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We’d been passing the time as pleasantly as one does when one is holding up posters revealing assorted facts about the squish rate. That’d be how often Canadian cars run over schoolchildren. Beats chatting about the weather, which in these parts is apt to disappoint.
We’d been practicing this bit of public-service semiotics (the science of signs) outside Liam’s school for several days before one of the drivers offered us a negative assessment. When I say “we” I don’t mean the royal or familial we. I guess I mean just me. Liam was having no part of this.
A green burb-box pulling west on Dewson tether-jerked to a halt with such abrupt rectitude that cars feeding in from the north on Concord and from east on Dewson nearly took out both quarter panels simultaneously. “I’m environmentally responsible,” the driver mommy shouted, an assertion apparently not belied by the half-dozen empty seats in the van. Her vehicle and the vehicles kissing her vehicle’s flanks were arrayed across the asphalt in the arms-akimbo shape of a peace sign. “I’m environmentally responsible,” the driver shouted, and then completed the syllogism with, “so why don’t you just shove your…”
I turned to Liam for clarification as the woman shot off like a green rocket through the throngs of scurrying pedestrian children.
“Did that woman in the green van just…”
“Yes, Daddy,” Liam said, clearly flirting with the notion of sympathizing with the enemy, “she told you to shove your sign up your ass.” As if by way of illustration, the CN Tower chose that moment to thrust its sly prong into a passing cumulo-nimbus.
“When I was a kid…” I began.
“We know,” said Liam, venturing an appeal to the royal we that I would not myself have hazarded.
My buttocks have been otherwise engaged for a long time, though I believe it is customary in these situations to thank the woman for her interest. I used to be a philosophy teacher, and any reference to one’s ass, that seat of higher education and ontological essence, can hardly fail to stir me in a Socratic sort of way. And my own merely physical instantiation of the universal ass also has its tale to tell. I have been afflicted with the family curse on my mother’s side, various forms of buttock and leg dysfunction that include weakness and sciatica and twisting and tingling and so on.
Old lady Addie Self channeled this Selfish Gene and in each generation there have been some of us who take a number of months or years away from walking. It hit my brother and me at the same age. I took two years out from the biped world, an experience that has given me a permanent sense of astonishment at how badly served people in wheelchairs are, even where we were living then in Illinois, America’s second flattest state.
I pulled through with Iyengar, a form of difficult, unglamorous medical yoga, after thirty-five other forms of treatment had failed. Every step—some days, a limp—that I take now is a sort of ritual of glory and thanksgiving, and of course my debt to distant Mr. Iyengar is incalculable.
It’s no accident that here at City Without Cars or whatever part of nowtopia we are at any particular moment, when we begin talking politics we don’t end up drifting off to the cute young new boss in some distant city selected to escalate the latest war in yet more distant cities. We talk about our asses. A is for asses. Begin here. Later, we can talk about America.
What with the sciatica and all, I tend to store things emotionally in my buttocks. It’s an odd arrangement, and makes it hard to keep track of things.
“Honey, have you seen the housekeys?” my wife’ll say.
“Just think for a moment,” she says, staring not at my brain cavity but at my buttocks, then slapping them, like they’re cheeks. “Just checking your pockets,” she says.
“We—” Liam will undoubtedly say if he reads this, “we get the idea.”
In nowtopia our relationship to cars and the empire is very different from the Western leftist—leftern—conventional wisdom, which is an economy of discrete virtuous acts. In leftern wisdom, youth is the rambunctious phase, and the youthful political subject has an ill-considered enthusiasm for overt resistance. As the subject ages, he or she matures and becomes more adept at negotiating the structures of power. Thus in a talk at the University of Toronto the critic Imre Szeman, an articulate leftern globalization expert and former PetroCanada Young Innovator, can lament what he perceives to be our collective fatigue with chiding ourselves for carbon faults, as if we are so many Catholics concerned with sins of emission and commission (if I might adapt the old theological distinction between the bad things you let happen and the bad things you do).
In nowtopia, by contrast, we are against the empire but it is an ‘against’ of closeness and vulnerability, the way an Iyengar teacher’s hand is against a wayward limb or against the chest of a student with heart trouble: proximate and sensitive but without indulgence. The teacher’s hand is there both by way of reproof but also to own up to a common humanity. There’s just opposition but more importantly there’s juxtaposition.
We—the nowtopian we—are not only talking about cars here, though that’s a good place to start. Suburbs were designed for cars, for example, but cities were here long before cars. Cities should exclude cars and car culture, for which wars are fought, and turn the streets over to wheelchairs, over which there are few, if any, large-scale wars of aggression or acquisition. In fact, it is precisely this phenomenon—wheelchairs and no access ramps—that wars have a tendency to overproduce.
At City Without Cars we believe that the wise person understands the sad fact of cars in cities less as an occasion to chide than to mourn. We ask not merely for a withdrawal of this or that carbon event, but for the broader honesty the situation calls for: gentle melancholy touched with compassion. Omissions tend towards premature absolution in any case, and corporate power has always been green in this sense of being able to incorporate green intention and thrive on it. Global capital flow can eat your omission—your not using a Styrofoam cup, say—for breakfast.
At City Without Cars we feel the powerlessness of that jerk in the Tahoe or the hard-pressed green-van’d mother and acknowledge it as our own. We hope we remain funny and sarcastic enough to get the occasional Tahoe guy chasing us down the street, and the kind of maturity we value looks for all the world like immaturity, but the whole sad spectacle is a love-in because the underlying feeling here is of mutual abandonment. If we aren’t understanding this first letter in the primer of self-awareness in the American mode, the A that stands for abandonment, the firstfruit of self-knowledge, the apple of our collective carnal knowledge, then we are left with virtues and vices and the whole program of doing and not doing, which never touches our heart. Thirty children are run over and killed each year in Canada, twenty-four hundred are maimed, most of them after three o’clock, when school gets out, and these figures say nothing of the far greater number killed inside their alloy-and-plastic pods, nor of how many are cancered up, nor of the foreign children struck down to protect our states’ “interests” and to keep our states “strong.”
Chiding is fine as far as it goes, but the killers are lovers, too, and mothers and fathers (the green-van’d lady will turn out to be a bike activist in the Canadian mode, say), regular people who drove and were driven, who podded themselves up with a set of compulsions so complex they could hardly reckon with all the loose ends of the story. In podville all the other pods were out, they were thinking, so how crazy could it be? Pods make sense the way the lash made sense two hundred years ago because everyone appears to be doing it.
This is a situation not for reason, but for weeping. And in our daily practice, a quiet melancholy, and a heart opening, opening, opening. Can we do this? These are my cars, my neighborhood, my ass.
Joy isn’t happiness. It’s that other feeling that comes out from the midst of melancholy. It’s the thing with feathers, after it’s been plucked. For me, it comes from walking, and short flights.
Ten years ago I was tying Sebastian’s shoe and a green van, for all the world the very van I saw just the other day, lifted me up neatly on its back bumper and flung me deeper into the schoolyard. I got up and I was fine. That kind of shocked feeling that runs through anger and then finds itself as a kind of relief in gratitude and vulnerability, that’s joy. I’ve been struck by a car thrice that I can remember. Of the times I can’t remember, no visible head wounds.
Joy is beyond hope. Akin to hopelessness, though it doesn’t feel like it. I suppose it’s a sort of lack of expectation. At City Without Cars, for example, we do not expect governments to change or to give us a new deal. New deals can usually be found on closer inspection to be the same old deal, in any case, and where they aren’t, they’re prelude or punctuation to the same old. When Canada’s best-selling newspaper, stationed here in Toronto, cites the new transportation plan calling for an increase in the average number of people in cars from its current 1.15 to 1.32 in twenty years, and calls this change “BIG,” we can’t help but feel that sometimes the press is called free because it provides free puff pieces for government (Star, 24 Sept., year 8). We look not to government to help us, as if we were so many children with proxy parents, but to ourselves. We made this mess. I made it—certainly much of the damage done by Dodge Darts has the look of my handiwork. And you might as well know that I’m the one who did donuts on Mark Wilhelm’s neighbor’s lawn back in ’75 using my dad’s Chrysler Imperial. Sorry about that. Hell of a car, though, just for the record.
At City Without Cars, or whichever of the thousand nowtopian whichevers we are, we maintain that even “holding our leaders to account” is just one more version of putting our own baggage on to other people. Creating expectations is a form of aggression subtle enough that we often can’t see it. But it is aggressive nevertheless. In Argentina, the left acclaimed that lush-wifed Obama-like wackjob Perón, and look where it got them. Should have left the poor guy alone.
For reasons we’ve been careful to delineate elsewhere, we suspect that there is no such thing as a leader. We have yet to see one, in any case. Governments print bucks for passing, but really there’s no one to whom we can pass responsibility. At City Without Cars—which is not an organization but a disorganization, not a node or site in the empire but a tendency of the heart—we petition no one. Indeed, whom would we petition? The belief that we can be free while having leaders is a chimera, a way of avoiding the hard work of being here, now, attending to our own asses, our own shit. Not sending it off to the empire. Spiritually speaking, we are composters, not pipers. For free speech, we talk to our neighbors, not some “leader.”
So my brief flight without feathers courtesy of a green van all those years ago gave me an excellent view of the city. And all references to our asses shouted from vans in that overdetermined color green should be received with gratitude.
In one tradition of Buddhism, cakes are offered to demons, who are depicted as monsters, fantastic and fantastical. The demons are actually part of one’s own karma—I guess we’d call it baggage—and they serve to remind one of all the work one still has to do on one’s self. So a person is grateful for his demons, and encourages, with oblations of cake, their scary work, rather in the way we might pay a psychoanalyst in the Lacanian tradition and be grateful if he isn’t particularly nice to us (refuses, in other words, to put up with our shit).
Cars are my demons. My nephew was crowned by a Crown Victoria and it took him two and a half years to die. Cars have headlight eyeballs and bumper mouths, and I occasionally offer them pieces of cake. The trick is to be grateful to them. To this end, I am particularly thankful for the blue Volvo 850 typically parked near Dewson and Dovercourt, the very image of the family car we were driving when we heard about our nephew and cousin’s crowning (as if it were a birth, and he was emerging into a higher stage). Further gratitude to occasional sightings of old Dodge Darts, Cherokees, Suburbans and of the dozen other types of gas-nozzle do-me’s I used to drive, race, jump, and so on, not to mention the occasional weightlifter who emerges from one of these demons or their modern counterparts and chases me down the street because I have called out something into his open window that seemed funny at the time.
When being chased down the street, one feels a remarkable sense of satisfaction in the fact of having a working set of legs. Hope would be about one’s ambition to get away. Joy is the pure pleasure of the run, with a tinge of gratitude to one’s demons.
It’s a good day for a run, said the rabbit to the fox.
I suppose that somewhere in the rearview of the Camaro of life, there’s a sign warning that objects in mirror are closer than they appear, and if there’s someone still chasing me, they might be getting nearer. But today I run for the joy of it. I put my heart into it, and never look back.
DAVID KER THOMSON lives in the urban forest of Oz, a part of Toronto. This article is best read to the sounds of “All My Little Words,” by Stephin Merrit of Magnetic Fields. Thomson can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org