Tuesday, July 26, 2016

Of Assassins, Headline Crime and Faith

From http://www.huffingtonpost.ca/2016/07/25/sagamihara-
japan-stabbings_n_11186718.html
And yet we reel once again, from a crime and the symbolism that gets attributed to it. We reel while still reeling and trying to absorb at a time when the inability to absorb may suggest a rock-like hardness or impermeability. Attributing hardness and sticking to that suggests a bleak coldness of heart has come over us collectively. While it is easy to find pockets where sympathy has been ossified out of the heart, it is the hardness of head and certitude of thought, the over-reliance on first conclusion that contributes far too much hue and cry. Each crime that we hear of, regardless of the scale, seems to come with the travesty of the act but also an assault on the possibility of reflection. Assumptions are shared impulsively without the recognition of pattern that brings clarity to the crimes or to the myriad sides of the discussion.

There was a time when assassins were assumed to have had a political motive for their actions and in the last century that pantheon of criminals, from Gavrilo Princip to Lee Harvey Oswald and Sirhan Sirhan were attributed the motives that we assumed included some degree of hunger for fame or significance. Little thought was given to the psychology among those individuals that set them on the path that lead them to the murders they committed. Frankly, the consequences were too significant for entire nations or continents for anyone to do a forensic psychological investigation, if this science was professionally practiced. 

Mark David Chapman's murder of John Lennon raised the question of whether or not it was actually an assassination or "merely" a murder. Indeed the victim was a famous man, but the consequences did not clearly alter the course of history the way other assassins did. The other significant thing that accompanied the Lennon murder was Chapman's possession of The Catcher in the Rye. That, the book was to blame for the murder according to some grossly uninformed, meaning-seeking sources and nearly four months later John Hinckley's obsession with Taxi Driver and Jodie Foster was cited as contributing to the attempt on President Ronald Reagan. Taxi Driver seemed to survive its moment of infamy better than Catcher, which may has been cited several times for possible links to crimes among its readers.

In the years that have passed there have been other members of society who have dissociated themselves from society or family and in turn committed crimes that have appalled, shocked and dismayed us. In the aftermath of the school shootings at Columbine in 1998 people tried to pin the connection to video games and The Matrix.  In 1990, Judas Priest was sued for the influence their music had on teens who had committed suicide. Time and time again people trying to find cause for such crimes stop at the most superficial answer and settle for it rather than pursuing the question more deeply and looking at a pattern that is consistent throughout a larger series of crimes or patterns of behaviour among those commit them.

Such a suggestion would never prompt those who attribute crimes directly to one's faith to pause and look more deeply for the dissociation that prompted them to commit their acts. The possibility is that, among those criminals who only have a superficial interest in a particular faith and clearly follow a pattern of behaviour that is in clear conflict with the tenets of a faith. Before criminals chose to associate themselves with a particular genre, novel, movie, line of employment or religion, they dissociated from the family or circle of support that ensured they remained conscious of and connected to the entire society. Before they sought to kill or main soldiers, diners, commuters, shoppers, jocks, school kids, the disabled, members of a race, faith or tax bracket that they considered a threat, there was an incident or a pattern that detached them from the rest of society. That happened first. The murders or terrorist acts committed in Ottawa and Quebec in 2014 were by people who only had a tenuous connection with ISIS or ISIL and acted in a way that directly conflicted with the faith they wanted to cloak their actions in. They remained dissociative despite the opportunities to practice a faith that allowed and encouraged them to become part of a welcoming community.

Amidst all of the crimes that have marked 2016 and provoked arguments about, religion, race, weapons and whatever else people choose to argue over in the absence of clear, well-regulated debate occurred a crime that must be taken into account and included in the discussion as we try to determine what it is that causes these individuals to wreak the pain and misery that they do. Earlier today, a 26-year-old man in the suburbs of the massive Tokyo-Yokohama megalopolis returned to his former place of employment and killed 19 of the residents (or patients) in a facility for the disabled and injured another 20. He had aspirations of becoming a teacher, being one of those individuals that we as a society rely on to be the glue that helps hold society together but, as the Associated Press put it, "somewhere along the way, things went terribly awry." What attributed to this young man's slide toward the state of mind that prompted these murders is yet to be investigated. In the absence of a faith or explicit otherness that can be attributed to him by the Japanese media, they will have to grapple with the dissociation that gradually occurred in this young man rather than attribute it to one of the superficial causes that the Western media and the uninformed social media peanut gallery will attribute it to.
The investment of these criminals' energy in The Matrix, Catcher, Ozzy Osbourne, Taxi Driver, the Communist Party is ultimately incidental and the same can and must be said of religious faiths as well. All faiths have flaws and I am not going to defend the flaws of one over any other in this post. Catholics and Protestants in Ireland have had their roles in crimes beyond their borders but these are overlooked as other faiths are smeared. There are, however, devout Muslims who are nothing short of petrified by the pattern of crimes which are superficially associated with their religion. The first reason for this fear is, of course, the assumption among Westerners that they and their religion are a threat to peace and order throughout the world. The greater concern that many of them have, is the threat this pattern of crime may have on their children, their confidence in the faith they are raised in and its standing in the community. Parents, all of us, want to ensure that our children are raised to be empathetic and feel a sense of community and connectedness that will make us love, serve and support one another. That is the aspiration of most, if not all parents. The faith that we practice and pass on to our children is part of that sense of connection that we want to form among our children to ensure that they do not dissociate and cause such harm to themselves or to others. As the practice of faith becomes a more dangerous enterprise, as the commitment to this particular pillar of community gets called into doubt, these parents must raise their children exceptionally cautious and self-conscious about the purpose of their faith being questioned and denigrated with such exceptional and unbridled malice.

Thursday, July 21, 2016

Confession Time: Distraction Over Engagement

It is Thursday and the past week has seemed painfully long, eventful and disturbing. Whether I look near or far, reflect on what has happened or get ahead of myself and anticipate the possibilities that the events seem to harbinger, there is much to make you want to turn away from the world beyond.

Terrorism in Nice, a coup in Turkey, the vitriol, miscues and misogyny that the Republican Party had presaged throughout the entire year, the thwarted terrorist attempts and the disaster-in-waiting Rio Olympics all make me want to don blinders or cast my eyes closer to home. Even here, however, with the burial of a murdered mother and child, the reflex to turn the eyes away, down or inward offers no relief. There is a local, seemingly intractable, scuttlebutt and protest against expanding transit service. When I conclude it is best to just stare at the ground and lose myself to my headphone entertainment during my regular walks and runs I see more dead birds strewn on the asphalt and the grassy berms than I've seen since I was 8 years old. (Not exactly a time when official records began to be kept, but the carcass count is well into the dozens.)

The last seven days alone could fill one of those year-ending collage blurs of news highlights tracing the course of the entire calendar back in 1983 when the peanut gallery was that much smaller and less-equipped, and I failed to mention the airstrike in Syria that killed an unconfirmed number of civilians or the African-American man who was shot in Florida while on the job with a young autistic adult. For each of these events, there seems to be this fury of response yay or nay to each and everyone of those events. I've responded in those clusters of social media frenzy, liking, retweeting, sharing or snarking about what's unfolding or how superficial or abhorently misinformed or hateful someone's position might be. The next seven could be the same.

But I have no confidence, whatsoever, that I have clue one about any of what is going on right now or how to distinguish between signal and noise. More often than not, our human tragedies incite this flurry of uninformed response, with all of us singing along with the choirs of our comfort indifferent to the cacophony that our knee-jerk impulses create.  When we contribute to the data load at computer servers to indicate our yay or nay on a topic or news item, we are doing it without giving the topic at hand or the articles on it their due consideration.

I've been conscious of how I do this - retweeting or sharing something without actually reading it.  I have done it regularly and the reality is that read through more of those, "if you are a friend of mine..." or "if you are reading this..." items (which I never share) than I actually read the articles that I share and retweet.  Evidence shows that I am in the majority. There are times when I do this deliberately to bookmark something for my own reference, but most of the time it is a brief click to say a little bit about myself or the things I am interested in or perhaps believe in.

How little I actually know.

Marshall McLuhan presciently envisioned a communications system that would serve as, or mirror the central nervous system of the planet (our collective conscience thoughts and concerns at a given moment) and the signals coming from that system, if it is our current internet or Web 2.0 indicate that we are entirely unaware of our almost Touretic insensitivities to others and on top of that have a case of ADHD. When I nudge a post into my circle of contacts all I am really doing is adding to the throb of rage, sympathy or sarcasm the post stands for without too much critical investigation into who are the most reasoned voices on a topic or what the biggest concerns ought to be.

And I am as guilty of information pollution as the most vitriolic, inane, click-happy Trump supporter, Brexit strategist, xenophobe or Kardashian groupie.  (I did manage to miss the recent tumult over Taylor Swift writing a song with her ex.  I'm still not sure what modicum of shame or shade needed to be thrown how hard in what direction over that.)

Instead of engaging in the dialogue via social media, the uninformed retweeting and sharing of unread articles merely tilt the signal from the nervous system toward the frenetic and away from the considered and rational.  At every moment, 24-7, there are opposing masses of people who send out signals with their posts, headlines and pithy 140-character comments but rarely do they delve deeply enough into the details of what they are reacting to or the positions that we purportedly support without taking the care to inform ourselves about the entire issue or the side that we are taking.  That toxic echo following each tragedy is the hue and cry of people who cling to their chosen certainties as if they were fact rather than belief.

The times we live in are incredibly uncertain, but our collective refusal to let our beliefs be challenged by the facts is a significant threat to clear thinking and discourse, even if you happen to be right.  We will never know if we are right and we will never battle test our positions or our thinking processes if we closet ourselves in echo chambers of our careful design and ongoing editing.  (Is it possible that we edit our friend and follower lists more judiciously than we edit our own posts or review what we are sharing?)

We continue to choose the distraction over engagement, just as we choose the narrow specifics of our view of the world: Darwin was wrong, someone else's religious fanaticism is the greatest threat known to man, Brady didn't do it, Melania didn't mean to, and on and on. There is the feeling that we need to know a little bit about everything: a belief that renders trivia essential while the deepest interpretations of our planet its workings and its problems are deemed too much trouble to undertake. This is not a promising combination for a world that needs informed humanity to ensure our safety and wellbeing.

Click.

Saturday, July 16, 2016

Comfort Zones and the Zone

Two weeks ago my son and I were wandering around downtown with our cameras when we came upon a street artist.  She was a mid-20's girl camped out on the pedestrian stretch of Stephen Avenue with an arsenal of spray paint cans, some bristol board, a few templates to work with an a clutch of black Sharpies of varying gauges. She worked at what appeared to be a brisk pace, but over time there were occasions when there was less certainty in what she was doing. She knew the techniques that she wanted to apply for the most part, but there were occasional quests for the right approach for a desired effect and occasional forays into improvisations that were painted over.

The retreats with approaches did not prove major setbacks. Her improvisations were while she was solo and applying the tools and techniques of a (spray) painter rather than a musician on a bandstand and subject to the threat of intolerant, impatient or superior bandmates. The only cost to her was in the efficiency of production.  If it took her another three, five or ten minutes to sort through her efforts to dapple a tree in cherry blossoms with one errant effect and then discarding it for something that was more routine but effective in this instance, there was nothing more to lose for it other than the increment of time spent on the next painting. Throughout the time we lingered there, she completed paintings in bursts of 10-15 minutes at a time and her audience remained engaged in the process they were witnessing and she was selling her $20 paintings before any of them dried.

She interacted occasionally with the audience. One middle-aged woman brought her a bottle of water. Friends happened by and briefly made plans. Money exchanged hands. Inspirations were discussed. She also mentioned that it was the first time that she was doing it in public rather than in her (or her parents) garage.

As I thought about the challenge of doing this work, especially what is regarded as private work, in public it raised the question of what exactly her comfort zone is and what it might allow or encourage in contrast to what she might allow herself and require of herself when she is essentially performing her art for an audience. In her own garage, which I'm speculating is a comfort zone, she might have been inclined to discard her error immediately, take much more time to contemplate the move around her error or just keep going until she ended up with something far removed from her intention.  With an audience, however, there was less luxury to paused and contemplate or shred the error in a fit of artistic pique.

There was a point where she had to perform the role of artist (or should that be artiste?) and conduct herself with an authority and confidence that was never required in the comfort of the garage. She did it without missing too many beats or pausing and dwelling too long or too hard on the puzzle she posed for herself. It was the move away from the comfort zone of the garage that prompted an uncomfortable period of discovery, error and innovation as she worked through completing her painting while an audience looked on quietly and expressing only interest and curiosity about her work and her process.

The move from the familiar setting that is one's comfort zone into a place where the comforts are gone and the pressures to improvise and produce can be a stimulating one that prompts a great deal of growth and redefines your abilities far more pervasively than a long stay in the comfort zone which may risk cultivating complacency and draw you into a rut.

Friday, June 10, 2016

Farewell To The Giant

On April 2, 2014, I was walking north toward Stephen Avenue here in Calgary when I saw a familiar figure strolling east. He was accompanied but more preoccupied, as a grandfather would be, with a rope of preschoolers who were toddling past. They were a diverse group oblivious to their brush with fame with this man who discreetly doted on them without intruding. It was a beautiful moment for me as I watch this man who gained a second act in his hockey career playing professionally with his sons, the family business masterfully managed by mom and wife, Colleen.

It was of course, Gordie Howe, 2 days passed his 86th birthday. I'd never seen him play, but from childhood I knew that his birthday was one to file in my thoughts and commemorate with a quiet good wish to him each year. On this occasion, I could directly give him my belated greetings but I was reluctant. Frail is never a word that you would use to describe Mr. Howe, never. His health was in decline. That much Canadians and hockey fans had heard. Throughout my childhood, I plundered the bookmobile shelves for hockey books and read of Gordie Howe's life and exploits in way that other kids read of fictional heroes.

I am not one to crowd celebrities. I would much rather acknowledge them discreetly with a nod of respect. In this case, however, the internal debate raged briefly and I concluded that I did not want him to feel forgotten. There was something about his fond glance at those children that gave me the sense he wanted to reach out, to dote, to connect. I gave it a shot and took a few steps toward him and his son-in-law to express my respect to the man and wish him his belated happy birthday.

I was welcomed, the man and his family more accustomed to the affections of hockey fans than wearied, even now, by it, and we chatted briefly. His son-in-law offered to take a few pictures with my phone an unexpected largesse given all I wanted to do his wish him a happy birthday, place my small hand in his bearpaw for a shake and worship him a little.

Monday, June 6, 2016

My Greatest Achievement

The following is an excerpt from my Arctic memoir, Exiled From The Tundra, a passage which outlines what I still consider my greatest achievement. The names have been changed to protect the identities of those involved.

Alfred reminded everyone it was time to prepare for the Christmas concert. The teachers probably dreaded it more than they did the year before. All I wanted do was avoid the girls’ rebellion against the concert and the embarrassing performance that was a consequence of the late decision to join.
Recalling the challenges from the previous Christmas concert, one of the first things I set out to overcome was the challenge of filling the gym with sound for whatever songs we did. With Raymond absent, I decided to combine my class with his to perform "Silent Night" together in French and English, something that would give Raymond’s class a presence in the concert and create a group large enough for everyone to hear in the gym. When the kids became familiar with the song and melody, they let me know that there were Inuktitut lyrics as well. With that, I thought it would be a good idea for the two classes to sing it in all three languages. As we rehearsed in the gym and the Inuit teachers of the youngest students heard it in all three languages, the choir expanded to encompass all the students in the school. This lead to rehearsals with all the students and teachers together in the gym. As everyone gathered to rehearse, there was a rare moment of camaraderie. Each of the teachers took their turn prompting and directing their kids or in their language to enhance the performance. There was a feeling amongst us that — at least for that brief part of the program — the concert was going to be all right despite the prevailing mood among the teachers.
For my class, I came up with a reworking of "A Christmas Carol." I wanted to avoid making it corny or being too wordy for them to remember or their parents to understand. I kept the lines short, assigned and refined parts according to the personalities of the kids and even worked in a (bad, bad) joke on the meaning of Ghost of Christmas Present to let me come on for a moment to correct their use the homonyms and assure them I was there. I cast Putulik as Ebenezer Scrooge. I put Mary in the role of the Ghost of Christmas Present. I portrayed the Ghost of Christmas Future as the Terminator and with that in mind, cast strong, silent Josepi. I kept Piatsi and Eva together to be the Cratchits and Ima had the role of the Ghost of Christmas Past.
I was not sure if the people in the village were familiar with “A Christmas Carol,” but it would be in English, the kids would not have any undue demands on them and it would be quick as well. All of the kids remained in their comfort zones and there were enough little subversive touches to keep them from turning their noses up at it. They were eager to do it and gave me the feeling they would have been willing to do even more. We rehearsed the play in the evenings in our classroom and went over the lines and blocking a few times before they had it and were confident with it.
On the last night before the concert, we ran through the play a few times in the classroom and I found in that evening together a contentment that made the entire year worthwhile. For some reason, we worked just by the light that came into our classroom from the hallway. Sitting in the shadows on the floor, leaning against the wall with the desks obscuring our view while we wound down over milk and granola bars, I looked ahead to the concert the following day with confidence. We chatted about my Christmas holidays and things about my life in the south. I realized that all of them would have done what Putulik did for me in the Co-op my first day back and that I would do as much as I could for them.
I did come up with a way to involve Raymond’s class more in the concert as well. I asked Josepi Ovaut, Paulusi Kenuajuak and Jaaku Angutik what they were doing in the concert and I was met with shrugs and retreat. I knew that these three guys would be up for something fun and that they could do it well. The three of them were about the same height and they were all good at playing the clown. I asked them to come around to the school in the evening for a performance in the concert that would require little translation. I brought them into the gym and set down a long plank, a chair and a banana. I explained in the best detail I could that they were going to perform “The Jape Sketch,” a highlight from Monty Python’s Live at the Hollywood Bowl. I had a personal fondness for the sketch and thought it would be a fun contribution to the Christmas concert even though it did not capture anything resembling Yuletide spirit. I recalled Elias Taptuna’s fond recollections of watching Charlie Chaplin silents on a hand-cranked projector decades before and thought our sketch would provide a good tip of the hat to that era. The guys would proceed to abuse each other with silent-era slapstick while I contributed a pompous academic commentary on what they were doing. My contribution was not all that important during the performance given the vocabulary that I was using. I emphasized the boys’ need to be serious throughout. We rehearsed steadily and I pushed them to buy into the reality that their seriousness would be the key to the comedy. They indicated that they were in, but I suspected that they might be tempted to goof off at some point. I trusted my instincts, but crossed my fingers.
The afternoon started off with all of the kids singing "Silent Night" together. The younger classes then each took their turns singing a few songs and the concert concluded with the play by my class and the “The Jape Sketch” with Raymond’s boys. I hung on every word of my class’ work on their play and was thrilled to see my kids nail it. I wondered if the irony of Josepi’s performance as the Terminator made people think about the disillusion of those same kids who hid behind their mirrored shades when we first arrived. It was not my intention to remind people of that, but it was a vivid image that hinted at how out of character these kids were a year and a half earlier. During the grand finale, Raymond’s boys held form and kept stone-faced throughout, but the adrenaline might have gotten the best of them as they carefully cream-pied each other and did their shtick with the two-by-four. One of them came away with a bloodied nose that he ignored, but it was superb and disciplined other than an attempt to finish their delivery of a pie to me when I was supposed to surprise them instead with one of my own.
The concert quickly went down as one of the better ones that the school had ever had. I went home content and packed for the trip home for Christmas. I joked to myself that I better not come back for a third year because I would have a hard time living up to what I had just done that day.

Thursday, May 26, 2016

Fort Mac: Returning and Redefined

From
www.cbc.ca/news/canada/saskatchewan/fort-mcmurray-fighting-fire-1.3574046
In about a week, barring any unforeseen reversals, the citizens of Fort McMurray will begin taking the first steps toward cobbling together the routines of daily life. The odyssey toward that new normal will prove to be a daunting, lengthy and ambitious task. After having so much support and comfort from strangers during the four weeks that they have been taking scattered refuge across the Alberta and beyond, they will now have to grapple with the apprehensions and anxieties of trying to put so many things back together, realizing at ever step along the way that they will have to wait for even the most basic and overlooked of daily requirements.

The people of Fort McMurray will need time to reorient themselves to the landscape and will drive north more slowly to absorb the change and take a bit more time to prepare themselves for the extent to which their environment will have changed.  They will need new bearings in this familiar but altered place and then from there they will try to look within and determine what they will need going forward. The list of the tangible will be easy to form and will be lengthened and reinforced with each turn of the head, each wet blink and the new horizons.  The intangible will be harder to account for and the challenge will be to hang onto the optimism to maintain that list with the hope that they might put and "x" or a checkmark in a box or two on that mental list of what they need to make life go on.

In preparation for the return of citizens to the city, Fort Mac's infrastructure has been assessed and tested and its needs triaged.  There will be gaps and shortfalls in the weeks and months ahead and early patience will come from people being in their homes once again after weeks of transience and uncertainty. The individual task of cleaning up will be unpleasant with, at the very least, the hazmat preparations required to reenter one's abandoned kitchen and address the state it might be in after the power being off as long as it has. That grotesquery will be the tip of the iceberg of the challenges that people will face in sorting their lives out.  For those who have lost their homes and still face the precarious questions about their employment and their future face even more daunting questions about their present and future, including the question of whether they ever go back. Once again, people in Fort McMurray will feel the peril of being in the crosshairs of forces far beyond their control.

For all that though, Fort McMurray has been taken to the hearts of the country in the last four weeks. For much of the last decade and a half, if not longer, the city was synonymous with the largesse of the oilsands, the oil industry's indifference to the environment and the excess that oil wealth induced in the people who lived there or were just passing through. For the longest time, Fort Mac had was a place that was home for only a few and only for a short time. That reputation was among the first things engulfed in the flames first threatened the city.

The citizens of Fort Mac who will reunite in the weeks ahead will realize a strong longing for the neighbours that they shared this nightmare with and as they gather to survey the damage and the good fortune they will be able to communicate volumes to one another, if only with a terse nod, a smile twisted to hold back tears or hugs warmed with the deepest of unspoken promises. As they go back to put their hearts and shoulders into the task of toughing out the months ahead and eking out the life they once had there, they will also carve out a deeper sense of community than one would attribute to a place with such a long-standing reputation for transience.

Fort McMurray now resonates in our collective vocabulary as a place that requires a commitment and an homage from the people who go there, no matter how long they stay. As newcomers - people without the firsthand experience of the May 2016 fire - start to arrive again, there will be among them an impulse to connect with this particular volume of the city's history and survey the landscape for the scars and victories that the city has been left with.  The reminders and reminiscences will be on the lips of those who remain and there will be a closeness amongst those who remain in Fort Mac. There ought to be enormous pride among Fort McMurray's citizens for what they have survived and what they will rebuild in the years ahead and, hopefully, that pride will infuse the people and the streets of Fort McMurray with a sense of community that will ensure the city's future is a bright one no matter what uncertainty they face in the weeks and months to come.

Tuesday, May 24, 2016

The Geographer Poet

Eight years ago, on a road trip to Seattle for my bachelor party weekend, we made a required stop for gas. My best friend, the best man who had organized the trip, meandered a few steps to take a picture of the hotel that was in eyeshot, the Golden Rim Motor Inn.

I knew nothing of the place or the nostalgia it evoked in my friend. To me, it was nothing more than another roadside landmark windmilled into view during the pursuit of the horizon or the next time zone. The poetry of the near rhyme and the perfect cadence of those four words evokes so much in the imagination: the story of a small town businessman's ambition in building such a place with its "soft water and colour TV" (and water slide); the alternation of adventure and tedium of the road for touring musicians or any other itinerants earning their keep by venturing on to the next town. As an aside, the hotel is now the Days Inn Golden and the Trans-Canada charm of the maiden name lost to a corporate boilerplate that is far, far less evocative or is so in a pejorative sense.

As news hit us this morning that Gord Downie, the electric, eclectic, eccentric force of the Canadian rock stage has been diagnosed with brain cancer, I thought of that hotel on the side of the road in Golden and how he stored the poetry of that name, filed it among the mental notes and jotted it in a journal until he penned "The Luxury." On this occasion, as so many others throughout his career with The Tragically Hip he elevated this little unknown place, one of hundreds or thousands strung out along the spine of the Trans Canada Highway and elevated it. Could anyone possibly calculate the number of times people have stopped at this hotel for a shot like this or how many will stop in the days and years ahead to acknowledge the way that Gord Downie elevated this hotel to this particular height of Canadiana?

Throughout his exceptionally literate and explicitly Canadian canon, Gord (which the Barenaked Ladies insisted in its wry way is the most quintessentially Canadian of names) has harvested the fabric of this country's history, geography, tragedies and passions in a way the few other songwriters have even tried.  Stan Rogers comes to mind with the flurry of what-if's about his too-brief career. Over the course of the 30-plus years that The Hip have held command over their fans, they have done it with a passion for this country as a source of inspiration and material in a way that coincided with a remarkable transition in the state of the Canadian identity.

I was not in Canada during the time that The Hip were at their peak.  I left the country a few months before the 1995 referendum in Quebec and returned home the day before the 2010 Winter Olympics were awarded to Vancouver in July 2003. When I left, the long-lingering navel gazing over the Canadian identity was the rich source of conversation that it had always been and when I had returned there was a pride in the country and a sense of unity that I would not have anticipated in the fall of 1995 when people asked me if I would have a country to return home to.

On the musical front throughout their career and especially at their peak, Gord Downie and The Hip mapped and excavated this country in a manner that went far beyond the rock band mandate.  They have made Canadians -- of my generation at least, and hopefully our kids -- aware of the breadth and depth of our land in ways we used to tell each other that a once-empowered CBC used to do. We know a little more about the hidden corners of the country, our heroes, our artists, our authors, our villains and victims and get the pre-web Yelp review thrown in for good measure.

For that, we have every reason - fan or not - to be thankful for the career that Gord Downie has had and given to this country. This rock star who is equal parts Earle Birney, David Thompson and Michael Stipe (have I misstepped on my choice of front man?) has left an indelible mark on Canada, its music and its sense of self.  Today and in the days ahead, we will pause to honour and contemplate the work he has done. In the concert halls we will congregate to thank him in the months ahead but we will always be able to pause on a street corner, in a library, in a canoe or at the next bend in the highway to pay homage to the corners of this country that he has illuminated and shone a light on with his poet's brush.

Thanks, Gord.  Godspeed.