(started 04.30.02 | 09:19pm EST) THE HOMETOWN HOCKEY HEROES are in some kind of playoff situation tonight so the whole newsroom is glued to the t.v.. You'll have to pardon me if I'm not too well-versed with precisely how important all of this apparently is, but I'm nothing like anything that remotely resembles a hockey fan, which leaves me feeling like a minority of one at times like this.
On my way to work, a carload of young men (or old boys, as the case may be) drove down our street, their compact hatchback covered in flags and the names of Leaf players - in blue masking tape, mind you, which led me to believe that it was mom's car, and it had better be brought back in good shape when the series is over, young man. There were driving all over the city in their home game jerseys, honking and hooting, working themselves up into a proper froth in the hours before the game started downtown at the Air Canada Centre. Where's the draft when you need it?
Completely alien behaviour, as far as I was concerned. I remember, years ago, sitting in the back of a friend's car in high school as we went up and down Yonge Street on some early evening in the onset of summer, pointedly trying to read a paperback by the fading light while my buddies hooted out the windows. I was being a real joybang, I knew it then as I know it now, but it wasn't a matter of finding it all so distasteful as much as finding it puzzling.
It's a temperament that makes me an unlikely revolutionary; the larger the group, the more unrestrained their emotion - good or bad - the more uncomfortable I feel. It's an unreasonable enough attitude if you have to make an effort to imagine a joyful, celebratory crowd, after a big game or a war's end, turning into a mob, an aggregate mass whose behaviour, viewed from a distance, resembles a cellular response to a viral infection. But that's just me.
But then, I'm the guy whose favorite artist is Hieronymus Bosch, who I've always considered a realistic painter.
"We" won; that is, the Leafs won. Everyone here is very happy. Fantastic. (finished 10:11pm | 04.30.02)
(started 04.30.02 | 10:22pm EST) I DON'T KNOW WHAT PEOPLE DID to waste time at work before the net. Here's the evidence of my latest time-waster; it accounted for the better part of an hour the other night:
Look at me, I'm a ridiculous superhero! Aided by my trusty sidekick Bakunin the genetically improved batcat, I swarm art gallery openings, book launches, cooking classes and Granite Club wedding receptions, wreaking havoc with my ferocious hammer and sickle! I am truly to be feared/pitied. (finished 10:37pm | 04.30.02)
(started 05.01.02 | 06:45pm EST) A GUY NAMED LINDBERGH LEFT A New York airport today in a single-engined plane called the "Spirit of St. Louis", intending to fly the Atlantic solo and land in Paris. There's a lot happening in the world, so it didn't get a lot of play in the news, but there were a few shots on my Reuters desktop and I thought it was kind of interesting.
Okay, so his name is Erik Lindbergh, he's the grandson of Charles, and his plane - a Lancair Columbia 300, a lightweight composite-bodied four-seater with a 310 horsepower engine and some pretty advanced avionics - is called the "New Spirit of St. Louis". Unlike the original 220 h.p. Ryan, Erik Lindbergh won't have to navigate by the stars or look through a periscope to see ahead of himself. He also probably won't be greeted by 100,000 ecstatic Frenchmen at Le Bourget airfield when he lands. (These days, that might probably be the best part of the trip.)
The photos show a man in a baseball cap and microphone headset, blowing kisses to the camera with one hand while he pulls the door down on the Lancair with the other. They could be snapshots of a prosperous young dentist or proctologist about to do the first certified solo of his expensive new hobby. A few frames later, you see the plane taking off, yet another bit of traffic at a small suburban airfield; in the blurred background, behind the chest high fence, two or three planespotters document the moment with their handycams. Actually, Erik's grandfather's take-off from Curtiss Field on Long Island was really no more momentous - it was his landing 33 hours later that made history.
I can't help but relish these delicious contextual moments; news rushes at us like bugs at a windscreen, so its nice that, even when the moment is as manufactured as young Lindbergh's flight, there are occasional pauses in the headlong rush where it's possible to look back and see the long view into the past, a scarce perspective on just how far we've travelled. A moment like this one is more than a bit disillusioning: the original flight of the Spirit of St. Louis was a truly magical, optimistic moment in the long, forboding pause between the wars, so his grandson's flight today serves, at least, to remind us that these magical, world-binding moments are truly rare, and getting rarer. (finished 08:58pm | 05.01.02)
(started 05.01.02 | 10:19pm EST) FIGHTING ERUPTED AROUND the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem a few hours ago, and I was treated to a series of photos of the ancient rooftops of the holy city, lit by flares and the odd explosion. Something - we don't know what yet, since the IDF is keeping a very tight reign on the situation - caught fire. It could have been the church, or some part of the church complex, or God knows what. We'll all find out tomorrow.
I've been surprised - and a bit pleased - at the restrained attitude from Christians, and Catholics especially, worldwide. The Vatican has, of course, taken as active a hand as it can (especially now, when it has a few more things to worry about), in the hopes of ending an apparently destructive occupation of Christ's putative birthplace. Still, the general tone has been resigned, and even a bit philosophical, a sort of tacit acknowledgement that something like this would have happened sooner or later, as long as the Holy Land continues to be a political nightmare. Everything from the eastern shore of the Mediterranean to the Dead Sea is a target, and there's nothing that says a Christian church isn't as rich a target as a settler's home, a refugee camp, or a pizza parlour.
A building is, in the end, just a building, and the church, if it has any value or real resonance with its followers, is more than just a collection of buildings, a caucus of clerics, or a pontifical leader. The church has lost buildings - and people - before, and will again, and that's the simple fact of persisting through history. History has never been gentle with the Holy Land - so many of Jerusalem's sacred sites are ruins, after all - and should the Church of the Nativity and, perhaps, all of Manger Square become ruins by the weekend, we'll do again what we've always done: mourn, bury, rebuild. If the middle east provides any graspable lesson for anyone, religious or not, it's that we're far from living in a perfect world, and the dream of that world remains that - a dream, as transcendent and immaterial as the church itself. (finished 10:48pm | 05.01.02)
(started 05.02.02 | 09:45pm EST) CANADA IS LIKE A COMPANY undergoing constant "re-branding" exercises, one of those places that squanders a chunk of its profits and untold hours of manpower sending executives away on corporate retreats, where "facilitators" and other expensive space-fillers force them to drain the joy out of the better part of each day drafting endless "mission statements".
We've been at it so long that we've come to regard these tedious exercises as an actual form of literature - if written by journalists, academics and novelists - and as the equivalent of public policy if written by bureaucrats, politicians and official committees. Every publisher worth their salt has one of these tomes on their lists every year, and the shelves of our nation's libraries groan with official white papers explicating our national identity through the lenses of culture, heritage, multiculturalism, tariffs, language, resources, geography, and God knows what else.
My wife, poor soul, has to sift through vast drifts of this stuff every now and then, and she e-mailed me a few morsels from this one today, sure that it would have the general effect of poking at a sleeping wolverine with a sharp stick. It worked.
"Canada in the World" is seven years old now, and if nothing else, its title helps us fix just precisely where to find Canada, should you be at all curious. Important news is brought to light, like "Poverty, inequality and lack of human rights still burden too many people and create new tensions", and "Ethnic and religious divisions have also emerged, and weapons are spreading." Good to know. It also tells us that "There is a Strong Consensus for an Active Canadian Foreign Policy", which makes me sleep a whole lot better, let me tell you.
Plowing through the report (which, thankfully, my wife did for me, redeeming untold precious hours of my life), you come upon a statement like "a country that does not project a clearly defined image of what it is and what it represents, is doomed to anonymity on the international scene." To almost anyone else, anywhere in the world, it's a banality; to a Canadian, it's a cue, a huge warning sign for some brow-furrowing posturing ahead. Sure enough, it arrives only a sentence away, a quote from John Ralston Saul, an author and academic who would, a few years hence, become Canada's court philosopher when his journalist wife, Adrienne Clarkson, was appointed Governor General of Canada.
I want you to really ponder Mr. Saul's contribution to "Canada in the World", scan every word, savour the sentence, let yourself be carried along by the thrust of his logic:
"Canadian culture is the vision of a northern people who, despite substantial and constant difficulties, found a way to live together while other nations tore themselves apart and imposed monolithic, centralized mythologies on themselves."
Which is a faintly belligerent way of recycling the old "Canada is a virtuous absence" school of identity. In a nutshell, a combination of ethnic diversity, regionalism, and the constant challenges to identity provided by waves of immigration have prevented Canada from becoming a xenophobic monoculture; we have, instead, developed a fluid, almost abstract sense of ourselves, something that might not be apparent or even attractive to fishermen in the maritimes, farmers in Saskatchewan, Innu in the north or loggers in B.C., but which appeals mightily to newspaper columnists and academic conference organizers. It's the benign, nearly abstract national mythology embraced and promoted by intellectuals like Mr. Saul starting in the Sixties, when the "good colonial nation" mythology that used to define Canada was becoming not only untrue but unpopular.
The nations who "tore themselves apart" with their "monolithic, centralized mythologies" are, I suppose, European ones like France and Germany, but Saul is also be talking about Japan, I suppose, though it's not too much of a stretch to imagine the description slyly applied to the United States, the southern neighbour that, alone among countries in the world, we most closely resemble, if you just overlook their civil war, their overwhelming, robust commercial might, and their virtual ownership of the "democracy and freedom" brand on the world geopolitical market. The effort would, of course, be an awful lie, but don't underestimate the contortions we'll go through up here in the service of anti-Americanism.
We envy the Americans their robust self-mythology, which is why we never miss a chance to make fun of it, to portray ourselves as benign and good-natured and imbued with common sense, and Americans as obnoxious and ignorant oafs. The mass market version of Mr. Saul's statement, and of "Canada in the World" in general, is a series of beer commercials that are running up here for, appropriately, Molson's generic and virtually tasteless Canadian label, undergoing yet another re-branding. The most popular one shows Joe Canadian, a handsome but unshaved young man, sitting in a bar, being accosted by a couple of American preppies who ask him, condescendingly, where his "pet beaver" is. While they guffaw, Joe reaches down and hauls, yes, a real live beaver up onto the bar. "Right here, " he says, to the momentarily silenced Yank dweebs, then commands the beaver: "Attack." The little rodent turns, snarls through his massive buck teeth, and flings itself at the neck of the lead preppie ass, who shrieks piteously.
Some versions of the commercial dispense with the prologue entirely, and just feature fifteen seconds or so of the dam-building amphibious mammal mauling the ugly American neck, to a soundtrack of girly-man screams and low animal growls, while Joe Canadian smirks to himself over his abstractly-named and character-free beverage. Ahh, sweet revenge. That'll teach you to drop bombs on our boys.
Across the pond, one of those "other nations" is tearing itself apart, confronted with the spectre of its own intolerance in the shape of Jean-Marie Le Pen. Masters of the abstraction in the service of political stasis, the French have been strangely unable to formulate their own mythology of benign inclusion, possible because they lack - in the words of "Canada in the World" - our "uniqueness", our "Aboriginal roots, the North, the oceans, and (our) vastness." Preoccupied with "insecurity", the widely-percieved and media-hyped threat to French polity posed by seething immigrant ghettoes, they've allowed a bogeyman to grow into more than a mere pressure-release valve for the more venerable traditions of French bigotry and anti-semitism, a sideshow for provincials while the government under men like Chirac endeavor to turn Malians, Algerians and Guineans into good Frenchmen, but slowly though, so as not to pose a threat to the real business of government patronage. Silly Frenchmen - would that they could give up a few thousand hectares of profitable vineyards for the vast serenity we get from millions of acres of tundra and permafrost.
Never mind that members of our own official federal opposition party have been known to demand a choking off of immigration here, or that the party running the (admittedly French, therefore suspect) province of Quebec have been known to sound like Le Pen, blaming immigrants and Jews, especially when they find support for their pet project - the political, but not economic, separation of Quebec from Canada - lacks overwhelming support. It's considered a virtue among people like John Ralston Saul to politely ignore rude and unevolved voices, to treat them like unhappy echoes from our (amazingly xenophobic - Japanese internment camps, quotas on Jewish refugees, "No Jews, No Irish, No Dogs" signs, forced sterilization of "undesirables", extortionary entrance taxes on Chinese coolies and restrictions against Chinese women who might, after all, help produce more Chinese - you name it, it's all there) past.
The "Canadian identity" industry that, ultimately, only benefits bureaucrats (who need paper trails to justify their salaries) and men like John Ralston Saul (who need to be published - after all, a public intellectual without a book to flog is like the proverbial tree falling alone in the forest), is based on the fundamental, essential idea that Canada, somehow, is utterly unique in the world. The great "identity abstraction" that's meant to define us is our version of the "exceptionalism" that makes America able to live with all of its inherent contradictions - a rich country full of poor people, an exemplar of freedom plagued by racism, a religious country ruled by secular principles, a paragon of innovation while the majority of its population believes in ghosts, UFOs and astrology - with such apparent, even unstoppable, success.
Away from our beer commercials, in a bar in London, Madrid, Bombay or Hong Kong, we conspicuously lack attack beavers and are, generally, indistinguishable from Americans to the locals. Our vastness isn't altogether apparent, and the abstraction that makes us so serenely civilized on paper is oddly useless. We are, ultimately, just another country in the world, dealing with the riptides of the modern world that deposit new citizens along with new problems on our shores every day, and it might be useful to pay close attention to how the rest of the world - even, alas, the Americans - live with their problems instead of retreating into tiresome philosophical fantasies. (finished 12:07pm | 05.04.02)
(started 05.04.02 | 12:08pm EST) NOW THAT THE GOOD WEATHER IS finally here, I can get back to my project for the year, an undertaking that should see me wandering through the run-down working class neighbourhoods along Rogers Road in the west end, not far from where I grew up, snapping pictures of storefronts and back alleys with my trusty Rolleiflex, trying to get a decent document of the area together before the next wave of development/"renewal" alters it one more irrevocable shade into the charmless but convenient future.
In the absence of any freelance commissions for my usual line of business - portraits - I've found new joy in taking pictures without people. At first, it was still-lifes - fruit and veg from the local markets and our deck garden - until I re-discovered the photographer who originally made me consider photography as something more than the boxes of snapshots my Kodak-employed family stored in every cupboard in the house. I bought a book of Eugene Atget's photographs of old Paris when I was still in high school, a remaindered Aperture monograph edition that I've still got today.
I was then, as now, in love with old things, but it never occurred to me that the decaying retail strip on Weston Road, or the scheduled-to-be-demolished buildings at West Park Hospital, or the endless treets of worker's row- and townhouses all over the city were as worthy of being photographed as Atget's crumbling churches and stone alleyways, worker's neighbourhoods (also doomed by municipal "renewal") and tatty storefronts. Atget's world was romantic and picturesque, whereas mine was grim and banal.
I hadn't seen the Lawren Harris paintings of those same neighbourhoods, made over eighty years ago when they were still new but already shabby. They're my favorite Canadian paintings today, and if I could take one photo as evocative this year, I'll be proud.
I have about a month and a half to work before the summer sun gets too high in the sky, making shadows harsher, and the summer heat makes an aimless wander a chore and not a pleasure. The routes have been mapped out in a notebook and my Perlys city guide. I can spend the summer downstairs, printing the results in the relative cool of my darkroom. If I can't get everything I want before then, there's another few weeks in the fall. I've been planning this all winter, and I'm actually excited to have something to do with my cameras again. I really miss the photographer's life these days, especially when I spend a third of every day looking at other photographers' work. I wish I could make a living doing this but, as anyone will tell you, Atget never managed it, so why should I expect to do any better? (finished 12:32pm | 05.04.02)
|.||©1998-2002 Rick McGinnis|