While the Rest of Us Watch

The following can be found in its entirety on The Barnstormer. Link below.

Falling in love is easy. We’re conditioned for it. It can happen in an instant, a natural sensation born of basic human need and desire. Sometimes it lasts a few seconds, like when your eyes meet another’s on a morning subway commute or when a song reminds you of a moment long thought passed. Sometimes it lasts a bit longer, it penetrates the being, it becomes like oxygen, or blood, or whiskey. A need. A constant. Sometimes, it seemingly lasts forever. It is unsettling, and yet it is everything. It wakes you in a cold sweat. It asks how your day was. It promises to take you to Nicaragua. It complains about its mother. It tells you it’s all going to work out. It lies.

But as easy as it is to fall in love, falling out of love is apocalyptic. It writes songs. It bears poetry. It drinks. Heavily. And within this context, within this slow spiraling death of what once had nothing but life, is the curse of audience. Of being a spectator in the film version of your own life, watching, hopelessly, as something, someone you love disintegrates. Becomes something you loath. Becomes that which you once, together, swore you’d never be. And as spring lists gently towards summer, and another long season of hockey comes to an end, we’ve collectively been witness to the sad, slow, merciless downfall of CBC’s Hockey Night in CanadaHNIC. Baby. We could’ve had something special.

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100 Days of Blame

I am, by most accounts, a horrible partner, and I have the exes to prove it. I am self-involved, self-indulgent, and more often than not underemployed. I suffer from tunnel vision and insomnia. I enjoy adult beverages, some times too much. I write poetry. I listen to a lot of alt-country. A lot. This is why I am 35 and my folks still ask about the absence of grandchildren and RRSPs. This is why my LinkedIn profile notes that I am a freelancer, but follows the claim with a question mark. This is why my relationships last three months, and typically end in a furious and graceless blaze of glory. But despite my poetic endings and disappointed parents, I’ve always been good at admitting blame, of recognizing my faults, and celebrating my flaws. One day I plan on learning from them. During the 100 days of the Quebec student strike, all sides, all entities involved, have been unwilling to admit any fault, to believe that they may have made mistakes, to admit that they should not have come home three days late smelling of perfume and whiskey. So, as Montreal prepares for an important day and joins the protest century club, I’m taking the time to consider how to share some blame.

The Mainstream Media

The CBC, CTV, The Globe and Mail, The National Post, et al. have failed miserably in their coverage of this event, and rest assured it is an event. The journalistic coverage has been if not lazy than perhaps complicit. Over the weekend “a” Molotov cocktail became pluralized very quickly in many reports. All entities continually refer to the “students” protesting and marching, while in reality the students are on strike but much of the rest of Quebec are on the streets. They quote tired facts about tuition costs, but are guilty in omitting from the discourse what non-residents and international students pay. The images and arguments have been ones of violence, and all too willing to ignore the moving and inspirational story of the rise of an important social movement. Their coverage has the appearance of writing from afar, written on desks in Toronto and Calgary.

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Where Did Journalism Wente?

Tuesday morning, venti Pike Place in hand, I sat in my local Starbucks as I do most days. I plugged in my earphones, connected to the WiFi and tuned into CBC Radio’s Q with Jian Ghomeshi, then opened up my various inboxes and feeds to try and catch up on what I missed whilst asleep. A normal day would typically progress as such: discover nothing happened, post clever tweet, ‘Like’ friends Facebook post, confirm that the Leafs still suck, reply to my mother’s suggestion that I get a real job, order second venti Pike, write something for my blog that 42 people will perhaps read, poke at freelance projects. You know, a Tuesday.

And if it wasn’t for a message in my inbox from colleague Ian Orti with a link to Margaret Wente’s op-ed on Quebec students (or rather, as Peggy calls them: the baristas of tomorrow) my Tuesday would’ve merrily skipped along, ending in beer and whiskey, eventually becoming a Wednesday where the whole thing would repeat itself. Instead, I quickly wrote a response to the offending Wente column, posted it, the thing went viral, Maisonneuve picked it up, I went on CJAD radio, and for a few days my parents left me alone about the freelance life without a wife or children. It was a good week.

But that was Tuesday, and my 15 seconds of notoriety was fleeting. By Friday night my folks were again asking about the absence of wife and grandchildren. Whiskey and beer supplies were dangerously low. Wente continues to write. So here I sit Saturday morning, same Starbucks, same venti Pike, and unfortunately stuck reading the same newspapers that employ the likes of Wente to lazily write hypocritical and poorly constructed pieces that negligently fit into the modern paradigm of what passes for journalism in 2012.

A friend sent me a piece by Wente from early April, in which she celebrates her Boomerdom and notes that she left university debt free, got a job quicker than an arts grad can whip cappuccino foam, a bought a house in the Beaches with a small loan from her mother that is now worth a small fortune. Easy-peasy. And yet just a short month later, she was condemning students for just wanting just a fraction of the same advantages she had. And it led me to wonder, how does this tripe make it past the editing process? How, in this day and age, are we subjected to newspapers that fail to subscribe to the simplest virtues of journalistic integrity?

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CanLit the Precious

On Monday, Scotiabank Giller Prize founder Jack Rabinovitch announced the jury for the 2012 award, Canada’s most prominent literary prize. Gary Shteyngart, Roddy Doyle, and Anna Porter comprise this year’s holy triumvirate who will bestow a Canadian author $50 000, and inevitably a window display at Chapters/Indigo and a bestseller. It should have been a moment to celebrate Mr. Rabinovitch’s continued support of the literary arts, and yet for the second time in less than a month cultural protectionists, insulating elitists of Canadian literature raised their ill-mannered voices in defiance in the pages of The Globe and Mail. For to them, CanLit is a precious entity, one that should never be left to the masses, and should be devoid of the trappings of humour or success.

John Barber of The Globe and Mail took the opportunity to issue a snide commentary on the state of Canadian literature. To Barber, it’s important that when discussing CanLit literature that we employ methods of rash generalization by speaking of “populist authors” and juries that “in the past have tended to represent the higher end of the literary spectrum.” The gist of this condescending bit was that smart people favour “Margaret Atwood and Alice Munro,” while the dimmer bulbs who are still able to slobber their way through a text enjoy books that are funny, intelligent, and rarely discussed at grad student colloquia.

Barber further suggests that the jury’s choices will differ from years past, that the “inclusion of two popular, largely comic novelists is bound to change the established character of the program,” referring to the celebration of Canadian literature rich in nature motifs, the plight of first generation Canadians, and revisiting war in a discussion of family while tapping maples for syrup. God forbid a literary prize celebrate a piece of writing that may occasionally illicit laughter or sales. Furthermore, it’s insulting to Doyle and Shteyngart, suggesting that neither writer has the literary fortitude of an Atwood to see through their guffaws to champion writing unlike their own. Shteyngart quickly responded on Twitter noting that he will be “also giving out Canada Council grants to Jewish writers living within 5 kilometers of The Main.”

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Truth & Pettiness on Canada Reads

I tuned in all week to the CBC’s Canada Reads series, as four Canadian pseudo-celebrities and Alan Thicke debated the merits of five books of non-fiction in a Survivor-like competition. I believe the winner, Carmen Aguirre for Something Fierce: Memoirs of a Revolutionary Daughter, received a dinner with Margaret Atwood, or a window display at Chapters or something. I’m not sure. I don’t think it was important. The week’s broadcasts, acutely moderated by Jian Ghomeshi, were at once entertaining, informative, combative, and funny. So, you know, everything that Canadian Literature tends not to be. For the most part, I’d rather stab myself in the eye with Margaret Atwood’s Long Pen than listen to a debate about CanLit. As you can imagine, my MA in English Literature was torturous, which is why I developed a dependency on bourbon and NeoCitran. It’s not that I don’t love Canadian writing, because I do. It’s not that I don’t like the Canadian writing community, because I have found it warm and accepting. It’s mostly because these debates tend to illuminate Canadian literature’s tendency to be insulated, precious, and protectionist. Also, there’s too many poems about wheat.

The highlight of the week on Canada Reads was Anne-France Goldwater, a Quebec judge who garnered attention on day one for accusing eventual winner Aguirre (who, incidentally, Goldwater ultimately voted for) of being a “bloody terrorist” to which panelist Shad replied: “If you consider her a terrorist, you have to consider Nelson Mandela a terrorist.” Goldwater agreed with the hip hop artist: “Damn straight. Blood on his hands,” to which the rest of us replied: who’s Shad? Goldwater also accused the author of another one of the Canada Reads books, Marina Nemat, of lying in her memoir Prisoner of Tehran about her time in an Iranian jail: “Marina Nemat – and it’s known to other prisoners; other prisoners who shared her experience – tells a story that’s not true and you can tell it’s not true when you read it.” Did Goldwater believe in what she was arguing? Probably. Is there truth to her claims? Maybe, but to me that’s not important. Good debate relies on half-truths, strong opinions, and passionate advocates and that’s what Goldwater provided.

Predictably, the CanLit mob were outraged. This is what happens in Canada. Any discussion that travels outside the norm, that dares to engage and challenge an informed and intelligent readership, is viciously attacked. They want to wrap CanLit in a Hudson’s Bay blanket and tell it everything’s going to be alright. It’s insulting to both writers and readers, and it’s all too common. Nemat herself went on the offensive, demanding an apology from Goldwater, and claiming on Facebook that Goldwater’s comments were “bullying and it’s a crime.” I don’t doubt for a moment that Nemat was hurt, and I don’t doubt the veracity of her writings but bullying isn’t a crime, rather possibly an actionable offense, and she certainly has the right to engage Goldwater in a civil suit. Though Goldwater is a successful lawyer and I imagine she knows the line between actionable and argumentative.

Nemat took her argument to the pages of The Globe and Mail, perpetuating the notion that no press is bad press. What Nemat went through in prison is an abomination, acts that reflect the worst of humanity, and her strength in writing of her experiences is both admirable and inspirational. But she chose to do so, and that opened up her experience to public discourse. In her closing paragraph of the Globe piece, she appeals directly to Goldwater: “Dear Ms. Goldwater: The witness is the cornerstone of the justice system. If we throw stones at her, we have taken a step toward burying freedom and democracy. Canada and Canadians deserve better than this.” Arguably, truth is the cornerstone of the justice system, and witness requires corroboration. But any witness must face confrontation, and in writing the book, Nemat has opened herself up to cross examination.

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Two Minutes for Being a Minority

A few Saturdays ago I was at the Air Canada Centre to see the Leafs play the Canadiens. It was my first time to the ACC for hockey game, my only other visit coming in 2001 to see Crosby, Stills, Nash, & Young, a memorable show and the only time in the seven I’ve seen Neil Young perform that he played Down By the River, which has been proven by NASA scientists and Harvard academics alike to be the greatest song ever. But what a dichotomy of crowds in my two visits to the arena. One was an evening filled with a solid team effort and a celebration of Canadiana, and the other was a hockey game. Though I have witnessed the booing of the Montreal Canadiens in rival arenas throughout the NHL on television, with a special amount of vitriol coming from the ticket holders in Boston, Philadelphia, and Toronto, I had never witnessed it first hand. I came prepared, wearing my Larry Robinson vintage Canadiens jersey, and I fully expected a playful boo or an occasion of drunken derision. But what surprised me, what offended and saddened me, was the unparalleled level of hatred the home crowd had for Canadiens defenseman P.K. Subban. I had seen it on game broadcasts, but in order to fully appreciate the level of animus that the opposition has towards Pernell Karl Subban you really have to be there. It’s more than playful chiding of a respected opponent. More than an attempt to throw a valued foe off his game. What it is, and having seen it first hand I am convinced, that it is pure unadulterated hatred. And it’s because P.K. Subban is an African-Canadian.

I have wronged a good woman or three, so I know the difference between anger and hatred. I have seen it up close, and it is a tangible and violent emotion born of a fierce rage. But to have seen the manner in which the ACC faithful booed Subban, to have seen it from those in Philly and Boston and New York on television, the hopeful peacenik in me tried to resolve the spite and hostility as simply a part of pro sports. Subban, admittedly, plays with an edge. He has what the hockey community like to call “sandpaper”. But while those in the NHL of Subban’s ilk, those who get under the skins of their opponents with their combination of talent, wit, and lip, are often celebrated as players with “character”, Subban is almost universally derided by fans, media, management, and players. And for the life of me, I can’t figure out why that is, except to argue that the NHL and the culture of hockey is one that fosters and accepts racism.

I’ll admit that I am biased in that I am a Montreal Canadiens fan. My winters are spent living vicariously through the Habs, and my springs rise and fall on their successes and failures. And I really like Subban. He has a personality, something I have argued in the past that the NHL notably lacks, and often eschews in favour of cliché and a culture that toes the company line. To attribute this double standard to racism may seem simple, perhaps in and of its self inherently racist, but consider the following non-scientific study. I took 10 players from a recent Bleacher Report article on the most hated NHL players since 2000, and I googled their names in quotations and the word hate. I tried to vary the players in terms of age, conference, position, market, and ethnicity. Additionally, I’ve noted their average ice time, points, and penalty minutes. Here are the results (as of February 6):

Player

   Google Results

Ice Time/Game

        Points

           PIM

Sean Avery

1 470 000

7:00

3

21

P.K. Subban

   871 000

23:35

20

64

Matt Cooke

   595 000

15:52

19

20

Jordin Tootoo

   396 000

14:01

21

66

Colby Armstrong

   390 000

11:17

1

4

Daniel Carcillo

   198 000

11:24

11

82

Trevor Gillies

   160 000

2:52

0

0

Patrick Kaleta

   111 000

13:27

6

69

Brad Marchand

   106 000

17:09

38

77

Maxime Lapierre

     46 700

11:10

10

96

It should be noted Armstrong has been out most of the year, but he still gets a lot of hate. Sean Avery is the clear winner in terms of internet hatred, but he’s a veteran, one the most hated players to have ever laced up a pair of Bauers and insulted another player’s starlet girlfriend, and has been dispatched to Connecticut of the AHL, most likely until his hockey career ends and his fashion career begins. But P.K., in only his second full NHL season, has 276 000 more Google hate-results than his closest competitor, Matt Cooke, who fancies headshots more than an aspiring actor. Trevor Gillies, whose only NHL accomplishment is his moustache, has also been dispatched to the AHL but maintains a hefty web-based hatred.  And even if you double Max Lapierre’s totals to account for bilingualism, he’s still nowhere close to Subban.

What truly surprised me about the survey, which admittedly has the scientific acumen of creationism, was that none of the players even approach Subban’s level of talent or importance to their respective teams. Subban’s average ice time per game is 23 minutes and 35 seconds. The next closest on this list is Cooke at a good 8 minutes less. Though Subban is the only defenseman on the list, the fact remains that hatred at the professional level is typically reserved for 4th line pluggers and fringe pros, who need to play the role of pest in order to maintain a roster spot. Arguably, Marchand is the only other player on this list whose team value approaches Subban’s, and it’s interesting that he has been Subban’s foe since their junior days, but with a substantially smaller hate-base.

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Time for the CBC to Put Don Cherry to Bed

Hockey, and in particular the NHL, is at an interesting crossroads. After a nightmare off-season in which the sport’s flaws and failures were exposed, the coming season will be a watershed moment for Canada’s favourite activity outside of beer and weather discourse. With the NBA in a labour dispute the NHL has an opportunity to have the North American sporting scene to itself after the Super Bowl. And although hockey will never have ratings issues in Canada, the return of the Jets to Winnipeg and an improved Toronto Maple Leafs team should increase the sport’s national visibility to an all-time high. In consideration of this increased exposure it’s time the CBC took into account its responsibility as the rights-holder of the sport’s crown jewel, Hockey Night in Canada, and the crucial nature of the sport’s year, and fire Don Cherry and Ron MacLean.

Don Cherry has been espousing closed-minded ignorant childish opinions on the CBC for nearly 30 years. For a long while, it was somewhat amusing in a nationalistic way. It would never be seen on an American network. For that matter, it would never be seen on any other network. Anywhere. “Coach’s Corner” is ultimately very Canadian. It’s a caricature of sports commentary, an homage to the self-deprecating and humble manner in which Canadians can laugh at themselves and each other. “Coach’s Corner” would be a hit on Saturday Night Live. It’s a parody. Near brilliant comedy. The segment has a one-camera setup, because early efforts to teach Cherry how to manage multiple cameras ultimately failed. Cherry quite often gets players names wrong, notably Jarome Iginla (Igilina, or Ingila), Roberto Luongo (Lulongo), as well as the surname of every player born east of Newfoundland and west of Victoria. His suits are a national punch line, and would make Liberace blush. He cheers for the Leafs and the Bruins, openly, and hates the Canadiens and most things Quebecois. He sings the praises of tough players, players equipped with grit and sandpaper, players who hit and fight, and after the game drink beer and bed women. He uses the pejorative “Redneck” as a positive. He hates “Pinkos” and “Commies” and the sissies on the Left. When he isn’t on TV, he’s at rinks in Mississauga and Pickering and Ajax watching midget and peewee games, which would be creepy if he wasn’t Don Cherry. During the summers he sits on his porch on Wolfe Island with a shotgun and a Molson Canadian. He’s a War of 1812 buff. He supports Rob Ford and Stephen Harper. He’s had a series of female Bull Terriers named Blue. He hates cats.

His partner for the bulk of the 30 years has been Ron MacLean, who at some point was a sports journalist of sorts, who has deteriorated into and embraced the parodic nature of his role. He is Cherry’s straight man. Cheech to his Chong. Abbott to his Costello. Wayne to his Shuster. MacLean’s job is the simplest in pro sports broadcasting. He asks Cherry about, you know, stuff, and Cherry talks about it. Or yells about it, rather. Then MacLean makes a really bad pun, and the segment ends. The only exception being the segments where Cherry talks about fallen soldiers and policemen, and then cries a bit after calling them brave and beautiful. (Seriously. The fact that Lorne Michaels hasn’t pilfered “Coach’s Corner” as a running skit on SNL is beyond me.)

MacLean should act as a voice of reason. He should be Cherry’s conscience. Our conscience. He should verbally slap Cherry across the face, knock him down a peg or eleven. Over the past few years, and notably since his very public contract dispute with the CBC, MacLean has developed quite the ego. Though he still facilitates Cherry’s insanity, he speaks with more of an air of arrogance than he did before. He refers to players and management by their nicknames and first names. He takes every opportunity to discuss his minor league refereeing.  He speaks of the game’s issues in absolutes. Worst of all, he has a frighteningly diverse knowledge of Canadian Indie rock bands, and is taken to quoting lyrics in intros. Actually, I correct myself. Worst of all MacLean enables Cherry. He is a walking talking bottle of scotch with a straw holding a loaded syringe next to an addict. He completes the parody to perfection.

Except it isn’t a parody. Padgett Powell, the brilliant American writer, once told a writing workshop I was in that a parody requires the author giving his audience permission to laugh. And the problem has become that “Coach’s Corner” is no longer amusing. The CBC has been complicit in allowing the segment to continue, in allowing Cherry and MacLean a pulpit from which to preach to the masses every Saturday night. And the sermons are racist, ignorant, ill-informed, baseless, self-serving, childish, offensive rants that have no place on television, let alone on the public broadcaster. If the CBC took the two off the air tomorrow, there would certainly be public outcry, but not lower ratings for Hockey Night in Canada. Hockey is our scotch and loaded syringe. It’s our addiction by birthright. And in its most important hour, intelligent, informed, and thoughtful opinion needs to be at the forefront of the discourse. The CBC is wasting the forum, and insulting us all the while.

The best argument in favour of the dismissal of Cherry and MacLean, is that it is hard to believe that any other broadcaster would hire them. There is no competition for their services. And if no one else wants them, why should the CBC? TSN and Sportsnet and their various properties, while certainly not perfect in their approach to covering hockey, have at least taken to hiring progressive and informed voices. Bob McKenzie, Jeff Blair, Stephen Brunt, Damien Cox, Elliotte Friedman, Dave Hodge, Bruce Arthur, James Duthie, Pierre McGuire, Gord Miller, and Michael Farber, just to name a few, are professionals. They are keenly aware of the sports flaws, as well as cognizant of its evolution. They’re not perfect. They’ve been complicit themselves in ignoring some the sports issues like concussions and drug abuse. But they’re not xenophobes. They’re not troglodytes. They’re not racists. They’re not idiots. They’re not Cherry and MacLean.

Last night on “Coach’s Corner” Cherry pushed his antiquated opinions too far. After the suicides this summer of NHL enforcers Derek Boogaard, Wade Belak, and Rick Rypien several former fighters bravely came out and spoke openly and honestly about their own struggles with the role, as well as their addictions and troubles with drugs and alcohol that they feel were brought on by having to literally fight for their dinners. It was an example of selfless and generous humility in the face of tragedy that should have been (and was by many outlets) celebrated and commended. But not by Cherry, and not by MacLean. Instead, Cherry berated the former players, called them out as it were.

“The ones that I am really disgusted with … are the bunch of pukes that fought before: Stu Grimson, Chris Nilan and Jim Thomson.”

“[They say] ‘Oh, the reason that they’re drinking, [taking] drugs and alcoholics is because they’re fighting.’ You turncoats, you hypocrites. If there’s one thing I’m not it’s a hypocrite. You guys were fighters, and now you don’t want guys to make the same living you did. You people that are against fighting, you should be ashamed of yourselves. You took advantage of that to make your point on fighting.”

- from The Globe and Mail

Anyone who has struggled with addiction or depression, or witnessed those struggles first hand, knows how difficult it is to talk about it, let alone talk about it publicly. What Cherry did was make the discussion about him. He changed the focus. He is a child who had an on-air tantrum. And at a time when pugilism in hockey and its connection to serious mental issues need to be argued by the enlightened and informed, Cherry and his partner MacLean have retarded the progress of an important discussion. The CBC needs to be a responsible public broadcaster and remove “Coach’s Corner” from Hockey Night in Canada. This is a time for serious discourse on a troubled sport, and the children need to be sent from the room so the adults can talk.

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