Ottawa, 1881. When he married Margaret Dougherty, a woman twenty years his junior, James Wetherill was sixty-five, a widowed livestock dealer, hard and mean by reputation. The marriage “appeared to have been one of convenience,” a newspaper reported. He needed a housekeeper. She needed a house.
The neighbours disapproved: of the marriage bargain, of the age gap, of the groom’s miserly ways. Around dusk on the night of the wedding, small boys marched to the bride’s home, ringing bells, banging on stovepipe lengths, demanding money before they’d go away. The groom grudgingly gave a little cash, and they did go away. But this was only the opening act. At midnight, an older, rowdier, more inebriated crowd arrived. Young men shouted, cursed, broke windows. Again the ritual demand: pay us or suffer. This time, Wetherill angrily refused to pay. The men declared “they would have Wetherill outside the house.” Goaded beyond good sense, Wetherill ran outside to face his tormentors. They beat him to death.
James Wetherill played to the bitter end his part in an ancient drama. Charivari, shivaree, scampanate, katzenmusick, skimmington, rough music, serenading. Across Europe and then North America, the custom answered to a hundred names, but the rules had been consistent for generations. Let a couple make a marriage the community found inappropriate, or gain a reputation for immoral behavior, or otherwise offend the norms, and the mobs would come out to shame them. The wedding night would be ruined, the bride terrified by lewd propositions and thunderous noise, the groom forced to grovel and pay.
Every time I tell people I went to university in Baltimore, they raise an eyebrow before asking if it was like living in The Wire, David Simon’s brutally realistic television depiction of the city’s corruption and crime. People want to know if I saw drug deals go down on the corners or in front of the row houses of West Baltimore. More recently, since the death in police custody of Freddie Gray and subsequent protests and riots, people have started asking me about Baltimore police. Were they violent? Racist? Both?
My typical answer is a vague, “Baltimore definitely has its problems, but I liked it”; which of course isn’t much of an answer at all. Did I see drug deals or didn’t I? Was the place an inner-city hell or not? The truthful answer is a mucky and even less satisfying, “sort of.” I didn’t hang out around the corners and row houses where no doubt plenty of drug deals were taking place. I was at Johns Hopkins University, whose Homewood campus in the north of the city is made up of an idyllic set of red-brick buildings and greenery. It’s bordered by a couple sketchy neighborhoods, but their sketchiness is decidedly mild by Baltimore standards. And the campus is also bordered by an art gallery.
Ten years ago, in July 2005, the Canadian government made same-sex marriage the law of the land. Various provincial courts had recognized marriage equality, but now it had parliamentary weight and royal assent. There was no turning back. As with all good laws, Bill C-38, or the Civil Marriage Act, largely affirmed what most people already accepted as self-evident: that the rights and obligations of matrimony apply to two men or two women as much as they do to a man and woman.
It is only a matter of time before the United States as a whole follows Canada’s example. Whereas a decade ago no viable Republican candidate could even flirt with supporting the idea, today we have Marco Rubio and Jeb Bush explaining that while they still oppose marriage equality, they nevertheless would attend a gay or lesbian wedding if someone they “cared for” were involved.
All of which is to say: a decade on and quite a bit has changed, including me.
That Wednesday evening in October 2008, there were six of us guys in the upstairs living room, relaxing after a volleyball practice by playing video games and smoking pot out of a long glass bong. We were a couple of months into the fall semester at Thompson Rivers University in Kamloops, BC, with the first game of the season around the corner. I didn’t make the roster that year, but coach was still letting me practice. Most of the squad was new, including recruits from Ontario and Alberta, even Denmark.
Three players from Alberta shared the house—friends and teammates who’d grown up together and shifted provinces to play for the newest team in Canadian Interuniversity Sport volleyball. The latest arrival: Collin Gordon, a six-foot, twenty-year-old from Calgary with an impressive vertical jump. He seemed solid. Better than me at volleyball, anyway. He had a wide, toothy smile and a big, unguarded laugh. He was good at the first-person-shooter game Halo.
We took turns passing around the four controllers, the non-stop “pop pop” of digital gunfire echoed by the gurgle of the bong. A grenade exploded onscreen, killing one of the players: gamertag Gordo1. Collin cursed and laughed, then tossed the controller to me. The character respawned and I ran back into battle to help my friends.
Ifell out of touch with most of the team after we graduated. Their presence in my life was generally reduced to birthday wishes and the odd like on Facebook posts. Most of the relationships were put on indefinite hiatus when I relocated from BC to Ontario in 2012. Friends would fall from my periphery, only to return via social media announcements of nuptials or first-borns. Big news has a way of bringing people back together.
I lost track of Collin until May last year, when big news brought him snapping back into focus. I was on Facebook, when I spotted one of my old teammates online as well. I asked how he was.
“Not to bad [sic], just trying to figure out whats up with collin gordon. Hes in another dimension . . . Check his wall.”
I clicked over to Collin’s Facebook page. At first I laughed, not fully understanding what I was seeing. Then I paused. I read “truth” and “Allah” and “victory.” In one update Collin wrote that he had denounced his Canadian citizenship. I scrolled down to a photo Collin uploaded of himself wearing army fatigues and a head scarf—which the media would later pick up to run with articles about the Gordon brothers.
“wtf?” I typed to my ex-teammate.
“Hes been in syria/egypt/middle east for like a year + now. That isnt him theorizing from canada, thats him in the thick of shit.”
I asked if Collin was Muslim when we were in university; my friend told me he wasn’t, but thought his older brother Gregory was. He told me they had likely gone together to Syria.
Was he heading for trouble? I wrote.
It was way past that, my friend replied. He said CSIS had already contacted him to ask about Collin.
In university Collin posted promotions for parties he had organized and photos of himself with his arm around his friends. Five years later, his Facebook feed was filled with Islamist messages and ISIS propaganda.
I thought about reaching out to him and spilling whatever memory I had into a few paragraphs, in the hope of jarring something in him. But his closer friends, and in all likelihood his family, had already tried without apparent success. My feelings were hard to label: confusion, worry, disbelief, grief. In August, articles began appearing in the media about the brothers from Calgary who’d gone to fight for ISIS.
When I asked someone else from that circle of friends how he felt about the situation, he told me he was past shock and sadness—he was mad and ready to give up. “Shed a tear for the guy when the article came out in the news. But given how long I’ve been reading his threats and hate . . . he makes me angry also,” he messaged back. “How could any person we know get in so much trouble? It boggles my mind.”
Over the following months I revisited Collin’s page every so often, like a painful scab I couldn’t leave alone. It was hard to ignore his posts and the long-winded notes of condemnation below them. Those who had known him before he became radicalized were still there—and vocal. But I also saw comments of praise. His audience had grown to include others who shared his views.
In late September, he posted an image from Flames of War, the ISIS propaganda film. Again his old friends pushed back. The next day, he posted a link to a map of alleged ISIS military victories; wherever he was, Internet connectivity was evidently not an issue.
Isat on the sidelines and watched, at first with the grim fascination of a motorist passing an accident on a highway, then later with the calloused disconnect of a stranger seeing just another shitty event in the world. The Collin I had known was gone.
Then his posts stopped. I didn’t notice at first, it just happened. In February I realized I hadn’t seen anything from Collin for some time. I Googled his name. The first hit was from CTV Calgary: a report that Collin and Gregory had been killed in December, while fighting in the town of Dabiq in northern Syria.
First came a wave of shock for a forgotten friend, then pain for his family and friends, both online and off. I thought about the young man I once knew with a big jump and a big smile. I typed his name once more into Facebook. His profile had been deleted.
Life in Canada has changed; sport has changed; play has changed.
When I was twelve years old playing for Humber Valley in the Toronto Hockey League, our season began in late September and ended in mid-March. During that time, we played thirty-five regular season games, three exhibition, and nine playoff games—forty-seven in all. I know because I kept a record which I still have. We practiced once a week, played in no tournaments; nor did our opponents. All our games were local even if they were in rinks spread across a sprawling suburban Toronto. The teams advancing to the championship final—which we didn’t—played in one additional best-of-three series. That was it. No more games or practices, no more weeks or months of the year: nobody played more.
All in—equipment, facilities, team registration fees, number of games, and practices—the cost to our parents for us to play, in terms of money and time, was modest.
In 1959, this is what it took to make it to the top.
Today, for a boy in Red Deer, Alberta, next year’s bantam season started a few days ago, on the first of May—in a gym, doing off-ice training for an hour or more a day, five times a week. In June, he’ll add on-ice training to this: twice a week, an hour each time. Then three times a week in July, more in August, with less time in the gym.
Back in 1999, British author John Cornwell published a controversial and widely publicized book called Hitler’s Pope: The Secret History of Pius XII. The title was misleading on two levels: first, in that it implied and depicted Pius as a faithful Nazi; second, in that it assumed the man’s story long had been kept a secret.
Six years later came a counterblast in the shape of The Myth of Hitler’s Pope: How Pope Pius XII Rescued Jews from the Nazis by David G. Dalin, who is not only Jewish but also a rabbi.
So there we had it. A liberal Catholic accusing a pope of Nazism; a Jewish academic and ordained cleric praising the wartime pontiff as a friend of anti-Nazism and the Jewish people. The twenty-first-century Pius wars had begun.
Every year, my mother takes a day off to deal with my father’s socks; otherwise, they pile up in laundry baskets and closets all over the house, clean but unfolded. Once, she left me a message, in a voice thick with fatigue: “Big, thick woollies turned out to be twenty-nine pairs and sixteen odds. The whites were thirty-nine pairs, forty-four odds. I found eleven pairs with logo, nine straight up, some with grey soles. I haven’t done the greys, but that’s enough.”
My mother, a feminist who once led women’s groups in our living room, says that she finds it easier, after decades of marriage, to sort my father’s socks herself, rather than to nag him or turn a blind eye to the chaos. Strangely, I have found myself doing the same. I folded socks while my first boyfriend, in university, became a writer. I folded socks while my most recent live-in boyfriend watched football, did work, and—actually, I have no idea what he was up to, because I was folding his socks (and sometimes ironing them). No one asked me to do this. I didn’t mind. There is a real sense of satisfaction in finding a sock, rummaging for its mate, and lovingly pairing them, all in the service of someone else. But ever since that last relationship ended, more than five years ago, I have viewed any potential partner through this lens: would it be worth taking on his hosiery with him? And, every time, the answer has been no.
Alan Borovoy, who died this week at the age of eighty-three, was a great Canadian. As founder and long-time general counsel of the Canadian Civil Liberties Association, he established himself as Canada’s most dogged defender of classical liberal values. He also was a rigorous polemicist and book author who promoted the CCLA’s message from podiums across the country, and in the op-ed pages of every major newspaper. Eloquent homages will pour forth in coming days, elaborating on Alan’s contributions to the fight for civil liberties. But this isn’t one of them. For my own warm memories of Alan are strictly personal.
I first came to know Alan in 1950s Toronto through my high-school boyfriend, Syd Goldenberg. At the time, Alan must have been a freshly minted lawyer. They met when Syd was twelve and Alan twenty-two, a section head at Camp Ogama, a Jewish summer camp operated by Syd’s uncle Joe. Later, when Syd joined the camp staff, they became friends.
I vividly remember being present on more than one occasion when Syd and Alan were engaged in their ongoing dialectic about God (Syd was a practicing Orthodox Jew at the time, and Alan, of course, a muscular atheist), and how awed I was by the calibre of ratiocination on shimmering display. I was myself by no means a complete yahoo, but this was my first intimation of the yawning gulf between mere intelligence and intellectual brilliance. My exposure to these debates at an early age provided me with a lifelong inoculation against the sin of intellectual hubris (a common affliction among pundits).