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A Natural History of Now

Empty Nest

by DAVID Ker THOMSON

"Awesomer,” says Liam, coming briefly into rhyme alignment with gossamer.

“Schadenfreude,” he says later.  He’s nine.  “Pleasure in the suffering of others.”

“You read too much,” I tell him in the present tense, though it was last week.  “It’s a form of false consciousness.”

He’s at camp this week, off to the north as part of our bid to Canadianize ourselves.  He’s with his tall courtly older brother who, at thirteen, moves amidst a series of accolades about his—Sebastian’s, not Liam’s—goodness.  Liam’s cabin, White Pine; Sebastian’s, Spruce.  Are you getting this down? 

Meanwhile, back at the ranch, we’re empty nesting it.  Here along an audible but invisible tributary of Garrison Creek, one of downtown Toronto’s underground rivers. 

Last week when I was about to go off to a sort of poetry camp in America, Eva-Lynn and I’d woken up laughing at the memory of our guest’s having referred, the night before, to a colleague with BO as “smelling of wing,” which turns out to be one of the best ways to describe the phenomenon in a romance language.  The two clock alarms then going off on either side of the bed as if they were underscoring our hysteria over the impending separation.  “Ha ha,” we said to each other with the bemused, post-amused, intake of breath after explosive laughter, “smelling of wing.”

Liam, who generally lacks accolades but has a certain je ne sais quoi, had cracked the window by the front door last year, and in a burst of prophetic insight I hadn’t gotten around to fixing it before he put a soccer ball through it some months later.  This is what counts for us as keeping ahead.  This week, by contrast—nothing broken.  We don’t really like it.

Those of you who aren’t reading this article are thinking, or would be if you were still here, “human interest story or something.”  And you move on to your news of the empire.  But here in heresville or nowtopia we don’t think of it that way.  There’s nothing, for us, not a single thing, more important than any old thing our nine-year-olds happen to say.  Unless it’s what our thirteen-year-olds happen to say.  Not to mention those stalwarts, our spouses, as people who are into that idea call them.  Because their quality of hereness is the most fiercely political thing we have to hold up against the ruins of empire, that same old congeries of naïve ostrich reflexes saluting the colorful elsewhereness of the empire that goes by the name of democracy.

So imagine our discomfiture when the kids are off at Camp Wenonah, as serviceable an illustration of elsewhere as you could hope for.  Imagine my reluctance to shift them into the past tense.  My sense of frustration even with my own dreams for failing to provide me with a compensatory transcript of kidlife.  Relief one night when I wake with a start at an image of Liam.  That sort of thing.

This sound byte, as an example of hereness, from our first reconnaissance of Camp Wenonah last month:
“I’m covered in mosquito bits,” says Sebastian, swatting vigorously.  “Bites?” I correct him.  “No,” says the boy who is fastidious about personal hygiene, “bits.”

Or this from the ongoing psychosexual drama called marriage:
Bye, I go.  Bye, she goes.  She hangs up.  What the…?  She just hung up on me!

Or this corollary, tendered in the confessional spirit that angles at the truth beneath the welter of surfaces:  Two by two, into the ark of my gaze, have come the buttocks of a thousand women.

Does that last one undercut or underscore the love nest?

Or this bit of local color on the side of a leaf bag: Go Leafs Go!

That last one an exemplary text.  We advise such careful reportage to all journalists when the big guys come calling and ask you to wag your coiff’d head and weigh in on this or that “political” “issue” outside your own watershed (to ratify the empire in form even as you offer your nifty little critique of it in content).  You think we’re fooling around here?  I’d as lief spend my time with the leaves as with a certified arborist, his saw friendly for the trunk of my oak.

This just in:
On the side of a vehicle, where they are not much use except for helping to put a name to a certain type of regret, instructions for pedestrians written in chrome: DODGE.

Speaking of regret, have you noticed how it’s all about security these days, rather than safety?  Well, of course, you’ve noticed it with airline flights.  But even here in heresville.

Meter maids here in Toronto wear massive flak jackets, for example, in case anyone gives them any, I guess.  Gives the town a nice siege feel, even without the garbage strike.  But after all the hoopla about terrorism, a third of the exits from the subways here in town are vicious firetraps with a single floor-to-ceiling turnstile and no emergency exits.  Get enough smoke in the station and all it will take is one man trying to pull his oversized Gucci through the stile and you’ll have a big stack of bodies and, shortly thereafter, plenty of leisure for regret and recrimination.  The TTC refuses to respond to my phone calls and emails, which is a very sensible precaution since they’re apparently not planning on doing anything about the problem.  For this and many other reasons we urge walking and wheelchairing rather than engining whenever possible.  

We are now, or ever have been, members of the reading party of CP of America, so it’s no news to us that anti-terrorism is all about making the population docile in the face of the loss of personal freedom.  Last time I flew—is it still like this?—it was okay to bring lighters but not water onto the airplane, as long as you bought the lighters after security.  And I was encouraged to keep our foot-and-a-half-long solid-steel thermos—a perfect club wielded in the hands of a big man—but not the coffee inside it (“okay, no one fucken move, I got a capucino and I’m not afraid to use it”).  But it’s sort of fun every now and then to remember safety, at least as a thought experiment.

The other day, four of the boys in blue swarmed our Hungarian dumpster diver, our neighborhood’s most colorful cyclist, if you don’t count me.  With many a cluck, they were pulling out the axe he uses to break up some of the construction stuff.  I wandered over with a smile to tell them not to worry, that he’s a friend of mine.  Just how useful it is to have me put in a good word for you might be judged by how quickly Blue arranged itself into an hysterical SWAT crèche, arms akimbo, shrieking frantically about “maintaining a distance of fifty feet.”  Quite a tableau vivant.  Frieze, muthafucka.

How is it that these four over-armed ninja turtles, whose tolerances can be calibrated with numbers like .38, .45, and 9mm, are so frightened of a couple of unarmed bicyclists?  It’s because the ninjas aren’t from here, let alone heresville.  Hard to say where they’re from—from the looks of them and their American cars, I’d guess maybe Buffalo or some bunker in Iraq—but it’s not here.  No wonder we look like aliens to them.  We don’t even have shells.  I know the pimps, kids, hookers, asshole drivers, gardeners, striders.  I know who sleeps in the park and where.  I even know where our own kids are sometimes.  But these clowns?  Never seen them.

Meanwhile Garrison Creek forty feet beneath the tarmac struggles to reassert itself.  Buckles pavement, shrugs, off-steams exhalations of the shit with which we’ve force fed it.  Roars gutturally after storms, murmurs petulantly the next day.  At night: pipe dreams.  Micro-fractures fan out in the asphalt, a heraldry of dendrites, a pattern.  The pattern suggests tribute, accolade; the tributary system is a diagram’d skein of compulsive giving.  The stream will run free again one day, the salmon will remember.  But the big question for the mammals is whether we’ll be around to notice.

Big non-news in town is the garbage strike.  Calls from the left and right to the government to do something.  Big Daddy government, please help us.  Goo goo, ga ga.  We’ve forgotten how to dig a hole for compost.  Forgotten how to stop buying so much.

Here’s the first instinct of this government the left is so keen on importuning: dump the garbage in the playgrounds.  I kid you not.  Not kidding is the first instinct of democracy—get rid of the kids, promote the cars.  I had to bike out to a suburb yesterday to sign the kids up for soccer (remember the old days of pickup games?) because our own soccer clubhouse is on a skating rink.  Dumping the garbage in the skating rinks is to Canada what destroying Bald Eagle habitat is to America—so far beyond third and fourth level irony that you are reminded for the thousandth time that people will put up with anything as long as they have a government they can complain about.

Of course, to me, a bit of garbage isn’t genuine suffering, but having to go to a suburb feels like it ought to count. 

It strikes our fancy that there are plenty of roads in which to dump trash.  Why don’t we do it in the road?  This would do double service by stopping the cars.  We advise a giant ring of trash around the city to protect us from the daily suburban car incursion. 

People who aren’t around in the neighborhoods during the day won’t notice, but the city actually smells better since the strike started (with the notable exclusion of certain playgrounds).  No leaky trucks systematically spreading garbage juice up and down every road—this is one of our favorite things about the strike.  Garbage collection just encourages the corporates to keep producing more.  In our opinion, the garbage strike is already solved.  Now just tip the trucks over and grow oaks in them, or shuffle them off to Buffalo.  Open up the streets for hockey.

Democracy is all about distance.  Instead of dealing with shit right here, pipe it elsewhere, truck it off.  But here in nowtopia we say: with such nonsense we will have no truck.

Democracy is not the opposite of fascism, but a more clever form of it.  Democracy is a species of tyranny that is more adept than the overt oligarchies at sending its problems abroad.  Corrupt judges sequester pot-dabbling youth in out-of-sight boxes for an apprenticeship in crime and rage, then the judges celebrate the send-off with a few drinks.  Schadenfreude.  The absurdly extraneous wars of the smartest democracies take place far from home.  The war experiments in Iraq and Afghanistan should be considered excellent large-scale studies on precisely how victims die, yielding results on a par with similar large-scale experiments in Nazi Germany, and with similar collusion from scientists and doctors.  But we’re smarter than the Third Reich—we do the nasty far away.  Preserve the fantasy of free speech here.  Our pleasure in democracy is pleasure in the pain of others.

Democracy is a pipe dream.  Its credo is: send it away.  Let someone else deal with it.

The quaint imperial spelling for reckoning the amount of trash in the children’s playgrounds here in Canada: tonnes.

Amount of collusion with government those of us in City without Cars and other disorganizations in nowtopia and heresville are striving for: zed.

Well, there I go, yammering about someone else’s sins when what I meant was loneliness.  Feeling abandoned, I suppose.  Empty nested. 

Was just over in the park talking with the see-loss folks, hoping to bond.  CELOS, the Centre for Local Research into Public Space.  Their acronym fighting it out with ours, the see-walk folks.  Their relationship to democracy sycophantically spelled out in corporate blah blah that shuts out riff-raff like us: “Recreation will enhance community involvement so that we can empower communities to better support the delivery of recreational programs and services.”  With this we’re asked to sign some petition to a city councilor and a mayor they admit is less ethical than they are.  But if it’s petition you’re into, why pray to lesser gods?  It’s not like anyone over in the park is getting rich.  We don’t get what the incentive is for sucking up to fools.  What, pray tell, have the fools done for us lately?  Still the point is that the air at the park is thick, not with corporate triumph, despite the form, but with abandonment.  Surely this is the place to start to reach out?  We’ve said it before: human interaction should begin with a sense of mutual abandonment.

Sparrow babies in the eaves, bigger than their parents and smelling of wing, totter out yawning, like it’s okay to be waking up in July.  They take a look around and whistle appreciatively.

Putting my money where my mouth is here, I’m going to give my CP readers a reprieve for a few weeks, as I ought to be trying to sell my book project, A.  A is a history of America beginning with abandonment.  I’d best try to get some money out of it before we all renounce money at the lighting of the Olympic torch in 2012, if we follow Michael Dickinson’s suggestion, as we probably should.  I need to earn some so I’ll have something to renounce.  I’d renounce my cultural capital, if that were easier, but I’m a bit low right now, as the modest bio below suggests.

DAVID Ker THOMSON lives in Garrison Creek watershed.  Dave.Thomson@utoronto.ca