The raison d’etre

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Maxine“Why do you do it?” A voice asked me, momentarily distracting my attention from deciding between the firm and silky tofu in the grocery store. I looked up to find a woman close to my own age in front of me. Well, perhaps she was a teensy bit older by about 20 years, but once you cross 60, age differences between seniors seem smaller. To my aging eyes, at least.

I couldn’t easily disengage since her cart was wedged up against mine, and because I needed to find my way to the sweet potatoes across the aisle, I responded, hoping to soon untangle without appearing rude.

“Why do I do what?” Always answer a question with a question, or so I was raised. Well, maybe not raised. I think I read about that tactic in a book. I was raised to be seen and not heard, which I suppose is why I’m a writer not a singer. My parents heard me sing once, and that ended my musical career pretty toot sweet.

“Write those things. Online. You know, all those nasty things about council. Why do you do it?” I didn’t think explaining about my writer-versus-singer upbringing would satisfy her, so I took another direction.

“Well, first I don’t think they’re always nasty. Sometimes they’re funny. I hope. You can never tell about humour. Didn’t any of them amuse you, at least a little?”

“I don’t read them all. Not online. I don’t have a computer,” she replied.

“Well then how do you know about them?” I asked in my best Sherlockian fashion.

“My son prints them out and brings them to me. Not all of them. Just the ones he wants me to read. The ones about the people I voted for. The nasty ones.”

Well so much for my career as a satirist, and cultural commentator. Didn’t really connect if no one read it. Maybe I could take up singing after all. You know, busk downtown. With a ukulele. But I couldn’t start my new career until this new critic finished with me. So I responded.

“I’m sorry, but I write about a lot of things. Not just council. Have you ever seen my pieces on Shakespeare? Chaucer?”

“Piffle. I don’t give two hoots about that stuff.”

“How about my pieces on crazy conspiracy theories?”

“Stuff and nonsense.”

“Pseudoscience?”

“Soody-what?”

“What about my book and film reviews?”

“I don’t need to read about what you do or what you watched. I can pick my own books and movies just fine, thank you. I am talking about how you’re treating the people I voted for. And I want to know why you hate them.”

“I don’t,” I responded with a small shrug.

“Sure you do. Why else would you write such nasty things about them?”

“Well, for starters, I don’t hate anyone. Hate’s a powerful emotion and it shouldn’t be wasted on people unworthy of the effort. I don’t want to hate people I merely dislike. It’s too much work for not very much return.”

“Well, you must dislike them plenty,” she said and then looking at the package of firm tofu in my hands, asked, “You eat that stuff?”

“Yes and yes, in that order,” I replied. “Look, I don’t like people who are out to destroy my town. I don’t have to hate them to dislike what they’re doing to us. I prefer to reserve hatred for bigger things. Like genocide or terrorists. But there’s no one here that I hate. They’re just not big enough or smart enough to deserve it. And yes, I eat this stuff. It’s a staple in my diet. Have you ever tried it?”

“Uck. It’s doesn’t look like food.”

“Don’t judge a protein by its packaging. But you know if you fry it, it gets crispy and sort of feels like meat when you have it in a stew or chili. Much better for the heart than meat. But where was I?”

“You were trying to distract me. You hate our council.”

“Not true. I despise what they’ve done, sure, because it’s hurt our town. They’ve hurt people, too. Jobs have been lost, our taxes are climbing, we’ve lost respect, our reputation is in tatters, and our best people can’t leave fast enough. And all for no good reason aside from their own personal agendas. But I don’t hate them per se. Okay, I don’t like them as a group. But separately, I pity them, I feel scorn and sarcasm for them. They’re more a target of my humour and cynicism. than hatred. I think a passel of tree sloths or an alley full of crack addicts would do a better, less harmful and more ethical job at running the place. And be more awake and alert through the process. But it doesn’t mean I hate them.”

“But you say such uncomplimentary things about them. Except for the mayor, of course.”

“I like the mayor. I wouldn’t say anything to hurt her. She does her best and she means well. But the rest… Have you ever heard of the Zombie Apocalypse?

“The what?”

“The undead run amok. Rampage. Destruction. The end of civilization as we know it. It’s been in all the best TV shows and movies. Fiction, but it would be infinitely more beneficial to the town than this council, I’m afraid. But it doesn’t matter. I write about them as I see them.”

“Other people write good things about them.”

“Sure, both of their friends do. Fat lot they care about the community. Look, it’s not like I’m some mad, poorly-educated, unemployed layabout living in his in-laws’ basement, blogging about stuff he doesn’t know or have any experience in. I was in the media here for a dozen years, and on council for three terms. I think I know something, at least a little bit, about local politics and process. And I can match verb and subject tenses pretty well, too.”

“Yes, yes, you’re literate. Big deal. You never say anything positive.”

“Blame my subject matter. I call it as I see it. When they do something positive, anything positive, something for the rest of us, not just themselves, I’ll make a note of it. After 20 months, I’m not holding my breath.”

“What about the names? Why can’t you just speak your mind without name calling?”

“I don’t think of it as calling them names, more like applying appropriate labels. Names are insults. I don’t need to insult them. They do a pretty good job of that themselves. Calling them corrupt or venal or selfish or even feckless merely describes their behaviour. Which is overall, pretty bad. But like I said, if they ever do something worth commemorating, I’ll say so. Can you think of anything they’ve done that has been good for the town?”

She frowned and looked down, breaking eye contact. “I… I… well, that’s not fair. I haven’t been paying that much attention. I’m sure there’s something. Maybe it never got into the papers. That’s what it is. The newspapers just missed it.”

It? One thing? What, did it happen so quickly the reporters blinked and it was over? After 20 months the papers missed the one thing this council did for the good of the community? That’s a bit of a stretch, isn’t it?”

I had slowly inched my cart over to the produce and began fingering some beets, trying to disengage through my apparent fascination with the bulbous purple roots. She was having none of it. The woman followed me, intent on continuing the conversation.

“You seem obsessed with this council.”

“Not really. I just care deeply about this town and its staff. I really get upset when I see it mismanaged and people bullied. But I’m not obsessed. I’m a little obsessed with writing in general. And maybe a few other things like typography and playing the ukulele. But writing is my raison d’etre.”

“Your raisin what?”

“Not raisin. Raison. Reason for being.”

“Stop trying to sound so fancy. Can’t you speak normally, like other folks?”

“Okay, how’s this? I write because I care passionately about what’s happening. I write because no one else is giving a voice to these issues. The truth isn’t being heard or seen in our local media. If these people cared a tenth what you or I do for this town, if they did anything good for the community, then I’d write about something else. I feel compelled to speak out when I see wrongs being done. And this term there has been a lot to write about in that category. ”

“Hmmph. Whenever I read your stuff, it makes me feel like I did a bad thing. Voting for them, I mean. I did, you know. Most of them.” She pointed at the bunch of beets in my hand. “Don’t throw away the beet leaves. You can put them in salads or even cook with them.”

“Thank you. Look, I get it. Democracy isn’t perfect. Voting is good, but sometimes our choices are bad. It happens. We don’t always elect the best or the brightest. Sometimes we elect tree sloths. But you couldn’t know they’d turn out bad. You probably voted for them because you believed what they were selling. Okay, it turned out to be a load of dingo’s kidneys, but you couldn’t have foreseen that when you cast your ballot.”

“Who should I have voted for, then?”

“In hindsight, people with ethics, morals and a conscience. People who actually care more about the community than about than themselves. But people always claim they’re good and honest and ethical during election campaigns. It’s like when they promise us openness and transparency. We only find out they were lying once they get into office. It’s an old story. Sometimes you get the good ones, sometimes the bad ones. Most of the time it’s a mix.”

“Ah ha! So they’re not all bad?”

“No. Of course not. There’s the mayor. And the one the bloggers call the Angry Man, although he’s not, really. They’re the good folks; they do their best for the town. But they’re just two out of nine. After them, well, the pickings are mighty slim. Not one of the rest wouldn’t stab you in the back, steal your wallet and spit on your body as they left. Just my opinion, of course, but in my day as reporter, I interviewed criminals and con artists who have more morality in their little toes than any of this lot have in their whole bodies. It’s not a bad apple spoiling the barrel: the whole barrel’s rotten.”

“See? You do hate them! You wouldn’t say that if you didn’t.”

“Ma’am,” I said, leaning on my cart handle. “Do you know how to tell right from wrong?”

Of course I do! I was a Sunday school teacher for more than 30 years. I could teach you a few things about right and wrong! ”

“How would you label an act done to deliberately hurt others? Something done without any evidence of good, just maliciousness. Solely  for personal gain. How would you describe that to your Sunday school class?”

“Well, I… I’d say it was wrong. No one should hurt other people deliberately. It’s not right. It’s not Christian. But maybe they didn’t intend it that way.”

“They did. I’ve watched this group systematically destroy all the good things around them. Ruin lives, fracture institutions, and bring down morale. Everything they touch turns toxic. Everything. One bad thing might be an accident. A former mayor cynically called it collateral damage when people who were in his way got hurt. But one bad thing after another after another after another is deliberate. This was their plan right from the start.”

“But surely…”

I waved my hand to cut her off. “For 20 months they’ve run around in circles chasing their own tails, trying to find something wrong the last council did to blame for their own failures. We’ve seen their petty vendettas, the spite, the anger, the viciousness and the secrecy. Always plotting behind closed doors. I don’t know how you were brought up, but there’s no way I could ever write that up in a pretty way to praise their actions. They’re out for themselves and no one else. It’s evil, pure and simple. And if you took any of your Sunday school teachings to heart, you’d see it’s true. They’re not nice people, even the ones you voted for.”

“Well, I don’t…. um.” She looked worried now. Maybe I was a little more stern than I should have been. But she needed to hear the truth. “Do you really think it’s all that bad?”

“No. I think it’s worse. I’d rather face the Zombie Apocalypse. We’d survive that better than we will our own council.”

“Is there anything we – I mean I – can do?”

“Yes. You can tell your friends and neighbours about them. You can share those posts your son prints out. You can call councillors and demand they stop. Better yet, demand they resign.”

“Will that help?”

“The former will, yes. The more people who are alerted to what’s really happening here, the better. They’re sure not going to get the facts from the local papers. But calling? No, they won’t stop their rampage. But it will at least tell them someone else is paying attention. That it’s not just me out here, that I’m not the only one who gives a damn about this town.”

She put out a hand and patted me on the forearm, in a friendly gesture, to stop my tirade. “Thank you. I hadn’t expected this conversation, but you’ve given me a lot to think about. I’ll let you get back to your shopping. And don’t buy that asparagus if the water tray is dry. Goodbye.”

And with that, she wheeled her cart away. I saw her, briefly, one more time as she went through the cash, and she waved, smiling a little distractedly. I can only hope my words did some good.

After all, Collingwood deserves better and the only way we’ll ever get it is if we all make the effort to tell these people how much we care about our community, and how displeased we are with their actions. And if we share the truth of what is happening at town hall.

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