Friday, September 23, 2005

A Daddy in Aspic

I caught a glimpse of my father the other day, which is a pretty neat trick seeing as he’s been dead for ten years.
I claim no special powers – I’m not psychic (though I did predict J.D. Fortune would win Rockstar INXS, but to be honest, that could have been a fluke), I am not a Ghost Whisperer, neither am I a Medium, nor one prone to intimate communication with The Almighty.
I am not a busty TV star or the President of the United States, but I did recently have an experience that brought me into full living, breathing contact with the reality of my long dead dad that has left me feeling shaky and unsteady days later.
And like most earth-shattering encounters, the circumstances could not have been more prosaic.
I was at a cocktail party as the guest of a friend who had recently purchased a condo in an as-yet unfinished development in North Toronto. Very swank and with all the mod cons, the event held in the corporation’s model suite was designed ostensibly for the future neighbours to meet and mingle, though as it soon became clear, it was actually purpose-designed to send a not so subtle message that discounts on ‘luxury upgrades’ would be offered to owners who roped in hot new prospects for the crack sales team. (A sales team whose crackling energy looked sharp enough to wound. Those folks were not fooling around.)
Still, it was a chance to support the friend and get a glimpse of her future condo’s future potential – and not incidentally to sample as much domestic wine and delish hors d’oeuvre as you could liberate from the attractive gay wait staff; what those caterers couldn’t do with a sprig of asparagus and a loop of chive I wouldn’t even begin to speculate.
There were tiny rare roast beef shavings sitting cockily atop miniature cornbread cakes, garnished with just a dot of fragrant aioli. Goose liver on some sort of miraculous buttery organic triscuit, topped with a trembling golden cube of aspic. And as for the bite sized mini mountains molded of braised shitake mushroom and sweet onion, well suffice it to say that you wouldn’t have wanted to come between me and them. Not and retain your dignity and all your fingers that is.
And thank heaven the food was good, because I wasn’t buying and there were certainly no romantic prospects circulating; apart from the tuxedo-clad, likely gay cellist plinking and sawing earnestly in the prettily decorated den (or second bedroom! or office! or gift-wrapping nook!), besides the friend and myself, virtually everyone there was of an age that suggested preservation in aspic might make an increasingly attractive alternative to further deterioration.
They were old is what I’m saying. Old and rich and practically counting off the seconds to the end of the current Toronto season, so they could wing it to Florida for the next.
All too soon the wait staff were absorbed back into whatever holding pen they’d originally emerged from (the source of all that was savoury and good) and the developers and sales team lined up in front of the miniature architectural model in the foyer so they could sing the praises of the development that by our listening constituted our payment for the supper.
Bah, blah, blah.
I never feel so completely adolescent as when I’m left stranded in a room full of grown ups listening to guff like this. I’m sure there was value in the various missives, but all I got out of it (in between trying to crack up the pregnant woman shifting weightily from one foot to the other right next to me: I wanted to see her bursting through the firmly rooted crowd like floodwater through a Louisiana levee in a headlong beeline to the bathroom) was that those who chose not to frogmarch relatives, friends and other suckers into the gaping maw thinly disguised as realtors, would be punished with cut-rate mismatched marble floors, paper thin granite countertops and the leftover wallpaper samples that would scream: ‘so last year!’ to the lonely unfortunates forced to make do with the 'Basic Plan'.
I don’t know how long the speeches lasted because somewhere in between elbowing the pregnant lady and trying to silently pop a piece of gum out of one of those blister packs that tend to explode like a gunshot in church (I simply did not have enough to share with the rest of the congregation) I saw my father.
Right in front of me, close enough to touch – I could almost imagine I smelled him: a combination of fabric softener (his housekeeper always put too much Downy in the rinse) and the Pear’s soap he preferred, subtly imbued with just a hint of medicinal mentholatum.
Above the collar of an Oxford blue cotton shirt (itself tucked into a pair of pressed khakis, held up by a tightly buckled belt – he’d never had any sort of bum to speak of) it was surely the back of his neck; a thick and ruddy affair holding up a giant bald head (the Wilson’s have giant heads, it’s a fact) ringed with a pure white fringe of hair, choppily trimmed and in desperate and immediate need of another.
I’d have known the back of those ears anywhere (after all, I was the one who had trimmed and styled his remaining strands…) all pink and bursting with a wild and wiry grey growth.
And his pate – a few stray hairs still clinging pathetically to his softly tanned scalp, the age spots and freckles like familiar landmarks on an otherwise blasted landscape. I could see the pores and the texture of his skin and the dynamic life force that in comparing the living to the inanimate is somewhat similar to identifying the real turtle soup from merely the mock.
I wanted to touch him.
I wanted to grab him and breathe him in and feel the solid warmth of life and energy. I wanted to look at his worn and funny face and deep into his faded blue eyes and I wanted to tell him so much that had just that moment occurred to me.
I thought I had done my grieving long ago, but I realize now that recently that grief was just as easy and tender as missing an old photo or home movie: a one or two dimensional twinge at the most. A softening – but a comfortable reaction, easy and familiar and nothing like this stab of reality that threatened to overwhelm me to the point of public humiliation.
I had difficulty swallowing and hot tears were building behind my eyes and I couldn’t believe I might very soon be reduced to a sobbing, braying heap in the middle of an expensively outfitted pretend apartment, surrounded nearly completely by elderly strangers. It was just too awful.
Because it wasn’t him of course. It was just some man. Some sixty or seventy-something old article, alive and pink, with blood coursing through his veins and breath sliding easily – so easily! – in and out of his lungs. And in fact beyond the skin colour and shape and shade of his silver tonsure, he was nothing really very much like my father at all.
(For one thing, dad would have let his trousers droop as low as gangsta rapper’s before he’d cinch in his belt. He was above all, a creature well aware of each and every physical comfort and he tolerated neither the chafe nor the squeeze...)
It was the magic of the flesh.
The glow and vibrancy and multi-dimensional corporeal reality of the living that made my past efforts in remembering him comparable to the literary similarities between Beatle Bailey and War and Peace.
I remember and miss him now. Not his memory and not his photo and not even the sly and funny (sometimes rude) and insightful letters he always wrote and mailed to me no matter the advances of technology. I remember the guy who wrote them, and right now, I miss him so much.
Back in the model suite I surreptitiously blew my nose on a cocktail napkin and pushed firmly through the crowd on my way to the exit. I wanted to come home and think about him and get to work on that little deconstruction project I’ve been neglecting for the last decade.
I’ve got to grieve the real man, not the dying or dead or vaguely remembered or charmingly posed and photographed guy.
My memories are emerging from the aspic now, and sharp and bitter as it is reliving this loss, it is also deeply nourishing. And even delicious.

Tuesday, September 13, 2005

Whores, heroes and hobgoblins

People never change – at least that’s my unchanging opinion.
The question came up recently in a community of people I regularly speak with, and try as we might, we none of us could come up with a single instance of anyone we know who has actually made fundamental, character-core, personality-altering changes.
Sure, there’s a maturing process – people who buckle down after college… cut their hair… take on responsibility… don’t have to be told to take out the garbage or cut the lawn, or go to the dentist.
But the kid who would betray you in high school, pull the wings off flies, and bitterly blame others or cruel fate for every slight or disappointment, or in the alternative, always see the positive side of things (or at least be open to the hope that things might change) will likely continue to do so in a variety of more sophisticated ways, no matter the patina of respectability or grown-upedness they cloak themselves in as the years roll down that great cosmic bowling alley.
(My example was Doubleya; there he is I said, a former alcoholic, drug addicted, careless, spoilt frat boy, whose entire experience of the working world was both provided through - and subsequently bailed out by – his family; who quit cocaine and drinking, found religion, became President of the United States, yet hasn’t changed a whit or a bit. He’s still the same careless, self-absorbed, oblivious frat boy he always was. He’s just sober now.
(It wasn’t a lack of Jesus or a surfeit of alcohol that made him such an asshole back in the day – he was (and is) who he was. And is.)
Coincidentally, further proof of the axiomatic nature of character maintenance was revealed in a couple of stories published today in Canadian newspapers.
In one, a guy who was unjustly accused, tried, found guilty and imprisoned for the alleged crime of sodomizing and murdering his four year old niece twelve years ago, appears to remain the same confused and mystified young man at the age of thirty-four that he was back then; still trusting and believing in his mom, still missing the “.. smart, mischievous, funny” little niece who was “very special to me.”
That his life will never be the same goes without saying; that any potential the massively tall and goofy looking kid who didn’t fit in then (and surely won’t fit in now) has long been destroyed is an undeniable truth, and that his guilt was established by the consistently criminally mismanaged working practices of the doctor (Charles Smith, formerly Chief Pathologist at Sick Kids) who is responsible for rather more than a handful of similar horrors – and was solved by the same practice as were many of the others: by looking through his desk drawers for the exonerating evidence – is just par for this poor man’s particularly unlucky course.
One can only hope that his innocence, his exoneration, whatever cash settlement he receives for his wrongful incarceration and any subsequent civil cases his lawyers launch on his behalf against the deleterious doctor somehow allow him the peace and retro-kindness he deserves.
He probably won’t change, but maybe a little of his luck finally will.
And then there’s the other story; the story of a man himself known for the charming observation that “there’s no whore like an old whore” (and what does that little aphorism reveal about the aphorizer?) who is quoted today through his spokesthingy as being horrified, hurt, regretful, disbelieving, surprised, flabbergasted and shocked to the core that some of his choicest and juiciest (not to mention cruel and patronizing) opinions were published by the journalist with whom he shared them.
It’s just so bizarre to hear the moanings and wailings of a man forced to apologize to those whom he slandered – though whether he knew it or not, we pretty much knew what he thought; he’s not so subtle as he thinks – his excuse being that he thought none of it was for the record, that it was just harmless late night chitchat between two dear old friends.
Nice chat.
Nice friends.
The fact that this dear old friend was also the renowned author of a significant number of tomes that blew the lid off a significant number of pretty high profile people and institutions over the past couple of decades, and that at least some of the conversations they held were for the express purpose of laying the groundwork for a Mulroney biography, appeared to be beside the point.
Brian Mulroney, as he lies in his bed of pain, recovering from a serious pancreatic episode, now reportedly pauses only between bouts of clutching his belly and cursing the name of Peter C. Newman to pick up the phone and apologize to, amongst others, former Prime Minister Kim Campbell (she lost the subsequent election by being too busy “screwing her boyfriend”) Clyde Wells (a “son of a bitch” lacking in principle – pot! kettle!) and Pat Carney (irrational). He’d have to telephone the sons of the former Prime Minister, the late Pierre Trudeau to apologize for accusing their father of destroying Canada through his personal vanity, so that he, Mulroney would have to “come along and save it.” He might just as well save himself that unreturned voicemail – anything Justin or Alexandre might have to say was mercifully covered by the man who knew how to shuffle off his mortal coil unemcumbered by a series of late night unbosomings to a journalist well versed in the popularity of well-researched literary scandal.
‘The Secret Mulroney Tapes’, subtitled Unguarded Confessions of a Prime Minister by Peter C. Newman will soon be available for all to peruse; to measure the claim by the author that the bad is tempered by a number of anecdotes through which Newman believes people will interpret the lantern-jawed libeler as charming and likeable and good.
Personally, I think that particular ‘good’ ship has sailed.
You see nothing changes. Mulroney has been bitching for decades that no one appreciated him (if he had a brother, you know who mom would have liked best) but was certain that history would tell a different tale – that his accomplishments and character would be judged more fairly and squarely in the future than in the blistering heat of the unforgiving moment. That he would be loved and appreciated and recognized for all the great and good he did.
Just goes to show - there’s no fool like an old fool.

Monday, September 05, 2005

So I guess what I'm saying is "Ditto"...

In ways and with methods more powerful than any speech yet made, the Bush administration has finally succeeded in demonstrating one of the most important tenets of the Republican philosophy: that government is surely the problem, not the solution.
If those devastated by Katrina needed any more proof that the last place they should have looked for assistance in their time of most desperate need was Washington, they have it in the absolute abortion that was the response from federal agencies, from the administration and from the President himself.
(One wonders if he’ll be able to enjoy another vacation in Crawford Texas, steeped as it will no doubt be in memories of the moment when the entire world went looking for leadership and found it literally on holiday. One worries that actually, he’ll probably have no problems with it at all.)
From the criminal time wasting of spending the first week screwing around deciding which agency, which jurisdiction, or which authority was either responsible or prepared to sign off to another, the south sank as the leadership fiddled around.
From the unconscionable decision NOT to send the nearby (at anchor off the Gulf Coast according to the Chicago Tribune) U.S.S Bataan in to help – a ship equipped with six operating rooms, hundreds of hospital beds and the technology to produce 100,000 gallons of fresh water a day, to the President’s own opinion conveyed through Diane Sawyer that any looting – be it for plasma screen TV’s or a tin of tuna – be considered a crime subject to punishment, each and every decision and non-decision has revealed the government of the United States of America to be at best incompetent, at worst, deliberately so.
When the appropriately funereal speed with which the President reacted to the Katrina crisis is compared to the urgency with which he flew to the bedside of brain dead Terry Schiavo, the priorities of this administration are as clear as the Mississippi is muddy – and now glowing red with the blood and human detritus that will be food for the catfish for decades to come.
But this President has always been more interested in the unborn or the near-dead than with the living or the suffering. While this government has sieved off the youngest and most vulnerable of the next generation of soldiers to fight terrorism thousands of miles away (“Better than fighting it at home” goes the contemptuous thinking) it’s now clear that terrorism probably couldn’t be fought at home – so decimated and depleted are the supports to genuine homeland security.
So what do Americans get for their tax dollars? Well, they don’t get a lot of disaster relief (at least, not if they’re actually living in the disaster; those who’ve lost business, property, and valuable commodities will no doubt be bailed out faster than a stranded Louisianan can out-swim an alligator) they don’t get to get on with their lives after serving an agreed upon time in the military (unless they never signed up in the first place, or in times past were able to avoid a draft – those folks can pretty much do whatever they wish) they don’t get to have a Supreme Court that reflects and balances the political make-up of the country (unless they’re right wing republicans – in which case, it’s party time for their team; btw: how quickly was John Roberts sent in to replace the late Rehnquist? Why, overnight appears to be the time frame – the President can move when it matters… to him) and they don’t get anything resembling affordable and equal access to health care (unless they already have enough money to actually be able to afford it out of pocket – then it’s free; sort of like all the free stuff Paris Hilton gets, that’s the way it works.)
But they do get a President obsessed with the morals and values of the population. They do get a government that in controlling the Senate, the House and the Supreme Court will soon be able to control a woman’s uterus, a human’s non-functioning brain, and the futures and fortunes of those who would have wished to marry within their own sex.
It’s when it comes to their outsides, their actual physical beings, their lives, their health, their future and on the most basic level, their ability to survive, that this government has failed utterly.
The proof is positive that it’s the private sector that can best help during a disaster, which is fortunate because the private sector was the only one that did. When you can organize Hollywood into a disaster relief telethon faster than you can get a sandwich to a starving Southerner, something is very definitely out of whack.
I’ve been reluctant to write about Katrina – the anticipation of Katrina, Katrina as the storm began, Katrina at full fury, Katrina in its aftermath… Katrina and what Katrina has meant to the people and to the President who ignored Katrina, and those Katrina has devastated beyond all normal human comprehension.
After all, so much has been written, so much has been said and virtually all of it – even that which has emerged from sources more accustomed to congratulating the President than vilifying him – has said the same thing: a criminal screw up, a monumental show of indifference and a now clearly defined set of priorities that in lack of action speaks volumes. “You say it best,” goes the song. “when you say nothing at all.”
And nothing is what the President has been saying – even when he speaks.
But from everyone else a tsunami of words – a storm of anger, a hurricane of emotional reaction. The levee (so to speak) has burst.
From The New York Times to FOX News, from the left to the right and everywhere in between, the President and those who advise him have been recognized in a way that even a thousand or so American dead, ten thousand or so Iraqi and Afghani dead, thousands upon thousands of injured, maimed and orphaned humans of all races (hard to tell the nationality of limbs blown off bodies – equality at its most fundamental) devastated and destroyed in a desert region in the name of a war that was mounted on a lie, couldn’t do: the pitiful, careless, unforgivable response to Katrina has framed this Presidency and this President in a way that will remain legend long after the history books that tell the story have long dried up and blown away.
The only good news in sight as the bad news mounts (“It’s going to be about as ugly of a scene as I think you can imagine” said Home land Security Chief Michael Chertoff, in referring to the now thousands of corpses rescuers expect to find) is that the truth is now out. The indifference, the laziness, the contempt for those who ‘chose to stay’, the non-existent plan of rescue and support – and ware the finger pointing to local agencies: whatever their responsibility, by Monday, they were literally underwater – the unconscionable nerve of two former presidents appealing to the citizenry to financially bail out the rescue effort… all of it reveals a truth long ignored and long in coming.
And even the effort involved in draining the cities, rescuing the living and burying the dead won’t distract Americans from the underlying problem for long; and it isn’t the problem of a city below sea level – it’s the problem of a President beneath contempt.