Tag Archives: Ontario

With a Song in My Heart: G is for…

“Goodbye Yellow Brick Road” – Elton John, 1973.

A song that for its performer was the hope of remaining himself as his star rose ever higher, for me has a more literal meaning in that it summons recollections of the by turns pitted asphalt and by other turns smooth concrete curves of Interstate 75, the artery by which thousands of Canadian snowbirds flock each year from their wintry, igloo-bedecked homeland (at least if you believe the propaganda) the seventeen hundred miles to the palm trees and orange groves of Florida.  Cast a glance out the window on the southbound lane and you’ll no doubt spot dozens of minivans or sedans crammed to bursting with holiday gear and restless kids kicking the backs of the parents’ seats.  It’s a rite of passage for families in this part of the world, as it was for my family, at least once a year, usually over Easter.  Though my parents shared the driving, my father’s heaping piles of mixtapes were the music of choice, with this particular tune conjuring a visceral image of an empty road just after sunrise, bellies full of the “kids eat free!” breakfast from the exit ramp Days Inn, and the trees and mountains of Tennessee blurring into streaks of green beyond the cold glass.

What lay beyond the Yellow Brick Road?  My grandmother’s winter home in Englewood, on the Gulf Coast just a few miles south of Sarasota.  It was, and probably still is, a sleepy community of retirees who live in converted mobile homes built on trail-like roads that wind their way between tiny ponds.  The waterfowl that lend their names to the streets flock lazily amidst the bulrushes and the tall marsh grasses, eager for a crumb of bread from a passerby.  A mile from my Nana’s old place on Mallard Drive was Englewood Beach, where I spent hours combing the surf for shark’s teeth and curious seashells and got my first severe sunburn – never again would I fail to apply sunscreen to the backs of my knees.  There was also the shopping plaza with a Beall’s, a Publix (home of my favorite yogurt) and an Eckerd Drugs.  An innocent’s perception of Oz, but more than enough to seem like a slice of paradise.

Getting there was a dervish of anticipation and scrupulous attention paid to each detail of the voyage.  It’s interesting that I have almost no memory of the return trips, except perhaps the resignation that pervaded the last night in Emerald City with the long road that beckoned beyond dawn’s first light, and the envy of those who could stay behind.  The southbound adventure, on the other hand, is replete with trivia; loading up the Griswold-mobile in the bleakness of the cold Ontario morning on day one, the dry stretch down to the Ambassador Bridge crossing at Detroit, the transition into the wide-eyed novelty of the UNITED STATES.  Woohoo!  Gallons instead of litres.  Miles instead of kilometres.  Bright red-and-blue highway signs instead of our modest old white ones.  Amoco and Chevron and Exxon stations instead of Petro-Canadas, Shells and Essos.  Billboards every hundred yards announcing how far you were from the next McDonald’s, or how much John Q. Lawyer could win for you if you were injured in a workplace accident.  It was all waiting past Exit 83, Next Right.

Even the most mundane aspects became objects of fascination to a young brain determined to soak it all up.  Counting down the mile markers to the state lines and noting how quickly Michigan, Kentucky and Tennessee would slip by, versus the endless slogs through Ohio and worst of all, Georgia.  No offense to Georgians, but when you’re eight or nine and it’s not your final destination, man does it take forever, especially that Atlanta bypass.  Endless curiosity about the varying quality of the highway rest areas, depending on the state:  some full-fledged, full-service stopovers, others little more than a turnout, porta-potty and lone rotting picnic bench.  An almost OCD-like need to collect paper directories from the Days Inns, memorize their locations nationwide and wonder why we didn’t have any back home (we do now, not that I’ve stayed at one since).  Dinners at the Cracker Barrel and trying without success to conquer the jump-a-tee puzzle placed at each table before diving into something accompanied by biscuits and sausage gravy, to my mother’s chagrin.  My sister’s innocent query, as we passed through the Bible Belt, of what was with the all the pictures of the guy hanging on the post.

And always, there was the road, and Elton John singing about what lay beyond it.  It was a perfectly prophetic number for where we were going, even if the end of the journey wasn’t anything life-changing or evolutionary – truly, how many family vacations are?  Still, the song itself is about a return to simplicity, leaving the penthouse behind and going back to the plough.  The fact that I recall with clarity such minutiae from these yearly adventures – moreso than what we did once we actually got there – speaks to the notion that you can find great joy in that simplicity, that fancying it up with expensive hotel rooms, front row seats and $500 rounds of golf doesn’t necessarily make for lasting memories.  Maybe you just need a reasonably reliable car, a loving family, and a yellow brick road.

The road from ideology to idiocy is paved with tanks

A patriot defending against tyranny.
A patriot defending against tyranny.

So this morning, I’m following this Twitter exchange between Van Jones, former advisor to President Obama, and some mostly anonymous American gun lovers who are blowing collective gaskets (or is that muskets) over measures announced by the President this last week to try and curb armed violence in America.  The righties are coming at Jones with the suggestion that ever-more-powerful arsenals are needed by “the people” to combat government “tyranny” (the latest buzzword, like socialism, used to define a paranoid’s impression of some indefinable monster lurking in the shadows:  “I sure don’t know what it is, but I’m damn sure agin it!”)  Jones counters by asking what would be enough for these same people to be able to successfully subdue U.S. soldiers acting on behalf of this hypothetical tyrannical government – chemical weapons, nukes even – and calls what his opponents are suggesting, i.e. firing on American servicemen and women, treasonous.  At which point one individual says Jones is being ridiculous and in the event of this prophesied calamity of Biblical proportions, “the soldiers will be on our side.”  To which I’d say, please see Square, Tiananmen.  But it got me thinking about the course of the entire discussion, where no minds will be changed, no needles will be moved and no one will come away with anything but a heated temper and a more intractable position on the issue.  We act like this is a phenomenon unique to the era of Fox News and infinite blogs and talk radio shows, but the power and the rigidity of belief, whether it is political or spiritual, is one of the defining aspects of humanity.  We’ve seen in countless examples how it is both our greatest gift and our greatest curse.  The noblest accomplishments we have ever achieved have come from strong beliefs, and sadly, so have our greatest evils.

As a liberal humanist, I’ve chosen my spot on the spectrum and have as much of an ideology as the next guy.  Yet I temper my beliefs with reason and my own personal notion that faith unchallenged is not faith:  one must question everything and back up one’s claims with concrete, scientific, provable evidence.  And one shouldn’t linger in the comfort of one’s own “side,” as it were – you owe it to yourself to look at what the opposition thinks and try to figure out the reasoning behind their points of view.  As I mentioned in my piece a few weeks ago about the Newtown shooting, the obsession with guns comes from a place of fear – as does a great deal of the conservative mindset.  Fear of the untrustworthy, the indigent, the other.  Bad people. Bad people are coming to hurt you, so you need a gun to protect yourself.  Bad people want to steal your money and spend it on other people, so you want taxes cut.  Bad people overseas want to blow you up for reasons you can’t understand, so you want a huge military arsenal to defend your shores.  Bad people want to force you to sleep with men.  Bad people want you to stop going to church.  Bad people this, bad people that.  There seems to be a need to collect all this fear and focus it against a single, identifiable target, hence the evil liberal menace, stoking this fear into the hatred that naturally follows.

Fear, of course, isn’t unique to conservatives.  Liberals fear plenty of things – the devastation of our planet due to wars, environmental pollution or outright greed, religious extremists forcing antiquated and in many cases physically harmful doctrines on the masses, losing our democratic voice to an ever-encroaching corporate plutocracy.  The major difference I see in how a liberal approaches the world is that for liberals, there are no absolutes – and we are more willing to admit that we might be wrong.  On Real Time with Bill Maher a while back, someone, I can’t remember whom, was sparring with a climate change denier and made the argument that if he was wrong about global warming, no big deal, but if the denier was wrong, everyone and everything on Earth would die – so why not try to mitigate the problem anyway?  But a conservative will cling to the same tenets no matter how many times he is proven to be in error; for him, flexibility is weakness.  There was a story a few months ago how Senate Republicans suppressed a study that proved conclusively, through decades of evidence, that tax cuts do not spur job growth.  Canada’s Finance Minister Jim Flaherty, during our 2011 federal election, kept insisting that corporate tax cuts were desperately needed or this hazy figure of “400,000 jobs” would be lost.  The meme was repeated, unquestioned, ad nauseum by friendly media and likely helped throw more than a few votes his party’s way.  Less than a year later Flaherty was out begging corporations to please oh please if you wouldn’t mind sir, kindly use your hoards of cash we just gifted you to hire a few folks, y’know, if it’s not too much trouble.  Yet you won’t see Flaherty calling for his tax cuts to be repealed, no matter how much red ink is generated, how much proof he is shown that said cuts are as helpful to the economy as fairy dust.  Night after night conservatives yell the fallacy that “tax cuts increase revenue!” as government after government that follows their approach spirals down into deficit and debt (see:  Greece).  Either it’s a massive conspiracy to “starve the beast” – personally, I don’t think most people are that clever – or these folks genuinely believe the fiction they’ve been sold, and like all conservatives, won’t change their minds no matter how often their approach flounders in the practical world.

Ironically, there is a singular example of a near-universal experience of a belief being undone by reasoned analysis.  Nearly all Western children grow up believing that Santa Claus delivers gifts to them every Christmas Eve.  Yet as they age, cracks begin to appear in the story; perhaps some wisenheimer at school brays snottily, “You know it’s just your mom and dad, right?”  (I still remember the name of the kid who did that to me – thanks a lot, Chris Campbell, wherever you are.)  Perhaps they start to do the math and realize it’s physically impossible for one man with one sleigh to deliver billions of toys in less than 8 hours, and they’re less and less satisfied with the explanation that it’s because Santa is magic.  How many adults, even conservatives, still believe in Santa Claus?  But the same method of examination and deduction fails for almost everything else, resulting in decade after decade of the same flawed ideas being offered up regardless of how badly they’ve gone in the past.  It’s like how in Ontario, Conservative leader Tim Hudak has reignited a debate on privatizing the LCBO (the government-owned corporation that manages the sale of alcohol throughout the province and generates loads of income to fund our social programs), despite the utter financial shambles that was his party’s decision to sell off our only toll highway to a Spanish corporation for a song when they were in power, and which we’re still paying for.  And just like how for the National Rifle Association, the answer to the problem of guns in schools is more guns in schools.  Part of this, as I’ve pointed out, is their executive looking out for sales opportunities for gun manufacturers, but this absurd notion would still be defended to the death (or to the cold, dead hands, as they like to put it) by regular rifle-lovers with no financial interest in the outcome.  Apparently, to admit one’s logic is perhaps flawed is to expose a chink in the armor – to risk the entire house crashing in on top of you.  Perhaps that’s the ultimate fear.  Fear of the shell being stripped away to reveal… absolutely nothing.

So long as we’re speaking about shells being ripped away, it’s an interesting happenstance of linguistic evolution that the words “ideology” and “idiocy” both begin with “id” – Freud’s concept of the impulses of the inner self unleashed, at their wildest, with none of the rational examination of said self needed for it to function within the framework of a civilization.  Likewise, beliefs – and indeed, faith – cannot function to the betterment of ourselves and those with whom we share the planet without critical examination.  Be open.  Be open to being wrong.  Those who enter into a debate should entertain the possibility that their beliefs may be changed by the discussion that follows, as much as you are attempting to change the beliefs of those you’re debating with; otherwise, you’re left with people hurling abuse at one another for no perceptible reason other than getting one’s rocks off by being an idiot.  And we all remember the last time being an idiot worked out toward the improvement of the human condition.