Friday, April 11, 2014

TFS Response-Modes, Part 1

What do you do when The Freaky Shit happens?

A woman whose background was born-again Christian told of reading a book on voodoo until deep in the night. She fell asleep and then awoke to see half-human, half-animal figures roaming about on the landing outside her bedroom door. She had never seen or imagined such beings. The book had not included them. 
I was not asleep,” she said. “I was completely awake. I know I was because I reached out to touch the wall beside me.”
What did you do about the creatures?” I asked, knowing that she had left the religious assurances of childhood beliefs far behind.
I called on the blood of Jesus,” she said, her voice going high with emotion.
Good idea,” I said. Old habits die hard, which is sometimes for the best.
Christine Wicker, Not In Kansas Anymore: Dark Arts, Sex Spells, Money Magic, And Other Things Your Neighbors Aren't Telling You

Wicker's anecdote has the ring of familiarity to me. The people I was raised by had very clear lines of demarcation when it came to The Freaky Shit. You had God, you had the Devil, and you gave the latter — even the faintest suggestion of the latter — as wide a berth as possible.

Wicker says contemporary Magi refer, with some impatience, to this attitude as Dualism, a less-than-helpful lens through which to view and interact with the world. And although I maintain a cautious, if not downright skittish, approach to matters of the occult, I'm drawn to wonder if its acolytes don't have a point.

Getting back to my roots, and the skittishness cultivated: “Flee the Devil,” was a motto we strove to live by. Itinerant evangelists who billed themselves “Occult Experts” (or, even more sensationally, “ex-Satanists”) made it easy for us by revealing the depths to which the occult permeated popular culture. Cue the slideshow of album art, and now we teenage youth were seeing vivid examples of Dark Magickal motifs that were in all likelihood squatting in our bedrooms and poisoning the very air with demonic influence. One parking lot bonfire later, youth and parents alike were relieved of these malign forces for once and for all.

Or at least until it finally hit the youth just how badly Christian Rock sucked.

"Next up: Larry Norman!"

It was a clear message: stay away from Those Guys and Their Freaky Shit. And if, for whatever reason, you found yourself confronted by it, a Friday night bonfire of the vanities, with invocations of Christ and Christ's blood, ought to be enough to get you out of the jam.

This, then, is the Dualism: two kinds of magic, one good (God through Jesus), and everything else, bad (Satan, “alive and well” as one “expert” claimed, in all the other religions (except maybe Judaism), but especially so in the religion that bore his name).

Still, even in a community free of Ouija boards and Tarot cards, The Freaky Shit occurred. Dreams, visions, visitations, alien abductions — at the outskirts of my village lived a family of five, three members of which had one really wild abduction story. They were sweet-natured people, pointedly uneducated. Which side of the equation were we to park this stuff?

Then there were the Holy Rollers, a subset the Mennonites could in no way avoid. Beyond the usual group-phenomena of glossolalia, Holy Giggles and Slayings in the Spirit, there were individuals who seemed to tap into an elevated vision of things that permitted them a surprisingly prurient vantage point. I knew of one character who developed a reputation for busting in on scenes he shouldn't have had any knowledge of. Some of those groups were up to potentially grievous mischief — go with God, dude. But others seemed completely innocent — none of your business, really, so: why?

I related some stories about this guy to another charismatic, who sighed and rolled his eyes. “Getting 'The Gifts' doesn't make anybody a better person,” he said. “You might have noticed. Some of these people become incredible dicks.”

It all leads me to wonder if the dualistic POV isn't too simplistic, and (ironically) prone to complicate things. Perhaps Dualism is merely Paganism-in-Denial?

Some TFS links:

TFS happens to Mark Twain, among others. So why isn't it a legitimate element in academic study? (My thoughts: a compelling enough piece, but blinkered in a way that seems typical of academia. You want TFS on-campus? Go to the Drama Department. No shortage of TFS stories and happenings occurring there, my dear perfesser.)

TFS happens, with some regularity, to Barbara Ehrenreich. And, like Twain, she still considers herself an atheist (although I can't help sensing a POV that begins with the letter “P”. . .).

Christine Wicker's book is terrific, by the way. She's clear-eyed, disarmingly frank in her self-disclosure, and revelatory about the whole American Neo-Pagan scene. Get it here.

Added 13-iv-14: Hey, lookit: Mary's gone Pentecostal, too!

And finally, my favourite evilest band in the world, the Supersuckers, have released a new albumGet The Hell, I am happy to say, is a return to the form that made me fond, in previous albums like M(ofo)s Be Trippin' (rave here) and The Evil Powers of Rock 'n' Roll. Rock on, dudes.

Friday, April 04, 2014

Chestertonian Digression

Christopher Hitchens devoted a few of his final days reckoning with G.K. Chesterton. Whether or not Hitch managed a Chestertonian take-down is largely in the eye of the beholder. Surely Chesterton’s anti-Semitism complicates any bent toward admiration. But then my admiration of Hitchens is complicated by his call-to-arms against Islamo-Facism. He may have articulated the threat, as he saw it, persuasively enough; however, his support (very public, and deeply appreciated by the War Party) of a full-out military response, a la Iraq, remains debatable, to put it mildly.

Hoping to contrast the two thinkers, I was all set to post the popular canard that Chesterton, in response to the London Times’ question, “What is wrong with the world?” promptly wrote,

Dear Sirs;
I am.  
Sincerely yours, G.K. Chesterton

And yet it seems likely that this exchange occurred not at all. Once again we have an apocryphal distillation of Chestertonian insight that is more finely attuned than the bloat of his writings. The fabled letter is true enough, in other words. Chesterton admitted he had faults, chief among them his incapacity to acknowledge the worst of them — “The unknown unknowns” as the bard of a later, wiser age put it.

Credit where it's due: Hitchens gave Chesterton a much closer read than I ever will. I’ve taken several runs at Orthodoxy, a slim book I’ve yet to finish. I’ve done better with On Lying In Bed & Other Essays, edited by Alberto Manguel (A). I’ve hopped all over its pages, and discovered many of Chesterton’s most famous quotations.* Can’t say as I’ve finished it, though. The only book of his that I’ve read from cover to cover is The Man Called Thursday, a grotesque farce which penetrated my consciousness to an unsettling and even creepy degree.

About which . . .

*Including one my daughters have grown sick of me parroting: “An adventure is only an inconvenience rightly considered; an inconvenience is only an adventure wrongly considered.”

Thursday, March 27, 2014

The Next Word On The New American Pagan: Mine

“When people cease to believe in God, remarked G.K. Chesterton slyly, they come to believe not in nothing, but in anything.” Christopher Hitchens, For The Sake Of Argument: Essays & Minority Reports.

Coffee shop at the University of Chicago Divinity School.
It is Hitch who is remarking slyly, here: Chesterton never said this — not so succinctly, at any rate. But the sentiment is Chestertonian enough to qualify (note the canny absence of quotation marks). And I gratefully use it as a helpful entry-point for this post.

“They come to believe . . . in anything.” More particularly than “anything,” I wonder if the Default Setting for human consciousness isn't Paganism.

Paganism has an innate logic, from a pop-psych POV. From birth to late adolescence we see our parents as gods. In benign families the child's consciousness morphs from “How did she KNOW I was going to pilfer that cookie?” to gradually discovering some of the tricks behind this perceived omniscience, to the young-adult motivation to prove oneself not just equal to the parent, but superior.*

Plurality produces a manifold awareness. Even in happy families, children witness their parents in conflict. The gods rage! I displeased them with that third cookie! They rage against me! In FUBAR families the children adopt strategies to become parent to the parent — usually an admixture of deceit, distraction, and recognized emotional supplication. Daddy calms down when I cry and say “I love you!” Again, this happens in healthy families also, albeit with less trauma.

Here we have the basic template for standard modes of religious supplication. It is currently, I would offer, THE template for Evangelical worship, with its emphasis on childlike chorus-cycles and incantatory prayer.** Often even when one deliberately steps away from a particular religious community such as this, the primal expectations that gave rise to these communal call-and-response rituals remain very much alive and at work in the individual consciousness.***

What the intrepid pilgrim discovers out in the larger world is, in fact, a multiplicity of call-and-response communities and rituals. Navigating these is exceedingly tricky work. Among the more popular options, the rituals and rigours of science are indeed commendable. But when it comes to appealing to the collective consciousness about a communal concern as baseline fundamental as the survival of our species, the scientific community is at a demonstrably significant loss. One reason for this, I suspect, is that our species is not possessed of a singular collective consciousness, but rather a multiplicity of collective consciousnesses.

Since I've already committed myself to the realm of rainbows and unicorns, I'll go the distance and make it personal: to all intents and purposes, I conduct my life presupposing that Pagan Narratives are spinning themselves out in the Cosmos — or at the very least on this planet. More than that, I suspect everyone else does, too,**** and that arriving at some wisdom regarding which of these impulses are healthy and which are detrimental is one of life's most formidable challenges.

If that seems a bit rich, coming from the gormless Christian in the back pew, I'd suggest that one of the more palatable lenses through which to read the Bible is as a cumulative butting against Pagan Narratives, without and within — before finally subsuming them all under one Predominant Cosmic (and comic) Narrative.

At this point my thoughts scatter like marbles on the floor. Some of those marbles are brighter than others; hopefully in the next few days I can point to a few of them as they roll under the couch/fridge/stove.

No Unified Field Theory from me, in other words. Instead, I'll revert to my lazy-bones norm, and point toward the cogent thoughts of others for your perusal. Here’s a short bibliography of works that nudged me toward this POV:

Erik Davis, TechGnosis: Myth, Magic & Mysticism In The Age Of Information.

Northrop Frye, The Great Code: The Bible & Literature.

Grant Morrison, Supergods: What Masked Vigilantes, Miraculous Mutants, And A Sun God From Smallville Can Teach Us About Being Human. (A note: the enlightened among us take these men-in-tights stories seriously, but it is safe to say Morrison's enlightenment on this score is of a vastly different plane.)

Walter Wink, The Powers That Be: Theology For A New Millennium.

"We're all Neo-Pagans now, Henry."
*Hm. “Individuation as monotheistic paradigm”? Thoughts for later.

**Liturgical communities attempt to sidestep or subvert some of these expectations by adapting the Jewish practice of Prayer As A Reminder Of Our Place. Job Shrugs: “God is God. What are you going to do?”

***The frustrated apostate: there is no God. Life is evidently cruel. Who to blame? And why?

****I remain cheerfully open to correction: do you know of exceptions?

Friday, March 21, 2014

The New American Pagan: We'll give "Chef" the first word, Stephen Marche the next

It's now week 2. The words are coming, sure, but they aren't cohering in any way that is at all attractive. And now here comes Stephen Marche, adroitly putting his finger on one angle of the whole New American Pagan thing that I'm still trying to wrap my head around. Go read it, please. Daddy needs to work some more.
"Its' fucking pagan idolatry."

Friday, March 14, 2014


I’m working on a post I hope to get up in the next day or two. In the meantime, here are some links that caught my attention, with some personal explication:
I love the blogosphere busy-ness, self-publication as the glorious act of splashing around in one’s own pool, inviting neighbors and passers-by to hop in or ignore, as they see fit. But I also, on occasion, succumb to Pro Writer’s Envy. Every once in a while I’ll pick up a stray issue of something prestige — a New Yorker, say, or a BOMB magazine — and I’ll read it, and enjoy it, and I’ll think, “Wow. I really wish I was in that tree-house.” And, for my tastes, no tree-house has a more coveted vista than n+1.
Currently, club-members have started a ruckus outside the tree-house by framing a polar debate: “MFA vs NYC.” If, like me, you reflexively consider this a false dichotomy, be assured: there are flying elbows in this melee that will strike a vulnerable spot for just about any reader. Leslie Jamison attends the fracas and considers, among other issues, writerly authority. Michael Bourne focuses on the most pragmatic concern: how does either side make a living?
“Screw NYC: Buenos Aires is the place to be. Tangential to n+1 matters: New York magazine (another tree-house — with an open bar!) profiles n+1 founder, certified hep-cat and unabashed Marxist Benjamin Kunkel over here. Take-away quote: “Is the growth of the radical left a cause for hope or just a mark of accumulating despair?”
And, finally, just because: over at the VICE tree-house (um, what's that smell?) Danny McDonald prompts some Chuck Bukowski recollections from one-time muse (and several-times girlfriend) Linda King. I like that McDonald throws in Roger Ebert's assessment of Buk. “Statistical aberration,” could sum up just about any writer who grabs and holds the spotlight, really — regardless of MFA or chosen city locale.
"You know what 'MFA' really stands for, don't you?"

Friday, March 07, 2014

“What’s Your Magisterium, Baby?”

A few years back geez magazine asked a pre-selected group of people, “How Evangelical are you?” Individuals’ answers were posted in the sidebar, with their pictures, and a graphic of a needle-gage which swung either to the right (“Very Evangelical”) or left (go figure). I thought the issue was perfect for a Buzzfeed-like questionnaire that reveals a person’s deepest, truest self, but geez disappointed me on this front. Too bad. I was game to play along, even — especially — if it meant I’d prove to be Very Evangelical. Missed opportunity, there, geez-ers.

Bathrobes? I thought we were a hornier bunch.

When I was born, my parents attended — and my father eventually pastored — an Evangelical Mennonite Brethren Church. When I was 13 my father shifted denominations to pastor an MB church in Winnipeg. The “E” might have been dropped* but the MBs were still a determinedly Evangelical bunch. At 16 or so I consented to baptism in that church.

In the next five years I questioned, then vigorously protested Evangelicalism. I couldn’t see any distinctives that separated this so-called “movement” from its hillbilly cousins, the Fundamentalists. I moved to a bigger city, and eventually the fellow that took over pastoring from my father called me on the phone and asked if I still considered myself a member of my childhood church. I said, “No.”

Onn daut je’wast daut.

From the git-go Mennonites have been an evangelical bunch — their namesake made an emphatic point of it, with this manifesto. Of course, Menno’s evangelicalism is resolutely small “e” — as holistic in scope as things got in the 16th Century. At the time, people lived and died over this sort of parsing, so you don’t get much more holistic than that. But from a 20th and 21st Century American POV, Simon’s evangelicalism has more than a whiff of “get your feet on the dirty street, and roll up your sleeves, ‘cos we got work to do” Social Gospel — which is too concerned with earthly practicalities to qualify as capital “e” Evangelicalism.

Anyway, if you bothered to follow that earlier Menno Simons link, you can see that Mennonites are still devoting a heap of head-scratching over whether they are “Evangelical” or “evangelical,” or if “evangelical” isn’t a word Anabaptists should discard altogether.

Mennonites are not unique in their intellectual struggles: by now a significant number of American Evangelicals are asking the very same questions. Journalist/Historian Molly Worthen surveys what’s going on, and, in The Apostles of Reason: The Crisis of Authority In American Evangelicalism takes a fair stab at historical and intellectual summary.

If, like me, you reflexively snort at the application of “intellectual” to “evangelical,” this is a link worth reading. The tendency to equate North American Evangelicalism with anti-intellectualism is not without justification, but still a presupposition worth scrutiny. The beholder can declare a given intellectual struggle “false,” while the struggle rages on, both unabated and (in its uniquely false way) intellectual.**

Determining common intellectual ground among Evangelicals is its own minefield, of course, which Worthen navigates by reducing Evangelical concerns to three questions: “how to reconcile faith and reason; how to know Jesus; and how to act publicly on faith after the rupture of Christendom.”

I have to admit that, after reading her summary, I wondered whether I had in fact left Evangelicalism behind, or if I was just fooling myself. Worthen acknowledges, “These are, in some sense, universal questions that all human beings who care about the supernatural wrestle with at some level.” She goes on to say that, “Liberal Protestants, in practice, tend to treat human reason as their magisterium — either allowing reason to adjudicate their relationship with religious authority, or allowing reason to rule in its own separate sphere. They don’t get too angsty when faith suggests other things about reality than reason does.”

Trent vs.Urbana, FTW

“They don’t get too angsty” whew: I’m off the hook!*** Mind you, that’s arguably more likely a by-product of temperament than of intellect. As for “caring about the supernatural,” that will have to wait for another post, hopefully the next.

In the meantime, Worthen’s book gets a good review by Chris Lehman, over here. Tangentially related, here is a conversation between Steve Paulson and Roman Catholic theologian John Haught. I’d guess from Paulson’s Salon contributions (hey, Ken Wilber!) that his “magisterium” may reside on the “liberal” side of things. Haught confesses he’s striving to build on the work of Teilhard de Chardin, who didn’t originally get much sympathy from the Magisterium he shares with Haught. As is often the case with interviews like this, I’m less inclined to pick up the new book on offer and more inclined to return to the author’s source of inspiration (which also includes Tillich, and the usual triad of blasphemers, Camus, Sartre and of course Nietzsche. Good luck with that, John).

Right then: forward in all directions, people.

*Or, more likely, added in the case of the EMBs. I’m a little sketchy on the history, but I’m thinking the EMBs are a more recent Mennonite splinter.

**Evangelical attempts to align Darwin with the Genesis accounts, and (more to the point) Evangelical interpretations of Pauline theology, are a prime example. They might strike the more liberal or non-faithful observer as just another energetic attempt to align all of Copernicus’s Heavenly Spheres, but it still counts as intellectual activity. Best done with tongue-in-cheek, IMO.

***Speaking of Buzzfeed questionnaires: this one has me pegged as “Aristotle: You think that everyone should aim to be as happy as they possibly can, and that happiness is best achieved by challenging yourself academically. You’re always reading and you enjoy going to art museums and galleries.” I don’t know if they’ve “got” Aristotle, but Id like to think they’ve just about nailed me. 

Thursday, March 06, 2014

Beginning The Lenten Crawl, Online.

I noticed today, while hitting the daily clicks, a growing preponderance of religiously-themed links. Chiefly “Pro-“ vs. “Anti-“ — dreary stuff, most of it. My Morning-Mind puzzled over this phenom, until I finally woke up enough to recall: Shrove Tuesday.* Ash Wednesday. And, uh, Thumthing Thurthday. The Lenten crawl toward Easter has begun.

Easter, with its many dividing lines, certainly seems to invite debate. I would have been all over this stuff, when I was in my 20s. There’s nothing more clarifying than a debate, after all, particularly when one side apparently walks away with all the marbles.

But I lost my appetite for it, after a while. What these spectacular smack-downs hammered home more deeply than anything was the fact that I clearly wasn’t the smartest chap in the room. And those occasions when I presumed to be led to behaviour I would later recall with profound shame. I finally decided that if the fragile yolk of my ego was to remain intact, the more prudent strategy would be to acknowledge the clear strengths of any particular argument, and gently probe at possible vulnerabilities, where perceived.

It’s what I do — unless the roaring ape within glimpses the shiny possibility that, maybe just this once, he really might be the smartest chap in the room. I still wield the whip and the chair, of course, but there are times when the Old Gorilla will not abide.

Speaking of which, here’s a Frazetta cartoon from MAD Magazine that always gets me giggling.

Anyway, some of these links have been better at thought-provocation. I intend to post them, along with a few drabs of my usually muddled commentary. Stay tuned.

*AKA, "Pancake" Tuesday.

Friday, February 28, 2014

Three Goodbyes

February is vying for cruelest month this year, if only for its contributions to the celebrity death list.

Philip Seymour Hoffman — now that he's gone, I'm wondering if he wasn't my favourite actor of the last 15 years. Certainly in the last decade, if you saw his name on the marquee you were assured that his minutes on-screen were going to be interesting. Consider Anthony Minghella's mawkish The Talented Mr. Ripley. Beholding Minghella's method of injecting sentimental bloat into the base material of Patricia Highsmith's flinty novel is certainly a spectacle, but one that quickly gets tedious. Then there's Minghella's choice of actors: Matt Damon, Jude Law, Gwyneth Paltrow. Give me one good reason to sit through more than 12 minutes of this.

Enter, PSH:

I say if the critic's duty is to address the film that was made, the blogger's duty is to praise the one that wasn't. In an alternate universe there exists a Talented Mr. Ripley where alt-Minghella clearly saw what was before him and gave the title role to PSH, casting Damon as Dickie and Law as the simperingly sinister Freddie Miles.*

I get that some viewers thought PSH guilty of chewing the scenery. To which I say, if that's scenery-chewing, it's of an order that raises the entire game. Anyone on set who thought themselves entitled to a little nibble of their own had to invest a unique level of intelligence and conviction, or they fell flat in contrast.

P.T. Anderson intuited this better than anyone else. Anderson placed Adam Sandler across from PSH, to pleasing enough effect. But casting the back-from-batshit Joaquin Phoenix across from PSH was inspired. By comparison, Tom Cruise (a Grand Masticator in the field of scenery binging) seems caught off-guard. No wonder he called a second match on his own turf, in M:I:III.

Here Anderson pitches the craziest knuckle-ball to PSH, giving him lines no-one should be able to sell, forcing him to do a Penn-&-Teller sleight-of-hand, where you announce to the audience that this is the trick, this is how it works, then you do it and still leave 'em scratching their heads:

I'll miss those grand flourishes, the set of his jaw, the rheumy eyes and breathing, and all the other tiny little indications he pulled from a seemingly inexhaustible bag of actor's tricks. Getting motivated to go to the movies just became a whole lot harder.

Bob Casale (aka, “Bob 2”) — death at 61 might seem like a ripe old age for a rock 'n' roller, but DEVO had a larger brain-trust than most bands, and played a surprisingly long game through various venues: I expected their gig to continue into my advanced years. The various TV and movie noodlings that Casale and Mark Mothersbaugh did were pleasantly unmistakable. And while the band slowed its own output over time, it remained committed to its central concept and executed its entertainments with a subtle variety that played off nostalgia without succumbing to it — pretty much as they'd done from the start. This isn't a death-on-the-nostalgia-circuit, a la John Entwhistle. This is a man who died at home, and left a family behind.

Harold Ramis — pretty much responsible for the bulk of my inner comedia-scape. If I didn't see his “Slob-vs.-Snob” movies in my youth, their take-away lines were nevertheless imprinted on my psyche thanks to the endless parroting they received from my Junior High peers. When finally I carried a few armloads of VHS tapes back to a shared unit, I was struck by how uncomfortable Ramis's movies could make me feel. To wit, the break-up scene in Stripes:

One gets the impression that A) the actress isn't having any difficulty locating her motivation, and B) neither is Bill Murray, and he's steering the craft 180 degrees away from it. As a comic, the lines — both his and hers — place Murray in a very tough spot. He can't afford to let the validity of her argument strike home, but of course everything he gives voice to does exactly that. He has to play it in such a way as to let the emotional reality get just enough traction to kick the plot into motion, but not so much traction as to acknowledge the actual tragedy of what is happening.

My fellow grade 9ers had heard arguments like this, of course — between their parents, or between their parents and their older siblings, or between their parents and themselves. I think Ramis and Murray,** or whoever else Ramis enlisted for the part of the Slob, were the voice of reassurance. This stuff happens — don't take it too seriously. Don't take anything too seriously, but take yourself seriously — kind of. You'll muddle through. You'll be okay.

I was always happy when Ramis popped up in something, and nowhere moreso than in Jake Kasdan and Mike White's Orange County. Ramis only has a bit-part, as a beleaguered Dean of Admissions who starts tripping out on some unintentionally administered ecstasy. And yet the film has Ramis's DNA all over it. It's the “Slob-vs.-Snob” template in reverse: Our Hero is an earnest stiff who aspires to be Somebody Respectable, but is foiled at every turn by the Slobs surrounding him. Ironic turn-of-play was something Ramis clearly enjoyed, and excelled at. I wonder if the OC cosmic-flip wasn't a reality Ramis didn't register — the Slobs have taken over, dammit.

Only they haven't, of course: it's the snobbery that's changed shape. In its way, Orange County is a premature but very sweet farewell, on behalf of a man my generation is deeply indebted to.

*Fortunately, this universe has Liliana Cavani's Ripley's Game, starring John Malkovich, who does a better job of it.

**I have to wonder if one reason why Murray stopped returning Ramis's calls wasn't just the sheer exhaustion of acknowledging brute truth, then spinning that into comic redemption. Best, instead, to just to play Garfield, or turn in a laconic Wes Anderson performance.

Friday, February 21, 2014

Clara's Bread

(AKA, "A Bread Recipe For A Footnote")

Today’s post is courtesy of my grandmother, Clara Reimer, and my uncle Dov.

Clara made good bread. When my uncle moved to the city, he asked her for her recipe, which she retrieved from her recipe scrapbook, quickly scrawled down and gave to him. He tried it out, and it was nothing like the bread she made, so he came back and asked her what her “real” recipe was. “Well, it’s the one I gave you, only with some changes I’ve added.”

“So then write down the changes.”

“Oh, I don’t know what they are. I just do them.”

“Well, how about the next time you make the bread, you stop after every step and write down what you just did?”

Okay, yeah, that she could do.

4 Grain Health Bread*

Mix in big Bowl:
½ Cup Red River Cereal or coarse Cracked Wheat
½ Cup Brex
2 Cups Bran
1 Cup Oatmeal (Quick)
2 T Instant Mashed Potatoe
2 or 3 T Wheat Germ
1 or 2 T. Brown Sugar
1 T. (rounded) Shortening or Margerene
1 T. Salt

Into 2 Cup lukewarm water & 1 T sugar add 2 T yeast & let stand
Pour about a quart of boiling water on above. Add 2 Cups white flour & 3 eggs & Beat. Then 1 Cup yoghurt with about ¾ Tsp. Soda or 1 Cup milk from skim milk Powder mixed with cold water or just water. Feel dough only warm add yeast & Thicken with whole wheat flour. When too thick to stir with spoon let rise 1 hour then put on pans.

If preferred add more white flour and knead a little. Keep soft. Very sticky but makes good bread anyway.

*Technical note: this is a recipe for finger rolls.

Friday, February 07, 2014

Questions of Cosmic Significance In Jeff Smith's RASL

He used to be a physicist, named Robert Johnson. Like his namesake from the previous century, he achieved notoriety — for his accomplishments, as well as the many moral compromises made while in their pursuit.

Together with his childhood friend, he has cracked the most powerful mystery behind Nikola Tesla's boldest experiment. He's also slept with his friend's wife, taken money and technology from the military, and sabotaged the lab he worked in, resulting in the disappearance of the woman he and his friend loved.

Now he uses the technology to skip to an alternate Earth, where he steals priceless objects of art, and tags the empty space with his new identity — RASL (“messenger of Allah,” apparently).

He returns to what he presumes is his point of origin, where he fences the works to fund his growing appetite for vice.

He is pursued, of course: by a little girl who seems both haunted and haunting . . .

. . . by his friend's wife, who by rights should not exist on any plane . . .

. . . and by a government enforcer, named Salvador Crow.

Crow's motivations are, for a while, opaque. He appears unconcerned about retrieving the works of art intact, or capturing Rasl alive. Only when he and Rasl meet within military confines, is his motivation made explicit.

Salvador Crow's appearance, demeanour and even motivation bear pointed resemblance to those of another pulp fiction creation: Robert E. Howard's Solomon Kane:

Howard's Kane is, in appearance and attitude, a Puritan. He strides forward to vanquish any variety of abomination, unrelentingly confident in his (somewhat smudgy) Calvinist world view. But there is an existential irony in these stories: Kane is too thick-headed a lunk to perceive that he participates, in fact, in a cosmic pagan-pantheist arena, where ancient scores are slowly getting settled.

Sal Crow, on the other hand, vaguely apprehends the significance of Tesla's theory of infinite cosmoses, and Rasl's confirmation of it: humanity's reality is so much smaller, and more precarious, than Crow has imagined. The tensions and ambiguities in the new reality are too great for Crow to bear. Like Kane, he behaves like the god he believes in. Unlike Kane, his behaviour is rewarded with persistent failure.

So humanity is fraught with greater absurdity and peril than previously accounted for: where is the hand of the Divine in all this? If it exists, like everything else, it does so in a previously unconsidered manifestation.

Some questions are answered. Some of the answers raise more questions. Rasl, nee: Johnson, who throughout has behaved with sludgy moral intuition, is fortunate to finally encounter someone whose moral clarity is more grotesque than even Crow's. While the final confrontation is perhaps a bit too tidy (and unsurprising), considering everything that's led up to it, it does still meet the noir standards that Smith adheres to.

An ancient score gets settled, in other words. It's as worthy a conclusion as a reader can hope for, really.

The Dominion Of The Dead, Robert Pogue Harrison

The contract between the living and the dead has traditionally been one of mutual indebtedness. The dead depend on the living to preserve their authority, heed their concerns, and keep them going in their secular afterlives. In return, they (the dead) help us to know ourselves, give form to our lives, organize our social relations, and restrain our destructive impulses. They provide us with the counsel needed to maintain the institutional order, of which they remain the authors, and prevent it from generating into a bestial barbarism.

The dead are our guardians. We give them a future so that they may give us a past. We help them live on so that they may help us go forward.

Wednesday, February 05, 2014

Fridays At Enrico's: A Holy Grail Recovered

I stumbled across some happy news yesterday: Don Carpenter’s Fridays At Enrico’s is slated for publication, this April.

Carpenter has cult-lit status: a talented chap who, in the 1950s, dove deep into the West Coast Beat-Hippy-Hollywood scene, and worked as hard as he partied. His oeuvre retains considerable cache, not just with Boomers Who Remember, but with schmoes-gone-pro (like Richard Price and George Pelecanos) as well as the current Hipsterati. 

In the decade that followed his suicide, the manuscript for Fridays acquired the status of Holy Grail—Carpenter’s final work, a novel akin to de Beauvoir’s The Mandarins, where the changing of famous names only adds to the piquancy of the drama. Carpenter’s executor and surviving family members assured the public it definitely existed, albeit in an admittedly rough and probably unpublishable format. 

Fans of A Hard Rain Falling and A Couple Of Comedians would have jumped at a POD photocopy, but now we have something better: the finished product, with an afterword by West Coaster Jonathan Lethem. Looks like I’ve got two months to clear a coveted spot on the bedside table.

Friday, January 31, 2014

RASL, Jeff Smith

Jeff Smith, whose sable brushes brought us Bone, has a new collected epic to burden your bookshelf with: RASL.

Smith’s work is a genuine labour of love. A self-publisher from the very beginning, he crafts the sorts of stories he’d like to see — something recognizable if not immediately familiar, but also recognizably different, and pleasantly so. His characters are easily identifiable “types” — heroes, antiheroes, put-upon secondary cast members, etc. — he invests with subtle call-and-response flourishes rarely seen in the comics industry. Those of us who retrieved the Bone books off our kids’ bedroom floors were astonished to see the sensibilities of Carl Barks and Walt Kelly merging seamlessly within a Lord Of The Rings epic cycle.*

Bone: all this, and "Good Girl" art, too!

RASL is similarly cracked: “a gritty, hard-boiled tale of an inter-dimensional art thief caught between dark government forces and the mysterious powers of the universe itself,” according to Smith’s own press kit. I’m not sure “gritty” applies — other than Will Eisner, whose depiction of NYC’s litter-strewn alleys evoked genuine stink, you’d have to go deep Underground to find “gritty” — but “hard-boiled” seems about right.

During the early chapters of RASL I was reminded of my first reading of Frank Miller’s original “Marvin” storyline in what became the Sin City franchise. Dark Horse publishers had clearly given Miller the go-ahead to do whatever he wanted, and what followed was a parade of, “You mean I can do this?” followed by, “And how about this?” and guttural guffawing ever after. Smith seems similarly energized, giving himself, for example, the freedom to explore the female form and the desire it elicits.

Unlike Miller, Smith is disinclined to settle for a surface exploration of noir tropes, but instead uses them to launch into some physical and even metaphysical questions with unusual depth.

I’ll get into some of that in my next post — but forewarning, there will be spoilers. Nothing I say would have ruined my read of the book, had I known about them in advance. But to each their own. Proceed at your own discretion, when posted.

RASL is an advancement of ability for Smith, and a recommended read. My only caveat: holy cow, what a (physical) monster. I do not have room for that on my shelves (I gratefully borrowed a copy from the local library), and look forward to a day when I can purchase the digital edition.

More anon. Smith offers a RASL preview, here.

*The first six volumes of Bone still astonish, with their artful juxtaposition of slapstick and yearning, menace and subversion of expectations. The final three, however, settle into an apocalyptic rut—entertaining enough, but no real surprises.

Monday, January 27, 2014

How To Clear The Room Of Adolescents In 2014

Last night my wife and I cued up The Spy Who Loved Me for some cheesy retro-bliss. Roger Moore at 50 was the very definition of “Suave” when we were adolescents in the ‘70s. He was also a fairly well-behaved chap on-set, apparently. My favourite Roger Moore anecdote comes courtesy of Cathereine Seipp, who writes:

Many years ago I read a story about how Roger Moore (a non-screamer) took a younger actor aside and suggested he stop attacking everyone on the set. “I’m not in this business to win a popularity contest,” the screamer fumed. “I just want to be a good actor.” 

“Well you’ve failed at being a good actor,” Moore replied reasonably. “Why not try for the popularity contest?”*

Roger Moore: winning popularity contests since forever.

The Roger Moore Bond films certainly do take their audience for granted, however. They’re a great way to clear the room of adolescents in the ‘10s. Ours now had motivation to head for bed. As we settled in, I said to my wife, “If things go as they should, in 20 years or so our grandchildren will be rolling their eyes at Daniel Craig.”

*Hm. Someone might want to forward this bit to Aaron Eckhart.

Friday, January 24, 2014

The Last Time I Saw Carol Shields

The proximity to prominence — Hey, isn’t that Uma Thurman over there? Look out, Lagerfield just walked in — and the baroque d├ęcor helped to compensate for the poor pay, the short lunch breaks, and the occasional verbal abuse from those we served. 

Jon Michaud’s recollection of working at Manhattan’s Rizzoli Books in the ‘90s could just as easily pass for my own experience, working at Toronto’s Albert Britnell Book Shop during the self-same era.* **

The business that currently resides in the old bookstore.

I never served Bowie, but I did point Jack Palance toward an office supplies store just to the north of us, where he was more likely to find an unlined journal for his sketching.

In the mid-90s, Roger Ebert dropped by between TIFF showings. I was too overwhelmed to say anything sentient; he left, and I cursed my cowardice. He was kind enough to return a year later, when I’d finally accumulated a little experience around prominent types. I’m sure the little chat that followed was utterly forgettable to him, but he was generous, and it’s a lovely memory for me.

James Spader flummoxed me by asking whether I could recommend “any fiction that’s not depressing.” I stared blankly at the shelves, wracking my brains for an answer. Just a few years earlier, I’d asked my high school English teacher, Mr. Knelsen, the same question. Taking Mr. K’s generous lead I went ahead and introduced Spader to Robertson Davies.

Literary celebs made appearances too, of course, but I’ll be damned if I can remember any of them without some residual trace of anxiety. “Do you have my book?” was the dreaded, inevitable question, to which there was no satisfactory answer. “Yes,” led to, “Why so few/so many copies?” “No,” led to, “Why not?” The best answer to an empty shelf was, “It’s selling so well, we’re having a terrible time keeping it in stock.” Wise authors refrained from asking just how many copies we’d sold.

I didn’t encounter too many wise authors.

In that environment, Margaret Atwood proved to be an exception. She asked no questions, autographed what we had (hardcovers only), and bought what she wanted. Then she and her posse went on their way. She was confident of her place in the firmament, I suppose — and why not?

Robert Stone was similarly gracious, and Farley Mowat did a meet-and-greet that must have been the limit, though you’d never have known from his demeanour.

But otherwise? Please. Spare the bookstore a visit from the author.

I had no such anxieties when I saw Carol Shields walk in, with her husband Don. I smiled and greeted them, and let them browse while I dusted shelves at a discreet distance. After an appropriate interval, I approached, congratulated her on her Pulitzer, and asked if there was anything she was looking for. “Not really,” she said. “But is there any chance you have . . . ?”

We had a few dozen copies of The Stone Diaries, of course, but she was asking after a play*** she’d co-written with a daughter. We’d had two copies, sold one and sent the other back to the publishers after a few months of it languishing on our shelves. She said she understood, and gamely autographed the books she’d authored.

“You know,” I said, “I was a student at the University of Winnipeg back when you were a Writer in Residence. I passed along a couple of short stories I’d written, and your editorial remarks were the best I’d had up to that point. You even encouraged me to enter a story into the University’s fiction competition.”

“How’d you do?” asked her husband.

“I won,” I said, feeling as surprised as I had back in the day.

Everyone seemed to be glowing, and that is where I’d like to leave this anecdote, but I simply cannot, because after this, something happened — Carol made a request, and I responded, and when I told my boss of it some weeks later, she (quite rightly) shrieked, “You what?!” (followed by, “Oh, Darrell . . .  ”) But in fairness to myself, it had only been a week or two since we’d all sat down for a staff meeting and been told we hadn’t the insurance, so whatever you do, etc. etc.

“You won,” said Carol. “How wonderful!

The three of us stood, smiling.

Carol said . . .

“Would it be alright if I used your bathroom?”

Go ahead and judge me — it’s been almost twenty years, and the flames of Hell would be a mercy.

All I can say is, the washrooms at Toronto’s Metro Reference Library (two doors north of the office supplies store where Jack Palance bought three hardbound, unlined journals) were fastidiously kept. So much so, that I used them myself, from time to time.

When I explained, and suggested the alternative, Carol Shields said, “Oh, of course. That’s a good suggestion.” Then she and Don thanked me, and left — still smiling.

I wish I’d made that memory a little differently, of course, but so it goes. As it is, it exists as an ever-present reminder that stoicism, graciousness and good cheer are qualities that needn’t be exclusive of each other, no matter how accomplished and celebrated one is in one’s chosen field.

*We had an hour for lunch, though, and were paid slightly more than was the norm in bookstore circles — not that that kept us exactly flush with funds.

**Mr. Michaud comforts himself with ``the migration of book selling to Brooklyn, uptown, and Jersey City.`` There seems to be some evidence of a slight flourishing in the US indie bookstore scene. But at present Toronto is experiencing no such migration. Bookstores are slipping into the tar-pits, and disappearing. 

***Fashion, Power, Guilt And The Charity Of Families, with Catherine Shields.