Friday, December 30, 2005

Up For It - Keith Jarrett, Gary Peacock, Jack DeJohnette

Just before the Christmas flurry gathered to a full roar, my friend handed me a pastel-blue CD. "It's the Keith Jarrett trio. You familiar with them?"

I shook my head. "Not really."

"Well," said my friend, "they're all getting on in years, but they've been doing their thing for nearly three decades. This CD is a concert they gave in Juan-les-Pins, France, after they'd all had a very bad year -- cancer, debilitating arthritis, Chronic Fatigue ... the sort of stuff you get in your middle years.

"The concert itself was literally a wash. Endless rain, on a stage that had very little by way of cover for the performers. And I guess Jarrett sat down with the other two, and asked what they thought. And not one of them wanted to go on out there and play, which was unprecedented for this group.

"Anyhow, Jarrett was quite rattled by all this, so he picked up his cup of coffee, and stepped outside to look at the weather. It was still raining, but just on the horizon there was enough of a break in the clouds, he could see just a peek of the sun. He came back inside and told the others, 'I think we should play.' So they got to their feet, went out on stage in the pouring rain and played this ... amazing ... concert."

I took the CD home with me, and that's what I've been listening to pretty much non-stop for the last week. Inspired, inspirational, transcendant ... are there any superlatives I'm missing?

Available here.

Tuesday, December 27, 2005

A Good Crokinole Board Is Hard To Find

Last summer when I was out in Manitoba, my friend brought out a crokinole board that got me salivating. It was a hefty piece of work, octagonal (the old style I grew up with), all wood, professionally lacquered. It played like a dream.

I asked where they got it. "Oh, that's my mom," said my friend's lovely wife. "She supports a local group of mentally challenged adults. They make these boards for fifty bucks."

My mouth went dry. I stood up on shaky legs, then gathered my strength and began a long and fruitless effort to track down these mentally challenged adults. The generous mother-in-law was out of town, so we scoured the phone book and the internet. Nothing. We drove the neighborhood. Nothing. We phoned and left messages with the mother-in-law. Nothing.

I returned to Ontario, defeated and depressed. This winter we scoured shops in Toronto for a good crokinole board. It's the perfect game for our family. It accomodates four players, relies on an easily learned skill, and has physically dramatic results. As for finding a good board in Southern Ontario, you might as well start looking for the Holy Grail.

We finally settled on a decent-looking board from a reputable store that sells "educational" toys. I gathered from the picture on the box that the board was made of wood, but probably pine and not a hardwood. The box was promisingly heavy, though, so I felt pretty good about the purchase. I asked to have it wrapped, then we carted it home and put it under the tree.

When I opened the box on Christmas, I was appalled. Other than the discs themselves, the only wood on the board was the pine caroms. Everything else was pressed paper that looked like it was ready to expand and warp on the first humid day of summer. There was a large smudge of glue across the face of the board, which I actually registered with relief (not sure what the store's return policy is, but they'll definitely have to take this back). The board looked like it wasn't too far removed from regulation size, and the posts were properly aligned, but in every other respect the board was a bust.

And the final sour note to it all is the price: $65 before tax. Which leads me to think either these fabled adults who built my friend's crokinole board are more mentally challenged than I first thought, or we're a little off on the price tag. I'm guessing the latter, because most wooden boards start at about $150. The beauty pictured below sells for $170, and is made by a fella with good Mennonite credentials (his first name's "Willard", for starters). I'm guessing his outfit is somewhere near Kitchener-Waterloo, and that's who I'll be contacting as soon as I return my current "board" and get my money back.

Thursday, December 22, 2005

Penn & Teller's Magic & Mystery Tour

It was either my sixth or my seventh Christmas, when my aunt introduced our family to her new husband. He was a friendly guy with a warm smile, but his immediate task was to endear himself to my brother and me. This he did by reaching into my brother's mouth and fetching a quarter (which he gave back, telling the little duffer not to keep his money there).

Suddenly I knew what I wanted to be when I grew up: a magician!

Over the next few years I received several magic kits to aid me in my professional quest. I took a stab at deciphering the enclosed written instructions, and tried out a few tricks on my mother (who made a show of being impressed) and my siblings (who made a show of being unimpressed). The difficult truth I finally had to face was when it came to sleight-of-hand, I was all thumbs.

This certainly put a damper on my initial sense of calling. Adding to that was the CBC's annual habit of televising a Doug Henning show. I was originally very impressed with the man's mastery of illusion. That cat did the strangest stuff. He made a show of sawing not just one, but two women in half. Then he shuffled their pieces and put them back together again, so that when he finally released the gals from their cabinets, their lower halves were clothed in the other's slacks and shoes (the cabinets were also slim-line, and propped on gurneys, so the audience could see Henning's legs and feet the entire time).

After prolonged exposure, however, I lost interest. Henning may have been a master, but he was also creepy -- and not in an entertaining way, either. This elfin character seemed unnaturally energetic, as if his efforts to persuade by visual trickery were slowing him down and testing his own patience.

I believe that's the universal curse of professional magicians (or "illusionists"): their unpleasant personalities. This deficit of character makes sense, in a way: these guys (and this is a field still dominated by men) make their living by fooling slack-jawed audiences. In fact, any stage-show is invariably just a minor tweaking of some very basic tricks that have been around for a very long time. The conjuror knows this -- if the audience can't figure it out, he walks home with a pocket full of money he's made off their willful ignorance.

This is why I love Penn & Teller. These guys are meta-illusionists. They show you how the trick is done, then they do it in a way that defies the explanation you've just swallowed. They're consummate professionals. They established the parameters of their shtick early in the game (the diminutive and sly Teller doesn't speak, while Penn is verbose and overbearing), and they have never strayed from it. Why should they? It works, and shows no signs of creaky overuse!

Alas, they seem to have permanently de-camped to Vegas -- the only act that could possibly draw me there. So no more road shows for them. And until they release a DVD of their Vegas show (c'mon, you guys: Cirque du Soleil seems to come up with a television special every time they change their leotards -- surely you can throw us one lousy, chewed-over bone!), I'll just have to content myself with the delightful Penn & Teller's Magic & Mystery Tour.

P&TM&MT is a jolly documentary following these two entertainers as they seek out the sources of the world's oldest illusions, and the still-devout keeprs of that flame. It's a terrifically entertaining education that gives the audience the inside scoop, while retaining some of the mystery that the true masters of the art still engender (there is one act -- a Chinese dance of masks -- that flummoxes the two, even after they replay the videotape in slow-motion). Between destinations, we're treated to quiet moments when the duo try to retain their western perspective (at one point, Teller suffers a genuinely hysterical meltdown as he faces his umpteenth supper of canned tuna and bottled water).

I made this wish too late to see it stuffed in any stocking, but no matter: I'll likely pick it up on my own recognizance. It's my recommendation to you, though, for your holiday viewing pleasure.

Post-Script: their TV series Bullshit! is worthy viewing, too, but not one I'll be watching in the next few weeks. As ever, during this season the Canadian airwaves are filled with the verbal parry-and-thrust of people earnestly inflating and deflating each other's mythology. It's noisy, unpleasant, and it distracts me from the things that matter, so I'm taking a temporary break from the whole "dialogue".

Tuesday, December 20, 2005

Uninspired


When my friend was working on his master's thesis, he hung a postcard of Brando-as-Kurtz on his dorm-room door. The first vocal balloon he pinned to "Kurtz" read, "The torpor! The torpor!"

I'm feeling some of that, right now. I suspect it's just my unconscious way of assuming the T'ai Chi "first position" and bracing myself for the onslaught of the holidays, but I'm bothered by it nonetheless. I'd rather be a flurry of inspired activity. In fact, inspired escapist activity is exactly what the doctor is ordering.

Inspiration, however, is proving difficult to find. The closest I'm coming to it right now is perusing the pages of The Atlas of Literature, edited by Malcolm Bradbury. It's a prettily rendered, and frequently impressive atlas that does a tidy job of summing up geographical and historical conditions behind some of literature's great moments. We start with Dante's Worlds and Chaucer's England, and gradually move to Kafka's Prague and James Joyce's Dublin, before timidly concluding with the Fantasywallas of Bombay and the Glascow of Gray and Kelman. There's plenty of juicy stuff in between: right now I'm savoring Mark Twain's Mississippi.

Still and all, I'd rather be penning bohemian rhapsodies of my own. I'm a considerate, if not open-minded fellow. If you've got a reliable source of inspiration (preferably one that doesn't land you in rehab), let's hear it.

Saturday, December 17, 2005

Drop Your Cel-Phone In The Shredder

Last December our family gathered in San Jose for one last California Christmas. When it came to highway travel, we were a large enough group to qualify for two cars. Our first trip involved a drive to Santa Cruz.

The inevitable happened: we got separated. We agreed to meet at a particular spot at a particular time.

The car I was in arrived. We got out and waited. The wind blew. We froze. The entire time I silently cursed: neither party had a cel-phone. It could have been so easy! I call, they pick up, we laugh and meet at Santa Cruz Bookstore cafe.

The wind kept blowing, and our party kept looking helpless. I thought about it some more, and the more I thought about it, the less I liked cel-phones. Why should we be dependent on instant communication? What gets taken away when we are so dependent?

Well ... spontaneity, for one thing. A capacity to live in the moment, and come up with creative solutions for another. When I could suck it up enough to discuss real options, we cooked up a perfectly good plan to salvage what we actually had before us: a blank slate, waiting for our designs. The rest of the afternoon was a treat, but as we drove back to the homestead I was troubled by my knee-jerk reaction. Allowing myself to be so hampered -- emotionally and conditionally -- by what I always thought was a convenience: I was embarrassed, if not ashamed.

My wife visited Uganda a couple of years ago. One of her hosts owned a large brewery. They sat down for a lovely meal, but the host admitted times were surprisingly tough for him: people weren't buying beer the way they used to, and it was all because of the cel-phone. Walking around, and answering your cel is an affordable status symbol. And if it's a choice between beer and a cel-phone, well ....

Far be it from me to discourage temperance, but I'm still alarmed at the sort of status cel-phones (and their dependant companies) confer. My wife has a business cel, which we use on occasion. I'd rather not, for all of the above reasons. But here's another good reason to destroy your cel: terrorists love 'em -- and so long as you foot the entire bill, your cel-phone company doesn't care.

It's The Most Wonderful Time Of The Year!

A fabulous day, yesterday. I persuaded my wife to quit work early so we could get our Christmas shopping done (while her parents picked up the girlies from school - heh!). This we did, without exceeding our budget, (we saved on the baby-sitting fees, of course) leaving us just enough coin and time to scramble into the multiplex for a last-minute movie: Syriana. I'm happy to report George Clooney's acting chops are something of a revelation in this flick. I knew he had range -- heart-throb in scrubs in ER, loud-mouthed, penniless fop in O Brother, Where Art Thou, cynical bounty (and booty) hunter in Three Kings. Those roles, however, relied to no small degree on the man's considerable charm and good looks.

This time, he's reached into The Actor's Studio bag of tricks -- or donuts. Clooney has packed on the pounds and grown a grotty beard that could retain soup-drippings for weeks. His shoulders are slumped, and his every step groans not just from the extra lard around his belt, but from the weight of several lives' worth of guilt. He is convincingly pathetic and dangerous at the same time.

Of course, Clooney's performance is not the only stand-out feature in this movie; the other is writer-director Stephen Gaghan's insistence that his audience pay attention. The effect is a bit jarring at first -- Yuh mean I gotta work while I watch?! -- but when the shock of the new wears off, the pleasure sets in. And the viewer is duly rewarded for the effort, though perhaps not quite to the degree hoped for. Syriana is, however, a measurable improvement on Traffic (another Gaghan writing credit, directed by Soderbergh (who takes his writers seriously)), which took a similar multiple storyline approach to a similar topic of geopolitical complexity. We had a good time, and I'm looking forward to the next big thing from this guy.

So yes: all this, and a crokinole board, too! "Knipps-spratt" as we called it in the mother-tongue. Nothing but fun, you'd be justified in thinking -- especially once the Sugo al Burro e Pomodoro was prepared and the bottle of red uncorked.

Fun, indeed. Until the TV got turned on, and the once-happy couple tuned in to the "Leaders" Debate. Short response: I was grateful for the wine, though it (or possibly the debate) left me with a foggy brain this morning. When it comes to the three national leaders (four, if you live in Quebec), the Canadian voter faces a truly sorry lot. Even so, I'd like to see Martin's Liberals removed. I opined to my wife (and certainly the wine had some influence in my thinking) that were Harper to get a minority, I could envision him and Layton doing good work together. Alas, they don't work so well in the debate format, either together or alone, and Martin carried himself with a confidence that didn't reek of arrogance. This doesn't look good for the others. But then, my wife and I were two of ... what? ... possibly eight people watching?

Wednesday, December 14, 2005

The Canadian Political Circus (continued)

We've all seen that "inconceivable" segment in The Princess Bride: the bad guy squares off with the good guy, and reasons that the good guy must be prepared for this, so the bad guy cooks up a clever counter-preparation, then reasons that the good guy must have thought of this, too, etc. etc. This sort of quadruple-think is the only reason I can grasp to explain what North America's politicians are up to.

Yes, I said "North American". I'm not just scratching my head over the Conservative's decision to leave their Central Ontarian brethren twisting in the wind with little to no national (read: "Albertan") support, all but conceding Toronto and environs to an uncontested Liberal stronghold. I'm not merely perplexed at Jack Layton's inability to retreat to an informed war-room, so's he can come back out with a pair of newly-grown balls, let union boss Buzz Hargrove have it with both barrels, and claim the middle-ground as the sole domain of the New Democrats. The Liberals are doing what everyone expected them to, so why hasn't someone -- Right or Left -- come up with some obvious flanking attacks?

Big puzzle, that. But then I have to wonder if Bush and his bunch aren't desperately hoping to see the Liberals return to power. How else could you explain this? Look, right now even American Republicans are dissing their president and his administration: how do you think a tart "straighten up and fly right" (or, "fly Right") is going to play abroad? I cannot -- I refuse -- to believe this hasn't been said for a very specific effect: to not just re-elect Paul Martin's Liberal government, but to give him an uncontested majority. It's Reverse Psychology 101.

But if that were the case, perhaps they've underestimated the Canadian voter. The Bush administration wasn't banking on the Canadian voter doing the opposite of the opposite it was asked to do, and actualy voting in a different government! Or maybe they have, and we just don't realize it. In which case we should really be voting the opposite of the opposite of the....

Or we could just stay home and watch the hockey game.

Tuesday, December 13, 2005

"You could cut me up in a thousand pieces! And every piece will say I love you!"

In my early-20s, I went camping in Florida with a couple of cobbers from my old Bible school for the usual harmless fun: cheap beer, quick tans, sunny conversation and ineffectual flirting.

But things took an ugly turn one morning after we'd crawled from our tents. We passed around the Wonder Bread. One of my mates asked for the peanut-butter knife. When he received it, he suddenly thrust it toward the chest of his friend and snarled, "I could cut-choo into a t'ousan pieces, mang!"

His friend looked at him with large, doe-like eyes and said, "And every piece would say I love you!" Giggles erupted, and we went on with our dopey day.

Nearly everyone admits there is a bounty of kitsch to be harvested from the history of comic books, but the vein is just that much richer in the all-but-unexplored field of Christian comic books - and this little exchange is just one delicious example. Young lads nurtured in the fold of 1970s Christendom could expect their collection of "secular" comics to be duly leavened by the work of Al Hartley, a former girly-artist divinely re-commissioned to chronicle the adventures of a born-again Archie. Not only was the Riverdale Gang subject to an Evangelical make-over, but many real-life sin-to-salvation autobiographies (we called these "testimonies"; our unsaved neighbors called them "human interest stories") were given the Hartley treatment as well: heroes with rugged good looks, and heroines with long straight hair (or a healthy afro), lush lips, and a rack that defied gravity.

One such testimony is David Wilkerson's The Cross & The Switchblade. I'd be curious to hear what Wilkerson made of this comic and the ham-fisted movie that followed (starring Pat Boone and Eric Estrada): the book they were based on remains an affecting first-person account of a young Pentecostal minister in the late 1950s called by God to preach salvation to the youth of the ghettos. My hunch is Wilkerson endorsed the spin-offs as sincere attempts to present the larger gospel message to as wide an audience as possible. Fair enough: Hartley possessed no lack of sincerity either, and hormonally-charged boys of every congregational stripe were the happy benefactors of the buxom Hartley Vixen that lay between their copies of Spider-Man and The Justice League of America.

Here, for your edification, is the Al Hartley cover of The Cross & The Switchblade, from which today's title is taken (as ever, click to enlarge):


If you find yourself wanting more, Kliph Nesteroff deconstructs the Hartley Template over here.

Sunday, December 11, 2005

DVD Extras

When I first hooked up our DVD player, I was giddy with anticipation. I'd purchased The Filth & The Fury: A Sex Pistols Film - the latest flick to tickle my brain - and was keen to tap into all the extras listed on the menu.

Everyone with a DVD player already knows the end of this particular story: BE SURE TO DRINK YOUR OVALTINE. The extras were a soul-draining waste of my time, especially the director's commentary, which was pedestrian ("What I was trying to do was capture...") and repetitious. This was a terrible let-down: the film is energetic, beguiling, thrilling and repulsive, confused in its messages, but resolute in its passion ... pretty much like the punk scene itself. When I saw it for the first time, it was as if I'd seen punk for the first time. It brought back a host of memories of that era, and served as the mythical flight to London that all the cool kids at Pyramid Records were hoping to score. The extras, on the other hand, actually detracted from the experience. (For the record, I wasn't much of a punk. I hung around the fringes with my mullet, my second-hand clothes and my wrap-around sunglasses, but the truth is I preferred the cheerful vapidity of The Knack to the spittle of The Sex Pistols).

Consequently, it's a rare DVD package that can entice me to tap into its extra features. I keep my ear to the ground, and if someone recommends an extra I'll give it a look. Ron Howard's Cinderella Man has one such feature: a bit of informed musing from Norman Mailer, following three rounds of the actual Braddock/Baer fight. Several revelations shine through in the black & white footage. Baer lopes into the ring, and the first thing you notice is the bright Star of David stitched onto his trunks. Clearly, staying true to this particular historical detail would have added a complexity to the film that Howard was not prepared to explore. Also, the final round isn't as dramatically compelling as the movie makes it - you've basically got two big louts, spent and ineffectual, propping each other up. And Mailer remains a lucid commentator on "the sweet science".

For my money, though, the extras that have entertained me most are the ones that come with the Star Trek movies (the "special editions" are absolutely loaded with goodies). Since I'm a Trekkie, and most people aren't, here are some highlights.

Commentary by Nicholas Meyer. Meyer directed ST2: The Wrath of Khan and ST6: The Undiscovered Country. Khan is generally considered the best of the ST movies, a stature I'll reluctantly concede. I was thrilled with it at the time of its release, but 20 years later, it's an unmistakable platter of ham. Meyer doesn't see it that way, though. He seems content with what he accomplished on an astonishingly tight budget, and he offers insight (working with Shatner is a bit of a trick, he says, because Shatner is intent on being The Actor of every scene he's in. Thankfully, says Meyer, Shatner also gets bored quickly, so Meyer's strategy was to do the scene four or five times until Shatner got played out, then film it on the sixth. What treasures were lost in the first take? The mind reels!) and dish (that really is Ricardo Montalban's chest on display).

His commentary on ST6 doesn't have quite the same novelty. He is joined by writer Denny Martin Flinn, who makes it clear why Meyer thinks he was so well-suited to the task of writing for Star Trek: Flinn glad-hands Meyer every chance he gets. Flinn does make some astute comments though, and quite rightly credits Meyer for saving the franchise. ST1 all but tanked at the box-office, for clothing the Enterprise crew in flannel PJs and then putting the audience to sleep. Unfortunately, this hewed all too closely to creator Gene Roddenberry's vision of Star Trek. Meyer re-introduced martial themes, conflict, and genuine energy to the mix, and - viola - the franchise got legs. (25 years later those legs have buckled, but that's another story.)

Those are some of my favourite extras. Any you'd like to share?

Thursday, December 08, 2005

Strawberry Flashback Forever

Woke up to hear the radio play The Ballad of John & Yoko. I was gratified, not just for this welcome departure from the overplayed Imagine, but because the song so ably embodies the charms of 60s pop music -- or the Boomer soundtrack, if you must.

Here's what I like -- no, love -- about 60s music: I love how nearly every artist on the air took nearly every bit of personal whimsy that occurred to them, then inflated it to mythic proportions. The common criticism is this was an indication of just how grotesquely seriously this generation took itself, but at least it made for interesting songs. So here we have John Lennon, a man who has grown irreparably rich and famous off the music he made with his mates, hopping from country to country with this bird he's taken up, and holding press conferences from their hotel bed. The press responds with the expected head-scratching and contempt -- say, this is perfect material for a song! Keep the melody light, don't clutter it up, but make sure it builds to the expected peak and thumb your nose at The Establishment.

I think the 60s songwriting mode -- for male artists, if not their long-suffering female counterparts -- is to take everything personally, but nothing seriously. The Beatles and Dylan worked in tandem on this school of music, but the apex of this mode is best exemplified by Steely Dan. Fans of the Dan twist their own pretzel logic, trying to locate the sense of their disjointed lyrics, but Fagan & Becker have a fairly stringent approach to their hallucinogenic show-tunes: find a grotesque subject, and see if you can't shine a whimsical light on it.

That's the sort of thing I ate up in my 20s. I could dig the music of my own time -- The Clash, The Cure, The The and finally Nirvana (the cure to The Cure) -- but only if their grim smugness was offset by the giddy smugness of their hippie progenitors. The hippie scene was sure to end badly, but the merry foolishness had genuine charm to it. Occasionally it's fun to re-visit, and that's where you'll find me today.

Wednesday, December 07, 2005

Getting Iced

My fourth-grade teacher was a passionate, kind-hearted woman who regaled my class with many a story about her difficult and (to our ears) strange childhood. She was, she told us, a fiery kid and a natural athlete -- traits we had no trouble believing. Consequently, she was usually one of her classroom's "captains": one of two kids responsible for picking team-members from half the class.

She did this in the usual manner: if she won the coin-toss, she selected the most gifted athlete available. Her nemesis then took the next most gifted, and my teacher would move one rung lower on the ladder of natural talent, until the class had been evenly divided into teams of nearly equal ability.

Her father, however, threw her a spiritual spanner-wrench one morning. He took her aside and said, "Could you do something for me? Could you choose the poorest player first today? No, scratch that -- first is too obvious. But how about third? It would be such a gift to his soul!" This she did, and now, standing before us as an adult, she reported that not only had the little chap in question been touched, he'd also played his best game yet.

Yes, and the morning she told us this heart-warming story was the morning the athletic kid in our class chose me third for his soccer team. I'll admit I was "touched", but confess too that my game that day was hardly stellar. Being too self-aware by half was a significant part of my problem, but the simple fact is I sucked at soccer.

I still suck at soccer, but if there was a local effort to gather and play the game, say, twice a week, you could count me in (and choose me last, thank you). I might be lousy, but I see soccer (or "football", as it is properly referred to by the rest of the world) as the most enjoyable way to get into shape. As a player you are in near-constant motion, but in a measured way that keeps you from courting cardiac arrest.

Alas, the men of rural Ontario are not yet ready to embrace the soccer field. They are far more likely to tie on the skates and play some hockey. What attention they pay to safety will depend entirely on the level of physical contact they agree to. In other words, if you're 40 years old, brace yourself for serious debilitating injury.

Or worse. In a Globe & Mail piece (which G&M is too cheap to post on-line) James Christie reports that "each year, 12 to 15 of the estimated 10,000 Canadian men who play recreational and pickup hockey for fun, die with their skates on." Christie talks to a 49-year-old who strapped on a heart-monitor. "'I did a normal warm-up, and I went from a resting heart rate of 70 beats perminute to 90. Then I played a shift and looked at the monitor and it said 188.' According to rule-of-thumb guidelines for safe exercise, [this man's] target zone should have been around 120 to 130 beats per minute. His maximum heart rate should have been no more than 171. Yet shift after shift, he climbed out on a limb."

I'd say the real surprise is why there aren't more fatalities.

The last time I played hockey, I was 21. A bunch of us got the Saturday midnight slot at a local arena, and played for 45 minutes. After that we sped to the local bar for a quick beer at last call, then shook hands, and retired to our beds.

Although I'd played hockey like this every winter since my adolescence, I lay awake for hours. My heart simply would not slow down. To make things worse, thanks to all the cold air I'd inhaled, I couldn't stop coughing. I managed to doze for three hours, but when the sun rose, I got up. My heart had not yet found its resting rate.

I took it as a sign of age, and concluded I'd best keep my hockey game restricted to the shinny league. If that's the sort of game you're inviting me to, I'm in. Otherwise, I'll keep holding out for soccer. I won't even complain if I get picked third.

Tuesday, December 06, 2005

Prajer Political Punditry

Despite the reverberating silence in my "comments" bin, I know full well why readers return to this page again and again -- for my incisive commentary on Canadian politics! (Pause for laughter.)

I'll keep this brief: my hunch is we could see a Tory minority government. To anyone attuned to the chattering classes, this scenario will seem far-fetched, but I don't think it is. The public perception of Prime Minister Paul Martin is of a shifty weasel who takes hold of the limelight and glad-hands one minute, then privately heads back to the public purse and ties the strings a little tighter. In the meantime, Tory Stephen Harper's media coaching is paying off dividends. He's transformed himself (somewhat) from a shifty-eyed, hunched-over number cruncher to a relaxed and confident figure with a plan that seems tangible to the public (how's reducing the GST sound, folks?).

NDP leader Jack Layton, on the other hand, has made no changes to his person or strategy whatsoever. He still projects a supercilious air of unshakeable rectitude: "I know what you think, but you're wrong, and I'm not listening. You need to listen to me." Used to be the Liberals could depend on Harper mirroring the same attitude from the far right, to scare the voters into the Liberal fold. That has changed, and we are likely to see Tory in-roads in Ontario and British Columbia. Quebec, of course, not so much. Moderate Quebecois voters will get behind the Bloc Quebecois, thinking the BQ will keep the province's generous social programs intact and not make too many frightening separatist waves.

Much of this depends on the different candidates' abilities to avoid foot-in-mouth disease. So long as the BQ doesn't say anything too baldly racist, and the Conservatives don't say anything too baldly homophobic, the Liberals are almost certain to lose seats. The Conservatives only need 17 more to get a minority -- a goal entirely within reach.

Feel free to enter the fray anytime. A friend who engages with me in this sort of speculation suggests a worthy caveat: our projections are completely open to change the morning after the debates.

Monday, December 05, 2005

The Final Decorating Touch: A Major Award

My wife does a fine job of decorating for Christmas -- she sticks to classic styles and small white lights. Very elegant, but we're still missing something: a major award.



You can get yours here. Also noticed: A Charlie Brown Christmas Tree, courtesy of Urban Outfitters. And if you think Schulz is spinning in his grave right now, think again: nobody was better at capitalizing on Peanuts than he was.

A "Great Fiction Crash"? Sounds Good To Me!

"Sept. 11 has changed the cultural climate. People can't read fiction in the last few years. They're disillusioned. It's a death of the imagination, perhaps." So says Penguin Canada senior editor Barbara Berson, in a Globe & Mail article by Michael Posner called The Great Fiction Crash of 2005. So much for "Canadian understatement".

Looking over my list of books read in the last four years, I don't see any dramatic shift in reading preferences. I still choose fiction over non-fiction, and though my taste in both is registering some change, I'd be more inclined to attribute this shift to growing older than I would to terrorist attacks. Those hate-mongers are so keen to be the attributable source of our every woe, they'd take credit for the common cold if they could -- why give them credit for flagging fiction sales?

Here's my theory: we don't need any help being unhappy, and yet our fiction writers would beg to differ. And we let 'em. Say what you will about the shoddy prose of The DaVinci Code, at least it invests the world -- and Western history -- with some meaning. And perhaps The DaVinci Code is this generation's Pollyana, against which our fiction writers are levelling their own "terrible honesty" the way Dashiell Hammett (his dictum, by the way) and Dorothy Parker did in their day. But there's a terrible honesty, and then there's a terrible tedium. A writer of the grotesque, like Dickens, could deliver the former with flair and panache, while the latter seems to be the call of the day.

Myself, I'm happiest reading a book that gives me someone half-decent (but not too decent) to root for. Maybe I'm just weird that way.

Friday, December 02, 2005

The Bookstore Lady

Fran Pishker is the woman who inspired this remembrance. It's now four years since I wrote this and I'm not sure why I was reticent about her name; when I began blogging I erred on the side of caution when it came to privacy issues. But Fran was the real deal, and should be remembered as such -- "WP"/DPR, 2009

I complained to my father that the local library -- a windowless concrete box, bricked up with decorative flagstone -- didn't have enough science fiction in its collection. He said a used bookstore had just opened up nearby. What say we hop in the car and pay a visit? I was a young teen in the habit of re-reading anything half-entertaining, but I consulted my collection for possible trade-in value, selected a few titles, and off we went.

At first blush, this bookstore was only a modest improvement on the library. It was very small. The linoleum floor was dusty, the entire place made all the moreso by the proprietor's ever-present cigarette smoke. She was, indeed, a little old lady. While my father and I perused the different shelves (so many of them all but empty), she pulled books from boxes and scurried about finding spots for them. The SF section was small, but the selection was more to my liking than the library's, and I found a few items to take with me. She accepted our books, took down our names, then explained the trade-in policy. "Make sure you come back in a week or two," she said. "I'll have more books for you."

This was mid-winter, and the possibility of my return was dependent on my dad's readiness to drive me. I didn't get back to the store until late spring, when I could ride my bicycle. I pulled a few more SF goodies off the shelves (the selection was now quite impressive), then presented them to the lady with a few items for trade. She smiled at me and said, "You're ____, aren't you?"

I said business must be slow, if she could remember my name from several months back. She laughed, and said that was about right. In fact, that was not at all the case. Business was good, and she soon moved to a larger facility. And I came to realize over the years that her ability to remember and connect with nearly every single customer was what made her a stand-out success.

Our verbal exchanges began with the usual bookstore chat. She saw me pick up Dune, and recommended Julian Mays. Another time, I traded in a near-pornographic pulp-rendition of the Arthurian legend; she thought I might like Mary Stewart's approach. Was I reading Louis L'amour? "Take my copy of Hombre, and tell me what you think. Personally, I think Elmore Leonard was a better writer when he wrote westerns." When I returned Hombre, she pointed me to Cormac McCarthy.

But books were just the starting point of our conversation. After I returned from a year of Bible school, she could see I was in aimless drifting mode. Hers is the only encouragement I can remember from those days. "If you were a young man in Tibet, you would spend two years walking the streets with a rice bowl before you embarked on anything substantial, like a formal education or a profession. I honestly think there's something to recommend that sort of 'just observing' time."

She regaled me with stories of the 70s. She had lived in New York, and was recovering from an operation when the Watergate hearings were being conducted. She said the remarkable thing was how everyone was watching those hearings -- there was no aspect of the public that wasn't fully engrossed and engaged. People were intent on being intimately aware of the history being made -- their history.

When the movie came to Winnipeg, I asked her if she'd seen 84 Charing Cross Road. She gave me a pained look, and admitted that she'd gone under duress. "It's not the sort of movie I'd choose to see, but everyone was telling me I simply had to, so I finally did. What a stupid movie! That final scene where Anne Bancroft stands in this empty store, grinning like a fool after her friend has died and the business has folded -- my God, I just wanted to slap that girl!

"I'll tell you what I liked about it, though -- the scene where the old guy and his wife are dining on a patio, then suddenly stand up and join the conga line! That's exactly the sort of silly thing we did in those days! So wonderful!"

Her attention to nuance and detail was formidably precise. Witnessing it in action, though, quietly encouraged my own small efforts at compassion. That woman could converse with anyone. I overheard her talking to a balding middle-aged lout who'd taken a taxi across town to complete his collection of Mack Bolan:The Executioner books. She was delighted. In one of my last conversations with her, she told me about a nine-year-old boy who came in and read her electricians manuals and scientific dossiers. "He doesn't understand fiction!" she laughed. "He thinks it's all a complete waste of time!"

I couldn't understand her laughter. Just hearing about this kid, I wanted to thump some sense into him. She laughed, but I couldn't muster anything more convincing than a shaky grin.

The fall when she finally died of the expected cancer, the store was sold to a young guy fresh out of community college. He introduced comic books to the mix, a move that kept me as a customer but probably lost a few older ones. After we got to know each other a bit, I said, "You must have had some tricky encounters when you took over the store."

"You've no idea," he said. "One older woman came in with a pie, and asked me where her friend was. When I told her she'd passed away, this woman just collapsed and wept. It was over an hour before she could get it together enough to leave." He shook his head. "Man, they don't prepare you for nothing like that in college."

No, they certainly don't. They might, if you're lucky, encourage you to pay attention to detail. And if you're especially attentive, and especially fortunate, you might just learn the knack of taking delight in other people's perspectives -- particularly those foreign to your own.

Monday, November 28, 2005

The Lost Art of Gaging the Public Mood

They call it "polling" these days. I mostly ignore them. At best, they're inaccurate; at worst, they're a distraction from genuine political discussion, and I loathe their contribution to "horse race" news coverage.

Poll-reports were a joke during the last Canadian election, and I don't expect any improvement this time around. The best public analysis I heard came the day before the election, from a friend of mine who is in politics. A friend of his had been canvassing hard for his Conservative candidate, knocking on a lot of doors and shaking a lot of hands. He told my friend there was no way the Conservatives were going to win this one. My friend asked why, and the explanation went something like this:

"I've been in politics since as long as I've been conscious. I canvassed with my father on his first campaign, and I've canvassed ever since. In the last 20 years, I've developed a pretty good sense of what people's unspoken inclinations are. Usually when they tell you they haven't yet decided who they'll vote for, they're just bluffing to get you off their porch. This time around, the people telling me they were undecided were genuinely undecided. They had no idea how they were going to cast their vote. And when you are truly unsure of who you're voting for, the one thing you will almost never do is take a chance on that vote. We're in for another Liberal government."

I'm not so sure that's the way the vote will "swing" this time around. If I were to prognosticate, I'd say: another minority government, quite possibly Conservative (no majority in their cards, though: Quebec will never vote Conservative, and Ontario is still Conservative-shy after being gutted by Mike Harris). Also this: the lowest voter turn-out, ever.

Thursday, November 24, 2005

Geek Novels

Since I'm confessing to my geek tendencies, I'll direct readers to The Guardian's list of the 20 Best Geek Novels Written in English Since 1932 (via 2Blowhards). To my amusement/horror, I've picked up 19 of the 20 and completed (at least once) 11. Would that this made me a competent programmer...

Here is the list (an asterisk indicates I've cracked the covers; an "R" means I've read it):

1. The HitchHiker's Guide to the Galaxy -- Douglas Adams (*)
2. Nineteen Eighty-Four -- George Orwell (R)
3. Brave New World -- Aldous Huxley (*)
4. Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? -- Philip Dick (*)
5. Neuromancer -- William Gibson (R)
6. Dune -- Frank Herbert (R)
7. I, Robot -- Isaac Asimov (R)
8. Foundation -- Isaac Asimov (R)
9. The Colour of Magic -- Terry Pratchett (*)
10. Microserfs -- Douglas Coupland (R)
11. Snow Crash -- Neal Stephenson (R)
12. Watchmen -- Alan Moore & Dave Gibbons (R)
13. Cryptonomicon -- Neal Stephenson (*)
14. Consider Phlebas -- Iain M Banks
15. Stranger in a Strange Land -- Robert Heinlein (R)
16. The Man in the High Castle -- Philip K Dick (*)
17. American Gods -- Neil Gaiman (*)
18. The Diamond Age -- Neal Stephenson (R)
19. The Illuminatus! Trilogy -- Robert Shea & Robert Anton Wilson (R)
20. Trouble with Lichen - John Wyndham

In my original post, I said I'd read 15 of these titles. I lied. I silently did a sleight-of-hand, substituting titles of authors I'd read. For instance, I've read Wyndham's The Chrysalids, and Dick's Ubik and Valis, and Pratchett's Discworld. Surely these books represent their authors' best prose as ably as the ones listed? I've read enough of the two Dick books mentioned to realize this assumption of mine is faulty. The truth does count for something, so judge me by the amended results (while I'm in full disclosure mode: I haven't read the entire Illuminatus! Trilogy, either, but I did read the first book, The Eye In The Pyramid, and it left me with the unshakeable certainty that not only would other two books would be just as pointlessly crazy as the first, but that I'd be unable to tell which "episode" occurred in what book once I was finished them all).

If I could go back in time, there are books on this list I'd encourage my younger self to drop in favor of a good comic. Asimov's Foundation is a tedious slog, but qualifies as a light-hearted, entertaining lark next to Dune. I had declared myself a sci-fi geek, however, and read both out of a bounden sense of duty. Ditto, Stranger In A Strange Land, which I think actually marks an unfortunate turning point in Heinlein's work.

Liar or no, I still believe I'm qualified to make a little informed forecasting, so here goes: in the next ten years the list will have to include China MiƩville (probably by giving Mr. Wyndham the heave-ho).

Post-Script: Here's a nifty defense of what I've typically considered "dystopian" literature (which
definitely includes Philip K. Dick. Link from ALD.

Wednesday, November 23, 2005

Virtual Reality: Too Much Is Not Enough

Microsoft releases its new X-Box 360 today. I, for one, could not be more underwhelmed. But then, I'm not the target demographic. I'm too old, too impatient, and a foul-weather gamer at best - if there's even so much as a book to be dusted or a half-decent TV commercial to be watched, I'll choose that over the gaming experience.

Nevertheless, I am a gamer. And when all the elements are in place I have terrific fun at it, too. But that is an astonishing rarity, for a very simple reason: game developers show so little imagination. This surprises me, given the sort of hardware that's been developed in the last 15 years. The average game pad has a minimum of eight buttons within immediate reach of your thumbs and fingers. Most games respond not just to a singular button being pressed, but to combinations being pressed in sequence. I'll let someone else figure out the mathematics (is that eight squared? Eight cubed?! More?!?). The long and short of it is we're dealing with an incredible variable that should conceivably result in a fertile breadth of interactive entertainment.

Alas, what we typically have is "Run + Jump + Kick + FIRE!" or "Accelerate + Turn + Brake + Turn" etc. The evolution from Pong to Castle Wolfenstein was indeed a remarkable one, chronicled in a pre-Cambrian bit-torrent sludge of quarter-plugging video games, but everything we've seen since shows no development whatsoever. The challenge, as currently framed by programmers, is how to make the familiar more interesting. To my mind, that's a bloody boring challenge.

The only people who can respond to this challenge are the CGI folks. The tack usually taken is to provide ever more "realistic" graphics. A lot of what we see as a result is very impressive, but this too seems to me to be a limiting and stagnant approach to gaming entertainment. Invariably, the graphics will look stiff and disappointing when compared to what you see outside your window (or, to use a more pertinent example that makes me shudder, outside your car's windshield. I can't help wondering if today's 16-year-old (exceptions allowed for) isn't a touch more prone to recklessness after playing a game like Need For Speed: Most Wanted).

If "realistic" is the predominant school of CGI rendering, the secondary school is "arcade". The former strives for exactly that; the latter bends the rules. Both work with laws of physics that relate to the ones we experience in life, but arcade CGI people will fudge and flex what we know - though very rarely, if ever, actually breaking our physical expectations on screen. Thus, Need For Speed will give you a Porsche physically responding to its surroundings - a rain-slick street, a brick restraining wall - the way you'd expect a Porsche to respond, while The Simpsons Hit & Run gives you a pink sedan that takes an incredible beating before bursting into flames and ejecting Bart Simpson, the driver, unscathed.

I tend to favor the latter, for several reasons. Playing with expectations is fun, and The Simpsons Hit & Run plays with a host of them. Kids drive cars, run over pedestrians who say things like "Spines don't bend that way!" or "This is a bad day for generic characters everywhere!" They jump incredible heights, fall off multi-storied buildings and land on their toes - all in aid of the sort of narrative hijinx you expect from Matt Groening's stable of writers. The action still takes place in a framework of limited expectations, but it exceeds those modest expectations and gets full marks from me.

It also looks unreal - it's 3-D rendering, but of the sort that is post-Toy Story, pre-The Incredibles. That is, it looks "animated", not "real".

"Animated" is another preference of mine. If something looks stiff, well - the viewer just assumes it's supposed to. Conversely, when "reality" is brought into play, it immediately distances the viewer with its discordant references: a game like LEGO Star Wars can be quite charming, where the other Star Wars offerings leave me cold.

Similarly, I'm curious to give the latest James Bond game (From Russia With Love) a spin. I'll admit I'm not expecting great things, even though the premise - Sean Connery! 1963!!! - is so very promising. The screen-shots alone are a disappointment. That looks like a boat, alright; that looks a lot like Connery; she almost looks like Tatiana; but that doesn't look anything like water.

The usual resort for Reality CGI programmers is "cover of darkness". So Wolfenstein looked absurd with its pastel blue flooring and bright red walls? Put it all in shadows and nightfall, and call it "Doom". As Walt Kelly's character Pogo self-consciously noted, "These silouhettes sure save a mess of drawin'." I'm sure most of From Russia With Love takes place at night. But I look at the terrific cover art for the game (borrowed from the movie posters of the time) and wonder why they didn't go the animated route, instead? Something like, say, XIII is the perfect example of how entrancing that technique can be. Drawing within the lines can provide surprisingly smart drama for the viewer/player - why not give it a shot?

But these are the minor kvetchings of a nearly-indifferent consumer. I won't pay the full $60 for a half-baked First-Person Shooter, or even a thrillingly engineered Race-and-Chase. I'll bide my time for the next year or two and get them used - if I'm still curious. In the meantime, I might just peruse some of the Open Source games available. My brother tells me the recent Castle Wolfenstein engine has been released to the public, to some amusing results. Allied Troops could be fighting the Nazis in North Africa, only to see the Millennium Falcon fly off overhead. One minute you might be fighting monsters, the next you might be firing a salvo at an angry George Jetson. It's still a First-Person Shooter, but at least you're a shooter in a world that's more akin to something imagined by Philip Jose Farmer - or stranger. And that's a step in the right direction.

Tuesday, November 22, 2005

"Country Boy", Take 2

Question: What do you get when you play country music backwards?
Answer: You get your dog back, your truck back, your wife back...


Of course, the pleasures of country needn't all be relegated to the fields of gloom and doom (erm ... right). Some of the most bumptuous, infectious music I enjoy falls within the country format, most notably the rock-a-hillbilly stylings of BR5-49. These guys are capable of "wistful", but mostly they're intent on keeping the honky-tonk hoppin'.

BR5-49 ("Junior Samples'ever-flubbed phone number on Hee-Haw", according to the website) got its start playing in the window of Nashville's bar/bootery Robert’s Western World. The band payment at the time was to take home whatever fell into the "Tips" pickle jar, and BR5-49 did well for themselves.

If you give their first album (my personal fave) a spin, you'll quickly figure out why. The solos and fills aren't the most technically demanding in the genre, but they're clean and rambunctious. You don't have to see the band to actually see the band having fun: you might not know who Gary Bennett, Don Herron, Chuck Mead, Smilin' Jay McDowell and "Hawk" Shaw Wilson are, but you know their heads are bobbing along as they pull one terrific riff after another out of their instruments.

Just the tonic for chasing away the blues. Pick up that phone, and dial now...

Confessions of a Sometime "Country Boy"

Here's the thing about country music: Like most categories of popular culture, it resembles a dumpster filled 98 percent with brightly wrapped, completely empty boxes. But if you dive the dumpster, and if you have the right kind of sensibility, you can find touchingly sincere, clever, unpretentious, and readily accessible simple pleasures scattered among the wretched refuse.

So says Daniel Menaker at Slate, and for the most part, I agree with him. I would rather the broken knob on my car radio be tuned to a crappy pop radio station than to a crappy country music station. And yet, and yet ... when a country song works, I think it is so much more direct and immediate than when a pop song works.

I suppose great country music has its complexities, as well. But it's all delivered in a straight-forward 4/4, three-chord, three-minute approach that only allows for so much variance before it sheds "country" and becomes something else. The country music that haunts me is bafflingly simple stuff. T-Bone Burnett's best album to date was an accoustic country effort that curbed his allegorical impulse in favor of quiet meditations on those lifelines his divorce-wounded heart couldn't relinquish: love, guilt, forgiveness and the safety of his daughters. I shared it with a musical friend, who later told me, "There's an intimacy evoked that makes you feel uncomfortable after a while."

Emmylou Harris is masterful at that, especially when she's working with Daniel Lanois. Lyle Lovett can evoke that sort of thing to a lesser degree, with his spare, essay-length songs on physical space and emotional isolation - but his artistic sensibility is too calculated to truly entice the listener. And should the listener be foolish enough to bite, Lovett is quick to deliver a well-placed nudge in the ribs with "Stand By Your Man", or "She's Leavin' Me (Because She Really Wants To)". Those are fine jokes, in fact (I'm smiling as I type), but they won't carry you to the end of the line.

I'm thinking these days of Johnny Cash. How can I not, with all the hooplah surrounding his bio-pic? I think everyone was alternately cheered and unsettled by his death following so closely on the heels of June Carter's. The big man could be as jokey as your local grocer (think, "One Piece At A Time"), but when it came right down to it, he was a terrifically disturbed and disturbing person. I honestly can't see why any popular religious group would care to claim him. Listen to "The Man Comes Around" before you go to bed tonight, and tell me you slept well - tell me you slept at all. Is Cash's religion really yours? Is it really? Because if it is, I honestly don't know how you find the wherewithal to dress up, climb into the van and sing choruses come Sunday morning.

The movie will give us a manageable Johnny Cash, much the way Ray Charles was tamed for public consumption in his posthumus flick. It's the music, though, that slips under the skin and alternately discomfits and encourages. Discomfit and encourage - you don't typically find those qualities working in tandem in pop music. You don't typically find them working in tandem on country radio, either. And perhaps it's just as well, or we'd have to pull our cars over to the side, just to get a grip.

Sunday, November 20, 2005

Fiddlin'

It took the examples of several other bloggers for me to figure out how to do this exercise. Whatcha do is, you go to Google, you type in your first name, then you type in "needs", Google it, and watch the fun begin! Apparently, these are the first ten things "Whisky" needs:

1) Whisky needs to work on his tan
2) Whisky needs a cigar
3) Whisky needs to reach out
4) Whisky needs more smaller, adventurous companies to show what's possible
5) Whisky needs a range of ingredients and conditions
6) Whisky needs time and the love of a good cask
7) Whisky needs American ex-bourbon casks for maturation
8) Whisky needs some time to reveal his secrets
9) Whisky needs work
10) Whisky needs a second, or even a third chance

Sure glad I went with a nom de plume!

Wednesday, November 16, 2005

Lit Links

Slate is going to College this week. Among the many articles of interest is this survey of "Books that rocked my college world", a list compiled by Slate-appointed "famous people". There are a few titles that recommend themselves to me, most notably Nicholson Baker's choice: Personal Knowledge: Towards a Post-Critical Philosophy by "chemist-epistomologist" (Baker's term) Michael Polanyi. In Baker's telling, Polanyi's analysis seems to be precisely the cheerful sort of head-scratching I can get into. I've had a few items waiting in my Amazon docket: looks like I'll be making my "Free Shipping" points this week.

When I considered the books that rocked my college world, I finally had to tip my hat to a sentiment voiced by Robert Stone, in one of those laborious reconsiderations of American Literary Icons. The subject under scrutiny this time was Jack Kerouac, who was being uncermoniously exhumed in several biographies. Stone has his own history with Kerouac. It seems Stone's mother (a bit of a flake, in his telling) sent him a copy of On The Road while Stone was in the Merchant Marines. Stone went on to hang out with Neal Cassady and Ken Kesey, during their maddest years. He struggles to acknowledge the genuine appeal of Kerouac, and says finally that American writers inevitably fall somewhere on a scale set on either extreme by Kerouac or Hemingway (Stone's preferences tilt toward the latter, he says).

If I acknowledge the masculine hubris of that sentiment and briskly move on, I'll amend it somewhat for my personal needs and say that both writers embodied a romantic recklessness that, for better and for worse, influenced some of my own decision making and nudged me right out of my college world. There's future blog material here, because the older I get, the greater my disenchantment grows with both writers. Those two behaved like absolute shits, but they established their own "eXtreme" schools of writing, so they both receive "Get Out Of Jail Free" cards - for now. You kids out there: I managed to read On The Road without becoming a reckless driver and a sweat-drenched speed-freak; similarly, I finished The Sun Also Rises without turning into a drunken anti-Semite with a passion for the bull-fights. See if you can't do the same.

Getting back to "cheerfulness" for a moment: I think that's the quality to C.S. Lewis's writing that has always appealed to me, even in his flawed and blustery "apologetics". We've been reading The Chronicles of Narnia to the girls, in wary anticipation of the movies. As with The Lord of the Rings, there is an imagery evoked by the words that I will regret losing to the movies, and Adam Gopnik correctly identifies their intrinsic appeal. He occasionally overstays his welcome when it comes to critical commentary - "the futile hope of the mystic", my ass - but many of his observations are acute:

The British, of course, are capable of being embarrassed by anybody, and that they are embarrassed by Lewis does not prove that he is embarrassing. But the double vision of the man creates something of a transatlantic misunderstanding. If in England he is subject to condescension, his admirers here have made him hostage to a cult.

Gopnik works hard at staking out the middle ground, which for the most part makes for a rewarding read - here.

Hey - what were the books that rocked your college world?

Sunday, November 13, 2005

The Entertainer

Most of the Mennonite churches in my childhood town had a Boy's Brigade program: the Boy Scouts basically, with a few Bible verses thrown in. It's a little ironic that Mennonites embraced the military trappings of this program. The call to order required a Captain and Lieutenants, a Sargeant, Corporals, Lance Corporals and Brigadiers all executing a military drill: stand at attention, stand at ease, stand easy (haven't forgotten any of this stuff - yikes!). I guess the powers that were figured a little marching didn't necessarily lead to taking up arms, and that boys were suckers for uniforms and drills.

We were and we weren't. Most of us wore the shirt - a forest-green polyester work-shirt with a few red badges sloppily sewn onto the sleeve (my mother was so disgusted at the lack of quality, she took it upon herself to re-affix all my badges) - but chafed at the bogus authority structure. We were there for the floor hockey, and put up with the drills by making with the wisecracks.

Campouts were part of the deal, too. Some batallions took their campouts very seriously, insisting on a requisite level of "roughing it", which could involve a lengthy hike with pack, or a canoe trip, or both. Our batallion leaders weren't quite so strident on this issue. The captain figured a fall campout was a worthy enterprise, but couldn't see himself sleeping in a tent with a bunch of rowdy adolescents. He opted instead to park a large trailer at a provincial campground, in which he and the other men could sleep, or watch the football game on his little b&w TV set, while the rest of us froze in our tents - thus fulfilling the "roughing it" requirement.

The experience proved to be rough indeed. A cold drizzle fell the entire weekend, and temperatures dipped to the freezing point at night. In the morning, after we scorched our pancakes on the Coleman stove, we found the Aunt Jemima's syrup was frozen inside the plastic container, where it remained untasted. We pilfered the campground's supply of firewood (paid for by the tax-payer, in those salad days of waning Trudeau-mania) and desperately built the largest campfire we could. We huddled around that campfire for the next 36 hours, moving only when the smoke pitched our way and brought us to tears.

One of the guys, a fellow "corporal", was a born entertainer. He could be a merciless joker with guys, and had an easy, natural charm around girls that was the envy of us all. He took immediate note of the bitter disparity between our situation and that of the men who drove us here, and made frequent, pointed commentary. When it was clear we were in for the long haul, he hunkered down and took it upon himself to entertain the troops.

He had had a bit part in his school's production of Fiddler on the Roof, and like any bit-player, knew the entire score from start-to-finish. In one afternoon he sang and recited every song and every line of dialogue from that show, slipping from basso to falsetto when necessary. I stood and watched this guy, and watched the reaction of the campers to this guy. His performance could have brought the usual adolescent churlishness to the fore - hoots, catcalls, "aww, shut-up already!", etc. Instead, every one of the boys (ages 12-17) silently listened to his performance, never once interrupting, and laughing only when he delivered the scripted punchlines.

So remarkable: all these boys with their weird, adolescent bodies and all the crazed behavior that comes with the tidal wave of hormones, just huddling in the rain and quietly listening to one of their own singing "Matchmaker, Matchmaker Make Me A Match". One of those rare, luminescent moments that takes place precisely when you least expect it.

Saturday, November 12, 2005

Identity Crisis?

Busy time out here - we're hosting my family from Manitoba, so I stay off-line most days. My brother the nerd is rearranging all my software furniture, keeping the sightlines clean, clearing a path in the clutter so's I can do what I do with less effort (at least, that's the goal). Everything is under consideration, including a merger with Whisky Prajer and My Day-Gig: Stay Home, Daddy-O (both written by yours truly).

"Whisky Prajer" was the moniker I adopted when I first started blogging. I'd hoped to spare my Reverend father a little embarrassment by anonymously posting my less-orthodox musings. He, however, set the record straight by forwarding both my sites to anyone he thought might be interested. So here I sit, rattling off my weirdness on this site, and coloring within the lines on my other site, and thinking, Perhaps this is counter-productive? If I could post pictures on my other site, I'd probably bring my archived material from WP and add it to Daddy-O and do all my work there, because (a) that's who I am, and (b) that's the site I've got the most control over.

If you have any thoughts or recommendations, let me know.

Wednesday, November 09, 2005

Shake Hands With The Menno, Part II

David Bergen wins the coveted Giller Prize for his novel The Time In Between - congratulations! A friend has asked me to opine on the state of Mennonite literature. So far I've demurred, having no wish to become a Mennonitische Northrop Frye. Besides, I have dreams of winning my own Giller. First we take Altona, then we take New Berlin! (or "Kitchener", as it's come to be known)

Monday, November 07, 2005

Gilead by Marilynne Robinson

Now, at that point I did feel that Jack Boughton was, so to speak, winning the conversation, and furthermore, that he was no happier about it than I was, maybe even a little disgusted. Certainly I found myself in a false position yet again. I felt like pleading old age. But I was sitting there in my church, with the sweet and irrefragable daylight pouring in through the windows. And I felt, as I have often felt, that my failing the truth could have no bearing at all on the Truth itself, which could never conceivably be in any sense dependent on me or on anyone. And my heart rose up within me  that's exactly what it felt like  and I said, I have heard any number of fine sermons in my life, and I have known any number of deep souls. I am well aware that people find fault, but it seems to me to be presumptuous to judge the authenticity of anyone's religion, except one's own. And that is also presumptuous.

And I said, 
When this old sanctuary is full of silence and prayer, every book Karl Barth ever will write would not be a feather in the scales against it from the point of view of profundity, and I would not believe in Barth's own authenticity if I did not also believe he would know and recognize the truth of that, and honor it, too.

I hope readers who have absorbed and taken nourishment from Marilynne Robinson's brilliant novel, Gilead, will find fault with my choice of excerpt. It could be the most didactic bit of prose you will find in the novel's entirety, only hinting at the sublime pleasures and tensions she sustains with her articulate attention to the poetic rhythms of a spiritual life. But I think it highlights the strength of character in this novel of hers, and this novel is all character.

This excerpt captures perfectly those vain arguments we all enter, foolishly hoping to be persuaded out of our convictions. Jack Boughton has broached the subject of Karl Barth, the neo-orthodox theologian who John Ames, the book's narrator, reads with delight. Boughton slides in and cunningly uses Barth as a means to critique the piety he faces in Ames (a tactic not dissimilar, perhaps, to some of my own). Ames is wise enough to intuit that such fault-finding is thin and bitter broth for young Boughton, but does not yet have the insight to appreciate the torment within his tormentor. Ames's life has not been without its own sorrows, but as ever he reaches for the only constants he knows: “sweet, irrefragable daylight”; “silence and prayer.”

This proves to be a conversation-stopper, as so many of his poetic metaphors are. The only internal monologue any of us can be certain of is our own, and as Ames articulates his, we realize just how dodgy this monologue can get without the external impertinences of an engaged life. The book begins with the elderly Ames joyously ready to shed his mortal coil, and choosing to fill his notebook with reminiscences of previous difficulties and the eternal delights that seem to have flowered in their wake. Life has one final difficulty to fling at him, however, in the form of a namesake he never asked for.

I hesitated to read this book because too many people were recommending it. It seems to win over the faithful and the infidel alike. The fine folks at Books & Culture are smitten with it; so are atheists like James Wood and Nick Hornby (in fact, after singing Robinson's praises, Hornby promptly declared he was ready to spend the next several years in a theological college — a claim he quickly renounced in his next month's column after having read (insert sound of my grinding teeth) A Complicated Kindness by Miriam Toews).

Furthermore, I was informed by DV that the Amazon “recommendation engine” had noted his recent purchase of Peter DeVries' The Blood of the Lamb, and had “thought he might also enjoy” ... Gilead. Visitors who have followed my reading habits will already be aware that DeVries, born to a Calvinist household, takes it upon himself to deflower the Calvinist TULIP — first with ribald glee, and finally with a savage and irrefutable anguish. Now, Ms. Robinson has stated for the public record that she is a resolute Calvinist (possibly the only Calvinist to gain full access to the American public square — no small feat). Can this absurd disparity, generated by this absurd engine, co-exist promisingly for the perceptive reader?

To my incredulity and delight, it can. Hornby and Wood are right on the money in their generous appraisal. “Robinson's words have a spiritual force that's very rare in contemporary fiction,” says Wood, an indication he has come across a genuine find. Hornby says Gilead achieves “an astonishing hush” that has turned him into “a wiser and better person.” Hornby's being somewhat cheeky in the latter statement, but only a little. He says, “I didn't even mind that it's essentially a book about Christianity, narrated by a Christian; in fact, for the first time I understood the point of Christianity — or at least, I understood how it might be used to assist thought.” The emphasis is mine, and it's important. Typically, whenever Christianity is used as the starting point of any discussion, whether by friend or foe, it is not in an effort to assist thought — quite the opposite. In one slim, magnificent novel, Marilynne Robinson provides the antidote, proving that if a “religious” writer can assiduously measure the height, breadth and depth of human experience, they can achieve what all writers strive for: transcendence.

Sunday, November 06, 2005

Unspeakable: Facing Up To Evil In An Age Of Genocide And Terror by Os Guinness

I should state at the outset that my first inclination is to give this book a silent pass. I've been told, though, that members of my larger family occasionally drop by to read my thoughts. I don't know if my infrequent testing of evangelical waters surprises them, gives them hope, or causes them grievous disappointment, but I do feel compelled to acknowledge those times when I look over my shoulder at a pasture that to my mind has grown inhospitable to my soul. If nothing else, I know Gideon Strauss stops by from time to time - this one's for you, Tathagata!

"A guide to life's greatest challenge," claims Unspeakable's cover blurb. These bits of ad-copy are usually just publisher's hyperbole, often stamped on the book-jacket without the author's knowledge or consent. It might well have been approved by Guinness, however: he attempts precisely that, and he frequently achieves acute insight. Guinness's perspicacity, however, is not unblinkered - is even, at times, ungenerous - a trait you can expect me to mirror here and now.

First some perspective: this is not my first exposure to Dr. Guinness. I first encountered him when I was an ardent contributing member of a church youth group. My zeal and idealism set me up for frequent despair (still does). More often than not, the resulting anguish brought me to my father's library where I searched the stacks for some morsel of encouragement. In my late teens, I pulled out a large book with a doozy of a title: The Dust of Death: A Critique of the Establishment and the Counter Culture and the Proposal for a Third Way - by Os Guinness. Even now my heart beats with hopeful anticipation! "The proposal for a third way"! A quick look at the back only added to my hopes: this Guinness guy sported a trim Van Dyke beard (anti-establishment!) and was an heir to the famed brewery giant (establishment)! I pinched it, and read it in the space of a week.

Guinness's coverage of the Counter Culture was dizzying. He catalogued not just the usual American suspects (the Weathermen, the Diggers, and the Black Panthers) but introduced me to the antics of those zany bike-pedaling anarchists in Amsterdam: Provo. I was transfixed by this generational litany of idealistic rage that expressed itself in both tragedy (the Weathermen/Black Panthers) and comedy (Diggers/Provo). As a bonus, I could take absolute comfort in Guinness's clear-sighted over-arching critique that was, he assured me, his effort to "reclaim the culture" The proof? He came out as a staunch advocate of Larry Norman's evangelical rock & roll.

I haven't read that book in over 20 years, and I still recall various tidbits that delighted me. I think I was just encouraged that someone could be intelligent, culturally observant and pious (a word that, I still believe, has been unfairly maligned). But I lost track of Guinness not long after that - pretty much around the time I got tired of listening to Larry Norman. Norman wasn't doing anything particularly innovative with his art, and it seemed to me that neither was Guinness - a lot of finger-wagging, and "here's where you're wrong and scripture is right". Guinness might claim with some justification that what he does is somewhat distinct from "artistry", but I would say otherwise. I think Jean Luc Godard hit the nail on the head when he said, "The way to properly critique a movie is to make another movie." And in that manner, Guinness has been riffing out the ink-and-paper equivalent of Normanesque evangelical rock & roll for the last 20 years.

Guinness's evangelical rock & roll, while "classic," is not without nuance. It seems he has cultivated a profound kinship with many perspectives of Orthodox Judaism. His insight into the work and person of Elie Wiesel, for instance, is among the most unique and penetrating I've seen, and he speaks with genuine authority on the thought of Primo Levi, Simon Wiesenthal and Philip Hallie. There is some shared ground in the "Judeo-Christian" landscape, even for an evangelical, and Guinness finds it and cultivates it.

Alas, he does not do so for the Eastern religions. Perhaps life is too short - perhaps there is only so much one man can achieve, intellectually and spiritually - but his encapsulation of eastern thought and teaching, while strenuous, is not empathetic. Worse than that, it is reductionist and unsympathetic, despite his protests to the contrary. In the wake of Viet Nam and the Khmer Rouge in Cambodia, Buddhists have done a great deal of soul-searching on the nature of evil, and have a great deal more to say, with a great deal more nuance, than Guinness suggests.

On this issue Guinness plays the numbers game, and is to some degree right in doing so, by pointing out how the "western" religions are numerically more prone to address injustice than the "eastern" ones have been. But on the issue of Viet Nam alone, it would do him and all of North American evangelicalism well to acknowledge a) the profound and unrelenting trans-generational carnage that our chemical warfare has caused, and b) that the chief efforts of relief and redress have not been "Christian", but have come from these same eastern religions Guinness paints indirectly as apathetic.

Perhaps I'm being overly-simplistic of current political realities. Guinness does address the genocides of the Holocaust, Bosnia/Serbia, and Rwanda, as well as the horrors of My Lai and Abu Ghraib among others. Worthy coverage, to be sure. The current author photo portrays a smiling bald man who no longer sports the Van Dyke. It is no longer in him to sit up all night and write a book recounting a litany of what has transpired and how little has been done to acknowledge/stem the tide.

Personally, my artistic and spiritual sensibilities must include and incorporate an "eastern" sensibility. It's all well and good to assert with Solzhenitsyn that "The line dividing good and evil cuts through the heart of every human being"; it's something a touch more suggestive to say "our hearts are black and white like a zebra's stripes" (Guinness). But there are Buddhists who would assert something even more controversial: that our boldest efforts to do good are most easily employed to do the very opposite when we are not intimately attentive to the subtleties of their method.

Guinness's current efforts to transform the culture amount to a cry to wake up and do something. As such, I simply can't recommend this book, except to evangelicals who are horrified at the mass-indulged Magick-think behind The Prayer of Jabez. But in the face of such popular, facile, evangelical best-sellers and the larger, more-horrific realities they permit, I don't mind echoing the sentiments of the French Huguenots in the village of Le Chambon, who rescued thousands of Jewish children from the Nazis, and who Guinness echoes as well: "Always ready to help" And conversely (Solzhenitsyn, via Guinness): evil might seek to dominate the world through The Lie, "but not through me."

Friday, November 04, 2005

Thursday, November 03, 2005

NHL Brand-Doctoring and Real Hockey: A Consumer Follow-Up

Last year, in the peace and quiet of the NHL lockout, I happily dissed the league, inferring its imminent demise. So it comes as a bit of a surprise to watch the "new" game, and find myself ... well, more or less pleased with the changes made.

Just listening to the sports highlights on the radio can be a thrill. Take last night's scores: the Ottawa Senators thumped the Buffalo Sabres 10-4. Ten to four! The score climbed into the double-digits! I won't bother googling stats to prove myself wrong, but the last time I remember that kind of score was the 1970s. High scores are a good thing. For the past twenty years, and particularly the last seven, the score rarely broke five, and usually peaked at three. We're talking about the ascension (if you want to call it that) of dump-and-chase, clutch-and-grab hockey, which can be translated to a single Canadian letter: Zzzzzzzz. Now, it's almost a gaurantee each team will pocket at least one goal per period, giving the build-up of audience tension the necessary explosive release to keep them watching to the last minute. At this rate, even the Leafs might be able to turn in an entertaining game.

That's not to say I completely advocate all the changes. I think (heaven forfend) Don Cherry has a point when he complains about the current "firing line" that's been established by the blue line: allowing a sharp-shooter forward to sit at the point and fire slapshot after slapshot without getting knocked off his skates does not make for attractive hockey. Still and all, it's nice to see a game that more closely resembles what you see in Europe.

But the hockey game I'm currently most taken with resides not in the arena (or the GameCube) but on the kitchen table. Yep: tabletop hockey. The model you see here is precisely the same as the one I played when I was a kid. It belonged to my father, so I'm guessing its vintage is mid-1950s (I cadged the photo from here). The players are tin, the teams are The Original Six. The pictured model is in near immaculate condition (note the glossy "ice" surface) - not at all the condition our game was in when we finally sold it in a yard sale. Still, it amazes me to consider just how well this model endured the ravages of time. Two generations of players, and boys at that.

The "ice" was constructed of a sort of fibre-board that almost resembled cardboard. Resilient stuff, that. Whenever our centre player managed to monopolize the puck, we would carefully line up the shot, then ram it home with near deadly force. It wasn't uncommon to have to reach for the band-aids after a game: we frequently tore open the skin on our fingertips in our frenzied working of the metal rods. I'm not sure if they were ever "capped", either. I only remember the electrical tape that was wrapped around the ends. When we finally sold the game, it had developed some serious flaws (the fibre board was finally all but shredded) and couldn't be played. Still, that game was good for nearly 30 years of play.

Now that my daughters are at an age where they don't mind proving their superiority over the old man, I'm looking out for something similar. Just browsing around the web, it looks like Stiga has claimed table-top dominion (I'd be grateful for any recommendations on this!). I somehow doubt the current models could endure 10 years of abuse, never mind thrice that, but I'll take what I can get and be happy for that. Because as fun as video hockey can be, the physical thrill of table hockey beats button-mashing (bloodied) hands down.