Wednesday, August 3, 2016

Privileged in Toronto

In a red, folding audience chair of Studio Theatre at Toronto’s Harbourfront Centre sits a white man.  He is in the wrong place.  

He is attending an event at the Canadian Writer’s Summit of 2016, titled “Grants for Writers.”  But the white man should have read the summit’s website more carefully.  If he had, he would have learned that this event is about the Ontario Arts Council.  He’s from Saskatchewan.  When he finds out, he feels dumb, but decides to stick around anyway.  

Jack Illingworth, Literary Officer for the OAC, sits at a folding table, centre-stage.  In his opening remarks, he thanks the Mississauga First Nation, on whose traditional lands downtown Toronto is built, for hosting.  This is not the first time the white man has heard these words.  Writer Lawrence Hill began his keynote address with them.  At the time, the white man thought these words were a nice concession to First Nations people.  Toronto is progressive, and the writing community is at the vanguard of The Culture of Inclusion.  

This time, however, the speech strikes the white man as meaningless.  If The Mississauga First Nation asked Jack Illingworth to vacate his house, would he be waxing this eloquent?  Would he thank them for the previous use of their ancestral homeland and pack his bags?  

Desperation rises from the audience like stink-lines.  Destitute writers itch to discover the secret of the elusive Arts Grant.  Every one of Mr. Illingworth’s ums, hesitations, and miscellaneous speech disfluencies ramp the tension.  He pauses to take questions, and hands flutter.  Complaining ensues.  Illingworth apologizes, then commiserates, saying how hard it was to write all those rejection letters.  Funding has been shrinking for decades and people who deserve grants cannot get them.  

Another writer queries Illingworth about a new OAC policy: “Is it true blind juries will be abolished for arts grants?”  The embattled Literary Officer confirms.  “Why?” asks another woman, without raising her hand.  Because, says Illingworth, blind juries overwhelmingly choose projects from privileged artists.  The crowd gasps.  Soon, the OAC will consider an artist’s background, colour, creed and culture as well as their project.    

Tired and troubled, the white man leaves the talk early.  He strides down crowded York Street to the Union Station Subway, pondering.  How can privilege penetrate a blind jury?  Are white men really that good at manipulating the system?  Is the new OAC policy fair?  Is it discrimination?  Is it legal?  Will blind juries be eliminated in Saskatchewan?  

His survival instinct stirs.  He’s a writer, and when he sells a story, he makes an average of $25, USD if he’s lucky.  That’s no way to make a living.  He needs an arts grant, and fears extra competition. 

The next morning of the summit, the white man is in the wrong place again.  The panel discussion he was most anticipating was “Writing from a Remote Area”.  His home village, on the remoteness scale, ranks somewhere between Midway Atoll and Superman’s Fortress of Solitude.  He cannot wait to hear some valuable tips.  Arriving late at the outdoor tent, he sits in the front row and readies his notebook.  He should have read the website more carefully.  The panel begins: in French.  Apparently, in Toronto, the word “remote” means “Quebec”.   

Disappointed and feeling stupid, he wanders until he finds a panel discussion about collaboration.  He tries to take notes, but cannot.  His mind wages civil war.  His survival instinct rages, combining with self-hatred and his sense of dislocation.  The Culture of Inclusion threatens him.  He feels: 
  1. Stupid, useless and hopeless
  2. Excluded and ignored at the prevailing culture at the summit because it threatens his survival.  It calls him privileged, when he feels he is not.  It has no interest in his stories because of who he is.  It reinforces itself with catchphrases like "European narratives" and "colonialism", and its perpetrators compete with each other to see how loud they can clap when they are mentioned.  
  3. Furious with himself for thinking a series of bigoted thoughts (which I will not publish here)
  4. Angry with truly privileged people - the ones who get all the grants.  
  5. Like he wants to go home and quit writing forever. 
  6. Like he is in the wrong place. 

The white man tells himself to shut up; these are the thoughts of a victim and a bigot.  But he cannot bottle them.  Trembling, he flees the panel during question-period and eats a sad lunch at the cafĂ© overlooking Toronto Harbour.  

Willing himself past the old power plant to the Fleck Dance Theatre, he trudges to his next event, “The First Page Challenge”.  He has anonymously submitted the first page of a short story to the organizers.  An agent, an editor and a professional writer will critique it and judge whether they would keep reading or put it down.  He dreads this event, for his self-esteem is in the toilet, and he is sure his writing will be lambasted.  He enters the dim theatre anyway.  

Two hours later, the white man emerges, transformed.  He received accolades from the onstage panel.  His writing is good.  Again he is competent and capable.  Again the universe is a place of abundance.  His survival is threatened by nobody.  

Most important, the encouragement has restored his clarity.  He remembers his list of itemized complaints against the summit, Toronto and the Culture of Inclusion, and sees that he was only a tourist in it.  Some people live that list.  Every day they struggle against privilege and feel like they are in the wrong place.  

The white man’s day at the summit concludes at a reception.  Some kind of LGBTQ awards are being presented.  He’s not sure which: he didn’t read the website that carefully.  Again the Mississauga First Nation is thanked, and again he notes overenthusiastic applause when the names of past winners are listed, but it doesn’t bother him.  It is only encouragement.  Encouragement helped him at exactly the right time.  It is the antidote to bigotry and hatred.  If he had not received it at his critical moment, he might still be thinking that white men are victims.  He joins the loud clapping.  

A man in a dress accepts his award at the podium.  The white man stifles a chuckle, not because men in dresses are funny, but because he cannot imagine this scene back home in Saskatchewan.  Yet he knows that if The Culture of Inclusion is so entrenched in Toronto, Canada’s most important city, it will be mainstream in Saskatchewan in a few years.  When that happens, it will change how writers interact with funding agencies and with government.  It may mean preferential treatment for some.  It might mean the end of blind juries for arts grants. It may be more difficult for the white man to get the money he needs to write for a living.  Even though they are privileged, men like him will feel persecuted.  

The privilege-party must be crashed, and space must be cleared at the table.  Though painful, it is necessary.  The white man vows encourage everybody he can, privileged or not, during the process.  

That evening, the white man decides to walk to his lodgings instead of taking the subway.  His route takes him across Bay Street, through the throngs of Yonge street, and along the circus that is Bloor.  He absorbs Toronto, and sees every conceivable culture, class, flag, and self-identifying gender during his stroll.  He is a lone human amongst millions, but feels inclusion in the smiles he meets on the street.  He is in the right place.  

Thursday, May 5, 2016

What is Magic?

During World War I, three Portuguese kids met the Virgin Mary.  I'm not sure why people paid attention.  Kids say a lot of dumb stuff.  My kid, for instance, claimed to have an invisible sister named Marceline last month.  I laughed at her, and I was correct to do so.  Early 20th-Century Portugal was a different time and place, and for whatever reason, these kids were big news.

The kids told people to go hang out in a field and await a miracle.  And over the course of months, people waited.  About a hundred thousand of them travelled to Cova da Iria.  Newspapers sent reporters to cover the event.  

Then, on October 13, 1917, something happened.  Nobody is sure what.  The Catholic Church now refers to this event as "The Miracle of the Sun".  Of the people who experienced it: 
  • One third of them saw something freaky happen to the sun.  It flashed different colours, or zig-zagged across the sky, or two suns appeared.  
  • One third of them experienced conflicting weirdness, like their wet clothes drying spontaneously.  
  • And a third of them saw a bunch of crazy idiots losing their minds over nothing.  
My grandpa Charlie, were he alive for me to ask, would tell me that those religious nutcases saw what they wanted to see.  He was a rocket scientist and physicist, and science was his faith.  Religion and magic are the realms of crooks and crazies, he might say.  He would have said that atmospheric dust created the illusion of The Miracle of the Sun, or that the loonies saw a parhelion rainbow, or maybe they were just staring at the sun for too long and hurt their eyes.  

Charlie failed to get any of his kids to become scientists.  But I inherited his sceptical mind.  In the aughts, I was burned by unsourced left-wing, libertarian websites, and I honed my bullshit sensor.  I like my ability to sniff the false garbage that circulates on Facebook, and I like the idea that we can prove stuff by testing it.  I like the label of "sceptic".  

I also want to believe in magic.  When I was a kid, I loved the stories of trolls lurking under mountains in D'Aulaire's Book of Trolls.  In my twenties, I became entranced with H.P. Lovecraft's tales and their moral that unspeakable terror lies beyond the borders of human knowledge.  Now, I write my own stories, and all of them are supernatural.  

That, and I've seen some weird shit.  I  had an out-of-body experience when I stopped breathing on an operating table.  I've seen ghosts.  I've felt tingling energy flowing through a woman's fingers into my back. I've stepped into rooms and glades, knowing that their was an invisible presence with me.  These are not the words of a sceptic.  

I desperately want magic to be real.  My senses tell me that it is.  Yet science consistently refutes ghosts and energy and chi.  My cousin once shared somebody's theory with me that since science never detects the supernatural, it must be very rare.  Brain misinterpretation of data and mental illness, however, are very common.  Therefore, most people who see supernatural things are either mistaken or crazy.  

So that's me.  I couldn't have seen my dead friend Nick looking down from his old apartment window on Broadway.  I saw some other guy who looked like him and my brain filled in the rest.  

At this point, I want to repeat a phrase beloved by alternative and pseudo-scientific therapies everywhere.  If you're a sceptic, you'll hate this: "(fill in the blank) harnesses the body's remarkable ability to heal itself."  This phrase makes my skin crawl.  But it's pretty much the only scientific evidence for magic that I can think of.  

I'm talking about the placebo effect.  If you give a sugar pill to a group of people and tell them it will cure their illness, a bunch of them will get better.  Who do placebos affect?  Henry K. Beecher, the scientist who practically wrote the book on the placebo effect, said that they affect about one in three people.  Here's another funny one.  There's also such a thing as a noncebo.  This is a harmless substance that, if the patient believes it is bad, will have detrimental effects.  

What is central to placebos and noncebos is that they hinge on belief.  They help or harm because people believe they will.  The reason it works is something to do with expectation, but the science seems really fuzzy.  The point is that your health is, to a large part, subjective.  If you truly believe that acupuncture, reiki, or cutting gluten out of your diet will make you healthy, it might.  Even if you think that you will be healed by sneaking into the Vatican and taking a draught from the Pope's toilet, there is a one in three chance that it will work.  Belief!

So let me express my own beliefs.  I believe that the placebo effect is magic.  I believe that the Miracle of the Sun was magic.  I believe that ghosts and chi energy are magic.  And I believe that these things can exist alongside science.

The immanent physician, Dean Ornish, made a quote about science that I like.  He said, "A valid scientific theory is predictive, verifiable, and replicable.  To me, that's beautiful."  In the spirit of that, allow me to give magic the same treatment.

Magic is unpredictable, unverifiable, and subjective.  

Magic can never be quantified by science, because there is never any guarantee that it will work, even in the hands a master.  When it works, it sometimes doesn't work as advertised.  Furthermore, because magic is subjective, the presence of sceptical minds makes it less likely to work.  One person will see two suns rising and be moved to prostrate tears, while another will observe nothing.

Science is great.  It has elevated our humble species.  We live longer, we build astounding things, and we rule the planet.  It provides a great baseline for existing on earth.

However, sometimes weird shit happens.  When magic occurs, it is awe-inspiring, terrifying and cathartic.  It is wonder at seeing two suns rise.  It is inexplicable terror in a lonely place that makes your heart pound.  It is a terminal cancer patient beating the disease.  It can change your life, or become your reason for living.  If you refuse to believe in miracles, it makes them less likely to happen to you.

So believe.