Separating Ourselves From Our Culture

Last week I had the pleasure of catching up with Cory Doctorow over a breakfast orders of magnitude more healthy than the last meal we had shared. Our topics

I've been fascinated by Someone Comes To Town, Someone Leaves Town, Cory's third book, which someone called "the weirdest book I've ever read." It's not obvious; it's clearly allegorical; it's rich and funny and any reading must include pauses for putting the book down and letting your brain absorb connected lumps of ideas. Each of the main characters has some feature that makes them decidedly not-quite-human; most of the characters go by an alliterative appelation that mirrors a baby name book more than a work of science fiction at times. Eventually you realize that all of the "A" names are the same person, as are the "B" names, and so on. Cory explained that the book is about second generation immigrants, finding themselves between a new, rich world and an old one with its own set of names and rules.

This struck a chord with me: growing up I heard my grandmother speak of Yukisiel, Kusiel and sometimes the slightly more formal but muffled Yezekiel. What I learned later is that those were all variations of Ezekiel, and I never learned if she was referring to my father (Ezekiel is his middle Hebrew name, Yezekiel in Yiddish) or one of her old-world siblings. As Cory pointed out to me, drawing on his own Russian grandparents as inspiration for the story, "everybody had five names." The strange, and often foreign, clothes, foods, tastes (in food and clothing), names, and mixed pronunciations that I heard in the 1960s are no more foreign than Doctorow's character Alan, who has no navel, a mountain for a father, and a washing machine for a mother.

I've previously written that Cory is one of a few Canadians with whom I can talk for an hour and not mention hockey. But in recapping our morning, I have to draw on a favorite hockey book, Roy MacGregor's The Last Season because of the common thread of dealing with the foreign nature of our own cultures as seen a generation or a continent removed from their origins. In MacGregor's book, [spoiler alert] Felix, the Canadian protagonist, is a second generation Polish immigrant, an NHL role player (read: fighter), and in the denouement of his career. Felix cannot fathom why his grandmother refers to him as a monster, and refuses to show him even the least affection; only later when truly desperate for a sense of his identity and some direction does Felix' father share that he was born with a caul, triggering superstitions his parents felt belonged back in the old country. Felix learns that his grandmother insisted that the caul be saved, dried and fed to him, so that young Felix would acquire the strength to ward off the apocryphal evils otherwise awaiting him. His parents rejected this bit of old world wisdom while Felix became a stranger in the strange land of his grandmother.

In Someone Comes To Town, those not-quite-right quirks end up saving the day, at least once, in scenes that you can literally smell coming off the pages. If we understand and respect the cultural bits that got us from Point A to Point B, things work out reasonably well. For Felix, his attempt to appease old school myths is upended by his father's insistence that they live wholly on one side of a cultural weirdness barrier. He grabs an unmarked, unnamed jar convinced he's found what his grandmother stashed decades before, but what Felix mixes with his breakfast is poisonous, not just the storied antidote to a toxic tale. The results make Last Season the saddest hockey book I own (aside from my own, which can't seem to write itself).

I just loaned my copy of Doctorow's book to a teenager, eager to hear how she reacts to the story, having matured in an era of rapidly changing, globally aware Gen Y culture that tends leave those from the "old school" on the other side of the social networking weirdness barrier.
[edits: minor midnight grammar cleanups].

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Hal Stern's thoughts on software, services, cloud computing, security, privacy, and data management

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