions may not be judged to be in the best interests of society.
More bluntly, if you publicly advocate violence against a class of persons, the restriction of that right may be justifiable. The harm of restricting your freedom of expression may be negligible compared to the harm that is caused to the target of your bigotry by its public expression.
My rights, your rights.
So please, conservatives, Christians, conservative Christians, the whole lot of you: Enough with the cant about freedom of expression and the misguided (to take a charitable view) or disingenuous (my actual view) attempt to rehabilitate statements such as those listed above, statements that indicate that you, the speaker, do not hold with the fundamental values of a democratic society. There is no dialog possible with people such as you and nothing to engage with in these statements.
When you engage in your convoluted conservative logic it makes you look incredibly foolish, and it makes the rest of us wonder about your — to appropriate one of the right’s favorite loaded words — agenda.
If you can’t come on board about the fundamental principle of democracy—namely, the equality in dignity and worth of all persons—I have a suggestion. Maybe you could find your own island somewhere, hopefully free of shithole-ness, and populate it with yourselves until your island is positively busting a gut with great-again-ness.
Then you can relax, secure in your fundamental beliefs, and the rest of us, relieved of your hateful rhetoric and privileged whining, can get on with the business of creating a more fair and more just society for everyone.
Conservatives have a repertoire of sneering insults which they direct at liberals whenever they can get away with it. This usually means that no bona fide news organization is watching, in loco parentis, so think Twitter or Facebook.
Gay men used to be called “queers” and there is something about the sound of the “q-u” followed by the fluting double “e” that still makes me catch my breath in fear and shame. But we took the word “queer” and we owned it, using it as a badge of pride that we were odd, eccentric, creative or just plain ornery. This idea of “queer” as rejecting stereotypes and gender norms switched the focus to society instead of sex. Hearing “queer” used as a positive or at least neutral descriptor was surprisingly liberating.
Queer has lost its edge of sexual deviance and now begins to sound spirited, and happy-go-lucky, like a charming iconoclastic leprechaun who could cast a spell on your first-born but who is too busy dyeing the shamrocks pink to bother.
Conservatives call Liberals “snowflakes,” and we could start our rehabilitation of the word, rescuing it from the cycle of abuse and maybe sending it on a little vacation to Antarctica where it can tell itself, “Goldarnit—I’m snowflake and I’m OK!”
I think snowflakes are beautiful, unique crystals which can be fragile by themselves, but can make a pretty effective blizzard when they agitate with the other snowflakes.