Honeymoons and Rear-View Mirrors

Well, lookie-lookie. Here’s something I found lurking in my files, an observational piece I never did anything with. I was newly-married, living in a cabin in the West Quebec woods, not far from the Wakefield General Store. It was 1995. Quebec’s second referendum on independence was coming. I was taking Stab One at being a writer, but in addition to being giddy with remarital joy, I had mononucleosis. It was a sleepy, lovely and thoroughly unproductive time, but here is something I scribbled between the birch trees.

Apr. 22/14 UPDATE: This post inspired an extended comment from a faithful reader, which has turned into a full-on guest column that responded to questions of identity and “Canadian-ness” mentioned below. Mr. Freeman’s meditation on home and heart is here.

From here, I look out upon a Wakefield morning. Just after  dawn, a bright sun  peered in our window from behind a curtain of colour. And thank goodness for our woodsy surroundings, because there aren’t any curtains on these huge panes; the trees have already seen enough of my naked dashes from bath to bed. Ouch! One enthusiastic but directionally‑challenged chirper just discovered that our living room is not a fly‑through zone. The day has now become quite grey, but in this splendid Quebecois setting, even grey has charms.

There have been some changes, haven’t there? In my little world, love and restlessness and an overwhelming desire to chain myself to a keyboard have landed me here, tapping merrily and watching the wind. I like where I am. Born near the centre of the universe — Leafs and Jays about  an hour of asphalt away¹ — my grand little rivertown home has been a good place to love and leave and return to, and now to leave again. 

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Just One. So Far. (Thank God. Thank the Cops.)

The number of killers? One, it turns out, a wounded child of 25. Loner, rejected, bitter. An Internet need for recklessness, weapons and creepy thoughts to feel a little more like a man who belongs. An Indo-Canadian Eleanor Rigby with rage and a video addiction.

The number of innocent dead (so far)? Mercifully, only one, though it is no consolation to a devastated family whose 18-year-old daughter is gone after a week and a half in her big new downtown school. What can this sacrifice mean? And what petty criminal do we thank for drawing, apparently, two young officers next to the scene? They followed the killer – I will not name him – not long after he strutted into Montreal’s Dawson College with the movie or game script playing in his head. Surely to goodness, these officers must have saved dozens of lives by pinning him down and drawing his fire before he was finally given the mortal send-off that he wanted. (But even the depraved should be careful what they pray for.)

The number of warnings? It depends on what you’re looking for and whom you want to be listening. This makes three school shootings in Montreal in less than 20 years. An American writer on the phenomenon found it anomalous – these things don’t tend to happen in urban areas – but then she specializes in high school shootings. We’re going to hear an awful lot about Mr. Sickly and his on-line musings about hate and violent death and the pictures of him caressing his weapons, and probably about the signals he has long been giving out. Who is it for?…No-one comes near…No-one was saved…All the lonely people / Where do they all come from?   

And there was this on CBC Radio’s The Current this morning, from Francine Pelletier, a Montreal journalist and documentary filmmaker. She connected this event with a disturbing societal picture: “Young men in Quebec have one of the highest suicide rates in the world. There is something rotten here…[and] young men between 18 and 35 are particularly vulnerable…” She called Quebec “the most American of Canadian provinces,” an assertion that is disputable in many dimensions, but she was pointing to an “appetite for display” and drama. Pelletier also worries that “40% of Quebeckers feel that suicide is acceptable. If you are more tolerant towards it, you are more likely to have it.” And all too often, angry (and cowardly) men want to take someone with them or, as seems to have been the case here, to have a deadly tantrum and force the police to do his suicidal dirty work. We are in, bitterly enough, international suicide prevention week. It started on September 11.

I used to tell my basketball players – I used to tell my own son – “Get mad, not sad.” In an athletic context, sadness over an error, a defeat or even a lack of improvement is an emotion that can engender helplessness (what’s the use?), while a certain kind of anger builds resolve and a determination to turn it around (I can do better than that! or I’ll show them!). It makes me ill to think of it in this context, and it raises one of the biggest challenges that modern society faces: what do we do with male energy and anger? (There’s no simple answer, but here’s what we don’t do, as too many have: label all male anger as toxic and primitive. Actually, extremist gender attitudes have a way of labelling men as toxic and primitive, and don’t think that young guys can’t hear that.)

The Current also had a novelist on. Lionel Shriver is the American writer of the Orange Prize-winning novel We Have to Talk About Kevin, which follows a mother who tries to understand the murderous spree of her son. Shriver’s immersion in the world of youthful mass killing is ominous the day after Dawson: “I became convinced that it was a fad, an imitative thing” and that, while environment obviously plays a vital role, “people vary in their initial ability to recognize the reality of others, to empathize, to love…It’s not a stretch to say that some were born with less moral capability than others.” It’s not a stretch to notice, however, that they are almost always boys.

Yesterday and today, there was periodic relief expressed that there appeared to be no ethnic or religious or political dimension to this. Certainly, Canadian Muslims must have been praying Oh God, not one of ours, please! We are all grateful that it wasn’t another gender-specific Montreal massacre, not an anti-Semitic or anti-anglo or anti-black or, apparently, anti-anybody-in-particular action. It was just a deadly strike against life. Against most of us. As for the reflexive media relief that It does not appear to be a terrorist act, I can only wonder at our public definition of terrorism. Of COURSE this is terrorism! It just happens to be fairly non-discriminatory and without even a real objective, however delusional. Just because he had to. Just because he could. It’s the terrorism of the excluded, I guess, of someone who felt oppressed by unpopularity and lovelessness and the previous impotence of his rage. It’s a peculiar sort of comfort. It still scares the hell out of me.