The Walrus - - CONTENTS - By Michael La­pointe

Spencer showed me the mar­gins. The sym­bol cartwheeled down the page. We’d seen it in a movie. The bad guys wore the sym­bol on their arms. Spencer was the only other boy who’d seen the movie, so we could laugh about it to­gether. At my desk, I tried draw­ing the sym­bol, but the pen­cil some­times went the other way. For a while, I for­got how it was meant to go. Then I thought about the guys in the movie, and it came.

I laughed and looked to Spencer. His head was down, pen­cil work­ing on the page. I made one sym­bol af­ter an­other. Ev­ery time it worked, it was ex­cit­ing.

I won­dered what else Spencer was draw­ing. What else had he seen?

The teacher stood up. Spencer’s head stayed down. Now she came up the aisle. In the movie, we’d seen what hap­pened to the bad guys. I rubbed out my sym­bols and brushed the dust away.

The teacher asked for Spencer’s pa­per, but I guess he’d erased his sym­bols, or maybe it wasn’t so bad af­ter all. She just handed back the page and told us to keep work­ing.

spencer and i tol­er­ated other shows but only re­ally liked The Simp­sons. The Simp­sons taught us the cul­ture. For years, we’d see some­thing in a movie or on TV and fi­nally un­der­stand the ref­er­ence from The Simp­sons. When we en­coun­tered the ac­tual source, we al­ready knew how to make it funny. The only other thing we watched was a tape of Spencer’s sis­ter get­ting thrown from a horse.

Ev­ery­thing Spencer said was funny. He talked like The Simp­sons. You didn’t have to know why.

One time, he said, “Ask me if I’m a tree.”

“Are you a tree?”


That was the fun­ni­est thing we’d ever heard.

“you thought we were jok­ing with this cam­paign,” I re­mind the woman from the CBC. “But Dom is reach­ing peo­ple out­side the bub­ble. If I were try­ing to re­as­sure a cer­tain bloc, I might point to his char­i­ta­ble do­na­tions. Go ask Sick­kids about Dom Cross­man. But we aren’t mo­ti­vated by re­as­sur­ing mod­er­ates. There are peo­ple who don’t pick up when you peo­ple call. There’s a coun­try out there, un­like the one you carry around in note­books. Dom’s for them, all the way. At this point, he can’t be de­nied the nom­i­na­tion. I think the party knows that.”

A few months into our cam­paign for the nom­i­na­tion, re­porters started in­ter­view­ing Wei and me, “the mil­len­nial brain trust of Dom Cross­man’s can­di­dacy” — a la­bel that an­noys Wei, who’s forty. They started ask­ing how a re­tired hockey coach could work his way into fed­eral pol­i­tics, ap­par­ently not re­al­iz­ing their ques­tions drew him fur­ther in.

I give credit where it’s due: Wei pol­ishes the Dom Cross­man prod­uct — broad shoul­ders, double Wind­sor knot, white side­burns shad­ing into black. She strictly lim­its his vo­cab­u­lary, runs the lint roller down his breast; she makes him vi­able to the ca­sual eye glid­ing over a TV screen.

My role is dif­fer­ent. Re­porters call me a strate­gist, but it’s not like I’m hunched in some tent, mov­ing armies on a map. To an out­sider, my day-to- day would ap­pear laugh­able: I scru­ti­nize memes; I drag­net com­ments; I ab­sorb va­ri­eties of anger. Where oth­ers hear noth­ing, I de­tect

a mood. And when I fi­nally speak, peo­ple lean in to hear me. The re­sults of what I say aren’t quan­tifi­able, ex­cept, of course, we’re here at the con­ven­tion and no one wants to talk about a can­di­date un­less his name is Dom Cross­man.

peo­ple thought Spencer was Trench Coat Mafia. It wasn’t a hard cat­e­gory to fall into. All you had to do was point a french fry at some­body. Call the prin­ci­pal’s of­fice and breathe heavy — ev­ery­one got the day off. But Spencer re­ally did fit the pro­file, pale and stubby and de­lay­ing his first shave. He had this weird flair for slob­bi­ness. He’d wear one col­lared shirt on top of an­other; he’d stalk the hall­ways in fin­ger­less black gloves and su­per­mar­ket shades. Ev­ery­one knew he played Counter-strike at an elite level.

Spencer was my best friend, but we weren’t treated with the same sus­pi­cion. I was taller, cleaner, able to pass into groups with­out pro­ject­ing a suf­fo­cat­ing air. I knew the names of the peo­ple around me.

Spencer and I were fas­ci­nated by Columbine, by any­thing fucked up. We down­loaded scraps of video off Kazaa.

“Check out this fucked-up take­off.” “Check out this fucked-up crack­head.” “Check out this ex­e­cu­tion.”

On the Hewlett-packard in Spencer’s base­ment, I saw a Chechen rebel get­ting stabbed in the throat; I saw a man get­ting fucked by a horse. Child sol­diers ran through a mine­field in some dis­tant civil war. Then we’d alt-tab back to CS, or turn our at­ten­tion to TV, or take a break and de­frost some­thing to eat. When an­other video fin­ished down­load­ing, we watched it.

We liked the idea of be­ing de­sen­si­tized. It was some­thing to be cul­ti­vated by sub­ject­ing your­self to con­stant im­agery, like a game of who can hold a burn­ing match the long­est. We hoped our cu­rios­ity would lead us to a place out of reach; that was where we wanted to be. We could look at peo­ple and know we’d seen things that would dis­gust and hor­rify them.

That was the aura of the Trench Coat Mafia, but I knew Spencer, at least, wasn’t a killer. The thing with so many of these mas­sacres was that, in the end, the shoot­ers killed them­selves. It was real for them in a way it could never be for Spencer. He didn’t want to die. Name some­thing worth dy­ing for. spencer said, “How do you kill a thou­sand flies?”


“You hit an Ethiopian in the face with a fry­ing pan.”

Jokes had to be on the mar­gins. We made jokes about Jews, jokes about blacks, jokes about women. Gay sex lurked be­hind all our in­nu­endo. Be­ing mon­strous was the funny thing. It said more if you just made the other guy go wow than if you made him ac­tu­ally laugh.

Only we could han­dle the ma­te­rial. We per­formed at a very par­tic­u­lar fre­quency. We’d never want to be over­heard. Yet I al­ways pic­tured a woman — white, re­spectable, like Spencer’s sis­ter — hear­ing our jokes, and she be­came the fi­nal ob­ject of ridicule. Her face con­torted; she was afraid of laugh­ing.

Spencer and I con­sid­ered our­selves­fluid. The fi­nal safe­guard against mon­stros­ity was that we didn’t have a sense of self at all. In fact, we’d mas­tered what we’d been told was the ba­sis for all moral­ity: to put your­self in other peo­ple’s shoes. So we could be big­ots, wife-beat­ers, lovers one in­stant to the next — a shuf­fle of ref­er­ence. If you thought we were se­ri­ous, the joke was on you.

wei wor­ries about dis­grace. She says it’s the nat­u­ral con­clu­sion of most can­di­dates with the volatile mo­men­tum of Dom Cross­man. The great fear is of ex­plod­ing just as you’re tak­ing flight. She’s de­scribed a vi­sion of Dom blow­ing it here at the con­ven­tion. He could suc­cumb to his con­fi­dence, as if the game were in hand, and start slaugh­ter­ing some of our cam­paign’s sa­cred cows: jobs, God, the in­trin­sic good­ness of the peo­ple. All in an in­stant — evap­o­ra­tion. “You’ll look for me,” and Wei pats me on the shoul­der. “But I’ll be gone.”

De­spite her ge­nius, it’s pos­si­ble that even Wei doesn’t re­al­ize the roll we’re on. She might be just a lit­tle too last gen­er­a­tion. She still re­ally feels ev­ery scan­dal.

And our cam­paign has weath­ered its share of them: tax dis­crep­an­cies, pla­gia­rized col­lege pa­pers, an off-script joke about Men­tal Health Aware­ness Month. But I en­cour­age Dom to shoot from the hip. Some­times I tell him: “We’re push­ing out from the cen­tre.” He in­ter­nal­izes that kind of strat­egy, force con­fronting force. I’ve been spo­ken of as a haz­ardous in­flu­ence by mem­bers of his in­ner cir­cle, and I un­der­stand. Their curse is that they have to worry about ev­ery last vul­ner­a­bil­ity.

I’m not like them. I ac­cept that Dom is an im­per­fect ves­sel; it wouldn’t sur­prise me if he had brain trauma from his play­ing days. I dream of a can­di­date who steps out of the mar­gins al­ready com­plete — fluid and face­less, a to­tal nega­tion.

the on­tario Teach­ers’ Fed­er­a­tion pick­eted in our first year of mid­dle school. Spencer and I wel­comed the strike, which dragged on for weeks. But we also be­came aware of our sta­tus, in the clash be­tween the union and the govern­ment, as the low­est pri­or­ity—chat­tel, ba­si­cally — and this formed the first oc­ca­sion of our tak­ing po­lit­i­cal of­fence. We be­gan to frame our­selves as mar­ginal.

In our view, they were all mo­rons — our teach­ers and our govern­ment — though the teach­ers were slightly worse, be­cause they com­plained di­rectly to us. How many times had class been in­ter­rupted so the teacher could be­moan how there weren’t enough sup­plies due to govern­ment cuts? It was laugh­able how small our teach­ers were will­ing to ap­pear in their ef­forts to turn us against the govern­ment. Cuts, cuts, cuts — like the school was bleed­ing out from a bil­lion wounds.

Pol­i­tics now be­came a cen­tral topic for Spencer and me. Po­lit­i­cal knowl­edge was some­thing you were ex­pected to ac­quire when not around each other. When it came to news of the world, we liked sto­ries of war and ter­ror­ism. It was adult to imag­ine what would hap­pen if, for in­stance, Pak­istan leaked a nu­clear weapon, one you could fit in a brief­case, to re­li­gious fa­nat­ics. When it came to do­mes­tic is­sues, we took a gen­eral stance against wel­fare and tax­a­tion — peo­ple leech­ing off hard work. We pic­tured our teach­ers, who barely knew our names, al­ways crav­ing more.

I dream of a can­di­date who steps out of the mar­gins al­ready com­plete —fluid and face­less, a to­tal nega­tion.

at our high school, you could take comp sci. Spencer and I sat side by side in the com­puter lab and worked on all the projects to­gether. I wasn’t very good at pro­gram­ming, but Spencer cov­ered for me. I think he was glad to have me as a part­ner; he could do the work alone. He coded a tank war­fare game that hooked up be­tween com­put­ers, so two play­ers could go at it from across the lab. De­spite a bunch of bugs, the game im­pressed every­body. Spencer called it Na­palm Sun­burn.

Comp sci ended up one of my high­est grades, and I took it as a nat­u­ral fact that Spencer would de­sign games for a liv­ing. But he wasn’t even the best stu­dent in class. We kept an eye on a girl named Meera, who bused in from an­other district so she could at­tend a school with a com­puter lab. Meera never looked away from the screen; in her glasses, the blue light glowed. When we fell silent, I could hear her key­board chat­ter­ing. Spencer called Meera the Muskrat be­cause of the wild eye­brows, the mat­ted hair, the dark down on her cheeks.

Meera’s projects were to­tally clean and ac­tu­ally use­ful. Spencer hated watch­ing her pre­sen­ta­tions. She seemed aware of func­tions that adults needed per­formed and de­signed sharp, in­tu­itive in­ter­faces for just those pur­poses. Mean­while, we couldn’t imag­ine any­thing out­side Na­palm Sun­burn.

The school or­ga­nized an an­nual plant sale to sup­ple­ment its bud­get, and our comp sci teacher gave Meera the spe­cial as­sign­ment of pro­gram­ming an on­line or­der­ing sys­tem. Par­ents who used the sys­tem could get their plants a day early. This par­tic­u­lar pro­gram was Meera’s mas­ter­piece. We did a beta test in class, and I re­mem­ber feel­ing like her sys­tem some­how made the com­puter it­self run faster, like a glass of wa­ter in a marathon.

The night the sys­tem went live, Spencer mes­saged me on msn. He said the Muskrat had made a big mis­take. There wasn’t a char­ac­ter limit to the or­der­ing fields, so you could sub­mit un­lim­ited amounts of data to the sys­tem. By the time I got to the site, Spencer was al­ready copy­ing hun­dreds of thou­sands of pages of text into the fields. He told me to help, and I did it for laughs. We forced reams of text down the throat of Meera’s code. I’d never used a com­puter that way; it was a cre­ative act — com­pul­sive, un­con­scious. Af­ter a dozen sub­mis­sions, the site was tak­ing for­ever to load. Inan­other minute, it was gone.

Mon­day morn­ing was when par­ents who’d used Meera’s sys­tem were sup­posed to col­lect their or­ders. The plants were kept in a small gated area against the side of the school. When I ar­rived that morn­ing, the gate was locked. No one was around. Un­der the tarp, the plants were in shadow.

Our comp sci teacher gave a speech about hack­ing. Com­put­ers were a lib­er­at­ing force, he said — by which he meant a force for good. We could be the van­guard of all that, if we wanted. I looked over at Meera. Her com­puter was off; she was star­ing at her hands. Be­side me, Spencer had al­ready started on the next pro­gram.

at first, peo­ple saw the Dom Cross­man cam­paign as ob­vi­ously right, then pos­si­bly left, then hope­fully cen­tre, un­til fi­nally it de­pended on where you stood. I tell Dom: track along the spec­trum. I tell him: wait un­til they’ve found the face they’re search­ing for.

Lately, I’ve ob­served a kind of delir­ium in our sup­port­ers. They ac­tu­ally dance at our ral­lies, sway­ing to­gether and laugh­ing.

The week­end of the con­ven­tion has been build­ing up to Dom’s ad­dress. But when, in the first move­ment of the speech, he men­tions bor­der se­cu­rity, a woman un­folds a sign: WEL­COME THE NEW­COM­ERS. I can’t hear what she’s yelling. Some mem­bers of the party boo; oth­ers ap­plaud. She’s drowned out. I look over at Wei, who fret­fully awaits the mo­ment of dis­grace. Is this it?

Ev­ery­where we’ve gone, the New­com­ers are the fixed idea. I don’t have a strong feel­ing on the mat­ter, but to the ex­tent that they em­body the bor­der­less flow — of jobs, cap­i­tal, cul­ture — I ad­vise Dom to main­tain a stance of gen­eral an­tag­o­nism. That comes nat­u­rally to him; he was a bruiser for the Leafs in the ’80s.

“I boarded Hart­ford’s top prospect,” he once told me, pluck­ing his eye­brows in a pocket mir­ror. “And he got this burst frac­ture in the spine. Put an end to his ca­reer, like that — fresh-faced young­ster. And peo­ple called me all sorts of things, but my fam­ily never went hun­gry.”

Vis-à-vis the New­com­ers, we’re only ab­sorb­ing the spirit as we find it. “You’ll do some­thing about them,” a woman told us at a rally. “I’ve got three fam­i­lies in my neigh­bour­hood alone. No­body’s work­ing. The women are preg­nant. You can see them on the steps. Our lo­cal boys are scared to go by the build­ing.”

Dom said, “You’ll feel safe in your own coun­try, ma’am.”

And he held her small hand. Her eyes beamed up at him with glad­ness.

Now he stands at the podium as the pro­tes­tor is strong-armed off the con­ven­tion floor. But Dom’s in a mag­nan­i­mous frame of mind. Wei can re­lax.

“It’s good, it’s good,” he says. “This is democ­racy, folks, pure and sim­ple. She has the right to yell. And we have the right to yell. Show her some cour­tesy on the way out, will you? Don’t let her trip. I don’t want any­thing hap­pen­ing to her.”

From the edges of the room, at just the right mo­ment, Wei strikes up a chant. Dom ex­horts: “Strength! In! Num­bers!”

I don’t like the mob, but I love to see them like this.

i went to Van­cou­ver for univer­sity. Spencer chose to wait a year. I fig­ured he’d get up to some­thing that would make fur­ther school­ing re­dun­dant. In fact, it was a mi­nor source of shame that I’d trace a more con­ven­tional path, ma­jor­ing in some vague hu­man­ity and wan­der­ing into the job mar­ket. I read about the of­fice spa­ces of de­vel­op­ers in Cal­i­for­nia, where you lounged pool­sidebe­neath the fronds. That’s where I en­vi­sioned Spencer, with an XL black T-shirt and knock-off Oak­leys, drink­ing from a co­conut.

The Amer­i­cans in­vaded Iraq in my first year. Over MSN, Spencer and I pored over the de­tails. He took a zoomed-out view of it. In quasi-bib­li­cal tones, he spoke of civ­i­liza­tions clash­ing, his­tor­i­cal cy­cles churn­ing, epochs dis­in­te­grat­ing. I didn’t know where he was ab­sorb­ing this rhetoric. For me, it was a lot sim­pler: war was ex­pen­sive; it had to have a point.

Spencer blamed the balmy west-coast at­mos­phere for soft­en­ing my brain.

I wrote, Isn’t it ob­vi­ous that Rums­feld is ly­ing?

I read about the of­fice spa­ces of de­vel­op­ers out in Cal­i­for­nia, where you lounged pool­sidebe­neath the fronds.

And Spencer an­swered, Yeah of course. For most of my peers, Iraq was the re­fin­ing flame, so­lid­i­fy­ing po­si­tions on the left or right. Some­how, it worked dif­fer­ently on me. I re­mem­ber the Fe­bru­ary 15 protest. I got stuck in a crowd of hip­pies re-en­act­ing mem­o­ries of Viet­nam marches — walk­ing on stilts, spark­ing can­nons of weed, dressed up like Un­cle Sam. The march seemed fun for them, light and play­ful and nos­tal­gic. Some­one on a mega­phone read out num­bers from protests all around the world: Ber­lin, 300,000. Barcelona, amil­lion. Rome, an­other mil­lion. There in Van­cou­ver, an es­ti­mated 25,000. Ev­ery­one cheered; a global pas­sion flowed to­gether. Yet, with star­tling clar­ity, I thought we were in er­ror. We were in­hab­it­ing a ref­er­ence, a re­ceived idea of dis­sent.

The protest briefly splin­tered while a fac­tion, clad in black with red bal­a­clavas, smashed in the win­dows of a Star­bucks. This, too, ges­tured to­ward a pre­cur­sor—i pic­tured them laugh­ing be­hind their masks — but I fixed on the de­sire for vi­o­lence. The de­sire was real. That was the spirit, find­ing its oc­ca­sion. As the march surged on, I hung around. Bro­ken glass crunched be­neath my feet.

Af­ter the in­va­sion, I watched Iraqis over­run the statue of Sad­dam. The me­dia said Amer­i­cans staged the event, but the vi­o­lence was ec­static. The crowds were laugh­ing. No one cared who was be­hind it or what came next.

not long be­fore I fin­ished my poli sci de­gree, I got an email from some­one named Kim. I had to stare at the name awhile be­fore I re­al­ized the mes­sage was from Spencer’s sis­ter, Kim­ber­ley.

She asked if I was com­ing home for the sum­mer. She said she didn’t know how aware I was of the sit­u­a­tion. Spencer had been laid off by Bell; he wasn’t leav­ing the base­ment; she thought he had a prob­lem with his lungs — what their mom once had. He was tired all the time and his legs looked swollen.

I felt em­bar­rassed by her fa­mil­iar tone, as if, in her mind, I’d only been away a week or two, whereas my en­tire adult life had un­folded out west. Not that I was avoid­ing Spencer, but I didn’t have time to chat any­more. When I thought about him, that ancient pic­ture in a Palo Alto pool was still parked in my mind, and it came as a shock to re­al­ize I might be do­ing the more re­mark­able thing with my life.

By then, I was or­ga­niz­ing mu­nic­i­pal cam­paigns and ad­vis­ing sev­eral provin­cials. Be­cause of my stri­dent views on for­eign in­ter­ven­tion, I was gen­er­ally re­ceived as com­ing from the left, but our cam­paigns merged af­fil­i­a­tions in un­clas­si­fi­able ways. Push against the edges of the po­lit­i­cal spec­trum, I dis­cov­ered, and they reach a van­ish­ing point. We never won any­thing, but we claimed vic­tory when­ever an­other can­di­date had to an­swer a ques­tion raised by our cam­paign. In­vade the pre­vail­ing dis­course, we rea­soned, and be­fore long, ev­ery­one would be liv­ing in our world.

But this wasn’t a cam­paign year — I didn’t have a can­di­date — and, in fact, I was plan­ning to go back east that sum­mer. Kim in­vited me to the house, which their mom had left to them. We had cof­fee in the liv­ing room. I’d never sat there be­fore, al­ways just breez­ing through on my way to the base­ment. Ev­ery few min­utes, I heard Spencer’s cough­ing. Kim said she didn’t know what to do any­more; she had to get out of the house, get on with her life. She asked about Van­cou­ver, then seemed to lose fo­cus as I de­scribed it.

In a few min­utes, I went down­stairs. Spencer had the lights off, the room dimly blue from two com­puter screens. He greeted me as if it hadn’t been four years, which made me feel loved. I sat on the edge of the bed. On one screen, he had some chat open; Rus­sian MMA streamed on the other, two women in a bloody knot. He of­fered me a beer from a mini fridge and coughed.

I asked af­ter his health, and he said, “Black lung.”


He laughed.

I said that if he was sick, he should’ve told me sooner.

“An­i­mals hide weak­ness,” Spencer said. “Come on, sit here. I’ve been want­ing to show you some­thing.”

One woman drove her knee into the other’s spine, but Spencer pointed to the sec­ond screen. It was a sim­ple in­ter­face, white text clip­ping down a black box. I rec­og­nized cer­tain proper names in­ter­spersed with the usual fap and fag. They were talk­ing pol­i­tics.

We watched. We laughed to­gether. Some­times, his laugh­ter ended in coughs. He kept a blan­ket over his legs.

“We start things here,” he said. “Out west, did you ever hear about that third­line goon we got into the all-star game?”

My eyes were trained on the text, as if dis­cern­ing starlight.

“How many of you are there?”

And my best friend said, “More all the time.”

The fol­low­ing year, when the Rus­sians beat us in the World Cham­pi­onships, a re­tired hockey coach named Dom Cross­man would make head­lines by sug­gest­ing that Canada’s na­tional vigour was di­luted. He sin­gled out cer­tain play­ers; he cited ancient Ro­man his­tory. Re­porters had trouble sup­press­ing smiles. When the Toronto Star ran an ed­i­to­rial against him, he said there should be a ref­er­en­dum to de­cide if the writer should keep her job. Within min­utes, the pa­per’s site had crashed.

new faces ap­pear in the green room. Be­fore the con­ven­tion, they spoke of our cam­paign as an act of van­dal­ism. Now the pres­i­dent of the party pops an over­sized bottle of Veuve Clic­quot and toasts Dom Cross­man, our nom­i­nee.

Even in vic­tory, Wei never stops work­ing. She mon­i­tors how many flutes Dom’s fin­ished. I bask in the news on­line, where there’s a clearer sense of ve­loc­ity, even des­tiny. By con­trast, the faces in the green room are as wor­ried as they are cel­e­bra­tory. I only worry they won’t go far enough, that this marks the mo­ment Dom be­comes one of them. All of a sudden, we’ve gained a lot of old weight.

“Al­ways on the phone,” says the pres­i­dent, who clinks my flute. “Tell me — what are peo­ple say­ing?”

“They’re laugh­ing.”

“Laugh­ing.” She searches my eyes. “I can’t tell if you’re se­ri­ous. It’s not a pleas­ant feel­ing.”

I’m about to say, “I had a friend like that,” but I keep it to my­self.

“Don’t sweat it, chief.”

The pres­i­dent emp­ties her cham­pagne and looks across the room at Dom. The can­di­date’s face has red­dened. Wei hov­ers at his el­bow.

“I’ve been do­ing this a long, long time,” says the pres­i­dent. “Let me en­lighten you. Cross­man isn’t re­ally one of us. In a fed­eral cam­paign, peo­ple will see that. Be se­ri­ous for a sec­ond — you know he can’t win.”

I can’t hold it any longer. Spencer is here; he’s burst­ing out of us. I break into a smile, and the pres­i­dent re­flects it, and now the room fills with laugh­ter.

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