NINETEEN

I just read an article in the NYT called “Silicon Valley Roused by Succession Call.” This techno/utopian/libertarian bent in the Valley reminds me of Biella Coleman’s assessment of hacker culture as “critique of liberalism.”

I find it enormously difficult as someone with links to that community—but also years of intensive study in the social sciences and in social justice organizing—to try and bridge this gap within my own networks. Catherine Bracy chalks it up to a lack of lived experience:

“Catherine Bracy, director of community organizing at Code for America, criticized this genre of thinking as reflecting a simple lack of exposure by many Valley engineers: “Most of them aren’t confronted with or don’t have an understanding of most problems regular people are facing. If they had to collect food stamps or ride the bus or send their kid to public school, they might be more empathetic to the role that government plays in people’s lives and more interested in fixing those problems than opting out.”

But I think it’s more than that. There are a number of different ways (some entirely logical) that one might arrive at “well, I guess we’ll just have to demolish the state then,” but the particular route taken by the new capitalist class of the Valley is one that’s so clearly divorced from any kind of history of economic thought.

EIGHTEEN

“The people who were interesting told good stories. They were also inquisitive: willing to work to expand their social and intellectual range. Most important, interesting people were also the best listeners. They knew when to ask questions. This was the set of people whose shows I would subscribe to, whose writing I would seek out, and whose friendship I would crave. In other words, those people were the opposite of boring.

…The Big Bore lurks inside us all. It’s dying to be set loose to lecture on Quentin Tarantino or what makes good ice cream. Fight it! Fight the urge to speak without listening, to tell a bad story, to stay inside your comfortable nest of back-patting pals. As you move away from boring, you will never be bored.”

From You are boring.

SEVENTEEN

When I work from New York, I spend all day writing at the library on 5th (it’s where I am right now!) so that I can meet my partner, who works in Times Square, for lunch. There’s something about working from the study halls that lets me just read and write for hours without feeling distracted (which is a good thing because I’m so swamped with work).

I feel immensely calm and productive here; it’s just about my favourite space in the city. When I look up at the ceiling, I wonder if I’m the only person who remembers that 90’s Macaulay Culkin film where the main character learns about courage through an animated adventure. I can imagine the ceiling dripping down and melting all over (image via Pinterest).

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I also can’t help but hear the Ghostbusters theme song every once in a while…a little like this.

SIXTEEN

From the Dictionary of Obscure Sorrows, one definition less hopeful:

kuebiko

n. a state of exhaustion inspired by acts of senseless violence, which force you to revise your image of what can happen in this world—mending the fences of your expectations, weeding out all unwelcome and invasive truths, cultivating the perennial good that’s buried under the surface, and propping yourself up like an old scarecrow, who’s bursting at the seams but powerless to do anything but stand there and watch.

and another a little more hopeful:

la gaudière

n. the glint of goodness inside people, which you can only find by sloshing them back and forth in your mind until everything dark and gray and common falls away, leaving behind a constellation at the bottom of the pan—a rare element trapped in exposed bedrock, washed there by a storm somewhere upstream.

and a third one, full of recognition and truth (surely the most famous, and for good reason):

sonder

n. the realization that each random passerby is living a life as vivid and complex as your own—populated with their own ambitions, friends, routines, worries and inherited craziness—an epic story that continues invisibly around you like an anthill sprawling deep underground, with elaborate passageways to thousands of other lives that you’ll never know existed, in which you might appear only once, as an extra sipping coffee in the background, as a blur of traffic passing on the highway, as a lighted window at dusk.

and my favourite:

liberosis

n. the desire to care less about things—to loosen your grip on your life, to stop glancing behind you every few steps, afraid that someone will snatch it from you before you reach the end zone—rather to hold your life loosely and playfully, like a volleyball, keeping it in the air, with only quick fleeting interventions, bouncing freely in the hands of trusted friends, always in play.

FOURTEEN

Sometimes you need to sit at home and read poetry and listen to clangy old blues songs. I have this book of Montreal English poetry of the seventies (eds. Farkas & Norris), which begins with a quote from Louis Dudek:

It is the destiny of Montreal to show the country from time to time what poetry is.

I love this, and every time I open this book I find something new in it. Today it was a poem by David Solway called Trolls, and it made me giggle—It’s so very before its time, for so many reasons! (In its commentary on trolls, for one, and in its commentary on Montreal’s questionable bridge infrastructure, for second). Here it is.

“Trolls live under bridges.
They are most at home there.
They love to eat billy-goats even big ones.
They confute the ending of fairy tales.

Trolls live under bridges
like navies anchored under rainbows.
They are waiting for enemy pilots
to clatter across the sky.

Trolls live under bridges
like the charge beneath your ribs
ready to blow at any time.
You never argue with a troll.

Trolls live under bridges
like homeless toll-collectors.
They are always broke and hungry.
Sometimes they even eat the bridge.

Trolls live under bridges.
You can feel them push and pull
at the pilings, irritable as children.
Engineers say it’s the wind.”

THIRTEEN

Today I dealt with just the most absurd series of bureaucratic interactions—at the post office, at the university, at the bank. It was massively exhausting (and to top it off I got a flat tire!). After a morning like that, then six hours of an intensive grad class on feminist approaches in CED, I felt pretty exhausted by the time I got to NDG for a meeting.

We had to get together to do a bit of planning for MTL SOUP, and no matter how tired I was, I’m glad I went. The event is going to be amazing: intimate, democratic, thoughtful, nourishing, lightweight community building at its best. 

It’s really energizing to be building a new community project from the ground up with such amazing people. There’s a sense that if the launch is a success, there’s a lot of opportunity for growth, and there’s already so much support from the wider community. We’re trying to do things properly from the very beginning: linking to what’s already good in the city, using the resources that already exist, and building a messy little web of excuses for already great organizations to work more closely (and enjoy a meal) together. It’s why we’re cooking vegan from scratch, using reusable dishes, borrowing from faith organizations, insisting on a democratic process, bringing in local musicians, and hosting in a multidisciplinary student art space.

It’s really liberating to do something so simple and lighthearted right from start to finish. 

TWELVE

A week or two ago, Gonzo and I took turns reading aloud from Dumbing Us Down — a collection of John Taylor Gatto’s speeches. His ideas have been following me around since, and I shared this quote (from “The Psychopathic School”) during my talk at a BCGEU conference this past weekend.

“This great crisis which we witness in our schools is interlinked with a greater social crisis in the community. We seem to have lost our identity. Children and old people are penned up and locked away from the business of the world to a degree without precedent; nobody talks to them anymore, and without children and old people mixing in daily life; a community has no future and no past, only a continuous present. In fact the name “community” hardly applies to the way we interact with each other. We live in networks, not communities, and everyone I know is lonely because of that.”  (Dumbing Us Down)

Fantastically important questions arise from this — as community organizers, how to we build inter-generational strength and collective identity? How do we mitigate the alienating (and profoundly individualizing) affect of institutions on children and adults alike? What is the relationship between loneliness and social change, between loneliness and apathy?

(As I write this I happen to be working from the New York Public Library, where NBC is hosting “Education Nation,” a summit which (at least from the frantic crowds I see going in and out of the conference doors) appears completely devoid of any children whatsoever.)

ELEVEN

Last night I was riding my bicycle home from NDG and was feeling a bit sad that it’s getting to be too cold to ride for much longer. I guess I’ve always known how to ride a bike: my mom never knew how but my aunt taught me in parking lots when I was a kid (for which I am eternally grateful). Learning to ride a bike in the city felt like learning all over again though: the traffic, distractions, other cyclists, angry motorists and bike lane politics make it entirely unlike the traffic-calmed residential areas I rode in as a child. There’s an imperative to be a bit fearless and ballsy (especially in a city like Montreal) lest you get door’d or end up in someone’s blind spot at the wrong moment. With some serious patience from my gentleman-friend, I went from being incredibly anxious and timid to being a pretty serious fixie rider with a huge amount of nerve and awesome legs.

I’ve been working on expressing gratitude more lately, and I think learning to bike (properly) in the city is one of the things I feel most grateful for in the past few years. It’s given me such an incredible sense of freedom and autonomy, trust in my body, and certainty in my own judgement. It has changed the way I see and experience my city, and made me feel a huge sense of ownership and belonging in the street that I never had before. More than getting me out of the miserable underground system or giving me a new way to take care of my body, cycling has also given me an excuse to enjoy solitude. TIme that used to feel wasted in transit is all of a sudden mine to spend wondering and daydreaming, as a chance to decompress or to shake off anxiety. It has become an enormously therapeutic, meaningful thing in my life—maybe the way some people feel about yoga—and some of my best ideas lately have happened on two wheels. 

This is my bike, and today I’m feeling really grateful about it.

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Ten

I just got back from an awesome weekend helping with the Canadian Civil Liberties Association’s RightsWatch conference (this year’s theme was Civil Liberties and Democracy in the Digital Age: Privacy, Media and Free Expression). In an attempt to tie in some practical work with the conference’s policy talk, we organized a sort of booth/space using the Cryptoparty model to do some popular education around privacy. It felt good to contribute in a way that made participants feel meaningfully empowered to do something about their own data while being outraged at a political context which threatened their security.

Next time we organize something like this, there a few important things I’ll try to remember:

  • set up a QR code for people to scan instead of giving them flyers with URLs.
  • provide more visible question prompts (or maybe a wheel they can spin, like a gameshow) for participants who feel shy or put on the spot.
  • bring way more cupcakes than you think you need. 

All together, it was really a kickass, intimate, engaging event, so huge props to the organizing team at the CCLA (P.S., you should donate). My head is still swimming with some mix of hope and curiosity and anxious paranoia, and I guess that’s exactly the way a conference on this subject should leave you feeling.

Nine

McSweeney’s Internet Tendency makes me giggle. From Our Killer Appears to be a Millennial:

“So we start creating content that feels authentically shareable—vines, photos, longreads, whatever. It’s all gotta speak to his interests as an always-on, social-focused doer/maker who might work as a barista during the day but spends his evenings following his true passion of DIY electronics.

Sure, I know, then we have a bunch of content, but how the hell is that gonna nab us the most vicious serial killer seen in our metro area since the 1970s? Simple: we aggregate all of this content in an immersive, media-rich microsite.”

SIX

I’m trying to write an application to an academic program, but am totally unsure about how honest I can be in a “statement of purpose.” Whenever I do something like this, I get the sense that I’m in competition for these spots with a lot of the same people that made me feel uncomfortable during my undergraduate degree. No matter how certain I am in my skill set, the depth of my analysis or my interdisciplinary background, it feels a bit hopeless to be compared to people from privileged families with a long list of bake sales and voluntourist adventures to their names. I also struggle to explain the incredible impact of my experiences in social movements and the community sector without relying on hokey (and untrue) hyperbole about “empowerment” “inspiration” and “saving the world.” A draft to share while I manage the writers’ block:

“I know, however, that I am not asking to continue university studies with the same wonder or naive sense of purpose with which I walked in to my undergraduate degree. While my commitment to social and economic justice has remained unchanged, my perspective on how that social change takes place has become substantially more nuanced and admittedly more jaded over the last few years. Models of community organizing in which I found depth and meaning in the first years of my degree—direct, confrontational, laden with urgency and tension—now appear less romantic and more self-indulgent than they used to. I have often felt that those activists committed to these more revolutionary approaches seemed to derive an inexplicable smugness from their lack of efficacy—as though rooting one’s actions in philosophical purity was enough to compensate for work devoid of long-term impact. At the same time, I remain wary of and ultimately exasperated by most formal political channels, unconvinced that any cause succeeding in a system founded on principles of inequality, exploitation and disposability can be much of a success at all. Perhaps the only reassurance I’ve consistently found in what is by all accounts a bleak situation has been in the enormous creative output of my generation, and in the boundless energy of my peers to improve the world around them.”

And there you have it — a glimmer of hope, folks.