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


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.