Charity and Community – Hand Outs and Cheapskates

I was just approached in the office to buy a raffle ticket for $10, three for $25.  The prize was a trinket that I’d never keep.  The reason for the raffle: a guy who works here was just diagnosed with prostate cancer and was headed into surgery today.  One of his friends/co-workers was collecting money for his family, just a bit extra to cover take-out and gas back and forth to the hospital.  It probably won’t amount to much, but it’ll help.  I’m sure it’ll be really, really appreciated too.

It’s Movember this month and I didn’t carve a moustache from my beard.  I probably should have and now feel a stab of guilt for not raising money for finding a cure.  Prostate cancer.  Life’s great kick in the balls. I’m really lucky; I haven’t been forced to think about cancer very much.  All my friends who have had cancer have survived and are still surviving.  Invincibility is still attached to my aging youth.  But cancer, or whatever fate, is out there and none of us know if or when we’ll have to face our battle.  Will your community be there for you when it happens?  Is giving now just flimsy good-karma insurance?

When I consider the raffle, my mind moves to the big campaigns – the posters and runs, pink ribbons and testimonies from survivors.  All this to encourage society to search for a cure.  I’ll admit to not giving as much money as I should.  Logically, I know how important it is.  Emotionally, I feel for the millions of people this affects.  But when I see the campaign by the Canadian Cancer Society I don’t feel connected.  I don’t know the people.

Ah, and there it is.

There’s the problem.

My problem is the problem so many face.  We don’t know people in Mogadishu who are struggling with drought and joblessness.  I don’t know anyone in the favelas of Sao Paulo either who don’t have clean running water.  There are so many people in need, so many folks on the street in urban Canada, struggling communities in our north…the list is overwhelming.  Who gets my charity dollars and how much should I give?

I’ve chosen to buy the raffle ticket this time.  I felt moved to do so.  It was direct.  It was for a guy who works with us.  If I didn’t give, I don’t think I’d be doing justice to my community.  It was real.

But what of the others?  Where do I go for these answers?  I feel like I’m there, ready to give.  Now what?

Awesome masthead photo by derekp

Communicating to Community

Last week my friend sent me a few emails to see if I’d updated my iPhone 4 to the new iOS 5 so that we could use iMessenger from his iPad.  He texted me later to see if I’d updated yet.  And then finally when all apps and updates were downloaded and installed I got immediate messages from my friend on both my iPhone and iPad simultaneously through the iCloud.

Man, when did technology get so egotistical?  I, I, I.

Anyway…this month, which is just a little more than half-way spent, I spoke on the phone for 1676 minutes.  I’ve sent 152 texts.  And I’ve sent 143 emails and probably an equal number of Facebook messages.

I am not a high user.  I am a low user (see infographic below).

But what I’m here to talk to you about is how communication works in community: physical community vs. virtual community.

I live away.  I am a super-transient person with an incredibly high rate of movement domestically and internationally, ranking above military family and just below hobo.  My community is not near me.  So, I have to resort to calling them, endlessly, and texting or sending them messages in order to stay in touch.

Even though I find community wherever I am, there are people I am close to that are not close.  I can’t count how many handshakes I’ve doled out or the number of nods or hellos or even long, in-depth conversations in the last month…mostly because a company isn’t keeping track of them online for me.  After a quick estimate, I’d say less than my telecommunication contact.  But many would argue that the physical forms of communication, the personal and direct, are “higher” than those other, more material, less intimate forms of contact.

It’s often discussed among the older set that the degradation of face-to-face contact with community among the younger generation is real and that there is a loss of the art of graceful human interaction.  But so what?  What happens when you become good at a 25 character form of communication?  Is one form of communication better than another?

I recently sent a Facebook message to someone important only to realize that a phone call would have been the better route.  Dire consequences, I’m afraid.  But when is one method perfect, and when it is just really, really stupid?  A post-it note in someone’s luggage saying, “I love you” is very sweet.  Putting one on the fridge that reads, “I love your sister instead” really doesn’t work.

And when was the last time you wrote a letter?  Huh?  It takes time, energy.  I’d even say it supersedes a phone call in terms of intimacy of communication.  A voicemail is higher than a BBM, but only depending on the content.

What about not replying?  Not replying to a letter is more forgivable than not replying to a voicemail, right?  Something about immediacy.  What about responding to receiving a gift?  That’s like a letter times ten!  What kind of message are you communicating if you don’t respond to that gift, that high form of communication?  Would it be different if it were a gift card?

I don’t think I know the algorithm for all human contact, but would love to hear about your hierarchy of communication and then a flow-chart of responses and appropriate measures of reply.

(here’s that infographic I promised)

Masthead photo coutesy of go ask alice…

Falling for New York: Autumn in a World City

Even as I booked the ticket I knew it was built-up and pressurized.  But who could resist?  It was the end of September and I had a few bucks in my pocket, some time on my hands, and the promise of a love story set to the backdrop of one of the world’s most romantic cities.

She surprised me at the airport.  In her hands a bag, a survival kit, a welcome bag to the city.  A map to the ostensibly simple subway, an I *heart* NY shirt, a local cell phone, a bottle of NYC water (assuring me that it was clean), and very necessary hand sanitizer. It was put together with generous thought and heartfelt preparation.  I felt like a spy. A romantic spy.  Ten days with this woman just as the heat started to break, a new pair of walking shoes and the dazzling streets of a New York autumn.  A writer’s dream.

I guess to understand the gravity of my visit to New York City, you have to know a thing or two about the woman I went to see.  Helen is a perfect New Yorker. First, she’s not from New York. She’s Calgarian.  A struggling actor and bartender in one of the city’s hottest localvore restaurant, Il Buco (awash with celebrities in its dark, candlelit corners), she commands taxis across to Brooklyn like a contemporary Cleopatra and doesn’t hesitate to trudge crosstown in 4″ heels.  Smart, savvy, sexy, and sophisticated, it’s madly impressive that she auditions repeatedly and has not been beaten by the crushing weight of the Arts capital of the world.  I admire Helen.  She’s one of the few people I know who has not given in to the currents of pressure from society to fall in line with regular jobs, regular families, and regular lives.  She wants more.  And she puts on her make-up after going to Yoga to the People and takes the city on with grit, steel, and grace.  What an incredible guide to an incredible city.  As far as leading ladies go, she outshone even the classic starlets.

If you’re going to understand this trip, you have to understand that this wasn’t a adventure – she was not just some Delilah by the Plain White T’s.  Helen was my first love when I was a sliver older than a teenager.  She was the first girl I met at university, on the very first day.  After a melodramatic young, tormented love, we’d lost touch for more than a decade.  We got older, softer…wiser?  Thirteen years later we renewed our friendship and explored life, love, and the wold from a continent apart, updating each other with poems on Facebook and hundreds of hours on our phones as she walked home after a late-night shift, me driving with my bluetooth lodged in my ear down the lonely highway.  It was these late night talks that propelled me onto a plane to cross the better part of North America to see the magnificent woman on the other end of the phone.  Every New York story has to have a love interest. I left to New York City to chase Katharine Hepburn – in life it’s just as easy to romanticize a place like New York as it is to romanticize a love story, to will either to burst into flame is the romantic’s prerogative.

Even though I’d been to New York once before, the city had been built-up in my mind like its immense skyline: impossible to see from ground level.  Years before, I sat in a café in Cuzco reading the New Yorker when over the radio Sinatra started to croon his anthem to the city, when a woman from Manhattan sat down to talk to me.  I don’t believe in signs, but I also can’t ignore wild coincidences either.  Years later while on a motorcycle trip across North America I intended to stop into the Big Apple, but got behind and had to speed across the George Washington Bridge toward Boston.  This trip had so much of my romantic stock in it – any engineer could tell you the structure wasn’t strong enough to bear the weight.

I was a step away from being a tourist, staying with a newly ordained New Yorker with the promise of an experience off the beaten sidewalks of the city. There was something genuine about going there with a purpose instead of collecting photos and travel anecdotes about Time Square, wild taxi drivers, or getting robbed.  And as I walked with her everything seemed so normal in its weirdness, so familiar in its anonymity that I couldn’t help but feel a strange and instant connection.  Or perhaps it was the decades of songs, movies, and endless television, both fiction and non that coloured the lenses I looked through at those streets.  When I started this entry last week as I sat across from the New York Times building when I realized that I was using Times New Roman – yes, they have their own font for the love of god!  Everything about New York was permeating into my story.

Everywhere I looked, I felt that magnetic snap of connection.  I grew up laughing at Seinfeldian relationship and designed my concepts of relationships by agreeing or disagreeing with Carrie Bradshaw and the women of Sex in the City.  I walked into adulthood with Woody Allen and Allen Ginsberg, story after story set in this city that reeks of love, lust and despair.  Couple that with the frivolity of 30 Rock and How I Met Your Mother, and add a few stories from the New Yorker and Nicole Krauss’ The History of Love (which you must read…Helen gave me a copy).  How can anyone not fall in love in this city?

While Helen rehearsed or worked, I’d walk through Greenwich Village or SOHO – even the

neighbourhoods demand an excited nod of recognition.  I keep stumbling across lists of famous New York spots as I walk down Bleeker or Broadway or 5th Ave. or any of its other well-known streets.  Walking along, I couldn’t help but hear Bob Dylan in his Chelsea Hotel, or Jay-Z or George Gershwin, or George Carlin for that matter.  The best New Pornographer song is Myriad Harbour..even Canadians can’t help heralding the romance of New York.  Later, when Helen and I watched When Harry Met Sally I prickled excitement to see the places I’d seen that day on-screen.  She and I created our own movie moments riding bikes in Central Park or walking through the American Museum of Natural History .  If you don’t think about it too much, the romance of New York takes over.  My good friend Evan flew his girlfriend in order to propose to her while in a little boat on a little lake in the park, surrounded by the tremendous city.

But it’s not just the stories of the 8 million people that forces you to feel something on these streets.  New York is not just a big city.  It feels…different.  Different than Tokyo, London or Bangkok.  And even though I try as I may to fend off the feelings of Canadian insecurity; there’s something here that doesn’t exist in the titan Toronto, or healthy and mountainous Vancouver, or even sexy cosmopolitan Montreal.

Maybe it’s the thrill of being in a dangerous place that forces you to grand, romantic gestures.  Who knows how much longer we have, you might think.  Or maybe it’s because the city is so cold and heartless you seek connection at whatever cost.  But, thing is, crime is at a 60 year low.  And I’ve never felt so welcomed in a big city – if people see you looking lost (which I did lots), they approach you to see if you need help.  So perhaps it’s the collective consciousness of the city, the free-thinkers, the bohemians, the movement upon movement that jumpstarts the heart.  There are bike paths everywhere weaving in and out of kamikaze cab wheels.  And artists.  And musicians.  Everywhere.  Protests on Wall Street, poetry readings in the East Village, an ongoing Lou Reed song playing in your head.  Is it the chaos that makes your heart chaotic?

Helen and I passed a little community garden on Sunday right before it started to rain.  Free food and beautiful jazz to anyone who wanted to join.  A wonderful mixed collection of community members, all assumedly living in that neighbourhood:  an older black grandmother gently scolding her little granddaughter beside her eating a hot dog, the overgrown white hippy sitting beside the young couple Puerto Rico – the Somalian kids helping at the raffle booth…everyone was part of it.  I’m not sure where the identity starts or the acceptance begins.  Maybe it’s naïve to think that anyone can be a New Yorker, but with a city so much defined by its diversity and outside influences, this is the melting pot apart from the massive country that exhorts conformity – there’s nothing left to shock a New Yorker, it’s all so strange here it’s normal.  Feeling like you belong helps soften the heart, opens it, allows someone to come on in and have a seat.

Unfortunately I had to leave New York City and come back to work, far away in the middle of no where.  I had to leave Helen and her auditions, those restaurants and all the music and story in the city that never slept.  And distance is a funny thing.  It forces you to make decisions.  Sometimes bad decisions.  The romance of an autumn in New York is enough for Ella Fitzgerald and Billie Holiday…and even Richard Gere and Winona Ryder, but sometimes romance isn’t enough.  Sometimes a story is just story.  Sometimes you can’t live up to a story.  New York has power and charm and magic – but it doesn’t change everything by virtue of being a source of art, an inspiration to the heart.

In the stylings of contemporary fictional New Yorker I’ll end with questions: what makes a city romantic or story worthy?   Does a backdrop of perfect romance demand a perfect romance?  Can a writer find a story in a city that’s been written a thousand times?  And where is love, if not in New York City?

Need a Penny, Take a Penny…Please

Demonization.  What a word.  When I read it first I thought it was some kind of exorcism term.  But after perusing the Currency Act of Canada (did you know we had an Act about currency?  Bet you didn’t.) and some of its associated literature I became quite familiar with the word.  For those slower folks out there, it means to take money out of circulation…forever.  Well, maybe not forever, but probably forever.

I have long hated pennies. Even as I write I have a few stacks of pennies on my desk, refusing to use them for exact change.  Sure, looking at them all here I feel like Scrooge McDuck, but is that why we still have the little coins?  Is it to keep relevance to those dozen or so clinches and sayings?  I want pennies gone.  Forever.

In a recent study, by me, just now, I found that the Canadian mint made a bunch of pennies in 2009.  Any guesses how many?  C’mon.  Just guess.  Bet you have no idea how many they made.  Because no one cares about pennies, right?  For a country that probably doesn’t care about the little copperheads, our government minted 455,800,000.  In.  One.  Year.  With a little more digging by my research team (me), I calculated that they have minted approximately 32,000,000,000 pennies since 1908.  Yes, you read that number right.  32 billion.  Pennies.  Why are we doing this?

The Desjardin Financial Group published a report in 2007 saying that the cost to keep pennies in circulation cost $130,000,000 per year.  Or about 13,000,000,000 pennies.  Yes, that’s just under half of the number we’ve ever minted.

Where, or where are the pennies going?  Swear jars, wishing wells, candy, and people’s thoughts.  It costs 1.8¢ to make a penny these days.  When is the last time you bought anything for a penny?  I’ll tell you when: a long, goddamn time ago.  So why are these almost worthless pieces of copper (it’s composition is actually 94% steel, 1.5% nickel, 4.5% copper plating or copper plated zinc) still in circulation?

There are some people out there, and I’m not fingering the elderly here, who think they’re going to lose money without pennies.  And I suppose that with billions of dollars of pennies in the country (or somewhere else, according to the law of conservation of mass) there’s lots of money that would be “lost” if we just melted the bloody things.  The most ever saved by one person was only $13,084.59.  That’s the most someone could lose if we got rid of them…today.

Some smart money people say that we should adopt the Australian coin system, which uses the Swedish rounding system.  The Aussies don’t have a “quarter,” never beat our Bluenose, and don’t have any beavers either, so I reckon that we can keep our 25¢, 10¢ and 5¢ pieces fine.  If we have to.  I hate change in my pocket, going jing-a-ling-a-ling.  Yes, we’ll have to get used to it.  Of course it’ll be strange at first, like fingering the elderly.  But we’ll have to only have amounts ending in a .05, which is awesome.  Five fingers, right?

So waddya say, guys?  Can we get rid of the pesky pieces and save something more valuable for rainy days?

Men Saying Hello: Canadian Male Greetings

I’ve never tipped my hat to another man walking down the street.  It’s not that they didn’t deserve the salutation, but I would have looked like a damn dufus had I done it.  Or perhaps it’s just not quite with the times (like the word dufus). With my friends, I hug them.  Sometimes.  Other times we’ll smile at a safe distance.  Sometimes we chest bump.  Of course I’m speaking of friends I have known for years.  What about in less familial situations, someone I’m not so close with?  Sometimes I have to suppress an urge to chest bump.

Lately I’ve been spending a lot of time at airports.  These days I spend just about as much time as the baggage handlers and the folks with those plastic gloves.  I’ve been making some interesting observations about how we greet each other.  By “we” I mean men.  For me, the last decade or so has been spent in a sea of women: at work, in my family, and in most social settings.  Women everywhere.  And when there are women around, men tend to be far more comfortable with, well…with being more like women.  Open to touch.  Open to expressing feelings.  But like I said, I have been spending more time in airports lately in a part of the country where there are far fewer women.  In fact, it’s mostly men.  Men everywhere. And sometimes, only men.

When one group of people are together in the absence of a different group of people things change. A bunch of heterosexual men together, in the absence of women, can look like a locker room or it can resemble camaraderie in the trenches or dugouts.  Men alone are different than when there’s even one woman around.  We change.  We regress, or transgress, where the rules of engagement change instantly.  I’m not sure it’s better, and I’m certainly not certain it’s worse.  But it is most definitely different.

Before we slip off into complete generalities, I want to reel us back into tipping hats.  Salutations.   How do we straight men greet each other?  Shaking hands and chest bumps, right?  Au contraire.  I see so many terrible half-hugs between male friends, neither willing or comfortable with going all-in with a full embrace.  I see chin nods.  I’ve played party to elbow-holding handshakes even.  But handshakes aren’t always expected, and sometimes feel overly formal.  Chest bumping a 65 year old man with a big beer belly may seem and feel hilarious, but you just can’t be sure that they’ll be able to stomach it.  A lot is at stake.

After talking at length to my gay friends, they were confused about all these hetro-male problems – and I can’t help but agree.  Where’s the problem?  What’s broken-down?  Is this global?


I’ve lived in countries where salutation is far more standardized than in Canada.  In Thailand you wai to greet someone; a gentle bow with your hands together in front, like in prayer.  The Thai social hierarchy dictates that you place your hands higher on your body or head for the more important person you are greeting.  For the king, you lie prostrate with your hands above your head to show respect and reverence.  There’s a system.  In Ecuador if you go to a party, you shake hands with every man in the room.  In the south of France you get to kiss women three times in greeting and farewell, handshakes for the men.  My male Italian friends would kiss each other on the cheek – so convivial.  But here in Canada we’ve lost the standard greeting.  And forget about kissing an acquaintance, unless you work in theatre. Our salutations are all over the place and it seems that no one really knows the rules.  But that’s Canada for you.  So post-modern.

I sometimes get the chin-nod from acquaintances passing-by.  There’s the high-five, creepy wink, unwanted squeeze, complicated hand thing where one guy drops his elbow and thumbs are grabbed, and sometimes you do nothing, cold and unwelcoming.  The origins of the handshake were to drop your shield in peace, showing that you weren’t going to attempt to kill the other guy.  With murder rates dropping in Canada have we reached a place in history where salutation needs to be reinvented?

Men of Canada, what do you do?  Where are you on the salutation scale for bodily touch?  And for those of you who don’t embrace, why not?

Travellers: Consider Yourself Labeled

Labels are bad. But then again, we love them. Oh, do we ever love them. Without labels we couldn’t classify things and fit them into the hierarchy. Everything has a stepped grading system of better and worse. How else would we know how to value things? Hmm? And don’t get all Zen on me and say that all things are equal. If that were true I’d buy a vintage Harley for the same price as a used Piaggo. They’re not the same thing.

After a recent hiatus from the Daily Gumboot in the south of France, I embarked on a wee trip in Western Europe. What I saw? The hierarchy of travellers. Now this isn’t necessarily how I see it, but wow do travellers love to grade themselves.

For those status oriented people (meaning, most of us), let’s start with the lowest on the food-chain:

Pre-packaged Group Tours: The Tourists

“Now everyone please get off the bus. Anyone need a bathroom? Plug in your radio headsets and tune into channel #1, because we’re the best tour group in Paris! [waits for laugh]. Versailles was built by blah, blah, blah…please try and stay with the group everyone  —”

And the group checks off their list of tourist sites like a dabber on a foreign bingo card , The Louvre = B3, Eiffel Tower = G46, etc. This group flies in to see 12 cities in 10 days, by bus, talking with nary one local person, then jets back home. Typically between in the older of travellers, these groupsters will finsih their travels with hundreds of pictures and videos as proof of presence, and a garage sale’s worth of Union Jack coffee mugs and Mona Lisa keychains.

Bonus points for: number of pictures taken, number of stars on hotel, horror stories about hotels and airports, darkness of suntan, and full bingo card.

ALSO INCLUDED IN THE TOUR GROUP: resort resters, hotel tv-watchings vacationers, and timer-sharers isolationists.

The Young and the Dirty: The Backpackers

“You can totally save 20€ if you sleep on the train, or just sleep at the airport. I did Prague and just stayed out all night. No, I was just there for a few days, but it was awesome. Not as, like, open as Amsterdam, but cool. I’m totally going to Barcelona next. You can’t leave without doing Spain. Oh man, check out that tour…man, those people don’t see anything.”

This group spends between 1-6 months with rail passes and newly purchased behemoth bags, hiking boots, bandanas, and moneybelts hopping from city to city with other backpackers. They will “do” 16 cities which will serve as the backdrop for their mind-opening experiences they’ll talk about for years to come. Hostels and sex, you will find them in either a haze of drunkenness or hangover. Sure they go to the same museums as the tour groups, but they tend to smell worse and their cameras are smaller.

Bonus points for: dreadlocks, braided beards, number of flags on backpack, not having Lonely Planet in hand at bus station, and the possession of Moleskin notebooks full of ticket stubs.

ALSO INCLUDED IN THIS GROUP: post-university mates hitting up the world before “real life starts,” people searching for something (most often getting away from something), thrill seekers who prefer the thrill of beaten paths but sound exotic, and introductory globetrotters

Life Experiencers: Exchange Students and Volunteers

“I know it’s the best Indian restaurant around, but they just don’t do the spices right here. Hawaii is great, but the nothing tops the surf in Oz. He’s cute, but you should’ve seen Raphael in Milano. Of course I speak fluent Spanish…oh, I don’t understand that, I learned in Madrid.  Sorry, I can’t come tonight I have to go to my capoeira class.”

For a semester or a year, these students of the world pack their books and laptops and head out to have their rite of passage experience of a lifetime.   With incredible opportunity to truly immerse themselves into the culture and enrich their lives with a first-hand look at living histories this group of travellers unfortunately performs minimum scholastic or actual volunteer work.  Yes, they have a few local friends, can tell the difference between a Bavarian and Belgian brew, and have developed a solid distaste for tourists and backpackers. They may have lived with a local family, can speak the language at a decent level, and have opinions on why the country is like that.  Much like the backpackers there is a lot of partying, but sometimes includes local parties.

Bonus points for: having local friends/boyfriend/girlfriend, speaking language, less-travelled-to or more-difficult-to-say-countries are better, more time spent away = more bragging rights

ALSO INCLUDED IN THIS GROUP: do-gooders who tend to spend more time at Big Milly’s Backyard than their “boring” volunteer project, high school and university students looking for foreign fun away from watchful eyes of parents, intermediate globetrotters

Expatriates to the Rescue (and Michael Ignatieff)

“I have to wake-up at 4am to be sure I can talk with Seoul and get specs by the ends of the day. I just wish the property values here would go up before we sell and go back home. The bureaucracy is terrible, it’s really incredible, but the health care system is so much better. I think the money’s about the same, but you just can’t get the same ________ back home, which makes it totally worthwhile.”

Foreign assignments, contracts with overseas companies, working from home anywhere in the world, this jet-setting group is monstrous. 3 million Canadians overseas right now. Expats, they like to call themselves.  Michael Ignatieff was one before he tried to become the prime minister.  You’ll find them at the Irish pub watching whatever sport doesn’t air on local television, excessive time on the internet talking with friends back home, and speak with a certain authority about their host country, as cultural/political/social interpreters that are basically experts in this esoteric field. This group complains about all the lower classes of travellers because they usually make their home culture look brutish and stupid to the locals. They don’t do “touristy” things because it’s beneath them.

Bonus points for: being married to a local, having children with said local, having local friends, using correctly strange and subtle slang and cultural jokes, knowing the “best” places to do anything touristy for visitors, and having a super-cool job that doesn’t exist at home.

Emigrants are just Immigrants in Reverse

It was brought to my attention that people who move across borders aren’t always travellers.  There are people who actually move overseas…for good!  Since an emigrant (or conversely, immigrant) are not really travellers but rather residents, I thought I’d leave them out, like the government tends to do. It’s actually a whole can of worms that I’d really rather not open.  And then there are all those politics and power and integration and problems, problems, problems to address. I think I’ll just stick to the nice, easy, privileged people who travel for fun and bum around the world under the guise of becoming worldly. They’re a far easier target.

In Conclusion…

So where does this leave us in understanding the movement of people around the world? It tells us that hierarchy certainly exists and that travellers love it like everyone else. So many people want to feel superior to others. No, we shouldn’t all live overseas for years just to prove we’re better than your friend Jim who did his PhD research in Belize.

Yes, tourism has real inherent problems. That doesn’t mean we all stay at home either. People should just stop being such jerks about how their experience is better than someone else’s. That’s the moral here. So grow up and enjoy travelling already.

Oh, and if your city attracts tourists, makes you millions of dollars, perhaps consider a halt to complaining about the tourists?

My friend Iain hates platitudes, but really this is a situation of “it is what it is.”

Sex, Drugs, and Gypsy Jazz – A Series

What I imagine gypsy jazz to look like in 1937.

In the next three postings I will attempt to examine social forces of community that don’t come from bright and sunny activities together, but instead the after dusk happenings hidden away from children and the elderly.  Adult fun, mature/immature entertainment, potentially damaging risky behaviour, a post-dark meander through the desires of seemingly plain bureaucrats, school teachers, cops, and people of the cloth (fashion designers, not priests).  This too is community.  That, and it’s really fun to write about – even more fun to research.

Let’s see

how it all


Music and Rhythm of Community

Literally 56m from my front door (I measured) is La Pleine Lune.  This little bar is known the city over for offering good, live music every night.  For free.  Oh, and cheap beer and pastis too, which helps the university kids (and me).  My local watering hole is packed every night.  I know because I can see it from my living room.  I drop in from time to time to see whatever’s being played, but I never miss Monday nights: Gypsy Jazz Jam.  Difficult to find in Canada, gypsy jazz still exists as a popular music form in many European cities.  A Romani born Belgian, Django Reinhardt, is sometimes credited for starting and popularizing his version of jazz standards in Paris in the 1930s and 1940s.  While “gypsy” may be the exonym for Romani people (originally meaning Egyptian), the name is firmly stuck to this form of music.

So what does gypsy jazz have to do with community?  Uh…how about everything? In a quick search of Daily Gumboot posts I have found much discussion about watching music, but I think we’ve forgotten about people playing music as a builder of community.  Musicians on stage performing live, improvising, communicating between each other is magical to see.  Jazz epitomizes this.  Each player takes their turn to shine with the others backing them up, or they all play on top of each other in wild harmonies.  Throwing in a few mordents and trills with some staccato and ghost notes completely changes sound of the jazz standards in gypsy jazz.  Delicate at times and brazen at others, it’s not difficult to imagine the little jazz clubs and underground bodegas with the upright bass player, cigarette hanging from bopping head, churning out the engine for the butterfly fingering of the guitarist.  And that violin!  That just changes everything with sliding notes countering the quick-fingered tapping of the guitar.  Mmm.

I play guitar.  And I can tell you that gypsy jazz is a helluva long way from my abilities.  I’m still working on Blue Rodeo and The Beatles.  But regardless of ability there’s something incredibly unifying when about playing music together.  Daniel Levitin, a neuroscientis at McGill University, published a wonderful book called The World in Six Songs and tells the story of song and community throughout history.  I love parties when someone pulls out an instrument and the focus turns away from talking to singing and dancing together.  I made a New Year’s resolution to see live art at least once a week and have done so for the last nine years.  I think I’ll make another resolution to start playing with people more often – it just works really, really well to bring people closer together.

Gypsy jazz is but one form of music that brings in that beautiful improvisation and commune of musical connection, but damn is it ever a good one.  When it’s right around the corner from your house it’s easy to go.  I always feel bad for people who have to travel to go see live music.  Making sure there’s a place to experience and play music live, I argue, threads swaths of community together.

Maybe we should all increase our own live music quotas.

Put It Out There: Talking into community

AJ works in London as a rickshaw driver. He loves it.

He grew up in urban Bangalore and lives in London as a rickshaw operator.  “It’s kind of a busman’s holiday,” he explained in that Londonized Indian accent you sometimes catch in a movie.  He smiled a broad, a genuine grin, as he spoke.  “The bus driver spends all day behind the wheel and then when he goes on vacation he drives all over the countryside in a van.  That’s me, kind of.”

AJ puts it out there.  He has to.  If you were riding solo from Athens to London, the long way round through Spain and Portugal, you’d be putting it out there too.  And dear sweet Jesus did he ever put it out there.  I’ve never seen anything like it.  Well, that’s not true – I see it all the time, just in super low doses.  AJ is the crystal meth of putting it out there, the double absinthe jaggerbomb.  One can learn a lot from a man like AJ.  I’ll tell you what I learned.

It was actually me who approached him in La Place de la Comedie in downtown Montpellier on

Watch the movie and you'll understand why it's here.

a Friday afternoon, just as the daytime workers were hopping in the TRAM and nightlifers were gearing up at the brasseries and bistros.  He was engaged in conversation standing beside his Kona, a cross-over bike he’d retrofitted as a touring bike.  Kona is a Vancouver company so I wondered if he were a fellow Canadian, a fellow tour cyclist.  The rest, as they say, is la histoire.  After minutes we launched into philosophical discussion, bike talk, and all the while AJ called out to passersby, a legitimate wellspring of energy and fervour.  I am no shy guy, really, yet I felt dwarfed next to this gregarious, fearless chatterbox, an Indian Dean Moriarty and accented Elwood P Dowd.

That night we visited with, well, everyone.  Old and young, interested and interesting.  AJ does not speak French and yet his immediate connection to people, like hummingbird to nectar, broke through with those bright eyes smiling and a “enjoy life!” being called out to the doldrums of social sinners, closed in their little lives.  The next day we rode our bikes down to the beach.  We saw AJ chase girls like a Jack Russel bent on a ball.  We’d sit watching the waves and AJ would pass talking with one group of girls, and then pass minutes later talking with another group.  We all laughed at his tenacity, his brilliant tenacity, and I caught myself staring an incarnation of outgoing I’d never seen before.  “Weeks on the road lacks certain…company, you know.”  It’d be easy to call fault to AJ’s shameless approach to the women he’d pass, but we decided to absorb it into the average that was his incredible…putting it out there.

The world needs AJs.  Sure, he’s probably taken as crazy as often as he makes someone laugh or think.  That’s society’s fault.  The world needs AJs because otherwise we’re left with those we know, those we avoid, and not much in between.

Talk more. Think less.

So I ask you: how often do you put it out there?  Do you talk with cashier who scans your groceries?  Do you get a giggle out of an old woman on the bus?  Do you ever just talk to someone without wanting anything in return?  Are you afraid to do it?  I admit that I sometimes am afraid.  I’m afraid of being mocked, rejected, or thought an idiot.  And my world is smaller because of it.  So today I am going to up the ante.  I’m going to put myself out there more than I did yesterday.  That’s how you make good community.

Dance Together, Community Together: Feu Cul

This totally works: takes the pee out of pissed-off.

The cat peed right where my head curls while sleeping in the fetal position on my single bed.  How did she know to do it there?  And what was she trying to say to me?  Wasn’t it I who scratched her ears when she came-a-purring?  I did not deserve this.

I spent the rest of the day learning French words for baking soda (bicarbonate de sodium) and peroxide (the more challenging translation peroxyde).  My mood darkened and frustration settled in.  I wanted to just sleep off the rest of the day – definitely not dress up in white and violet to visit a weird carnival in a little town 60km away.

This is not from Pezenas, but helps with the imagery.

Lucky for me I couldn’t reach Boris.  Boris is from Pézenas, France, on the ancient Roman road from Rodez to Saint-Thibéry; a small 8,000 person town that hugs a medieval centre with tiny wrapping streets and alleys.  The town is home to Boby Lapointe (pronounced dangerously close to “boobie” which got a giggle from me), a famous 1950/60s French singer.  It also housed the famous l’Illustre Théâtre, the influential troupe of Molière (France’s Shakespeare) in the mid-1600s.  This little town, like many around France, boasts a lively festival as well – a charivari.  And had I reached Boris that afternoon, hoping to cancel because I was a cranky wuss, I would have missed one helluva night.

The charvari, an Occidental version of a carnival, didn’t start until 9pm.  We sat in a small picturesque square waiting, every once in a while a group of buzzed teenagers passing through with plastic bottles full of spirits to take the edge off the cool night.  You were to dress in white and violet, Pézenas’ colours, with the understanding that these clothes weren’t finishing the night without flour/wine/shaving cream/blood on it.  Whatevs.

Yes, a man with a BabyBjorn squeezed my ass.

Yes, this post is sounding much like a travel piece, but I assure you that it is not.  I want to bring your attention now to the angle most interesting to Daily Gumbooters from around the world: sex.  I mean community.  Sure, it would be easy to compare charivaris to their boring Canadian counterparts, but that wouldn’t serve our purpose.  No, friends, Gumbooters, I’d like to talk more about the very nature of having a festival, a carnival, a celebration.  I asked a bunch of locals about the origins of the charivari and most of them told me it was something to do with the beginning of spring, but they were kind of vague. The origin ended up being a distant reasonunimportant.  In its place was the tradition and familiarity of it all.  Every year before Mardi Gras the town gets together, young and old, children and white haired perverts (I’ll tell you about that in a minute) and they romp in the street following the drum/flute/shaker band of Pagans dressed in horns and furs.  And remember how I said these streets were tiny?  This ended up being important for the mosh pit.  When I say mosh pit, I’m talking about rugby players and little girls smashing against each other in drunken revelry with their uncles and cousins as the music crescendoed to feverish pitch.  The origins of raves, I’m convinced.

Totally not Pezenas. Picture white and violet clothes and fire in asses.

I was pushed and punched by 60 year old women dressed in spastic dresses and painted faces, grabbed by teenybopper boys, surely drunk, and squeezed by young 30-something fathers with their populated BabyBjorns.  People fell.  People laughed.  Tempers would flicker but never burst.  It wasn’t about safety or the fear of being sued.  It was your neighbour and you in the street letting off some serious steam and being the better for it.  It did go far, but never too far.

One of the traditions, unbeknownst to the international travellers who joined Boris, was the feu cul.  Yes, French speakers out there, that does mean fire ass.  The mid-fervour dance featured a circle of townspeople with torches gesturing the flame in the other’s ass.  Why?  I never quite understood.  Unimportant!  So the seasoned charivari-goers carried vegetables and poke…ahem…your ass as you danced through the tiny streets.  Or just grabbed them in a very penetrating way.  Surely a lawsuit would follow in a Canadian context, but for the more lassez-faire peeps of Pézenas, this was just play.  Unabashed and uncensored.  This type of carefree partying is, well it’s human goddamn it!  More doing, less thinking.

This one actually is Pezenas, feels like Pezenas

My point: fun is tremendously important for community.  Brining generations together is important.  Dancing together is important.  Tradition is important. Sticking things in each other’s asses is important.

Thumbing Your Way – Community Transportation

Vagabonds, transients, vagrants, drifters; deranged degenerates and wandering lunatics.  These are your colleagues on the long, winding road as a hitchhiker.  Oh, and there are wonderful thrill-seeking adventurer types…like me.  The Old Crow Medicine Show knew what they were talking about…

Green travel, economical transportation, community-oriented touring.  In order to explore the roads and highways of earth in romantic Kerouacian style all you have to do is stick out your thumb and let the fates (and good will of drivers) bring you a little closer to your destination, one ride at a time.  The Grapes of Wrath, Even Cowgirls Get the Blues, and the amazing trilogy in five parts: Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy – it’s more than cheap travel; to thumb your way along life’s bumpy roads is a philosophy, a religion to the risk-embracing wanderers of the world.  The possibilities are nearly endless.  Germany’s Stephan Schlei travelled over 600,000 miles by hitching rides around the globe (says earlier editions of the Guinness Book of World Records before they removed all hitchhiking records).

Last weekend I embarked in a race from Montpellier to Cassis in beautiful southern France.  There were 22 wanderlusters in mixed-gender pairs (as men hitching alone sometimes have trouble garnering a lift) vying for rides past Avignon, Arles, Aix-en-Provence and even tremendous Marseille.  We separated to the best spots to grab a car and began traversing the seemingly meagre distance of 200km.  Me and my travel mate, a spirited German student named Corrina, designed a our strategy around smiles and sign.  With my calligraphic detailing, Sharpie on corrugated cardboard, and her grinning, non-threatening petite stature, we penned the names of cities lying between A and B in hopes of being picked up by someone passing through with a few extra seats in their Peugeots and Renaults.

Getting a Ride

This will not be a “how to” guide, but rather a brief synopsis of techniques that I employ.  For more you can check out WikiTravel or any of a thousand sites for would be Chris McCandless.

Put yourself in a place where cars can stop.  Since France likes toll booths on their national highways, this is ideal.  Cars have to stop to pay their 1.10€ to cruise along the next stretch of (beautifully maintained) highway.

Don’t look menacing.  This may be tough for some.  Hitchhiking has inspired as much porn as it has horror flicks.  Ed Gein has ruined the glory of the thumb for most of us, having planted firmly the image of murderous killers into the minds of drivers of careening minivans and put-putting pick-up trucks.

Use signs.  This can include the (almost) universal thumb or a straight-up sign drawn on a visible surface (not restricted to paper products) with your destination on it.  If you do not write clearly, drivers will squint to see where you’re going and may pass you by thinking that you’re travelling to Walla Walla instead of Spain (really bad handwriting).

Do NOT do the following:

  • Hitch from downtown.  First off all, you’ll look kind of dumb seeing as Calgary is far away from Yonge Street.  Second, there are too many people just going around the corner.
  • Be in the middle of a highway, far from a place where you can stop.  If you’re travelling at 130km/h you are NOT going to see a hitchhiker, let alone come to a screeching halt to pick up the little parasite.
  • Hitch at night, by yourself, outside a prison or asylum.  You’re just not going to get a ride…or if you do, you probably don’t want it.

Etiquette in the car

So you’ve gotten a ride.  Now what?  This is your chance to make some really interesting conversation.  Remember, this is a person that you’re probably never going to see again, so be creative.  Of course you want to just sleep and maybe listen to the radio, and it may come to that, but part of the motivation for your host to gather you from the cold, lonely road is the idea of company.  This is where community building comes in.  Imagine that you have a captive audience for twenty minutes to several hours.  Make it good, because you don’t want to get let off in the middle of a major highway (see Getting a Ride section).

Being grateful

You’re getting a free ride, so be polite and don’t be a douchebag.  Thank people.  Smile.  Sometimes people will go out of their way to get you to where you’re going, including, but not restricted to driving you hours out in the wrong direction, buying you lunch, and calling a few friends to pick you up in the next stage of the Tour de Highway.  When this happens, try and muster up your most gracious and humble smiles of thanks and be sincere.  There are amazing people out there who will do this out of the goodness of their hearts and this, my friend, is what makes the world go ‘round.

Corrina and I made it to our destination in 6 hours with only 3 rides.  On the way back it took us only a few hours with a stop on the beach, lunch, and a tour of Marseille by Antoine, one of our rides.  The winner of the competition did the ride in 2 hours getting a “hole in one” with one ride from A all the way to B.  But for Corrina and I, the ride was the destination – I saw more of France’s generosity and friendliness in those hours than could have been imagined.  This, people, is what it’s all about.  We made a real connection with a real person instead of plugging into an iPod on a bus or worse, driving our empty car passing by cheery, friendly riders along the way.

To be clear, I’m not advocating everyone ditch their cars and start hitching to work everyday.  That’d be crazy (or would it?).  Also, there wouldn’t be enough cars on the road to get picked up, which would be bad for me.  There are real dangers to hitchhiking and every precaution should be taken.  Judgement and escape plans.  Learning how to roll from a car at high speeds, perhaps.  Pepper spray?  I don’t know.  I’ve only had good experiences in my fifteen years of hitchhiking.  It’s easy in many places in the world – in fact, a necessity for many people.  I have never hitched more than in Cuba or Thailand.  So why is it illegal in most of Canada?  Is it the auto industry or passenger megacompanies that are doing this?  Are we just afraid?

What are your thoughts on free community transportation?