Sunday, January 29, 2017

Keep Your Head To The Sky

I've been called nigger.  That's just a statement of fact.  All things considered, it hasn't happened that often, and certainly others have had it worse, and many people died so that I haven't been called nigger more often.

Now, this isn't about me.  But it has to start somewhere, so let's start with the most painful part.  Am I even?

I was born on the island of Trinidad, in the West Indies.  Already fourth- or fifth-generation mixed-race, in 1963, which in Trinidad was and is not that remarkable a thing.  A co-worker, many years later, would say I was Tiger Woods long before anyone knew of Tiger Woods.

My family, on both sides, is at least half Chinese - as far as I know, Pacific rim Chinese, not the communist Chinese most folks had only heard of for the first half of my life.  On my father's side, it's mixed with French.  On my mother's side, English, Dutch and Indian.  If you're familiar with the West Indian diaspora, none of this is surprising.  The aspect that's been difficult to explain to Canadians over the years is that I'm not at all conclusively part African.  I've asked family elders about it and I can't get a definite answer.  There have been vague concessions that someone, somewhere, sometime "must have been" "coloured", but no one has ever been able to confirm who or where that person might have been.

So I can't ever claim to be black.  African-Americans don't accept it; I've seen how Caribbeans look when I tell them I'm from Trinidad - it's an "oh you one a dem" kind of thing.  There's a name for people like me in Trinidad, with a certain place in the social strata for us; not Black, not Indian, not Chinese.  When I was a kid I sometimes wondered if I'd have faced less racism, had my parents never emigrated.  In later years, as I learned more about Trini society, I realized I might have faced even more.

So that's me.  Not white - though I am - and certainly not black, but I've got this dark skin (is it the Indian coming out?) and, by genetic lottery, this curly hair that almost no one else in my families possesses.  And it's 1971, my family has emigrated to Canada, I'm at Catholic school with entirely Irish, Italian, and French kids, and no one else in the neighbourhood looks like me.  And the first time someone calls me nigger to my face, it's the little brother of one of my classmates who knocks me down on the way home from school, jumps on my chest and punches me in the face.

I laugh at him.  Because he's wrong, which I try to explain, but he isn't hearing it.  He doesn't hurt me, because he's smaller, and I don't hit back because he's two years younger.  Overall, the incident isn't painful, it's more... disturbing than anything else.  Because, I suppose, from the very start, I knew all of it would always be unjustified.

Man, it got strange at times.
In the '70s, Canada welcomed Pakistani refugees, and I was called "Paki" in high school.  I knew nothing about Pakistani people.
I've never had a close African-American friend because I've hardly ever even met Blacks.  Even by the late '70s there were - maybe - ten Black kids in my high school.  Culturally, I'm a white suburban kid from "That '70s Show", raised on FM radio, long haired bands, power pop and punk rock... with the exception that I didn't actually hate Disco.
In college, a guy I hung out with asked me if I was Portuguese.  I figured he only dreamed it up because he had no genuine idea of Portuguese people, but he couldn't peg me as anything he knew.
These days, in possibly the final turnaround, I get Muslim dudes on the street asking me if I speak Arabic.

Things have changed, especially here in Canada.  My son recently told me "I'm glad that I'm mixed race."  Wonder of wonders.

You learn to deal with it.  You grow up, finally understanding in the end that the most fundamental lesson, and this goes for every person of every sex, colour or religion - is that anyone can reject you at any time based on something only they decide to perceive.  

I was an immigrant, and these things have always happened to immigrants.  Which leads me to one of the most formative times of my life, which I carry with me to this day, and which I feel that I will have to till I die.

One day, sometime around 1975, as I'm getting off the school bus, I walk down the right side, toward the back.  The bus is set to pull away, and I'm about to step off the curb and cross the street behind it, on my way home.  And just as I do, an older kid in the back leans out the window, a neighbourhood tough who'd been hounding me, and he calls me nigger and spits full on in my eyes.  And I'm blinded as I step into the traffic.

I cried all the way home that day.  Not because of the incident.  Not because of the indignity, or the danger.  But because the kid who did it was Lebanese.  I'd dealt with all the other shit.  What truly bothered me, and why I remember it to this day, is that that kid was the same as me, a first generation immigrant just like me, and he somehow felt like he could push that shit on me.

I will never do anything like that to another immigrant.  Period.

Today is January 29, 2017.  I've been writing this piece my whole life.  I've thought about publishing it since I started writing this blog.  I think you understand why I've done so today.

I'm done now.

Saturday, December 10, 2016

God Bless The Child

Some people you might forget, unless you write them down.  So let me tell you about the best person I ever met.

Back when Carole and I were together, I was privileged to attend Easter Seals Camp with her, over three summers.  Easter Seals Camps are for kids with disabilities and their families to attend, and having Cerebral Palsy, Carole's first boy Alex was eligible to participate.  When I became Carole's fiance, I was invited to attend, too.

As you can imagine, some of the kids had limited mobility... some very limited.  So one, just one, of the many remarkable facets of Camp structure was that each attending child - able bodied or not - was assigned his or her own counselor who would spend each entire day with the child.  Made for a nice break for the parents, some of whom needed it more than others.  I took it as a learning experience, my eyes and heart open to lives I knew nothing about.

And to become a counselor, well, those kids had to be the best of the best.  They were all high-achieving late high school or post-secondary students, incredibly energetic.  You were literally looking at the future of your world, in them.  Like the pre-med student who would freak out all the little kids by riding his unicycle.  I asked him "why a unicycle?" and he simply said, just something no one else was doing.  It would have been easy to think him a flake, but for that every time I saw him in his free time, his nose was buried in a medical textbook.

In August 2002 we went down to Camp Lakewood, on the shore of Lake Erie near St. Catharines.  (Don't bother looking for it, it's not there anymore.)  With our new baby Jacob, in tow, it was our first big trip as a family, and you could not have asked for a more beautiful spot.  A little wind-swept, with the gusts constantly rushing in off the vast water, but every evening was magnificent.  It was my second camp, so I had a little idea of what to expect.

I said it was a break for the parents.  Most of them would take the days to go off and do things on their own.  Carole liked to rest, catching up on sleep as any new mother would.  I took the time by myself to keep busy.  I'd float around the camp, helping out where I could, helping with the kids at mealtime, watching the activities go by.  I'd often end up spending a lot of time around the counselors, and in that time I met the most remarkable young woman.

I don't remember her name.  Doesn't matter.  A small, thin blonde girl.  When I first saw her I thought she was one of the campers, because she was in a wheelchair.  Then I realized she was older, she was a counselor.  Then the next day I saw her without the wheelchair.  Had to realize I was looking at the same person.  See, the amazing part was that her condition varied.  I'm not sure if what she had was, clinically speaking, spina bifida, but the remarkable difference from other kids was that some days she could walk, some days not.  Her symptoms actually varied in severity from day to day.  Ask yourself if you could handle that.  I'm damn well not sure I could.

You've got to understand by now that I had the utmost respect for these young people, but she just cleared that bar by a mile.  After watching her at work for a week, near the end of the camp I found time to speak with her.  Must be the writer in me, when I find someone with a great story I have to know more about it.  Sure enough, she'd been a camper when she was younger, and she grew up to be a counselor herself.  And now it was late August, and she was starting university the next week.  Can't remember where, but she was moving to a new town.  I said... I don't know, something about how it must be so exciting, scary, a lot to deal with.  And the kid replied that what she was most excited about, what she was most looking forward to, was to living on her own for the first time.

I can't describe the look on her face when she said it.  In that moment, from her wheelchair, she was as incandescent, optimistic, pure, mighty, and as perfect as god could have ever made her.  Never saw her again.  Never forget her.

I'm done now.

Saturday, October 15, 2016

The Matrix Revisited

  I don't spend much time wondering what the hell is wrong with some people.  I just think of Cypher.

If you remember the movie The Matrix, Cypher is the rebel character played by Joe Pantoliano.  The Matrix was all about dystopian future, special effects, and ridiculous Kung Fu, but it was also a quick 'n dirty rumination on the illusory natures of free will and self-determination.

Cypher has always been, to my mind, the central character of The Matrix... not the Jesus surrogate Neo, not the saintly acolyte Trinity, not the devout prophet Morpheus.  Cypher is the weak link.  The disillusioned seeker.  The human.

To recap - in a distant future machines are intelligent and control the planet earth.  Having defeated mankind and destroying the environment in the process, the machines now use humans as living batteries to power everything.  Humans are kept alive in stasis, grown in tubes, and given an imaginary reality to live that is just a program or construct in their minds.  Only a few humans are able to free themselves from the system and live outside "The Matrix" in the real world, battling desperately for survival.

And Cypher's tired of it, man.

The rebel crew knows the price of freedom, and Cypher's tired of paying it.  Tired of being hungry, and cold, and scared.  Back inside the matrix he can eat fine food, wear fine clothes, drive a nice car and have a safe job to go to.  So he betrays Morpheus, Neo and the crew, giving their whereabouts to the machines, with only one request... put him back in the matrix, back in his tube, and - very pointedly - make sure he never remembers anything.

There's another election coming up, in the country neighbouring mine.  Things are happening that have never been seen before in their elections.  And one of the most surprising ongoing dynamics that I can observe in that country is, as it has always been, how those people who profess to be the proudest of the fact - FACT! - that they invented democracy and liberty seem to be those who hate those things the most.

When you vote... when you see how someone else is voting... if you ever wonder how they could possibly...

Think of Cypher.

I'm done now.

Monday, June 29, 2015

The End of The Innocence

The great failure of my generation is simply this:  We got while the gettin' was good.

We're not Baby Boomers.  We came right after.  Born in the early to late Sixties, we just missed out on the Beat, the Aquarius, the Disco days.  Those came in our childhood, when we were too young to have a place in them.  We began to find our ways in the world in the Days of Reagan - the genesis of the socioeconomic evils which have shaped this One Percent world.

We saw the Boomers cash in on their fortunate place in time and knew we'd missed out.  We saw the outward focus of the Love Generation turn inward, to the building of nest eggs.  And too many of us simply did the best we could, stashing away the crumbs that were left to pick up.  In doing so, we kept the system alive.  We fed the machine.  We led it to rot.  And we did our damndest, through every means available, to keep it's bloated body protected from harm.

My generation has cared only about self preservation.

And here we are today, the parents of Millennials, the only things that can redeem us.

There's a wave in the world right now.  Gay rights.  Transgender rights.  Black lives matter.  People are people.  Love wins. 

There's a political trend in Canada away from the current governing party, possibly in the furthest opposite direction.  And in the past few days I've seen a few articles published, asking what this Thing is.  Why it's happening.  How to make sense of it.  And I know what it is.  It's not the right, or the left.  It's almost not political at all.

This world I see is sick and tired of Paternalism.

It's a world, not just this country.  It almost happened in Britain.  It could happen in Russia, in Australia, where the leaders of their countries are practically comic-book villains.  It's happening in the USA, where politics actually become offshoot religions, built on the suffocating oppression of Paternalism.

The tone.  Snide.  Condescending.  Dismissive.  The speaker's every word betrays complete indifference to the personal worth of each citizen.  Political discourse has become so transparent that these people don't even bother to conceal any level of their immorality.  They needn't bother because over the past thirty years, politics became so cynical, so incivil, that my generation simply stopped listening, and cared only for self preservation.

But our children know what they're hearing.  And what they're not willing to listen to.

Paternalism may have meant something once.  When our leaders had actually been there and done that.  Put boots in the mud, and bled for our rights.  Those today who use the voice of Paternalism - my cohorts - did nothing to assume it.  And the next generation knows it.

Voters today, all around the world, are seeing that the emperors are nothing but frightened men in glass palaces.  And that Paternalism is nothing but Entitlement.  And that every voice matters.

Something's coming.  Maybe it's already here.  All I know is, I'm beginning to believe again.

I'm done now.

Monday, November 3, 2014


The call came in as I finished washing the morning dishes.  My mother, not to my home phone, but to my cell.

"Are you home, or downtown?"  Home, I replied.  "Oh.  Well, you shouldn't go downtown today.  One of the guards at the Cenotaph has been shot."  And my immediate thought was one I come back to, after all this.

That poor son of a bitch.

If you live in Ottawa, you know that guarding the National War Memorial is a ceremonial post.  One that wasn't even necessary until one Canada Day a few years ago, when some obviously well-educated drunk was observed urinating on it by a veteran.  Uniformed guards have been on site ever since.  And though the post is ceremonial, it's of such high profile that I can only assume those assigned to be the finest representatives of their ranks, and that they hold the post with immense pride.

With this happening only days after a fatal vehicular attack on Warrant Officer Patrice Vincent in Quebec, it was immediately easy to guess that this guard had been targeted for a similar reason... for the wearing of a Canadian soldier's uniform.

Thus Corporal Nathan Cirillo was fatally shot while standing honour guard over the National War Memorial.  Shot in the back, while bearing an empty rifle.  As you know, much happened in the immediate aftermath, leading to vigorous national debate over who did it, why, and what should be done about it.

I'll leave that for others.  I'm here for the poor guy.

I have no idea who he really was, how he felt, what he wanted.  Seemed like a nice enough fella, posing for pictures with tourists only minutes before.  It was a clear morning, and I'm guessing he would have been looking into the sun when it happened.  I know he died in agony, because he was a single father with a five year old boy, and god knows that's the only thing I'd care about had I been him.  But take another look at the photo of Corporal Cirillo above, which I understand to have been taken within the hour of his death. 

That's a proud son, doing his job.  Showing up, looking right, giving a damn about what he's been assigned to do.  It was probably not difficult, might not be the most glamorous assignment, might even have been a little boring... but regardless, that's a guy who believes in it.  And he was killed for wearing a uniform, the notion of which rankles me.  I have no immediate connection to the forces, and no one should think I have to.  But that uniform represents me.  As do the uniforms of police, firefighters, anyone who wears a uniform in service of the public.  That uniform is the will of a community rendered in fabric. 

So when anyone attacks that uniform, he's attacking me.  And my family, my friends, and my son.  Corporal Nathan Cirillo knew this, and that's why he would don that uniform and go stand next to a giant block of granite on a cold morning.  And all I can do is thank him for coming in to work that day.

People want to debate whether he's a "hero", but I believe it doesn't really matter.  And I know that at first, I thought of him as that poor son of a bitch, in the wrong place at the wrong time... but I was wrong.  Sportsmen and fans idealize the notion of a player going out on top, leaving the game after a big win, stepping away before someone else tells him to.

So take a look at that picture one more time.  That's a guy at the top of his game, making the shot, hitting the note.  He is perfect. 

As is everyone who comes in, does the work, stands on guard.  Thank you, for coming in today.

I'm done now.

Tuesday, July 29, 2014

Man On Fire

I have never forgotten the man in the black suit.

In May 2000, I made my second trip out to Vancouver to visit my mother, who was living and working there at the time.  As part of the trip, I spent a weekend with my friend Mario in nearby Surrey.  On a steamy Sunday morning, we hit the road on Mario's motorcycle, starting the day on the famous pier at White Rock.

White Rock, if you've never been, is postcard-perfect... or at least it was, back then.  A sleepy little town rolled down to tranquil Semiahmoo Bay, where it spilled out onto the Promenade, a sun-drenched tourist zone built along eight kilometres of sandy beach.  We arrived well before noon, and strolled the boardwalk, grabbed some ice cream, checked out the shops.  As the area became flooded with young people out for a day on the shore, we were in full people-watching mode.  It was just a very laid-back place.

In the midst of all this, one figure stood out, no matter how he tried not to.  It must have been 40+ degrees C on the sand.  Back toward one of the pavilions, near to where we found ourselves at one point, a fellow stood in the shade, staring out across the water.  And unlike every other person along the coast that morning, he was dressed in what must have been his Sunday suit... black wool, white shirt, dark tie fully knotted.  He was of indeterminate origin, definitely Asian but from which country I could not say.  With one hand he would intermittently wipe his head and neck with a handkerchief, understandable given the day's heat.

His presence was so unexpected that I pointed it out to Mario.  "Oh my god, check out the guy's neck!" he replied.  As the fellow wiped the back of his neck again, I saw, just over the top of his collar, a burn mark that encircled his throat.  "That guy must have been hanged!" Mario thought.  One never knows.  Perhaps hanged... perhaps tortured... what country was he from, anyway?  How far away was his home?  What had they done to him back there?

One never knows.  One man on a beach, in a black suit.  I was in my mid-thirties, in t-shirts, shorts and sandals, checking out women on a hot day.  What had that guy been through?  What might being on that beach on that day have cost him?  What did it mean to him?

No matter what you go through in your life, the next person you meet may have their own thing to live with that you can't imagine.  You learn to understand it, and to respect the miles they can only walk alone.  It's a lesson I've observed many times since... but I have never forgotten the man in the black suit.  It's funny.  I went to White Rock that day to look at the girls.

I don't remember a single thing about a single one of them.

I'm done now.

Tuesday, July 30, 2013

From Small Things (Big Things One Day Come)

True story.  This is a little bit about how I started to become a writer.  A tribute to an inspiring mentor.  And one of (ONE of!) the most embarrassing moments of my life.

The teachers who've helped me shape my skills have always been women.  My Algonquin College professor Christine Klein, who advised me to pursue copywriting.  The woman who hired me at CFRA radio and taught me to be a working professional and a functioning adult, the inimitable Jan Hansen.  But long before them came my seventh-grade homeroom and English teacher, Mrs. Doreen Leslie of St. Peter's Junior High.

I guess it must have been '75, I would have been twelve years old.  Grade 7 was the first year at junior high, a new school for me.  Lots of new kids from different neighbourhoods, not the same ones I'd grown up with.  As you know, at times like these the societal pressures multiply.  Other kids get bigger than you faster.  You get braces.  That sort of thing.  This is that kind of story.

I was a smart kid, and I could be a smart ass at times about it.  I'd sailed through primary school with some of the top marks in the class.  I was a bookworm, could read above my age, and read all kinds of things.  My biggest weapon was my library card.  I was absorbing literature from all sources, and though I had no idea I'd ever try to make a living as a writer, I knew that the English language was already well under my command.  Mrs. Leslie was a prim and gentle lady with a bookish manner and cats-eye spectacles, and she encouraged my efforts in English class, often challenging me to do my very best.

Well, at some point Mrs. Leslie gave us an assignment - a page of descriptive writing, if I recall correctly.  The subject of the piece was to be a person.  Now remember, I said I was twelve years old.  And the only person I had anywhere in my mind at that time was a curly-haired blonde girl in another classroom down the hall.  So yes, I wrote a page of description... of her.  No, it wasn't just a crush letter, it was a good piece of work.  I was a good writer.  I was inspired by my subject.  My ego knew that it was an assignment I could completely dominate.  As Bruce Springsteen later said about writing Darkness On The Edge Of Town, "More than rich, more than famous - I wanted to be great."  I wrote a stunner.

How do I know I wrote a stunner?  Because.  After reading and grading our essays, Mrs. Leslie announced to the class - and I remember she was tickled pink to do so - that one student had written something so excellent, so inspiring, that she simply had to share it with everyone.  And she would proceed to read it out loud to the class.  And she did.

I can't tell you if I cried that day or not.  I couldn't feel my face, I think, it must have been a transcendent shade of red.  I don't think I ever named my subject in the piece, but it didn't matter because it wasn't hard for my classmates to figure out exactly who it was about.  Even worse, as the class erupted in giggles and eventually outright mocking laughter, poor Mrs. Leslie was surprised, then even a little angry about the reaction to my work.  The dear lady had had no idea I'd written it about a real person, much less...

Later, in confidence, she'd explain to me that she really had been thrilled by the work I'd done.  She'd done it simply because it had been that good. 

I guess it had been.

And there have been many times over the years when I've thought of her, and hoped she'd be proud of me.

It would only get worse after that, I guess.  The next year, in response to an assignment to write an original play based on ancient Greek mythology, I wrote a manuscript which included an offstage rape committed by Zeus.  I mean, it was factually correct, right?  In ancient mythology Zeus was often depicted as a rapist.  So was King Arthur's father, Uther Pendragon.  Did I mention that it would have been Grade Eight?  In Catholic junior high? 

That one got me called into the principal's office.

I'm done now.