Saturday, 21 January 2017

Number Zero of Ten Or So Albums

Facebook, that strange non-place. So lovely. So toxic. So much of the world distilled into some sort of essence, though not the world entire because so much of what is important is missing. Quiet. Trees. Fresh air. One hundred other things.
There is music there, though. Videos of this or that new or nostalgic thing. And recently posts by many of my (Facebook) friends of the “10 albums that made a lasting impression on you as a TEENAGER,” to quote my (Facebook and ex-[brief]girl) friend Zoë quoting someone else. 
There’s ugliness on Facebook too. Minor and major. Mercifully I only deal with the minor ugliness, what with me being a straight white man in what can be called middle age.
Early middle age.
I thought these lists were a very beautiful thing. Then I woke up on Saturday and was scrolling leisurely through my feed and saw Zoë had posted a defense of her list. Then I saw that someone else had called their friends out for making the albums on their lists cooler than they should have been. Then I read a few more people’s posts on the topic of this list of ten albums. I hadn’t even had a chance to put my list together and already I was feeling shitty about it, so I posted:
I suppose I shouldn't be surprised that this 10 important albums to you as a teenager thing has dredged up all kinds of weird shit amongst my friends and in my gut. It seemed so lovely, but has become "jokingly"—as in "hey, I was just joking, dude"—about what was authentically important to you as a teen and what is you looking back and trying to impose something on your teen self, be it greater or lesser coolness. I have some fantastic records from when I was a teen. I have some fantastic records that people now consider—even then considered—gauche. I listened to some still very cool shit. I work with teens every day and I am reminded how insanely intense the years between 13 and 19 are and how constant change and evolution are. My top 10 albums would have been different every week. As far as albums that I still like, well those would look filtered to be cool. As far as albums that have had a profound effect on me, those would be in line with the many, I think cool, manifestations of my person during and since my teen years. If you want the embarrassing shit, that's a different thing. But the policing of "honesty" versus "coolness" going on in my feed right now reminds me of, well, high school. Soon people will be accusing each other of being "phony" or "a hypocrite" and we'll all have nasty tastes in our mouths or indigestion because, after all, we are all middle aged now and gastro will probably be the result of trying to prove that we loved Drive Like Jehu back then. Or Gastr del Sol. Or Jesus Lizard. Or that we tried to puzzle out Coltrane. Or that when we were in grade 9 we earnestly loved, maybe that we still love Pearl Jam.
(Notes on my Facebook post:
(-I don’t “work with teens every day,” but I hope you will agree that five or fewer days a week for ten months of the year, minus two weeks at Christmas and a week in March, is close enough to excuse the hyperbole.
(-I’m not thrilled about the use of the word “gauche” here; I think “embarrassing" would have been better.
(-Gastr del Sol should have been the first band I mentioned, not Drive Like Jehu, so that “gastro” and “Gastr” could have nestled closer together. I’m no poet.)
I think lists tell a story, but I would rather hear, would rather tell, the actual story around the album. So here we go, here is a series of short memoirs about the lasting impression made by ten or so albums from when I was a teenager, for what it is worth.
Below is number zero of ten or so.

0.     A pre-teen album, from when I was 12 Years Old, I think. Public Enemy’s Fear of a Black Planet
Grade seven was my first of two grades at Montclair in Oakville. 
Andrew L., with whom I’d gone to pre-school, whose mother worked with my mother, went there as well. He was one of the few people I knew other than the handful who transfered there from my rural primary school, Percy W. Merry.
There had not been a lot of black people at P. W. Merry. Nor were there many black people at Montclair.
My dad worked with a black man, a surgeon, Ofei, from Nigeria I think. Or Ghana. The country wouldn’t have been significant to me or, probably, to my family. Only that it was in Africa would have been significant from our vantage. Ofei and his wife and children came over for dinner once or twice. Ofei became the first black member of the golf course my grandfather and aunt belonged to. In my family’s story of Ofei, my grandfather—born in Markham in 1915, and once racist in that way that one is when one has no one towards whom to be racist—was instrumental in this breaking the colour barrier at the golf course. Ofei was the surgeon who removed from my grandfather the lung with the malignant tumours. Ofei gave my grandfather three more years of life in my family’s estimation.
Now that I’m thinking of it, though, there was a black person at Percy Merry. And how could I forget Norman A., Norm, one of my best friends for a few years, which when you are in primary school is no small thing. He was one of the few who attended Montclair as well, one of the few who went with me. But at Montclair Norm and I had a falling out. As I understood it, he was shoplifting from the convenience store across the street and across the high school football field from our school. And then our house was broken into and a pocket watch my grandfather had bequeathed me, the Upper Deck Ken Griffey Jr. rookie card and twenty dollars from my parent’s closet was all that was missing. One of my favourite baseball bats—one of Norm’s and my favourite baseball bats—was by the front door instead of in my bedroom, as if whoever had broken in had gone first to my room to grab this weapon like a talisman or security blanket or whatever. Which is to say that we suspected Norm.
But which is all to say, all of the above is to say, that I did not fear a black planet. These two men, a surgeon who prolonged my grandfather’s life and one of my best friends, did not constitute a threat to the overwhelmingly white part of the Greater Toronto Area that I lived in. Nor, I’ll say, did I perceive blackness as a threat. Maybe more of a novelty.
I had a lot of the Rap Traxx compilations on cassette and would listen to them while I played Nintendo. Super Mario Bros. and Bionic Comando. De La Soul’s “Buddy” off Rap Traxx 3 was the big discovery for me on those albums. I’d had Run DMC’s Raising Hell for a few years, nestled in my collection beside my Rush cassettes. I bought De La’s Three Feet High and Rising and listened that to death. Bought Young MC and Maestro Fresh Wes, too. At some point I bought Fear of a Black Planet.
I couldn’t remember if anyone mentioned Malcolm X on Fear of a Black Planet. “Welcome To The Terrordome” was my favourite track for its air-raid siren sound and the fury of Chuck D’s delivery. The other day I looked up the lyrics. I have no idea what sort of sense they made to me when I was twelve. I know that I could rap along with some accuracy. And there, in the third verse is Malcolm X.
…How to fight the power, cannot run and hide
Bullets shouldn’t be suicide
In a game a fool without the rules
Got a hell of a nerve to criticize
Every brother ain’t a brother
’Cause a black hand squeezed on Malcolm X the man
The shootin’ of Huey Newton
From the hand of a nigger pulled the trigger

And maybe—somewhere between my sister Emma’s piano lessons and Oakville Place, a short drive that for some reason I associate most strongly with listening to my Fear of a Black Planet cassette—Mum and I had a conversation about Malcolm X.
Maybe my friend Andrew L. told me about Malcolm X. Andrew’s Mum, Barb, was more up on social justice stuff than anyone in my family, at least as far as I could see then, as far as I can see now. Andrew, too—who got turntables and a mixer and a crate full of the latest hip hop LPs at some point around then—was more up on issues of civil rights and racism than I was, at least as far as I remember.
I know, though, that my dad, who still lived with my mum, sister and me then, found out about a black book store on Bathurst. When, years later, I discovered A Different Booklist I wondered if it was, thought that it must have been, then doubted that it was where Dad took me to buy The Autobiography of Malcolm X. The store I remember was north of Bloor, much larger than A Different Booklist and run by a white haired black man.
The Autobiography of Malcolm X has come up recently and it comes up with some regularity as I teach students who are black, who are otherwise racialized, who are women, who are lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgendered, queer, two-spirited, students who are subject to bias and prejudice. Maybe most significantly—though not most importantly—it comes up because I work with young white, straight, and/or cis-gendered, middle-class men. Men like me. And some of these young men feel that feminism or Black Lives Matter or really any acknowledgment of and action against oppression is unfair, that it somehow excludes them and targets them and concludes that they are, as individuals, fixed forever as the bad guy.
I can offer these young men anecdotes about listening to Ani DiFranco and feeling like she was singing about me quite literally, probably because of the narcissism of my social position and because my girlfriend at the time had given me the cassette with DiFranco’s songs. I can offer these men the fact that I then consciously shifted my thinking to consider the fact that Ani DiFranco didn’t know me, doesn’t know me, and that I didn’t have to be like the man or men that she was talking about and that I was probably in many ways not like the man or men she was talking about.
Or, more powerfully I think, I can offer these young men an anecdote about me reading The Autobiography of Malcolm X. In the book, Malcolm X calls the white man, The White Man, the devil. That’s me. At least that’s what I first thought. I talked to Mum about this, I’m sure. Little twelve year old me. 
Little was Malcolm X’s first last name, a slave owners name, the name he had when his father was murdered by white supremacists.
It wasn’t hard for me to understand that the white people who had made little Malcolm Little and grown Malcolm X suffer, the white people who built the USA, the white people who benefited from the spoils of a state and economy built on slavery, the theft of people—not to mention theft of land—the white people who continued to benefit from the oppression of black people even if they themselves were not the direct instrument of that oppression, that these white people could powerfully and without much of an imaginative leap be called devils.
I wrote a speech about Malcolm X and delivered it. I was selected to present my speech in front of the whole school. Dad agreed to take me back to the bookstore where we bought The Autobiography of Malcolm X and the white boy that I was and my white doctor dad bought a men’s medium shirt, black, with a white near-silhouette of Malcolm X and his name printed on the front. On the back was an excerpt from a speech that began, “I am not an American. I am one of the 22 million black people who are the victims of Americanism.” I wore my new shirt when I presented my short speech about Malcolm X in front of the school. I also wore, proudly, an Africa medallion that Nicole W., my black classmate, loaned me.
I had the T-shirt for years. When I wore it in grade 9, I became a magnet for skinheads. One of them, whom everyone called Squirt (and with whom I keep in touch via Facebook) asked me if I was proud to be white. I was not. I have a feeling it was him who introduced me to the phrase “race traitor,” a phrase that when I was sixteen or so I saw boldly printed on a white T-shirt worn by a guy sitting on the steps of the Art Institute of Chicago. Racetraitor, I would later learn, maybe when I was still a part of the overwhelmingly white, straight and male Mississauga-Oakville-Burlington hardcore scene was a band in the Chicago hardcore scene, which scene I suspect was similarly largely white, straight and male. 
I reluctantly threw the Malcolm X shirt out when it became nearly transparently threadbare sometime in my late twenties or early thirties.
Today, I’m still not frightened of the idea of a black planet, but I suspect that the election of Donald Trump in the USA, the ongoing endemic of police and state violence against black bodies and the necessity of the Black Lives Matter movement, to name a few easy ones are signs that too many people are afraid of a black planet, at least in the US and, really by extension Canada, or at least the part of Canada where I live.

Credits: “Welcome To The Terrordome” lyrics by Chuck D quoted in The Anthology of Rap, edited by Adam Bradley and Andrew DuBois

Wednesday, 3 August 2016

We Meet

When you were little, someone had given you a wallet with a horse’s head in profile so you had decided you liked horses. Your parents got you riding lessons at a local stable where you spent most of the afternoon in a pool, supervised by disinterested lifeguards related in various ways to the people who ran the camp. When you did get to be around horses, the instructors told you to be extremely careful because they might kick if you came up behind them. You didn’t know at the time, but it had recently come up at a family lunch that the week before you had gone to the camp, a kid had been knocked into a coma.
It was later, on an activity day at a resort you attended with your family, that you really came to fear horses. There was an excursion and all the kids went by bus to a ranch so that all the parents could golf or fuck or argue. At the ranch, a huge horse with a white patch between his eyes butted your stomach and chest with his muzzle. The ranch hand’s explanation was that the horse was asking you for food. If he’d been a smaller animal maybe you would have been charmed, but there was substantial force to his nuzzling, so substantial that you had no trouble recognizing how quickly and with what ease the animal could overpower you, harm you, kill you. You never even climbed on the horse’s back and the stable had no other animal available for you to ride so you did what? “I don’t remember.”
“You know, I’ve never ridden a horse,” I told you.
“It’s just a tattoo.”
“Well, sort of. My last name means someone who shoes horses.” I said.
“So it’s not really just a tattoo,” you said.
“Well, I guess my name’s just a name though, right? I mean a horse means a lot of things.”
“I’ve been using that running horse emoji a lot,” you told me. You used it when someone texted you to say they were running late, or when your sister texted you to say that she and her husband had finally cleared out the room that they planned on turning into a nursery in their small condominium. You used it to express excitement when your friend invited you to go see Bruce Springsteen at the Air Canada Centre.
I don’t know, but I found you charming as you know now. I was worried that you were letting too much of your mind out to me, maybe. Like that it might become overwhelming or exhausting. Or that you would run out of thoughts to share.
The first time we “did it”—fucked, or “made love,” or whatever—I thought of a horse snorting and thrashing and racing around, white froth which was its sweat, I guess, clumped here and there on its skin as it passed the camera. I say camera of course because I’m thinking of something from a film. In my imagination or memory, it’s from a Terrence Malick film.
You started talking about guns because of the six-shooter tattooed on my other wrist. When you were nearly six your grandfather had let you fire his shotgun at a tomato juice can nestled into the crotch of a tree and your mother, who had left you with him as she ran errands, had arrived in time to hear the shot and had nearly killed your grandfather, probably would have killed him if it wasn’t the death part of guns that so profoundly offended her.
You told me that that same grandfather had used that same gun—maybe it was a rifle—to kill a bouvier des flandres puppy, nearly full grown, whose temperament had turned mean. Later, when you started reading through forty years of your grandfather’s daily journals, you discovered that he’d killed the bouvier earlier the same day that he let you fire the gun.
He also had a toy six-shooter that he had helped you put real bullets into.
And when you were little—a little older, though, and with the permission of your parents—you’d been skeet shooting with your best friend, whose father hunted ducks, mostly. You were good at it. At least you remembered being good at it. Meaning you hit things.
I had on a pair of Ray Bans that I’d found on the street. Unfortunately, whoever had lost them had a prescription that was a bit too strong for my eyes, but I liked how they looked perched on my head. Anyway, I pulled them down because I didn’t want you to see my eyes when I told you that I had the gun tattooed on my arm as a way to reclaim the idea of guns. Through the sunglasses you looked clear, but much farther away.
“Reclaim? Why?”
I explained how, you know, people reclaimed language that had been used against them.
“Someone used a gun against you?”
I told you how when I was twelve, my father was held up at a gas station. A robbery.
You did this blinking thing. It was the first time I’d seen you do it, but I’ve seen you do it since. It’s like you are trying to bring the world into focus. Figuratively. “With a gun?” you asked.
“He was killed.”
“Oh my God. I’m sorry.”
“Why? You didn’t do it.”
You looked at some filthy spot on the floor of the club. “No,” you said.
A member of the band turned on an amp and the sound of a chord swelled briefly into the club. The rest of the band took their places behind instruments and microphones.
The story of my father’s murder was true and painful, but I told it with some frequency. There were other details, which eventually you memorized. Like, “He had twenty dollars in his wallet.”
“That’s it?”
“Did they take it?”
“Yes.” Or, “It was as a gas station right by my parents’ house.”
“Did th—”
The band started their first song. I got up off my stool, grabbed my beer from the tall table beside me and put my lips up to your ear. “What’s that?” I shouted as gently as I could over the hammering guitar.
You swallowed before you turned your head and stretched your neck to bring your mouth to my ear. “Did they move?”
I shook my head.
You blinked again. This time it was like something had suddenly become clear. “I’m sorry. I guess I mean did your mom move?”
I shook my head and smiled gently. I found the modification charming. Almost thoughtful. But also very strange. As if you thought—though I know you didn’t think—that changing “they” to “your mom” could leap back in time to pull my mother out of the funk that followed. Funk isn’t the word. Crippling fear, anxiety, depression, shock. PTSD. “No. We didn’t move,” I said, but our heads weren’t close enough together for you to hear me.
You looked worried. Mouthed, “What?”
I shook my head, No. It’s nothing. Nevermind.
You leaned your head close to mine, your mouth near my ear. You shouted, “What did you say?” then looked at me, all carefully rendered concern.
My hesitation, my reluctance, was real. Eventually, I leaned in to say, “It’s okay. Seriously. We can talk after the band.”
We did keep talking after the band.
But first we stood there. I stood stiffer than usual. You too, I realize in retrospect. Someone watching silent video of the two of us at that show couldn’t have guessed that the band was good, that there were grooves. A few songs in, you finished your beer, held the empty bottle in the air in front of me—closer than it appeared through the prescription Ray Bans—and when I looked at you, your face was asking if I wanted another. You pointed at the bottle, just to make sure I understood. I nodded, Yes. You went to the bar. I finished my beer while a welcome warmth started somewhere near the bottom of my ribs and spread out. I returned the Ray Bans to their nest in my hair. 
We stood closer as we finished our second beers.
The band finished and our conversation went on to cover Bill Callahan, a.k.a. Smog, and his lines “skin mags in the brambles/for the first part of my life/I thought women had orange skin” which you said the pin-up girl tattoo on my left arm reminded you of and which (the lines) reminded you of your own earliest exposure to Playboys and Hustlers or whatever stashed under a log down a dead-end dirt lane between your neighbour’s house and their neighbours on the other side or in a pile of leaves behind your mom’s best friend’s house. In response to a question I asked you inspired by your anecdotes about the skin mags, first you, then I talked about the teachers we wish we could have kissed or fucked or who we wish could have been our parents. At this point, the fact that we would soon sleep together was becoming obvious. The friends we’d come with drifted to the corners of the club. We went on. You described the bedroom you grew up in, one wall covered in Sunshine Girls a classmate gave you, in—you realized as you told me—some strange flirtation, probably. I described the different favourite band posters from different points in my evolution as a music lover. I asked you about where you lost your virginity. It was in your basement bedroom in the house you moved to with your mom and sister when your parents got divorced. It happened on a summer afternoon after a walk by the Sixteen Mile Creek a few weeks before you moved out on your own. You asked me where I lost mine. It was a bathroom at a party after the person I was with, not dating but talking to, someone I knew from school, confessed that they were a virgin despite the story they’d made up for their friends and I said that I too was a virgin, and while I wasn’t so ashamed that I made a secret of it, that I would be happy to break the ice or come of age or come with someone else—or whatever it took to lose my virginity—so we snuck into the bathroom and locked the door and fumbled our way through it while people banged on the door and speculated about who was taking so long before being swept back into the party by whatever.
We were among the last to leave the club. Your friends had left, my friends had left. The bands had loaded out and the bartender had turned on the lights. We held hands down the stairs from the venue and we walked a block in no direction. When you asked where we were going, I kissed you under a streetlight. The beer on my breath must have neutralized the beer on your breath because I tasted you. Your taste is like oatmeal with milk and brown sugar. Sure, sometimes the milk is sour. Or the oatmeal is thin. And in the morning there is something off in there, like maybe an unfinished bowl of oatmeal got dumped into the compost bin and while it remains the most prominent smell, the rotting vegetables and leftovers and the drying coffee grinds are an unpleasant counter-scent.
A streetcar rattled by and we interrupted that first kiss and walked down the first residential street we came to. In a parkette we found, I backed you into a play structure and held your head with both hands and looked at you. You were expectantly expressionless, your mouth open, your breath shallow. You shivered. We continued our kiss, this time more forceful and purposeful. With your teeth, you gently held onto my lower lip as I pulled back to change angles and I nearly came.
I knew I didn’t want to have sex that night, though. I don’t know why. Maybe I knew there was enough to savour already. Maybe I wanted the first time to be special. Maybe it was just that it was too late, way too late in the night and I needed the few hours of sleep I could still get before I went to my mom’s place to celebrate my grandmother’s birthday. “I have to go.”
“Uh—” You shook violently. “Okay.” I put my hand to your sternum, my fingers brushing your clavicle. Your heart beat like it was oversized, a horse’s heart or an elephant’s. Elephants are beautiful creatures, you know.
“I have family shit tomorrow.”
You nodded.
I kissed you, kept my one hand against your chest so you wouldn’t blow away, then I put my free hand between your legs. You moaned into my mouth at a frequency that vibrated and warmed my ribcage. I moved my hand to your right pocket, squeezed my fingers past the hem and pulled out your phone. I pulled my lips from yours.
With your eyes closed, your head leaned forward like our lips were magnetized.
I woke your phone up, tried to open it, but it was password protected. I held it out to you for you to unlock it, but you told me your passcode. You had to tell me twice, I was so unprepared for this openness. I went to your contacts and added my name and phone number. I checked it twice to make sure I hadn’t mistyped something. “I should be done at my mom’s by, like, eight at the latest.”
“Can I text you?”
“Can I come to your place?”
“Yes,” you whispered and shook.
“Walk me to the streetcar?”
You agreed. We held hands like we were new to it, trying different positions to find which brought us closest, which felt best. You waited for the streetcar with me. You leaned against the shelter’s glass. I faced you and let your fingers explore my knuckles, my nails, my fingers, the lines on my palms. My breathing was shallow. Then I explored your hands. You blinked away tears or sleep.
We heard the streetcar’s metallic call as it stopped two blocks away, its three front lights looking right at us.
“Text me as soon as I get on the streetcar, please. So we make sure.”
“I’ll text you now.”
You looked strange lit by the phone’s screen. You wrote your full name and I pulled out my phone to wait for it to buzz through. It did. We kissed again, kissed until the streetcar’s lights were brightening one side of us.
“I’ll see you tomorrow,” I said.
“Later today,” you said.
I looked back once as I climbed the streetcar's steps. You smiled. I stood above an empty seat so I could watch you as the vehicle pulled away. You stood there watching me for a long enough time that I didn’t see you turn and point yourself towards home.
Toronto, July-Aug 2016

Emoji sequence: Eleanora Ferrari
Story: Lee Sheppard