Goodye John.

December 8, 2010

He was the Walrus, and then John…and now he is gone.

John Winston Ono Lennon.
Murdered on this day, 1980.

The first world changing event which I remember.






I do not wear a poppy

November 11, 2010

This week she’s taken the word “remember” as a new favourite. It’s on your lips, unprompted. You seem satisfied to coax me into saying it too… and then it’s there again a little later.

I don’t think I’ve read her the word from any book.
Where did it come from?
Did she notice the old man offering plastic poppies from a donation-box?

To my delight, she’s chosen such a word which is a bit abstract, certainly mysterious…   and at this time of year, impressively ambiguous.

She will notice, someday, that I do not wear a poppy.
Don’t think that I consider memory as unimportant. Rather I’ve lost the ability to remember what, and the way, I was taught.

The somber mood of Remembrance Day has always been a veneer, glossing — but never really concealing — an occasion to pay homage to the military dead, to look up to the flag, to reinforce a distorted version of the past.  I wasn’t always bothered by the rhetoric at the cenotaph… I can’t stomach it any more.

Remember that November 11th was created to commemorate the ending of the First World War (1914-1918). Most of our Cenotaphs — at which we are urged to gather — were erected in mark the same conflict.  At the time, it known as the “Great War”. It may have been great — in sense of enormous or  astounding) but was nothing to be proud of.

In that horrible decade, the “world” (essentially Europe and its colonial possessions) stumbled -perhaps hurled- themselves into a pointless bloodbath. You can spend an eon studying and you will learn about causes, but there is no purpose to be found.
The fighting was lead by officers who were incompetent and horrifyingly callous. Befuddled by the newly invented machine-gun, officers sent wide lines of men marching to their deaths. Enemies (especially on the Western Front) spent most of those four years in a muddy stalemate… terrorizing each other with ceaseless artillery barrage and trying to figure out innovative tactics of slaughter.
Conscripts were supplemented with hundreds of thousands of volunteers. These men were whipped up with a suite of lies.  Millions of men temporarily emboldened with blind patriotism, tragic gullibility and naivety marched obediently off to hell.

There were 10,000,000 military deaths during the “Great War”… (including 65,000 Canadians)

When the war ended, almost nothing had been accomplished. A few colonies changed hands — one pair of greedy hands for another and similarly, the maps of the Balkans and the Middle East were redrawn with lines which are still causing conflict. The equally guilty forced Germany to accept the blame for starting the war… and punished it by slicing into its territory and imposing reparations and restrictions. This settlement lead to the war resuming about twenty years later… this time called “the Second World War”, even more bloody than the first.

Now look at the inscriptions of the average cenotaph. A small handful of quite typical examples:

“The Glorious Dead”  (London, England — 1920)

“Erected in commemoration of the men and women of this city who died on the field of honour in war that Canada might maintain her heritage of freedom”.   (Port Arthur, Ontario — 1925)

“In glorious memory of those of this City and District, who, at the call of King and Country, adventured forth and gave their all for the cause of Right and Freedom, 1914-1918.”   (Saskatoon, Saskatchewan — 1929)

These are monuments of which we should be embarassed.

Additional wars — and their own mythologies — have been added to the cenotaphs since they were built.  Each of these — WW2, Korea and (now) Afghanistan — should not be times to be remembered without their own shame. Offense left for another day.

The ceremonial rhetoric with which I grew up (I hope, but doubt, that you’ll be any more fortunate) was in tune. From the webpage of the Royal Canadian Legion (the veteran’s organization which dominates what is said on Nov 11th) explains that Remembrance Day should be  “the one distinct observance that the nation pay tribute to those “who gave their lives that freedom might prevail”.

Let’s leave the crap of glory and freedom behind.
Remember that Nov11th is dedicated to the memory of only the military dead, and further, only those who died wearing the right uniform. Somber reflection is not offered to those — conscripts and fools — who were killed fighting for the other side.  Neither is it offered to the millions of civilians who were killed… by “accident”, out of negligence, or entirely deliberately.

4,000,000 died fighting on the other side of WW1.
WW1 caused the death of at least 7,000,000 civilians.
WW2 caused the deaths of about 50,000,000 civilians
Korea caused the deaths of at least 2,000,000 civilians
So far, an estimated 15,000 to 35,000 civilians have died as a result of the (latest) Afghan war.

I must stop myself from going on and on… but just one last point:

I bristle at occasions which push us towards prescribed ritual, attitude and perspective. Dissent is never simple, but on days like Nov11th it is cast as the height of disrespect.
There is no place for me at a cenotaph. Their words make my angry.
I know that I am likely to offend… especially those of my Grandmother’s generation (I can’t rid my memory of  her facial expression). Those who lived through something like the world wars do not want to be confronted with someone who is not grateful for their sacrifice.
I can be somber while wondering why so many went to their deaths believing the lies they were fed.
I can be somber while wondering what foolish policies led to conflict beginning in the first place.
I can be somber while struggling to imagine how terrible war is.
I can be somber thinking about occasions when violence is right… and regretting that it’s so difficult to find any such thing in Canada’s history.


Finally, to be fair… there do exist cenotaph inscriptions which do not make me cringe.  The words on the cenotaph in Brantford Ontario (1923)  reads:

“Let those who come after
see to it that their names
be not forgotten”.

Sometimes vagueness is the best we can do.

cowards and martyrs

October 23, 2010

On this day, in 1983, suicide bombers attacked two targets is Beirut.

I was eleven, and my memory is terrible, but I remember Reagan calling it a “cowardly act”.



Robert is dead

October 14, 2010

On this day, in 2007, Robert Dziekanski was killed by a Tazer in the hands of the RCMP (the Royal Canadian Mounted Police).


There’s plenty to say about the killing of Robert Dzkenski.  A great deal of it has already been said, and – we can hope – not forgotten. The report of the offical inquiry, written by Commisoner Thomas Braidwood , goes on for 460 pages.

Reading that report, and watching the video (shot by a bystander) of the end of Robert’s life, I did notice one troubling detail which I’ve found troubling… among a mass of troubling parts.

When Robert lost his temper, no one around him could speak or understand his language.  No one even knew what language he could understand.

The following traces the evolution of this language barrier from Robert’s arrival until he is killed.

The very first layer of officaldom, a private contractor working to direct people towards customs, discovered that Robert did not speak english. (She conveyed her simple message with hand signals).

The very first Customs officer – just by glacing at Robert’s passport – knew that Robert was Polish. By offering Robert a choice of the basic declaration cards, translated into many languages, he confirmed that he spoke Polish.

About an hour after the flight arrived, a stewardess noticed Robert’s unclaimed bags. By scanning the luggage tags, she figured out that he came from Poland. She then asked a Customs officer if they knew where Robert was. They didn’t.  (The Braidwood Report’s account of the stewardess’ trestimony does not include whether or not she mentioned that the missing passenger was Polish… it doesn’t seem like a stretch to think that she would have.

Sometime after 1900h, Customs was contacted by a person (Mr.Hutchinson) waiting to meet Robert. They were told that he spoke Polish.  This officer told another officer that a family was worried about a man who should have arrived from Poland… this conversation was overheard by their supervisor.

At 2230h, Robert found his way to the Secondary Customs station. These officers testified that it was obvious there was a language barrier, but that they did not think that they needed a translator. Robert was sent on to the Secondary Immigration station, where the language issue repeated itself. These officers managed to figure out that Robert spoke Polish (Braidwood does include an explanation of why they did not simply look at his passport), they looked in a database for appropriate translators, and found none. (They testified that – astonishingly – they had not been aware that they had access to a 24/7 hotline to translation services for 170 different languages). By luck one other officer on duty could speak a very little Polish. With his help, Immigration managed to accomplish their task.

During his time in secondary Immigation, a (non-Polish) translator watched officers trying to communicate with Robert. She intervened to suggest that they call translator and offered that she knew one who spoke Polish.

Also during this time, the Customs officer who had spoken with Mr.Hutchinson noticed Robert and put two and two together. She told Immigration that the people waiting to meet Robert had been worried, and may have given up and gone home.

A while later (shortly before 0100), the officer who had been able to speak a bit of Polish, noticed that Robert didn’t seem to understand that he was cleared to leave. He guided him to the theshold and wished him a good night. Within steps, Robert was again in a world where no one could speak his language and, worse, the identify of that language was suddenly lost.

At just after 0100, a security guard encountered an agiated Robert in the International Arrivals Lounge. The language barrier was rediscovered.

About two minutes later, a bystander complained about Robert to security, mentioning that Robert did not speak any English and guessing that he might speak Russian.

This guess was incorrect – Robert was speaking Polish. (This detail is less relevant than it might seem… Robert, educated in Soviet influenced Poland of the 1970s, would have almost certainly been taught to speak and understand Russian.

No matter the exact language, it takes until 0135hr for Airport security to make any attempt to find someone who could speak either language. Earlier, they had rejected an offer from a staff member who offered to help as he could speak Russian.  Nobody bothered to use the wall-mounted help phones which would have patched them through to the 24/7 translation service (170 languages).

When the police arrived (0127h) several bystanders and a security guard told them that Robert spoke Russian. The officers, perhaps because they were rushing (for which they were later repremanded), made no attempt to find a Russian-speaker who could assist.

By 0135h, when security finally asked that somebody ask the maintence staff if anyone on duty happen to speak Russian, Robert was already dead.

Video footage (shot by a bystander) shows Robert making several attempts to communicate and cooperate with the police. When he understood a demand to see his passport, he obediently tried to get it from his luggage. (To what must have been confusion and frustration, a second officer immediately demanded that he stop reaching for his passport). Robert trys to comply with an officer’s demand to see a passport, is suddenly told to stop, and then – confused – raising his hands in a guesture of surrender). He spoke in Polish: “leave me alone… have you gone mad?”.

As they will conceed, the police’s role was to minimize the risk of anyone being injured by containing Robert, and then calming him down.  (Yes, as a very last resort, it would have been appropriate to physically restrain Robert).  To calm someone requires communicating. In this case a translator was required.  It would not have been sensible to wait for one to arrive… but (a) translation services were available on those wall-mounted phones, (b) containing Robert’s minor rampage took was quickly and easily accomplished just by their pressence and a few hand-guestures… at this point the police were in a position to wait for a translator to fly in from Mars.

There is no excuse for police officers, stationed for regular duty at an international airport to be unaware of, and accustomed to accessing, resources available to help them communicate with travellers who can not speak english.

That incompetance is a key to how Robert ended up dead.

Part of what feuled Robert’s frustration, and then anger, was surely the experience of being severed – by the legacy of Babel – from everyone around him.

Being unable to either speak to or understand anyone around you is to be severed from all others… dangling in an unnatrual, individual state.  This can be part of the buzz of travelling, it can also spiral very quickly into a nightmare.

Most people have had their heart pound through a dream of being unable to speak to communicate.

Facing one stranger, with no common language, is awkward. Being lost in such a crowd is frightening.  Being confronted by police officers – quite apparently in an alarming rush, would have been absolutely terrifying… and a horrible way to die.


Post-Inquiry updates:
Braidwood notes that Vancouver International Airport has implemented some improvments.

All Security Guards are given a “Customer Care Cards” which include directions to make use of the interpretor-hot-line.

All staff are given Blackberries to allow them to access the interpretor-hot-line.

Cards, to be given to any passenger in distress, have been designed to so that they may – by pointing to their language – help staff begin assisting them.

Additional courtesy phones have been hung, to provide easier access to the interpretor hot-line.

The offending officers were not fired. The RCMP reassigned them to posts away from the airport.

After two and a half years, the head of the RCMP offered Robert’s mother an apology.

The RCMP officers responsible for Robert’s death were never charged.

Christo’s Umbrellas

October 9, 2010


Christo: Umbrellas (California)



On this day, Christo’s umbrellas were opened.

Over two thousand enormous umbrellas graced thirty miles of two landscapes on two continents. The Californian display was made up of 1760 yellow umbrellas, and the Japanese, 1340 blue ones.


What is so terrific about Christo?

Our moments of whimsy are so small. The are almost silent, careful asides at most. They are restrained, lest playing foolishly makes us a fool. They are shy, carefully avoiding the gaze all but a very few.

. . . his artworks are whimsy on an absurdly grand scale.

being released

October 5, 2010

On this day, in 2003, Maher Arar was released from a Syrian prison.

But  how true is that? Do you imagine that anyone — accused, seized, interrogated, rendered and tortured — can be released?

You bungle, I cry foul.

September 25, 2010

On this day in 1997:
Two Mossad agents bungled an assassination in Amman, Jordan. The target was Khaled Mashal, a member of the Hamas leadership. (He was, in 1997, the “Chairman of the Hamas Political Bureau”).
As is not uncommon, they were carrying non-Israeli passports. (Stealthy spy stuff aside, an Israeli passport will not get you far traveling around the Middle East).
In this case, this time, the passports were Canadian.

Its not really very surprising that Mossad was able to get their hands on foreign passports.
It is quite possible that these were forged from scratch.  They may have been fabricated by altering passports belonging to Canadian-Israeli citizens. Dual citizens, living in Israel, have complained of being asked (pressured) by authorities to lend their foreign passports for use by such hit-squads. In other cases, dual citizens have protested that their identities were stolen by Mossad.
A little further, it is not impossible that foreign states have helped Mossad create their fake identities. Of course, they make a show of protesting when the media reports note that a hit-squad was carrying their passports.   It seems like a pretty simple favour to do for a state considered a friend… and besides, the governments involved are hardly sympathetic towards Hamas.
In the 1997 case, very little — a show of finger-wagging, and the temporary recall of the ambassador — was done in response. This unfortunately is the norm… the Israeli government continues to sign off on Mossad’s use of foreign passports.
The problem?
(a) The practice troubles (border hassles to personal safety) those who travel in the Middle East on (real) Canadian passports.
(b) If  we confine ourselves to bit of protest over the use of forged passports, we are missing a golden opportunity to condemn a state’s use of  murder to eliminate their opponents.
(c) We must accept that — partly our own fault — the practices will continue… both the forging of (more) reputable passports the use of murder. Indeed, continue it does. Most recently, a Mossad hit-squad killed  Mahmoud al-Mabhouh in Dubai. (A Hamas figure, reportedly a target because of his role in the killing of two Israeli soldiers twenty years ago). The hit-squad was traveling using forged British, German and French passports.

I want to tell myself that it slips by because we are distracted,
but maybe we don’t see a problem with murder?

Mr. Dressup is dead

September 18, 2010

Mr.Dressup was an icon of Canadian children’s-culture. It’s hard to imagine that any Canadian kid – born between roughly 1965 to 2000 – would not recognize his picture. Some large majority would recognize the theme music. Another majority would have watched the show dozens and dozens of times.

Ernie Coombs entered the television as a puppeteer in Mr.Roger’s Neighbourhood.  A few years later, the CBC gave him his own show… the first episode of “Mr.Dressup” was aired February 13th, 1967.

Until 1990, Finnegan and Casey lived in Mr.Dressup’s backyard. Finnegan (a dog) was silent. Casey was, officially, neither a boy nor a girl. I loved Finnegan. To be honest, Casey gave me the creeps.  (It never occurred to me until this moment how odd it is that Mr.Dressup had a child living in a backyard tree-house).

Just shy of three decades after it began, Mr.Dressup stopped taping. Since no narrative linked one episode to the next, the CBC let the 10:30am broadcasts drift into re-runs without any mention of retirement.
Somebody was afraid that the idea of retirement might upset the children. This seemed cute, until I gave it some thought.

The illusion continued…
Five years later, on September 10th 2001, Ernie Coombs suffered a major stroke. He died a week later, on September 18th.
After a few days of silence, the show resumed its re-run drift.

Plenty of people said: a big part of a generation’s childhood died, right along with Ernie Coombs.

I imagined that something saved Mr.Dressup from witnessing the disturbing imagery of 9.11.  And I wondered if that same something took Ernie Coombs – that prince of naivety – away from a culture so shaken.

Another five years later, on September 3rd 2006, even the re-runs were extinguished.
A DVD set is forthcoming.

Photographs of people falling from the North and South towers of the World Trade Center (9.11.2001) were published in countless newspapers on the morning following the attack. It was a part of the story in television and radio coverage… but only in the first stage of the marathon. By September 13th, “the jumpers” had virtually vanished.
This was not some back-room conspiracy. It was spasm of self-censorship, repeated and mimicked across an entire country.  Angry audiences objected to the terrible images. Editors responded by averting our gaze.

This one bit of the story almost, but not completely, vanished.Esquire Magazine (Sept 2003) published “The Falling Man” by Tom Junod. This article, centered around one photograph of a single falling man, stirred the set-aside pot. What does it say about us we allowed our horror, and a taboo, erase this part of the story?

Why does their disappearance upset me?
Why are their part of the story so important?

Allow me to do this by way of a story… about where their tale intersects my own…

On that day, I happen to be listening to National Public Radio. (I was driving down Long Island, towards Manhattan, but that’s a story for elsewhere). A news bulletin announced that there had been reports of an explosion at the World Trade Center. Very shortly afterwards, the WNYC suddenly fell to static.
WYNC, it wasn’t hard to realize, was broadcasting from an antenna on top of one of the World Trade Center towers. (It turns out that this was on roof of the North Tower, the first to be hit. The heat from the resulting fire must have fairly quickly reached the roof and destroyed the antenna).
I pulled off the highway — about 30 miles from New York City — and started flipping through the dial.
While others gathered around television sets to watch the unfolding spectacle, I was confined to radio.
(It wasn’t until a few weeks ago, almost nine years afterwards, that I saw the television footage that millions and millions of people saw that day… and repeated over and over again).
Confined to radio, unable to see the obscene theater of the second plane hitting the South Tower, it took quite a while for the severity of the situation to sink in. I certainly wasn’t ignoring what was going on… I was flipping through the radio dial, excited to be so close to what was obviously a major event. This may seem a little less troubling if you understand that I had spent much of my university time studying the peace/conflict side of  “International Relations” (terrorism and American foreign policy were major topics).
But World Trade Center attack was — with terrible brilliance — designed to be seen. The second plane struck 17 minutes after the first… perfectly timed: several cameras were broadcasting live images of the fire up in the North Tower, accidentally capturing the second plane striking the South Tower.
No radio-bound words could come close to matching the power of that bit of footage.

What did jolt me out of my mind out of its whirling mode, treating the whole thing as an exciting moment for analysis?
The jumpers.
I remember it as a child’s voice asking “are those birds?”. In fact, I can still hear that child… and that innocent, but horrible question.
(From reading the other day, I found references to a mother trying to comfort her child by telling her that “those are only birds”. Whichever).
It was the thought of people falling hundreds of feet to the concrete which jarred me into a more compassionate mode. The next day, the news-photographs pushed me further.

The images of the doomed fell out of circulation almost as quickly as those people fell to the ground. Within 48 hours, they were gone.
I hate that we made the jumpers vanish.
Something which jolted me into compassion… was ushered out of sight, into a the confines of a taboo.

The images froze the them in mid air. The doomed were suspended in terrible flight.
Did we think that by making the images vanish, we’d stop what gravity says next? Did we leave them suspended in the air?

Reflecting Absence(s)

September 11, 2010

depiction of "Reflecting Absence" design... by Squared Design Lab

A calamity is more than just numbers.
But let me walk you to the place my mind went when I heard about the planned memorial at “ground zero”.

computer generated image of how names will be inscribed

The memorial will display the names of those who died 9.11.2001 (plus six who were killed in the 1993 bombing attempt). This is a total of 2979 names.
The names will be inscribed along enormous bronze plaques with run the outline of two pools. These pools —  roughly marking the footprints of the North and South Towers — will be 176′ x 176′.
As far as I can tell, the names will be arranged in five rows.

Now here comes some math.
(I will not admit just how long it took me to figure out the following numbers… I was not a stellar math student… in fact, my last math teacher wrote on my report card: “you are the only student who’s math skills have ever managed to detierate during the year”.   —But I do assure you that I am quite sure that my math is correct, if hardly elegant or efficient.)

Since there are 2979 names to be inscribed around two pools, it seems reasonable to estimate that each pool will display 1490 names.
IF the names are arranged in five rows, 298 names would wrap around each row.

The pool will be 176’ x 176’

The perimiter of each pool is 704’

704 feet, divided by 298 names… that’s an average of 2.36” (aprox 2’4”) per name.

Imagine building such a memorial to other calamities… even restricting ourselves to events properly understood as a single attack (such as 9.11.2001).

On the night of March 8/9th (1945), a single raid of US B-29s dropped 1700 tones of bombs on Tokyo. Somewhere between 88,000 to 100,000 people were killed.  We’ll use the more conservative number (proposed by the US Strategic Bombing Survey).

To accomodate the names of ½ of those killed in Tokyo that night (44,000), arranged in five rows (8,000 per row)… each of the two pools at a Tokyo-edition of “Reflecting Absence” would require 20,768 linear feet of bronze.
The dimensions of such a pool would need to be 5192’ x 5192’.

That is just a bit under one mile.

Just one of the pools at Tokyo-Reflecting-Absence would cover large portion of lower Manhattan.

one Tokyo memorial pool ... superimposed on Manhattan