The map is not the territory

My good friend A. and I turn 60 this year. Our spouses, M. and S., rewarded us with an early birthday present – a treeline to tundra walk into the Yukon Territory’s Tombstone Range.  Like other back country adventures here too we received advice about what to watch out for. While many people cautioned us about Grizzlies no one mentioned Gravity. Grizzly-Glissade_ElevationsThe Ogilvie Mountains are a study in applied physics. Apparently, switchbacks have only recently been discovered in this part of the North and most trails tend to go straight up. Those that trend in a downwards direction are frequently (and I mean frequently) punctuated with boulders (small to massive slides that resemble rivers of rock) over which the intrepid hiker must hop (and occasionally leap) to successfully cross. 1The rare moments when we reach a saddle or levelling in the trail are a perfect salve. Boots off, feet deep in glacial water, pans of just melted ice soaking sweaty heads, hard cheese and hard sausage gobbled down. We repeat this ritual for five blissful bluebird days.2The slopes we trek and the summits we reach are deep-fried. Daily temperatures average 25 to 30C. At times, it is like walking on the lid of a slow-cooker. All of the steepest climbs are glorious. Each 100 meters or so the wind increases, the temperature drops – a lovely gift to the blood-pounding beauty of our healthy hearts. desGoing down, our tootsies compress further and further into the aptly-named toe box of our boots. Deceleration impresses the soft skin of our feet. The knitted architectures of our socks, once removed, show off neatly lined ridges rising up from lithe dermal valleys. Discoloured toe nails predict imminent loss. Specialized blisters forming. Fleshy digits bonded to one another.fAt the top of mountain passes we are awestruck by this Yukon. Craggy, gnarly peaks – Monolith, Tombstone –  recalling medieval ramparts and crenellations thousands of meters tall. Spires pointing to infinitude, caves homesteading wizards, dwarfs, hermits… Your choice. 5Massive cirques littered with scree and talus. The brittle body of upper earth crushed against a green bottom. And as we look down on this forcefulness, witnessing its brutal beautiful outcome, we step into it. 7We walk off a cliff. First, tentatively. Feeling gravel and sheets of shale give up their place on the mountain is unnerving. Plotting long angles we temper the suicidal slippage of each step. Then glee. Our requirement for traction and certainty is replaced by the confident joy of momentum. We ski to the bottom. Each of us four begetting her or his own avalanche of expectations.6And as we cross over this lost horizon we find a Shangri La. Eternal life bubbling from the coloured, flattened stones of sourceless creeks. Borne into patches of blueberry. Swept along the endless merger of contiguous valleys. 8Tiny juniper and wind-shaped willows willfully forgetting the weariness of winter dormancy. Fireweed standing together in a common statement of generosity. Prairie crocus singly clinging to the dried solitude of untrodden earth. Cottongrass reminding every living thing how delicate and dominant snow must needs be. 9Lakes. Cold blue steel lifting hot grey stone. Sirens to our puny human desire for intensity. Four naked bodies driven to draw breaths deeply from this tarn. Wet whispered sun sonnets recovering what was lost on our way here.10This North, these days, are bug-free. We see them, they see us, yet they seem pre-occupied with some other mission. Birds too. The odd sparrow here and there, a family of ptarmigan pandering to indecisiveness, a tiny hawk swooping overhead at 1500 metres, two ravens calling forth the sun. campThe near absence of flight, both entomo- and ornitho-logical, inspires us to flee our itinerary. Though back country campsites are beautifully outfitted (Yukon Parks provides fantastic pads for tents, ropes off camp trails, and shuttles barrels of poop, pee and grey water out by helicopter) this is not where we need to be. 11We head for ‘the shire,’ a large verdant Yin butted against a rock-ribbed Yang. Here, deep lichen-flecked moss lightens each barefoot taken, inhales our sleep-over impermanence, and saturates our nostrils with sudden prehistoric aromas. As morning breaks we see too how our ground cover sustains the bull Caribou who for the next two hours nibbles, strolls and lopes in the shallow dip below our tents.12You will recall “the glee.” The rock skiing. This occurred in Glissade Pass. To glissade means “to slide down a steep slope of snow or ice [or loose rock].” To my knowledge there is no climbing term to describe the ascent of a scree field. While “motherfucker” captures some emotional elements of the act it doesn’t fully describe the technical challenges involved. In any case, upon leaving ‘the shire’ we immediately climb a large talus slope and regard 300 meters of very steep walking. 13Our approach is simple. We plant firm, purposive footfalls, make deliberate pole placements, rid our consciousness of self-doubt, and don’t look down. As the pitch sharpens, loose-packed stone gives way to broken rock and walking more closely resembles scaling. 14We scan, we estimate, we grunt. We severely kick footholds into the mountain only to feel them give way when transferring weight from one foot to the other. We learn that hand-holds, although comforting to look at, are liable to break, and thus dangerous. 15We are a slow-moving, genial hive-mind. We encourage  one another, suggest easier, more stable routes, and occasionally curse as one. But at some ill-defined point, our common experience dissolves. Our position on the mountain clarifies one thing: we are on our own. Or are we? upAfter two hours of climbing, ten meters separates our company of adventurers from the top of the Pass. And at this point our good will and some unknowable karma produces the most beautiful avatar. A lad from the Dolomites crosses the ridge like he’s sprinting over a massive piece of crumbling polenta. His happy face shining, his helping hand extended.17Physically, this hike was arduous. physicalMentally, we pushed past all existing comfort zones.16Aesthetically, incomparable. saddleSpiritually, affirming. osThank goodness for the Yukon Territory.us

 

 

 

 

 

 

Travel in the North

The Past
The unsettled weather I am travelling through has not been seen in this area in 75 years. To say that it is unusual understates its impact by a magnitude. I know this because my first daughter was born in these parts 26 years ago.

screen-shot-2017-01-25-at-5-46-23-amOn 21 January 1991 I saw her form for the first time. I inhaled her presence in the cabin that we rented on Pelican Lake in Sioux Lookout, Ontario. I smeared the thick cheesy vernix envelope that had painted itself over the pink oxygen of her skin.

When she arrived that day it was cold. I remember looking out the bedroom window at the Pine and Evening Grosbeaks gobbling seed. A thermometer fastened next to the feeder read -42C.

Friday, Saturday, Sunday
By way of comparison, I was in Kitchenuhmayooosib Inninuwug (KI) or  Big Trout Lake on January 21st this year. KI lies about 450km due north from Sioux Lookout. It was 2C in KI. The snow was melting away, baring roofs and spawning puddles on the hard clay roads.

The warm warm weather conspired with heaps of cold cold snow to create dense dense fog.  As the ceiling fell below 600 feet, flights were cancelled producing a classic case of weathered-in-ed-ness among the pocket populations of fly-in help.

About 20 hours after the cancellation of our Friday afternoon flight a dynamic emerged that in many ways resembled Elizabeth Kubler Ross’ five stages of grief. Positioned at various points in the tiny hotel’s common room I witnessed and, indeed, participated in the following:

  • Acceptance. Various visitors lazily lounge in front of endless inaugural commentaries. Occasionally a droll observation about northern travel emerges. Many casual expressions of fluidity, e.g., “I’m OK with staying over another night,” are offered;
  • Denial. Phone calls from Sioux Lookout paint an increasingly dire picture of the weather system’s scope. People who by now should have been in KI have yet to lift off. This information gives rise to multiple and unsolicited opinions about northern air service followed by unfounded, if not irrational, forecasts that “we’ll definitely get out today.”;
  • Anger. When a knowledgeable local enters the hotel and  unequivocally states that  planes do not fly on the sabbath, the “we’ll get out tomorrow” assumption is lost. Their revelation is viewed as vexatious, toxic even. Later it inspires poetikal verse:

    No Fly Zone

    How do you know that you cannot fly from KI on Sunday?
    How do you know that you cannot fly from KI on Sunday?
    You find out when you’re weathered-in
    Weathered-in on Friday
    You find out when the agent says:
    If you don’t get out today,
    You won’t get out tomorrow.
    You don’t get out today,
    You won’t get out tomorrow.
    Cause the church is State
    And you’ll have to wait
    The Sabbath means
    You don’t play ball
    You don’t haul wood
    You don’t exert, don’t run, don’t flirt
    Don’t shout, don’t cry
    And you DO NOT fly
    From KI
    On Sunday.

  • Within a half hour those short fuses have become long faces. Depression sets in and the many legitimate and fabricated reasons “why I HAVE TO get out today” start to tumble from the homunculus. Several people get off the couch and head for their bedrooms where the sound of frantic texting overcomes the incessant and delirium-inspiring ambiance of the forced air furnace.
  • Bargaining signals the end of Act One. Could we….
    • Split the cost of an air charter?
    • Engage the services of a local driver Sunday to travel the 50 or so kilometres to Wapekeka where a more enlightened parish permits planes to land on the holy day?
    • Re-arrange our massively important schedules to remove those immovable barriers that just moments earlier pre-supposed necessary, nay requisite, absolution from natural temperaments and known unknowns?

As we head to the KI airport – which we find emptied of staff and information – we realize we are exactly where we began: Will the plane fly? Will the fog lift? Will the freezing rain permit us to land should we get anywhere near Sioux Lookout? Answers are: yes, no, yes and no.

Our little group from the hotel is augmented by others. We chat, touch though do not grope, we find our commonness. Magically our frazzled selves and the pervasive uncertainty – of where we are to go, when, or how – resolve and high spirits, good humour, and occasional notions of contingency prevail.

It is 8:30 PM and having bypassed Kasabonika we find ourselves in the Pickle Lake airport waiting room. At 9:30 PM a big group boards a plane for Thunder Bay. Two beautiful young people decline to board after the pilot’s warning that should the plane fail to land in Thunder Bay they will be diverted to Regina, Saskatchewan.

We adopt them. We are ten, we are happy, we are shuttled to the best worst bar in the world. Water, beer, white wine, rye, and vodka supplement the menu’s only fare: potato wedges and chicken fingers. Long story short, we arrive back to the Sioux Lookout airport by noon Sunday.

The Sioux Lookout Airport
This place might reasonably be described as both art installation and train wreck. Its transfiguration of function into chaos is no easy feat. New construction and renovations introduce innumerable  ambiguities “How does one get in,” say, or “how does one get out?”

Similarly, its liminal state reconfigures important human dimensions of air travel. “How are so many bodies to fit in so little space?” Flight delays and cancellations redefine the temporary nature of waiting room. Children scream through a maze of travellers all the while fully expressing the low-level anxiety that an uncertain routing, arrival or departure suggests. Meanwhile one-year olds peg leg toward each other, hands waving, smiles spread widely as if compensating for the grim adult expressions everywhere else.

Passengers wear timely though inappropriate outer wear – parkas, boots, hats and scarves. Vestments hang loosely from bent skeletal forms: their bulk inspires perspiration and thankfully conceals the stink of foliation. Eyes bow to handheld devices. In this steam bath of otherness, data plans are abandoned, yearning brows lift to itch primal needs, and fleshy palms re-engage their social contract.

Monday
So, following an eventful return from KI over the weekend, I fly to Fort Hope and then back again the same day. Simply put, I witness the same passive, multi-layered cloud cover thwart the pilots and their flying machines. Closing in on our destination patches of ground appear with some clarity. Thirty or sixty seconds later that clarity is erased only to be re-introduced as a tawdry expressionist version of reality. And this cycle repeats.

Part way through the third or fourth such cycle, the happy sound of flaps turning down and wheels descending shine a light on our collective and unwarranted hope of landing at this fort. The utter degradation of the visible world unfortunately corresponds with lower altitude and proximity to our destination. We know – all eight of us – we know we will not land.

The now familiar – and impressive – acceleration of the engines signals a farewell and our collection of thoughts turn to Plan B. Heading west again my travelling companion recalls the creeping fog seen in Sioux Lookout as we taxied from the terminal. After almost two hours in the air we all fear that our time has passed. Might we safely land in Sioux Lookout?  As the protocol begins again: deceleration, nose down, scanning for lights, our hearts synchronize on a single instance of good luck.

Dense cloud provides no hint of the topography below us. The groan of hydraulics eases flaps and wheels out of their nests. Flying. We are flying, but in reverse. We are, in aviation terms, initiating a controlled crash. We’re lifting ourselves out of the ether and returning to earth.

Where exactly is the earth? There it is. The train tracks. The train tracks? These tracks are no more than a half kilometre from the airport! AND WHUMP. Our wheels find the sloppy seconds of runways bullied and bared by unwanted warmth. Pressed against glass I see the tower lights dimly welcome what certainly is the last plane to land in Sioux Lookout that day.

Sleeping Giant – A Man Called Ove

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A Man Called Ove is no ordinary sob story. It’s powered by melancholy, fuelled with ancient ambitions and, like those centuries-old afflictions, the film surrenders us at rival gates and employs an indispensable elasticity to traverse enemy territories along a polarized continuum of mirth and remorse. The tale and its narrative arc rehearse nordic Sagas. A jätte (giant) – maltreated, introspective and near mute – is stripped clean. No mother, no father, no home…

And yet the gentle behemoth – displaced and pursued by Lilliputian-like white shirts – is  unbound by a young woman’s kindness and his own coarse desire to know her. As they rise up together and confront the beast lurking inside him their coupling forges a shield of shared and unperturbable destiny.

os2When Fortuna refuses their wilfulness and layers on pain and suffering, Ove retreats to yesteryear. Fury lifts him from slumber and anger announces his arrival. Villagers and livestock flee in Ove’s presence while we, the audience, entrench and extend his ill-tempered underdog status with distant admiration. Between the tears and the laughter Ove’s voice weakens as he anticipates and animates a pernicious decline.

fired If this were a modern tale of nihilistic ageists and personal health information breaches, we should say, “Poor Ove.” But Ove’s world is positively medieval. In it live sprites and fairies, thralls and wastrels, a Persian Venus, a Saab!

The Saab’s magick is internal combustion, an explosive metaphor that serves as automotive and jailer. Saabs provide a thread of shape shifting continuity, coded in colours and models, revved up with adolescent memories, and powered by incantations of engineering superiority.

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We soon realize that having four-on-the-floor is Ove’s bane. Like the diesel locomotive that stops his father in its tracks and the diesel coach that neatly fails his beloved, the gassy interlopers that threaten the Estate’s walkways chain him with miscalculations and self-loathing.

Potent though the Saab may be the giant’s attachment to assembly line enchantments is broken by Parveneh, a saffron-wielding sorceress. She, floating above petty provincial judgements and lacking masculine temperaments at home, fearlessly walks into Ove’s fat palm and coaxes driving spells from a gruff, damaged soul.

persianReluctantly and methodically Ove teaches her to control the beast. And as she learns to drive, Parveneh regards and brightens Ove’s aura. Ove’s bark and predictability diminish. His generosity flowers. His graveside habits change. Then one evening while Venus retreats from the Swedish sky and fresh snow dusts his walk, Ove’s mortal coil unwinds.

A Man Called Ove, plucks vintage heart strings. It engages our reptilian brain while provoking the otherworldliness of civilizing influences. It seizes the overwrought and offsets their grief with an oddly engaging and instrumental rationality. The film speaks to the good and bad, the best and beastly among us.  It’s a story cast within millennial rather than generational timeframes and it summons quite a thought: healing takes a long time.

This one-in-a-million Swedish suburban saga considers unlucky lives by rehearsing the minor falls and major lifts of neighbourly behaviour. The film shows that no matter how foreign, alone, or oafish one might be, the milk of human kindness is a powerful potion. It bathes wounds, dissolves barriers, and clarifies destinies.

More and more and more and tomorrow

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In 1986 we paid to watch the decline of the american empire. A gaggle of elite academics drank heavily and sifted through one another’s scat. Recall the adulterous braggadocio? The self-cancelling embrace and disregard for infectious disease? The pandering to feelings while nailing one another to the wall? Denys Arcand was one smart cookie. The film reads like a Tao of Demise. “Maybe,” it seems to ask, “the darkness is a precursor for an unbearable lightness of being?”
25_years_episode1_pic_1In the 1980s we witnessed political machinery run out of gas. We saw Soviet military might dissolve (warehouses of unsorted Stasi surveillance records exposed to the elements and stripped of their coercive powers). We saw the Reagan administration withhold NIH funding for HIV (shame and silence being its anti-bodies of choice), and we read one dick – now at Stanford – proclaim the end of history (invoking an Hegelian dyspepsia that quaked and crumbled collective memory).
6Lacking state sanctioned oppression, institutional capacity for compassion, and a dialectic for enlightenment, ferment in the field of human freedoms produced vinegar rather than wine. Today’s grim situation has been a long time coming and its ascendency is formative at best.  I’m afraid that the only correspondence between Donald Trump’s recent election and global societal malaise is that his initials suggest a Delirious Tremens that we’ll only stave off with more drink.

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On institutional wherewithal & human being

Of the possibilities for personal transformation Thomas Merton writes,

In order to gain possession of ourselves we need some confidence, some hope of victory. And in order to keep that hope alive we must usually have some taste of victory. We must know what victory is and like it better than defeat.

I am not the person I should have been. I grew up poor in Windsor, Ontario and lived in run down neighbourhoods where petty crime and vandalism were part of everyday life.

And victory? Victory was the stuff of fairy tales.

All of this to say that my parent’s socio-economic status predicted not much more than a lifelong struggle with poverty.

But that poverty didn’t happen because Canadians wove together a social safety net. Over a period of about 25 years I landed in that net three times and those soft landings changed everything. Faceless policies and caring institutions deftly anticipated my situation.

LANDING #1
I am two years old. I severely cut my hand in a household accident. I am taken to the hospital immediately where I receive treatment. Yet, the medical encounter continues for another three years. Here are the highlights:

  • Infection
  • Infection management
  • Failure of infection management
  • Discussion of options, Amputation?
  • Medical curiosity
  • Medical advocacy
  • Medical intervention
  • Hospitalization
  • Hospitalization
  • Hospitalization
  • Rehabilitation
  • Medical success!

As interesting – miraculous even – as the clinical outcome, is the fact that between 1959 and 1962 my family bore no financial burden for the prods, pokes, and procedures, the beds I occupied, the rehab therapies, nor the numerous follow-up appointments with our family physician. Why?

Because in 1955 labour unions, the municipality, its hospitals and local docs  created Windsor Medical – an affordable monthly fee that made access to quality health services available for all.

LANDING #2
I am 12 years old and “rough” is a word that describes near everything in our one-size-fits-all world. The family next door is “rough” with their children, the place down the road is in “rough” shape, and the school I attend is dominated by “roughians,” gangs of boys rumoured to carry knives and possessed of nasty temperaments. This word becomes a call to action. My parents say that we’ve got to go somewhere better.

Where? How?

My mother discovers a special provision in returning veteran’s legislation that provides  no interest loans for former soldiers saddled with various disorders and diseases. Here the combination of vague language, an exemplary civil service, and a highly motivated maternal presence, converge in the purchase of a modest home. At just $52.00 per month the house is ours, forever.

LANDING #3
High school was a bust for me. I attended grades 9 through 13 though paid little attention. I smoked a lot of dope, skipped plenty of classes and after five years I was ushered to the door without certificate of graduation. Factories and shift work came next, some travel, more shift work. Then in my early 20s I awoke to a grim fact. My recent past foresaw an identical future.

Ontario post-secondary education policy was there for me to land in. It allowed me to enrol in a remedial community college program where patient – and I’m certain poorly paid – adult educators helped me with the fundamentals. Then a mature student exemption built a bridge to higher learning.

Clutching these assets I enrolled in the university, completed graduate school and found my way into telecommunications and health technology consulting.

It’s been said that there are but three ways to affect change.
– You can let it happen.
– You can help it happen; and,
– You can make it happen.

As a citizen of Canada I feel lucky that civil servants and their political bosses helped me not hit the ground. Instead they gave me a taste victory and they showed me how much sweeter it is than defeat.

Unquestioned

boots_off_the_ground_rockpass

“As a mountain of rock is unshaken by wind, so also, the wise are unperturbed by blame or praise” (Verse 81, Book of Dharma)

This Fall we spent some time in the North Cascades. Deep in the Pasayaten wilderness – a roadless raw tooth in the American Cordillera – our three happy bodies lay still, wanting for nothing.

rockpass_from_woodypass

We were shaken by the wind, washed with rain, and cocooned by cold. Beneath us lay 400 million years of geologic time; tectonic plates beached at a place we now call western Washington.

 

Just As I Am

I am the son of a Baptist Minister. In Baptist churches you hear Just as I am a lot. This is the first verse…

Just as I am, without one plea
but that thy blood was shed for me,
and that thou bidst me come to thee,
O Lamb of God, I come, I come.

What a song!

It makes a humble and unbowing statement that clearly positions our voices within the Protestant canon.

In four words Just-As-I-Am expresses our connection to G-O-D. No middle men,unmediated access to power. “Just you and me!”

When I was growing up I would hear this song all the time. Randomly at Sunday services. Often visiting Pastors wrapped their sermons by featuring all six verses.

Choirs. It’s well-suited to choirs. Just As I Am oddly features a profound and muted drone resilient to the disharmonies of mixed-bag chorales and spontaneous public expression.

There are these moments of serotonin-spiking dissonance in Just As I Am where the simplicity of human revelation is cast so effortlessly against the sonic excess of a choir, a congregation, a stadium that it unlatches the deadliest bolts of pretense and solemnizes a tearful eternal coming together. Listen to the reaching crescendo at the end of the third line and how it’s replaced by a child-like whisper of promise.

Just as I am, thy love unknown
hath broken every barrier down;
now, to be thine, yea thine alone,
O Lamb of God, I come, I come.

Television. You used to hear it all the time watching Billy Graham. If you haven’t guessed already Just As I Am was a key recruiting tool for the Baptist church. The song was a closer. It signaled the end of ritual, the beginning of lifetimes, and the convenience of spiritual conformity.

  1. The end. Anybody who spent any time in church could tell you that hearing Just As I am was a Pavlovian trigger for teenage adherents. Hearing those introductory bars on the piano said, in no uncertain terms, that you were going home and real soon.
  2. Lifetimes end and begin with motion. Just As I Am mobilized the audience and  choreographed their movement into an endpoint of light. Hailing from the dimmest corners of the room, converts burdened and sagging with corporeality; witnessed –  looked down upon – from ten thousand craning necks: weeping, weeping, lubricated in sobbing kaleidoscopes of sin, walking into salvation. Hands over mouths, arms crossed, pensive, leaning on canes, ordinary people left their seats to purify their souls.
  3. And the song closed a gap between here and now, before and after, us and them. Just As I Am unified – the primarily white, nominally affluent, and fiscally conservative – participants into a transgressive movement whose only articulated cause was to present sacrifice as a reasonable pathway to redemption. My favourite verse:

Just as I am, and waiting not
to rid my soul of one dark blot,
to thee whose blood can cleanse each spot,
O Lamb of God, I come, I come.

So you could hear Just As I Am in plenty of places.

It was known. Acknowledged. A standard in the proto-fundamentalist quasi-charasmatic protestantism of the 1960s and 70s.

But the best part of Just As I Am – in fact, the whole reason that I’m going on and on about my personal experience with this song – is that I got to listen to it so many times in Pastor Crane’s First Baptist Church, Dearborn Heights, Michigan.

Pastor Crane was my Dad’s friend. He was from Kentucky. He had tan skin. Black hair. A broad smile of straight teeth and, like his cigarette-smoking flock, was the owner of many white short sleeved shirts. Sundays he delivered powerful strings of rubuke, damnation, and condemnatory certainty while somehow abiding the tenets of beauty, casting off judgement, and offering hope.

Just as I am, though tossed about
with many a conflict, many a doubt,
fightings and fears within, without,
O Lamb of God, I come, I come.

Over several years we visited his church. Mostly in summer. We would cross the Ambassador bridge, drive through empty interstate canyons, past Detroit city limits and the multi-story rubber tire that relentlessly displayed car production in the Motor City one vehicle-at-a-time. We would arrive. Late. A small argument would ensue and when the tie had been tightened, makeup touched, and embers cooled, we would join our brethern inside.

Like Pastor Crane the congregation was from Kentucky. They drove Galaxie 500s and Chevy Beaumonts. Occasionally a Chrysler Newport or an older Cadillac. And they sang. They sang hard. They sang without the measures of propriety excising sounds more than two standard deviations from the mean. They seemed to squeeze sound from their tear ducts – recreating an original and universal pain. All the time tailoring esophageal stress into an energy of apportioned magnitudes.

Just as I am, thou wilt receive,
wilt welcome, pardon, cleanse, relieve;
because thy promise I believe,
O Lamb of God, I come, I come.

Damn!

Hail, Caesar?

There is a lovely scene in Hail, Caesar – the new Coen Bros. romp – where George Clooney’s character, Baird Whitlock, rattles off recently acquired marxist insights to studio fixer Eddie Mannix. After spending less than 24hours with his erudite grumpy resentful writerly captors, Whitlock relates his epiphany: the movie industry is propping up capitalism. 

Hail, Caesar is as unusual as it is funny. It’s a sophisticated, acerbic, and reflexive exposé of the contradictions that shore up our collective memory. Moreover, it’s written, directed and performed by the same grade of insiders and heavy weights as the golden-age archetypes depicted in the film.

Hail, Caesar trumpets consciousness-raising for the masses and shrugs its shoulders at solutions. Like a Rabbi who’s been asked to determine the G_dliness of Christ only the relations of production could care less.  Why? Because Hail, Caesar does one better. This goofball movie draws an absurd little road map, a connect-the-dots DIY for Millenials to start deconstructing  screen-time habits. Like Neil Postman once did, the film asks “How are we being led down the garden path?”

So let’s apply this idea and see what shakes out when we rattle the base and its overdetermined superstructure. I’ll choose Tattoos as my  example. Not the inky variety, rather the military version: the crisp, flashy, regimented display of rhythms and musics that engage and entertain Western audiences. While wiki-wonks tell us that 17thC Tattoos (trumpet or drum blasts) were the military’s way of closing local pubs and calling personnel back to barracks, they have evolved.

Modern tattoos often are international. They pit armed forces against one another. No bullets are fired, nor casualties counted. Rather their purpose is to  win hearts and minds (yours/mine) with music, choreography [a tip of the hat to Burt Gurney], juggling, and tympanic excess. All of this driven by legions of protocol and dressed up in military uniformity. Alexander Dubček might have called Tattoos war-mongering with a human face.

How odd then to recently receive an invitation to watch a Tattoo from a decidedly anti-militaristic friend. Going on a Martial Law subject line and a youtube link I invested more than six minutes watching a fantastically physical and coordinated confluence of well-dressed hubris. Impressively, the participants raise and seemingly resolve the contradictions of waving a flag of Swiss neutrality and waging hand-to-hand combat.  Motherfucker!

Their form-fitting garb expresses all or nothing. They’re white and black with charcoal and silver accents. Snazzy? Yes. Orwellian? Absolutely. Are they asking who is ‘Us’ and who ‘Them’ or simply provoking us to accept that sometimes black is white and white black? Then there’s this ‘top secret’ thing. It’s laminated on the sonic scoop at the base of each drum.

“Top,” such an innocent description of secrecy in a world of collusive security level systems. Honestly what isn’t secret anymore? Daily we ramble redacted regions, saunter sequestered slopes, enter  embargoed exegesis, and tread trade-deal terroir.  But here, in the Tattoo, it’s all  spelled out for us. The power to withhold information is proudly displayed. Could an important part of the military’s role be to protect special interests? Secrets are accumulated/parsed/withheld and the unbidden consequence of this secret society? More secrecy.

You don’t have to be an internet parkourista to surmount the irony that standing armies frequently exercise a freedom to move. The Danny Kaye-ish steps in the Tattoo soon give way to swipes and thrusts, advances and retreats. Here, human kinetics are an interpellative mechanism for embedding the ideological preferences of hegemonic power in us. While I loath structuralists, Althusser’s notion that police/military and corporate state apparatuses “always/already” constitute subjectivity seems real enough. Each drumbeat and footfall rehearses a dance that conflict can’t live without.

The military is the ultimate modernist institution. It clings to notions of marshalling law where it must needs be. Like a Hollywood starlet in a pool full of synchronized swimmers, the Tattoo does its best to demonstrate the beauty of order, coordination, and discipline. And like Eddie Mannix’s face-slapping brutality they do their best to conceal the weapons and the pain they invest in others. That the Tattoo – like Hail, Caesar – occasionally subverts its own historical materialism and brings smiles to our faces reminds us just how ready and willing we are to amuse ourselves to death.

Driver-less-ness (Two Parts)

What is a door?

The marriage of motorvehicle and microchip has been a long time coming. My first experience with electro-mechanical intercourse was the thin metallic overture that my friend’s 1974 Chrysler made to its occupants. A Moog-inspired voice would warn “A door is ajar, A door is ajar!” which elicited a typically adolescent: “A door is not a jar, it’s a door!” [giggle about here].

Sometimes called driverless and other times autonomous, robo-motives herald our economics in this age of [western] abundance. Unlike it’s 60s counterpart, the jet-pack, self-driving cars trade dimension-defying contortions of near-earth exploration for ease-of-use.

Simply put, the convenience of not driving and arriving promises to extinguish notions of freedom and redemption long associated with experiencing space. Indeed, the virtual capacities of these vehicles may, to use a 19th C term, annihilate our appreciation of ‘what is.’

Woody-Allen-with-Sleeper-Car

But let’s be structural functionalists for just a moment please. These vehicles take us well past the mono-railish Sleeper cars envisioned in the 70s by Woody Allen. More importantly they provoke incredible value-adds for isolated-elders and family finances.

Part 1

Mobile Independent Long-Term Care Homes (MILTCHs). This is where I figure the big driver-free investments will land. Nobody likes to see old folks tucked away in a dark institutional corner. The MILTCH will not only make travel available, it will make it relentless. And it will be successful because (a) a large cohort of highly liquid itinerants already exists and (b) the Internet of Things (IOT) will make placelessness the norm among the discognescenti.

In a 2015 Sector Report, the US International Trade Administration values the domestic RV industry at about $37.5 billion and estimates that more than 9 million households now own one. Importantly, that same report shows that “while middle-income consumers between the ages of 55 and 64 historically have had high RV ownership rates, customers between 35 and 54 are now the largest group of buyers. Although they are only one segment of the total potential MILTCH subscriber base, these folks represent a sweet-spot for what the gaming industry calls lifetime customer value or LTV: the expected contribution of a single player to a game (aka, trailing cash flow).

Document1

Now take a close look at the form factor. Today we primarily view driver-free mobility through a micro-vehicle lens. They’re cute and very small. Going forward we can fully expect the footprint to scale. Note the prototypes above compared to the driverless freight vehicle, below. This is ideal for the MILTCH because we know that even the tiniest  vehicle temporarily provides a secure, comfortable, and private place to dwell. When that basic capacity is coupled with spaciousness then the social dynamic central to human existence is more or less assured.

The real game changer though is the IOT. It engages a near limitless palette of virtual tools to customize and sustain the MILTCH’s physical properties. Bitcoin-enabled payment means you can buy fuel, purchase fast-food at drive-throughs and purloin Amazon-inspired gifts for the grandchildren. Inside you and 20 socio-demographically aligned peers will enjoy 360-degree virtual reality. Are you in Arizona today or Alaska? Are you watching the Revenant or has your bunkmate just been mauled by a bear? Hey who knows? Who cares? waiCentral heating and cooling systems will keep you feeling fresh. Should someone in your party feel anxious or morose, then not to worry: Vapes and ubiquitous SSRI aerosolization will take the sting out of being strung-along. Hygienic? You bet. Self-sealing catheterization  and a national sani-dump network will facilitate a worry-free, accident-free, lifestyle. The MILTCH will take driverlessness to a new level of uninterrupted comfort.And that all adds up to autonomous vehicles emerging as a trackable, self-cleaning, mobile ecosystem that ensures Seniors wake-up to a new experience everyday, whether they know it or not.

What else?

Well, there’s Collaborative Uber Luber (CUL). Each morning after your car drops your kids at school and you and your spouse at work, it spends the rest of the day lubricating your wallet as an autonomous member of the Uber fleet. At $23.52 an hour your Bay area vehicle  will generate almost $825.00 a week or more than $41,000 per year. Keen on taking transit on the weekends? Bonus. Let your car loose for deliveries or, better yet, local respite for long-haul, long-term care passengers.

Part 2

My early years were dedicated to eccentric pursuits. Life was lived in peripheries: in tall grasses and cardboard boxes, on civic sidewalks, iron fence railings, rooftops and iced-over ponds. On these edges I knew no time, no place, no self. Everything was pushed aside and I went unnoticed into a secret margin that was unavailable to – or unwanted by – the adults in my life.

Document1A single experience in a car changed all of that. One lovely Sunday afternoon my eleven-year-old self  was lifted from the smooth nylon threading of a red paisley passenger cushion and I was placed in my father’s lap. That uplifting was an invitation to a  master class in  locomotive arts. That day I would guide our Pontiac Parisienne down Jefferson Avenue.

quaker-state I was no stranger to cars. I lived in view of Detroit, the Motor City. Windsor, my hometown, called itself the Automotive Capital of Canada. I owned sticker books filled with decals of motor oils, vintage models, fuel treatments. One long summer holiday I even slept in the rear footwell of our 1954 Buick Century as we visited distant relatives and long gone households.

But on that particular Sunday, while my father gradually increased our velocity to some 50 km/hr, I approached a hither to unknown place. Truth be told not much was happening in the driver’s seat – little fingers grasped hard at the wheel; puny arms splayed wide and rigid at the elbow. Otherwise? My brain, my body, my being engaged a new force, a bespoke inertia.

It, a seamless changeless difference engine of privilege making me a sum of inherent, persistent order. Notionally an algorithmic auto motive itched. Practically the familiar sights, sounds, and smells of my neighbourhood faded behind the yellow pinstriped tarmac that centred my attention. There I was in the mainstream. I was in command and felt, for certain, completely out-of-control.

Phenomenologies of Shock & Awe

dogdarthHalloween is a giant among giant holidays.  How big? Last year the US-based National Retail Council reported that 15% of American households would be putting their pets in costumes for the holiday.

While feasts for the dead are common around the world we in North America are relative newcomers. I recall, for instance, a time in the early 60s when my parents forbade us from partaking in candy-getting. By the early 70s me and my two sisters freely joined our contemporaries and many fructose-fuelled forays followed.

What exactly they were saving us from remained unclear. Was it the prospect of spontaneous devil worship while in nighttime proximity to all those witches and goblins? It could have been white slavery. I recall heated exchanges about this. My Mother told my sisters that a white slaver could – in broad daylight – inject a potion behind their knees and whisk them away. Then came her silent pursed lipped admonition: “What kind of latitude,” I imagined her scolding, “might they exercise late at night?”

windsorOr it could have been our own dire and thoroughly unredeemable poverty. While the folks put on a brave face we lived in the Projects for many years and stretching a dollar was a daily chore. Maybe giving away candy was just too expensive?

Today the institution of zcHalloween feels more like a case of societal delerium tremens than a celebration. En masse, we briefly withdraw from our addiction to complacency by costuming pitiful identities in frightfully risky garb and gorging ourselves with super-charged confections. Then the obedient servant dies, momentarily, to feast on his or her own flesh. You got it. One night each year we become Zombie Cannibals lurching forward like a pouty 14-year old having found nothing but tofu and almond milk in the refrigerator.

So, for us Westerners, Halloween may be less of a feast and more of a palate cleansing, a cultural detox where outward expressions of indulgence sooth inner expressions of insouciance. There is surely nothing hallowed about it. Neither do we reflect on those who have passed this veil of tears, nor do we visit cemeteries to lay wreaths. Instead we trod through the anonymizing darkness, gazing into skies lit with fireworks. We venture together into the gore of impossible human aloneness and engage familiar phenomenologies of shock and awe.

houseAnd so I struggle to pay attention. This year among the many things that drew me to death plain and simple was a lyrical invitation by a local radio station. The announcers solicited sinister songs from listeners. What a grand idea. Here lay an opportunity to produce a counterpoint to the tenor of terror by engaging a first person take on the past of a present tense. This is the choice I made.

lovitThe Ballad of Dwight Fry is a deranged little ditty that first appeared in 1971 with the release of Love it to Death. Unlike tracks such as Eighteen and Is it My Body, The Ballad of Dwight Fry overturns late-adolescent concerns with independence and sex by situating a long-suffering parent in an institutional circle of hell.

martin-agnes_previewNo doubt the inversion provided great pleasure for some listeners. For me, it engaged multiple anxieties about an as yet unconsidered future. “See my lonely mind unfold, I see it every day!” Indeed.

All-in-all, it takes Dwight about six-and-a-half minutes to creep from madness to murder. His journey begins with a child’s lament “Mommy, where’s Daddy, he’s been gone for so long,” ascends to a chilling and ineffectual plea for release, and concludes with sonic bi-polarity: inexplicably, searing anthemic guitar licks fade into a cover of Sun Arise, a tune by Rolf Harris of Tie Me Kangaroo Down fame?

Like Halloween, The Ballad of Dwight Fry, foreshadows disturbingly adult ends. It is an oddly positioned artifact whose gallows guitar and straitjacketed songlines tie into asylum seeking narratives of the time. As Frederick Wiseman’s Titicut Follies, Ken Kesey’s One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, and Lindsay Anderson’s O Lucky Man all show, madness and its keepers are equal opportunity employers.

DWThe Ballad of Dwight Fry is the perfect Halloween song for another reason. There really was a Dwight Freye. This song is a tribute to a thespian who appeared in spooky classics like Dracula, Frankenstein, and the Vampire Bat; a fella who was known among his Hollywood peers as The “Man with the 1,000 Watt Stare;” an actor who survived the death of silent films; and, the person who, in 1943, fatally infarcted while riding transit in Los Angeles.

My parents, for good reason, were wont to regularly warn me off drug use. Having lived through a catastrophic depression and a second world war they believed that clearheadedness  trumped cosmic insights when it came to bare knuckles and survival. I paid attention, somewhat.

My 13-year old brain paid much more attention to songs like the Ballad of Dwight Fry. teenIn the wee hours when American DJs would play this song – likely hoping to toss a detour sign on some poor soul’s hallucinogenic off-ramp – I was drawn closer to a world of mental illness and its manifest destinies. Its limitlessness drew me in and its purgatorial possibilities scared the crap out of me. More important than suggesting an uncertain future lay ahead, the Ballad of Dwight Fry showed me that the Monster, having gotten out from under the bed, now crawled beneath my skin.