Thursday, August 31, 2006

Something Hannah said

During the conference, I stayed with Hannah, a colleague and now friend I came to know while she was studying in Montreal. I liked her the instant I met her, which had everything to do with her energy: there’s something mischievous about her, an up-for-anything air that is both charming and contagious. I suspect she’s the kind of girl who does crazy things when she’s drunk, a character trait I strongly approve of.

On my last night at her place, we paused on Hannah's front stoop to smoke cigarettes after a distinctly unpleasant altercation with a cab driver who tried to rip us off. As we smoked, she said to me, matter-of-factly: “You’ve got spunk. That’s why I like hanging out with you.”

Her comment surprised me. I don’t think of myself as someone who has spunk. I think of myself as the person I was when I was five years old: quiet, almost painfully shy, and deathly afraid of other people. Not spunky in the least.

Is this what trips us up in the end? Are we all, still, our five-year old selves, dwarfed by a world whose scale is incomprehensible to us? Do we all think we’re infinitely smaller than we actually are?

Today, I am thirty years older than five. I think I’ll throw myself a party.

Wednesday, August 30, 2006

The scholar and the fisherman

The conference that brought me to Vancouver was a meeting of contingent academic workers from across North America. The majority of the attendees were part-time university instructors, which is to say, the underclass of the professoriate, and therefore the thing that every graduate student with scholarly ambitions secretly fears becoming.

The event began with the customary opening address. The invited speaker, whose name I will refrain from dropping, began his working life in the fishing industry, rising through his union’s ranks to become one of Canada’s top labour leaders. As he approached the podium, I wondered what he would have to say to a crowd of overeducated if underpaid university professors.

Cheerily acknowledging the occupational difference between himself and his audience, the speaker proceeded to deliver a firebrand speech on the effects of neo-liberal economic policies on post-secondary education. He then effortlessly shifted his focus to Canada’s growing class divide, noting that social inequities have sprouted like weeds wherever government has abdicated its interventionist role. He concluded by reminding the audience of the obstacles that are faced by the children of working-class Canadians in their pursuit of higher education, and warned of a future in which only the wealthy will have a place in the university.

I was completely floored by the speech. More to the point, I was moved by it, not because it told me anything I didn’t already know, but because it felt like someone was standing up for me.

People don’t talk much about class in graduate school, but it’s always there, just under the surface of the other things people talk about. Parents who are lawyers, architects, or professors. Artistic aunts and brothers who fly airplanes. Passing mentions of family vacations spent at ski resorts, or discovering the treasures of the Hermitage. Recollections of private school escapades and summer experience programs at MIT. Cottages. Country houses. Maids.

Since starting my M.A., I have met exactly two people whose parents were blue-collar labourers. One of them, upon learning that my father was a steelworker, practically flew across a crowded party to talk to me. “Wow!” she exclaimed, a little drunkenly. “It’s so good to meet another one!” At the time, I didn’t fully understand why my father’s occupation should provoke such excitement. I have a much keener sense of this now.

For all the intellectual camaraderie that is shared at the university, and for all the talk of social diversity, it’s hard not to feel isolated as a student from a low-income family. Your loved ones don’t always understand what it is you are trying to do with your life, which can leave you feeling uncomfortably like a traitor. Your colleagues, for their part, don’t always understand the life experiences that preceded your entry into the university, which can leave you feeling as though you don’t quite belong. I’ve often wondered what it would be like to be able to talk about my studies with someone I’m related to, to ask for their advice or for financial help. I’ve also wondered what the university would look like if the average dean had worked her way through school, and for some years before.

In any case, these were the things I was thinking about as I exited the lecture hall.

Soon afterward, I noticed the speaker sitting on a bench in the hallway, talking to someone on his cell phone. For a split-second, I considered approaching him to offer a word of thanks, but I decided this was a ridiculous idea and went to get a cup of coffee instead. When I returned, he was still sitting on the bench, but he wasn’t on his cell phone anymore. I couldn’t talk my feet out of walking toward him.

“Hi,” I heard myself say. “I’m a working-class student. Thanks for giving a shit.” He smiled and asked me to join him on the bench. From there, we talked for almost half an hour.

In retrospect, I realize that I’ve desperately needed to say those words out loud to someone, and to hear a sense of kinship in their response. I also realize that politics, at least as I understand it, is about precisely this form of connection. At least, it should be.

Monday, August 28, 2006

Travelogue

Well, it was quite the vacation. Now, where to begin?

As you’ll recall, I was having a bit of an existential crisis before I left. The most concise explanation I can offer is that I had started to feel like a jigsaw puzzle that wasn’t going particularly well. None of the pieces seemed to fit together properly, and I had lost sight of the picture on the box. I was stuck, and none too happy about it.

The most I hoped for from my trip to Vancouver was to get the fuck away from the puzzle for a little while. I did not expect catharsis, or to find a footpath toward integration. I certainly did not expect to become lovers with two remarkable people. And yet, in the span of a fortnight, all of these things happened.

I suspect that I'll write about some of these experiences in the days ahead, but likely not in a straight line. Sometimes, circles are better.

Friday, August 25, 2006

Thursday, August 17, 2006

Postcard: Vila goes to the beach

footprints

Photo by James

legs

Photo by Vila

beach

Photo by James

Monday, August 14, 2006

Thursday, August 10, 2006

Parting thoughts

Virgo Horoscope for week of August 10, 2006

Of all the times in your life when you have been in captivity, this has to be one of the least arduous and frustrating ever. I'll go so far as to say that I have rarely seen a more beautiful prisoner than you; for a drudge in bondage, you're ravishing. As hard as it may be to contemplate, however, it's almost time to escape. Your dark though sexy night of the soul will soon come to an end. Don't you dare linger any longer than you have to.

Expect a postcard or two...

Bon voyage, Vila

Oh, for fuck's sake.

By the time my flight is scheduled to leave this afternoon, the entire international aviation system will be in complete gridlock. And, apparently, I'm not allowed to carry anything in a liquid form onto the plane.

Whee.

Tuesday, August 08, 2006

How I plan to avoid becoming a detestable yuppie

Over at Chicagoan in Montreal, Frank, Mrne and I have been having an interesting conversation about Frank’s most recent post. In it, he writes honestly and elegantly about crossing the yuppie threshold, which has led to some soul-searching on his part, and to a fair bit of commenting on mine.

Our exchange has inspired me to think about how, should I ever manage to finish my degree, land an academic job, and pay off my student loans, I might avoid becoming a detestable yuppie. This is what I’ve come up with so far, in convenient list form.

The Top Twenty

1. First of all, I will never, ever, whine about paying taxes. I mean, ever. I will, however, expect wealthy individuals and corporations to pay their fair share.

2. I will only vote for politicians who promise to invest my tax dollars in social programs, education funding, and universally accessible health care.

3. I’ll vote twice for politicians who will support the arts, raise the minimum wage to a living wage, and/or increase payments to welfare recipients.

4. I will not judge homeless people on the basis of whether they drink, smoke, or take drugs, because that is not my right. I will give them cigarettes if they ask for them, and they almost always do.

5. I will not bitch about “blue collar” workers, or about how they've ruined my day because their picket line added an extra ten minutes to my commute.

6. I will not be offended by construction workers who take off their shirts while working in 30+ degree heat.

7. I will ask prospective landlords if they illegally evicted their previous tenants from the apartment/condo/loft I am viewing in order to jack up the rent, and if they have, I will decline to take the apartment/condo/loft and then report them to the Régie du logement.

8. I will continue to patronize dive bars, greasy spoons, and neighbourhood cafés because they are signs of an economically diverse neighbourhood community. Truck drivers don’t go to sushi bars.

9. I will continue to enjoy a variety of cuisines, but I will not buy any foodstuff that is marketed as artisanal.

10. I will think that there is something deeply wrong with a real estate market that puts a basic family home out of the financial reach of anyone who makes less than $35,000 per year.

11. I will persist in the belief that student loan debtors should have the same legal rights as business owners, financial speculators, and compulsive gamblers.

12. I will never tell a student who misses class because of work commitments that they don’t take their studies seriously enough.

13. I will ask my political representatives to explain why someone who has just attempted suicide has to wait for three months to see a psychiatrist who works in the public health system.

14. I will not buy into the argument that “illegal” immigrants are taking away “our” jobs, but I will make an effort to understand why people who have lost well-paying manufacturing jobs think that they are.

15. I will remember that the vast majority of our country’s military personnel are people from low-income families, and I will wonder what this says about our democracy.

16. I will seriously consider the role that extreme poverty plays in civil, religious, and ethnic conflict.

17. I will question why nurses, social workers, and day care attendants don’t make as much money as lawyers, and also why any job that is described a “helping profession” is guaranteed to burn people out within five years.

18. I will not assume that someone who is struggling in life does so because they are stupid, lazy, or doomed to failure. I will at least consider the fact that it takes a near-Herculean effort to overcome the class divide, and that not everyone has it in them to do so.

19. I will care as much about poverty issues as I do about animals and the environment, and I will make a sincere effort to understand why poor people seem to worry less about global warming than I do.

20. I will not assume that everyone has a house, a car, an iPod, or a blog. In other words, I will not assume that everyone is just like me.

Monday, August 07, 2006

The Great Escape

So, this vacation thing. I think maybe I’ll try it.

As luck would have it, there’s a big academic labour conference in Vancouver next weekend, which the union is flying me out for. After the conference has ended, I will remain in the city for ten whole days, during which time I intend to do nothing that even faintly resembles work.

I wonder what that will be like?

Already, James and his friends are conspiring to whisk me away from the conference site to the nearest dive bar, which is, conveniently, only a few blocks away. From there, I have been promised an itinerary that will include excursions to the mountains, the beach, sushi restaurants, dance clubs, and possibly even a fetish party. Now, where did I put my fishnets?

It all sounds marvellous, if slightly unreal. Vancouver is three thousand miles away, which means that, in a few days time, I’ll be three thousand miles away.

Cool.

Saturday, August 05, 2006

No shit

Today, I held Ivan down as a veterinarian manually extracted five days of impacted stool from his colon. He’s so getting treats tomorrow.

Friday, August 04, 2006

Fear

Ivan isn’t feeling well. I’m trying not to think about how it was with Simone, but I keep remembering. It wasn’t that long ago.

He’s drinking water now. That’s good.

Thursday, August 03, 2006

Lost blog

After returning home from tonight's yulblog soirée, I discovered that the entire contents of my sidebar and all but the last six and a half of my posts have gone missing. If any of you should find them wandering aimlessly through the blogosphere, I'd appreciate it if you'd let me know.

Wednesday, August 02, 2006

Power out

For more than an hour tonight, I sat in the dark and watched lightning as I’ve never seen it before. Not flashes but a barrage, the strikes coming every two or three seconds. Machine gun lightning.

Sitting in that dark, which stilled all the sounds of the city except for rain, I realized how desperately I need to get away for a while. Most people take vacations, or at least stop working for short periods of time. I haven’t done this in over four years.

It’s starting to show, isn’t it?