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As a passive hockey semi-fan with split loyalties between Montréal & Vancouver on the rare occasions when I am following the sport, the latest Culture War idiocy of the last day and a half has given me the sudden urge to order, I don’t know, a fucking Raptors jersey.
The worst thing that could happen from an excruciating & trivializing episode like this would be for the general public of a country with desperately, urgently real emergencies tied to the ongoing colonial project at the heart of our economic & political infrastructures — in a year with race riots terrorizing Indigenous fishers on the country’s East Coast ; in a month that found that the majority of injuries for Indigenous youth, who are twice as likely to be injured as their non-Indigenous peers, occur in those under ministry or delegated care on the country’s West Coast; in a week where even police authorities had to admit that an officer captured on video verbally abusing and physically intimidating a citizen appeared to be racist in the middle of the prairies — to believe that decolonization is some sort of frivolous game in which academics go after demonstrably anodyne team insignias.
Does anyone benefit from these skirmishes, besides the Content Mills of perpetual online static? Does anyone think justice, restitution, or redress for Indigenous nations will be delivered by TMZ? The bleakly hilarious suggestion in one news piece that justice could be done by the Canucks reverting to their old stick-in-rink logo (which wasn’t even the most recent logo before the non-offending offending orca, but since everyone agrees that the penultimate logo, the old “flying-skate spaghetti plate,” was super fucking ugly, well…) the aesthetic bounds & political limits of this issue were ultimately made clear: if the Canucks ownership were feeling cagey, why not admit “wrongdoing,” re-brand, and sell a bunch of new merchandise?
Is there anything to salvage from 36 hours spent cringing so hard that we all pulled our necks? If there is, it’ll be because we learned something from the elegantly pithy exasperation of these two tweets by Robert Jago, which sum it all up better than anything I’ve seen, and for my money ought to be the final word:
Listen, I have very little patience for the kind of left analysis that’s so committed to debunking the blinkered liberal nostalgia for an imaginary American (or otherwise) past that never was that it refuses to admit that something especially toxic is happening in US politics right now. That’s a pretty gruesome run-on sentence; I’m sorry.
What I mean is: there is a certain kind of absolutely hysterical liberal so blinded by their Trump-panic that they deny his essential continuity with the brutal Republican, & indeed bipartisan, histories of American foreign & domestic politics. And in response to this hysterical liberal there has emerged an overcorrecting leftist who is so keen to emphasize that very continuity that they run a real danger of playing down the genuinely novel terrors & toxicities of this Trumpian moment. And I have no time for that guy.
But. BUT. BUT. That guy starts to sound downright reasonable when you start reading stuff like this on the BBC.
Was the debate a terrifying glimpse of the morbid symptoms of a declining, perhaps even dying, democracy? Absolutely, from the little of it I was able to bear. Nevertheless… I have to imagine that last night’s indecorum would still fail to rise to the level of SHOCKING THE GHOSTS OF TWO PRESIDENTS WHO WERE SHOT TO DEATH BY ASSASSINS.
Next up, from the BBC crime squad: Man, somewhere the ghost of Albert Anastasia is looking down thinking, “That’s a terrible haircut!”
A long time ago, at the River Rock Casino in Richmond, close to the Vancouver airport, I saw a man who looked just like Toots Hibbert playing the slot machine. The only problem was that this man was about 15 or 20 years too young to be Toots, the man who had named reggae music — but the resemblance was absolutely staggering, and I adored Toots & the Maytals, & so I kept circling the machine at a distance… until I realized that, on the casino’s security cameras, it would look like I was casing this man to rob him, & so I decided that I should approach him, even if I embarrassed us both, if it saved me trouble with River Rock security.
I waited for a break in the action, and then, completely lacking in confidence, said, “Excuse me — are you… Toots?”
Any ambiguity disappeared instantly, as a smile spread across his face, creasing it the same way it had creased as he hit the high notes in the studio scenes in The Harder They Come; in his unmistakable voice, Toots said, “Yeah, man” — and threw his arms around me in a hug so warm & familiar that the casino’s security personnel would instantly have been put at ease. I still cherish the memory.
I’ve spent untold hundreds of hours of my life listening to, singing with, Toots & the Maytals; this summer, they put out a new album, Got to Be Tough, & I’ve played it enough that my six year old daughter recently asked me, “Are we always going to listen to this song?” I saw them twice live, both times at Vancouver’s legendary Commodore Ballroom. Once was with my wife; once was with the staff of the student newspaper in my university days — we used to pump the Maytals into the newsroom on production nights, as we put together the weekly issue. Towards the end of that concert — I have distinct memories of this, almost 20 years ago, though it seems so crazy & unworkable & impractical — Toots invited members of the audience to join him onstage, and so several of us from the newspaper found ourselves up dancing next to the Maytals, under the lights.
I’d promised myself I would stay up near the front of the audience for the whole concert, dancing, until Toots sang his cover of John Denver’s ‘Take Me Home, Country Roads’ — for me, still & always, the definitive version of the song — but after the onstage adventure, I was exhausted, & headed to the back of the room. Just then, he started started singing it, & I smiled ruefully — I, who must have been 21?, had been unambiguously outlasted by a man several decades older. No wonder he looked so young in front of the slot machines.
Toots Hibbert died last night; Toots Hibbert will never die.
Since I’m now off all social media (btw, CANNOT RECOMMEND STRONGLY ENOUGH) I have nowhere else to brag about what is only my second-ever successful specific electoral political prediction (the last one was that I guessed Belinda Stronach would cross the floor to the Liberals a couple of weeks before she did). Not that either of these guesses took all that much brilliant intuition. Sadly, I think the 2024 prediction is probably correct, too, but we’ll see. As for whom the ‘worse than Trump’ figure could be, I’d follow the darkest guesses of the Chapo hosts that it’d be someone like Tom Cotton…
Note: I wrote this essay on my birthday, five months ago, when I turned the same age that my mother, Robin, was when she died. After this month, I will be older than she got to be.
“As I move past you to middle age”
– Kenneth Rexroth
When he was teaching poetry to the novices at Gethsemani monastery in Kentucky, in the 1960s, Thomas Merton read aloud to his students a poem published by the same house, New Directions, as published some of his own writing (including the poetry, which I’m told isn’t great, but seems pretty good to me). That’s how I first heard “Delia Rexroth,” by Kenneth Rexroth, the poem that becomes my story (or one of my stories) starting today — I heard it on a warm and relatively clear recording of Merton’s classroom sessions, now sold as audiobooks. I read recently in a quite mean-spirited, or at least very cynical, hit piece on Merton’s reputation in Harper’s magazine that the monk was full of contempt for the dullards by whom he felt surrounded before his hermitage, but throughout the sessions I’ve heard, Merton is good-humoured and patient, if slightly astounded by the anemic quality of the educations his novices had received before arriving at Gethsemani; in any case he is suffused with passion for the material and the chance to share it. “Under your illkempt yellow roses, Delia, today you are younger than your son.”
Donald Grayston, my mother’s priest at All Saints church in Burnaby in the late 1970s and early 1980s — the man who performed my parents’ marriage (1979), mine and my brother’s baptisms (1980 and 1983), Mom’s memorial service (1991), mine and my wife’s (secular) marriage (2007), and my grandmother’s memorial (2009) — was a Merton scholar, but I wasted every chance to swim in that pool until Don, too, was dead; only after losing my relatively intimate connection to one of the people in the world who I’m guessing knew the most about Merton, and certainly understood the animating spirit of Merton’s work better than just about anybody, did I start to think that maybe there was something to think about, something worth contemplating, about the monk.
Mom, who was very excited to be marrying a Québecois man and raising genuinely French-Canadian kids on the West Coast of what was back then a still very British Columbia had been prepared to convert to my father’s church, Thomas Merton’s church, Roman Catholicism. Admittedly, the journey from Anglican to Catholic isn’t as significant as, say, a conversion from Baha’ism to Chassidism — it doesn’t even really cover the whole distance between Protestant to Catholic, to be honest, although as we know, Tony “Somehow-Not-At-the-Hague” Blair felt the need to make it official, as did G.K. Chesterton, whose politics, in the main, also sucked, but who left a far richer legacy than Tony, who instead subtracted an incalculable portion of that left by Mesopotamian civilization in its entirety.
But Mom’s Chestertonian accession to Popery wasn’t to be; when she and my Dad went to see the priest — the same priest, I’m told, who magicked Margaret Trudeau into the Mother Church so that she could marry Pierre — he barely addressed my mother at all, coldly stacking the books she would have to read before swimming up from spiritual Beavers to religious Cubs (having now studied some theology myself, I feel I can say without too much exaggeration that the differences between the two churches that an Anglican would need to master in order to carry off a conversion could probably be effectively summarized in a tweet). Thoroughly turned off — which in fairness is the mode in which a great portion of the Catholic clergy prefer women to operate — my Mom got no sympathy from my father, a man who’d grown up as a gay boy in Quiet Revolution-era Québec, and so had no love for Catholicism: “I told you that this is what my church is like.” The couple stayed at All Saints, and that’s why I’m an Anglican instead of a Catholic.
There are no yellow roses, illkempt or otherwise, over the spot where Mom’s ashes were laid in the memorial garden beside All Saints, on Royal Oak avenue, site of rising property values and lowering aesthetic standards; there is a bush. I leave the knowledge of what kinds of plants are which to my brother, the horticulturalist by training; I just know that the bush is green, with shiny, waxy leaves, and that in my pseudo-scientific understanding of the transmigration of, let’s say, particles (?), it has grown in part from my mother’s energy. When I go to visit, or to pay respects, to speckle the insides of my glasses with salty stains and spots, I will take a leaf from the bush between my fingers just to try to get closer.
One quick digression: death is inescapable. What’s more, so is the fear of death. From a combination of parental instinct and parenting instruction, I decided that I would never tell my daughter Joséphine anything at all that I didn’t believe about death. Before I went back to church, I had no sense that there could or would be a Heaven where we saw our loved ones again, and even now, more than a year back into regular religious observance and relatively deep Christian study, nothing has changed my mind about that. Regardless, when Joséphine — who was introduced to the concept of death earlier than many kids in her social or geographical strata are — asked me what happens when we die, I did my best to offer her something that I considered to be the hopeful truth: that the memory and the love of us live on in the people who cared for us, and that our bodies return to the earth, to come back as part of the grass and plants and flowers that grow from where we are. We both seemed pretty satisfied with the answer. The next day, I got a phone call from my wife:
“Did you tell Joséphine that when she died she would come back as a flower?”
“Sort of, yes.”
“Because I put a vase in the middle of the table and she started screaming, ‘I don’t want to be a flower!’”
I, Joséphine’s father, am today the same age as her grandmother. Over the coming year, I am passing her, to middle age. That’s the best case scenario.
Today is my 39th birthday; her 39th birthday was the last one my Mother celebrated. (In the years after she died, my Dad never wanted us to fetishize the anniversary of her death too much, and so to avoid morbidity, we could always look to her birthday: September 11th.) By my calculations, as the countdown finishes on New Year’s Eve, I will become older than my mother.
The apprehension of this birthday has been the background radiation of my life since I was ten years old. The two most terrifying prospects of today were:
July 1, 2019
For close to twenty years now, the struggle against displacement & for inclusion in Vancouver has primarily been about “anti-gentrification”; and a lot of really good, important work was done under that banner. But anti-gentrification is, by definition, a defensive strategy — and, all too often, it becomes about making sure that an ever-dwindling group of city blocks simply stays too shitty for people with money to want to take it. But the real problem with this city & its history isn’t primarily to do with a few blocks in the DTES; it’s about the huge swathes of town under lock & key against anything but detached, single-family dwellings, which protect enormous, untouchable cantons of multigenerational wealth. This incredibly important & victorious resolution by Christine Boyle lays out a different strategy: one that says, “Fuck it, we’re not going to settle for a few blocks. The WHOLE city belongs to everyone.” This should be the future of the fight for equality, access, & inclusion in Vancouver.
This totally sucks, but it’s definitive, & the conversation is over. Electoral reform is not going to happen in B.C., or in Canada, anytime this generation. It was a mistake to have the premier be the face of the campaign because it allowed what should be a supra-partisan issue to become one of NDP versus Liberals. Lots of big strategic changes need to happen on our side now, the most urgent of which is healing the urban-rural-Indigenous divide between natural NDP constituencies. What makes that even harder to do is that we now need to make a real bid for left-wing Greens to join, or vote for, the NDP (they’re not going to want to). This totally fucking blows but we lost, it’s over, & it’s time to admit defeat & get ourselves ready to keep fighting within the existing framework.