[Here’s a poem I have been trying to write for a long time. I once read that the American short story writer Raymond Carver decided a story was “done” when he wanted to put back in the commas he had just taken out. I feel that way today about this. So maybe it is.]


It’s a wooden word.

Added to our language

Like a barrow.


A blade word.

Opening us up

From sharp to hollow.


A lost word.

Totally out of love

With tomorrow. 


A liquid word. 

Quick, in every tree,

In every farrow.

Ex paradiso

Last summer, we met Raffi. Or at least, my wife and kids did. The great children’s entertainer of the 80s, 90s and 00s was sitting under a blue umbrella in the Saturday market at Ganges, Salt Spring Island. This, for readers from away, is the largest and busiest of the rural Gulf Islands that lie just offshore from Vancouver.

Now, Ganges used to be a pretty conservative, Anglican kind of place, its chief attraction an old-fashioned candy store. (I mean, it seemed to have been fashioned for old people.) Today, at least in summer, it is the capital of a northern Bali: sleek yachts, packed patios, unbroken tans. The Saturday market is a Utopian extravaganza where exquisite crafts and sumptuous food get hocked for cosmic prices by stunning, ageless hippies. As a result, I missed Raffi. Whoring after ceramics (and that’s another story), I walked right past his booth several times without noticing. But C and our four children—ages 16, 14 (twins) and 9—had the presence of mind to perceive that the quiet, 70ish, olive-skinned man resembling Raffi, surrounded by posters about Raffi, and promoting the most recent Raffi album (“Dog on the Floor”), was, in fact, Raffi. So they marched right up and told him which of his songs had always been our favourite, when the kids were small.

C and I had last visited Salt Spring when our oldest was four months old. We stayed in a Ganges hotel and delightedly strollered our little boy around. There’s a picture of him jolly-jumpering in our hotel room. Another, in a local restaurant, where he’s planting a kiss on my cheek — the first I ever got from him! Baby technique is slobbery, but man, you don’t mind.

Since then, our family has grown, per southern B.C. tradition, through the rythm of a summer visit to the Islands.

The year after that first trip, our peaceable little boy suddenly entered the Terrible Twos while we were staying in a cabin on Mayne. He screamed if we stayed in, screamed if we went out, and double screamed if we wouldn’t let him run off cliffs. On that same trip, we learned that my wife was pregnant again—although we wouldn’t learn just how pregnant until her 20-week ultrasound.

Two years later, our much bigger and somewhat calmer boy, accompanied by two curly-haired toddlers, rode a blow-up whale on the lawn outside the old Surf Lodge on Gabriola. Galiano (close, but not the same) became our go-to island in 2007. C and the girls discovered a secluded beach that has been “ours” ever since (ok, you can see it from the ferry, but you have to know where to look). In 2008, our soon-to-be-youngest defeated an IUD rated at 99% effectiveness after my wife, for reasons best known to herself, went oyster-hunting, with her feet, in chest-deep and very cold water, to the point of hypothermia, and then took a hot bath. Etc. That was on Pender. 

In 2010, we camped with four other families, long-time friends of ours, on Galiano. Between us, we had enough kids that I have to do the math every time to believe it. They took over the campground. The evening we arrived, after putting up our tent, I made my way down to the beach to rinse off the sweat. I remember laughing, with sheer relaxation, at the ochre sun on the origami shapes of the massive, elegant Arbutus trees. We and our friends were all fortyish, solvent, healthy. Cocktails on the beach as the sun went down. Later that evening, we dined together—we families—shuttling hot dogs and casseroles via children and parents amongst our fires and stoves and picnic tables.

What happened? 

Well; what happens. 

Marriages fail. Politics intervene. Addictions, hidden for years, suddenly and disastrously burst out. And kids—they’re not so slobbery anymore. That camping trip can never be repeated.

But back to Raffi.

Our favourite song of his was never “C-A-N-A-D-A” or “Shake a Toe” or even “Baby Beluga.” Those were all good, and we were always grateful for the bright engagement his music provided. But the song we waited for, when the Raffi CDs went on, was: “The Changing Garden of Mr. Bell.” 

“Now you’re talking,” he said, when my wife told him that.

Raffi didn’t write this song. It’s by a pair of American kid’s entertainers, Janice Hubbard and Michael Silversher. Raffi’s version appears on his 1994 album Bananaphone (“it’s a phone with appeal”), released when he was at the height of his fame. “The Changing Garden of Mr. Bell” comes just after “Slow Day,” and just before “Naturally.” But Mr. Bell is something else.

Here’s Raffi singing it.

And here are the words. 

Mr. Bell’s from a foreign place; His family all were farmers.
He arrived from across the sea, and came to be next door!
And he works his land with a knowing hand;
Though it’s very small, he makes it grow so well,
In the changing garden of Mr. Bell.

These are astors and edelweiss, and rows and rows of roses.
Those are hives in the dogwood trees for bees to come and go!
It’s a wondrous sight, in the morning light,
And the earth is full —every color every smell,
In the changing garden of Mr. Bell.

For some reason, American writers notwithstanding, I’ve always thought of this as a very Toronto song. In my mind, Mr. Bell and the child-narrator are neighbours in one of that city’s endless, gritty, faceless suburbs. Nondescript houses, crummy yards. But the old man, through his effort and wisdom, has turned his modest space into a walled garden; which, etymologically, is the meaning of “paradise.”

And that’s all before we get to the bridge.

I once saw a photograph, upon his mantle shelf
Of a beautiful lady, a child in her arms–and a young Mr. Bell himself.
I wondered out loud about them, and he answered in the strangest way —
He just said look: see how the garden grows!
It’s always changing every day.

Mr. “Bell”? Actually, it’s Belzug, or Bel-amin, or “Bel, may be hard for you to pronounce.” The “foreign place”? Could be Poland, Germany, Russia, Ukraine. But it could just as easily be Colombia, Rwanda, Bosnia, Vietnam, or any of the crimson and piquant and  tantalizing locations from which people have urgently sought refuge for generations in little Canadian back yards. These, for them, have been the promised land. The old man’s arms, working in his garden, spell out Holocaust.

The last verse goes like this:

Mr. Bell has his morning tea, and I will bring his paper.
See the sun through the curtain lace dapple his face and hands!
Every day is new; There is much to do.
Life’s a mystery, full of secrets that might tell —
In the changing garden of Mr. Bell.

A song like this has to tiptoe dangerously between the touching and the trite. The last couple of lines, it seems to me, lose their balance a bit. But not this one:

“Every day is new; there is much to do.” 

If it works for Mr. Bell.

Up against the wall, [trigger warning]

It occurs to me: Universities used to be places where dominant societal narratives — civic, economic, cultural, political — were told to wait at the door. The university was supposed to be a space of alternative, and even resistance, to the words used and values espoused by politicians, businesspeople, the media, and other dominant sources of regulation and authority.
Somehow or other, that has turned around. The university today has become a place where dominant narratives are most pitilessly enforced. We don’t offer alternative, or resistance; but intensification, and insistence. Administrators, professors, and student leaders outdo each other in their eager shouting of accepted views, and silencing of others. Perhaps not on all files, but certainly on many. The ideological continuity of our society today — from student unions to board rooms to news rooms to cabinet tables — is absolutely astonishing.
I think we should get back, as the song says, to how we used to be. 

Oh, that, right

You may have wondered: what are literary professors expert in? What do they, properly, know about?

For a partial answer, here’s a re-up of a post from several years ago. It is a listing of paper and session topics from the annual conference of the Modern Language Association (the major meeting of the field), when it was held here in Vancouver several years ago.

At the Vancouver MLA, you could attend sessions on:

Bertolt Brecht
Japanese modernity
The idea of “West Asia”
Old Norse Folklore
The Armenian genocide
TS Eliot
Feminist activism
Israeli-South African relations
Second-language instruction
The Cold War
The First World War
Being black in Germany
Saint Theresa
The English Civil War
Neoliberalism [natch]
Tommaso Campanella
Mental Health
How to get a good government job
The Middle Class
Recent European geopolitics
Data visualization
Life in occupied Palestine
The libidinal economy of data [sic]
Cognitive science, re: memory
Elmore Leonard
Doing business in Italy
Amiri Baraka
Union democracy
Being Jewish
Gay animals
The National Security Education Program (NSEP)
Scientific experiments
Being a Muslim woman
Postwar Japan
1714 in Catalonia
South Asians in Africa
The 1970s
The Sun, the moon, and the stars.


There’s science, and that’s great. Then there’s Science Bores (SBs), and they’re not. You know, people like Dawkins, Tyson, Pinker.

One of the irritating things about SBs is their pose of epistemological modesty. Science doesn’t dogmatically claim to be True, they’ll say. It just claims to be — and here there are many formulations, but one that I read recently is: “True on the basis of the available evidence.” (Presumably, there really ought to be an “apparently” at the beginning of that phrase, but let that pass.) This is the kind of thing that makes SBs pat their tummies with satisfaction.

Let’s abbreviate “True on the basis of the available evidence” as “TrueEv.”

What is the meaning of “true” in TrueEv?

It can’t be TrueEv, or we have an infinite regress.

But non-TrueEv True is what SBs deny  (via TrueEv).

So this kind of tummy-patting, which is supposed to signify an epistemological modesty, is in fact quite empty.

It’s just a pose.




Never detechnologize

An idea I’ve been kicking around for the last few years — and we can call it, loosely, phenomenological — is that technological intervention into a given form of life projects the relevant pre-technological category as normative or natural. The pre-tech form, we think, precedes the technologized one; and it seems like we can escape or resist the latter by turning back to the former. But in fact, I think this is wrong on both counts. The pre-tech category follows from the technological intervention. Turning back to the former merely, and even pitilessly, re-asserts and re-enforces the latter.

Take the example of “live music.” We may revere and treasure this, as the pre-tech form of recorded music. And we may suppose that we are stepping outside the somewhat dehumanizing space of modernity when we go to take in some live music. But clearly: the very idea of “live” music totally depends on its recorded analog. Prior to recording, live is just what music is. Therefore, every time we talk up “live” music, as something special or pre-technological, we are proclaiming our allegiance to the technological intervention — recording — that allows the “pre-tech” form to be there.

Or consider the concept — beloved by lit profs — of orality. That is, spoken language, prior to, or outside, its written form. Anthropologically, it stands to reason (sorry, Derrida) that human beings spoke before they wrote. Accordingly, we get a phenomenological thrill when we turn back to, or feel like we can turn back to, oral literatures: In Homer, or in the West African bards, or in some of the pre-contact cultures of the Americas. But it is exactly like the point about live and recorded music: Only when there is literacy is there such a thing as orality. Until and unless the written word confronts the spoken one, spoken is just what a word is. Talking up “orality” does not take us one single step outside the circle of technological power that is literacy. Quite the contrary.

This is not to say that we have no reason to want phenomenological liberation. We have every reason to want that. It is to say, rather, that we are not liberated, in any field or form of life — literary, cultural, civic, or political — by fetishization of what we take to be pre-tech categories. For the latter are projected by, and lead back to, the very technology that is in question.

Where does this go? Lots of places, I think. But all will be governed by versions of the same insight. The way to liberate our consciousness is not to de-technologize. The way to liberate our consciousness is not to care.


Thanks, Mr. Jobs

An idea I have been kicking around for several years is that technology legitimately enriches our experience precisely by rendering itself aggressively normative. The absence or denial of the technology then becomes special, in a way that simply could not have obtained before.

So, for example: recorded music yields live. Electric light yields candle-lit. An umbrella yields just walking bareheaded in the rain. And so on.

And, as I realized this evening on the bus: constantly and obsessively poking at data-enabled smartphones yields–just quietly doing nothing! For quite some time!

I mean, as a choice and pleasure!


I have been thinking about compelled speech: that is, when somebody is forced to perform a certain utterance. Obviously, compelled speech isn’t free. Therefore, in a country like Canada, where free speech is the law, compelled speech is illegal.

But there are surely some exceptions.

Suppose, for example, that you’re a cashier at Safeway. Your boss demands, as a condition of your employment, that you say “have a nice day” to your customers. Can he, legally, do that?

It seems to me the answer is probably “yes.” And not, I think, because the utterance in question is trivial. Rather, your Safeway boss can make you say “have a nice day” because that utterance serves the technical remit of his business. The latter includes being friendly and courteous to customers. So saying “have a nice day” is the same kind of thing as saying “it’s in aisle 9” or “here’s your change.” It’s Safeway-talk, in a context where you have agreed to engage in such talk.

But now suppose your boss wants you to say: “God save the Queen.” Can he do that?

It seems to me the answer is almost certainly “no.” For that utterance is in no way relevant to the technical remit of Safewaying. Rather, it constitutes an expression of a certain political allegiance—monarchism. The latter interacts with Safeway-talk only insofar as it extends to the whole of civic life. Over that, your boss can claim no legal power.

So it would be illegal for your Safeway boss to try to make you say “God save the Queen.” Or any utterance like that.

No doubt, this has all been thought through before, many times. But sometimes, it’s pleasant to work things out on your own. That’s the territory of knowledge.

Phenomenological question for the day

Will robots ever be able to lose — misplace — things?

I suspect that the answer is “no.”

But then: will robots ever really be able to find things?

Isn’t it precisely the lost thing that we find?

Isn’t it the case that losing is a capability, rather than a program dysfunction?

And that on this capability, the countervailing capability of finding is predicated?

(Alternative post title: After making and eating a mediocre sandwich I am unable for some time to find the mayonnaise lid until suddenly seeing it where I had placed it, upside down, in dim light on an inverted bowl of the same colour.)