Tuesday, December 28, 2010

This is scary-good

Hopefully it's not too late for one last Christmas song, a spine-tingling and subversive version of Silent Night. Be patient and wait for the new lyrics to show up.

Sunday, December 26, 2010

It's not Christmas without Optimus Prime

These are the sorts of thing me and my brother get up to on Christmas.

Monday, December 20, 2010

Am I an anarchist?

Building on my characterization of anarchism involving 'a radical rejection of coercion,' last post I tried to show that capitalism functions coercively, in that it tends to be hierarchically-organized. (Not to mention the fact that the ideology of capitalism says that it is a good idea to subject people to the tyranny of efficiency, calculation, and market forces — that this will 'really' be best for them, and society, in the long run).

That said,  feudalism and slave-economies are more coercive — and much worse — than capitalism. As that comparison should make clear, coercion comes in many gradations, from the blatant and horrifying, to the incredibly subtle.  For another, perhaps overly blunt example, think of the difference between a woman who is forcibly tied up and raped, and one who gives in to a husband, boyfriend, or date because 'he's a man, and they have needs.'

The subtle shades that coercion comes in means that it's probably impossible to rid every interaction, relation, and decision of it. (But that doesn't mean this isn't an ideal worth striving for! In fact, I'm tempted to say the only ideals worth having are impossible ones.)

But anarchism is an impossible ideal, then.

On top of the fact that the word means different things to different people, that's one of the reasons I still hesitate to describe myself as an anarchist — there are so many ways coercion is embedded in many of the institutions, relations, decisions, cultures, and thought-processes that I participate in. Alongside and in spite my best efforts to disentangle myself from coercion, I often compromise, and make my peace with these things. I settle. And will I ever truly stop?

So anarchist? I don't know. But anarchy, anarchism, the never-ending rejection of that coercion, yeah, I believe in that.

Saturday, December 4, 2010

Anarchism and Capitalism

In the last post, I characterized anarchism as involving a radical rejection of coercion. More fully, "Anarchism, as I understand it, says that all our collective interactions, relations, and decision-making should be free of coercion. Or to state it positively, they should be co-operative and voluntary — and I believe by extension, personal and small-scale."

An ideal like this make capitalism... problematic. After all, capitalism — along with most other institutions in our society — is hierarchically-organized. People at the top dictate what people at the bottom do. Most fundamentally, workers sell themselves for 8 hours a day, doing what the owners and bosses want them to do. Not only is this coercive, it is also alienating. People are alienated from their work — they exercise no ownership over it, they are not invested in it, they put little into it because they get little out of it. Since they are alienated from that which they spend the biggest chunk of their lives, time, and energy on, they are alienated from themselves.

Everyone hates work, complains about it, and can't wait until the workday ends and the weekend comes... not because they are lazy, but because 'work' in our culture generally involves doing something you don't want to do, but that you nevertheless feel forced to do.

(And at the same time, strong cultural forces pressure us to be happy with our lot... unhappy people bog down the system... if you're not happy there must be something wrong with you... probably chemically... and we have drugs for that! ... but maybe you're just a failure. When it comes to depression or unhappiness, the collective is never at fault, only the individual. It couldn't possibly have anything to do with the alienating society we live in).

Because we can do different kinds of alienating work, there is the illusion of choice and freedom. But it is difficult to avoid the basic equation of 'work = boring, dissatisfying, alienating.' Even people who are lucky enough to end up 'doing what they love' or at least 'doing something worthwhile' (e.g. musicians, social workers, teachers...?) often end up hating their jobs because the institutions involved are coercively-organized. They get forced to do what they love in a way that they would never choose. And there are so many 'extra' things that they have to do, things they don't want to do, that it feels like they never get to the things that they love, the things which attracted them to the profession in the first place.

All this said, exchange need not be coercive. If I make something, or grow it, and you make something, or maybe are willing to offer a service, and we want to trade with one another... then, that's fine! If a group of me and my friends get together, make something, and are willing to exchange it (and if we formalize this, this is called a co-op, a nice alternative to the corporation) then that's fine. If we want to use money to mediate our exchanges... well, that can be fine.

The thing with money is that it is a numerical technology. Like all technology, it might be designed to help us and make our lives easier, but it can easily take control. All too often money subjects humans to the tyranny of numbers and their logic. Instead of humans making choices, numbers do, a mathematic operation does. "What is the lowest number (i.e. what is cheapest)?" The answer to that question determines so many of our decisions. 

But we don't have to be determined by the numbers. We can choose to consider more than just economics when we make decisions – we can consider things that can't be measured, things like the environment, social justice, and aesthetics. This is a human way to make choices: to consider multiple factors when making a decision, rather than just one, rather than just money. The problem is that our culture – unlike almost every other culture that has ever existed — tends to value the numbers above all else, and teaches and encourages us to be determined by them. We worship  efficiency, economic growth, and the free market. The thing is, in order for the market to be free, we must enslave ourselves.

So while exchange isn't inherently coercive, it nonetheless tends to be coercively-organized in our society. Capitalism, which involves workers selling themselves for part of the day, amounts to what I'm tempted to call 'semi-voluntary and somewhat-limited slavery.' Worse systems could be imagined — feudalism, and race-based slavery please stand up! — but better ones could be too.

Monday, November 15, 2010

Anarchism 101

Even more than with other words, there can be no definitive understanding of what 'anarchism' is. But what it means to me is a radical rejection of coercion, in all its forms.

This necessarily involves a rejection of violence, because violence is coercive. Masochism aside, physical pain is precisely 'that which we don't want to feel,' and violence causes pain. Violence takes away freedom of choice for those who suffer it, coercively overriding and ignoring their desires, starting with their desire not to suffer pain. Of course, the coercion of violence usually extends far beyond simply inflicting pain. The threat, example, or experience of the pain that violence causes generally exists in order to force people to do the will of the violent. Sometimes the violent settle for damaging and killing those in their way, so that they can they do as they please. In any case, violence says to its victim 'I know better than you, and I have a right to force you to do — or at least suffer — what I want.'

Also, 'a radical rejection of coercion' goes beyond just promoting a stateless society — though that's certainly part of it too. Promoting coercion-free politics would be a better way of putting it, as long as politics is understood as embracing much more than 'the words and actions of rulers and would-be rulers of the state' (be they democratically-elected or not). That might be what we usually mean by 'politics' in the modern West, but that's a bit silly because, for one thing, hunter-gatherers clearly have politics too. (And by the way, 'economy' does not just equal 'money' because hunter-gatherers and mostly-cash-free agrarian societies have economies too).

Really, 'politics' (anthropologically, and as I'm using it) just refers to 'collective decision-making' — in other words 'how groups of people decide to do stuff,' including most importantly, how they decide to live alongside one another.

Anarchism as I understand it, then, says that all our collective interactions, relations, and decision-making, should be free of coercion. Or to state it positively, they should be co-operative and voluntary, and I believe by extension, personal and small-scale.

Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Speaking of the media (G20 meditations continue)

I found it interesting how the media suddenly had a new and scary name to call the violent protestors. No longer  the 'anti-globalization' protesters of the Battle for Seattle or other WTO/G8/G20 protests, this time they were labelled 'anarchists.' And it was taken for granted that we knew what anarchism is, and that the images we saw — fire, smashed glass, violence — were what anarchists did.

Sigh. One more word that means a lot to me ruined in the popular mind.

Friday, September 24, 2010

More meditations from a sheep

Of course, being a sheep is exactly what Jesus asked the people of first-century Palestine to be. "Turn the other cheek, do not resist an evildoer, do good to those who mistreat you." Etc.

But those were not moral platitudes delivered into a political void. Palestine (or Judea, as it was then known) was an occupied territory, brutally conquered and kept subject by an oppressive, violently exploitative, and very effective empire. The more you learn about Roman rule at the time, the harder it becomes to resist the idea that violent rebellion might just have been justified. 

But Jesus asked them to do the opposite, to refuse to answer violence and injustice with more of the same. (In fact, more than that, he asked them to respond with love).

Why did he do this?

I think that, first of all (and for brevity's sake it will be the only point for today), he knew that violence was an ineffective form of resistance.

History proves this pretty definitively. Jewish zealots in Palestine did rebel violently and in large numbers on three separate occasions (4 BCE at the death of Herod the Great, 66-73 CE resulting in the destruction of the Temple, 132-135 CE leading to the expulsion of the surviving Jews from Jerusalem and Judea).

So they were slaughtered every time. With the weight of the state and a huge empire on their side, the Romans had all the power, resources, people, and weapons.

(Incidentally, John Dominic Crossan points out — in God and Empire, a book I highly recommend — that the centre of the Judean rebellions in 4 BCE was the city of Sepphoris, which is only 4 miles from Jesus' hometown of Nazareth. With Jesus' birth  also generally dated around 4 BCE, he probably would have grown up hearing about the rebellion and resulting massacres.)

*          *          *

And of course, though the situation was much less dramatic and life-or-death, the same proved to be true of the Toronto G8/G20 protests.

Being violent played perfectly into the hands of the authorities. For many mesmerized by media images of shops smashed and cars burned, the violence of a few black bloc protesters justified the billion-dollar security operation that militarized Toronto's downtown — not to mention the brutalization of thousands of peaceful protesters.

Without the violence, there might have been a serious public discussion about why the government and its security forces felt a need to go so overboard. Instead, every broken window pane and every shot of masked protesters justified the expense, the paranoia, and the overbearing response of the security forces.

Or at least it did so in the minds of many — and far beyond those who you'd expect (e.g. conservative hawks). I've talked to a relative that marched in peace and anti-government demonstrations in the '60s who was mesmerized by television coverage of the protests, and subsequently felt the expense and actions of the security forces were entirely justified given 'what they were up against.'

(Nevermind that the security forces response was entirely disproportionate. Nevermind that the hooligans did relatively little damage — compared with, say, the costs businesses bore as a result of having the downtown militarized and effectively shut down. Nevermind that the media, through its fascination with the sensational and visually dramatic, magnified what were basically small and incidental moments.)

Thursday, August 19, 2010

Meditations of a Sheep (G20 continued, still)

It was a visceral and still-disturbing experience being kettled by riot police at a G20 protest last month (scroll down a few entries for that story).

(This video dos a good job of capturing the intensity, though I'm glad to say our experience wasn't as long-term, and that eventually most of us were allowed to leave.)

It's taken me a long time to be put a name to this feeling... but it felt, I imagine, a lot like being part of a flock of sheep, as it is hunted by a pack of wolves.

We were unarmed and nonviolent (and intimidated, perhaps?), and they could pick us off at will. All that we could do is crowd closer to one another, and as far as we could from them. (Not that that would do much good – they could have had any of us anytime they wanted).

* * *

And so, what about being violent in self-defence? In a lot of ways, especially in retrospect, it felt wrong that when they violently attacked some of us, we did nothing.

We were sheep.

And the girl who stood beside me, who was violently arrested for peacfully protesting? Why should she be non-violent next time? She refused to be violent, in fact was a vocal part of a protest denouncing earlier violence, and she got beaten and arrested by the police. Next time why not throw rocks at windows, or even at the police?

What are they going to do, arrest her? Beat her up?

* * *

This is why the G20 "security" forces inability to discriminate is so stupid, purely from a tactical perspective. They treated nonviolent protestors, passerbys, reporters, etc. like criminals – even denying them many of the rights criminals get. That's a sure-fire way to radicalize thousands of people, and destroy their trust in police and the system of governance.

You set such a great example. You don't discriminate when fighting for your cause, so why should we?

Tuesday, August 3, 2010

A monopoly on violence (G20 continued)

One of the defining characteristics of the state is that it has a monopoly on violence, or at least legal violence. But in a democracy, that power is supposed to be subject to all sorts of legal limitations, (and ultimately, the will of the people). But in this case, police officers and decision-makers that are supposed to uphold, enact, and enforce the law used that power, that monopoly on violence, quite ruthlessly, with little regard for the law (see below).

How are we supposed to trust them, those of who were on the streets of Toronto for that week?

Saying that it was an exceptional situation doesn't cut it. The whole point of 'the law' is that it is impartial and always applies. Rights aren't something you can just take away when they're inconvenient or even when you feel threatened.

In theory, the law gives police adequate powers to defend the public, public officials, and public property – while balancing these powers with rights like freedom of speech, freedom from arbitary police power, the rights of suspects and the accused, etc. The whole point of common law is that that balance has emerged over time – it is the product of hundreds of years of legislation and court rulings. That means that if it needs changing or tweaking, you get a democratic mandate from the people and modify it!

You don't draft new provisions onto antiquated legislation, plan to publish it after it will be used, then claim that it was never passed. You don't use this new law on the ground as an excuse to arrest and search people miles away, rather than 5 metres, from the fence. You don't disapear the charges of the only person formally charged under the act because he's going to (understandably) challenge its very constitutionality!

For a few days the people with power, the people with guns and armour got to change the rules.

In Canada, we think we're better than everyone else. Better than the States, that's for sure, to say nothing of all those people overseas. We're nice. We like to think we're nice. We like to pretend everyone's middle-class. We have the rule of law, human rights; we're progressive and liberal, and our military is just for peacekeeping. (The latter is a totally out-of-date perception but we're still coasting on it). Our government might be a little incompetent and all politicians are blowhards at best and crooks at worst, but it basically means well. Most of all, it is legitimate – that's why we have such a free, comfortable society.

But for a few days in Toronto the threat of violence that underlies our government and society was exposed because a few hoodlums wanted to smash some windows so that they could feel like revolutionaries.

That threat is always there, we just don't see it most of the time.

(Click on the image for a larger version. The original is from Chris Harding's "We The Robots", a beautiful, and sadly defunct comic whose archives is well worth your time.)

Monday, July 26, 2010

Police state (G20 continued)

Nearly a month has passed since the G20, and I'm still slowly processing it in blog form.

Of course I got off easy (see the two entries below for my relatively unremarkable G20 stories). But many weren't so lucky. People were arrested – sometimes violently – for having a screwdriver in their pocket, for walking home from work, for wearing a black t-shirt. A couple of 17-year old girls were arrested for blowing bubbles. (Can you imagine being their parents during the 12 hours that they were not allowed to phone?)

I don't use the term 'police state' lightly, but that was exactly what they turned downtown Toronto into for almost a week. It was an armed camp with fortifications. I can't explain how creepy it was to move through those normally bustling streets, near deserted, except for heavily armed, black-clad cops everywhere, far outnumbering the civilians.

And anyone within miles of the dowtown area could be subject to arbitrary arrests and searches without a warrant.

The right to be free from arbitrary policy power, arrests, and searches; the right to be presumed innocent; hell, the right to freedom of speech – those are rights that our ancestors fought revolutions and wars for. Good people died for them. They underly our claim to be a free society, to not be an evil totalitarian regime.

This isn't Iran or North Korea. The people who were arrested weren't killed or tortured. They didn't simply disapear for disagreeing with the government. And life in Canada is not normally like it was during the G20.

But what is so scary is how easily so many of the rights disappeared at the slightest stress, at the slightest threat. There were, at most, a few hundred 'Black Bloque' protestors. On their account, the police and the powers that be criminalized tens of thousands of peaceful protestors – not to mention ordinary Torontonians try to go about their business.

For what? For what did they revoke rights, arrest and brutalize peaceful protestors and ordinary people going about their ordinary lives?

Well, the 'Black Bloque' caused some property damage. As far as I can tell they never hurt anyone – never targetted or attacked a person. I am not condoning them or their tactics, but the same can't be said for the security forces, who terrorized and hurt, I think I can say without exagerration, thousands. (Almost a thousand people were arrested, and judging by my experience you didn't have to get arrested to feel intimidated and scared).

The ironic thing is that they did terrorized so many, they spent so many hundreds of millions of dollars on security, they carted in over 10 000 cops from across the country... and from all appearances and first-hand accounts I have had shared with me, they did basically nothing to stop the Black Bloque rampage.

I'm not one for conspirary theories (and I don't really believe the one I'm about to propose) but it almost makes you wonder if the police let the Black Bloque run rampant so that they could justify clamping down. So that they could justify the exorbitant security measures and obscene expense that came with it.

Tuesday, July 20, 2010

Another story about the G20

So after almost getting forcefully arrested at the 'bike bloc' protest (see the post below), I had about an hour to kill on my way back through downtown to my workplace.

As I biked, I started thinking about how I had been to two protests and still hadn't even seen the infamous G20 fence. There had been a lot of coverage in the media about this fence (or more properly, fences) which, from the sounds of it, could survive a full military assault involving tanks and bombs. And imagine – a billion dollar security operation employing 14,000 cops so that the leaders are not only 'safe,' but guaranteed to not even see those trying to send them a message. Wouldn't it be nice, I thought, not to see any of these decision-makers, not to see the place where they were meeting, but to at least see the fence they erected to separate themselves from everyone else?

So naturally I got stopped by a group of policeman heading down Yonge Street (one of the main drags in Toronto). Pretty soon they were going through my bag. They claimed they could search me without a warrant because I was on 'highway' (for those of you unfamiliar with the city, Yonge Street is no 'highway' under any normal usage of the term). The way they explained it, anyone on a road or sidewalk – or near one – could be subject to search without warrant – which contradicts just about every representation I've ever heard of civil liberties. When I brought up the now infamous 'five metres from the fence' Public Works bill amendment secretly passed by the Ontario cabinet (or maybe 'not passed,' depending on who you ask, now that they're backpeddling), they asked suspiciously why I knew so much about it. (I read about it on the front page of the Toronto Star).

Now, I had two empty dishsoap bottles in my backpack so that I could stop off at an environmental shop on the way home and refill them with detergent. Apparently, such things are suspicious and dangerous weapons! They had a really hard time understand the concept of refilling bottles so as not to waste plastic. One officer came over, swore at me and called me a liar while I was trying to explain it to two others. They confiscated them and a glass iced tea bottle I was using as a water bottle. (They said protesters had been filling bottles with urine and throwing them at police).

I offered to bike away from the fence, if they left me the bottles. They said no, but that they could write me a receipt for my bottles, and I could come collect them at the police station after the G20. (Ah, bureaucracy). They obviously didn't want to, but I said they were inconveniencing me, so I felt like I might as well return the favour.

Of course, then they got to the bike tools in the bottom of my bike bag. (After suffering a lot of break-downs in the space of a year, I started carrying them with me everywhere). I admit my heart sank a little – of course, soon they were speculating about whether I was planning to use them to cut my way through the fence. (How I would do this with a screwdriver, a few wrenches and a patch kit, I don't know).

At this point, one of the officers took pity on me (or got lazy?) and offered to let me keep the tools if I biked away in the opposite direction and didn't come back. And they would keep my bottles, and not give me a receipt.

So I did.

Wednesday, July 14, 2010

A story about the G20

So... I went to the Toronto G20 protests a couple of weeks ago. I've never been a protest/activist kid, but I figured I am against pretty much everything the G20 stands for (i.e. unbridled capitalistic and technological development at the expense of humans and the environment). Most of all, I wanted to stand – albeit in a tiny and probably inconsequential way – against what "security" forces were doing to my adopted city. I wanted to say to say I was not afraid, despite the forces of paranoid violence being marshaled in the name of said "security."

(I probably should have been more afraid).

So I went to a march on Friday, and then a Critical Mass-inspired bike protest on Sunday, after the shit had gone down Saturday.

I liked the bike protest. Biking is fun, it was explicitly non-violent, and the participants seemed to be mostly locals. (I admit to having a hard time respecting protest tourists, and when travelling to other cities, people rarely bring along bikes along – they don't fit in duffel bags very well). The police had a much harder time blocking and boxing off a flexible, mobile group of cyclists than they did marchers.

(And they did that quite a bit. It is quasi-understandable that the police would block off streets leading down to the infamous fence, but they also seemed to delight in randomly blocking off legitimate peaceful protesters whenever possible, whichever direction they might be headed.)

Right as we were about to start, some guy got up and said 'there are no leaders of this protest, but if you want to do something violent, please go somewhere else.' Then we tried to get on the road, but the police blocked us off. There was a small gap at the back – not enough police to completely pin us in that far from the fence apparently – and we slowly trickled out, even as police continue to block, harass, and sometimes grab people trying to get onto the road with the rest of the group.

After a few hours, the ride ended at the temporary detention centre. (Strangely, a line of police had channeled us right toward it – though several people within the group had been advocating that as a final destination for some time). We dismounted and chanted various things in support of those inside. Conditions inside were pretty terrible from what I've heard, and people were routinely denied a phone call for over 12 hours – it was again, a tiny thing, but we hoped they might hear us and know that people in the outside world cared.

I ended up on the left edge of the crowd (picture a T intersection with the protesters at the centre, facing the detention centre and its fence). Suddenly a bus pulled up and a bunch of riot cops started getting out on the road to the left of me. They quickly formed up into a line about 15 feet away.

We formed our own line, holding our bikes in front of us. Because I was on the edge of the crowd, to my chagrin, I found myself one of those on the front line. We were chanting 'peaceful protest, peaceful protest' (probably the most common chant the whole ride long).

I couldn't really believe it, but after a couple of minutes of standing there, the riot police started advancing on us shouting 'move.' Those of us right up front nervously edged back a bit, but there really wasn't anywhere to go. (I later learned that lines of riot cops had descended from the two other directions of the intersection – they had us surrounded, with nowhere to go).

As they got close, one riot cop lunged and grabbed the girl beside me, immediately assisted by those beside him. They threw the girl behind the line, separated her from her bike, pinned her to the ground, tied her up with their plastic cuffs, and dragged her away.

That description doesn't really do justice to how brutal and violent they were to her. It seemed like they were hitting her, but I admit to being fairly distracted by the cops that were right there in front of me – about, I thought, to do the same to me.

They grabbed a couple of other people at the same time, and a couple of other people's bikes – I just saw what happened to this girl up close and personal, which is why I'm telling you about it. The line of cops actually stopped advancing as we began yelling 'shame, shame,' but I don't know if those two facts are causally connected.

We sat down. After a while, a cop with some sort of authority came and tried talking to us. He told us it was illegal to sit and stay in one place. Apparently, as long as we kept moving that was ok, but it was 'illegal' to protest by sitting in place. Now remember that they had us surrounded and blocked off – there was no place to go. Some people pointed this out, but nothing seemed to come of it. At one point a couple of 'protesters' walked out of the crowd and got a big handshake and friendly greeting from this head cop; they didn't rejoin those of us sitting down.

More time passed, and more riot cops with huge guns (for tear gas pellets, presumably) started climbing out of armoured vehicles. A lot of us started feeling like it might just be time to move on, and apparently they were now letting people out at the back of the T intersection. I actually had to go back to work in an hour or so – there was a person in wheelchair relying on me to help him eat and go to bed, which had made me a lot less ok with the idea of getting arrested all along.

So I biked away. That wasn't the end of my adventures that day, but that's enough for today's storytime.

Thursday, July 1, 2010

Happy Birthday Canada

O Canada, we are so ashamed of thee.

Well, specifically, of the goons that run 'thee.'

Thursday, June 24, 2010

"Gentlemen's" Club?

I think the word "Gentlemen" in this name is a little like the word "democratic" in a country's name. (If you have to put it in your name, you aren't).

These are the sorts of things I think about as I bike up and down Bloor Street (in Toronto) every day.

Friday, June 18, 2010

Is it possible to write non-cheesy nature poetry?


Tiny birds flit like moths across the surface, skimming over mirror-trees bouncing and bobbing in a breeze which ripples the quiet still of the lake...

hold myself open, don't run.
breathe like a tree.

Then walk back to camp, with brilliant columns of light that stab through the gloom of the canopy, oblivious to the friends singing your name - you missed the soccer game.

Saturday, May 29, 2010

Terrifying and pathetic

It's worth watching until the end.

Tuesday, May 25, 2010

The commercialization of Garfield

I have to admit, I enjoyed Garfield as a kid. You know, before I discovered the delightful genius of Calvin and Hobbes. This is a pretty creepy article in Slate about how Garfield was always a commercial and ad-orientated creation.

It's funny, because when I was a kid I just liked Calvin and Hobbes because they were fun and funny. Then in my late teens I went back and re-read all the books and fell in love all over again for so many other reasons. And I was surprised – but shouldn't have been, I'm sure – to read all the text in the 10th anniversary collection. You know, the parts that I'd skipped through when I was a kid. In it, Bill Watterson talked about the same issues that a lot of the bands I was into at the time would rant about: struggling with a syndicate (i.e. record labels) over issues of artistic freedom and creativity, the ways in which the form has become more and more standardized and commercialized. Etc.

Things are a lot more connected than I knew at the time.

These days I know that it's a lot more than just "art." It's everything... the food we eat, the clothes we wear, the things we do for fun. Our own choices about employment and how we (fail to?) make a living. Is our primary motivation going to be money? Efficiency? Looking good?

Of course, I say this as someone who nearly went on a tour where one of the main factors pushing me to do so – much as I struggled to admit it – was that I really needed money, and knew I could make a fair bit by being part of it. No self-righteous judement here.

Friday, May 21, 2010

Have you see the ads for the new Robin Hood?

I think this one is going to be dark and gritty.

I mean, as opposed to that other one. You know, the other one with an aging actor trying to revive a flagging career.

Tuesday, May 18, 2010

Excuses, excuses

So it's been a long time since I posted anything. I feel like I had pretty good reasons: a series of adventures involving little or no access to computers. Or just little time. Witness:

I ran off to JPUSA in Chicago for three weeks, to see old friends and get re-acquainted with the place.

Once there, I found out Seth Martin, a kindred spirit I met in Portland on the Blessing Tour was playing JPUSA's Easter celebration. He invited me to join the crew for the rest of the tour, so I did. We played messy folk music – sometimes pretty, sometimes screamy-and-stompalongish – in Missouri, Illinois, Minnesota, Kentucky, Indiana, Michigan, and Pennsylvania.

A few highlights of the tour:
-Playing the front porch of the Possibility Alliance, a permaculture farm where the people live electricity-and-gasoline-free lives. They also send out teams of people dressed as superheroes on bikes to do free acts of service in neighbouring communities and states.
-Seeing The Great Confinement live at one of the house shows in Minneapolis. They have yet to even finish up an album, but they should become huge if there's any justice in the world.
-At our two 'standard' shows, refusing to use the proferred stage and amplification, but setting up in the middle of the 'audience,' playing acoustically and having them sing and stomp along, blurring the line between 'performer' and 'audience' just a bit.
-Giving out free seed packets for people to shake along with the music. (And then take home and plant, hopefully).
-Playing our last show in Philadelphia with the Psalters.

And immediately upon returning to Toronto, I biked out with my love to spend a week at an organic farm near Hamilton. The people there only ate locally – mostly stuff they grew themselves. The farmers there strove to (in their words) to 'put themselves out of business' by trying to convince all their urban CSA clients to grow their own food, showing them how to do it, providing seeds, etc. One of the longtime volunteers there lived year round (Canadian -20 degree Celsius winter included) in a teepee, and mostly wore beautiful clothing he had made out of the hides of deers he had hunted.

In the future, posts will not have such a diary/faceborg/'what I did this summer' kind of feel.

Thursday, March 25, 2010

Sweet one for a sweet one

My interpretation of "Such Great Heights." Originally by The Postal Service, though this version owes more to the Iron and Wine one.

Friday, February 12, 2010

In through the back door

This is why musical semiotics is so, so, very fun. Such a brilliant idea to have decided to write an honours essay on it. Is it any wonder it's taken me an extra year?

Figure 5. Shepherd and Wicke's model of sonic signification.
(From Music and Cultural Theory. Mostly pages 152-82, but see especially their diagrams on 165 and 173 )

Sunday, February 7, 2010

Why Anthropology?

"The famous anthropological absorption with the (to us) exotic — Berber horsemen, Jewish peddlers, French Legionnaires — is thus, esseentially a device for displacing the dulling sense of familiarity with which the mysteriousness of our own ability to relate perceptively to one another is concealed from us. Looking at the ordinary in places where it takes unaccustomed forms brings out not, as so often been claimed, the arbitrariness of human behaviour (there is nothing especially arbitrary about taking sheep theft for insolence in Morocco) but the degree to which its meaning varies according to the pattern of life by which it is informed. Understanding a people's culture exposes their normalness without reducing their particularity. (The more I manage to follow what the Moroccans are up to the, the more logical, and the more singular, they seem.) It renders them accessible: setting them in the frame of their own banalities, it dissolves their opacity."
-Clifford Geertz. The Interpretation of Cultures (New York: Basic Books) p.14.

Friday, February 5, 2010

This is why I sometimes tie myself into knots with words

How can any expression be believable and authentic if it isn't qualified and self-doubting? (Somehow questioning itself, self-undermining...)

Tuesday, February 2, 2010

This rocks pretty damn hard

Such a massively gorgeous drum and guitar sound. And sheer fun instead of the dreary seriousness of so much 'hard rock.'

If you want to watch it within the youtube site try:

Saturday, January 30, 2010

Donald's story

[See the last blog entry for background on this story.]

Donald was a pleasant-looking man, a visible minority in the context of an innercity Chicago shelter (i.e. he was white). He was almost violently inoffensive, in a world where so many are brash and prickly. He spoke little and kept to himself. He was part of the day program (something that involved doing some classes, volunteer work, and frankly, a lot hanging out and watching tv) without ever really being part of it. In fact, he was always there without really being there.

Donald wasn't well. The majority of the men sleeping overnight with us had some sort of problems with mental illness (and many of their addictions amounted to a sort of self-medication), but Donald stood out. It was obvious when you spoke to him. He was always very polite, but his words seemed to come from a distance and cost him some effort.

He didn't really seem able to relate at all to anyone else. He was completely by himself even while surrounded by people, and the complex social system of the shelter and the streets. There was something a little child-like about him, and people looked out for him – partly just by leaving him alone.

During my last few months at the shelter, Donald starting getting worse. He would talk to himself a lot, and smile and laugh. His personal hygiene slipped; his hair stuck up at odd angles.

(It's hard living in a shelter 24 hours a day for weeks and months on end; it is highly stressful being crammed in with so many people, and such a volatile group at that. I can't imagine anyone's mental health doing anything but deteriorating in such a place).

Finally Donald snapped. He went on a loud, profanity-filled rant where he claimed to be Jesus and that he owned the shelter, and threatened to cut everyone's throats. (Threatening people's lives pretty much automatically led to being temporarily banned from the shelter).

My friend and co-worker Scott had spent the most time with Donald, and he did what you are 'supposed' to do in situations like this. He called the police, and filled out a form requesting Donald be placed in 'protective custody' – this is for people that haven't commited a crime (so they can't be arrested), but that are sick enough that they have become a danger to themselves or others.

In theory, this would lead to Donald being mentally evaluated by a professional, which would hopefully lead to him getting some help, even if this involved getting commited.

In a way, this should have been a blessing in surprise. Living at the shelter was not good for Donald, and he needed far more help than we could give him. Now we had something more concrete than 'he's not all there when you talk to him' to tell mental health authorities.

(Yet as you do this, you feel guilty and worry that these mental health authorities won't do him any good, but you have to hope they will).

But the two cops that showed up didn't buy it. They refused to take him into protective custody, or do anything for that matter.

Meanwhile, Donald (understandably) felt hurt and betrayed because we had tried to do this to him. In his own mind he was perfectly fine, and I'm sure he managed to speak quite well and calmly to the police. He was angry with us and determined to leave. Yet all the shelters in town were perpetually full. We tried to track down some next of kin that could come look after him, but he seemed to have no one.

So he left. Would he even be able to survive, to look after himself? As far as I know, no one from the shelter ever saw him again. Scott was almost inconsolable.

Monday, January 18, 2010


Almost exactly six years ago, I started working at an overnight shelter for homeless men run by JPUSA, (Jesus People USA, a Christian commune in inner-city Chicago). In a lot of ways, it still feels like one of the most affecting and defining experiences of my life. And yet, if also feels like I have done nothing with it - even just in terms of talking about it, or even personally assimilating and processing it into my brain and heart. I wrote a long paper about my experience living at JPUSA, (partly, frankly, to record and deal with some of my experiences and memories), and have had a fair number of conversations with people about it, but nothing like that has taken place with the shelter.

It is easy to talk about living communally with five hundred people in an old hotel, apparently, but not about working at a homeless shelter.

I joke, but it's true. (And it's a special band of brothers, those of us that worked there. All of us walk with a limp, is the best way I can think of expressing it.)

The whole thing seems so far out of the frame reference of the rest of my life - and the lives of just about everyone I know - that it seems impossible to do them justice - and by 'them' I don't mean the disembodied abstraction that is a set of experiences, I mean Them, the men whose lives I witnessed and got to be a part of.

But I'm starting to forget. Names are slipping away, and the details of stories are getting fuzzy. The least I can do is bear witness to the pain and tragedy and beauty, more and bigger and blacker than anything I've ever tasted.

Until now I have mostly just bore witness in my head. But I can externalize and objectify, so that these memories of interpretations of experiences and of statements people make about their experiences become a little more concrete than fading electrical signals passed through the network of my brain. Yes, they can become electrical signals passed between networks of computers - and by undergoing this transmogrification they will be subjected to the violent inadequacy of language and communication. But maybe they'll light a spark in another neural net halfway around the world.

Maybe if I write one story a month (this is my resolution - I've never set goals for posting on this blog yet), each an attempt to remember one of the people I met, annd keep doing this until I can't remember anything more... well, maybe by then, I'll know what to do with those memories, how to be faithful, and live something out of them that means something.

(I left in September to go to university. The shelter closed a few months afterwards, a victim of local politics and NIMBY-ism. I don't know where any of the guys are these days, aside from one whom I know died shortly afterward).

It's not enough, but I'm going to start sharing their stories.

Sunday, January 3, 2010


This was drawn by a friend of a friend. (Click on the image above).
She has a website here, which I would invite you to visit.

Friday, January 1, 2010

Happy New Year!

My attempt to capture what I improvised last night.
Obviously, it seemed more fun and funny at the time.

It seems even lamer in writing, but probably even lamer than that is missing the (bad) jokes because you can't make out the "lyrics," so I've transcribed them here just in case:

Happy new year, happy new year, happy new decade.
Happy new year, it's 2010, so where are the flying cars, and talking robots?
I thought this was going to be the future.
Happy new decade,
remember when we'd never heard of facebook, or texting or twitter?
I guess that's progress. (I like flying cars better)
At least we don't have a right-wing extremist
running the most powerful country in the world - now that's progress
(If only we could get rid of Harper - sounds like a good New Year's resolution).

Happy new decade
Remember when we remembered how bad the 80's were?
they couldn't be retro or cool
Happy new year
there are now kids in university
that were born after Aladdin came out
(That's kind of scary)

We survived another year
without an environmental apocalypse
Let's try to keep that up!

Anyways, happy new year!