Donald Rumsfeld: The Known Known

The_Unknown_Known_posterThere’s a scene near the end of Errol Morris’s new documentary ‘The Unknown Known’ when you think you might actually see Donald Rumsfeld crack. Is he finally going to acknowledge, on a human level, the role he played in the conflicts that led to the deaths of thousands, hundreds of thousands, perhaps millions of people during his two stints as U.S. Secretary of Defense?

Rumsfeld, now 81, talks about a visit to a military hospital where he met the wife of a gravely injured solider who hasn’t been given good odds to survive. Rumsfeld, who had an affinity for recording and dictating memos and who waged as much of a war on language as he did on ‘terror’ in the early-2000s, fumbled and stammered and choked up in this retelling, ironically remarking that he didn’t know the word that could articulate this moment where he was forced to confront the real-world consequence of one of his many backroom decisions. But then the story takes a turn. Rumsfeld describes how he returned to the hospital weeks later and “wouldn’t you know it, the fellow made it.” And there’s your happy ending.

Except, it’s not. Instead, it is at this point that you realize, as an audience member, you’re not going to get any sort of cathartic climax, or at the very least an honest instant of self-reflection. (Don’t expect to see anything close to Robert McNamara’s tortured confession at the end of Morris’s ‘Fog of War.’) Rumsfeld regains his composure and the horrifying truth hits you that he really believes every single thing he’s said and done in office, no matter how twisted the logic. It’s the one-in-a-million story he wants to sell us. He’s obviously bought this version. There is no time for the other 999,999 sad endings.

This is a tough movie to sit through. Part of this is due to feeling oddly complicit in the wars and conflicts he led us into – some of which are ongoing today – because you didn’t do enough to oppose the blatant deception being perpetrated by Rumsfeld, Cheney, Bush and Co. You sit there and marvel at how they duped us into invading Iraq. Honestly, it still doesn’t make sense.

The other, more glaring reason for the discomfort is Rumsfeld’s absolute certainty about the choices he made. Sure, he deflects, confuses and misleads, but he won’t admit to having regrets, as his own misdoings, even in hindsight, would have been committed by anyone else in his position, he assures us. (Rumsfeld’s smugness is one of the vilest film villains in recent memory.)

Humans will have evolved if they are ever able to breed out the Donald Rumsfeld worldview: that peculiar, paranoid and hopelessly cynical view of humanity that says that in order to protect (and expand) your own interests, you must punish, bloody and kill anyone you (rightfully or wrongly) view as a threat. (“If you want peace, prepare for war,” is one of the idioms he repeats over and over.)

Rumsfeld played Don Draper during the Bush years, selling a non-sequitur war in Iraq that nobody wanted and that ultimately ended more than 100,000 lives. And he shows no remorse. But why should he? He did all his dirty work from behind a desk, approving strategic air strikes with a quick signature or stamp, completely disconnected from the actual blood and guts and death that marked his most recent tenure as Secretary of Defense. He saw that one solider beat the odds and that’s what he chooses to remember. And that’s what he’s trying to sell us, and history, in this film,

If you can take any solace though, it’s that, in the very long run, history is rarely spun successfully. Despite his efforts, Donald Rumsfeld will not be remembered fondly by future generations.

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The Loss of Silence

Tinnitus is one of Archer's many, many injuries

Tinnitus is one of Archer’s many, many injuries.

While part of me wonders how best to describe this to you, I think it’s safe to assume that anyone can immediately grasp the maddening truth of it: My left ear has been hearing a high-pitched whistling sound, something akin to a dog whistle, for the past two months. It is ceaseless; from the moment I wake up to the last dreary second before I lose any perceptible sense of consciousness, my thoughts and the aural makeup of the world around me are accompanied by the ringing, the whistling, the ever-modulating noise that seems not to come from nowhere.

Perhaps it’s all in my head; literally, a malfunction in the nerve-receptors that tell my brain it’s hearing something in my ear. I suppose it would be a relief to have that clarified, to receive some sort of answer as to why this is happening. The sad truth of tinnitus is that even if I managed to find some identifiable cause, there exists no consistent cure of any kind. If you get tinnitus, generally speaking, it’s with you until it decides to leave. It is likely to leave at some point, but perhaps I’m part of the fifteen percent of the tinnitus-afflicted population who get it forever, carrying it with me through moments of excitement, boredom, romance and sadness, all the way until death.

There’s a sense in which it truly becomes a passenger in your life. In the early weeks I tried to ascribe positivity to the noise, thinking of it as the machine in my head that kept my body running; as long as I hear it, I know I’m alive. Perhaps that logic falters when I sleep, which is accomplished with the help of smartphone apps that play rain and thunder noises. Once or twice I’ve fallen asleep without the noises playing, but I slowly feel it’s becoming a necessity in my sleep space. With tinnitus ringing in your ear, noise becomes the devil.

It gets better with time, at least perceptually. I increasingly find myself getting through longer and longer stretches of time without noticing the noise. If I’m occupied in some form of engaging task – be it playing a videogame or tackling some complex problem at work – I function just like normal. Atlantic editor and author Scott Stossel’s recent book My Age of Anxiety, a dissection of our collective history with anxiety, raises a similar argument for combatting anxiety and panic, frequently reiterating the importance of an occupied mind in overcoming mental and emotional distress. Make yourself busy enough and you’ll almost forget you have an affliction.

This strategy works, but there’s a caveat: When you’re occupied, you never get to stop and enjoy the absence of your tinnitus. To notice the absence of the ringing is to take a moment of reflection, the act of which immediately brings the noise right back to the foreground. I wake up each day hoping to hear nothing, and the best I can do is be too pre-occupied to care. It robs me of pure silence, of relief from the sound. I don’t know that I miss the silence itself, so much as I miss the luxury of having it when I wanted it. Some of the more terrifying and lonely moments of my life were spent in the deafening quake of silence, and I’ve infrequently wished to situate myself in its presence. From that perspective, I’ve perhaps discovered the most luxurious affliction possible.

Which isn’t to sugarcoat things too much; my first couple weeks with the noise were wracked with anxiety, minor panic attacks and moments of despair dark enough to not be proper in sharing. The noise, so foreign and unwelcome, seemed to infect the very processes that allowed me to function, no longer allowing me the simple pleasure of eating, sleeping, or even thinking. As someone who never pined for a quiet home out in the country, I can positively reassert that now more than ever, I want and need the noise and bustle of the city to keep me company.

In an attempt to find the root of the problem, I was recently subjected to an MRI scan. Thanks to the strange scheduling of the machine, my scan was at 1:30 am. The entire experience was surreal, waking up at 1:00 am to drive downtown and sit in a futuristic tube of magnetic brain-scan equipment. The cacophony of noise was initially overwhelming, and the tube itself far tighter than I had expected. Without my glasses and bereft of hearing, I had no choice but to lay motionless and let the experience happen, mentally forming the machine’s endless sounds into musical notes whenever they rhythmically coalesced. I gained an even greater appreciation for Charlotte Gainsbourg’s “IRM”, a song written as an attempt to capture the feeling of being inside the MRI machine [IRM is the French name for an MRI].

It is now April 3rd, two months to the day of when I first noticed the ringing while sitting at my desk at work. I still vividly remember the day before I heard the ringing, spending time with friends, watching the Super Bowl, playing board games, huddling close to my wife at the bus stop to travel back across town near midnight. There seems something so melodramatically carefree about those moments. Multiple medical tests later and I still hear the ringing and I still seem to be suffering from minor earaches in both ears. It’s nothing but a luxury that my right ear seems generally un-afflicted, though the random moments once every day or two in which it rings for 5 or 6 seconds are always cause for momentary panic. Perhaps I can learn more from the lessons Stossel discusses in My Age of Anxiety, that health is a combination of mind and body, that your work and your life cannot be extricated and quarantined from one another. Perhaps this ringing is a call to myself, to spend more time pursuing my goals, to not simply surrender.

And yet here I am, writing again, at last, waiting for this final sentence to pour itself out of me, and all I can hear is the ringing.

 

 

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April Fools in the Hospital

plasticcup

Years ago on April Fools, I found myself scared of death. I was in the hospital — three days earlier, at the age of 21, I had suffered a stroke.

The morning of April Fools I was woken up with a scream. This is not uncommon in the neurology ward. On this morning, the overnight staff had placed a plastic skeleton in a hospital bed and attached it to a heart monitor. Whenever a nurse or doctor came in for the morning shift, they told them about a car accident that had taken place overnight. They took them to the bedside of the only surviving victim, and the unsuspecting staff member, barely into their morning coffee, would see the flat line of the heart monitor and pull back the sheets on the skeleton.

Food was delivered on trays, and the trays stacked on tall pushcarts that almost touched the ceiling. That morning, after the hospital staff delivered breakfast to the patients on my floor, a Filipino orderly who looked like a bouncer flipped the empty pushcart so that the wheels faced the ceiling. After breakfast, hospital staff placed the empty trays into the pushcart, with half-eaten oatmeal and the ends of juice. And when they went to push the cart and it wouldn’t move, they looked up to see the wheels facing the ceiling. If they flipped it back the other way, all the half-eaten food would fall out. There was a lot of swearing.

The young and sick receive a sad version of the VIP treatment. Doctors are more curious, nurses more attentive, and civilians in the hospital, frightened and reverential. Illness in youth is a reversal of the natural order; one is gawked at and attended to like an alien or the prettiest girl at the prom. A young man in a hospital gown, dragging an IV stand, possesses strange powers.

As a kid I’d learned a prank from a magazine – tape a plastic cup under your armpit, tell someone you hurt yourself, and as you move your injured arm, crush the cup against your body for a bone crunching sound. There I was in my hospital gown, dragging an IV stand with two plastic bags of medicine and an electronic box that monitored the drip, walking around the halls of the neurology ward, telling a nurse or an orderly, “I have a really bad cramp in my shoulder, can you just rub it for a second,” and when they did, I would crack the plastic cup under my arm and yell out in pain, asking “Why did you do that so hard? I’m hurt!” Most of them would shrug it off – nurses are so hard to scare.

Later that day, I was wandering around the hospital lobby, bored and lonely, soaking up distant attention, with a fresh plastic cup taped under my armpit. I was ready to go back to the neurology ward and got on the elevator with a middle aged couple. Just me, the husband and wife, together for less than a minute. Right away I started writhing in pain, screaming about my shoulder cramp. “Could you please just rub it for a second, just a second, the pain is excruciating.” The wife started rubbing my shoulder hesitantly and as soon as she started, I cracked the plastic cup so hard, the bone crunching sound repelled her away from me. I screamed out in pain, “Why’d you do it so hard! I’m sick, I think I’m hurt,” as I held my arm in pain. The hospital gown, the IV stand, the bone crunching sound,, it all added up to this – they injured a young sick person. The wife started apologizing profusely, the husband nervously asked me if he should call someone. And right then, the door opened on my floor, and I said, “April Fools!” and dragged my IV out of the elevator. As the elevator doors closed, we all smiled at each other – I have never seen people more relieved in my life.

Yes, it was mean, just like the fake accident victim and the upside down pushcart. I wonder if that couple tells the story of our minute together, if they maintained their relief, if they found the humor in what I did, or if they were angry after the elevator doors closed. For a moment though, we all smiled at each other in relief, and that’s the part I remember.

In a place where the laws of nature routinely maim and kill, the ability to bend reality, even for a moment, is valuable. It’s good to be reminded that I am often blind to the obvious, and that distress and relief are both temporary, often brought about by my own hand.

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Anglo Go Home

Last night at the bar I had a typical Montreal introduction to a friend’s friend – I learned his name, that he was studying at McGill University, and when he planned to leave Montreal. The fact that the end of our acquaintance was implicit in our introduction is one of the facts of speaking English and living in this city – one’s eventual departure is often a foregone conclusion.

None of my English speaking friends remained in Montreal after university and, as I recently turned thirty, a second exodus of friends has concluded, with good men and women going to the US South, Italy, China, and northern Canada. If I can deduce something about our age group, it is that the marking of (or impending) three decades on this earth gives one the need to ‘get on with it,’ whether it be career, relationship, or other opportunities for growth, and the economics, linguistics, and politics of this city do not outwardly foster these goals. As I have been an English speaking resident here for most of my twenties, the city has the remarkable quality of having one’s social circles deflate by virtue of such periodic departures – Montreal renews your solitude on a regular basis, and I can wake feeling like a newly arrived tourist, with coffee or beer to be had alone.

There is something parasitic in the anti-Anglophone policies of the Quebec government, as related to the influx of young Anglophone students, armed with government loans, credit lines, and daddy’s Amex, funnelling considerable money to the slumlords, retailers, and government coffers of this city and province — and leaving, by virtue of policies designed to make them want to leave — before having to rely on the government infrastructure or social services that they fund: all tit, no tat. As I have paid a considerable amount for university, and have held full time employment in this city, I can assure you that no tax officials have ever complained that my money speaks English. I imagine that my neighbours in St. Henri, a poor borough of this city – proud Quebecois whose multi-generational family business was that of the welfare cheque – ever gave my tax dollars the same dirty looks they gave me and my friends.

This macro-parasitism and the hypocrisy of subduing a minority, one that bolsters the local economy, is perhaps better reiterated on the micro-scale. In one of my early years of university, as my jaywalking conflicted with a hurried driver and I offered him a one-fingered instruction as to which way he should steer, he began yelling the phrase “Anglo go home!” in increasingly louder and more urgent tones. Perhaps it was the quizzical look I gave to his earlier epithets that gave it away, perhaps my English speaking mouth has a peculiar shape or Quebecers have a sixth sense for this sort of thing, but this was my first introduction to these Quebecois values. The stark contrast to this would be the summer months, when Montreal’s multiple festivals, largely relying on English-speaking celebrities for, say, the jazz and comedy portions, attract a large English-speaking tourist contingent. Wherein for a few warm months, ‘Anglo go home!’ becomes a five dollar bottle of water and overpriced knick-knacks. To an English resident of this city, this pretense of accommodation reads like the hospitality of a Biblical snake.

Montreal is a transitory city for young English speakers, one that offers much in the way of experiential variety, so to speak. But the segregation and subduing of a linguistic minority by a government that lines its coffers with their money – money often earned and borrowed in other provinces – gives the impression of a cynical opportunism. The English speaker in Quebec partly funds the corrupt government which, in turn, uses her as a scapegoat for the target practice politics of smoke screening its own corruption. A full-bellied dinner guest renounces their host, after dessert and coffee have been served.

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Strother Martin

stroth

I was biking through Westmount this afternoon and I bumped into Pauline Marois.

“Hi Pauline,” I said, stopping at the red light.

She looked at me and nodded, confirming that I’d uttered a few words in her direction and, I suppose, affirming my existence too.

“It’s a great day for a walk, isn’t it?” I added, with a smile, tilting my head up at that clear blue ceiling we shared.

“Hein?” she responded.

“Sorry, I was just saying, it’s a really nice day out. Brisk, but not too chilly,” I explained. “Ideal for a relaxing constitutional,” I added, indicating that I’d come to the opinion that the day’s conditions were perfect for a good constitutional, which is how I’ve heard a nice walk referred to once or twice before. Or wait, was that what you called a good morning shit? I didn’t say ‘constitutional’ did I?

Pauline wasn’t looking at me anymore. She’d turned her attention back to the red light. I just started nodding and I said, “Yep, a real nice one,” to try to distract her from my previous blunder of a comment.

“Hein?” she replied again, this time with an annoyed look on her face.

I really must have said constitutional before and insulted her. Shit. Why did I say constitutional if I didn’t even know what it meant?

“Parlez-vous francais?”

“Huh?” I responded.

Her disappointment with me at what I’d said earlier was measured but evident in the slow shake of her head and through the tone of the words that came next. “Ah, c’est dommage,” she said. “Tu vis ici a Montreal, en Quebec, et tu ne peux meme pas me repondre en francais.”

“Huh?”

She shook her head again and looked back at that endless Westmount red light. I must have really offended her with that shit comment because she wasn’t even speaking the same language as me.

“Pauline, I’m really sorry,” I said.

“Hein?”

“I just meant,” I fumbled and nervously rubbed my cheek, “I mean, I just wanted to apologize for the confusion earlier. I don’t know why I thought today was a great day to take a constitution. I don’t even know what that means.” I smiled and put out my hand and said “je m’excuse,” which I had heard said earlier when a friendly person bumped into me as I was getting off the Metro.

The light turned green, but she didn’t start walking. She gave me a curt smile and shook my hand.

Not wanting to do any more damage, I said “bonne journée,” another phrase I’d picked up, mostly from what people who worked at cafes said to customers, before heading off on my bike.

“You too,” Pauline said behind me, as I pedalled away.

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In Defense of the Senate

As you’re probably well aware, the Senate spending scandal reached its climax yesterday, when embattled senators Mike Duffy, Pamela Wallin and Patrick Brazeau were suspended for two years without pay. Throughout this nearly year-long saga, Prime Minister Stephen Harper has done his best to distance himself from these three senators, whom he had hand-picked for the Senate during his tenure. And he has, in typical Harperian fashion, dodged questions about what he knew about a $90,000 cheque from his chief of staff that went towards covering Duffy’s expenses.

While at first blush, it would seem wise for Harper to take this tack, especially leading into what looks to be a competitive 2015 election, but I think Harper and the Conservatives are really missing an opportunity here.

Lost among all the claims of misused taxpayer funds and extravagant expenses is the indisputable fact that Duffy, Wallin and Brazeau, in their own somewhat misguided way, did their best to help support Canada’s economy over these last two years. And for a Conservative party that spins every argument, discussion, innocuous statement and funding decision into its strengthening Canada’s economy (I hope I didn’t step on any CPC trademarks by using those three words consecutively) and job creation dogma, how can they not see the lemonade to be made out of this sour affair.

I’m not an economist or an accountant or even a senior government communications advisor, but I’d hazard a safe guess that each and every Mike Duffy creates roughly 15 to 20 spin-off jobs for regular Canadians like you and me. Just think about all the employment that trickles off Mr. Duffy. There are, of course, his advisors, his administrative staff, his speechwriters and even his handsomely paid consultants, like his pal Gerald Donahue, who was tasked with conducting important, baseline research on a variety of wide-reaching topics.

But then when you dig a bit deeper, you find out just what a vital cog a senator like Mike Duffy is for Canada’s economy. There’s obviously the accountant that works around the clock to legitimize his expenses. There’s the guy that mows his lawn and works on his garden in Ottawa. And there’s the guy that mows his lawn and works on his garden in PEI.

Taxpayers are properly outraged when they hear about Pamela Wallin and the long bills she racked up at hotels from her dozens of stop-overs in Toronto while in transit between Ottawa and Regina. But that’s just plain simplemindedness. In truth, she’s just doing her part to help support the hospitality industry. And the limousine and cab drivers, who are getting squeezed by all those large Canadian cities building cheap public transit from their airports to their downtown centres. And then there are the waiters and waitresses, chefs and sous-chefs, busboys and bartenders, hosts and hostesses. Pamela Wallin is not abusing her privileges, she’s really just redistributing her wealth back to the Canadians that need it.

And turning to Brazeau, now that he’s basically out as a senator, maybe he has to get rid of his Manawaki, Quebec residence, where he admittedly spends roughly 10 per cent of his time. How will this impact the person that drives Brazeau to and from Manawaki once or twice a month? And now that he’s out of the limelight, what will Brazeau’s lawyer do without his once-lucrative client? And has anyone thought about the poor Deloitte accountants? Who are they going to audit now? Romeo Dallaire? I don’t think so.

So I ask, who is hurt most by yesterday’s suspensions of Duffy, Wallin and Brazeau? I would argue it’s not one of those disgraced politicians, who have likely stuffed their accounts comfortably over the years, but instead the average Canadian that relied on them for subsistence. It’s the poor landscaper in PEI, who will lose out on that steady income from Duffy and whose children will have a little less to eat at dinner tonight as a result. It will be the limousine driver at Toronto Pearson, who will have to wait around the terminal a little longer now that Wallin has stopped coming around and who will spend less time with the sick mother he cares for. It will be the bored lawyer, faced with the prospect of an obscure, unemployed and uninteresting Brazeau, who will be forced onto the street to hustle, like a film noir detective, for small-time cases that barely keep the lights on.

This is the most important reason for taking Harper to task. He’s allowed this Senate fiasco to push him and his party off topic, deviating from the economy and jobs message he’s been force-feeding us for the last seven years. His mantra has basically been to create, build, erect, fabricate, construct or just friggin outright clone jobs – just make more jobs at any cost. Well, he was directly responsible for killing three yesterday, along with an uncounted number indirectly, by strangling the remoras attached to Duffy, Wallin and Brazeau whom they fed off of in order to eek out a meagre living.

Stephen Harper, you let this Senate scandal change you. You killed jobs. You’ve got jobs blood on your hands. How can you live with yourself?

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Tell Me How Much You Care

A crude approximation of a feeling truly felt.

A crude approximation of a feeling truly felt.

In the dwindling space of your day, in those precious few moments before your iPhone’s battery saps itself of all usefulness, tell me how much you really care. In the wake of the Bangladesh clothing fire – as pure a waste of life as has ever been – consider the fact that you’re more likely to strike up a conversation about Rob Ford’s possible crack cocaine addiction than Joe Fresh’s reliance on cheap manufacturing to produce clothing. Tell me how much you care about the repetitive strain injury that was caused to the anonymous hands which scrubbed clean the effervescently glossy Gorilla Glass screen of your aforementioned phone.

It’s not so much the degree to which these things bother us – or don’t – that I find curious, so much as our aimless moral imperative to do so. Is it a shared humanity that should drive us to want to help one another? I can’t help but find this explanation wanting: History is the story of those who can finding success, often on the backs of those who cannot.

A good friend of mine often scoffs upon hearing the oft-used phrase ‘First World Problems’. His response is that as citizens of the first world, these are legitimately our problems, and the mental and physical strains exerted upon us are contextually no less valid than those exerted upon those in poorer parts of the world. The position is certainly one of privilege, and yet I find it reassuringly pragmatic. I am here, now. And I can feel only that which I feel here, now.

I can search the world for hurt, but to what purpose to I better myself for having done so? Do I seek the pain of others that I may die and pass on to nothingness with a greater sense of the world’s injustice? Am I measurably a better person for briefly scraping past the lives of the poverty-stricken before flying back home to clean Canadian living?

Naturally these questions are a struggle for me, as they are for anyone else. When I find myself going through periods of mental duress I find the generously favourable circumstances of my life – a middle-class straight white male in his mid-twenties and married – a maddening counterpoint to my occasional pain, a concept which only drives me into even worse spirals of negative thinking.

It is the luxury of a life of luxury to feel bad for oneself; to expend immeasurable mental energy on examining one’s hurt, comparing and contrasting with the hurt of others.

So tell me how much you care, next time you feel down, about the rest of the world, and tell me why. Would not anyone in your position, from any part of the world, given the same contextual environment, feel the same way?

***

On a street in Bombay a lady acting as our tour guide answered a simple question: In a country of so much poverty, how can you stand to wake up in the morning?

“You just have to. If you stop to think about it too much, you’d never accomplish anything.”

A cruel pragmatism, indeed.

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