Zen and the Art of Unicycle Maintenance

I’ve recently noticed people riding on unicycles.

A month ago I was driving in my car and had stopped at an intersection a few cars back from the stop line. A young woman in her early twenties was waiting at the intersection and had caught my eye. She had blonde, flowing curly hair, blue eyes, fair skin, and a lean, well-proportioned athletic build. She was holding a lamp-post and bopping about. Parked cars were obstructing my view of the lower half of her body, but her movements were unusual, a sustained ebbing, flowing, and undulating as she waited.

My carnal instincts had been seriously piqued. My gaze was trained on her, and I swooned with adoration.

As the light changed she pushed off the post and I saw her twist and turn as she weaved her unicycle through the crossing pedestrians, her arms flailing about like those of a fledgling spreading its wings, having jumped from the cliff for its maiden flight. Everyone smiled and was left with a look of contented amusement as she passed them by. She seemed exuberant, and left me smitten. I had a strong desire to make a detour to the nearest bike store.

Since then, I’ve started to take note of unicyclists. There are a shitload of these in my city.

I’ve learned riding a unicycle has a certain unavoidable ridiculous quality to it, evident even in an experienced rider. Sometimes you’ve got to swing back, or forward, or sideways, or quickly halt and change tack. None of these feats is easily executed without brakes. Or steering control. Or another wheel.

Everything below the arms of the rider swings in every opposite direction to stay on the bike, while control over the direction of the bike is tenuously maintained by pedaling, twisting the waist, and remaining upright. Only the head remains fixed, and is seriously undermined when bike and rider are in the midst of an ‘epic unicycle fail.’

The unicycle is constantly trying to defy the will of its rider. Sometimes it runs off on its own before the rider wants to. Other times it firmly stays put, like a horse refusing to leap over a hurdle. Both obstinacies result in the rider being ejected from the bike.

Especially on take-off, the unicycle rider looks like they’re trying to stave off the inevitability of falling on their ass after running through a pile of banana peels scattered about a ceramic tile floor. Or as though they’re roller-skating down a set of stairs. No matter what, the following caveat must be heeded: keep pedaling.

The key to successfully riding a unicycle requires a person to find their balance amidst a confluence of catastrophes.

This video captures everything you need to know about riding a unicycle. See if you can detect the Buddhist-oriented ideas about mindfulness and focus. The allusions to Beckett suggest this is a thinking man’s endeavour. Intellectual lightweights need not attempt.

You’ll also see this: it’s nearly impossible to ride a unicycle and look graceful, even for a pro. That’s kind of cool. Look graceful and effortless in achieving virtuosity? Fuck that. An undertaking of that nature takes gumption and a devil-may-care spirit. There’s a certain lack of ego involved in doing something so humbling, even in the mastery, which is alluring and had me so intrigued about the unicycle-riding woman.

As an unabashed nerd, it was encouraging to know there was one seriously beautiful nerd bopping through my town. If I could confirm she was a member of the “Mediaeval Re-enactment Society” I would have jumped out of my car and asked her to marry me. It would have been a nerd-style chick-flick happy ending to our lives, with Sheldon and Bernadette from The Big Bang Theory standing in for Mathew McConaghey and J-Lo as avatars of the cheesy montage.

This may be an unfair stereotype, but my hunch is most extremely attractive young women would shudder at the idea of doing anything that was so incredibly ridiculous in such a public fashion. It’d be like supermodels volunteering to have custard cream pies tossed into their faces and without hesitation, joyfully break-dancing their emaciated bodies down the catwalks of Milan, Paris, and New York. We need to be able to laugh at our human frailty, not push it further under the delusion of binge-and-purge induced, plastic surgery assisted perfection that the industry perpetuates.

Here’s why, when we come across a person riding a unicycle, we are all left with a smile: it connects us to the awe and wonder we experienced as children at the circus. Not the artsy-fartsy intellectually pretentious ‘circus’ of Cirque du Soleil, but the bombastic, overblown, animal-cruelty fueled circuses of the past. The latter is what fills the recesses of my ancient, slowly degenerating mind with fond memories.

I am reminded of clowns and midgets running with toy poodles; of men on stilts, and well-endowed, buxom women in skimpy sequin-covered, flesh-coloured bikinis riding elephants, horses, or lions. I see men sticking their heads in the mouths of lions and trapeze artists performing acrobatics at the apex of large auditoriums. Flame throwers, flame jugglers, flame swallowers, and rings of fire with daredevil motorcyclists passing through them as they make death-defying leaps over seventeen buses are projected in my mind.

And then there were the unicylists. They’d ride unicycles of all sizes, some eight feet high with wheels nineteen inches in diameter. Others were small, and straddled by midgets or monkeys with trainers. The spectacle was awesome then, and awesome still, at least in my child-like mind. The bikes were usually ridden by men in clown suits with over-sized feet and stupid hats, who would ride along a narrow up-sloping beam and, reaching the crescendo at a platform high off the ground, would start juggling seven bowling pins or do some magic tricks for the adoring crowd.

Sometimes there were unicycle clown soap-opera storylines. Bozo was in love with Itsy-Bitsy, and both were unicyclists, who shared the marginalized fate of being near the bottom of the carnie pecking order, barely above the moustache and beard-women, the Gimp, and eight-foot tall giants. But like most girls, she shunned her own kind for the bad-boy stunt-motorcycle men. It was very sad at first, but in the end, she fell for Bozo, and they lived happily ever after in unicycle-clown conjugal bliss.

The lie gave me false hope into my teen years and left me with extreme disappointment for having swallowed the propaganda. The girls didn’t end up with me and the other Bozos; they always chose Biff and Brock, the shit-for-brained, knuckle-dragging Adonises. But I still came away loving the unicycle, which had no part in fabricating the falsehood that planted the seeds of my adult disillusionment.

The unicycle is the harbinger of the silliness, the joy, and the freedom we possess in abundance as children. Seeing one ridden, and riding one itself, connects us to a facet of our lives that is quickly subsumed under the weight of ambition, of the wants and needs that attach to us like barnacles as we are socialized to become craven adults; that leave our adult lives so much deprived for the abandonment of our childhood innocence.

It reveals something moving about those who ride their unicycles to do their chores throughout town, to gleefully traverse a busy pedestrian thoroughfare, or to scurry along the strip of nightclubs on a Friday night. For a time at least, they’ve opted out of the rat-race, having achieved a balance amidst the chaos in which we are typically immersed. They’ve thrown off the veil of playful obscurity that once relegated them to the circus tent, and have come into our streets, imparting us with the grace of a smile that brings back the bliss of our childhood. We are all the better for it.

Les Sacred Cows du Canada

Margaret Wente, a columnist for one of Canada’s national newspapers, wrote an article about seven sacred cows that she deemed were untouchables for media criticism. She parenthetically assailed medicare, Margaret Atwood, the Group of Seven and David Suzuki, among others, as cultural icons too sacred to skewer.

Yawn.

Wente’s article was pretty pedestrian as far as attempts at iconoclasm in Canada go. It’s true, medicare is a sacred cow, but a lot of regular Joes wouldn’t be offended if you said to them “Alias Grace sucked, eh?”. Nobody would really care if you had a picture of David Suzuki at the bottom of your bird cage, or if they saw you toss a finished can of Coke in the trash bin. At best they’d think maybe you’re a little insensitive. Most Canadians wouldn’t be able to name a single one of the Group of Seven, let alone think you’ve blasphemed a god if you said you thought landscape paintings suck. I know I wouldn’t care.

I think there are some cows more sacred than “recycling” to Canadians that, if you dissed them at a dinner party where I live, you’d probably have buns, Doritos, and chicken wings thrown at you. That would be followed by a hockey stick being shoved up your arse and half-emptied beer bottles with cigarette butts poured over your head.

I thought it would be interesting to say “bafungu” to some red herrings that I think are held a little more closely to the hearts of Canadians. So here I go with mud in hand. If you find yourself in the grip of seething rage, give your head a shake: your brain has been mashed by reams of the Canadian drivel you’ve been spoon-fed. Buck up, it’s all in good fun, eh?

Hockey: It’s Just a Stupid Game

Hockey is just a silly little game that makes millionaires of grown men for playing a game where they often break out in fist fights like school children. That’s it. Hockey won’t create the conditions for world peace, it will not discover a cure for your niece’s cancer, it won’t eliminate global poverty or tackle the Canadian debt. And yet Canadians of all persuasions swoon over the game and those who play it, like moths to white light.

Hockey players are the some of the most thin-skinned professional athletes alive, and the least sportsmanlike. Their cockiness and macho bravura is betrayed by so many instances of on-ice brutality, having lost their shit because they can’t take being out-played fair and square to a better athlete. Instead of schooling their betters by upping their play, they beat them with a stick, or take a running start and smash their heads into the boards hoping to take them out of the game – or their careers.

You can’t really blame them for their behaviour. They were sequestered from civilization at a very young age, and discouraged from attaining a proper education. Instead, they were inculcated with a sociopath zeitgeist that taught them to swing their fists and hockey sticks at the most fleeting of slights in order to win. If hockey hadn’t panned out for these guys they’d be serving at Red Lobster or bouncers at a night-club for all the off-ice skills they were given.

Here’s the thing hockey fans: if your team wins the Stanley Cup, you had nothing to do with it; not your cheering, not the grand you spent on tickets to see them play, not the hours of neglecting your family as you drank beer and ate buckets of chicken in front of your tv. If your team sucks, you have nothing to do with that either, but you will look like an asshole for wearing their jerseys and gear all the time, painting their logo on your face or flying their loser flag on your car through town all hockey season. Either way, you will be the fool for absconding with your own identity and exchanging it for that of a bunch of rich, douche-bag jocks.

For all the hockey dads out there verbally abusing their children, picking fist-fights with opposing team coaches at pee-wee matches, and mortgaging your financial futures on the slim chance you will vicariously live your shabby dream through your child: get a life, and lay off your kid.

The great Canadian hockey commentator himself. A lavender suit to make a dandy green with envy.

Don Cherry, who somehow claimed for himself the mantle of hockey sage, is a CBC blowhard whose diatribes about the game are often interlaced with senseless barbs about Canadian politics and culture thrown in for good measure. He sometimes seems to be a little too macho by half for his dandy duds. His ideas about the game of hockey are as passe as his unusual taste in suits and homoerotic rants about how much he loves big, burly defencemen from Sudbury. Whenever I see Cherry dissing Swedish pussies and trying to turn the NHL into an MMA feeder league I sometimes say to myself “methinks the man in the lavender suit, pristine kerchief, spray tan, and perfectly manicured hands doth protest too much.”

Tim Horton’s Sucks in Every Way Possible

Tim Horton’s coffee is total, unabashed sewage. Their doughnuts are greasy, sugar-coated lumps of turd, the muffins are road-apples, and their uniforms are putrid. Their marketing scam is to jerk on your heartstrings with corny feel-good commercials that are meant to bamboozle you into suspending your judgement about the low-rent product they’re selling. In this, they stole a page out of the Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints putsches from the eighties, and which still send me to the bathroom for a tissue to dab my tears, just before I hurl from the false sentimentality I’ve just been force-fed.

There’s a Tim Horton’s commercial where an Asian grandfather shows up to his grandkid’s hockey game. The back story is granddad was a tyrannical jerk because he made his son do silly things like homework instead of letting him watch a bunch of goons skating around slapping a piece of rubber around the ice.

He also didn’t go to watch his kid play hockey, it’s never clear why, but I’ve filled in the blanks: because he was an immigrant working in a country of xenophobes that didn’t feel obliged to pay the guy a fair wage. He had to work six jobs to send that kid to hockey camp where he had to endure “Hey Fu Manchu” epithets whenever he schooled one of his teammates. What a stupid jerk, right? Later, it’s all made better because he shows up to his grandkid’s game bringing crappy “double-doubles”, as if this makes him such a mensch. It’s nauseating, as are the other “true story” commercials, even if they do send me reeling for my box of facial tissue.

In the end, no matter how heart-warming the commercials are, the coffee is still sewage, but with a dollop of specious sentimentality and a dash of crass jingoism thrown in for good measure. If I were in a jam, I’d rather scoop up puddle water and heat it up than drink their coffee, because it really sucks, even with a half litre of cream and pound of sugar to cover up the dodgy taste. No “double-double” for me, thanks.

We Are Living on Stolen Land for Which Nothing Can Make Amends

Here’s the sacred cow many Canadians have with respect to our First Nations: what’s past is past, let’s move on. Except, we are living in a country stolen from Canada’s First Nations, and we didn’t have the guts to go to war and win it fair and square. No, we just were lucky benefactors of guile, measles, tuberculosis, shrewd business practices, legislation, and residential schools which were used to rob the First Nations of their land and their dignity. In that sense we are all living off the avails of our mobster historical forebears, every one of us. For our First Nations, the past is present.

There’s no amount of money or official apologies, or legislative redemption that will ever morally absolve the injustice and cultural genocide done to Canada’s First Nations throughout our sordid history. Most of us don’t really know that history because we were taught the Disney version of how it was that our colonial forebears related to Canada’s First Nations. It was a history written from the lens of the winners trying to put a positive sheen on a disgusting legacy so their children would not think ill of them for their ethical depravity. As a counterfactual exercise, talk to a First Nations elder, and see what history she tells.

There are things that can be done to try and make amends; to make things better for their grand-children and great-grandchildren so their future won’t be as horrifying as the past their ancestors had to endure. Except there is deep-seated, almost unanimously shared political resistance to the making of amends among non-First Nation Canadians. Today’s Canadians allege they “weren’t the ones responsible” for the wrongs of the past. Maybe so, but antipathy toward policies aimed at redressing historical wrongs and open hostility toward the grievances aired by First Nations guarantees they are perpetuated.

Canada is an Ungrateful Groupie Riding the Coat-tails of its US Superstar Best-Friend

This is where I agree with Wente. Canadians seem to love to loathe Americans. We talk about how fat they are, how dumb they are, how racist they are, and how brash they are. We snicker at their reality television obsession, or their crazy right-wing zealot politicians, or their bible-thumping simpleton Christianity, as if we’re all sitting in our homes discussing Stendhal over casks of sherry and Mozart concertos.

No, we Canadians regularly go to “The States” to buy up all their materialist trinkets at lower prices than we can acquire it up here. In fact, one US border town got so pissed off at Canadians for clearing their shelves that they suggested a time be set aside for “Americans Only”. We love it when big US retail chains set up in Canada. It means we can save on gas as we drive by stores built with the blood, sweat, and tears of merchants from our own communities to buy carloads of low-grade merchandise made by children in Bangladesh and Vietnam at the big chains. Remember that Canadian retail icon called Eatons? Yeah, me neither.

Anyone in the culture industries in Canada is forced to flee to the US to make a decent living and get recognition as an artist. As cultural refugees in the US, they are unburdened by the persecutory nature of the provincial, insular Canadian cultural elite who takes no greater pleasure than eating its own. Still, the fact doesn’t dampen the degree that most Canadians claim cultural superiority over so-called American troglodytes – the ones who actually pay for and embrace the cultural products manufactured by their Canadian gastarbeiters.

Most Canadians would grudgingly admit that we are lucky to be so geographically and culturally close to the US. But in our obsession with America-bashing, we take for granted the degree that we have been the world’s chief benefactor of the opportunities afforded by the profound cultural, economic, and scientific innovations that originated in the United States. And by these, one does not mean Jersey Shore, Big Brother, the love of guns, the nuclear bomb, the Ku Klux, Klan, boy bands, and the Tea Party. I mean Constitutional Democracy, the preponderance of global capitalism, electricity, modern aviation, mass production, jazz, the internet, and the personal computer.

Canadians are Smug Assholes

Canadians are not, on the whole, inherently “nice” people. Generally, we’re more suspicious and guarded, but can be overly nice when we are of the belief that such comportment will leave others with a good impression of us. That idiotic Michael Moore documentary where he was in Windsor opening doors that were unlatched made my skin crawl. The myth of the quintessentially Nice Canadian is the dish our media serves as regularly as meatloaf on Sundays, and we all stuff our thin-skinned bellies with its feel-good nonsense.

But are we really nice? Have you ever seen a hockey brawl? Most of the NHL’s neanderthal enforcer cavemen are Canadians. Sure, Canadians know how to ACT nicely, but it doesn’t mean we are necessarily nice people. Remember where we came from: British imperialists who screwed the First Nations out of their land and killed them off with exotic European diseases like tuberculosis and property rights. Most Canadians still think First Nations are lucky bastards for all the “free stuff” they get. Nii-iice.

A lot of Canadians tar Americans for being ignorant, brash and crass in the way they treat other people. We love to tell the story of how Europeans warm up to us once they learn we aren’t Americans, because they love how nice we are. The shibboleth makes our self-conscious ears explode with orgasmic warmth and self-satisfaction.

Maybe it’s true, maybe it’s not that Americans are more boorish than Canadians. But Canadians lurk behind the veil of niceties we picked up from our British heritage and haven’t been able to shake loose. We simply care too much about what others think of us to let our inner scumbag leave the confines of the trailer-park.

We are smug and sanctimonious instead of brash and self-assured. We disdain the uppity nature of overly goal-driven go-getters, and take pleasure in undermining those who deign to stand out for their audacity, on the precept that the naked ambition is itself evidence of its adherent’s corruptibility. Secretly, we wish we had the balls, or the means, to put ourselves out there in the same way.

The same proportion of Canadians are xenophobic, passive-aggressive, conservative, self-righteous assholes, as the throngs we denounce as existing in the US. It’s just that Canadian bigots leave the job of being openly crass to their like-minded bigot brethren to the south. Openly, we Canadians are quick to denounce your lunatic fringe, but make no mistake Tea Partiers, Klansmen, Fundamentalist Christians, and NRA die-hards: you have widespread fraternity in Canada cheering you on from our passive aggressive sidelines.

If you had any doubts about this, simply read the comment threads that follow any media story about race, poverty, immigration, or gender issues. The flourishing of the reptilian Canadian mind will be there in all its glory. It won’t be nice.

The CBC Sucks as an Avatar of Canadian ‘Culture’

Contrary to what the CBC portrays, very few Canadians play the fiddle and do a jig in tartans. Other than those in Nova Scotia, it’s doubtful many of us care for Rita McNeil. In spite of the people on CBC’s programs, very few Canadians say ‘airm’ when talking about our ‘arms’. Stuart McLean is a quaint storyteller, in a zany kinda way, but those gags about cousin Morley are really best suited for the nursing home circuit than purported as representing much of Canadian reality for anyone outside of Southern Ontario.

To be blunt, there’s a fluffiness, a bullshit air to the programming on the CBC, and even to the idea of Canadian culture that’s dripping like cheese from shows like Corner GasThe Red Green Show, Ann of Green Gables, and Little Mosque on the Prairie. These shows were all spawned from the same fallacious saccharine barrel that some people seem insistent on propounding as “Canadian-ness”.

The CBC has been the chief propagandist in fertilizing our cultural landscape with this pungent brand of manure for a looooong time. If you want a more accurate understanding of Canadian-ness, warts and all, start with Second City Television re-runs and trace your steps forward from there. You will quickly learn that we don’t huff in our tea and indignantly chew on our crumpets saying “gosh-darn it” when we disapprove of something; that we are boozing, cussing, pleasure-seeking cretins just like anyone else in the developed world.

So, my US cousins, don’t be disappointed when asking me to say ‘aboot’ if I don’t cut muster because I wasn’t raised in Dildo, Newfoundland. Most of us where I live are more apt to sound like Fred Gunderson from Minneapolis than Gerry Doolan from Antigonish. Unless I am maliciously lampooning someone, it will be a frosty night in hell before I put down my fiddle, and lay my spoon down in my cod cheek soup to say something like “Jaysus, Lard’n tunderlin Gerry, go’s and wash yer ’ands ‘fore ye’s come to da tay-bel fer eats.”

Quebec Separation, Meh

In a day-to-day sense if Quebec separates from Canada none of us would feel any impact on our lives. Not a goddamned thing. In reality, they still have not signed the constitution, so they’ve never really bought in. If they decide to go, they’ll still use the Canadian dollar, they’ll still trade with Canada, they’ll still come and go freely across borders, and they’ll still pretend not to understand a word of english when one of us anglos is frantically looking for directions out of the butt-hole town we’ve mistakenly driven into because we can’t read unilingual french signs. We’ll all just be spared the dog and pony show that pointlessly rears its head every few years.

The ‘Shawinigan Shake’ by PM Chretien. Without Quebec in Canada, would we ever see a PM willing to slap-down naysayers like Chretien could? I don’t think so.

The cycle of extortion by Quebec politicians on the one hand, and the bribing by federal politicians on the other will cease, and the rest of us will stop seething from all the histrionic hamming we were subjected to in the process. Watching this shit unfold for the entirety of my four-decade life has been like watching a perpetual YouTube re-run of a parent trying to cajole their wet-noodle two year old off the floor of Canadian Tire by promising him muffins and kool-aid if he’ll just get off the floor and come home.

This isn’t to say it’s desirable if Quebec separates. Administratively, it’s a pain in the ass, and it’s the hope that it never occurs, because Canada is a small player in the global racket, and with one less populous province in its ranks, it gets even smaller. Plus, the funny-accented, chip-on-your-shoulder politicians who hail from that province have been highly entertaining antidotes to the snooze-fest spectacle that is Canadian politics, even if they’ve been unbelievably difficult to apprehend and infuriating in their ideas about how persecuted they are. Here’s a few persecutory words to chew on: Iraq, Sudan, Rwanda, Sri Lanka, Iran. I know, forcing you to have to listen to right-wing dipshit anglo politicians from Alberta is torturous, but it beats gunboats from the air and machete-wielding genocidal throngs from rival political cleavages, ben ouai?

In any case, paying our protection money to keep Quebec in the country seems well worth the periodic hassles. Without Jean Chretien’s smug, unusually french-accented banter I’d have probably ended up offing myself in the nineties, driven to despair by the ennui of living in a country so grand in its own mind and lofty in its aspirations, but so short in accomplishment, so sanctimonious and feeble in its comportment.