the diary thing 
sn - snakeI WISH MY LIFE WERE MORE EXCITING. Actually, that's not at all true. I'm generally happy with the level of routine with which I pass my days. A younger person -- myself, for instance, a decade ago -- would regard me with horror. Most days I don't leave the house. On almost any day, I'm back here by six in the evening, and don't leave for the rest of the night. I spend as little money as I can, mostly because I don't have much, partly because I don't know what to spend it on, besides books, magazines and food. 

My work, such as it is, is the only thing that tempts me out of the house, and even then, it sends me to libraries or archives or remote parts of the city that no one would bother visiting, even if they lived there. I take the same two public transit routes any time I leave, and long ago internalized a sane avoidance of rush hour traffic; only travel in off-peak times, and try to travel against the commuting mass -- out to the fringes in the morning, back downtown in the evening. 

I'm like some distant cousin of Bartleby the Scrivener, a nearly invisible particle in the city's mass, a weary molecule long-experienced in the byways of the urban body. There was a time, of course, when I wasn't nearly so inconspicuous. A punk, even a mild, band-button and bowling shoe-wearing from some little-known suburb as I was, attracted a lot of attention in this town twenty years ago, and I could be guaranteed at least a few stares and gawks as I made the rounds of the downtown record shops. On the worse days, verbal and physical confrontation from some outraged greasy longhair was the highlight of my day, and maintained a deepening sense of social paranoia and isolation. 

As I got older, naturally, the urge to shock, or even fly the flag of epater le bourgeois, began to subside. I bulked up a few more pounds, and developed a naturally taciturn expression that hinted at reserves of surliness. It worked -- I haven't been hassled on the street in years. People tend to make a wake for me on crowded subway platforms, and shop clerks can be kept at a safe distance when I just want to browse, merely by furrowing my brow and casting a doubtful eye on the merchandise. That works almost everywhere, except the Gap, where I'm sure behaviour-modifying sales techniques are taught by North Korean military intelligence on loan from Pyongyang.

In the meantime, society at large, even here in Toronto, has become much more tolerant. Kids with multiple piercings, make-up, plush fur wide-legs and the general demeanor of Hanna-Barbera characters travel on transit with impunity, secure in the immunity their status as a recognizable market demographic confers. The efficacy of rebellion has diminished, sure, but at least kids can navigate their awkward stages without being bullied by complete strangers.

THAT PRIVILEGE, OF COURSE, is still reserved for their peers and schoolmates. Since Columbine, there have been some high-profile cases of school rage, here and in the U.S., only some coming with a body count. Just recently, a high school student here in Ontario was put in jail over the Christmas holidays for a creative writing assignment that imagined a bloody rampage by a -- presumably autobiographical -- misfit loner. Writer's and artist's organizations sprang to his defense on the grounds of freedom of expression, and teacher's unions fought back, charging that teachers need to identify and defend themselves against threats -- however vague -- in the classroom.

Never mind that they were both right, and wrong. It's appalling that this boy was treated like a criminal for merely expressing what was on his mind in words, not deeds, but with the rash of Columbine copycats, the availability of guns -- and the preponderance of politicians who favour their availability -- and the fact that unhappy teenagers are desperate in a way that only an adult sociopath can understand, the teachers' fears are hardly unreasonable. The point isn't guns, or freedom of expression, or Columbine -- it's bullying. If there's one factor that all of these kids and their homicidal rage share, it's the fact that bullying is as common as acne and bad fashion sense with kids of any age. It's the air they breathe and the water they swim in, and as long as there are kids there will be bullies.

The whole sad story brought back memories of my own childhood, and the five years I spent walking to school every morning sick with dread, imagining the worst scenarios of humliation ahead of me, if only to pre-emptively neutralize whatever actually happened that day. High school was awful, of course -- just ask any unathletic punk from a poor neighbourhood in a private school where upper-middle class kids set the tone -- but it was a cakewalk compared to a Catholic grade school in a working-class area, where bright kids were hardly cherished. 

Perhaps it was growing up when I did, in the dismal hangover of the Sixties, where non-conformity and alienation suddenly became acceptable lifestyle options, but I was armed with the rhetoric of the rebel a bit too early, I suppose, and expected tolerance not only from my teachers but from the other kids as well. Never mind the fact that they couldn't even spell "tolerance" -- the average kid just isn't hard-wired to deal with the concept.

Children are inherently conservative, and their fear of change is constantly exacerbated by the fact that change is the law that rules their lives. Difference is an affront to the tiny, but growing, world-views they spend every day building. Teachers generally deplore bullying, and will speak out against intolerance at every opportunity, but the stress and hassle of dealing with overcrowded classes, the constraints put upon their attempts at discipline, the expectations of teachers, bureaucracy and government, and the general suspicion with which they're viewed by the public at large, hardly gives them the time or energy to deal with every bully and every poor, scared kid. 

I can articulate this all now, and read the newspaper stories about kids who take guns to school and dream elaborate revenge fantasies against their tormentors, only to randomly open fire on whoever crosses their sights, but at the time I was miserable in a way that seems unlivable now. I was a bully myself, in my first year of high school, trying to climb a few rungs up the social ladder in a place where I could start with a clean slate. It didn't take, though, and by grade eleven I was growing a rockabilly coif and dodging fruit thrown at me in spares. I can sympathize with teachers, especially now that some of my friends -- indeed, even my future mother-in-law -- work, or have worked, in the profession. But my heart goes out to the abject, desperate kid whose only solace is often a revenge fantasy cobbled together from exploitative movies and substandard literature.

"Children's playings are not sports and should be deemed as their most serious actions."
- Montaigne

Here's something about city architecture I wrote and photographed. There are some unfortunate mistakes in the text ("Dale Carnegie" instead of Andrew, for instance.) but I'm quite proud of the pictures. Please take a look.

A very delayed entry. I've been caught up with work the last month, and generally unconvinced that I've had much to report, until now. I like the way this entry digresses madly, much the way my mind has been working lately.

I'VE HAD A LOT OF TIME TO THINK ABOUT THIS, especially as my research for a magazine feature about my old neighbourhood took me to Our Lady of Victory, the Catholic grade school that was the scene of so much of my childhood misery.

Sitting in the office at the end of the school day, watching the staff hurry about the near-military operation of getting the kids on the school buses that would take 80% of them home, I observed that most of the teachers -- a predictable majority of whom were women -- were my age, or younger than me. Somehow, that didn't seem right. My memory of school involves older people, much older in my mind's eye, and realizing that they weren't -- I don't feel like an old person, yet, even though middle age is looming ever larger on the horizon -- was a bit of a shock. 

When I was at school, the principal was Sister Eleanor, your standard, sexless, thick-featured nun. A week or so ago, I sat in the office of Mrs. Kurnik, a bright, attractive woman barely a few years older than myself, and talked to teachers in their mid-twenties. She was eager to talk to me, since she's trying to get a new school built to replace the aging, overcrowded one. At the end of our interview, she somehow roped me into coming back and teaching local history to a couple of classes. Priceless stuff for my story, I thought, and agreed.

Good therapy, too, I imagined. For years, I couldn't pass OLV without a shudder, and I can confidently say that the horror that accompanied my years there was something I struggled to overcome for years afterward. I'm over it -- mostly -- now, but the prospect of standing in front of these kids, I thought, would be something like the "closure" that seems to be fondly desired in so much psychobabble.

I WAS PROMISED two classes of grade seven and eight students, but ended up in front of two groups from grades three, four, and six. For the younger class, time and history were way beyond abstract notions. When I asked them what they thought the neighbourhood looked like twenty-five years ago, when I was trudging to school, mired in my sense of doom, they imagined fields and farmhouses, and water drawn from wells. Their world was no larger than the school and the church and, deep in their own distant past, the day-care centre. Gratifyingly, though, they gasped in wonder when I was introduced as a journalist. What a powerful, worldly figure they must have imagined me to be.

By grade six, though, time is more concrete, and the questions were more focused. They knew that you had to work to make money, and that some buildings they passed every day were somehow special, giving off an air of age and faint, venerable importance. They were particularly fascinated by the only natural disaster, Hurricane Hazel, to have struck the area in recent memory, and made me explain it in detail, lingering over the loss of life, the homes swept away, the market gardens wiped off the local map by the flood.

It did my soul good, I'm sure, to have taught these kids, and perhaps something I said, some hint of the world beyond the walk to school, and past the earliest birthday party they can remember, will have lodged in their minds. Maybe there's a budding historian in there, I thought, or even -- wonder of wonders -- a worldiding, awe-inspiring journalist.

BACK TO DEPRESSING REALITY. A recent issue of The Economist, discussing the latest news of the Bush administration, referred to the "slam-dunk" election that brought the current president to power. I had to read the line twice, imagining a misprint, or the possibility that I'd fallen through some parallel dimension to a world where people wore their shoes on their heads and burgers ate people. It's bad enough that journalists feel obliged to use shopworn expressions like "slam-dunk", worse when they use them in flagrant disregard of reality.

My memory of the last American election is not of a "slam-dunk", but of a slow, maddening circuit of the ball around the rim, the crowd staring in disbelief, while the net was subtly tilted to ease the progress of the ball through the net. The scoreboard was tied, and instant replays outlawed momentarily. Let's just get this over, said the winner. Yes, said the referees, and let the process of healing begin. The losing side, and half the crowd, shuffled out of the stadium, unsure of what they'd just seen, and more than vaguely dissatisfied. Hardly a "slam-dunk".

writing ©2001
Rick McGinnis
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