For and Against the Quebec Student “Strike”

When the Quebec student protest (it’s not actually a “strike”) started heating up a few weeks ago I found myself falling into the standard trap of people like me — people who have been out of school for some time and who, rightfully or not, tend to see the current crop of young people as perhaps a bit too entitled and completely unaware of how good they have it. After all, tuition in Quebec is lower than anywhere else in Canada, and has been since as long as I can remember.

And indeed that is a trap. I like to call it the “geezer trap,” as it is the most likely hole for people of a certain age to fall into. That’s not to say there aren’t younger people who feel the same way, but for them I blame ignorance.

To cut a long blog post short, I’ll just say that I know the burden of student debt, so I can relate to their concern. It took me almost 10 years to pay off my student loans, and during my first four years post-university, I didn’t know how I would be able do it.

The amount I had to pay seems rather small in retrospect; $16,000 in official student loans plus another $3000 in short-term loans and credit card debt that I acquired while trying to launch myself into a post-university, so-called “real life.” (I knew people who were paying that muct just to get a car.) But you have to consider that I was not graduating with a degree in video game design or object-oriented programming. There were virtually no jobs available to me with my lowly bachelor’s degree in psychology and sociology. It took three years before I found a job that had the slightest hint of a career path, and that job paid only $6.50 an hour. (I quit a $7.00 an hour dead-end job to take it.)

Kids these days (ha! I just had to say that) seem to think that everything was all rosy and filled with unicorns in times past and now is the only era of bleakness. Not so. When I started university in 1983 the national unemployment rate was 12%. By the time I graduated it was down to 9% but it went north of 10% by 1991. Those are national averages; for people in my geographic and demographic groups the rates were consistently higher by three or four percentage points. Today’s national unemployment rate of 7.2% seems rather glorious by comparison.

But I’m not going to dig deeper into the geezer trap by yammering on about how tough I had it. But I will say this: from the point-of-view of freshly-graduated me looking forward from 1987, things looked very bleak indeed. Big debt, high unemployment, and few personal prospects. Adding weight to that burden was the fact that I was coming from a bleak place with a long history of unemployment and minimal prospects, so I started off having very little hope. I went off to university not because it was expected, but because I forced myself out of a quagmire of defeat and dispair and got myself some education with the hope of smartening myself up and improving my prospects a little.

In 1987, 88, and 89, those prospects seemed worse than ever. Now, in 2012, 20-plus years into a fairly interesting and reasonably lucrative career, it’s easy to dismiss my youthful worries. That too is part of the geezer trap, although there is potentially a positive “it gets better” type of message in there, if anyone’s looking.

While I probably won’t remember your name two minutes after we meet, I do remember how defeated I felt in those few years after university, and how empty the future looked. I remember how that debt felt like a ball and chain, keeping me from having the kind of life that people in their 20s are supposed to have. I also remember that despite all that, I was always very grateful for the student loans I was able to procure, and how the annual increase in tuition fees at my university always felt like a stab in the gut. (For perspective, the tuition for two semesters in my final year was about $1600. That was 1986-87.)

I maintain that one should pay for the things one receives, but I also think that we all, as a society, benefit from an educated population. (Please re-read that last line and ponder it. Save us both the bother of me writing 1000 words on how important it is to have an educated population, as that should go without saying.)

Surely there’s a balance point that places less burdent on the students, particularly when you remember that not all of those students are there to “train” for high paying jobs. They all bring something valuable to our society, and not all of them will be engineers and doctors.

I agree with many who acknowledge that the price of tuition should go up somewhat, but I also agree with many who feel that the currently proposed increases are way too much, way too fast.

What I cannot agree with are the tactics the student protesters are using. Boycotting classes hurts themselves and their fellow students who may not want to boycott classes. Their practice of disrupting public transit and bridge traffic only turns public opinon against them. Then there are the recent acts of vandalism, including failed Molotov cocktails and throwing bricks on the Metro tracks, that may or may not be associated with the student protest. That’s where they are really shooting themselves in their collective foot, because the only way the student protests will have any effect is if they can create and then ride a wave of positive public opinion.

Pissing the public off only plays into the government’s hand. It’s bad enough that there is a general perception that today’s youth are spoiled with self-entitlements and their discontent is just them crying like children under threat of having their candy taken away (I tend to believe that does define a minority of todays’ youth — as it always has). But when you pile that perception on top of public disruptions, all wrapped in a fog of conflicting information on how much money we’re really talking about, then you have a very strong formula for protest failure.

I doubt the tactics will change, so I doubt the tuition increases will be stopped. That is unfortunate, as it will cause some students to drop out of their studies, and it will place a large burden of debt on those who do manage to finish.

As for those of you who are stuck in the geezer trap and can’t take your eyes off that “lowest tuition in Canada” factoid, it’s a false argument to compare the fees of Quebec students with those from other provinces and other countries, because the question is not “why shouldn’t Quebec students pay as much as others?” The question is the simpler and un-relative “how much should Quebec students pay?”

Leonard Cohen Must Not Die!

I‘ll skip over the obvious reasons why Leonard Cohen must not die any time soon and cut to the matter at hand: Leonard Cohen must not die because people are ignoring his request for a moratorium on the song Hallelujah. Worse, most of the people who “interpret” the song seem hung up on a single variation: the mournful and funereal Jeff Buckley version.

Yes, the Buckley version is an interpretation. And it’s not a bad one. But it’s not the only one, and its tear-jerking style has thrown a weepy cloak of misunderstanding across the whole thing.

Take four minutes and watch the video below. It’s from some wacky Berlin TV show in the 1980s. Whether you like it or not is irrelevant. Pay attention to how Cohen sings the song. Look for the mournful parts. Hint: there aren’t any. It’s quirky and kind of funny, actually. It’s hard to sing with your tongue in your cheek, but Lennie does it because that’s how he wrote it.

Back in 2010, when Cohen called for a moratorium on new versions of the song, his concern was about “overkill” in general. My concern is the heavy shift towards weepiness.

The clincher for me was when Stephen Page, who I generally quite like, rolled out a rather thin and reedy rendition of “Hallelujah” at Jack Layton’s funeral last summer. Let me say it again: Hallelujah is not a funeral song!  It’s not even a sad song! It’s a crazy, sexy, sometimes silly song about sex and orgasms. Or something like that. (Ironically, it was Jeff Buckley, not Cohen, who told Rolling Stone magazine that his version was an hommage to the “hallelujah of the orgasm.”) It’s completely out of place at a funeral. That is, unless it’s a funeral attended by people who don’t listen to lyrics; people whose emotional pushbuttons are large, fully exposed, and easily pushed by melodies.

Therefore Leonard Cohen must not die anytime soon; not until some other song comes along and replaces Hallelujah as the general public’s knee-jerk tear-jerker for sad moments. When the day finally comes that Cohen achieves equilibrium with room temperature, no one should sing Hallelujah at his funeral. Doing so will be a direct slap in the face to Cohen’s intentions with the song, and it will probably cause my head to explode.

So do Leonard Cohen and me a favour and give it up. While you’re at it, do the memory of Jeff Buckley a favour and let his mournful version live on as his version, not to be repeated and continually rehashed. But if you absolutely must sing Hallelujah then give it a whole new spin. Make it a polka, or a hip hop song. Do a Black Keys-like version, or give it the Iggy Pop treatment.

There are, by some accounts, 15 verses in the full version of the song, whittled down from – according to other accounts – the original 80. Below is a sampling of the lyrics from two different recordings by Cohen. The first version is how he recorded it in 1984, for the album Various Positions. That is followed by the lyrics as he sang them on Austin City Limits in 1988, which was released in 1994 on the Cohen Live album.

Read it and don’t weep:

Hallelujah (from Various Positions)

I’ve heard there was a secret chord
That David played, and it pleased the Lord
But you don’t really care for music, do you?
It goes like this
The fourth, the fifth
The minor fall, the major lift
The baffled king composing Hallelujah

Hallelujah, Hallelujah
Hallelujah, Hallelujah

Your faith was strong but you needed proof
You saw her bathing on the roof
Her beauty in the moonlight overthrew you
She tied you to a kitchen chair
She broke your throne, and she cut your hair
And from your lips she drew the Hallelujah

Hallelujah, Hallelujah
Hallelujah, Hallelujah

You say I took the Name in vain;
I don’t even know the name.
But if I did, well, really, what’s it to you?
There’s a blaze of light in every word;
It doesn’t matter which you heard;
the holy, or the broken Hallelujah!

Hallelujah, Hallelujah
Hallelujah, Hallelujah

I did my best, it wasn’t much
I couldn’t feel, so I tried to touch
I’ve told the truth, I didn’t come to fool you
And even though it all went wrong
I’ll stand before the Lord of Song
With nothing on my tongue but Hallelujah

Hallelujah (from Cohen Live)

Baby, I’ve been here before.
I know this room, I’ve walked this floor.
I used to live alone before I knew you.
I’ve seen your flag on the marble arch,
but listen, love is not some kind of victory march,
it’s cold and it’s a very broken Hallelujah!

Hallelujah, Hallelujah
Hallelujah, Hallelujah

There was a time you let me know
what’s really going on below
but now you never show it to me, do you?
I remember when I moved in you,
and the holy dove she was moving too,
and every single breath we drew was Hallelujah!

Hallelujah, Hallelujah
Hallelujah, Hallelujah

Now maybe there’s a God above
but as for me all I ever seem to learn from love
is how to shoot at someone who outdrew you.
And it’s not a complaint you’ll hear tonight,
it’s not the laughter of someone
who claims to have seen the light —
it’s a cold and it’s a lonely Hallelujah!

Hallelujah, Hallelujah
Hallelujah, Hallelujah

I did my best; it wasn’t much.
I couldn’t feel, so I learned to touch.
I’ve told the truth, I didn’t come all this way to fool you.
And even though it all went wrong,
I’ll stand right here before the Lord of Song
with nothing on my tongue but Hallelujah!

Conundrum

I have not been paying much attention to the Republican Presidential primaries happening south of the border because it’s none of my business and because I can’t bear to witness such wholesale human stupidity. On the other hand, as Pierre Trudeau told the National Press Club in Washington DC in 1969, living next to the U.S. is like sleeping with an elephant; you feel every twitch and grunt.

So it’s hard to ignore. I’m not what you’d call well informed, but I’m not completely uninformed either. What I do know has me facing a bit of a conundrum. On the one hand, it seems that of the entire roster, Mitt Romney is the least insane and delusional, although he’s barely less pandering. That implies that if he gets the nomination he’ll actually have a pretty good shot at the throne, as he could turn some disillusioned Obama supporters. And if he does become President, the U.S. will only be somewhat worse off, and its descent over the apocalyptic precipice will only be accelerated marginally.

My inclination is to hope that a nominee farther out on the fringes will get the ticket. Michele Bachmann would have been great, as there’s not a snowball’s chance in Hell she’d get elected (although with climate change messing everything up, such expressions are becoming meaningless), but it looks like she’s bailed out of the race.

So here’s my conundrum:

Do I hope that the marginally whacky person wins, knowing that such a person has a better shot at the White House, but at least if they win they’ll do less damage than one of the other whack jobs?

Or do I hope that an entirely whacky person wins, knowing that such a person has only the slimmest shot at the White House, but if they win it will basically be the end of western civilization as we know it?

It’s all too painful to think about and downright tortuous to watch. It sickens me to hear any U.S. politician speak during campaign season (which is essentially 3.9 years out of every four) because not a word of truth escapes their lips, ever. Every breath is either pandering for votes or parroting for lobbyists.

I can’t really blame U.S.ers for their electoral apathy and low voter turnouts. Just look at what they’re stuck with! (Not just the politicians; the whole system is corrupt and absurd.) I’m not sure who is to blame for that, as it’s a chicken-and-egg situation. Or a snake eating it’s tail. Or maybe a snake eating a chicken egg. Whatever metaphor you choose to spoil, the end result is a so-called “democratic” political system in which the elected have nothing to do with the people who elect them, and a population that gets the government it deserves. It is unfixable.

At times like this I hope the Mayans were right.

Characters

What makes someone a “character?” Is it the green hair? The fact that he or she is always the loudest one in the room? I don’t think so. In fact, the more someone conspicuously tries to be a character the less interested I am in that person as a character.

But I love those naturally occurring characters we see all around us if we take the time to look. The distinguishing factor may be very subtle, or it may be quite obvious, but whatever it is, it doesn’t have a patent and it’s not part of the person’s brand. It’s just good old fashioned quirkiness.

Here are a few such characters lifted from the living novel that is my life:

S-

S- was a guy I worked with a long time ago, when I was a tech writer at a very cool company (check my CV and see if you can guess). He was an intern and I was his professional mentor (read: boss). S- was a cool cat in every respect – very laid back, well read, easy-going, and intellectual in a “street” kind of way. Very Jack Kerouac, minus the Jack Kerouac poseur pretensions.

He was a non-conformist, but not in a card-carrying annoying way. In other words he didn’t brand himself as a non-conformist, he just questioned things –  almost everything – and if he didn’t like the answers he came up with then he didn’t buy into whatever it was that had fallen under his scrutiny.

One of the things he questioned was his need for a corporate job. He couldn’t come up with a satisfactory answer so he quit the program he was in at university and decided to try living hand-to-mouth for a while. He also wanted to travel, so he packed his dog into his beater of a car drove west. When the car broke down somewhere in Manitoba he abandoned it and stuck out his thumb. By the time he got back to Montreal several months later he was grizzled and worn but happy and full of stories about sleeping under trees, gnarly truck drivers, and hob-nobbing with the severely unwashed.

Over the next few years he took to bicycle couriering, as it afforded him some ready cash without any serious commitments along with work experience that is very portable. He bounced back and forth between the west coast and here for a few years, couriering in Montreal during the summer and in Vancouver or Victoria over the winter.

I haven’t seen him for a few years now, as I haven’t worked downtown since mid-2008. One of the last times I saw him was on rue McGill-College, just below Ste-Catherine, where he was taking a coffee break. We hadn’t seen each other for a while, so we chatted for a bit to catch up. Then I noticed that he was standing in front of a Cafe Depot while drinking a coffee from a Tim Horton’s cup – and not a paper one; a ceramic Tim Horton’s cup (the nearest Tim Horton’s is several blocks away). He seemed oblivious to this when I pointed it out, but to me that was a classic S- moment. Just a bit out of place, a tad discordant, but fully owning it even if he wasn’t even aware of it.

O-

O- is a software engineer from one of those former Soviet republics that is always on the edge of some kind of revolution or civil war. He’s been living in Quebec for many years, but his English, French, and Russian are still spiked with a strong accent from his native ethnic language. He’s loud and humourous and assertive, and you’ll never lose him in a parking lot. But that alone doesn’t make him a character.

To look at him – especially when he’s wearing his black watchman’s cap and aviator sunglasses – your first thought is either “KGB strong-arm” or “Eastern-bloc mafia gun runner.” Yet, he’s funny and has a loud but gentle demeanor. He seems fierce enough to bite your face off if he wanted to but I’ve never seen him behave in an even remotely aggressive manner. When we’ve been in bars or restaurants together he treats the staff – particularly the female ones – with respect and a kind of old world chivalry. One of his favorite pass-times is salsa dancing. He drives a Smart car.

One day at the office I went into the men’s room to take a whiz. After I peed I went over to wash my hands and I saw him standing at a sink, in the middle of the afternoon, shaving. The best part was that despite the mounds of shaving cream on his face and the Mach III razor in his right hand, he was happily blabbing away on the mobile phone that he held in his left. That was a classic O- moment, and I’m not talking about Oprah.

Those are just a couple of the oddball characters that have made an appearance so far. I hope there are plenty of chapters left, because there is no shortage of people to fill them.