Tag Archives: culture

Getting On

Growing older is, thank god, a gradual progression. Relentless, to be sure, but mercifully incremental.

Kris Krug photo
Kris Krug photo

For me, physically at least, it began with the eyes. As a young man, prior to taking up a solitary station on an Alberta Forest Service firetower in the mountains north of Jasper, I’d had my eyes checked. A Forest Service fellow stood in a long hallway outside his office with a geometrically divided black and white disc in his hands and asked me to stand at a distance. He would spin the disc, and I was to tell him where the white dot in one of the black quadrants of the disc showed up each time he did so. Upon the first spin, the dot was easily discernible to me, so he asked me to back away further, down the hallway, and he re-spun the disc. Still easily seen. To abbreviate this petty tale, I soon backed to the far end of the hallway, still able to see the dot, and he waved off the procedure, telling me I had considerably better than 20/20 vision. I didn’t even know such a thing was possible.

So it came as a bit of shock to me when, at age 40, I found myself unable to focus on a written page at arm’s length. This particular event in the gradual process had happened rather precipitously, within weeks it seemed, sending me forthwith over to the local drug store in search of ‘readers.’ I didn’t know whether to feel greater ignominy or anger.

It’s been a steady downhill grade ever since. I mean it just won’t leave me alone. Every time I think I’ve adjusted to the latest decline, settled into a new regime of reduced ability, here comes another. You used to be able to ride that bike for four hours, wield that chainsaw for half that time, with no untoward effect? Not anymore jacko. And just wait until next week when you won’t be able to stand up smoothly if you happen to have sat for more than twenty minutes.

This is the relentless part. There’s no saying, ‘Get used to it,’ because soon enough it’ll be worse.

No, the aging process is not a welcome one, nor is it painless. It’s replete with minor aches and pains piling up like debris in a windstorm, right there at your doorstep.  And unless you’ve let yourself deteriorate into a truly deplorable state of overweight and unfit (where you have the opportunity to temporarily improve), it will never, ever get better. It’s a one-way street, and we all know precisely where it leads.

What’s to be done about this wretched deterioration? Well, that’s the point, isn’t it? There is exactly nothing to be done. Sure, you can eat well, get some exercise, stay busy, but don’t kid yourself, the downward spiral will not end. It will rarely pause.

So we are to accept. Accept the inevitability of aging, with all its vile consequences. We must grow old gracefully. It sounds good, the right path and all, but personally, I’m not quite so ready to accede. I live in a culture which, unlike many others (Native American culture, for instance), doesn’t much revere its elder population. Mainstream Canadian society tends to smile benignly on its older folks, then quietly shuttle them off to a rail yard where the cars sit mostly idle, while newer, more ‘advanced’ models hurtle by, the priority now. I know I am far more capable of creating a successful (in every sense) movie now than I was in my thirties. (This is largely because of the greater skill and knowledge I’ve gained over time, this in turn largely the result of the many mistakes I’ve made over time.) But I also know that I am far less likely to get that chance than I was in my thirties.

This is the way it is, and I am not about to change it. Neither is anyone else I know. But again, I am not ready to assent. I’m with Dylan (Thomas, not Bob); I do not plan on going gently. Expect complaint. Expect rueful, often humorous (I hope), but noisy grievance. As far as I’m concerned, there is no other way. It’s a key part of staying alive.

Global Culture

Cultural industry. It sounds like an oxymoron. ‘Culture’ relating to the artistic or creative, and ‘industry’ describing business interests, on a large scale. At the very least, it seems a rocky marriage.

The term is most often applied to the electronic arts, as they are called: music and motion pictures, the artforms which lend themselves to mass duplication and distribution. No one talks about the dance industry, or the sculpture industry.

The cultural industry I’m most familiar with is the motion picture one, and indeed, someone once referred to the movie industry as ‘too much of a business to be an art, and too much of an art to be a business.’ That just about encapsulates the conundrum.

In Canada, unlike the U.S., the movie and television industries have always needed public subsidy. The costs of production are simply too high, and the Canadian marketplace too small, for the indigenous production companies to survive. That’s been the argument at least.

I can recall, back in the mid-80s, when the Canadian Film Development Corporation, originally founded in 1967 to advance the Canadian movie biz, became Telefilm Canada, charged with promoting and funding the Canadian ‘audiovisual’ private sector, that is television as well as movies. People from the agency were talking about how it was intended to grow production companies from the nascent stage, but then to gradually withdraw its funding as those companies matured and became financially independent.

In the 90s, Telefilm still explicitly required funded productions to be ‘distinctly Canadian.’ These shows were to be stories told by Canadians, set in perceptibly Canadian locales, in which Canadian audiences could recognize themselves. So too were so-called ‘lifestyle’ and ‘industrial’ shows excluded from support; game shows, talk shows, that sort of thing.

downloadAs we rolled into the new millennium, TV shows like Flashpoint, Orphan Black and Rookie Blue made little effort to clarify where their episodes were shot (Toronto), although Rookie Blue did, in its latter seasons, begin to actually use Toronto street names. Rookie Blue also, in its final season last year, received over five million dollars in subsidy from the Canada Media Fund, a public-private partnership administered by Telefilm. That in addition to the considerable monies the production company would also have received via both provincial and federal tax credits. The parent company for Rookie Blue is E1, a multimedia corporation, headquartered in Toronto, with revenues in 2015 of more than $1.5 billion Cdn. You’d have to consider that mature.

And today, when Paperny Entertainment, a Vancouver-based production company owned by E1, produces World’s Weirdest Restaurants for the Food Network, surely a ‘lifestyle’ distributor, that show can access all the same government subsidies that can any other TV show.

At the same time, I don’t mean to sound alarmist bells here. The situation I’m describing is not unique to Canada. It was probably naive to think, back in the 80s, that production companies could be weaned from the public funds which did so much to create the business model by which they grew and prospered. And god knows governments everywhere are competing (some say in a race to the bottom) to offer ever more generous tax credits to attract the industry, given that it pays well, is labour intensive, and relatively non-polluting.

Governments everywhere have also fought to exclude cultural industries from the various free trade-type agreements that continue to proliferate in our times. Ultimately though, the problem is beyond national controls, subject to the same global economic and technical forces which are inexorably interconnecting the planet. As Catalina Briceño, Director of Industry and Market Trends at the Canada Media Fund, wrote in a new report, “[the] globalization of tastes is supplanting cultural differences.”

It’s no surprise then that, especially with dramatic movies and television shows, creators and producers design them to play like home product in several markets. Rookie Blue aired on Global in Canada and ABC in the U.S. Orphan Black premiered on Space in Canada and on BBC America in the United States.

John Fawcett, one of the creators of Orphan Black, certainly did his best to put a positive spin on the situation in an interview with Entertainment Weekly in 2014: “To be honest, we don’t want to say we’re American and alienate the Canadians, or say we’re Canadian and alienate the Americans. The bottom line is we’re one big happy family. We’re just a little bit further north than you.”

Nice. As culture and industry evolve globally, their marriage begets family. I can get behind that. The family part at least. Happy? Maybe not quite so much.

Discrepancies

Pete Muller photo
Pete Muller photo

This photograph was published in the July 2015 issue of National Geographic magazine. It was taken in a village in southern Guinea, during the recent Ebola outbreak which had its epicentre in that part of Africa.

The young girl sitting on the blanket looks distinctly uneasy. Before her, the caption tells us, a traditional “healer” is preparing to exorcise the “malign spirits” which may have caused the girl to contract the Ebola virus. We see the healer’s face encrusted in white; a bit of green vegetation is wrapped around one wrist; he carries a kind of sceptre, a decorated stick.

What’s most remarkable about the photo is to be seen in the background, among the small group of villagers who have gathered to watch the exorcism—two young men hold up their phones, videoing the process.

The elements of the discrepancy seem almost too much to set side by side, and yet, there they are. A rankly superstitious practice which tracks right back to a mention in the Dead Sea Scrolls (i.e. before Christianity), smack up against the latest in 21st century communications technology. How is this possible?

The fact is today’s world is rife with such discrepancies; it’s only that they’re usually further removed from one another. In whole villages in rural Afghanistan not one person may be able to read and write. In the city of Helsinki, with a population of almost one and a half million, you will be hard pressed to find anyone over the age of 15 who cannot read and write. (The literacy rate In Afghanistan is 28%, among females less than 13%; in Finland the rate is 100%.)

Carlos Slim, the Mexican business mogul, has a net worth of more than $77 billion U.S. The average hotel receptionist in Mexico brings home $4260 U.S. in pay over the course of one year.

In California, it is illegal for mental health providers to engage in “reparative therapy” for LGBT minors. In Uganda, you may be sent to jail for up to 14 years for failing to report a suspected homosexual.

More than half of new lawyers in Canada are women. In Saudi Arabia, women cannot drive a car, vote, or leave home except in the company of a male chaperone.

In all these cases, the divergence is just too great. And no one, anywhere, should attempt to justify these differences via the notion of ‘culture.’ They remain in place because it is to the advantage of the privileged group that they do so.

Does digital technology close these gaps, or drive them ever wider? The answer is complex. Certainly those phones held up by the two young men in Guinea offer them opportunities for information-gathering and commerce that are unprecedented historically, potentially meaning that their lives are ‘lifted’ economically, educationally, socially. But at the same time, the very persistence of superstition, illiteracy, and poverty means that, if those two young men rise up, the gap between them and those next to them who believe in the power of exorcism will grow.

The rising tide of digital technology most assuredly does not lift all boats, any more than the growing wealth of the economic elite trickles down, in any effective way, to those living at the bottom of the financial hill. Any time the separation between two sets of people grows too great, whether it be the Mayan priests ruling over Palenque in the 7th century, or Marie Antoinette and her husband ruling over France during the final years of the 18th century, it does not bode well for us.

In today’s global village, the discrepancies which exist internationally present problems on a scale not seen before, and I mean that quite literally, because we are more aware of these problems than we have ever been before. We no longer have to wait for an emissary to return to court, after a year-long mission, to know about the conditions of a far-off land and its people. But, at same time, today’s problems are of a distressingly familiar order.

Those at the peak of today’s societal pyramid are doing just fine, thanks. What’s called for are measures to assure that the pyramid does not get any higher, that it in fact flattens, delivering greater equality of rights, education, health care, and economic opportunity to all people everywhere.

I’m sounding frighteningly socialistic to some I know, but the lessons of history are there for all of us to observe, and we ignore them at our peril. It is in our own interests to help those being left out or behind, wherever they live, because the discrepancies of today’s world are a threat to us all.

Television’s Last Stand

I nearly cut the cord last week. I wanted to do it earlier, when the hockey and basketball playoffs ended, but some members of my household wanted to watch the FIFA Women’s World Cup, then it was the Pan Am Games…

Which is to say that, in our home at least, live sports is the last remaining reason to pay for cable TV.

It’s a good one, mind you. A hard-fought elite-level sports contest is simply the best entertainment around, involving strong characters, intense pressure, great achievements, profound loss, and far less predictability than 98% of the dramatic storytelling currently out there.

It’s also an incredibly lucrative business, especially for the pro players (not that I don’t think the money should go to those who play the game, as opposed to those who own the teams). Our appetite for professional sports continues to grow—the industry in the aggregate is now said to be worth more than $500 billion globally—and so the scope of the salaries earned by [mostly] men to play games has become patently absurd. The average salary of a Major League Baseball player, for instance, will exceed $4 million this year (That’s the average salary mind you; ‘A Rod,’ the New York Yankees star third baseman, may earn as much as $50 million this year, including marketing bonuses). If Joe Average Baseball Player were to play every minute of every game this summer (and he won’t), he will earn $8230 per hour of playing time. Patently absurd, given the utter lack of intrinsic social value attached to the work he does. Incidentally, Joe is also allotted $100 a day in meal money when he is on the road. Wouldn’t want him to feel the pinch in those expensive hotel restaurants.

But we fans have only ourselves to blame. We’re the ones who fill the stadiums, tune into the games, and yes, pay those cable TV fees, regardless of the cost. We’re the ones who seem to think that our team winning or losing somehow reflects well or poorly on us as individuals. In fact we use terms like “WE won” when a team of players whom we will never meet, and who are only rarely from our home town, never mind our home country, outscores another team that we don’t label ours. It’s more than a little odd.

What’s interesting though, is where the video marketing of big league sports is going. Surely with broadband expanding steadily, and video streaming gaining popularity by the day, it is only a matter of time before these sports franchises begin to control and market their games online, in high quality imagery. Forget ESPN or Rogers Sportsnet. These teams will find ways to make even more money by charging you directly to watch their games via their own internet channels, say in packages featuring certain opposing teams, maybe all home games, or of course with ‘tickets’ for individual games. How can it possibly not go this way?

Well, one possible way is for government agencies to prevent this sort of ‘vertical integration’ of the marketplace, akin to the 1948 antitrust case which prevented Hollywood studios from owning and operating their own theatres, to which they would grant exclusive rights to their movies. Like that case, will we see governments move to forestall undivided control of the production and distribution of sports entertainment?

It remains to be seen; the conventional TV networks have proven to be more resilient than many believed they would be in finding new revenue models (like money from Netflix), but the trends are there. TV viewing declined roughly 10% in the last year, and it’s not like the major sports franchises have to go out and build their brand. It’s there now for them, bigger and better than ever, primed for exploitation via a new medium.

5805107962_48e85060aa_zI’ll likely simply try, at some point, to renegotiate my deal with my cable TV provider. I’ll do my damndest to cherry pick just those channels which carry the games of the teams I like to follow, and my cable provider will do their damndest to ensure that I’m obliged to pick up as many channels as possible in order to do that. Shaw Cable, my provider, for instance and in most obnoxious fashion, spreads the Vancouver Canucks games over four or five of their various channels, then places those various channels in different packages, each of which costs more.

My desire for big league sports entertainment may be a passion which adds meaning to my life, or it may be a pathetic identification with a bunch of rich strangers. Either way, and even if the medium changes, one thing is certain: meeting that desire is not likely to get any cheaper.

The Cowboy Rides Away

To say that the cowboy is iconic in North American culture is hardly sufficient. Mythic hero is more accurate, but it’s important to remember that the cowboy was real, not supernatural like Hercules or Spiderman. The reality was that, for a brief period, essentially from 1860 to 1900, there were a great number of horses and cattle running free in the American frontier, most of them having been abandoned by retreating Mexicans. With the arrival of the railroad following the Civil War, the ’roundup’ and sale of these cattle became possible, leading to the beef industry that employed a great many ‘cowboys.’ The cattle were herded to railheads of course, but not too quickly, because if you did that the cattle lost weight, and they were sold for slaughter by the pound.

Thus the cowboy’s life was one of outdoors ambling on horseback, as part of a collaborative team of men who camped early for the night, gathered around fires to share a meal, tell stories, and maybe even sing songs. It’s a lifestyle with easily apparent appeal, although here’s what the reclusive American writer Trevanian had to say about the broader charm of the cowboy:

“It is revealing of the American culture that its prototypic hero is the cowboy: an uneducated, boorish, Victorian migrant agricultural worker.” 

The Great Train Robbery The original black hat.
The Great Train Robbery
The original black hat.

When the American film industry moved to California in the early part of the 20th century, there were by then plenty of unemployed cowboys knocking about, men who could ride, rope and sometimes shoot with the best of them—just one more coincidental reason why the western movie became incredibly popular. And it is truly difficult to overestimate the popularity and therefore the influence of the western movie. Arguably the first dramatic movie was a western—The Great Train Robbery in 1903—and the genre was dominant right through until the 70s, when it died with nevertheless accomplished films like The Wild Bunch and McCabe and Mrs. Miller.

I’ve argued elsewhere that the western movie was so successful, over such a long period of time (still longer than any other genre), that it created a ‘conventional form’ along with a set of audience expectations that, long after expiration of the genre itself, offers moviemakers who can reinvent the form within a new context (i.e. The Matrix or Drive) an unparalleled opportunity to go boffo at the box office.

The influence of cowboy culture in popular music is scarcely less significant. Cole Porter knocked it right out of the park in 1934 with a sublime rhyme scheme in the cowpoke paean Don’t Fence Me In

I want to ride to the ridge where the West commences

And gaze at the moon till I lose my senses.

I can’t look at hobbles and I can’t stand fences.

The song has been covered by everyone from Ella Fitzgerald to The Killers. And almost 40 years later, James Taylor waxed nearly as lyrical (rhyming “Boston” with “frostin”) in maybe his best song, Sweet Bay James:

There is a young cowboy; he lives on the range.

His horse and his cattle are his only companions.

He works in the saddle and he sleeps in the canyons…

More than anything else, the cowboy represents freedom, a largely solitary life free of long-term obligations, tight schedules or immediate bosses. Too often in the westerns the cowboy’s love interest represented civilization, settling down and responsibility, and so too often, at the end of the story, the cowboy rode away from the girl, off into the sunset to resume a life of independent rambling (although it’s worth noting that in a couple of the defining westerns, High Noon and Stagecoach, the hero did choose the girl, and they rode off together in a buckboard).

It’s no surprise that the cowboy’s allure arose alongside the maturing of the industrial revolution, when incomes were rising but often as the result of work fettered to a factory system of mechanical drudgery. Are we any more free in the age of the digital revolution, with its increased pace and unrelenting connectivity? Well, not so’s you’d notice.

In the digital age, the cowboy hero seems a complete anachronism, more irrelevant than ever, but I think it’s worth remembering that, although the cowboy almost always resorted to a gun to resolve his conflicts with the bad guys—and the impact of that implicit message upon American society can hardly be overestimated either (see Guns)—he did so reluctantly, in defence of the little guy being oppressed by powerful villains, who were often corporate-types.

Today the cowboy is gone for good from our cultural landscape, and I’m not suggesting he should be brought back. But in our world of ever more powerful corporate interests, we could all use some of his individual pluck. The economic wheels of our day are rolling along just fine; the ecological and moral ones, not so much. Sadly, too much of the cowboy’s good is gone with him.

Full Circle

There’s some interesting reading to be found in a paper released by the Canadian Media Production Association last week. It’s titled, Content Everywhere: Securing Canada’s Place in the Digital Future, and it offers up an effective survey of the current media landscape. At first glance, suffice it to say that recent trends continue:

* Video progressively rules on the internet—YouTube now has more than one billion unique viewers every month, with 100 hours of video uploaded every minute.

* ‘Cord cutting’, that is escaping the tyranny of cable ‘bundling,’ continues for consumers—an American who owns an iPad now has a 65% likelihood of being a member of the cord cutter tribe.

* As the market penetration of the so-called OTTs (‘Over The Top’ online streamers like Netflix, Amazon and Hulu) continues to grow—one of the OTTs now reaches almost half of all American households; over 60% of the 18 – 24 demographic—they are moving increasingly into the financing of original content.

The ‘old boys’, the established television networks, know all about these trends of course, and so they have, in recent years, moved actively, if still hesitantly into the digital realm. In Canada, Bell Media launched Crave TV in 2014, Rogers and Shaw finally birthed Shomi, and CBC now has an online comedy channel called Punchline. (Conventional TV’s great strength increasingly remains of course in the provision of live events, mostly sports, but also news, and of course the odd award show, although it’s interesting to note that ratings for the Oscars this year were down about 15%.)

Ben Templesmith photo
Ben Templesmith photo

Overall, the evolving picture is of the online media industry maturing, in all the good and bad that that entails. Perhaps most disconcerting is a subtitle within the paper which reads: “Many things about OTT look like TV.” AOL greenlit 16 original series in 2014, all of them featuring major celebrities or movie stars. Pitch meetings with the big-league OTTs are usually booked through agents or entertainment lawyers these days. And we can all be sure that when David Fincher, after House of Cards, pitches his new series, he’ll be strolling into the Netflix offices past a long line of waiting, lesser-known producers who once hoped that the web would provide them with new and different opportunities. Sigh.

And of course, as the paper, points out, creators for the web face a unique set of additional challenges, even as the process morphs into something distressingly familiar. Chief among them are ‘discoverability,’ and an overcrowded marketplace. The gatekeepers for the online game may no longer be the same, but the smaller players still face a huge disadvantage when it comes to putting bums in the seats. They simply don’t have the resources to compete with the big guys at marketing, or at perhaps hiring the talent which comes with a built-in audience.

And finally, if you’re a Canadian hoping to succeed with online content, you face an added problem with financing, because as slow as the big broadcasters have been to move into the online space, the established ‘legacy’ funders, like Telefilm Canada and the tax credit programs, have been even more lead-footed. Because online revenues have been so difficult to realize, these agencies have been extra adept at shuffling their feet and avoiding eye contact whenever, for instance, documentary filmmakers with an online-only audience in mind have come calling.

I’m reminded of the final scenes in George Orwell’s classic Animal Farm, when the pigs move into the farmhouse, begin to walk upright and wear clothes. Or of Daron Acemoglu and James Robinson’s incisive explanation of Why Nations Fail, describing how it is that, following revolutions, tyrants like Robert Mugabe replace tyrants like Ian Smith, how Joseph Stalin replaces Csar Nicolas II. The digital revolution may not have yet completed itself, not yet come right round in what Acemoglu and Robinson term “the vicious circle,” but the streets have gone quiet again. It may be that no one has been sent off to a “knacker” or to the gulag, but if you were among those who dreamed of a better world, or maybe even who manned an online barricade, well, purchase a ticket and get in line. It seems that all along, the digital revolution was for sale, to the highest bidder.

The Wisdom of the Ordinary

“Sometimes I dream of being a good father and good husband. Sometimes that feels really close, but other times it just seems silly, and that it would ruin my life… If I’m totally honest with myself, I’d rather die knowing that I was really good at something, that I was special or had excelled in some way, than to have been in a really nice, caring relationship.”

Jesse, in Before Sunrise, screenplay by Richard Linklater and Kim Krizan

 

16092263739_4d743c338dAs I write this, Richard Linklater’s feature film Boyhood is enjoying a good deal of ‘Oscar buzz.’ The movie, shot over a 12-year period with the same set of actors, has received five separate nominations for an Oscar, and has just won ‘Best Picture’ at the Golden Globe Awards.

I’ve long been a fan of Linklater’s work, ever since first viewing Slacker in 1991. I haven’t yet seen Boyhood. I’m sure it’s a fine movie, but I also wonder if Linklater’s ‘Before…’ trilogy of movies, employing the same set of actors over a nearly 20-year period, isn’t just as worthy an accomplishment.

Linklater is an unusual filmic storyteller in a number of ways, not the least of which is his propensity to focus in upon intellectual concerns in his movies, as opposed to the emotional terrain traversed in more conventional films. The quote above is taken from the first of the movies comprising the Before trilogy. It tells the story of two young people who meet on a train approaching Vienna one evening, and then, in unplanned fashion, get off the train together in Vienna, and spend the entire night ‘walking and talking’ through the streets. Hardly the stuff of your typical American movie.

They debate questions like that quoted above: whether it is better to excel at some particular practice, be it creative or commercial or academic, than it is to be a good father, husband, wife or mother. I don’t want to be unfair to the script—a counter argument to the position quoted above is immediately offered by another character—but I think that the question is often misconstrued. For most of us, it’s not quite an either-or proposition.

Those who truly excel at a practice do so through some rare combination of talent, drive and luck. The talent quotient is ‘god given,’ if you will; the drive portion often does indeed come at the expense of personal relationships, and the luck component; well, there isn’t much any of us can do about ensuring that happens for us. Good luck typically amounts to being in the right place at the right time with the right ‘product.’

It’s a mug’s game for the 95% of us who are not the overachievers to compare ourselves to the 5% who are, even though this is precisely what celebrity culture would have us do on a daily basis. We’re better off looking to the wisdom of older, ordinary people, those who’ve lived, loved and worked in a more quotidian realm. These folks will have come through the bulk of their lives to a point where they’re feeling more or less content, having learned some important lessons along the way, and they will now likely be willing to share some of what they’ve learned. This is exactly what I attempted to do in a personal documentary I made few years back called What Happyns (available for free streaming here).

To measure yourself against the rich, famous or powerful is a surefire way to make yourself feel inadequate, if not miserable. No, better to understand that it’s a regular game you’re playing, alongside regular people. The rewards that come with great riches, fame and power are of course material, but they’re also largely ego-based. To achieve great success in a career is to feel privileged, exceptional. But beyond a certain point in your life you’ll come to realize that those sorts of rewards don’t mean so much.

We should all applaud the achievements of Richard Linklater, if only because his movies make us (me) think, rather than just feel. Tip your hat to the guy, say thanks, and then press on in your ordinary life. It’s all you’ll ever need.

Where We Live

“Chicago, on the other hand, was not built for people to come together but for them to be safely apart. Size, power, and the need for privacy seemed to be the dominant dimensions of its architecture. Vast as it is, Chicago ignored the distinctions between freedom and isolation, between independence and selfishness, between privacy and loneliness.”

             Aleksandar Hemon, from The Book Of My Lives

 

Aleksandar Hemon grew up in Sarajevo, where he knew his neighbours and they knew him, where anonymity was “well-nigh impossible.” He was stranded in Chicago when the Bosnian war broke out in 1992, so settled there, learning English and before long becoming an accomplished writer. He eventually grew to appreciate Chicago, even writing an article entitled 20 Reasons Why I Do Not Wish To Leave Chicago in 2000, but, as indicated by the passage quoted above, it was not an easy adjustment.

He walked about the city endlessly, trying to know its neighbourhoods, seeking out a connection like the one he knew with Sarajevo, with the residents and the built environment that would help tell him who he was.

Growing up in a small town, as an angst-ridden teenager I couldn’t wait to escape to the anonymity of a big city. I regularly walked about town as well, and I clearly recall finding insufferable the knowledge that, as I walked about, I was constantly being observed by people I knew, either from their passing vehicles, or out the windows of their homes and businesses.

Home version 1 domo k photo
Home version 1
domo k photo

As with nearly all the immaterial conditions of our lives, when it comes to the distinctions Hemon mentions, between “freedom and isolation,” between “privacy and loneliness,” we seek a balance not easily achieved. In Vancouver, the neighbourhood my wife and I live in—that is the zone where we actively know and interact with certain people—is immediate, within a few blocks of where we reside. Beyond that small zone, anonymity is not hard to attain.

On Galiano, our home is secluded, at the end of a long wooded lane; we can sometimes hear but never see our neighbours. Privacy is guaranteed, though, as we move about on the island, we are rarely anonymous. But the balance is off; especially during the long, dark winter months the isolation is too much, requiring an effort to get out and interact, or travel to the city.

Home version 2 p. sebastien photo
Home version 2
p. sebastien photo

One unavoidable factor in this consideration is that we are all the malleable product of our immediate social and physical environment. Sometimes sooner, sometimes later, but inevitably you will become a different person as you stay in different places. As much as anything, the ‘climate of opinion’ that you are living within will seep through your pores, into your bones, eventually causing you to think, feel and behave differently, if only it is to sometimes remain silent. And this is never more so than it is with children.

Thus it behooves us to think carefully about, and hopefully choose just as carefully where we will live. Especially so if you have, or plan to have children. They will be different beings, depending on where you choose to raise them.

There is a time in your life when it is easier to resettle, and it is earlier in your life, not later. We all know of people who have tried to make this transition at the age of retirement, and how problematic that has been. When you are young, eager to engage socially and professionally, recreationally and vocationally, it happens naturally, as a consequence of that needed engagement.

I like to think that my wife and I have achieved some kind of balance, living both downtown and at the end of a long wooded island lane, but life never stops throwing changes at us, and so it requires constant adjustment. The scales tip easily, and so we have to constantly seek a new balance, a new sense of community. Walking about helps it seems, and that happens for us more often in the city. On Galiano we are more often out of doors, more active in ways other than walking, and that too helps.

Choosing where to live is not so much about choosing the city or the country or both. It’s about choosing who you want to be, or become.

Quiet

Certain owners/managers of noisy restaurants—the type where you must shout to be heard by your tablemate—tell us that their clientele like it that way. Said customers enjoy the buzz, the dynamic feel, the sense that they are at that moment in a ‘happening’ place. That may well be; I don’t doubt that you could find individuals within the cacophony who would agree, but I’m a little skeptical as to the real reason why these restaurant bosses prefer the noisy ambience. I suspect it has more to do with the turnover rate that such noise induces. More turnover and the resultant more money.

The opportunity for quiet, for interlude, whether it be for easy conversation, or just contemplation, is to be sought out. As a young man, I once found myself in the company of my slightly older friend John, ankling it across Bear Creek Park in Grande Prairie, when an intense summer rain shower overtook us. We quickly found shelter under the wide eaves of the nearby swimming pool building, where I sat down against the wall to wait out the worst of the rain, and began to muse about what was going on in general in our situation, and where it was likely to lead.

John didn’t want any part of that. I’d hardly gotten two sentences into my musings before he marched off into the downpour. There was no place for such contemplation in John’s comfort zone.

A few years later John drowned in a couple of inches of salty water on a beach in Mexico, after riding a wave for too long while body surfing, breaking his neck when he hit the sand. We may well have been on our way to the bar that day; John was probably drunk when he hit the beach—he’d become an alcoholic while still in his twenties—but it was absolutely consistent with his joyful approach to life that he would ride that wave to its very limit, and then beyond. During that summer afternoon under the swimming pool eaves he was my best friend, and so too he was for several other of my friends. Such were his social skills, and his big heart.

 

"Work like you don't need the money. Love like you've never been hurt. Dance like nobody's watching."       - Satchel Paige
“Work like you don’t need the money. Love like you’ve never been hurt. Dance like nobody’s watching.”
- Satchel Paige

But a moment of tranquil contemplation was more than he could face. Satchel Paige said, “Don’t look back. Something might be gaining on you,” but for John it wasn’t a matter of looking back. He couldn’t look sideways, at his present circumstances, without seeing demons staring back at him. I was surprised when he marched off into the rain, and I’m not sure even today that I can say I understand what those demons were, but I saw immediately that they were there, and that he was terrified of them, and so he kept moving.

He preferred a noisy atmosphere, to get drunk rather than to stay sober, and yet, in his own odd way, he was absolutely in the moment. It’s just that he didn’t wish to contemplate that moment. He preferred distraction.

The quiet on Galiano can sometimes be nearly absolute, with little more than the periodic echoing chortle of a crow, or the shrill beeping of a tree frog to interrupt. It’s something I’ve come to value now more than ever, and it’s something I consider akin to a regular physical check-up, something I should oblige myself to do. I want to see if there are any demons standing next to me. I might want to do something about them, before they run me to ground.

One recommended approach is Buddhist; I attempt to calmly stare right back at those demons present, to just ‘sit with them’ for a while, no challenge, no confrontation. Eventually they’re not quite so scary; they’re just demons. I may be responsible for them, but they’re not the final word on who I am, or where I can go

These days, incidentally, without much effort, you can find information on the noise level in restaurants in your area, and act accordingly. One Vancouverite carries with him small cards that he leaves behind after eating in any restaurant; they say either that he enjoyed the relaxed environment, or that he won’t be back, because of the din.

Quiet shouldn’t scare anyone. Connecting to another human being should be the goal. We should all stop moving once in a while, seek out stillness, not distraction. Once you’ve pulled up, take a look around. Any demons? Don’t kid yourself; if you look back there will always be regrets as to how you got here, but hopefully you are still okay with here. If not, if there’s a fiend lurking nearby, while you’re still breathing, there is always something you can do.

Fear of Identity Erosion

A few weeks ago, I finally got around to watching Sound and Fury, the 2000-released, Academy award-nominated documentary film about two families struggling with the impact of having their deaf children receive cochlear implants. These tiny electronic devices are surgically implanted, and will usually improve hearing in deaf patients, but—it is feared by the families featured in Sound and Fury—this improvement will come at the expense of “deaf culture.”

McLuhanThe film is an absorbing exploration of what we mean by culture and identity, and how critically important these concepts are to us. Because here’s the thing—the parents of one of the children being considered for cochlear implants (who are themselves deaf) choose not to have the operation, even though their child has asked for it, and even though it will in all likelihood significantly improve their young daughter’s hearing.

Why? Because improved hearing will negatively affect their daughter’s inclusion in the deaf tribe. I use that word advisedly, because it seems that is what identification comes down to for nearly all of us—inclusion in a group, or tribe. We identify ourselves via gender, language, race, nation, occupation, family role, sexual orientation, etc.—ever more narrowed groupings—until we arrive at that final, fairly specific definition of who we are. And these labels are incredibly valued by us. We will fight wars over these divisions, enact discriminatory laws, and cleave families apart, all in order to preserve them.

And here’s the other point that the film makes abundantly clear: technology forces change. I’m told that American Sign Language (ASL) is the equivalent of any other, fully developed spoken language, even to the point where there are separate dialects within ASL. The anxiety felt by the parents of the deaf daughter about the loss of deaf culture is entirely justified—to the extent that cochlear implant technology could potentially eradicate ASL, and this language (like any other language) is currently a central component of deaf culture. With the steady advance of implant technology, the need for deaf children to learn ASL could steadily decrease, to the point where the language eventually atrophies and dies. And with it deaf culture?

Possibly, yes, at least in terms of how deaf culture is presently defined. To their credit, it seems that the parents featured in Sound and Fury eventually relented, granting their child the surgery, but they did so only after fierce and sustained resistance to the idea. And so it goes with ‘identity groupings.’ We are threatened by their erosion, and we will do all manner of irrational, at times selfish and destructive things to prevent that erosion.

My friend Rafi, in a recent and fascinating blog post, announced that this year, he and his family will mostly forego the Passover rituals which have for so long been a defining Jewish tradition. He writes that, after a sustained re-reading and contemplation of ‘The Haggadah,’ the text meant to be read aloud during the Passover celebrations, he found the message simply too cruel, too “constructed to promote fear and exclusion.” “I’m done with it,” he announces.

Well, at the risk of offending many Jewish people in many places, more power to him. He does a courageous and generous thing when he says no more “us and them,” no more segregation, no more division.

All cultures, all traditions can bring with them a wonderful richness—great music, food, dance, costumes, all of it. But they can also bring insecurity, antipathy and conflict, conflict which can often result directly in people suffering.

Everyone benefits from knowing who they are, where they came from culturally. But no one should fear revising traditions; no one should slavishly accept that all cultural practices or group identities must continue exactly as they are, and have been. Technology may force change upon you, but regardless, recognize that change whatever its source is relentless. Anyone who thinks they can preserve cultural traditions perfectly intact within that relentless context of change is fooling themselves. And neither should anyone think that all cultural traditions are worth preserving.

New identities are always possible. Acceptance and inclusion are the goals, not exclusion and fear. It takes time, careful thought, and sometimes courage, but every human being can arrive at a clear individual understanding of who they are and what is important to them. Choose traditions which welcome others and engender the greater good. Reject those which don’t. If you can do this, and I don’t mean to diminish the challenge involved, you’ll know who you are, and you’ll undoubtedly enjoy a rich cultural life.