Run in peace


I went for a medium-distance recovery run and, floating along on happy thoughts on a warm spring day, soon found myself at a nearby cemetery.

No doubt my Asics led me there because I’d spent the previous Saturday at a Greek memorial and it was still fresh in my mind. I later came home to write about the twin mysteries of barbarians at the gates and angry men.

Anger and intolerance are unfit for a tranquil place like this, I reflected, especially when it’s called Tranquil Place.

Combine a couple of dozen words at random — say, words like, hilltop, eternal, grove, maple, pleasant, peaceful, glade — and you, too, can play the cemetery name game. You might get Maple Leaf Gardens, which has a familiar ring to it, but also Eternal Glade, which could be monotonous as a view or an air freshener.

The Dadaists used to snip words from the newspaper, shake them in a bag, and declare the random words that fell out to be a poem.

Gerald de Nerval, one of the grandfathers of Dadaism, had a pet lobster he’d tie with a blue ribbon and take for walks on the streets of Paris. He eventually hanged himself, and if there is such a thing as poetic justice, he used a blue rope.

When they found him, the Paris police were puzzled by how the suicide’s hat managed to stay on. Did he make a big enough noose to fit over the hat and head? Or did he remove the hat, slip the noose around his neck, replace the hat, and then proceed? So many questions! And how, at the moment of reckoning, as gravity executed its sudden work, did the hat not fall to the floor? Was it like a party hat, with an elastic under the chin?


The democracy of worms

My local running cemetery, where these baffling thoughts keep me occupied, isn’t lush and dramatic, like the one on Mount Royal. No titans of business here, like the Molsons — never mind mad luminaries like de Nerval.

My local running cemetery is small, modest and discreet. You have to know it’s there, and I’ve often been stopped, while out running, by carfulls of ancient ladies asking for directions to the place.

I’m pleased to see that it’s enjoying a growth spurt. I was surprised to find Greek Orthodox and Muslim sections of eternal repose. There’s a sizeable Jewish quartier, joining pre-existing Christian neighbourhoods with nicely segregated Catholics and Protestants. There’s also a Field of Honour or Last Post Parade Ground or Heroes’ Walk or I forget what, where veterans get free admission.

No Buddhists, Hindus or Druids, though. But I imagine there are plenty of atheists, unlabeled and undeclared, mixed in with the believers so you can’t tell who’s who.

And, despite all the walls, plaques and hedges separating tribes, the worms continue their steady and undiscriminating work.


A close shave

The best thing about running in a cemetery, though, is that you’re much less likely to get killed. You can always count on cars and trucks, the biggest running hazard by far — bigger than sudden cardiac arrest — to maintain a dignified, funereal pace between the granite slabs.

Outside of cemeteries, though, all bets are off. Runners are expected to use sidewalks and run against traffic, even though most of us don’t bother with sidewalks. We prefer the shoulder. This surprises non-runners and even annoys many drivers. Running on the shoulder and against traffic is viewed as selfish and reckless.

There are lots of good and boring reasons for running against traffic, but my standard explanation is that I want to see my executioner’s face before he pulls the lever, flips the switch, swings the axe or, most likely these days, texts emojis.

To be fair, when most drivers see a runner on the shoulder, they will take their foot off the gas and drift toward the middle, giving us a wide and respectful berth. But not every driver.

It’s a wet March day and a black pickup is barrelling toward me at high speed, rooster tails of slush making the truck look like a speedboat. As usual I’m on the shoulder. But this time I have no choice: the sidewalk is nearly impassable with snow banks and slush.

Two hundred metres out, the pickup isn’t slowing down or ceding an inch. The brain goes on alert. Time slows down. Certain glands quicken and begin to secrete.

One hundred metres out, I glance over my shoulder. No oncoming traffic. Nothing preventing the pickup from sharing the road.

Fifty metres out, eye contact. A man, of course. Wraparound sunglasses, heavy beard. Plaid work shirt. Staring straight ahead. Nope, not going to budge.

Twenty-five metres out, several things happen at once. I dive over a snow bank to my left and land in a pool of slush. The pickup roars by, drenching me in more slush. I pick up my head. The driver, silhouetted in his rear window, shows me his middle finger.

By this time I’m sputtering with rage. A coked-up Donald Duck. I want a stick to break over my knee. Something to throw on the ground and stomp on. I’m trembling, levitating with indignation. I’d give anything for a tire iron in my hands and a chance to flail away at the pickup. To watch the driver’s terrified eyes behind his shattered windshield.

Some version of this has happened more than once. I mean, the outrageous game of chicken followed by the coup de grace of a middle finger. A man driving home some obscure point.

And, every time, unfailingly, my identical reaction. Blind rage and a manly thirst for havoc.

I came home from my cemetery run feeling tired and at peace, and looked in the mirror before heading into the shower. I studied my face for a long while. Time for a shave.

The barbarians in Park Ex

IMG-0393In the first week of real spring weather in Montreal, on May Day, a Nazi flag blossomed from a rooftop on Hutchison Street, in Park Extension. For a few days it was all over the news, and the original event was then swamped by coverage of a weekend rally protesting the flag and the owner’s right to fly it.

Over the same weekend, I attended a memorial service at a Greek church and, while listening to the familiar prayers and chanting from the priest and the psalti, I yawned helplessly, as I always do, and reflected on how hate is a kind of death, how it always tends toward extinction.

After the service we descended to the basement for the traditional coffee, biscuits (παξιμάδια) and wheat berries (κόλλυβa), spiked with a nip of Metaxa, and discussed the recent irruption of racism in our backyards. Someone at the table remarked on the irony of displaying a symbol of white supremacy in Park Ex, in a neighbourhood of immigrants.

It was a weekend of sad reflection, made more poignant by the daffodils and bright sun. Somehow, something got away from us when we weren’t looking. Something big happened right under our noses that we never saw coming.

And now we study the horizon, interrogate the flight of birds, scrutinize that distant column of smoke.

The dread, and dread introspection, reminds me of Constantine Cavafy’s poem, Waiting for the Barbarians, and particularly its haunting conclusion (from Daniel Mendelsohn’s recent translation):

— Why has this uneasiness arisen all at once,

and this confusion? (How serious the faces have become.)

Why is it that the streets and squares are emptying so quickly,

and everyone’s returning home in such deep contemplation?


Because night has fallen and the barbarians haven’t come.

And some people have arrived from the borderlands,

and said there are no barbarians anymore.


And now what’s to become of us without the barbarians.

Those people were a solution of a sort.

We are busy casting for the barbarians. We dread who will show up for the audition. It might be us…or no one.

Hogan’s Heroes

I went to high school with a boy — John Lennon glasses, horsy face behind long, dirty-blonde hair, goofy laugh — also from Park Ex, whose parents had emigrated from Germany after the war.

I don’t know where his father served, and in what capacity, but I do remember him in a graduation robe draped with Dad’s Nazi regalia. (I may even have a photo of this somewhere.) We all thought this was funny and mildly transgressive, but we were not appalled. He was not hauled off to the principal’s office and his picture did not appear in the paper. There was no talking-to.

Our school had enough Greeks, Armenians, Chinese and Afro-Canadians for each group to have its own large and very busy club. We got along, went to each other’s dances, did homework together. The German kid, the son of immigrants, like most of us, was on friendly terms with everyone — a nice guy!

We lived in more innocent times.

During this same period, incredibly, one of the most popular TV shows was a sit-com set in a German POW camp. Granted, Hogan’s Heroes was not set in an extermination camp, with its crematoria and other period amenities, so there was plenty of space for comedy. The bumbling guard, Schultz, and the clueless Commandant Klink were no match for the clever American and other Allied prisoners who pretty much ran the place. Schulz even had a catchphrase, “I see nothing,” which absolved him from reporting on the prisoners’ tunnel-digging and easy access to the outside world.

The futility of remembrance

The injunction to remember (all Quebecers drive around with Je me souviens on their license plates, urging remembrance about a totally different matter) seems to me hopelessly naïve. Human progress, let alone perfectibility, will always be laughably out of reach, a chimera. We do not remember and we do not learn. And yet, quixotically, stubbornly, perhaps stupidly, some of us feel the necessity to take sides, because there really is no alternative.

Two weeks ago, in Toronto, an incel driving a rented van careened into crowds on Yonge Street, killing ten people and injuring thirteen. Overnight, we learned what incel means.

Last week the Montreal Gazette revealed that one of the Übermenschen of North American white supremacy is a Montrealer. He marched in Charlottesville last year with his angry brothers (they’re pretty much all men), carrying torches and chanting, “Jews will not replace us!” (whatever that means; they could use a wordsmith, methinks).

The article also reminded me that a member of my family with whom I no longer speak has made a career of providing academic cover for this shabby brotherhood. So, as it turns out, the Nazi flag has not only breached the gates, it is blooming right outside my office window, overlooking my daffodils. I could, like Schulz, pretend that I see nothing, but this is no longer possible.