Happy 150th Birthday Canada

Canada Day this year has generated more attention than usual.  For the most part, this is because 150 is a significant number for many.  Another reason is that there has been a considerable protest against the sesquicentennial celebrations on the part of those trying to highlight the nation’s poor treatment of indigenous peoples.  Though the protest can hardly be considered as mainstream as the flag waving and fireworks, it is worth considering the position and purpose of the protesters.

For example, the Ryerson Students’ Union is encouraging people not to celebrate the sesquicentennial.  Among their reasons for the stand is that the number 150 is an arbitrary one considering that the land was inhabited by indigenous peoples long before confederation, that at this point, the 150 years is really a history of exploitative colonialism and that spending half a billion dollars on birthday celebrations while indigenous communities still lack basic necessities is unconscionable.

It’s likely the average Canadian’s response to this might be something like, ‘look, Canada is an amazing country and this is a special occasion; don’t rain on our parade’

So perhaps the problem is the false dichotomy that many are prone to adopting.  Yes, Canada is a wonderful country that I feel extremely fortunate to call my home.  While I can wave the flag proudly, that doesn’t mean I should ignore the shameful legacy of Canada’s treatment of its indigenous peoples.  At the same time, the need for reconciliation does not mean that I cannot celebrate all of the wonderful aspects of the country.

I understand why the protestors have seized on this moment.  When you are trying to raise the profile of your cause, you need to act when most eyes and ears will be paying attention.  The protestors are likely very aware that the timing of the action will frustrate many and maybe even harden their opposing position.  An easy reaction would be to see the dissenters as spoil sports, or worse as traitors.  But the demonstrators are not concerned about popularity; they are interested in righting an injustice.

For me, I will celebrate Canada, warts and all.  I harbor no resentment towards those who are striving to advance reconciliation and move us towards acknowledging a large part of our history that is dishonorable.  I believe it is a fair position to be thankful for all of the nation’s beauty, freedom and accomplishments, and still keep reconciliation as a priority that needs to be acted upon.

Happy Canada Day to all Canadians—may the next 150 be guided by the courage to examine our values in an objective manner and the determination to be a beacon for others in all that we do.

I Love Kyle Lowry but I Wouldn’t Re-Sign Him

Kyle Lowry Lowry 2

I love the way Kyle Lowry plays basketball.  I love the way he drives fearlessly to the basket, his ability to distribute the basketball, his eagerness to take a charge no matter the behemoth bearing down on him, his streaky and sometimes impossible three point shooting, and his ability to play through pain.    That is also, in part, why I wouldn’t re-sign him, and why I see his decision to forego his option year to test free agency as an actual gift for the Toronto Raptors.

Let’s be honest.  As long as LeBron James is around, the Toronto Raptors are not going to get to the NBA final.  We’ve seen them play the Cavaliers when Lowry was healthy (loss in six games) and when he was hurt (swept in four).  Lowry is an exciting, dedicated and gifted player.  He is also injury prone and at 31 years of age, entering a part of his career where he will no longer be able to fling his body to and fro without consequence.

Now that Raptors’ fans have experienced a conference final, anything less is going to seem disappointing, and even a loss in the finals will seem like failure.  So, why would you handcuff your ability to spend on players by shelling out 200 million  dollars to remain the Cav’s door mat?

Let’s be clear.  I am not suggesting that foregoing Lowry and signing other players is going to lead to a championship.  It’s not.  However, it will allow young players like Delon Wright and Fred Van Vleet to develop, and it will allow the Raptors to bring in some other players of interest.  The team may not be as good without Lowry, but it will not be financially paralyzed because they are crushed under a bad contract.  When they are ready to rebuild, they will be able to do so more quickly without the Lowry contract.

Many Toronto fans will accuse me of being willing to doom the team to mediocrity.  I counter that they are willing to condemn the team to good but sub-elite status that will end up slowing a potential rebuild significantly.

And honestly, do you really want to have to witness the spectacle of the glum faced Lowry and DeRozan at the press conference where the Raps are eliminated talking about having to get better?  How long can we be expected to be subject to Lowry’s looks of utter shock at missed calls or his endless, running on court monologues on the finer points of officiating?    And why should we put up with Lowry’s aggressive dismissal of questions about putting his all-star appearance over his health?

Let’s not forget that the team actually went on quite a run while Lowry was injured and climbed back into the top tier of the Eastern Conference.  It would be interesting to see what a Cory Joseph/Delon Wright/Fred Van Vleet point guard trio would produce.  The point is how badly do you want a second or third place team?  And yeah, I know, that no matter where Lowry ends up, he will probably rip us apart when he faces us.  But that still doesn’t justify 200 million dollars over five years.  Wouldn’t you rather have great memories of Lowry’s time here than see him become a shadow of his former self and watch his abilities diminish and his injuries mount?

Call me a realist, but I don’t see the Raptors winning an NBA title in the next decade.  But keeping financial flexibility gives them an outside chance of achieving elite status one day.  Overpaying Lowry keeps the Raptors just good enough to keep getting pasted by LeBron and pals.  LeBron’s athleticism and determination means the Raptors have to play the long game.  The long game means not getting sentimental when it comes to re-signing popular players.  The truth hurts.

 

Spoiler Alert! Tracy Letts’ Linda Vista Theatre Review

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Tracy Letts-playwright and member of the Steppenwolf Theater Ensemble

I don’t know how many people have had a chance to see Tracy Letts’ new play Linda Vista, now on stage at Chicago’s fabled Steppenwolf Theater.  Maybe 40,000, maybe less.  I know that it’s heading for Broadway after Chicago and that eventually it will likely make its way to Toronto and other major cities.  So if you think you are going to go see the play in the near or distant future, please be forewarned that this review contains spoilers.

At its core, this is a play about dishonesty.  The play’s protagonist is named Wheeler (absolutely no one refers to him by his first name, Dick, though it is pretty accurate) and the play concerns his dishonesty.  Letts’ choice of Wheeler as a surname is fitting for Wheeler spins his wheels in the play, can be seen as a ‘wheeler dealer’ and possesses a breeziness that the name suggests.  Wheeler is a big man, both in physique and personality.  He dominates the play and, in fact, is on stage in every scene of this 150 minute drama.  Wheeler has moved to an apartment in Linda Vista, a neighbourhood of San Diego.  He has left his divorced wife and son behind in Chicago, and certainly left behind any aspirations to be a serious photographer.  He is a know it all, but is so self-deprecating, that he has a certain charm.  It’s easy to agree with his disparagement of current movies and pop music, though the tone he uses to deliver his message is so strident and his smugness so absolute, that it is also off putting.  His friends Paul and Margaret want to set him up with a friend.  Wheeler complains loudly but goes along with it.  On the date, Wheeler appears to be miserable, yet he takes the woman, Jules, home and starts an unlikely relationship with her.  He then lies to Jules about why he is ending the relationship and jumps heedlessly into the current pop culture he earlier maligned.  As the lies build up, the audience loses patience with Wheeler, who, perhaps, grates on us because we recognize bits of ourselves in him.

The play is remarkable in a number of ways.  The revolving stage is employed cleverly to indicate movement between disparate places, to demonstrate impulsive behavior between rooms of one location and to suggest that Wheeler’s natural movement is to go round and round.  There are two scenes which feature full frontal nudity.  Interestingly, it is not the sex that shocks, but the sharing of such mundane post-coital acts as a casual tissue wipe of semen.  Obviously, the commitment that nudity and simulated sex demands of actors is uncommon.  But the sex does not dominate the play; rather, Wheeler’s dishonesty is the specter that looms over the play.  Another great feature of the play is the use of the music of Steely Dan.  The super cool duo are a favourite of Wheeler and perfectly represent his penchant for the cooly ironic and the anti-commercial.  Wheeler’s admiration of film director Stanley Kubrick is a nice touch too; Kubrick is an auteur that continues to breed admiration from his smarter than the rest of you devotees.  Yet, in a compelling scene, Wheeler tries in vain to share Barry Lyndon with Jules and only succeeds in putting her to sleep.  The viewing even causes Wheeler to question what he saw in the film.

The acting is remarkable.  Ian Barford is tremendous as the protagonist Wheeler and his exhaustion at the curtain call is understandable.  Also shining in this production are Cora Vander Brock as life coach Jules who sees the good in Wheeler that even Wheeler has given up on, and Tim Hopper as Paul, who puts up with Wheeler even though he knows what he’s like.  Their characters are consistent and believable.

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Ian Barford as Wheeler (left) and Tim Hopper as Paul in Linda Vista

Ultimately though, it is the writing that shines above all.  Some stellar dialogue resonates long after the curtain call.  In a great scene between Paul and Wheeler, Letts asks some hard questions about marriage and if it is ultimately worth the compromises that it demands.  Paul’s repetition of the phrase “you are going to do what you are going to do” sounds evasive at first, but ultimately reveals how well he knows Wheeler and sees through his supposed moral line of questioning.  Two other great scenes of dialogue occur late in the play.   Wheeler breaks up with Jules at a restaurant and the dramatic irony present makes his phony anger truly repulsive.  Later, in a scene at the camera shop where he works fixing old cameras, Wheeler rips into his lewd boss Michael, but the condemnation which is supposed to be a defense of his colleague Anita from Michael’s perverted conversation, is really thinly disguised self-loathing.  What’s more, it ends up dooming Anita and forcing her to quit.

The choice of camera repairman as Wheeler’s job is a stroke of genius.  Wheeler spends his days poring over what is obsolete.  He prefers the mysteries of single lens reflex to the mass commercial appeal of iPhones.  He even admits that no one uses the cameras he labors over; his very employment is a rejection of reality.  The fact that he was once employed as a photo journalist also demonstrates the extent to which he has rejected the possibilities of imagination in favour of mechanical repair.

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Ian Barford as Wheeler and Caroline Neff as Anita in the symbolically charged camera shop

Ultimately, Wheeler can run from Chicago, but he can’t escape himself.  His self-destructiveness is so thorough that it has the power to undermine what seems a final innocent act-the artistic photograph of his co-worker Anita.  As much as we may want to believe that there is some trace of a desire to be good in Wheeler, we can’t help wondering if this is all a pick up move too.

This production was not perfect.  Both the characters Michael and Minnie seemed less like real individuals and more like convenient foils to Wheeler.  In fact, Minnie and Wheeler’s relationship seems to defy plausibility.  A scene at Jules’ workplace includes a large red fitness ball; Jules is a life coach, not a personal trainer.  It is too predictable when Wheeler sits on the ball like a forlorn child after his attempt at rapprochement is  summarily rejected.  Similarly, in the opening scene of the play, Wheeler and Paul are in the process of moving Wheeler in to Linda Vista, but the sporadic unpacking of the boxes seems less like real life and a lot more like calculated stage business.  Finally, there is the title of the play.  Linda Vista simply does not capture the essence of  the drama.  Even if taking the Spanish translation of beautiful view into consideration, the title is weak and fails to compel.  Perhaps ‘Single Reflex’ or ‘Shuttered Bug’ are too self-consciously punny, but Letts needs to find a better title before this production heads to  New York City.

Linda Vista is a powerful play which in its examination of dishonesty forces us to re-examine the positions we hold and the way we manage relationships.  It is by turns funny, sad, surprising and utterly predictable.  Go see it.

Chicago At Last!

Wrigley Building

The Wrigley Building as seen from the Chicago River tour 

Until very recently, I was the only member of my family not to have visited Chicago.  Both my wife and my sons have been their individually on music trips.  My drama trips head to New York, and so while I had been to the Big Apple a dozen or so times, I had not gotten around to visiting the breezy city on Lake Michigan.

What was I waiting for?

Chicago has so much to see and do, and the people I encountered were very friendly.  My friend Al and I arrived at O’Hare early Saturday morning and quickly made our way to the subway.  Our CTA three day pass cost 20 dollars.  It entitles you to unlimited subway and bus rides during that time, which turned out to be an excellent deal for us.  The subway ride from O’Hare to downtown takes almost an hour.  Much of the subway is actually elevated above ground, earning it the nickname of the “El”.  Each station clearly lets you know when the next train will be arriving.

Subway with Cubs

The subway celebrates the beloved Cubs

Like many other cities, the onboard P.A. keeps up a steady stream of matters for moral improvement such as prohibited activities (eating, smoking, gambling, soliciting), and encouraged deeds (giving up your seat to the elderly, pregnant or infirm; keeping an eye out for suspicious behavior or unattended packages).  I also got a kick out of their method of announcing the station we were entering:  “THIS IS Monroe”.  I was kind of hoping later on when we encountered a problem, that the voice would pronounce “THIS IS an unforeseen delay” in as chipper a voice.  Our hotel, the Whitehall, is an older brick building that like the Hollander in St. Petersburg advertises itself as a “boutique” hotel.

Whitehall Hotel

The Whitehall Hotel–not the newest or the tallest, but excellent nonetheless

Presumably this means that the charm of the place will distract you from the lack of certain amenities.  The Whitehall, though, like the Hollander, was an utter delight.  Who cares if the lobby is tiny and doesn’t boast a fountain with glass dolphins spraying forth towards the impossibly high ceiling.  How much time do you really need to spend in the lobby when you have a city with so much to offer? The two elevators are tiny (capacity of five persons each), but they really move, and we rarely had to wait more than twenty seconds for one to arrive.   When our room with two queen beds was not ready when they said it would be, they upgraded us to a suite with a pull out couch, a mini-fridge, second bathroom, additional television and dedicated work area.  The location, just off the Magnificent Mile in what is termed “The Gold Coast” was fantastic; close to subways, buses and to Sprinkles Cupcakes, purveyors of salty caramel cupcakes and accessible 24-7 thanks to the Cupcake ATM right  outside the store.

cupcake ATM

My first ever Cupcake ATM

A definite highlight of the first day was the river tour run by the Architectural Society of Chicago.  The Chicago River allows for a wonderful view of the buildings that are part of the city’s allure.  Our “docent” was spectacular; her encyclopedic knowledge of the history of the city, the architects for each building and the particular approach they took to solve particular challenges was impressive and delivered in an entertaining manner.  There were easily two hundred people on board, including a lot of children, but our guide managed to keep everyone’s attention and didn’t tire, despite speaking continuously for the ninety minute tour.  One thing she didn’t mention was the odd makeshift homeless encampment on the banks of the river.  The tents were a stark contrast with the grand buildings that were the official focus of the tour.

 

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Makeshift tent housing went unremarked upon by tour guide

Still, they are a reality of the current city and I think that the tour guide could have incorporated this to provide a more balanced view of how Chicago has evolved, rather than ignoring them as if they didn’t exist.  What the guide did comment upon was excellent and really provoked my interest in architecture.

After the wind-blown tour, we warmed up in Dylan’s candy store, a three floor homage to candy, old and new.  One of the most arresting displays was of a box of Pez dispensers featuring several Presidents of the United States.

Prez Pez

The Prez Pez Collection

It was interesting to see Richard Nixon on the shelf next to Sponge Bob and Iron Man.  Al was eager to hit the Billy Goat Tavern as it inspired Saturday Night Live’s “Cheeseborger, Cheeseborger” skit.

Cheezborger

For S.N.L. fans, but not necessarily for foodees

This was the first of several Chicago meals that could hardly be classified as hearth healthy.  The approach to the Billy Goat we went to was curious.  You feel that you are on ground level walking along the Magnificent Mile, but actually ground level at certain points is a flight of stairs below.  The restaurant was located underneath the Magnificent Mile and unless you are seeking it, you are not likely to run across it.

Though the subway was our preferred method of transportation, we did hire four Lyft rides (Lyft is like Uber, but cheaper) over the course of the trip.  The Lyft app gives you an option if you want a private ride or a shared one.  Our first driver, Shabbaz, picked us up and shortly thereafter, picked up two Russian girls who were not what you could call loquacious.  Lyft was an option if we were tired or if the subway really didn’t get us much closer to where we needed to go.  It also came in handy in the early hours of Tuesday morning when we needed to get back to O’Hare.

I was intent on having deep dish pizza at some point in our stay and had read impressive reviews on a chain called Lou Mulnati’s.  Of course when I asked the hotel clerk, I thought he was talking about another restaurant altogether called Luminati’s.  It was only after reflection, that I realized this was the product of his Chicago accent.   Unfortunately, the closest Lou Mulnati’s was hosting a private function Saturday night and wasn’t opening to the public until 11:00, so we moved to plan B, which was another highly regarded deep dish place called Giordano’s.  It was packed when we arrived and we decided to wait in the bar.  Unfortunately, the hostesses weren’t exactly crystal clear on the fact that we should pre-order our pizza to avoid the customary 45 minute wait for a pie.  They did hand us a menu, but certainly no one entreated us to pre-order.  When we got our table about a half hour later, the upstairs hostess asked if we had pre-ordered.  The result was that we spent a good chunk of time in the restaurant.  Al had thin crust, but I opted for deep dish and was satisfied, though I certainly have had similar pizza in Toronto.

Our next stop was Second City where we had tickets for the 11:00 showing of “Winner of Our Discontent”, their latest stage show.  I was looking forward to it since the current political situation in the States would seem to provide a treasure trove of material for a keen comic mind.  The show was a disappointment.  I thought there was only one truly gifted member among the cast of six, and the writing ranged from predictable to sophomoric. Perhaps someone who had never seen this style of theatre would be impressed, but I could count on one hand the number of times I really engaged in a full belly laugh.  The saving grace was that they returned for a third act of pure improve and it was more enjoyable.  I have to give the cast credit for coming back well after midnight and having performed two shows that day to do improve.  There were some funny moments, though what must have been a local reference to Target stores was lost on us.  I also failed to find the frequent references to the Spice Girls to be as hilarious as the cast seemed to think they were.  Afterwards, Al and I wondered if our luke warm response to the show was a result of a generational disconnect, because the rest of the audience which was considerably younger than us was laughing harder and more frequently than we were.  This was the first of two consecutive evenings of theatre for us; the second would not disappoint.

Sunday morning featured a nice breakfast at “The Original Pancake House”.  To speed things up a bit, we agreed to an outdoors table, despite the chilly weather.  Throughout our stay, the sky was clear and the sun was present, but it never edged above 12 degrees Celsius and was frequently considerably cooler than that.  After breakfast, we headed to Wicker Park, a neighbourhood that Al heard was “up and coming”.  Upon arriving, Al felt it was like Chicago’s version of Brooklyn.

Wicker Park Grafitti

Hanging Out in Wicker Park

Brimming with cool at all costs coffee shops, record stores reminiscent of the one in High Fidelity, book stores and niche or vintage clothing shops, Wicker Park attracted a healthy crowd on a Sunday afternoon.  The record shops range in terms of snobbery, with Reckless Records containing the most vinyl, biggest staff and haughtiest attitude.  My query as to whether they carried posters was met with disdain.  Still, I did buy a couple of Band CDs there.  The two streets with the most action seemed to be North Milwaukee Street and North Damen Street.  Lunch at Big Star was agreeable.  Big Star is this taco restaurant with a mammoth patio and a separate take out place across the street.  The place was packed, and not only with diners, but with dogs and babies too.  It was the second time today that we were eating outside with dogs right beside us.  The woman beside us was insistent that the staff turn on this mammoth propane heater, which was funny because her dining companion looked very comfortable in shorts.  Nonetheless, the staff spent the better part of ten minutes trying to light the heater, and then switching places with another one to try and warm this woman up.  In the meantime, we were baking in the sun and when the heat finally got going, we felt like we were eating tacos in Mexico; maybe that was the climate she was hankering after.

Tracy Letts is the playwright who wrote August, Osage County which our school put on a few years back.  I’ve been impressed with his writing since then, so when Al informed me that his newest play, Linda Vista, was on at Steppenwolf Theatre while we would be in town, I was really excited.  This show did not disappoint.  If you’re interested in my impressions, see my separate blog (coming soon) in which I review the show.  Meanwhile, the drama wasn’t confined to the stage.  I needed to visit the restroom prior to the show and discovered that there were no gender specific washrooms at all.  There are two separate washrooms, each with a number of stalls, but no urinals.  When I left the stall and went to wash my hands, there was a woman washing her hands, presumably having just used one of the other stalls.  While I certainly don’t count myself as a prude or a diehard traditionalist, I must admit there was something jarring about exiting the stall and being confronted by a woman.  In Florida, I came across single bathrooms that were non-gender specific, but this was something again, a multiple user bathroom anyone can access.  I suppose it’s a boon for women who normally fume at men who saunter right into the washroom while women wait in endless lines.  Al had to visit the washroom at intermission and needed to line up.  Two women ahead of him in line looked somewhat nervous and when it came time for the first to enter, she whispered to her friend:  “Wish me luck!”  I’m not sure the genderless restroom will catch on beyond the relatively cultured theatre crowd, but if it does, it will be interesting to see if it changes behaviours.

Monday was a huge walking day for me.  I tried a little shopping on the Miracle Mile but found that even the stores known for discount prices had little in the way of bargains.  I decided to walk to Navy Pier and it’s quite a hike to navigate the whole pier.  On the way back, I walked along the shore of Lake Michigan for a bit.  It’s kind of amazing to realize that there is this major road right on the shore of a Great Lake.  Monday was probably the least successful day of the trip, with the exception of the salty caramel cupcake I had at Sprinkles.  I had read decent things about the Chicago History Museum, so Al and I decided to bus out there to see it.  Had to wait quite a while for the bus, and the museum seemed geared to elementary school kids.  The exhibits just scratched the surface of moments in Chicago history and the film was embarrassingly juvenile.  This is a museum to avoid as it did not add much knowledge to my understanding of the city.

We decided to check out a trendy burger restaurant called Au Cheval which had generated rave reviews from a number of people, including one of our Lyft drivers named Javier.  We phoned ahead but were told they don’t take reservations.  So after taking a subway ride on two different lines, we were told in a matter of fact tone by the hostess that the wait would be two hours.  I guess this doesn’t faze locals who know how popular the place is.  So, we did what any self-respecting modern consumer would do:  we got on Yelp and looked for places to eat nearby.  Turns out we found a place right across the street that had received rave reviews.  It was a wine bar called The Lunatic, the Lover and the Poet, and they had a table waiting.  As the menu was very limited and I had burgers on the brain from anticipating Au Cheval, I ordered the burger.  It was ok, but not worth the price.  I found the beer prices high, but the Miller High Life to be very reasonable.  Read the fine print.  It was a “pony” bottle, only six ounces.  Interestingly, the waiter and water boy must have made thirty separate trips to our table to see if we were ok.  Maybe they thought we were food critics?  Décor in the place was whacky.  Suspended from the ceiling, they had five black, open bird cages.  I would love to have been in the meeting in which that idea was pitched.  On the wall opposite us, there was a painting of an immense skull.

 

The music was unusual too.  Each song seemed to be a cover of a pretty famous tune.  I asked the manager if the cover of  “Sounds of Silence” was Tom Waits and he said no that it was by a hard core metal band called Disturbed.  While it wasn’t a terrible meal, it was the least satisfying and most expensive meal of the trip.  Perhaps the yelp review was so high because the place was so new.

All in all, I definitely enjoyed Chicago and left plenty to do for my next trip here including seeing live jazz and blues, catching a Cubs game at Wrigley Field, checking out Looking Glass Theatre and improv at iOTheater, taking a walk on the 606 Elevated Walking Trail, exploring Oz Park, tasting an ice cream at Rainbow Cone,  visiting the Smart Museum of Art and the International Museum of Surgical Science, and catching up with the Tamale Guy.

Can’t wait.

From “No Brainer” to “Brainless”: The Contract Extension of John Gibbons

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There’s a lot to be excited about on the current Toronto sports’ scene.  The beloved Maple Leafs have made the playoffs with a young squad considered ahead of schedule.  The Raptors are about to begin what many hope will be a deep playoff run.  TFC is hoping to improve upon its best season ever last year.  But what’s the fun in writing about success, when you can write about the Blue Jays’ wretched 1-9 start to the season?

Even in the worst case scenarios, pre-season predictors generally thought the Jays could dip below .500 and fall to the bottom two teams of the American League’s Eastern Division.  Nobody thought they would be playing .100 baseball.  Sure, they are going to improve—no team can maintain such an abysmal pace over the course of a long season.  But the damage done by such a horrid start is often impossible to overcome, especially because seven of their nine losses have been at the hands of division opponents and because they play in a very competitive division.

Here’s another ghastly thought to consider.  On many fronts, the Jays could get worse as the season wears on.  Their relief pitching, universally thought to be the team’s Achilles’ Heel, has been pretty good, with one or two exceptions.  The starting pitching, an acknowledged strength, has been about as advertised.  Twice through the rotation, they’ve received two excellent starts from Marcus Stroman, two good starts from Marco Estrada, two mediocre starts from J Happ, and one really good start from each of Francisco Liriano and Aaron Sanchez.  In only one game, Liriano’s first, did the starter bury them.  So even if the hitters perk up, they might find that the pitching goes south.

The batters have been awful.  Not only are they striking out in droves, but they have been horrendous with runners in scoring position.  Their go to move has been hitting into double plays.  Donaldson has hit for average, but is injured now and looks like he might have one of those seasons where the body never completely heals.  Aside from Tulowitzki and Morales, no one has produced clutch RBIs.  Pillar and Smoak have looked more disciplined at times, but Travis, Bautista, Martin, and Pearce have been wretched.

Then there’s the manager.  Back at the beginning of April, amidst much congratulations to John Gibbons on his contract extension, I expressed my reservations on twitter.  My complaint with Gibbons is that he rarely if ever asks players to move outside their comfort zone.  God forbid he should ask Jose to bunt or to move a player over.  He does not manage to manufacture runs; he waits on the three run homer.  And when times were good, and the baseball world was feeding the Jays fastballs, Gibbons was a popular manager.  Doing nothing with a group of veterans that are pounding baseballs over fences apparently makes you a “player’s manager”.  But we got a hint of what would happen when teams started out thinking the Blue Jays in last year’s American League Championship against the Indians.  The manager was slow to react, or perhaps more accurately, paralytic.  So the fans kept waiting for the Jays to start looking for breaking balls, but they never did, and the series was over in the blink of an eye.  What looked to some like laid back Texas wisdom in the last couple years’ playoff runs (“The bats will come around, but they battled out there”) is now exposed as a lack of imagination and strategy.  Even little league managers know that when you are in a team wide slump, you need to shake things up.  It’s the hockey equivalent of “put pucks on the net and hope for a greasy goal”.  But Gibbons has been loathe to bunt, to run, to try to surprise teams and to try and pressure teams into making mistakes.  He’s still playing for the five run inning.  With the pitching the Jays have received, they should be at worst a game below .500 and at best, a couple games above that mark.  Meanwhile Gibbons continues to be the country bumpkin, stroking his stubble, marveling at the impotency of the bats, serving up cliché after cliché.  Well here’s a cliché for you John courtesy of a true genius, Albert Einstein:  “The definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again, but expecting different results.”  For years, this quote could be aptly applied to the Maple Leafs who would overspend on aging veterans while giving away young talent that others would develop into stars.  Now Atkins and Shapiro, having erroneously equated team success with good managing, have endorsed a manager that thinks the epitome of creativity is changing up your leadoff hitter.

Meanwhile the Red Sox are loaded, the Orioles are solid and the Yankees and Rays have exciting, young talent that will be good for years to come.

Maybe the Jays turn it around.  Maybe they go on a torrid streak in June and are battling for a playoff position in the fall.  Far more likely is that after the Leafs and Raptors have finished participating in playoff contests, Blue Jays’ nation is going to get awfully tired of Gibbons’ post game laments. And his contract extension which many called a “no brainer” might be viewed more simply as brainless.

Pro Sports–Compelling Escapism

“April” according to T.S. Eliot’s “The Waste Land” “is the cruellest month”.  Fans of professional sports would likely disagree as this month marks the beginning of both the NHL and NBA playoffs, the beginning of baseball’s regular season and The Masters golf tournament.  This year may even provide the thrill of Toronto Maple Leafs’ participation in the grueling post-season marathon to capture the Stanley Cup.

Of course, Thomas Stearns Eliot was almost certainly not referring in his poem to the relative joy or pain of sports’ fanatics and their loyalties.  “The Waste Land” is a serious poem dealing with death, rebirth, spiritual paralysis, history, sex, isolation and other heavy concerns.  It is quite likely to be read and studied a hundred years from now (assuming humans survive that long), whereas the outcome of a particular sports’ game or even a league championship will generally be forgotten by most in a quarter of that time.  There are exceptions of course.  The date 1967 sticks in the minds of Leafs’ fans because of what has come (or failed to come) after that.  And yes, there are certain hockey games I remember from 1978 or 1993 (upset victories or unrealized dreams can sear the memory), but for the most part, we can concur that sports is not the equivalent of literature.  It is gripping in the moment, but much less so once the result is known.  It can unify large groups of people briefly, but rarely inspires world improvement.  Unlike literature, it is a means of occupying our minds by directing us away from the urgent problems of the moment.  Yes, some people like to “escape” by sticking their head in a book, but if it’s really literature, it will encourage a connection back to the world and human relationships.  And please don’t try to counter that sports teaches lessons too.  It does, but much more significantly for the participants than the spectators.  Sure, sports often requires teamwork, perseverance and dedication, but you can learn that from watching one game; you don’t need to follow teams for decades or risk losing that understanding.

So, why is it that so many people, many of them intelligent, responsible and sensitive souls, spend so much time following professional sports’ teams?  Is it just out of habit?  Is it a response to the insistent advertising for sports beamed at us on each and every device we use?  Is it to fill time that we don’t know how to productively use?  Or is it a special kind of escape from an impersonal and troubled society?

The more I think about it, the more sports provides a certain order that is lacking in so called ‘real life’.  Think about the intervals in a sporting event.  How long is an inning in baseball?  Three outs long.  There is something very comforting about that.  A manager may argue whether a runner was safe or out, but no manager would dream of arguing that a team deserves four outs one inning.  There are certain rules or axioms that are agreed upon by all which allow the competition to occur.  A bit like mathematics when you think about it.  In our democratic societies, we lack this axiomatic certainty.  A law only lasts until a group of politicians decide to replace it with something else.  Now it’s true that a sporting rule can change, but these are usually peripheral ones, and not the bedrock regulations that help define the sport.  For example, a two line pass in hockey was once illegal, but is now permitted; this is of a different order than proposing passing itself be banned.  And yes, sometimes the rule change can have a significant impact on the game; witness the introduction of the three point shot in basketball or the American League’s designated hitter rule.  But notice that no one is suggesting that hockey be reduced to two periods or that baseball should do away with innings and just have the first team to score five runs win.  And notice how universally upset fans get when they feel the way to determine the end of the game has been tampered with in an impure manner.  I don’t know of any diehard hockey or soccer fan that approves of the shoot out as a means of determining a winner.  Why?  Because it is not the way the game is played, but is just a fragment of the game.  Could you imagine if instead of extra innings in baseball, a pitcher threw a batter one pitch without any fielders on the diamond and he just had to hit it?  It would be a travesty.  The games have a certain logic.

In addition to the timing and ending of games, sports is also attractive because of the schedule.  We know when the season will begin and when it will end.  Many people cannot even say the same about their workday.  Sports’ fans know that no matter how horribly their team performed on one day, there will be another day where they will have a fresh opportunity.  Which explains all of the magic attributed to opening day or night of a season.  Can you think of a sport that doesn’t have a boundary?  In life, we are often looking in vain for boundaries that don’t exist.  It’s comforting in sports when they do.  Think of how frustrating it is in society when boundaries are vague or non-existent.  For example, where is the boundary on what behavior is impeachable for a sitting President?

No doubt there is a large element of escapism in the desire to follow professional sports teams.  Just as some people check “that masterpiece of total unreality, the daily stock market report” (see Ursula K. LeGuin’s excellent “Why are Americans Afraid of Dragons”) every day and that becomes their reality, others are glued to the standings of the sports leagues they follow.  Some go even further and create their own fantasy team in a fantasy league which cranks up the escapism another notch by betting on a team that exists only in the realm of statistical record keeping.

To be fair, there’s a lot about our world that encourages escapism.  The growing gap between the rich and poor, environmental devastation, nuclear weaponry, xenophobia, political instability, and, for lack of a better phrase, human nature are all part of our grim reality.  Perhaps we can be forgiven for getting caught up in whether the Leafs make the playoffs, who will be the next batter to hit .400 and who will be named the NBA’s MVP.  As long as we realize sports is a distraction, then it has its uses and can enrich our lives.  At some point though, we also need to engage in the kind of pursuits that inspire us to reflect on ourselves and to improve our world.

Four Days in Florida

Ah Florida, home away from home of sun worshippers.  It’s a huge state, but is probably identified in the popular imagination with a select few iconic images.  I’ve just returned from four days on the Gulf side- St. Petersburg to be exact-and realized that Florida not only reveals itself to you, it reveals quite a bit about where you come from too. Everyone you meet down there seems to be a Florida veteran; I never heard a single visitor say “Wow, this is my first time here and it’s quite a place”.  Instead, they will tell you why they prefer the Gulf side to the Atlantic side, or why it’s better drive down the I-75 than the I-95 or why the Phillies’ stadium in Clearwater is so superior to the Jay’s digs in Dunedin, or why Honeymoon Island State Park is a better place to swim than St. Pete’s Beach.  It’s almost as if everyone learned the hard way and having perfected holidaying, wants to gift you with the benefit of their knowledge.  I will say this about Florida: people in the service industry know how much tourism means.  With one very minor exception, every individual I encountered in a hotel, restaurant, or store was friendly, helpful and attentive.  Of course, I expected certain features that you just don’t find in Canada: gun shops that look and advertise like convenience stores, expressways that seem to suddenly terminate and become roads; highway ramps that loom over residential and retail areas; beer and wine prominently on sale in grocery stores, drug stores and dollar stores, and traffic lights that are so slow you need to keep an extra can of gas handy in your vehicle.  Some elements are surprising.  Billboards advertising vasectomies in huge block letters, bail bonds so in demand that they are trumpeted on bus benches, huge highway billboards luring you to a particular emergency room and providing the average wait time!  I guess it’s all just a little more open down in Florida—want to sue somebody? want a particular operation? want help keeping out of jail? It’s all on public display and usually billboard size since everyone seems to be in their cars better than half the day.  I also came across something that was new to me, though it might not be to Florida—cafes that don’t have mens’ or womens’ rooms, but rather just restrooms that can be locked and used by either sex and by the full spectrum of genders.  Perhaps this is a way for smaller eateries to anticipate coming legislation—their two restrooms can be accessed by all!  I also don’t remember Florida being such a craft beer capital.  Any self-respecting diner offers at least ten craft beers and most have closer to twenty.  I also stumbled upon a beer that I’ve never heard of before, but is apparently a well-established Pennsylvania lager called Yeungling.  My Blue Jays’ ticket stub entitled me to a free domestic beer at a local establishment; the choice was Bud Light or Yeungling.  That kind of dictated my preference as any choice between Bud Light and something else is invariably going to result in the something else (curdled milk might make the call tougher).  The Yeungling draft was really enjoyable; so much so, that I went to order it a couple of days later, whereby I learned that it is pronounced by locals as “Yingling”.  In four days, I didn’t have a bad meal in the Sunshine State.  I attribute this fact in part because I made a point of asking locals where to eat.  Their recommendations never let me down.  Once, on St. Pete’s Beach, I referred to Yelp, and it directed me to a Deli called Barracuda that was only 250 metres away.  The food was delicious, the price was right and the service was phenomenal.  I also had a great experience at the Salvador Dali museum in St. Petersburg.  I had been there over thirty years ago when it was housed in a much smaller space; its current home is a geodesic wonder.  Our tour guide, Diana, only showed us about five paintings, but was so informative that it took the better part of an hour.  Not a single person opted out of the tour; in fact, it grew to a rather unwieldy size because Diana was able to connect Dali’s fascinating life to the paintings.  As a bonus, the museum also had an excellent Frida Kahlo exhibit on display. You feel a bit better about lounging by the pool or walking on the beach if you can sandwich in a little learning about cultural icons along the way.

The cliché “it’s a nice place, but I wouldn’t want to live there” probably works for me when I think about Florida.  Great beaches, excellent restaurants, palm trees, arcing dolphins, those cute gulls, outdoor patios and Blue Jays’ baseball can keep my interest for a week or so.  After that, I fear the land of the car, the billboard, and the know it all veteran traveller would get a bit oppressive.

The Headline Should be Environmental Devastation

Since Donald Trump’s inauguration in January, he has almost ceaselessly been making headlines.  Whether it’s about crowd size, his daughter’s clothing line, light switches, travel bans, Oval Office couches, wire taps, microwave cameras or Snoop Dog, reporters seem ready and poised to jump on virtually anything Trump tweets or his comically inept sycophants, Spicer and Conway, say.  The problem with this steady stream of absurdity is that we are missing the big picture.  And yes, even the travel ban, as egregious and mean-spirited as it is, is not as important in the long run as the deregulation that Trump is undertaking with regards to environmental protection.

It is easy to get caught up in outrageous accusations, alternative facts and well publicized executive orders.  The bottom line though is that we only have one planet, and the damage that can be done to our air, water and land in the space of a few years can take generations to undo.  Yes, it makes me sick to my stomach to hear Trump try to defend his anti-Muslim travel ban by trumpeting the need to protect Americans, while at the same time rolling back Obama era regulations which made it tougher to purchase hand guns.  Yes, in the coming years, thousands may well die as a result of the loosening of gun laws and tens of thousands may be discriminated against and denied entry into America.  But that’s small potatoes compared to the devastation that will result from the poisoning of the planet.  The worst aspect of it is that it will not only affect our generation, but hundreds of millions, perhaps billions not yet born.  It is one thing to mess up the present world because of greed, vanity and myopia, but quite another thing to condemn the future.  There is simply no defense; we know what the most qualified scientists have been saying for decades.  To deny it or suggest that it is inconclusive is the most selfish and greedy act in human history, a saga which has seen no shortage of greed and selfishness.

It was inspirational in January when women marched on Washington to protest against the vicious, xenophobic and deceitful executive branch of the United States.  But where were the people in the streets when Trump appointed Scott Pruitt to head the Environmental Protection Agency?  If we cared about the planet, we should have brought cities to a standstill in the wake of this outrage.  Pruitt is on record as denying that human activity is the key factor in climate change.  He has a long history of fighting against environmental regulation and defending the actions of negligent companies.  This is the man that Trump has appointed to safeguard the planet.  Unless you live on a space station, that should be enough to enrage you.  Earth is our home.  We may be used to calling the four walls we live in home, but that’s just a temporary structure.  And the planet is not just our home, but home to the 8.7 million species that inhabit Earth.  And yes, the cynical and pragmatic thinkers out there will tell you that regardless of who is heading up the EPA, the hundreds of millions in ‘dark money’ spent by the ultra-rich will effectively neuter any serious regulations the EPA proposes in any event.  But this is still important.  It’s important because we have no Lorax to speak for the trees.  Scientists who speak out live in fear of being attacked by powerful lobby groups (see Michael Mann among others).  It’s important because as long as there was someone who really believed in the mandate of the EPA at its head, then bright young people may be inspired to work for the EPA and defend the planet.  How can the 17,000 employees of the EPA feel any motivation now?  How can they possess any confidence that their testing, their studies, their recommendations will produce anything of substance?

Selfishness only flourishes if there is a lot of it.  Yes, the business leaders and politicians who have turned a blind eye to the poisoning of the planet have a special place in the pantheon of greed, but what have most of us done about it, myself included?  We’re so busy with the here and now that we have not thought about the horrible “intergenerational tyranny” we are imposing upon our descendants.  Don’t fool yourself.  When future generations think of us, they won’t remember our art ,our philosophy or our technological innovation.  They will know us simply as killers who doomed them; people who had the knowledge and means to sustain the world, but chose not to because they were too busy taking selfies, counting their money and relieving their stress.

If you don’t want that to be your legacy, stand up for the planet.

How America Works

For several months after Donald Trump was elected president, there was, amid the gnashing of teeth of a considerable portion of the media, a concerted focus on how this could have happened.  The shock and confusion seemed genuine.  Perhaps it was.  The essayists and columnists could have saved themselves weeks of harrowing introspection by simply reading a book released in January of 2016.  In fact, if they were pressed for time, they could have read a single chapter of the book and the answers they were seeking would have become apparent.

The book is Jane Mayer’s incredible Dark Money:  The Hidden History of the Billionaires Behind the Rise of the Radical Right and the chapter in question is number 8 entitled “The Fossils” which focuses on the fuel industry’s war on climate change and on science itself.

Mayer’s research is jaw dropping.  She patiently builds her case that a group of extremely wealthy individuals were able to transform public opinion and paralyze political will through a covert and expensive attack that sowed doubt on climate change by hiring non-expert scientists and passing them off as experts, engaging in vicious personal attacks, leaking e-mails and quoting them out of context, running inflammatory television advertising, exaggerating the cost of solutions and lying about the reasons for taking action, slandering and threatening politicians leaning towards supporting environmental regulation, creating the impression that a grass roots anti-regulation movement existed and producing reams of supposedly scientific papers that called climate change into question.  Is it any wonder Obama’s two terms seemed to disappoint when any legislation that could impact the profits of the extremely wealthy was met with a similar barrage of resistance?

The United States is an oligarchy.  It is run not by elected officials, but by the extremely wealthy who have learned that they don’t need to run for office, because they effectively can control what will be in the legislation passed by those in office.  Once you come to terms with this, it answers a lot of questions.  If you think I’m overstating this, read Dark Money and see if you still feel that way.

In Praise of Thomas Frank

I would hazard a guess that the average person on the street would register a blank gaze if asked who Thomas Frank is.  The odd baseball fan might think about a legendary designated hitter nicknamed “The Big Hurt”, but that was Frank Thomas.  No, Thomas Frank is not a baseball player; he is a writer.  And a fine one at that.  Frank is a columnist for Harper’s Magazine and the author of several books on culture, business and politics.  I first encountered Frank when I was teaching media and came across his book The Conquest of Cool:  Business, Culture, Counterculture, and the Rise of Hip Consumerism.  The book convincingly explains how quickly businesses hijacked rebellion in order to sell more of everything from soda pop to cars.  I remember how saddened I was at Frank’s thorough documenting of the manner by which advertisers were so easily able to redefine ‘cool’ as something you purchase rather than a set of values or a way of relating to others.  And yes, in our post Mad Men society, that might be considered an obvious observation, but in 1997 when the book came out, the methods of advertising did not hold quite as central a place in pop culture as they do today.  I’ve been coming across Frank’s name again just recently.  I’m in the midst of reading Jane Mayer’s Dark Money:  The Hidden History of the Billionaires Behind the Rise of the Radical Right.  It is another meticulously researched book that makes me sad.  (I know, you’re thinking: ‘Stop reading books that make you sad’, but sometimes that’s the price of being informed).  Mayers refers to Frank’s 2004 book What’s the Matter with Kansas?:  How Conservatives Won the Heart of America.  Though I haven’t read the book yet, the subject matter couldn’t possibly be more timely.  It apparently focuses on how populist conservatives have managed to win voters in the heartland of America by emphasizing divisive social issues and distracting voters from the devastation wrought by decades of deregulation.  Mayers has a special interest in Kansas because Wichita is home to Charles and David Koch, the billionaire libertarians who have evaded taxes by making charitable contributions to establish and maintain think tanks which are thinly disguised attempts to sway the academic and political conversation on the role of government (aka lobby for deregulation and increase Koch profits).  Frank’s latest book takes aim at the Democrats rather than the Republicans.  It is entitled Listen, Liberal:  Or, What Ever Happened to the Party of the People? and was released last year.  I haven’t read this one either, but hope to soon.  Frank’s thesis here is that the Democrats have turned their backs on the working class and on unions, and have tied their wagon to the professional class, a move which makes them susceptible to claims that they are elitist.  Frank’s latest concern is that the resistance which has arisen in response to Trump’s appalling executive orders will be co-opted by opportunists with much less noble goals in mind. Throughout his writing, Frank seems to possess a deep understanding of misdirection and how authentic and well-meaning social impulses can be subverted by fortune hunters.  If you’re interested not just in where we are and how we got here, but where we might be headed, you might want to give Frank a look.