Marshall McLuhan and Deanna Durbin: Winnipeg’s Sweethearts, and
My Hamburger Socks
Outrage over the world’s injustices, magnified by festering damage caused by parental abandonment and a cult-like institutional upbringing, multiplied by reading Glenn Greenwald too intensely, made worse by having unwittingly internalized outdated social constructs of the correct way to be a man is what started this whole substack venture—you know, the idea that a real man can’t just stay at home and bake delicious treats and dust picture frames and scrub tubs the better to bubble bath himself rosewater pink later in.
My brush with mortality probably helped. More on that later.
It occurred to me finally—suddenly—that reading Glenn Greenwald assiduously, and getting furious at things I was not at all positioned to change, in even the most minute way, might not actually signify my superior virtue or advanced education. More likely, it made me just another sucker hooked to content made possible by a series of commercially driven innovations in communications technologies. Increasingly, it has seemed clear to me, everything contained and available on what we incorrectly persist in calling “our phone” offers the world little but new duresses, as well as old ones in newly electronic forms. The news of the world, nudity, new forms of MarioKart, constant texting --it makes no difference. In the most reductive, vulgar way that Marshall McLuhan is commonly understood—the media is the message—McLuhan was right. The mobile screen itself represents a sharp downward decline in human civilization. (The land line remains the highest achievement in telecommunications technology. Everything else has been progress at our own expense.)
McLuhan, as many of you know, was raised in Winnipeg, and did his post-secondary in Manitoba, as well. He was a talent and that meant he got to go to England to play with the posh daddies. When he got to Cambridge, the Dons were all like, “Cool Marshall, cool—you understand, of course, that we cannot recognize or accept your grotesquely inferior, post-secondary academic credentials, like, at all, you colonial buttnitwit,” and even though he already had an MA, and was smarter than all the rest of those chumps put together they gave him only one year credit for his entire Canadian undergrad and master’s degree, making him redo the rest of his undergrad the right way before he could crack on to his PhD. I’m sure it built character.
Deanna Durbin, “Winnipeg’s Sweetheart, is no longer remembered as often as McLuhan. But in her day—the 1930s and 40s—Durbin, born to British parents in Winnipeg, was more famous than Shirley Temple, a star of the silver screen renowned worldwide not just for her acting ability and requisite good looks, but also for the pure quality of her singing voice. Durbin had it all and hated it all, the business of being famous—Hollywood. When she married her third husband it came with a condition—that she be allowed to live “the life of nobody.” Which she achieved. Winnipeg’s Sweetheart decamped from California and moved to Paris, where she died after having lived a normal life in delicious reclusivity.
In doing so, I believe, Durbin anticipated the horror of the coming age as astutely as McLuhan, and decades earlier: she saw a new humanity coming, the one that is now already here—generations born to accept access to individual technological communication as naturally as their own limbs, socialized since birth to believe that constant connection with an interactive audience of millions as an inherent good verging on human right. I think I must have believed as natural many of the same things. Like a frog in cold water on its oblivious way to a boiling death, I accepted several of the new temperatures as natural and normal and designed with my own well-being and comfort in mind. All of the other frogs boiling beside me had no problem getting active on social media, on losing the ability to have a conversation without looking at their phone, so I did the same, and shrugged it off—frog life. Keep up with the times—I mean temperatures—frog Colin! Indeed, I watched as my entire academic discipline went from cautioning students about the serious danger presented by sudden mass social shifts in communications technologies to embracing all technological change as evidence of progress and started teaching students that, to quote George Michael,
Change is natural,
Change is good,
Not everybody does it,
But everybody should.
I quote George Michael largely out of personal fondness, but also as a case in point. Because George Michael tried to pull a Durban of his own, to simply dissolve into the steady joy of a normal nobody life. But normal life in the modern world is no longer possible; or, to state the same transformation another way, the new normal is so unnatural as to cause profound sadness—or so George found. Paparazzi ensured that every time the former Wham! singer popped a boner anywhere near a public park in London, the entire world would know about it instantly. George got front-page gay-shamed, body-shamed, cannabis-shamed and talent-shamed pretty much every other day of his adult life yet when he died alone and at home, having largely been unable to leave his house with any amount of privacy ever, the whole world was like, we didn’t even know u wuz suffering, George!-why didn’t u ask for help?
It’s one thing to have had fame to begin with and be unable to fully escape it. But the mania of our age is the naturalized acceptance of the incessant, individual imperative to technologically experience all of the negative consequences of fame without having enjoyed any of its supposed benefits. The emergence of the absence of private as a meritorious condition to be preserved at all times is not just a perversion of a previous social value, it is an about-face.
I quote George Michael also to draw attention to the already outdatedness of the cultural reference and the speed with which a short-attention spanned, new- and news-obsessed culture renders obsolete everything it creates. I saw somewhere that physics has now concluded that the future has already happened. This does not surprise me.
Yesterday, I woke and put on my hamburger socks. Then I took them off and started to put them in the garbage. Both socks have holes on the toes and the heels. But they are my only socks with hamburgers and every time I pace the apartment with them on, I find myself looking down, thinking, “I am wearing hamburger socks” and the thought pleases me. So, I saved them from the trash, put them on and thought to myself, “just one more time.”
My partner, meanwhile, had left to try and find some Halloween candy in preparation for a visit from Bongo Ross. I asked if she could find a mask—of any kind—so I could be wearing a costume to greet them. These are the stores she visited that had no masks left by late morning on Halloween Day, not a single one:
Shopper’s Drug Mart
While she shopped, I baked. I was planning on making a dulce de leche. But the condensed milk was gone. My partner had taken to using the tin as a fruit dipping station, a power move if ever there was one. Short on sugars, I scoured cupboard and fridge and saw we had recently been given a jar of homemade Plum Rum Jam. The most likely recipe I found was something called a “Jam Jam”—apparently a traditional Eastern Canadian baked good in which is sandwiched between two round cookies. I was (as many of my detractors have suggested) short an egg, and so I added a tablespoon of apple cider vinegar. Didn’t want to, was forced to—no other suitable substitutes were at hand. The vinegar makes the dough bubbly. Which meant each individual cookie came out looking, almost exactly, like half of a hamburger slider bun.
The colour, as well as the texture, of the plum rum jam spread out looking exactly like a beef patty.
I was chuckling about the irony of me wearing hamburger socks while accidentally making mini-dessert hamburgers when the door opened and my partner returned. She’d found it at the fourth store she went to, Value Village, and it was the only hat of any sort they had left. The final hat.
It was… a hamburger hat.
This confirmed what I suspected once-and-for-all a few months ago and why the outrage that began this blog has gradually given way to comic bewilderment. Since all of (supposed) existence is just the universe fucking with us, I’d rather carry on with the baked goods and analog music then stare into a screen which merely glows back not only the folly of our time but also the folly of time itself. I started on substack to shake my fist at the clouds, but I’ve found that recently I find the clouds beautiful, and that the joy I receive from music and baked goods are things of far greater substance than any theory or religion or technological device of mass communication that’s ever come my way.
I’ve also learned that I do not have cancer, that I require no surgery, and that, having suffered a battery of tests I am really very healthy in all of the critical areas. As you can imagine, news of my rude health came as quite a shock to me. When my mom, Ann Pelly—who was also born in Winnipeg and was also a sweetheart—died of lung cancer in 2002 I lived my life like I too was already dead and for the next unlucky thirteen years or so did my best to ruin my health through all the usual vices. I’d thought of myself as a dissipated, havoc-creator for so long that the terrible changes that have come over me have caught me largely unaware. Since moving to Vancouver four years ago, I’ve been living a quiet, domestic life. Somehow, I seem to have started exercising regularly and eating healthily. All of what came before has passed. Possibly all of what is still to come has also already passed but either cosmic way time has never passed as smoothly and as naturally as it has since I decided to stop being outraged all the time over things I can’t control.
I’d rather be Martha Stewart than Michel Foucault.
If you put that on a T-shirt, I bet it’d sell a lot in men’s sizes.
Happy Hamburger Halloween.
A day late. Right on time.