Farewell Gord Downie

Featured image is Grief by Josef Israels

I was never really a Tragically Hip fan, and this isn’t really about the Hip. I’m a little too young and a little too western to be fully within the demo, though cancon rules means that no Canadian could every fully escape them. You can get a taste of it here or here or here if you’re not familiar with them, but it’s a bit too late for that. Though the coverage has been ubiquitous north of the border I don’t know how much the rest of the world knows or cares, so I might as well tell you that the lead singer, Gord Downie has been diagnosed with an inoperable brain tumor and just finished giving his (nationally televised) last concert.

On Twitter, in between the reminisces and appreciations and early eulogies was a link to Johnny Cash’s 2002 cover of Nine Inch Nail’s Hurt. It’s soulful and haunting, perhaps the best cover of my lifetime, and I mourned Johnny Cash. Part of culture is engaging with the dead, their thoughts and ideas, their arguments and art. I grew up on Shakespeare, the Everly Brothers, Beethoven, Wagner, and Monet and the rest of the dead white guys. But they died well before I was born. I don’t mourn them anymore than I mourn the great-grandparents I never met, who fled civil war, poverty and persecution to Canada and put me here. But I mourn Johnny Cash, and I mourn Terry Pratchett, and I will mourn Gord Downie whenever I hear their songs or read their books.

This is perhaps just what getting old feels like. When I was a boy I talked to the living and to the dead. Now I talk with the living, and with the dead and with those who have died. Their memories will always be tinged with sadness even in triumph, and their share of my memories is only growing. Farewell Gord Downie. We’ll miss you.

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Decay and Renewal Are the Same Movement

Featured Image is Sir John Soane’s Rotunda of the Bank of England in Ruins, by Joseph Gandy.

All human projects are akin to a plane that begins to fall apart the moment it takes off.

As time marches on, the people responsible for the plane must decide whether to repair it, replace old parts, or decommission it and replace the entire plane.

Or they can put off such decisions until it is too late. Until, at best, the plane does not make it to the runway one day. And at worst, a catastrophe occurs in the air.

Everything from family to community and nation, to the human body itself, has this trajectory from the start. No system—biological, social, or political—manages to avoid this basic reality.

We focus on Rome for its greatness, but also for its spectacular collapse. But Rome stood for a thousand years. Every step of the way it was falling apart. Many times it seemed on the brink of dissolving in the air like our neglected airplane, and very nearly did. What is remarkable about Rome is not that it fell, because all civilizations fall. What is remarkable is that it lasted, that it staved off complete disintegration for so long.

Chinese history is another interesting case of decay and renewal. Certainly, China blew apart and fell into civil war many times over its astonishingly long history. But the old empire also displayed a remarkable ability to absorb its conquerors into the existing system. The ones who were conquered were nearly always the ruling class, not China as an entity, which had such a character that it could assert itself even when a foreign military took the mantle of government.

From the ground view, I wonder if those moments that broke out into civil war appeared so very different from those which did not.

We’re always in the process of coming apart. Sometimes we get our act together and stave off the end a little longer. Sometimes something entirely new is born. Sometimes the garden must lay fallow for a season before a proper renewal. And sometimes it is simply the end.

Shameful Self-Deception

In my last year of high school my group of friends included a sophomore who behaved inappropriately around the girls in the group, to say the least.

I won’t belabor the details, but suffice it to say that there were many of us who should have known better and spoken up. But the girls laughed it off, so I, at least, thought it wasn’t my place to say anything. If they were OK with it, why shouldn’t I be? It was just him being who he was, a jokester, the group clown; totally harmless, right?

When I found out, a couple of years later, just how bad it got for some of the girls, I was ashamed of myself. As I should have been, as I still am. They were obviously laughing it off as a defense mechanism, a way of deflecting what was in essence an act of humiliation in front of a group they considered their friends. Several of these girls  were called on to give statements for an investigation of the situation. That investigation resulted in the boy’s expulsion from the school.

Early in the series of events that led up to the investigation, I realized the extent to which I had embraced comforting lies. I had known better but I had chosen not to know. I had not wanted to know, and had told myself little stories, like “it’s sexist to act like some kind of white knight when the girl herself is telling us it is fine.” And then I had mostly avoided thinking about it very much.

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