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 ourselves fluid. 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.
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. In another 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 poolside beneath 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?
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, a million. 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.
n ot 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.”
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 third-line 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?”
“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.