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The Endangered Species

I checked Twitter this morning to find out that some white, male, British writer who won the Booker Prize in 2005 has decided to use his one wild and precious life to complain that he wouldn’t be able to win it today, as a straight white male, because of a “‘woke’ movement” that he “despises.”

Lots of people wiser and better than I have already pointed out the absurdity of this claim. But whenever I hear people make claims about awards and who gets them, I am annoyed enough to dig into the numbers. And in this case, those numbers highlight very clearly what Mr. Banville is really saying.

Since Banville won the Booker in 2005, the Booker Prize has been awarded 15 times to 15 people (twice to the same writer, Hilary Mantel, and once to two writers, Margaret Atwood and Bernardine Evaristo). Eight of those winners were men, while seven were women, which seems like a pretty fair gender split. But wait! Of the eight male winners, three were non-white! Look out; that leaves only five white male winners in the last fifteen years.

In fact, a white male won just this year, 2020, which should put to bed any suggestion that white men are unfairly disadvantaged — except that Douglas Stuart, the 2020 winner, is gay. Which is obviously why Banville has to add “straight” to his own identifier, so as to define his category in the Hardship Sweepstakes as narrowly as possible.

Put like that, the ridiculousness of his claim becomes a little more apparent. It’s not that men are excluded (8/15 winners are male), or that white people are excluded (10/15 winners), or that straight people are excluded (I’m not going to take the time to look through 15 people’s bios to find out who they’re sleeping with but I confidently say a majority of those 15 winners are flagrantly heterosexual, openly flaunting their relationships with people of the opposite sex).

Banville’s fine whine is perhaps occasioned especially by the fact that the shortlists of the last two years’ Booker Prizes do not contain any books by straight, white men. They contain books by men, books by white writers, books by straight writers aplenty — but none that fit into the narrow niche Banville has carved out to define himself. Prior to 2018, straight white men appear on pretty much every year’s shortlist, and the last time one of that embattled minority won the award was as recently as 2017, when George Saunders (deservedly; I loved the book) won for Lincoln in the Bardo.

Of course the shortlists look a little different from how they looked when the prize was new in the 1970s, when almost all the nominees were white (though still fairly evenly divided between men and women; men, however, tended win more often in those early years). The most controversial Booker decision in recent years was not the inclusion of more non-white writers, or more women, or more LGBTQ writers, but the inclusion of Americans in 2014, which still raises some hackles (two Americans have actually won since 2014, both men, but presumably only one of those, Saunders, would count in Banfield’s Hardship Sweepstakes since the other is Black).

The odds of any book I’ve written being shortlisted for a Booker Prize are approximately none at all, ever, but if I wanted to feel hard done by I could point out that in that same 15-year period we’re looking at, only one Canadian has ever won the prize, and she had to share it with (gasp!) a Black British woman! And did you know that no woman from Newfoundland over the age of 50 who owns a rescue dog has ever won the Booker Prize??!?! The universe is stacked against me!

The fact is that for a very long time, women and people of colour and LGBTQ people and disabled people and any other marginalized group have been told, “It’s not that you’re being discriminated against. We just happened to hire/give the prize to/promote the straight, able-bodied white male because his credentials are better. His research was more original. He wrote a better book. There’s no discrimination here; the system is entirely merit-based.”

Now, when the kinds of people who publish books, and the kinds of people who give out big literary awards, are making a conscious effort to include, promote, and listen to more diverse voices — guess what? White people are still doing fine. Men are doing great. Straight people are crushing it! But if you want to narrowly define yourself by a specific Venn diagram of identifiers — the straight, white, male — then you might start to feel a little … marginalized.

Of all the wise sayings that float around the internet looking for attribution, one of the truest, to me, is the (probably) anonymous statement that “When you’re accustomed to privilege, equality feels like oppression.” The fact is that people in Mr. Banville’s narrow, self-defined Venn diagram of identity — male, white, heterosexual — have been handed participation trophies just for showing up for several hundred years now. Many of them have believed the lie that these prizes were based on their own inherent merit, not on a system that silenced other voices and privileged those of the straight white male.

A lot of straight white men have grown up as a protected class, assuming that the jobs and the prizes were theirs by right. A lifetime of benefiting from that system without interrogating it could, indeed, lead one to think that that formerly protected class, minus just a few of its traditional protections, has now become an endangered species.

But don’t worry, Mr. Banville. It’s really all based on merit. Look at George Saunders – a credit to his race and sex! Someday maybe you’ll write a book as good as Lincoln in the Bardo, and win the Booker Prize. Again.


I’m Breaking Up With You, America

Dear United States of America,

We’ve had a good run. Our relationship goes back to my mother, who was born on your soil in the beautiful borough of Brooklyn, New York, and proudly held onto her American citizenship all her life despite having moved to Newfoundland at the ripe old age of 20 months and remaining there (apart from a brief six-month stay back in Brooklyn as a young adult) till she died.

Then I hung out with you for three years in my own young adulthood, in the great state of Michigan (in the part of it that some people called “Michiana,” where the big treat was to go to Chicago for a day trip). They were three great years and I enjoyed every minute. And you remain home to many of my dearest friends and family members.

Lately though, I think our relationship has become a little dysfunctional. And maybe it’s not you; it’s me.

Well, no. It’s at least partly you. But as in any relationship, the only part I can control is the part to do with me.

I’ve always had a passing interest in your politics, as any smart Canadian does — reference the old Pierre Trudeau quote about being in bed with an elephant. (I’m not sure if you know it. Or if you know who Pierre Trudeau was. You’ve never been as invested in this relationship as I have and I sometimes feel you don’t even know much about me, or my country).

During those three years I spent living with you, you had an election. It was 1984 and the incumbent, Ronald Reagan, was running against Walter Mondale, who had been VP to that good man Jimmy Carter. I didn’t know or care much about Mondale but I liked that he had broken precedent by nominating a woman, Geraldine Ferraro, as his VP candidate (1984! Glass ceilings shattering everywhere!!!). On election night I sat in a sad room on campus with the college “Young Democrats” club — most of whom were, like myself, actually Canadians — watching Mondale lose.

Over the years, I’ve kept up with your politics — I remember the nail-biter election of 2000, and attending a small 2003 protest (small in my Canadian city, huge worldwide) against Bush’s war in Iraq. But I was interested the way you’re interested if your neighbour is getting new siding on his house. “Oh, that looks nice,” you might say to yourself, or, “Eww, how can they live with that colour?” But even if I’m the one who has to look at it, it’s not my house and not my choice. So I’ve been able to remain somewhat detached, even as we continued our pleasant but distant relationship.

Then 2016 happened, and you went and had that election.

You know the one. The one with the smart, capable, experienced woman who’d been working for this job her whole life, versus the ridiculous, ignorant, racist reality show has-been? The one where I stayed up late because I wanted to see with my own eyes the moment when the US elected its first woman leader (a trick my own country still hasn’t managed)?

Yeah. That’s the point at which I think our relationship got a little unhealthy.

Since 2016, I’ve been interested, as most of the world has, in what’s been happening in Donald Trump’s USA. I’ve been concerned about it they way I’ve been concerned about, say, Boris Johnson’s post-Brexit-referendum UK, or for that matter Bolsinaro’s Brazil or any one of the several other countries that have taken a hard turn towards right-wing nationalist populism served with heaping sides of isolationism and xenophobia. Like anyone who believes the only possible future for this planet lies in us all working together, I’m alarmed when countries — especially those filled with people I care about — seem to be moving towards more barriers, less co-operation; more hate, less acceptance. And as one of the 30 million mice in bed with this elephant, I have, of course, worried about the spillover of Trumpism into Canada. It’s only natural to have been interested in, and worried about, your politics over the last 4 years.

I will admit, though, that it’s gone a bit beyond natural interest.

It’s not an exaggeration to say that over the past four years I’ve been following the politics of your country more closely than I have my own (except during our actual elections, when I have managed to pay attention). I listen to American political podcasts. I have read hundreds of articles about American politics in the last four years. I follow American politicians and activists on Twitter. I have even read more books about the American political landscape than I have about our own.

It’s beyond a healthy interest: it’s an obsession. One that’s only gotten worse in the weeks and then days leading up to — and after — the US election on November 3.

In the last five days I have spent more time staring at the map at the top of this post (or an earlier, more upsetting iteration of it) than I have at the faces of my own husband and daughter WHO LIVE IN THE HOUSE WITH ME.

Why this obsession? First, start with the sensible reasons above — the interest of a small-L liberal in a dangerous conservative movement in a neighbouring country — and move to the one that’s equally true but less sensible.

The second reason: It’s a compelling narrative. Politics are often muddy and full of compromise, but the Trump story was appealing because it presented a clear bad guy, something we don’t always get in these kinds of stories — a villain with no redeeming personal qualities to offset his repellent political views, who combined stunning ignorance about his job with breathtaking levels of rudeness and pettiness. On the other side, whole hosts of activists and allies and white-hat politicians were fighting for The Good Guys. Even during the complicated days of the Democratic primary, it was easy to look at all these people (well, maybe not Mike Bloomberg, but the rest of them) and cast any of them as The Good Guy, or the Good Gal, who would ride into town to save the day.

Trump supporters, of course, derived the same kind of pleasure from a simple good vs evil narrative, but with the roles reversed.

Finally, I guess, the third and most shameful reason is that, like any addiction, an addiction to US politics feeds on itself. The more time you spend thinking about it, engaging with it, sharing snarky Twitter memes about it, the more you’re drawn into it. And you keep going back for more.

But politics isn’t a game or a prime-time drama. It’s a messy business of figuring out, through the ballot box and also through the day-to-day work of activism and advocacy, how to create a society that offers the best life for the most people. That’s work we all have to engage in, but we can only engage in it in the place where we live. Other people’s politics can only ever be a spectator sport, a drama that gives us the thrill of cheering for the good guys and booing the bad guys, without engaging in the hard work of making our own communities better.

I try to do politics in my own country, both as a voter and a person active in my community, but I feel like some of the energy I could have been putting into making my city and province and country a better place has gone, in these last four years, into a vicarious fascination with another country’s politics. 

So I made myself a promise: however the American election worked out, once a winner was declared, I would detach from it. Follow it with as much interest as I would the politics of any other country I cared about, but stop obsessing about it. Unfollow some folks on Twitter. Prioritize reading about issues in Canada rather than in the US. Unsubscribe from a bunch of podcasts (honestly, breaking up with the Pod Save America guys is going to be hardest part because I love those Obama bros — their relationships, their snark, the whole package. I’d listen if Jon, Jon, Tommy and Dan just did a podcast about, I don’t know, watching TV or something). 

“Once a winner was declared” took a little longer than I expected, but last night I watched Vice President Elect Kamala Harris and President Elect Joe Biden speak to their supporters, accompanied by a killer soundtrack and a fireworks display that a Canadian politician would blush to even think about, much less ever have dedicated to them. It was a beautiful, inspiring moment full of hope, optimism, and the sense that our American friends had shown themselves capable of choosing a better leader — even if not by the resounding landslide I’d hoped for.

Now, for you, America, begins the messy hard work of cleaning up after the party is over. Leftists getting angry at Biden’s centrist cabinet picks and trying to push him in the direction they want him to go (push hard, friends!!). Conservatives moaning about impending socialism as the Biden government fiendishly plots to make it possible for people to go to the hospital without checking their bank account. The Supreme Court striking down Biden’s best legislation. Mitch McConnell’s Republican-majority Senate refusing to sign a bill to offer relief to people who’ve lost their jobs in the middle of a deadly pandemic. Donald Trump barricading himself in the White House and having to be evicted.

But these are your problems, not mine. I won’t be watching (OK, I might click on some footage if Trump really does have to be hauled out by the Secret Service, but otherwise, no). You’ve got your own fights to fight, and we’ve got ours. Canadians have gotten off easy for four years on the world stage simply by having a leader whose most outstanding qualities were 1) being physically attractive, and 2) not being Donald Trump (see #1). But that’s not enough. It’s not enough for the poor in Canada. It’s not enough for Indigenous people. It’s not enough for Black people, or disabled people, or LGBT people in Canada, all of whom have important battles to fight and for whom, for the most part, this government has not done enough. It’s not enough for 10,510 Canadians (as of today) who’ve died since March of this year when they didn’t have to, nearly 80% of whom were seniors in long-term care homes, the elders we should have protected and cherished instead of leaving them exposed to a deadly virus.

I want to get more educated about these fights and get my hands dirtier in helping to fight them. Is that a mixed metaphor, or do your hands actually get dirty in fights? I don’t know. I just know I can’t do this while being constantly distracted by the south-of-the-border Political Drama of the Week.

I love you, America, and in some part of my heart I always will. But for now, it’s best that we go our separate ways.


All My Decapitated Heroes

In the spring of 1979, when I was thirteen years old, I fell in love with two men.

It was an impossible romance from the start. Not only were they both inaccessible to me, but they were each other’s sworn enemies, standing for starkly different values — one doomed to die at the other’s hand. I couldn’t have either of them, and I certainly couldn’t have both.

Plus, they were older than I was. Like, a lot older. Like, dead-many-decades older.

I blame the CBC — for my ill-fated love affairs, not to mention my lifelong fascination with history. In the spring of 1979 they aired the TV movie Riel, about Louis Riel, the Red River and Northwest Rebellions, and his subsequent execution. I was glued to the screen (ok, I was a weird teenager), passionately on the side of and in love with Riel, but also deeply fascinated with the movie’s villain, our first Prime Minister, Sir John A. Macdonald.

They were both towering figures. There were, of course, inaccuracies in the movie, as in any adaptation of history, but it hewed close enough to the actual events and people to send me to books to find out the rest of the story. As for the movie itself, I cried when Riel went to his death. He was played by French-Canadian actor Raymond Cloutier and Macdonald by — I didn’t even realize this till I looked it up — Christopher Plummer.

I spent most of the next summer and my Grade Nine year that followed reading everything I could get my hands on about Canadian history, Riel, the rebellions, Macdonald and the other early prime ministers. There was no doubt in my mind that Riel, Dumont and the other Metis were absolutely in the right, that Macdonald’s ruthless determination to push through a railway and forge a (white, majority-English) nation on top of Indigenous traditional lands was unjust. But, from the safe distance of history, I could admire the powerful personalities of both men, could see Riel’s cause as right but ultimately doomed, could appreciate what Macdonald’s ruthlessness had won for us (us, settlers): a country.

It seemed possible, as a lover of history, a white, settler-descended Canadian, to have both — admiration for Riel’s ill-fated rebellion, and appreciation of Macdonald’s nation-building, even though the two could not coexist. Like most people (most white, European-descended people?) who love history, I have held that love of contradictory characters from history, counting myself as an admirer of both Riel and Macdonald, of Churchill and Gandhi.

With the exception of the true “bad guys” of history — your Hitlers and Stalins — surely, we tell ourselves, these men of the past were all complex characters, weren’t they? We imagine those who held power and those who suffered under them as equally men of their times, to be admired for their accomplishments and forgiven for their excesses.

It’s all well and good, isn’t it, till someone tears down a statue of one of your heroes, and, in the process, his head falls off.

This post is not about debating the rights and wrongs of statue removal. This is not about “erasing history”; the purpose of statues is not to teach us history, and people without statues are not erased.

On the whole, I’m in favour of taking down the statues of people I see as unambiguous bad guys — those Confederate generals in the US South, Edward Colston in Bristol, Stalin, Saddam Hussein. I’m on record (on Twitter, at least) as saying I don’t see the point of Gaspar Corte-Real towering over the St. John’s skyline.

But I have clung to my love for statues of John A. Macdonald, as of the man himself. I like Churchill statues too — the great striding figure covered in bird-crap outside the old Halifax library is a favourite of mine. I have liked, in my history-buff lifetime, a lot of old, dead white guys who said terrible things about black and brown people, and who did terrible things to them, too. I have a history crush on Sir John A., even though he had my other history crush, Louis Riel, hanged. Macdonald was the architect of a nation, and also the architect of the devastation of several First Nations.

I know all this. I know, now, the things he did to and said about Indigenous people in this country he hoped to unite and rule. I know that he never imagined a country in which those First Nations and Metis people could be anything like equal to white, English or French-speaking Canadians of European descent. He didn’t even imagine a country in which First Nations and Metis could go on being themselves, speaking their own languages and practicing their own religion and culture. I have no difficulty understanding why an Indigenous activist might describe a statue of Macdonald as “an open wound.”

And yet. It was a shock, to see the images. To see headless Sir John A., toppled and decapitated by protesters earlier this week.

I used to say that the correct response to every statue of Sir John A. Macdonald would be to erect a statue of Louis Riel immediately opposite him: confronting, challenging, staring him down. There’s something in that idea I still like — like the Fearless Girl facing down the Wall Street bull, I admire public art that challenges other public art, makes us see the original pieces in a different light.

But matching Macdonald and Riel statues would also be soothing to my settler soul, in some way — it would put them, as the TV movie did, safely behind historical glass together, on an equal footing where I could find things to admire about both of them. Standing between these imagined two statues, I would not be forced to take sides. I could go on loving them both.

A toppled statue doesn’t allow that comfortable distance, that false equivalence. A headless Macdonald lying in a Montreal street challenges that safe historical gaze, which is almost always a white, settler, European, majority gaze. Macdonald’s decapitated head tells me that while men like him are in the past, they are not safely there: the damage they did lives on, to be attacked and confronted.

Macdonald’s severed head gazes up at me from the street, from photographs of the street, haunting me. Mocking my perception that history can ever be safe, on a pedestal or behind a screen. Challenging my teenage settler belief that I can have both Sir John A. and Louis Riel.

History is never safely in the past, and we are never mere spectators. History is around us, in the streets, confronting and naming injustice. History stares at me from the street with unseeing eyes, forcing me to choose between my early loves. To take a side.


Lighting Candles in Corners: Some Thoughts on Charity

Above is a not-very-great picture of me doing the thing that has, hands-down, given me the most personal satisfaction and enjoyment during the long weeks of pandemic lockdown: preparing food hampers for home delivery out of our (otherwise unused) church basement.

For five years we’ve been running a hot meal program every second Sunday, but in early March it quickly became apparent that having a random group of people come in, sit down together, and eat food prepared and served by a variety of volunteers was not going to work for the foreseeable future. We shut down the meal program and looked for other ways to be useful in the community.

With one of the largest food banks in town temporarily closed due to COVID-19 precautions and other programs operating with limited staff and hours, we felt the best service we could offer was a grocery delivery program for those who not only found it hard to afford food, but hard to get out and either shop or line up at food banks, especially in a pandemic.

Since late April we’ve been delivering groceries to about 20 households — mostly seniors, disabled people, or single-parent families with young children — every week. For the summer months, with demand slacking off a little, we’ve just switched to doing it twice a month. A good crew of volunteers, and some funding from our church’s national relief organization and other groups, has made this possible. Organizing the program has taken a lot of my time over the last few months; it’s been a welcome distraction and a way to feel useful in a difficult time.

And yet, I feel uneasy about statements like that last one. Because on one level, it sounds like I’m saying, “Helping others through a hard time has helped me get through that hard time, also.” Which is great.

But if you dig a couple of layers deeper, you get to, “Other people’s suffering [in this case, their inability to buy food for themselves] has provided me with an opportunity to feel good and valuable.” And that’s … pretty ugly.

For those of us who enjoy doing “works of charity,” whether in our paid job or our volunteer work (I do both, as I work for a charitable-focused nonprofit), there can be an uncomfortable kind of equation happening here, where someone else’s misfortune equals my opportunity to shine as a “helper.”

I mean, if you’re going to make yourself feel good from the misfortune of others, it’s definitely better to achieve that by helping those others, rather than by causing their misfortune, which obviously some folks do. I’d always choose to be one of the helpers; most of us would. But being a giver of charity raises awkward questions about the reasons for that charity.

What would make the situation in my city better, so that hot meal programs and food banks weren’t required? Well, universal basic income would be a big one. Under a system with adequate UBI, would there still be people who would have difficulty purchasing and preparing food? Sure, but we could imagine a lot more societal supports being put in place to give people greater independence in meeting their food needs, so that the number of people who would have to rely on any kind of “charity” to put food on their tables would be far, far, far lower than it is now.

Which would be great. Only … what would us do-gooders do, if we had no soup kitchens to run, no food banks to organize?

In my day job, I teach at an adult-education centre, mainly serving young adults who did not complete their high school programs, often due to mental illness, physical illness, family dysfunction, or other issues. What would it look like to not need services our centre provides? Well, the school system would have to become much more flexible, much better at adapting to a variety of needs and learning styles.

And if they did? I’ve heard co-workers talk about plans for better student retention in the public school system and jokingly say, “Well, they’d better not get too good at retention or we’ll be out of a job.” And while it’s very important for me to stress that the co-workers who made those comments were absolutely making a joke and are in favour of more kids staying in school — there’s a kernel of truth there, for all of us in the “helping professions,” isn’t there?

If the public school system was creative and flexible enough that everyone could successful achieve a diploma, we wouldn’t need adult education teachers. If everyone had the money and skills to buy and prepare their own food, we wouldn’t need the volunteers who run soup kitchens and food banks. Are there times when we fall so in love with the act of helping, the image of ourselves as helpers, that we become shortsighted – we are OK with keeping people in a position of dependence, of need, because we want to feel needed?

In one sense, of course, this is a purely academic argument. No matter how much fairer our economy gets, how good our social services are, we don’t live in the Garden of Eden. There will always be enough people in need of help — some kind of help — to keep us chronic helpers busy, getting our fix of do-goodism. If everyone had enough money to buy food, I could probably have organized a personal shopping and delivery service anyway for the people who couldn’t get to stores. If public schools retained everybody and every kid graduated, I wouldn’t have a job in adult-ed anymore, but those public schools would need a lot more teachers skilled in dealing with, for example, high-anxiety students, so my skills could still be put to use somewhere. There will never be a shortage of people to help.

But there’s another way in which the desire to be a helper, to provide “charity,” can be a trap in and of itself — if we divorce charity from justice. If I’m happy to volunteer at the soup kitchen or the food bank without asking “Why are people hungry?”, campaigning for a higher minimum wage and UBI, supporting political candidates who will work towards those goals — then I don’t really want people’s lives to be better; I just want the thrill of being a helper.

If I am happy to teach people who’ve dropped out of school without asking, “Why are people dropping out, and what can I do to support those who are working to prevent that, to make school fairer and more accessible for everyone?” — then I’m not really working for a better education system; I’m just enjoying my own smug sense of “goodness” for being a teacher who helps “those in need.”

Maybe charity shouldn’t be necessary, but it is. And it’s important, and lots of us love doing it. But we can never see it as just an end in itself. While we’re delivering the food hampers or dishing up the soup or opening the doors of the shelter, we also have to be working towards the bigger picture: a world in which food banks and soup kitchens and homeless shelters are not necessary. A more just world.

It’s great to light a candle in the darkness, to brighten the corner where you are. I hope to always do that.

But if the reason our corners are dark is because lights are burning out all over the house, then maybe we could also screw in a few new bulbs here and there? Or, at the very least, hold the ladder for someone else to do so? Maybe if we all do that, there won’t be so many dark corners in need of candles, and we can all see our way to a better world.


The Great Tunnel Fire, and a Return to “Normal”

Today, we are 9 or 10 weeks into pandemic “lockdown” — numbers vary depending on where you live and what your personal situation is like. Where I live, we are on the path to a gradual re-opening that is, predictably, far too gradual for some people and much too fast for others. Amid all this there has been a lot of talk about “returning to normal” and “the new normal” and what all that may look like. Which, by a thought process I won’t bother to try to trace, took me back to the fall semester of 1982, my first year in university, and the tunnel fire that devastated the underground pedestrian/locker network beneath Memorial University of Newfoundland.

The day of the fire is burned (haha) into my mind, but what I remember even more vividly is what the tunnels were like before the fire (which fortunately resulted only in damage to property, no injuries or loss of life). I had just arrived at MUN as a 16-year-old (that was the age we graduated high school here in those days), fresh from a tiny Seventh-day Adventist school, aware of most of the vices of the world but innocent of them myself. The tunnels, which ran (and still run) in a labyrinthine network beneath most of the main buildings on the south side of campus, were far more than a way to get from class to class without being exposed to Newfoundland weather. They were truly an underworld, one that was amazing and invigorating and a little bit intimidating to someone as easily intimidated as I was in the fall of 1982.

I didn’t drink or smoke or play cards or play electric guitar, but I found it oddly exciting that people did all these things and more in the tunnels, between and sometimes instead of going to class. Sitting on the floor in front of your, or someone else’s, locker was so common that at busy times, especially during lunch, it was often hard to pick your way between the river of moving bodies and the forest of stretched-out legs. Those were the days of smoking indoors, and the air was blue with smoke as well as with laughter, curse words, and often music. Impromptu tunnel parties were common. The tunnels were intended as corridors, but they were also lively, barely-regulated spaces of human contact, truly common areas whose atmosphere I soaked up even while not actually participating in most of it.

It never occurred to me that the tunnels would be any different.

Then, one day towards the end of that semester, a fire broke out in the tunnels. They were swiftly evacuated (in one of my rare acts of defying authority, I turned back to get my backpack and jacket out of my locker when I was ordered to leave the tunnel at once, and was always glad I did). The immediate result was that lot of people’s lockers and books got destroyed, and deadlines for end-of-term assignments got extended, and lots of people claimed their books had been destroyed even if their lockers were in untouched sections of the tunnels, so they could take advantage of extended deadlines. But the long-term impact went much deeper.

The front-page article from the student newspaper above tells the story well. “Following the tunnel fire last semester…” wrote Joan Sullivan (now editor of the Newfoundland Quarterly) “a severe set of rules is being enforced on those who use the tunnels.” The severe rules included no smoking in the tunnels, no keeping flammable materials in lockers, and “no loitering or congregating in the tunnels.” Student security guards would patrol the tunnels, while the main section from the TSC to the Science Building would be closed for repairs during the winter semester, according to student union VP Danny Breen (now Mayor of St. John’s). Student Union president Ed Buckingham (later a provincial MHA) expressed some concerns: he thought the rules were “a rather strong reaction. I don’t know how practical they are.”

The closing paragraph of the MUSE article identifies a key issue: “Where the students who usually ‘congregate’ in the tunnels will go is one problem no-one seems to be looking into.”

The semester during which the tunnels were closed for repair turned out to be my last as an undergraduate at MUN. I left the province to attend university elsewhere, and when I returned later as a visitor — and later still, as a graduate student — the tunnels were unrecognizable. Clean, empty, silent. If you passed through between classes you’d walk along with several people going from class to class, and maybe see a few students chatting while they stood at their lockers getting books and coats out. Certainly no-one was sitting on the floor playing cards, or perched on an amp busting out tunes on an electric guitar. And, of course, no-one was smoking (even though they would continue to be allowed to smoke in the buildings above the tunnels for years to come).

Obviously, a hideously dangerous fire-safety situation had been resolved. And something had been lost — a communal space, a benevolent anarchy, a pattern of behavior no-one had even questioned until a disaster struck.

Life did not go back to normal after the tunnel fire. Classes went on; extracurricular activities continued; the university sailed blithely on aboveground, but one key piece of student life changed forever, overnight.

Not everything goes back to normal.

When I tried these thoughts out on my husband and daughter, they were able to think of other examples — most strikingly, the changes in airport security that we all accepted after 9/11. Of course, our “normal” is changing all the time, both for worse and for better, but most of the time it changes gradually. I grew up in a time when people smoked indoors, didn’t wear seatbelts, didn’t use sunscreen, and had no computers, cellphones, or internet. The world changes constantly, but every so often a cataclysmic event comes along, disrupts our “normal,” and brings overnight changes. Changes we would have thought unimaginable before the event, that we simply accepted as normal afterwards.

So it’s interesting now, living in the middle of the COVID-19 pandemic, to think about Life Afterwards. Not only after we’ve “flattened the curve” but even after herd immunity, after a widely available vaccine, after most of us never think of dying from COVID-19 anymore than we think about dying from the flu. What will that “after” look like? What parts of normal will have changed altogether? What will we accept as commonplace that we never could have imagined living with up to February 2020? What will be gone forever that we assumed we would always have?