Wednesday, May 26, 2010


When I was driving around on Sunday, I was listening to a composite of my Coldplay albums. At one point, the song Yellow came on, and I stilled my automatic tendency to shoot past it. It's not that I hate the song; far from it. It might be the most beautiful song I've ever heard. It's a song that makes me want to believe in God.

I first heard it in the summer of 2004, shortly after a friend I'd known for ten years died, far, far too young, of cancer. The song tore my heart out every time I heard it, but not so much because it made me sad, but because it seemed to offer so much impossible hope. I don't listen to it often. I don't want to become jaded; for it to become just another song. It has the power, when I'm alone, to cause me not just to weep but actually to blubber, stone cold sober. And to me, that's a wonderful thing I'd be loathe to lose. So I leave the song alone, except…

It's been a year or two since I've indulged, and I wondered if it would still have that same power over me. Yeah. By the time the song arrived at its first chorus, I was in tears. And I remembered my friend.

Now I've heard the songwriter's official version of what the song means. If I recall correctly, it's about the love of a man for a woman. Pretty standard interpretation. But in university, I become convinced of the merits of deconstructionism, and so I know that meaning is not in the text. It's in what we bring to the text. It's in our personal experience and our understanding of the words themselves. Communication is an approximation at best; it happens inside the mind of each of us, and not so much between us. And so, without fear of contradiction, I can say that to me, the song means something else.

To me, this is the voice of some loving creator, declaring his love to every sentient being in his creation. Then the voice of that being made savior through his own actions and sacrifice in the world itself. The promise of life after death, of greater things than even this world. The melody of the song begins in turmoil, and alternates between peace and strife, finally ending with the most sublime stillness and intimacy. To me, this song is a masterpiece that humbles anything ponderous and circumspect by Bach or Handel. This is a depiction of a humble, loving, understanding God, speaking to the heart and soul of every creature with any kind of a mind…

Look at the stars:
Look how they shine for you
And everything you do
Yeah they were all yellow

I came along
I wrote a song for you
And all the things you do
And it was called 'Yellow'

So then I took my turn
Oh what a thing to've done
And it was all yellow

Your skin
Oh yeah your skin and bones
Turn into something beautiful
D'you know you know I love you so
You know I love you so

I swam across
I jumped across for you
Oh what a thing to do
Cause you were all yellow

I drew a line
I drew a line for you
Oh what a thing to do
And it was all yellow

Your skin
Oh yeah your skin and bones
Turn into something beautiful
D'you know for you I bleed myself dry
For you I bleed myself dry

Its true:
Look how they shine for you
Look how they shine for you
Look how they shine for you
Look how they shine for you
Look how they shine for you
Look how they shine for...

Look how they shine for you
Look how they shine for you
Look how they shine.

Look at the stars:
Look how they shine for you
And everything you do.

In my mind, I envision the video as formed by animations of simple children's drawings in crayon… bright splashes of waxy colour that shimmy and tremble with life, but dart around as though under the gaze of God. Souls in yellow, shining brightly and leaping free of tired, corrupt bodies they've enjoyed but no longer need; moving together, joining the stars of the song, and the brightest light of all.

It's not that I believe these things. Ultimately, I don't. I just yearn for them, dearly, to be true. This is how I want the world to be, though I know it isn't. But that I can derive such joy from the song just contemplating what could be is a wonder to me.

Tuesday, May 18, 2010

More dead in Afghanistan...

I was going to start off by mentioning that what prompted this entry was recent the death of Pte. Kevin McKay in Afghanistan, and his homecoming down the 'Highway of Heroes' on the weekend. It looks like another Canadian soldier,  however, was killed in Afghanistan just today. I honestly don't know how many that makes now... somewhere between 140 and 150?

I never approved of Canada taking part in the invasion of Afghanistan, not even at the beginning. I had an argument with my dad about it. He's not a big jingoistic warhead or anything, but he did spend over 20 years in the service and so he has his own perspective about the place and uses of the military that differs from mine – I will quite freely admit here that I've never had to serve the country in that capacity. But that in and of itself doesn't invalidate my opinion... or shouldn't, anyway.

In what I've heard referred to as "mission drift", a lot of people have forgotten why Canada took part in the invasion of Afghanistan in October, 2001. It wasn't to get rid of the Taliban, although that's become the standard line the "truth" has morphed into. No, we entered Afghanistan to aid in apprehending Osama bin Laden and other Al Qaeda agents suspected to be responsible for the attacks on the US on September 11, 2001, about a month earlier (and I will admit, as much as I opposed it, that standing on principle and saying "no" to the US at that moment in time was nearly impossible — look at the scorn heaped on France two years later over Iraq — and the world of Realpolitik has taken us someplace we really shouldn't have gone). What actually happened, if you recall, was that the US demanded of the Afghan government the handover of these people. The Afghans responded by saying first that they did not know the whereabouts of these people, and that secondly, even if they did, they would have to be shown the evidence in order to extradite them under international law. The United States and its blue-eyed posse basically replied, "Badges? We don't need no steenking badges!" and off we all went; due process and respect for the sovereignty of (non-Western, non-nuclear) nations be damned. Well, Osama's still out there, somewhere, so I guess the Afghans weren't lying about not knowing where the guy is, because after eight and half years, we don't know, either. And so we've conveniently put that out of our minds and the war in Afghanistan has become about liberating the place and instilling democracy. You know, for its own good... the way we used to force Christianity on other countries for their own good. But of course, that was wrong. What we're doing now couldn't possibly be wrong... because it's good, right?...

We come to these questions of absolutes. And I've heard people say that there are some ways of living that are inherently better than others. I heard it from Churchill with his crack about democracy being the worst form of government except for all the others. I heard it recently during a rum-fueled debate I had with a friend about our role in Afghanistan (and its original reason had apparently slipped his mind, too; he was under the misapprehension that we were "peacekeeping" there – a very recent, and very wrong, misuse of a valued term for a beautiful idea). It's unquestionable that there are things that human beings in general naturally find more agreeable; the problem comes in assuming that everything one happens to find agreeable or valuable is therefore desirable for all humanity, at all times, and in all circumstances. It also ignores that fact that there is no society human beings can forge in which everyone is happy, in which no one is disadvantaged, in which there are no winners and losers, no parasitism and no victims. They exist in our own culture, though we, naturally, wave them off blithely as ragged ends to an otherwise perfect tapestry we can't remedy, or whose fault is in themselves rather than the nature of our society. But we're all too eager to point to the faults and monstrousness of other societies as endemic and curable... by us.

The obvious example here is the Taliban. Are the Taliban bad guys? Do they do awful things? Would I want to live in a country run by people like them? Well, to answer the last question, no, I wouldn't. I wasn't brought up in a country like that. But that's the point: for people who were, that's the norm; indeed, it may even be to them a sensible and desirable way to live. There are myriad ways for human beings to group themselves and govern themselves in societies, and people triumph, progress, fail, and suffer in different ways in all of them. I can have my own preferences for how to live, and wish for others to share it, without granting myself the right to bring that about by force. Those are not the same things.

Consider the virtual miracle of the fall of communism in Eastern Europe. It seemed to happen so suddenly that we could hardly believe it. Victor Hugo's immortal words, " Greater than the tread of mighty armies is an idea whose time has come" were never more blazingly illustrated. But I would remind champions of spreading democracy at the point of a bayonet that Eastern Europe was not "liberated" by the Western world bombing it back to the Stone Age. What the Western world provided was an example, a measure of success, and a standard of conduct that people could point to and aspire to; in the long run, a sea the apparatchiks could not hold back. But we didn't liberate Eastern Europe: the peoples of Eastern Europe did: slowly at first – risings in East Germany, a failed revolution in Hungary, the Prague Spring – but later, with increasing speed, as Eastern economies ossified and labour movements like Solidary sprang up that could not be countered without fear of more revolution. The idea's time had come. They were persuaded of the merits of our system, and acted to adopt them, and in the end they joined us. But the peoples of those countries did it themselves.

What I mean by this is that we have no more right to impose what we believe to be good, right, and just on Afghanistan than we did in Eastern Europe. If our way of life and our values are attractive to the people of Afghanistan, then they will take root there. But it will be the right, and the duty, of Afghans to bring that change about; it is neither our right nor our duty to insist from behind rifles, naval bombardment, or dropped from 50,000 feet. The corollary of this is to simply imagine the shoe being on the other foot. If it were the Taliban (who, after all, are certainly as convinced of the correctness of their values and their inherent superiority to those of ours) who were possessed of nuclear weapons, supersonic aircraft, and deep blue navies capable of arriving at our shores, would they then be right to invade us and instill their values here for "our own good"? If that idea makes you uncomfortable, then so should the idea that it's right when we do it.

There are other examples. The British Empire dispensed with slavery without a civil war, and over a generation before the United States finally undertook to do so. During the mid-19th century, it's unquestionable that the British Empire was powerful enough to have militarily enforced that moral on the United States – or at least, certainly have given it a damn good try. But they didn't. Why not? Because there existed a respect for similarly-complexioned country; one that caused them to agree to disagree. In the end, the appeal to what people felt to be true, deep down, about doing unto others won out, though it took four years of terrible war. If you don't think the British would have been justified in invading the United States to force an end to slavery, how can you justify the invasion of Afghanistan on the basis that it will, supposedly, end discrimination against women?

Similarly, the former dictator of Chile, Augusto Pinochet, was recently in Britain for medical care. During his stay there, a crusading judge in Spain issued a warrant for his arrest and extradition to Spain on the basis of crimes against humanity, for which the man has immunity at home. The British squirmed, hummed and hawed, but in the end, denied the request and let the man go home. This was almost certainly the wrong thing to do, but the British had their (cynical) reasons, and did what they did. It was their right as a sovereign state. Even if it were possible, would Spain have been justified in simply bombing London flat and demanding the British hand over Pinochet, simply because they said so? If you don't think so, then ask yourself how doing exactly the same thing to Afghanistan over Osama bin Laden can be right.

We have now been in Afghanistan longer than we were in the Second World War. Half again as long, in fact. We are "successful" only where Allied boots are actually on the ground. The moment they move on, that part of Afghanistan reverts to being whatever it is that Afghanistan is meant to be, by the will of the people who actually live there. This lesson has been learned time and time again in the modern age, and yet, somehow, forgotten time and time again. It's as though each generation has to learn it over again, but still won't credit it, thinking instead that the previous generation simply got something wrong, and that this time, it'll be different...

We can't "win" in Afghanistan because there's nothing to win. Canadian and Allied soldiers will continue to die in their hundreds and thousands fighting for a catch-22 — forcing democracy on someone — until we finally swallow our pride, admit that it was a fool's errand, and give the country back to the people who own it – to decide for themselves, among themselves, what it will and will not be – to make it in their own image, whatever that might be. That's exactly the same right we claim for ourselves, and it's the one we really do have a duty to provide.

Friday, May 14, 2010

Too soon!

Whoops, Montreal's just in the Eastern finals. Called that one way too soon. Forgot that the Stanley Cup's not awarded till sometime around the second heat wave of the summer...

Thursday, May 13, 2010

Can't believe it/Je ne le peux pas y croire

So the Canadiens are going to the Stanley Cup finals. I can't believe it. Just a few weeks ago I watched the Washington Capitals beat them in a tough game I personally felt the Canadiens deserved to win. And then, the Habs went on to actually win the series! Now, if I'm not mistaken, they've come back from being down three games to one to beat the Pittsburgh Penguins... and they're going on to play for the Cup against either the Philadelphia Flyers or the Boston Bruins.

Personally, I hope it's the Bruins. I would love to see Montreal face off against another Original Six team. Now that there are, like, what? 46,271 teams in the NHL or something... doesn't Rio de Janeiro have a team yet?... how often do Original Six teams get to play each other for the Cup?

Naturally, I'm pulling for Montreal. It would be nice to see a Canadian team actually win the trophy our governor-general, Lord Stanley, presented the country with in 1893, at least a little more often than Halley's comet comes around. Forgive me, but I've always felt NHL teams in the southern US were an anathema (fortunately, they're all out of the running this year!). If you're living someplace where kids can't lace up their skates and chase a puck around a pond in the great outdoors, then you have no business having an NHL team. Period, full stop, the end. That's just how I feel. I'd much rather see Prague and Amsterdam, Stockholm, Oslo, Copenhagen and Moscow in the NHL than Los Angeles, Phoenix, Florida, San Jose, Dallas, etc., etc. Washington gets snow... I can respect that. Phoenix doesn't. Get lost.

So if can't be the Leafs... and let's face it, boys, it can't... I'm pulling for the Canadiens. I think they've got a chance. As far as the Leafs go, I wouldn't be surprised to see them lose four hockey games straight to the Boston Bruins. Hell, I wouldn't be surprised to see the Leafs lose four hockey games straight to the Boston Red Sox.

An Original Six playoff series... that'd be nice to see. Even nicer: the Cup back home... at least for a little while. :) Here's to Montreal and a 25th championship!

Thursday, May 06, 2010

The passing of time

I spent lunch down in the food court we have in the building here where I'm working now, eating half a turkey sub, drinking Coke Zero, and poring over old and recent poetry of my own composition. Red pen I'd just bought at the drug store in hand, I crossed out the ones that made my eyes roll, and kept the others. The project is to update a body of creative work for a man I haven't seen in nearly 20 years.

When I was in university I was blessed, in my junior year, to take part in a writing course with one of this country's premier authors; a man who's won the Governor-General's Award for writing and who was short-listed for the Nobel Prize once; and who knows what else. I had no idea who he was when I sent in my portfolio to get into the class… if I had, I'm reasonably sure I would have chickened out. It was over the course of the year that I came to understand the privilege I'd been given to study with this man. It was his retirement year, and in his closing interview with me (he had one with every student who made it to the end; somewhere just over a dozen, as I recall), he said some very kind and very encouraging things to me. He made me feel like I had a future. It was maybe my proudest moment.

Two decades on or so, I've pretty much given up the idea of ever being a real "published" author, and I'm largely okay with that. I've made my peace with it and I'm just happy to amuse myself with what I can do. The only regret I have is that I feel like I let him down a little… the investment he put into me and all those other students, and the things he said to me at the end of the course. I'm probably blowing it way out of proportion; by now, he probably barely remembers me. But I can't help feeling the way I do.

There's a book store here in the building and a few days ago, I picked up the latest novel by this man. It's heavily focused on nostalgia, semi-autobiographical (as much of his work is). He prefaced the story with comments about feeling he had to tell the story now, because having reached his 80s, he wasn't sure how much time he had left. That line has filled me with a terrible longing and a barely-controllable sense of urgency.

And so, I'm trying to put together some of my efforts that don't make me blush too much. I've ordered a toner cartridge for my long-neglected laser printer. I'm working out in my mind how to set the poetry in FrameMaker… should it be part of the volumes of short stories, or something separate? (I'm leaning towards separate.) My intention is to put it all together next week, put it in a binder, and FedEx it to him. He lives in town here, and though we exchanged a handful of letters early in the decade, I just cannot barge up after what's really 20 years and knock on his door. I just could not do that, much as I'd like to. Besides, it would put him on the spot. This way, if he gets two pages in and dumps it in the recycling box, shaking his head, well… I'll likely never know. But I feel I owe it to him to show him how much his opinion meant to me, how much it made writing a joy for me, even if it never took me anywhere special in the world. Even if he never reads it, I want him to know that much and just be able to hold it in his hands. And if he should take the time to read some of it, and find some merit in it and maybe even see something of himself in it, so much the better.

Anyway, this is where I'm at today. I always hope I'll remember how special this day feels right now.

Tuesday, May 04, 2010

The Law of USB Inversion

The first attempt to plug any USB device into a port will result in a fumbled mismatch of the elements such as to lead the user to conclude he or she has attempted to insert the device upside down. This will result in the user turning the device over and attempting to insert it while it actually is upside down. Finally the user will conclude that he or she had the device aligned correctly in the first place and will flip it back over to its original orientation, at which point it will be successfully mated to the port.