Sunday, September 29, 2013

Arctic Journal Excerpt: Discovering Silence

On my first morning in Ivujivik, a cloudless, crayon blue sky was all the invitation necessary.  The solitude on the land was the carrot that had the most appeal whenever I looked ahead to the time in Ivujivik.  Without even a bowl of cereal, I scrambled through the boulders piled immediately behind my house, camera slung over my shoulder, to get out on the tundra.  It may have been more conventional for me to take the gravel roads through the village, but that was too lengthy a route for my liking and there was something about “making a left turn at the community centre” that diminished the grandeur and purity I had already attributed to the land.  I also wanted to ensure my time on the tundra was solitary rather than intruded upon by someone who saw me striking out on my own and wanted to ensure I would be okay.  I wanted to, had to contemplate the space and the epic minimalism the tudnra for myself without the trouble of making conversation or needing to be aware of or reading someone else for their mood or take on the place.  Solitude would allow me to relate to that place without any mediation or intervention from another person wanting to whisper, “Something, huh?” or “Leaves you speechless.”

I was not conscious of the very moment silence first set in.  I climbed the rocks upward seeking a broader horizon that was level with my feet rather than over my head.  When I cleared the rock pile to the more open area I sought, I finally paused to create and go through a mental checklist of the sounds I would hear from the village: barking dogs, the ATVs, the hum of electricity through the wires.  None of those sounds could be caught or conjured up in my imagination.  For a few moments I strived to stretch my hearing toward some sort of sound to confirm or deny the possibility of complete silence.  I listened for breezes percussing against my ears, or playing an aeolian note on some crack in the rock. There was even the thought of finding my own heartbeat.  At that point, in that place, I was entirely absorbed in my imagination and left to believe whatever I wanted about myself and that moment.  I could deceive myself or discover a truth, but ultimately I was going to be left with whatever I chose to believe.  In a place as primal, pure and unadorned as this, it would be hard to believe that silence would lead me to self-deceit. Compared with the inundation of challenges in the village or the classroom, the tundra was a place where I could satisfy myself with the knowledge that I respected the land and treaded on it accordingly.  

That first hike, like all that followed, was an occasion of rapture and peace.  I shot two rolls of film that would never equal the experience.  Two dimensions of texture and colour admitted as much.  The patinas of granite and sedges seemed a mere monotony of rock and sky to friends who handed those pictures around a kitchen table in the south.

The land, however, commanded a reverence that kept me walking slowly and deliberately to ensure that I was grounded by more than mere gravity during those hikes.  I never gave a thought to sitting down on the tundra, shouting out to see what the space would do with my voice, looking at my watch or bringing my walkman.  This was not a place I would render mere background.  I do not know if the time I spent on the tundra provided me a context for the community I was working in, but it definitely provided me meditative hours to clear my mind and recharge.

I was able to escape whatever matters I was dwelling on.  I would ponder things like the tiny magenta flowers that grew in the barest patches of dirt: tiny wonders blossoming briefly on the granite with scant, cosmic mysteries of survival and will locked in their seeds for the long winter.  Puzzles of the fragile and ineffable filled my thoughts - a free radical ready to latch on to any other notion about the community, the vocation or life.

Without a landmark to identify as a destination before returning to the village, the decision to head back was always an arbitrary one.  I would be absorbed in the breadth of the uninterrupted horizon and the depth of my contemplation, until a mundane thought turned me back to the village for food, rest or being available to others, even if it was just to assure people I was safe and accounted for.  I regretted every step back, knowing that I had deprived myself of more of that state of mind.  Could it have been enlightenment?  

Saturday, September 28, 2013

Three Words That Will Never Ever Meet: Authenticity, Risk and Politicians

One of the daily pleasures many share, especially Nova Scotians, is the Bruce MacKinnon political cartoon in The Chronicle-Herald from Halifax.  With a provincial election campaign underway in Nova Scotia, MacKinnon's pen and ink today relates the inevitable moment in every political campaign: the front-runner or the incumbent yielding to the command of advisors calibrating messaging or some other piece of strategy with the goal of not screwing it up.

Take away the "Liberal" hat on the shrewd handler and this could apply to just about any election.  Stephen MacNeil seems photogenic enough to be the template for the party leader casting call just about anywhere.

Over the last few decades, the political campaign has become a rational exercise in honing and droning the right sound-bites, packaging the politician with the right clothes for the occasions and the right hordes of excited placard-wavers.  It becomes so stage-managed that voters question whether this politician has a personality and set of principles of one's own or is merely a mass-produced bit of plastic with "policies" and "strategies" cribbed from the blueprints of a successful politician who won the game elsewhere with the same battle plan.  Always remember the key piece of those strategies is to spare people the details on those strategies.  This is not to bore people or to sound too much like a wonk, but rather to play the "We didn't know this about X" card while the sound bites are at the cleaners post-election.

For all the talk about negative advertising in election campaigns, youth disengagement, or the flaws in the first past the post system, one of the things undermining voter turnout in political campaigns is the attempt to fob off candidates as unambiguous characters of as few dimensions as possible.  Campaigns get dumbed-down and any modicum of passion or personality is hidden or bound and gagged in favour of these purported "leaders" playing it safe and doing whatever it takes to stay in favour with the portion of the electorate their handlers consulted the actuaries or whatever other oracles and demographers they have at their disposal.  It all seems like a lazy student's contrivances to do just barely enough to get that 74.5 or even more cynically that 74.49 that would round up to the 75% required to just land at the south end of that B mark that will look so... adequate.

That aversion to ambiguity or even nuance in politics, in either the candidate, the message or the dialogue is what is tuning people out.  The people who stand for office, especially the party leaders who are reaching for the brass ring that will, I don't know, earn them an expanded entry in Wikipedia or the opportunity to be the answer to a trivia question, seem too detached from the issues or too attached to their own dogma to be capable of providing responsive leadership.  They seem content to provide voters with an air of stability and certainty but sometimes the prudence and caution give voters an unmistakable whiff of timidity that makes nose-plugging voters more begrudging at the ballot box.

It would be rational to exude certain and stability in uncertain times, but there is a clear lack of ambition and perhaps even integrity when politicians basically retreat to a turtle shell when they appear to have a safe lead.  This is not to encourage the recklessness that leads the meteoric rises of younger politicians to result in the rapid plunge from relevance because of a lack of discipline by the party or the leader. The results of the 2012 Alberta provincial election saw the emerging Wildrose Party meet its nadir despite its promise at the outset of the campaign.

Rather than having incumbents or frontrunners disappear or hit the mute button on the homestretch in an election, it would be far more reassuring and engaging for these politicians to strive to establish a meaningful and unique public presence and conduct themselves with an unpracticed authenticity that makes their leadership style, their ambitions for themselves and the community apparent.  That would inspire far more trust and support from voters than the parroting of a carefully refined blurb.

If a politician is willing to bring an authentic presence to the political landscape and give the public the opportunity to see leadership from a receptive, responsive individual, there would not be a need to curtail or contain that presence in the closing stages of an election campaign.  A politician with that presence or those gifts should be self-aware enough to campaign effectively without the interference and refinement of handlers apprehensive about their ability to fob their candidate off as a product.

Thursday, September 26, 2013

Hung Out to Dry

It is extremely unfortunate that one of our most gifted writers is under fire for being the frank, unguarded confessional type for a few moments of real life that he is when writing his novels and non-fiction.  I have read all of David Gilmour's novels and his non-fiction book, The Film Club and find them to be filled with a bracing - at times stunning - honesty that truly sets him apart from many, many writers.  He writes the type of things that make his readers often stop and ask themselves one or both of two things: 1) would I do the same thing in that situation? and 2) would I risk being that raw in my own writing.

David Gilmour is a man who writes unfiltered and with unflinching honesty.  I must admit that it is a presumption on my part, but there is a realism, a genital warts and all quality to his writing that may challenge you to be sympathetic to his characters at their most unfortunate moments, but at the same time makes it impossible to admire them or his craft when they are at their most depraved.  He is a rare and towering talent among Canadian writers and a terribly under appreciated one.

Having read the article that is at the center of this controversy, I see a man who is as unfiltered in the moment as he is in his work.  As I interpret the conversation, what Gilmour said first and foremost is that he can only teach the literature he loves.  That does not communicate a disdain or disregard for other literature, but indicates what his passion is and what would provide for him a means to passionately engage his students in deep discussions about literature with a writer who has beared is soul on every page rather than an academic with thoughts on his research, tenure and other minutia a full-fledged faculty member might be preoccupied with.  Gilmour does not use his classroom exclusively to disparage women writers, Chinese writers or others and he is not incapable of citing the strengths of those writers in the classroom or beyond.  The writers he chooses to teach (Tolstoy, Chekhov, Roth and Miller to name a few) speak volumes about his intentions in the classroom and his perspective on literature.

When Gilmour says he has been misquoted, it is not necessarily by his interviewer but those who have lined up against him for providing them the phrase "I'm not interested in teaching books by women" to bash him with.  He did not say that he couldn't stand or had no use for, then we'd have grounds for a controversy.  If he chose a syllabus or reading list that was more generic or accepted rather than literature that he "truly, truly loved," he may not bring the same passion to those discussions as he would other pieces.  This is not to say that he is incapable of bringing anything to bear on a discussion of works he is less passionate about but there would likely be a spark missing from those classes.  If you are in a university class, it ought to be for the sake of engaging with a professor or instructor passionate about the topic they are teaching rather than someone meandering through a reading list deemed to be appropriately representative.

If you asked any other professor in the Faculty of English of the University of Toronto if there were writers that they favoured over others, they too would indicate that they have their favorites or they would avoid giving an honest committed response, despite the body of academic research that they have focused on a very narrow area of literature.  A university faculty is made up of a group of PhD's whose interests are just as, if not far narrower than those David Gilmour so unguardedly shared with his interviewer.  A university is often made up of countless little specificities that only come together to provide a coherent education because a student has the good sense or good fortune to take a combination of courses that offer a breadth of opinion and perspectives of viewing the world they will head into upon graduation.

David Gilmour makes it clear what his passions in literature are and strives to unguardedly share them with the students who are in his classroom.  If he is possessed with the ego and strong opinion that make him the distinguish talent that he is, some may be inclined to bristle at those aspects of his personality.  However, we ought to cast a careful eye at the agendas of those who have read half a sentence out of that interview and pilloried him because they overlooked the most important point of the article: teach what you are passionate about.

Wednesday, September 25, 2013

If Hockey is a Religion in Québec...


There is nothing like the imminent start of hockey season to provoke a reassessment of Quebec's secular charter.  The interpretation of what a religious symbol is might take a different turn as Montreal Canadiens' fans fill the Bell Centre and huddle in front of their HD televisions to take in the pomp and ceremony. With Ste. Catherine Street clogged with souvenir shops hawking the rouge, bleu et blanc vestments like so many tourist-trap kiosks in Jerusalem or Bethlehem sell the purported wood of the cross it is easy to stretch the hockey as religion metaphor.  In the eventuality that the NHL resurrects the Nordiques in Québec City, there would be (supposed secular) clashes that would prove more divisive than the religious differences that the Parti Québecois is trying to smother.

The definitions of secular or religious brings to mind a nominally more innocent era of airport security and the admonitions or punishments one would encounter when making a joke about terrorism.  The determination of what qualified as a joke was left to people who, by many accounts, are not particularly competent even what they are hired to do.  In the airport, the screening processes that have been added over the last decade are selective knee-jerk reactions to other incidents rather than part of a well-prescribed comprehensive strategy to ensure safety.  The spectre of box-cutters has forced grandmothers to give over their knitting needles, the shoe bomber has required us to take off our shoes and the racial profiling has been accepted as adopted and the denial of its practice considered cheap lip service.  There is news today that there may be some respite for those who deign to bring water or other fluids onto a plane.

Those security interventions, adopted in the name of safety, were indications of aimlessly flailing at a problem and evidence that decision-makers had nothing resembling a comprehensive, effective response for the challenges posed to them.

The Charter of Values proposed by the Parti Québecois government is, likewise, an indication that the government is unable to grasp the changes that are occurring in their society but feels that it has the best resources available - its bureaucrats - to mediate the sensitive cultural issues that have presented themselves when cultures and religions clash in everyday life.  In a society of neighbours who have the degree of respect required to engage with one another in dialogue about cultural differences, there is opportunity for people to interact with one another with the precision and openness to work toward an understanding of one another, their cultures and the source of friction.  Those dialogues would be efficient and work toward a compromise that supports and enhances diversity.  Instead, it seems that there will be established absolutes, do's and don't's for how to conduct and present oneself.  Decision-making will not take place at the right levels and it will encourage people to complain to a bureaucrat rather than engaging in dialogues toward understanding.  The option is to create a society where people are weighing questions about how political a beard might be while ignoring all passing bumper stickers.

Arguments would be made that the Charter is in the name of a secular ideal, but it sheds a strong light on a quote from the hearings for the Consultation Commission on Accommodation Practices Related to Cultural Differences, also known as the Bouchard-Taylor Commission held throughout Québec in 2007-08: "People with absolute values cannot be integrated into a democracy; only an interiorization of belief allows for the respect of others."

Those who hold such absolute values may be attached to their faith at the expense of all others, but it can also be true of one's devotion to one's hockey team - while undermining rational thought, not necessarily a threat to democracy - or one's language and culture.  Recognizing that people hold different faiths and opinions from one other allows those people the opportunity to interiorize their beliefs and values, without hinderance or second thought, and equip themselves with the confidence in their beliefs to respect and accommodate difference.

The irony is that the differences in language, culture, legal code and tradition that Québec has nestled in the heart of Canadian society has taken the impulse toward certitude off the table.  We have evolved as a nation because we are less inclined to deal in absolutes.  Our culture diversity has kept us from putting too much power in the hands of too few people or in too iron-clad a document to hinder our social and cultural evolution.

Québec's leaders, however, have time and again insulated their culture further and further from the forces around it.  The argument is that the French language and culture need protection on their little island in the vast English continent enclosing it but Québecois confidently leave their province's borders for other parts of Canada and other parts of the English-speaking world beyond it.  They will be in environments where they will be in the minority and they will interact with people in a manner that will enhance their inner beliefs.  Whether or not they return, they will remain Québecois, confident in their heritage and language and they will become, if they are not already, wiser and more confident than Premier Marois and her band of cultural NIMBYists.

The attempts to isolate Québec language and culture and impede its interaction with unfamiliar cultural and linguistic influences will preserve them, but only in amber.  The Québec government has to embrace the contradictions inherent in allowing the language and culture it purports to protect and allow it to be part of an inclusive, diverse and vibrant community.

Monday, September 16, 2013

Enough with "Later"

The NRA favours cold, irrational thinking over emotionally-informed rationality. That short circuit about sums up collective thought on far too many subjects that are skewed or screwed up.

Too many large, conservative-minded organizations favour their selective application of their logic to maintain the status quo and too many people buy in because they don't feel up to the sacrifices of heavy-lifting. Syria, the environment, abuse, the economy... take your pick and add another 10 items.

It is time for us to stop telling ourselves "later." ...

Later means we're relatively happy with the status quo and that a little tweak here or there is all that's needed to set things right.

Later means the trivia is more important than the graphic broad strokes of what is wrong.

Later means you think someone else is going to fix it.

If you decide to write that letter later, make that complaint later, go to that meeting later, read that insightful article that will incite you later because a Kardashian has further cemented her place in boldface headlines, you just have to look up the word twerk this very minute, there is an even cuter cat video or nuance to a rookie left defenseman's potential impact on this season's fantasy hockey draft.

Later means you'd rather be distracted than engaged. Later means you are willing to let another politician BS you about our children and grandchildren. Do these characters know what's best for our children and grandchildren? If we do not start speaking and acting and arguing and standing now we will look to squeeze in one more "Later."

Which means the sound arguments against the BS will be heard later. The curtains will be pulled back on the wizards later. We will only stand for what's right later. We will only set the example we want for our children later.

This is not a matter of us turning things upside down within the next 14 seconds. It is just a matter of taking the time not stop saying, later.

Sunday, September 15, 2013

Beginning The Exile

The following is an excerpt from my Arctic Memoir Exiled from the Tundra.  Shortly after the start of my second year teaching in the Arctic, an assault by a member of the community required me to leave the village and to determine how accountable I was for the incident.  The night after the assault I visited a Surete du Quebec detachment in a neighbouring village to give me account of the incident.  As always was the case, the plight of the Inuit took precedence over anything I might have been concerned about.

There was no small talk on the way to the station.  The officer would be prying enough out of me in a few moments and it would be better to do it while he had pen and paper rather than have the false start in the truck and leave too much out when it came time write things in detail.  I was a bit uncomfortable with the silence and, desperate to fill it, complimented the village.  He remained silent and I did not choose to push the silence back further.  

We arrived at a small building which appeared to be nothing more than a modified shipping container and the officer politely offered me a seat and a coffee.  I declined.

We started with a few questions about the time and place of the incident that occurred at my home 24 hours before and then proceeded to the extent of the relationship that existed between the woman and I prior to the incident.  I started with her presence in my income tax class in April and that we knew each other in passing from that time and from the time that I stayed in the hotel while my plumbing was being fixed.  I did not share the occasion where she may have dropped in while I was on my way out to the school.  I could not confirm it was her so I did not bother.  As I thought about it again, I was convinced that her stalking - if that was what it was - had started early the previous winter.  I recounted the insistence of her questions and requests for attention during the tax class.

The officer struggled to determine whether or not that amount of contact was enough to warrant the vengeance of a jilted lover and his brow clearly furrowed, but he would not give away whether he did not believe that I was telling the truth or could not believe that she had pursued me despite my limited involvement.  He was starting to see the likelihood of a pattern of stalking when the phone rang out, startling the officer more than me.  His face pinched with apology and anxiety as he looked at me before picking up the phone.  He spoke briefly and scribbled on a separate pad as the voice on the other end of the line worked in a higher range, filled with urgency and fear.  He hung up, apologized to me for the interruption and took off.

Left alone for a while, I paced all of the two steps the space allowed and found himself staring through the bars of the small cells that were on the opposite side of the desk.  Each of the two was slightly bigger than an outhouse, with enough room for a stool next to the stainless steel toilet.  I was surprised.  For some reason I didn’t think that I would see such a thing in a police station. 

“Of course stupid,” I said out loud to myself.

There was something illicit about being alone in a police station of all places.  The feeling quickly passed and I became cautious about learning too much about the place.  I stopped looking around the station for details about how things worked there.  A jar of Coffee Mate and pile of styrofoam cups intimated more universal routines, but I turned a blind eye to anything that would have revealed the inner workings.  I heard a car door slam and darted back to my seat.  Nobody came in.  It was a neighbour coming or going.  I remained seated, the two jail cells stuck in my imagination.  I reflected on how they were used and wondered how often people were put in there.  In my case the night before, they did not lock the woman up until she reappeared to accost me.  If she had not done this, she would have been able to sleep the night off as she wished.  Even then, they let her out as soon as they could.  
I sat in the chair trying to keep still and did not have the space to pace as I would have liked.  Not wanting to be caught being nosy, I didn’t glance at the report to see how it read to me.  Another 20 minutes passed and my thoughts became as still as I was.  

When the door crashed open, it startled me back to reality and the ejaculation of, “What the fuck are you lookin’ at?” from the perp brought me to a previously unknown level of meek.
My consciousness and train of thought were restored, along with the details and biochemistry of the attack the night before, if only for a moment.

“Smarten up,” the officer said to the man.

The officer put the drunk in the cell.  I recalled the fresh image of the cell and I added the image of the drunk perp sitting there, cuffed and teetering on the three-legged stool.  I never got a good look at his face.  His unruly hair and the downward tilting posture of the handcuffed obscuring any efforts I could have made to discern something that would help me empathize with the man somehow.  Through the hair, his face was incoherent shards of cheek and chin, a nose and a glinting, watery eye.  He passed too quickly and his words intimidated me too much for me to combine those elements into the biography or personality of someone who ended up in the jail at this small village's police office early on a Monday night. 

“I’m sorry man.”
“Settle down.  I’ve got work to do here.  When I finish this we’ll talk about it.”
“I love her too much man.”
“It’s Montreal that’s making you like this.  Every time you come back...”
“I know I know.  It just makes me crazy in my head when I go there.  I really love her though, man.”
“I know.  I got to work.  Okay?”
The perp’s tone changed slightly to redirect his words to me, “I’m sorry there, man.”
My ears perked up and I looked to the officer to see if he should say anything.  He did not indicate that silence was better.
“It’s all right.”
“Now, where were we?”, the cop asked.

We continued with the interview from where we left off, occasionally interrupted by apologies from the cell.  The officer took pains to accept them and the conversation that went back and forth between them suggested a familiarity that went back ages rather than the brief gathering of facts from the pick up, just as it would have to in a village so small.  The officer kept reminding the man of what was necessary to keep him out of jail and off the bottle.  The man in the cell acknowledged this and said that he knew, but that the devil was a “strong guy” and that he was weak.  

The officer looked over the report that he had in front of him and paused for a moment to consider any other questions he might ask before nodding and adding, “That’s it.  Thanks.”

The story of what had happened the night before, how a drunk woman came to my home demanding to spend the night and threatened to kill me when after a long, drawn out confrontation I declined every possible way I could until faced with the threat on my life, each of he syllables punctuated by a trigger pull on her finger gun.  The account at the police station was a bit more desiccated and detailed than this description, but the questions about my career as a teacher hung overhead and required me to fly south to Montreal for another account of the incident, where the likelihood was that I would be presumed guilty, despite clearly being the victim.

The cop gave a head jerk towards the lockup to indicate there were protocols.  I would have to wait.  I had become too familiar with “Inuit time” and thought about the possibility of waiting another two or three hours until somebody came along to look in on the perp while I was delivered back to the principal’s house for the night.  I wondered for a moment if I would be asked to stand vigil if another call came in.  As the officer took a peek at the prisoner and contemplated the incident that he had extracted the perp from, the pain and sympathy in his face etched a few more decades into his face for a moment.  

The two of them likely knew each other since childhood and each knew where the other was headed but had no interest in changing their own paths.  It was the trope of a more gothic police movie or one of those stark paeans to hardship from Bruce Springsteen's Nebraska.  Two men destined to have their shoulder-to-shoulder lives intersect at this point, where the little that stands between them just happens to be so much.  It was not a story that was told as often in the north, it is not part of their heritage or mythology as far as I knew it.  

Under the circumstances, the best this officer could do was to don the cloak and authority of the kalunait justice system.  For countless reasons, he could not (formally) rely on elders for their advice or insight.  He was not able to offer an ancient, rooted alternative to the kalunait.  If what I experienced the night before was an indication, the SQ was probably too tentative to enforce the law as strictly as it would in the south, consequently making themselves less effective and leaving a void in the balanced and constructive application of justice.  

Perhaps the two of us were cogs hoping to keep a much bigger machine humming along, even though there was little indication that we were making a difference with the work we were doing or keeping the machine operating, regardless of the direction it may be going in.  Contemplating what the school ought to be doing was an engaging topic to grapple with and it was a stimulating a subject for reflection and conversation - the intellectual counterweight to the commitment and support I had devoted to the kids in my class.  

Sooner than I expected, the replacement the officer called arrived.  He seemed to be nothing more than a friend of the officer and after a few quick instructions he sat himself down at the desk, familiar with the routine and his surroundings.  He looked in at the sleeping prisoner and assured the officer he could handle things in the meantime.

We drove back to the principal’s house, each of us sitting quietly with our own thoughts.  A few times each, we sighed with a soft extended rasp.  It was not in imitation of one another, but seemed a way of replying, “You can say that again,” to the thoughts of the other.
Finally, at the principal’s house, “He’s going to be my brother-in-law.”
“Ah.”  It was all I could manage.  In English, of course, it expressed the surprise and inability to add more, and I had been around enough Inuktitut to have it mean “yes,” as well.
“Good luck.”


It surprised me to hear this from him.  I hadn’t thought that I was worthy of it, especially with what lay ahead for him that night and beyond.  We shook hands and I could only hope it was reassuring to him.