Convivium was a project of Cardus 2011‑2022, and is preserved here for archival purposes.
Small TalkSmall Talk

Small Talk

Our editor-in-chief looks at leisure, literature, and the PM's painted birthday suit.

Raymond J. de Souza
8 minute read

Graduation season has just concluded and wisdom, conventional or otherwise, was dispensed by commencement speakers across the land and around the world. Tufts University made an excellent choice in Eric Greitens, a Rhodes Scholar, Navy SEAL and philanthropic entrepreneur. He had this to say: "The best definition I have ever heard of a vocation is that it's the place where your great joy meets the world's great need." It's not polite to speak about God on the modern university campus, but that definition of vocation presumes that some Providence is arranging the happy coincidence of joys and needs. To recent graduates who are wise enough to read these pages: May you discover the happiness of knowing that your great joy meets the world's great need and the more sublime happiness of knowing the One who arranged it so.

Our publisher is resident in Montreal, and the editor-in-chief is a university chaplain, so there is more than passing interest here in the student protests in la belle province. There is much to say about all of that, and in due course we shall. One notes that the government department at the heart of the dispute is the Ministére de l'Éducation, du Loisir et du Sport. To control education is the State's dearest desire. A ministry for sport is harmless silliness. But leisure? Rather creepy in a totalitarian sort of way, is it not? Surely free citizens are capable of arranging their loisir without assistance or supervision from the State. And what of us at Convivium, employing our leisure to ruminate upon the follies of the government? The students are upset that their State subsidies are being marginally restrained. Where is the outrage on behalf of us leisurely scribes, laying out and printing our magazine in Montreal, despite not receiving a cent in subsidy? Don't forget our readers, doing us the honour of spending their leisure time with our pages. The leisure bureaucracy should be directing some booty our way. Comrades, to the streets!

Enjoying the comfortable life can take one out of one's comfort zone. I was in a fancy hotel of the historic Fairmont chain not long ago, booked in by my hosts for a speaking engagement. It was a treat, and desiring to sleep in, I sought to employ the do-not-disturb sign, not expecting to be almost stymied by that great Canadian amusement: translations that are not equivalent in French and English. The proper Canadian thing is to pretend not to notice, as when we sing O Canada in both languages, rendering it lyrically incoherent. Yet this was rather hard to overlook. The English was straightforward: Privacy Please. En franç ais? Veuillez Respecter Notre Intimité. First of all, there was emphatically only one person in my room—no notre necessary. Second, the intimité is rather too much information and puts the French-speaking hotel guest in a quandary. What if he simply desires to read a book alone? What if he desires something else but is not desirous of advertising it to passersby? Or what if he simply wants to sleep in without sending mixed signals? Some things should be simple, including being left alone in either official language

Respecting intimacy was not the order of the day at our local newspaper. the Kingston Whig-Standard keeps the practice of only putting local stories on the front page, so the Prime Minister doesn't usually make it. But Stephen Harper was there one sunny morning or, to be precise, a painting of him was. It was a nude Harper, on a chaise longue, being served a Tim Horton's coffee. One expects even the PM would demur to a hot drink au naturel. Too dangerous. A local artist painted it and it showed up at the gallery of the Kingston Public Library, quite unbeknownst to the librarians. I never went over to see it, as one cannot be too careful these days, lest you be photographically caught with the prime minister, trousers down. After worldwide media notice, which was something of a novelty for the local art scene, the painting was sold to a man in Quebec. It is not uncommon in Kingston to visit homes featuring the original work of local artists. I have such a painting in my own living room. But we don't regret this particular piece leaving town.

Roch Carrier's The Hockey Sweater is not great literature, but it is important literature. It was written in 1979 and almost instantly became quintessential Canadiana—Hugh MacLennan's Two Solitudes in a children's story. Of course in 1979 the Montreal Canadiens were four-time Stanley Cup champions, so the contrast between the coveted Habs jersey and the unwanted Maple Leafs sweater was stark. But it was about more than a hockey rivalry. Carrier wrote, "Nous vivions en trois lieux : l'école, l'église et la patinoire; mais la vraie vie était sur la patinoire." (We lived in three places—the school, the church and the skating rink—but our real life was on the skating rink.) In May 2012, Quebecers were not in church, the students were skipping class, and les glorieux were on the golf course not the skating rink. So how about the symphony hall? It's rather far from la patinoire, but one takes what one can. On May 12, the Toronto Symphony Orchestra performed the premiere of a setting of The Hockey Sweater, commissioned by the symphonies of Toronto, Ottawa and Calgary. Carrier was on hand to read it, and Ken Dryden, who retired the same year the story was published, was the host. Stories survive even if the settings change. Carrier recounted to the National Post that he once read the story to children in the United Arab Emirates. After noting that Maurice Richard appears in the church in The Hockey Sweater, one student asked the author, "Is he your Jesus?" No. The Rocket won eight Stanley Cups. Jesus did not.

Professor Arthur Sweetman, former director of the School of Policy Studies at Queen's University, where I studied in the mid-1990s, says this is Canada's demographic "golden age." A higher proportion of people are working than ever before; and with the baby boomers in their peak earning years, tax revenues are high. The children the baby boomers didn't have mean fewer dependents. And only the oldest boomers have retired. That will begin to change fast, and soon the proportion of retirees will grow faster than any other cohort, and the labour force will shrink. There is a useful term for this inflection point—"peak people." You have heard of "peak oil"—the point, supposedly soon upon us, when known oil reserves begin to diminish as consumption outstrips exploration and production. Peak oil has been something of a bust as newly recoverable reserves, to say nothing of vast natural gas discoveries, have meant fossil fuels are more abundant than was ever thought. But there are no new recoverable finds in demo graphy. A baby not born is never there, and the one already born ages at a most predictable rate. Peak oil is a problem that will not come; peak people is a problem that cannot be solved.

This summer marks the 30th anniversary of the blockbuster E.T. The uplifting tale about a lovable alien started out as a horror movie concept, which Steven Spielberg completely reworked. (The horror concept became Poltergeist, which Spielberg produced at the same time.) The original screenplay had aliens that could kill people with the touch of a long finger; Spielberg replaced it with the healing illuminated finger of the noble E.T. It was a spectacular box-office success, illustrating that the wholesome and hopeful are far greater commercial successes than the depraved and the debauched. It's a lesson Hollywood is still in need of learning 30 years on.

Twitter is the perfect name. There are those who wish to send out to all and sundry 140-character updates on 08 their thoughts and activities. Let them tweet away. If I want to follow them, I will. Or not, in point of fact. But what is the poor reader to do when he finds news stories jammed full of tweets by journalists who simply cut and paste them into their "reporting"? It is the electronic equivalent of quoting what was overheard on the bus or in the supermarket queue. Chopping something up into 140 characters and blasting it all over does not endow it with sapient significance. Nevertheless, Michael Taube of the Ottawa Citizen began his post-Alberta election column by quoting a tweet he himself had tweeted. Now, if you were an erudite author of a learned book, I suppose quoting yourself might excuse the gross self-referential quality of it all. But quoting your own twittering? A columnist might just as well quote words he spoke to himself in the shower. Old media has to keep up with new media to be sure, but not as an uncritical enabler of its weaknesses.

Uncritical employ of nonsense in the twitterverse was on display after the Washington Capitals defeated the defending Stanley Cup-champion Boston Bruins. The Capitals' winning goal was scored by a black player, Joel Ward. Some unknown people then tweeted racist remarks about him. Cue the outraged news stories. Deplorable, to be sure, but why was this even a news story, let alone a minor sensation? If some unknown fan in a bar made a racist remark, would that be a story for the sports page, let alone the front page? That sports fans say stupid and bigoted things is not news and is not cause, in the usual course of events, for amplifica tion by news "reporters." Just as a reporter would not seek to interview an anonymous yahoo in a bar for typical comment, tweets ought to be treated the same way. The reporter decides in which face he sticks his recorder; Twitter reverses that. People stick their faces in the news, and journalists ought not encourage that trend.

What ought one to call a group of tweeters? That's too easy: a twit. Names for groups of other animals provide similar amusement: a flock of sheep, a school of fish, a pride of lions. Other delights are more obscure. Some are evocative of the species, as in a crash of rhinoceros, a murder of crows, a frenzy of sharks, an ambush of tigers or a sneak of weasels. It's clear that skunks are a sur feit—isn't one already too many? A kaleidoscope of butterflies, a shoal of sea horses, a caravan of camels—obvious enough those, but why a maelstrom of salamander? No question though about a shrewdness of apes. "Praise to the Holiest in the height, and in the depths be praise," wrote Cardinal Newman in one of his better-known hymns. Exactly. In the height one might find an ascension of skylarks, and in the depth a blessing of narwhal. Some collective nouns emphasize just that, the togetherness of it all: a conspiracy of ravens, a congress of baboons, a convocation of eagles, a congregation of crocodiles, a consortium of octopus. What then to call a gathering of the crown of all creation, the most discerning and intelligent, the cultured and the courteous? A convivium, of course.

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