Rebuttal: Face Painters, Spectators and Couch Potaters. (*Should* We All Be Witnesses?)

[4-minute read]

Two days ago, I wrote praising the ongoing excellence of a little-known sporting dynasty in Ottawa, Canada, my city. (They are called the Carleton Ravens. They have achieved an astoundingly effective process, and their results are unprecedented.) I also lamented how little Ottawa appeared to care about their less-than-mobbed return from the U SPORTS national championship in Halifax earlier this week. I’ve been thinking. I write in modest (and partial) rebuttal of Wednesday’s post.¹

¹ The great writer on education and culture, Neil Postman, wrote a book early in his career called Teaching as a Subversive Activity. A few years later, he replied to himself with Teaching as a Conserving Activity. He once wrote that even his book-length arguments could end, “On the other hand…”

Where the hell *is* everybody? I’ve asked at Ravens home games, at national championship finals, and last Monday, as I watched video of the Carleton crew descending an escalator in the Ottawa airport. I don’t mind being in the minority; heck, I have several areas of my life where I’m enthusiastic about things that aren’t exactly trending. (German films. Canadian literature. The St. Paul High Golden Bears. The Book of Certitude. I could go on.) Still, it wrankles, how little respect is given to the furious brilliance shining from a modest gymnasium in south Ottawa. But then, hold on a minute: why *should* we measure the worth of something by how many eyeballs are on it?

Why *should* we reflexively insist that if something is good, the rest of us should all WATCH? My old mentor/buddy Don loved to say, “I could watch somebody do anything, as long as they were the best in the world!” This is still an interesting idea to me, though it was not true in practice; the range of things he paid his quiet, careful attention to didn’t stray too far from baseball, Garth Brooks and basketball. But the point – really the foundation of the whole professional sports enterprise – is that when somebody is superb at what they do, the rest of us should siddown and *watch*. Well, at least if it’s a sport; not much of an audience for watching a brilliant mathematician at a blackboard, or an outstanding chemist in her lab.

Maybe this is not ideal, as fine a player as LBJ has been.

More possibly over-serious questions: Why *should* we “all be witnesses”, as the sky-high Nike billboards for LeBron James would have us do? Wouldn’t it be better to *emulate* excellence, to be inspired by it to DO OUR THING in the same spirit? This may come closer to the way that Dave Smart, the Carleton U coach, thinks about it. I doubt he fires pep talks at Carleton students, trying to get them and their cowbells and their painted faces out for Friday and Saturday night home games. He pays little attention to the crowd experience, and other than picking up one of his two young boys as soon as the game is over, doesn’t acknowledge the fans. I am convinced he would detest the grind of handshaking, radio shows and alumni-flattering that is essential at big-time American colleges. At Carleton, he coaches. Simple. But part of  Smart’s coaching has always been youth development. If you stumble into the Ravens Nest on a Sunday morning, you might see him helping out with a practice for 5-8 year-olds, his little guys among them. His legendary Guardsmen youth development team has morphed into the Ottawa Elite, a series of seriously coached age-level teams inspired more or less by his basic ideals: play against the best, defend, develop skills and next-level teamwork, and learn to how to work and compete. His Ravens regularly work with them, and these teams are far more important to Smart than how full the stands are for his games

So why should I care? Why am I writing laments, as I did Wednesday, for how few people are at games or going all rah-rah at the airport when they get back from Doing The Job They Went To Halifax To Do? Or as my effervescent kitchen-mate said this morning, eyes dancing with visions of trails and trees and the perfect match of wax and snow: “Why watch basketball when you could be out skiing?” (Ah, so that’s what it was: everybody was cross-country skiing or doing yoga or otherwise self-actualizing when the Ravens arrived at the Ottawa airport. EXCELLENT!) Do we really need more spectator-sports-obsessed, doughy-middled couch spuds getting virtual joy from watching while the select few get to Actually Do Stuff? Probably not. Still, it would be nice if folks paid more attention to greatness they could see and appreciate right up close – hey, and maybe use that as inspiration to help kids know something of that thrill of getting-better.

But on a day like today, to paraphrase late-life Leonard Cohen, I want it darker, so forgive me if I darken things up a little. We’ve all heard the grim news from New Zealand, which makes my knickers-twisting complaints about attendance at the local basketball barn seem a little silly today. In the wake of ANOTHER of those dreadful reports, this time of mosques targeted in Christchurch, where a “man” crucially starved of education and morality live-streamed his hateful assault on worshipping Muslims, yes, maybe this is a good day to say it. Don’t watch. DON’T be a spectator.

Don’t watch his twisted, narcissistic video, certainly. But maybe I can challenge my own thesis from Wednesday, and go so far as to say: Don’t watch anybody. Don’t be a spectator as life parades on by. Do good. Build a little something instead.

Salman Rushdie (on whether we circle the drain)

In Canada, we have (steadily more meagre and occasionally even contemptuous) government-funded radio. Alarmists – unlike the always-judicious, ever-moderate me – might call the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation an endangered species. Last Chance to Hear! Broadcasters, Artists and Thinkers in Their Natural Habitat! It’s a pretty pale safari, but I’m on it. The CBC’s a national treasure.

Yesterday I listened to Q, Radio One’s flagship weekday arts ‘n’ culture show. It’s hosted by a grandson of Rwanda, a Canadian-as-socially-conscious-rap MC known as Shad. (By night, he’s a bouncy, smiling hip-hop groove-ster with a real band. By day, he talks to Salman Rushdie and Margaret Atwood and Darryl McDaniels, the DMC in rap/rockstar band Run DMC. In between, he’s Shadrach Kabango.) Actually, I was re-listening to an extended podcast recording of a conversation I’d heard part of earlier in the week. (I think I was sweeping. Or washing dishes?)

They were talking dystopias, especially regarding Rushdie’s new novel Two Years, Eight Months, and Twenty-Eight Nights. It’s full of malevolent genies, time travel, a corruption-exposing baby and a whole lot of thinly-disguised Now. It’s also apparently very funny, as Rushdie is no permanent pessimist and wanted to explore the “strangenesses” of our time with some inventive and comic strangeness of his own. He wasn’t trying to outgrim Margaret Atwood, in other words. (Though it must be said that her MaddAddam trilogy is nastily, wryly funny if you can suspend despairing recognition, at least for a moment.)

*Certainly* no pessimist! (This is not his daughter.) Padma Lakshmi was Mr. Rushdie's 4th wife.

*Certainly* no pessimist! (This is not his daughter.) Padma Lakshmi was Mr. Rushdie’s 4th wife.

This was only the first (and then second) time I’d heard Rushdie interviewed, surprisingly, and I found him an engaging and generous interviewee.

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Where No One Has Gone Before?

Every time I do it, I swear it’s the last time. But it only happens every year or two, and I forget. And when, by whim or happenstance, I’m interested in a mass-market film, ain’t no place to go but the Megatastic Carnival of Audiovisual and Commercial Excess. In my town, it’s called Silver City.

Sensory overload. Amusing Ourselves to Death.

Zeal of the misled martyr. Eagerness of lemmings.

Haven from contentment.

Supersaturated solutions to the hungers of mouth and eye.

And loneliness.


Few things have me muttering as angrily (how soon I forget, how furiously I regret  not showing up late) as my voluntary submission to big-screen huckstering, first for ads exclusive to Cineplex Odeon! (oh, we, the favoured ones, the self-selected targets) and then, just when I thought it was safe to watch laugh-out-loud trailers for Michael Bay-ish movies I’ll never have to see – Transformers, my Lord in heaven, what sort of overgrown boyos will watch that while sober! – along came MORE ads that I can at least walk away from when they interrupt the hockey game. I wanted to throw things. I wanted to go all Howard Beale on my new best friends in the theatre. (Wondering: It’s over 30 years since NetworkWould it seem quaint, rather so what’s the point to kiddies raised on televisual brain candy of the 21st century kind?) My bride thoughtfully slapped my thigh and shushed me. I restrained myself.

Finally, when Star Trek came on (Really? We get to watch a MOVIE, too? Oh, boy!), there were improbable Romulan mega-ships and inexplicable time warps and decades-old dialogue (wait for ‘em, Treksters!) and up-to-the-nanosecond CGI spectacle and passable acting (I quite liked Bruce Greenwood and Eric Bana as Secondary Good Guy and Primo Baddie, respectively) and backstories to Kirk and Spok as kiddies and in-joke introductions to the rest of the crew: Scott, Bones, Chekhov, Sulu, Uhuru. The gang’s all here.

And I had a good time, ultimately. It’s a silly thing, and you surely don’t want to think too hard about the space-time scientifishy elements. But There Will Be Sequels. This baby is preset to run for as long as humanity can stand it, and it’s engineered to not only grab the young male crowd but late-Boomers like me who remember Shatner and Nimoy and the first interracial kiss on television. And in between, it also puts a major hustle on the in-between generations, those who, like my sons, grew up on Star Wars; there are numerous fairly obvious reaches for the mysticism of the Jedi. I shouldn’t have liked it so well, but nostalgia is a strong brew and I took a good long gulp. The young feller doing Bones was superb. Uhura was, again, mainly a waste in a great legs! sort of way. Scottie was, as always, a caricature (but I still missed James Doohan). Sulu was, too, but a subtly enjoyable one.

It all comes down to Spok and Kirk, of course. And I haven’t made up my mind on them. By Sequel Three they’ll have grown into their characters more, and then we can begin to judge. Even without the popcorn, though, I have to admit it: I’m a sucker for space opera and the victory of even the most unlikely (and often fairly comical) forms of extraterrestrial nobility.