childhood

Ohhh Yeaaah

In grade four, the year after the old school had been torn down, we all started up in the brand new Chester Elementary School. In contrast to the high-ceilinged Victorian eminence - it even had a bell tower in my memory to call students to class, although that may be my imagination doing some setdec on my memory - this school was low, long and done up in greys and slates on the outside. The hallways were all cinderblock painted over in the usual institutional colours - those hideous pinks and greens that work equally well on criminals, lunatics and children. But all that was forgivable, because off the library there was an a/v room, which was no small thing for a rural elementary school in 1980.

The teachers never dreamed for one moment of giving us genuine access to the room, with its television monitors and mixing board and beta machines, topped off by a shiny video camera on a tripod (how the hell did our school afford all that?). We were, however, permitted to work on projects in strictly supervised conditions. Which meant that we couldn't touch anything. Ever. We could watch Mr. MacLean and another teacher touch things, which was fucking boffo, thank you very much.* Our participation extended to acting out ideas of what teachers thought would be funny and appropriate for nine and ten year olds.

To parents, there is nothing funnier than watching small children dress up and act out adult roles. For some reason, the human comedy is never more uproarious than when performed by homunculi in slightly oversize sport coats. Therefore our class got the opportunity to do a regular news broadcast on the doin's and transpirin's of Chester Elementary. We came up with news stories, conducted interviews, and acted out a genuine news broadcast every month or so. I was an anchorman. I came with a navy blazer and a clip-on tie.

Several of us wrote the scripts and played roles for the shows. There was Affable Bryce, Skipped-A-Grade Calvin, Filthy Mouthed Dwayne, No-Smell Jill, Literal Brian, Middle-Part Sheila, Kelly, Denise and a whole crop of others. In the free marketplace of ideas** it was hard for my ideas to get any play. My brain was addled from my habit of staying up late on Saturdays to watch SCTV, so my idea of funny was Neil Simon's Nutcracker Suite and Farm Film Report. It didn't translate too well from a hyperactive stuttering ten year old who forgot to provide backstory for his unsolicited spittle-flecked comedy. I didn't care about news, actualities, information, or any goings-on that had any relevance to anyone. I cared about introducing subplots involving out of control robots who terrorized the news studio.***

The student who came up with the most tasteless joke for the program was Non-Nerd Trevor, who decided that the news program needed a sponsor, and that the sponsor should be Jim Jones Brand Kool Aid. Since this was 1980-81 (the years before the internet, decent hair cuts and even Live Aid) and the Jonestown Massacre had happened in November 1978, it did not make the cut. We were admonished for being disrespectful but forgiven on account of the natural tendency of all children to mock the very notion of empathy. But I think that Trevor was the only one of us who even knew who Jim Jones was, or what the Kool Aid reference meant.

I asked my father about the Jonestown Massacre. He told me in a few terse sentences that a group of people had committed mass suicide under the influence of charismatic cult leader Jim Jones, and that the instrument of their death was a vat of cyanide-laced Kool Aid. And that was the sum of my knowledge to carry me through adolescence and beyond.

The other night I finally watched Stanley Nelson's documentary Jonestown: The Life and Death of the People's Temple, which told me far more about Jim Jones than I'd ever imagined. I didn't know that there were surviving People's Temple members, for instance. And I had had no idea of who Jones was, why the Temple was so successful in the sixties and seventies, and how the movement had progressed from a multiracial church with an emphasis on social action to a politically powerful cult that eventually set up a totalitarian utopia in the jungle. There are plenty of people who claim that the Jonestown documentary doesn't give you the whole story (for example, see the incredibly angry blog of Tom Kinsolving, in which Stanley Nelson is repeatedly excoriated for implying that the People's Temple was something other than an all-devouring murder machine from day one of its existence), but it gave me enough story to feel nauseated and horrified by the haywire explosion of death that marked its end.

Nelson tells the story almost exclusively through interviews with people who are connected with Jones and the Temple in some way - old neighbours, family, reporters and former Temple members. No narrator shows up with a grave voice to frame the events for us, and no expert is supplied to natter on about the psychology of cults. The effect is to give us a complex and multifaceted view of the People's Temple - a Pentecostal-style progressive church with an interracial mandate that also happened to be a brutal cult that used its influence to wield political power in Bay Area California.

Through the interviews, Nelson allows us to see all the qualities of the church that made it compelling to so many people. Jones didn't care if you were a young white middle-class college student or a black senior citizen - everyone was equal and welcome to take part in the Temple's extensive program of good works. But then, after you watch footage of a miraculous healing, with crowds screaming and crying and dancing as a crippled woman runs back and forth in renewed legs, you find out that the entire event is staged - and then all the unsavory details about Jones are released in a flood.

Beatings, ritual humiliations and sleeplessness, bizarre sexual manipulation and the entire bag of cult tricks were employed by Jones to keep his followers pliable. In Jonestown, speaker systems blasted out Jones' voice twenty-four hours a day. By the time the survivors of the mass suicide begin recounting the experience of having their families die frothing and convulsing in their arms, it's almost unbearable to watch. After 90 minutes of listening to these likeable and gregarious people, it's impossible to believe that they managed to survive the deaths of their friends and families and have any kind of life afterwards. Particularly when you consider that they probably participated in some of the beatings and humiliations that Jones encouraged as a means of group discipline.

Nobody joins a cult, says former Temple member Deborah Layton. Nobody joins something that they think is going to hurt them. I would argue that this idea applies to almost every ridiculous thing that people do. Nobody learns to drive so they can die in a whirlwind of metal and plastic and glass, but damned if that doesn't happen ridiculously often. Nobody goes into the hospital to catch strong-like-bull viruses, but catch them we do. And nobody buys paper products so that huge swaths of forest can be transformed into brutalized dead ground and rivers turned into a stinking froth of chemicals, but so it goes.

Ultimately, the film ends with another film's worth of questions to be answered. You never learn about the inner circle of the People's Temple. You never learn how the survivors managed to escape Jonestown and make their way back to the States. Also, you never find out how Jones became a monkey salesman in the 1950s. Seriously - the guy sold monkeys. Would you join a church run by an ex-monkey salesman?

*The a/v room also contained a mimeograph machine, which always smelled of that alcoholic purple ink. Once we used it for some project or other after receiving permission from a teacher. In mid-mimeograph Mr. MacLean strode in and lost it. Completely lost it on us, with this tight-lipped snappishness that betrayed a deep and violent petulance. We were so stunned at his anger that we didn't even leave. Instead we told him that a teacher had given us permission to use the machine. He snapped out "If the cops gave you permission would you speed?" He said it several times, probably because we continued to stand there and repeat ourselves. To a group of ten year olds, analogies involving traffic laws didn't really impress his point; for all we knew, cops were the arbiters of speed limits. We weren't so dumb as to think we could operate the video equipment without a teacher in the room, but the mimeograph didn't seem to fall into the same category. Some years later I realized that Mr. MacLean considered the a/v room as his area of expertise and authority, and that his anger had more to do with the teacher who had flouted his authority than with us. Now that I think about it, it seems pretty obvious, as is the case with so many teachers, that years of dealing with ten year olds had gnawed away like mad little beavers at his self-respect.

**Ah ha. Ah hahahahahaaaa.

***The rebellious robot theme never made it into the news programs. I shoehorned the robot plot into a school assembly play in grade seven, to complete incomprehension from the audience. The robots had become suicidal vehicles that fell on the doomed young protagonists.

smooth brains and small towns

Some years ago, around 1980, I was watching a documentary on television about racism and hate speech in Canada. The documentary featured an interview with a modern-day spokesman for the Ku Klux Klan, who explained that intelligence could be measured roughly by the number of whorls in the surface of the brain, the theory being that a greater stretch of coastline meant more real estate for cognitive fishing. He went on to explain that 'the brain of the Negro' (I remember clearly that he always referred to black people as 'the Negro,' with audible capitalization) was smoother than the Caucasian brain, which demonstrated that 'the Negro' was congenitally less intelligent than 'the White Man'. It was both explanatory and predictive, at once excusing slavery and intimating that the lot of 'the Negro' in the future would continue to be one of servitude and deprivation.

My nine or ten year old self was intrigued and astonished by this piece of scientific information. I went and told my father that 'the Negro' had a smooth brain. My dad grew very quiet and then told me, in carefully measured words, that the man on television was motivated by stupidity and hatred, and furthermore, that he had been lying.

I didn't understand - how could he be lying? I was prepared to believe that brain texture made no appreciable difference in intelligence, but I couldn't wrap my young mind around the idea that a person could appear on television and calmly cite facts that could, with a little checking, be easily refuted. The man on television had appeared completely confident in his words, his tone pedantic but faintly friendly and intimate, as if he were imparting knowledge to a bright but misguided child. I recognize the tone now as condescension, the patter of the televised preacher when the subject shifts from oracular pronouncements to edifying truths.

I also recognize now that I came from a highly privileged household, one in which books were regularly consulted. Almost any conversation with my familu usually ended with one of us getting up and crying out, "To the dictionary!". I have vivid memories of poring over the 1971 New York Times Atlas of the World - the entire world! - picking out blue threads of rivers and consulting the minuscule print of the index to settle some question. All our reference books had split spines and loose leaves. The net result of all this was a low tolerance for bullshit, although it never quelled my love of horrendously sloppy thinking, or my habit of building elaborate logical scaffolds to buttress up my dumbest ideas. It is a surfeit of humility, not intelligence, that keeps me grounded in my adult life.

Given our family habit of putting assumptions to the test, it seemed strange that the Klan speaker could get away with spouting crap, without someone simply opening a book and pointing out his error. They have their own books and studies, my parents explained, to bolster their lies. It followed, then, that the authors of the books and the people who conducted the studies, the people who gathered and collated the information, were either seriously stupid or just as wilfully evil as the speaker. I realized that the head of the Klan was the visible tip of an iceberg, that a much larger unseen body of people were devoted to a lie, a body of lies, an exercise in scholarly untruth dedicated to proving the inferiority of an abused class.

If my intellectual habits at home did not prepare me for this kind of deception, neither did my experience of cruelty and hatred in the village where I grew up. It was a profoundly rural place living in close proximity to wealth, where the disenfranchised were made keenly aware of their status by the parade of self-satisfied heirs of wealth who invaded our town every summer to race yachts and drink. The local rednecks needed no justification for their cruelty. They didn't care about sin or the smoothness of brains; they just wanted to kick some ass.

Racial slurs were thrown around, but it didn't mean very much; they could say all they wanted about black people, or indian people, or Torontonians, but they would likely encounter no more than a dozen of each in the course of their lives. Sometimes I was foreign enough for them, small and dark-complexioned, and I'd end up in an afterschool or weekend fight, but by and large my differences were suffered. Even with the threat of violence, this was a kind of hatred I could understand - a mix of boredom and basic teenage posturing, an outlet for kids who didn't want to go home to their shitty family life, so they hung around in front of the donair shop and waited for something exciting to happen. And when someone new or different came to town, they beat on him until he was no longer different. They beat him into a shape they could recognize - a victim like themselves.

I almost miss that genial cruelty (almost). I have a sense that the world has grown meaner over the last twenty-five years, as whatever cultural impetus - and genuine affluence without loads of consumer debt - from the 1970s evaporates into the arid air of 21st century capitalism. Discontent rules the discourse, and a vague suspicion of being cheated hangs over every issue. During my time as an interviewer I traveled around the world, but in parts of Canada and the States I found myself constantly amazed at the number of people who would, without prompting, tell me what the problem with society was. Invariably, the problem was small-l liberals, or black people, or immigrants. Occasionally it was sinners and infidels. Quite often it was the spectre of Bill Clinton, who even in 2004 was still ruining the country from his secret country-ruining base in New York. It was never the freeway that had sucked the heart out of the downtown and reorganized it into a row of strip malls and box stores straddling the county line. It wasn't the draining of the local oil wells, or the relocation of a factory to Mexico (under NAFTA, for which you can handily blame Clinton). It could not be one of their own, or a result of the decisions that they had made. That was a given.

Oddly enough, talking with so many bigots reinforced my faith in people. No one, I realized, can hate without justification, or revel in power for power's sake (that privilege is afforded to the upper classes). Like the head of the Klan with his talk of smooth brains, people need an intellectual armature for their beliefs. The Texas couple who refuse to do landscaping work for gay clients cannot admit to the mixture of revulsion and arousal that the thought of homosexuality excites in them; therefore they cite a stray passage from the bible and imagine that this affords them a reprieve. Hatred thrives on false divisions and will take any authority, no matter how nutrient-poor, as its medium. Even fundamentalist Christianity understands that, at base, their theology is a compound of Hebraic folklore and myth with infusions of hearty Greek mysticism, now thousands of years past its freshness date. The entire structure of anti-Darwinian pseudoscience functions as a tacit admission that literal and 'Dominionist' interpretations of the bible are little more than an excuse to indulge in a kind of hind-brained simplicity.

My point is, none of the elaborate justifications would exist without an abiding knowledge of right and wrong. No one but the most cartoonish of racists will hate without some set of reasons, whether the justification is scriptural, scientific or myopically anecdotal. Bruce Chatwin points out in The Songlines that populations are exceedingly difficult to brainwash because you need to keep up the effort with each generation. It's a shame that we're so good at brainwashing ourselves.

NaBloPoMo will destroy us all with stuff like the following

As we move into the fourth day of NaBloPoMo, cracks begin to show in the smooth surface of the blog. Weird shit bubbles up from the cracks, oozy black and magma red. Laziness demands that I drop out. Or that I start quoting from books I've been reading.

From Gaston Bachelard's idiosyncratic, vague, obfuscatory and glorious 1958 work The Poetics of Space:

... If I were asked to name the chief benefit of the house, I should say: the house shelters daydreaming, the house protects the dreamer, the house allows one to dream in peace. Thought and experience are not the only things that sanction human values. The values that belong to daydreaming mark humanity in its depths. Daydreaming even has a privilege of autovalorization. It derives direct pleasure from its own being. Therefore, the places in which we have experienced daydreaming reconstitute themselves in a new daydream, and it is because our memories of former dwelling-places are relived as daydreams that these dwelling-places remain in us for all time (6).

And again:

The successive houses in which we have lived have no doubt made our gestures commonplace. But we are very surprised, when we return to the old house, after an odyssey of many years, to find that the most delicate gestures, the earliest gestures suddenly come alive, are still faultless. In short, the house we were born in has engraved within us the heirarchy of the various functions of inhabiting. We are the diagram of the functions of inhabiting that particular house, and all the other houses are but variations on a fundamental theme. The word habit is too worn a word to express this passionate liaison of our bodies, which do not forget, with an unforgettable house (15).

I never really had the privilege of revisiting the earliest houses of my childhood. In 2004 I returned to the house where I did most of my growing up, from ages eight to eighteen. Disturbingly, the very shape of the property had changed; a half-acre side lot that I used to mow every summer weekend had been sold, and a tall set of rowhouses with a faux-maritime theme had been erected on the spot. The house itself had been painted a deep sky blue, almost cobalt in its intensity, with a bright white trim, and the look of the place seemed a touch contrived, like the ugly rowhouses next door, as if the owners were taking a little too much pride in having moved to a little Nova Scotian village. They had kept the balcony my parents had had built, which ran the entire length of the front.

We pulled up in front of the house, not wanting to actually park in the empty driveway. I got out and went to the side door, only to discover that the side door had, at some point in the last fifteen years, disappeared. Its absence meant that I had to go the front door, which was placed smack dab in the middle of the house and whose only means of access was the balcony. It was a bit of an oddity, which may have been the reason why we rarely used it when I lived here. Nonetheless it was the only door. I walked along the balcony, passing within feet of the shuttered windows. It felt like a violation to walk so close to someone else's window, so I kept my eyes straight ahead. I knocked and knocked on the door, which had a merry brass knocker in the shape of a ship. No one answered. We had to fly back home the next day.

Ask Palinode #2: teeth in space and time

From the depths of Ask Palinode, where the blind fishies flap and the bathyspheres bump, comes a question from someone named Schmutzie. She claims to be my wife, which explains a lot about the last five years. She asks:

How many of your teeth are false? Because, even though I'm married to you, I have never known for sure.

That's a good question, Schmutzie. I do have mysterious teeth. The short answer is: I have one and two halves false teeth in space and fifty six in time. Let's tackle the spatial teeth first.

Somewhere in the autumn of 1981 or '82 my friends and I invented a game. This game had no title, but the rules were clear: 1) Run like hell up the staggered concrete steps of the highschool. 2) Don't trip. A young rebel who played no one's game but my own, I broke the second rule with great velocity and maximum impact. My feet slipped on some loose gravel and flew backward. I still remember, twenty-five years later, the sight of the concrete step rushing at my face. I stood up, too shocked for pain, a thick rope of blood and saliva swinging from my lip. My left front tooth lay in a puddle of blood on the step.

I took a breath and the cool inrush of air flowed over the exposed nerve in my mouth.

That hurt some.

When you've smashed your mouth up, keep it closed.

The dentist, a man with a bad temper, a big red beard and eyes so deep-set that they seemed to peer over their lower eyelids, glued a discoloured cap over the little bit of root that remained. In six months' time the cap had started to loosen and wobble over the little stump of actual tooth. I would sit in class and tune out, pushing the cap back and forth with my tongue, until one day it fell out of my mouth and pinged off the top of my desk. Class stopped while I searched for it under my classmates' desks.

Back I went to the dentist, who declared that the dead root of my broken tooth had been almost completely reabsorbed by my body. Apparently the blow to my tooth and subsequent capping had persuaded my body that the remaining stub was a foreign body. My killer defenses had gone to work on the offending bit of nerve and pulp in record time. The dentist told my parents that he had never seen such swift root resorption in his life. He intimated that I was a kind of medical-dental curiosity. Oddly enough, I think my parents were proud of my body's perversity (although they may not have been so proud of the money that my clumsiness was costing them).

The dentist fitted me with a rudimentary denture. It was a piece of pink plastic shaped to fit the roof of my mouth, with metal clamps to hook onto my molars and a single front tooth set on the end. My name was set into the plastic, conscientously misspelled as "Aden," which allowed me the singular fantasy of pretending to be a Middle Eastern city with a missing tooth.

Because I was eleven and in the prime of my shithead years, I decided that my new fake tooth was good for grossing out my classmates. I learned how to manipulate the plastic plate so as to wiggle my tooth up and down in my mouth. Sometimes I would grin at passersby and then open my mouth slowly, letting the tooth drop down as if I were releasing a latch. I got everything from doubletakes to looks of horror.

The partial denture also gave me a sibilant lisp that has never quite gone away, despite the best efforts of the school speech therapist. Please note all efforts were on the therapist's part, who would try to force my tongue to stick to the roof of my mouth whenever I uttered words like Sassafrass or Saskatchewan. I would produce a stuttering, gagging noise that in no way sounded like an s. The therapist gave me exercises to do at home, which I did not do. I had no desire to gag on my own tongue every time I tried to say Sunday or Suffering Succotash. Eventually the therapist, worried about my lack of progress and surmising that I was developmentally challenged as well as possibly gay, contacted my parents to ask how the speech exercises were coming along. They were as surprised as she to find out that I'd been throwing the exercise sheets into the ditch on the way home.

At the age of twenty I finally went to have the retainer exchanged for something that I didn't have to keep in a glass at night. As you can imagine, it puts a serious dent in your adolescent love life to have a partial set of dentures. The dentist fitted me with a bridge, grinding away at the two adjacent canines until they were no more than stumps, then fitting three false teeth over the spaces left - or more accurately, one and two halves.

That takes care of the spatial issue. Now for the temporal question.

A few years ago I had some dental work done on a package vacation to Tralfamadore. For those of you who haven't been there,* the planet of Tralfamadore is a mecca for earthlings seeking medical procedures that they cannot afford at home. The Tralfamadorian economy is based on displays of exaggerated but heartfelt courtesy. Not surprisingly, any goods purchased there are subject to murderous duties upon return. Therefore, services have become the mainstay of Tralfamadore's export business. Also, because Tralfamadorians exist simultaneously along every point in time (and therefore space), you can contract a life-threatening illness on Friday and find yourself cured the previous week.

The Tralfamadorian dentist kindly filled every single one of my teeth that had ever or would ever require a filling, and then, because I was so solicitous and polite - I inquired after the health of the dental assistant's family - he fitted me with two full sets of false teeth. He installed one set thirty minutes in the past, and the other exactly ten years in the future. This has a few advantages, particularly if I get in a fight with someone; if I need to bite my opponent, he'll have already been bitten half an hour beforehand. That way I always get in the first blow. And ten years later, long after he's forgotten the mysterious double bite, the argument and the fight that resulted, and perhaps even my name and face, he'll get bitten again by my future teeth. The chief disadvantage rests in my inability to enjoy fast food, which is always eaten half an hour before I order it, and then again ten years later. Trust me when I tell you that if you don't enjoy your big mac now, you'll like it even less in 2016.

*Because of the peculiarity of Tralfamdore's relationship to Earth in time, there's a good chance that if you haven't visited Tralfamadore yet, you never will. If you are fated to visit the place, you will already remember going there.

i wish my childhood nemeses cheetahs

As a child, I had plenty of time to worry about things. Chief amongst my worries was Skylab, of course. What if it fell on my house? Or in my yard? We had a big yard. The more space, the more likelihood of having Skylab hit it. What if, on my way to school, a big chunk of flaming space station dropped on my head and crushed my bike? Why did I have so much concern about my bicycle in that scenario and not the rider? Maybe because I had such a cool bike. It was yellow.

It was actually not Skylab that threatened my bicycle so much as a kid named Dwight Corkum. For reasons that were never revealed, Dwight hated my guts, and he would demonstrate his hatred by regularly deflating the tires on my bicycle. He was a strange kid a year or so younger than me, even nerdier and more lost than I was, with thick glasses, buck teeth that rested on a pale lower lip, and straight oily hair that hung evenly from a razor-sharp centre part that his mother probably incised into his head every morning. One day, after a week of having to walk my bicycle home, I came out at recess to find him kneeling at the bike rack, patiently deflating my back tire. I shouted at him and he ran around the corner.

I was confused. Dwight Corkum and I had never hung out together, never talked to each other - I had never actually heard him speak, come to think of it - and I couldn't imagine why he'd embarked on this weird tire deflation campaign. Was he envious of my wicked cool yellow bike? Well duh. Did he get satisfaction at the sight of me walking my wobbly bicycle home day after day? Or was he just an irrational seven year old freak with an instinct for mindless vandalism? Maybe he was addicted to the sound of escaping air and the pressure of the valve pin against his thumb.

I confronted him by the monkey bars at lunch. My friends had psyched me up for some confrontation and possible violence. Maybe some light shoving. "Hey!" I called out. Dwight peered back at me.

"Hey!" I said again. That was about the extent of my ammunition. "Why are you letting the air out of my tires?"

Dwight picked up a big sharp chunk of shale and hucked it at me, spinning his upper torso to get some leverage. It smacked into my forehead and opened up a long gash. Blood started to run into my eyes, down the bridge of my nose. I could look at the ground and watch the drops release from my eyebrows and break on the gravel.

I believe I said Aaaahaaahah. Dwight ran off without speaking a word. Weird little bastard.

But Dwight Corkum and Skylab were not my biggest worries. Mostly I was preoccupied with cheetahs. They were fast. Even though I scored well in the 100 metre dash, I knew I could not outrun a cheetah. Ligers, leopons and pumanards were hybrids and therefore cool (see Napoleon Dynamite for further information). Regular big cats claimed their proper place in the food chain heirarchy and deserved respect. Sabre-toothed tigers? Freaked me out. But their long period of extinction served as reassurance.

But cheetahs were too fast. If a cheetah set his sights on you, that was it. They would chase you down and there was no way you could get to your door fast enough. Despite the vast distances separating me and the nearest veldt, I figured that living so close to a major port city put me at risk. What if a cheetah stowed away aboard a shipper and leapt off in Halifax? It would likely be really hungry. I'd done the math on the situation and I was on the wrong side of the equation.

Today, though, I have great news: Cheetahs are stupid.

Apparently, in their single-minded fixation on their prey, cheetahs will run into objects or gore themselves on branches at 100 klicks per hour. I wish I'd known that back in 1979. I would have kept close to undergrowth, spiky trees, and deceptively solid walls. My strategy would have been to stand stock still, face down the oncoming bullet of hungry cheetah, and jump out of the way at the last minute. Wham.

Better yet, I would have hidden behind Dwight Corkum and let the cheetah smash into him. Stupid weirdo.