Friday, February 17, 2012

It's A Good Life If You Don't Weaken

Every Tuesday and Thursday I take the Framingham/Worcester commuter rail from Worcester to Boston. This ride takes me through a corridor of industry past and present - through the burgeoning CSX rail yard in Worcester, past the Dennison factory in Framingham, then into the houses of rich people in the Bostonian suburbs. Threaded through all of this is the rough nature of Massachusetts, with its brown grasses and naked limbs, following the curves of scrubby streams. There's a pair of swans I look at, usually in the pond next to the pump house at Framingham that I sometimes imagine living in. In the spring, skunk cabbage rushes up everywhere. The whole landscape is littered with tires, trash, the occasional sofa. I don't see a lot of nearby animals, which is a funny contrast to the regularity with which I see mice scurrying around on the tracks while I wait inside for the red line train at Park Street. Inside, life by the third rail; outside, not a creature stirring.

When I make this trip, I'm usually listening to the Tragically Hip. Several years ago, my friend Ben asked me if I wanted to go to a Hip concert in Boston at what used to be the Avalon and is now the House of Blues. I'd never heard of them, but I went anyway. It was one of those beautiful nights where you get out of the T station and feel the air wash over you like it's thrilled you could make it. The Red Sox were playing the Yankees, so I had to wait three trains before I could elbow my way into the sea of red and navy. I wound up squished next to the only other four people on the train who were going to the concert, Canadians who followed me out of the T station yelling to each other, "come on, come on, she KNOWS," which was great - here I am being credited with mystical navigational skills, and the only real secret was to follow everyone else. The concert was one of the first I've enjoyed as an event. I usually like concerts fine, but wouldn't necessarily say they're a thing I like to do. I came home and started listening to the Hip.

In the beginning, I responded to the sound of the Hip, rather than the specific lyrics, because I simply didn't KNOW enough of the latter to get all that excited about them. Even that sound, though, speaks of a particular kind of experience. There is a gentleness to their music, that I think is an admission that we all need it. We need some softness in our lives because we are always in transit and always about to fall. That this should be so evident even in the sound of their music speaks quite clearly to my experience of Canadians themselves. While I have met some really remarkable Canadians, I've also met some real assholes, people who I truly wanted to punch in the face. Still, this quietness rests in all of them, a quiet strength that comes from something shared.

When I started listening to enough that I learned the lyrics, I decided two things: that the Hip might be too smart for me, and that they pull from a deeply enviable kind of nostalgia. I say they might be too smart for me because their references - historical, literary, hockey related - are so various and occasionally so subtle that I feel I could study them for years and still not be able to hang them all together in a frame...or else study them for years and find some kind of epic blueprint for Canadian world domination. I'm sure that people who have loved the Hip longer and better than I have tried this; I have a long road ahead.

But that second point, I think, is why I listen to them on the train so often.  Nostalgia for nostalgia's sake isn't always good; there are a lot of people in America right now desperately striving towards the past in the name of a misplaced nostalgia for a simpler time, as though the political conflicts and worries that we are staring down today didn't exist back then, forgetting that there were even bigger problems and yet more injustice.  This points to a fundamental misunderstanding of what politics are.  Politics are the navigation of our law through the stormy seas of human interaction.  Whatever form they take, political discourses are an attempt to sort out how to let each person be human.  That doesn't change.  But there is a nostalgia that fits with these shifting tides, and this is a sense of what was good and what was achieved, and the soft, glowing pride that attends those things and pushes us towards the future.

Right now, I think this nostalgia attaches itself most often to our thoughts about industry in America, and in Canada as well.  We are linked together whether we like it or not.  We are brothers, with all that entails - the competition, the cross-purposes, the conflict, the conspiracy, the love.  I think we conceive of industry in the same way as well.  These are nations built on industry, and now industry is fading, to make way for new economies.  While we want to succeed in these new economies, I think we see our work in old industry as being fundamentally about being Canadian, being American.  This is the industry my train passes through, and it's particularly poignant to see how some industry is continuing on, wearing a mantle of rust, and some has been reconstituted into the new world, like the Dennison building by Framingham.  It's still a giant heap of brick, with a massive window sporting an ornate blue Dennison "D," through which light once shone on a paper milling floor.  The window is still there, though the machines have quieted and changed.  This is how the Hip feels to me.  Their songs feel like fondness for making things on the strength of our backs, and standing on shifting sands.  Their songs feel like a reminder that things are good, even if they're not the same.   They're songs about working men, and about quiet strength.  I love those songs for that.

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