Monday, May 29, 2006

Keeee-raaash!!

Looks like my dumpster computer will be returning to its former home. Seems to happen with me at this time of year, doesn't it? Ah, well. My wife (this is her work computer I now type on) has encouraged me to forego my usual Menno thrift in favour of getting something pert-near state-of-the-art. Hopefully, the new rig will arrive at my doorstep in the next day or two.

Strangely enough, I'm going to miss the wheezy old jalopy -- thank you Kaz, for passing along the savings. And thank you Roar for jury-rigging Linux Red Hat when my BIOS was compromised. And finally, thank you Bro for the painless introduction to Ubuntu Linux -- the very first installation I'll be making when the new box is up and running.

Sunday, May 28, 2006

Twenty Twenty: The Essential T Bone Burnett

With the release of this "best of" collection, Mr. J. Henry Burnett finds himself in a spot where he can neither win nor lose. His fanbase has built slowly and steadily, primarily through word of mouth (or the lost art of the mixed tape). His creative output, sporadic right from the start, slowed to the point where his faithful listeners wondered if he'd maybe packed it in for good. But here we are, 13 years after his last CD: he's released The True False Identity to raves (including my own), and offered a two-disc selection of "essential" songs from his past.

Burnett's ouevre commands some the same critical reverence that Bob Dylan's does, while his output comes in at a tiny fraction of The Man's. Thus, T Bone fans -- let's call them "Bone-heads", shall we? -- have of necessity formed the habit of snapping up everything thrown their way, including a package of songs from albums they already own -- T Bone can't lose. However, thanks to this same paucity of output, there isn't a milisecond of recorded sound that Bone-heads haven't committed to intimate memory. Fudge with any of it -- and T Bone has -- and you can't possibly win.

Twenty Twenty was purchased by a number of fans still waiting for a CD reissue of Burnett's seminal 1983 album, Proof Through The Night. There are fans who consider this album a masterwork of collaborative genius -- Rolling Stone deemed it the best album of '83 (back in an era when its opinion of these things still mattered). My own reaction to Proof was and remains mixed -- I would have preferred more songs from the Trap Door EPs and fewer from Proof or Talking Animals, but nevermind. T Bone's perspective on his own music is naturally of interest to the attentive listener -- and we Bone-heads are nothing if not resolutely attentive. So let us insert the discs into our players, turn up the volume and attend.

The track listing is reminiscent of the same scattered consciousness that informed Dylan's three-disc Biography -- chronological order is eschewed in favour of something more aesthetic. The first offering from Proof -- "Fatally Beautiful" -- comes in at number four. When I first heard it, I wasn't sure if this was the original track from the album, with just a few minor tweaks, or if I was listening to something entirely new. I tabbed back and listened again, but the jury was still out.

After hearing all 40 songs, I'm fairly certain Burnett went back to the studio and re-recorded, right from scratch, every single one of the Proof selections. This can't help but stir up conflict for the listener: personally, I rather liked the re-jigging of the zany "Hula Hoop", a song that now has added sheen and bouyancy; but I disliked the changes to "When The Night Falls", which seems to have lost Ry Cooder's note-bending tension. The fact that Proof is the only album to receive this treatment makes me wonder if T Bone's rights to the source material aren't inextricably enmeshed. The heavyweights of the day showed up at the studio, back in '83 -- perhaps there's some legal complication involved in presenting the tracks as they once existed?

I'm not especially offended by this approach, but judging by the Amazon comments, there are listeners who are: "The re-recorded Proof Through The Night tracks are a crime" (one star); "That the originals were superior should be obvious to anyone: much of the bite and snarl, the snap and poetic power are just gone" (three stars); "The alternate versions on Twenty twenty just dont make it ... Too bad, this collection had great potential" (three stars); "Burnett has committed the unforgivable sin of re-recording the tracks from his best album ... BIG MISTAKE" (two stars) -- geez, you'd think we were talking about Star Wars!

My own take: I like the set. There's a spicy essay supplied by Bill Flanagan, and Burnett brings commentary to each and every song, some of it very enlightening indeed. Again, I think comparing it to Dylan's Biography is appropriate. It's a mixed and re-mixed bag of tricks. Played from beginning to end, it carries its own strange sense of narrative. And once you've ingested it a few times, you'll find yourself skipping over songs you were never crazy about to begin with; you'll also find yourself listening to others you once dismissed.

As for all this disappointed fan vitriol, I would think the easy corrective would be to re-release his entire catalogue. It's the Trap Door albums I'm after, but even so, I'd lay down money for Proof and Animals, too. Sony might not want to do this just yet, however. Burnett fans are too used to waiting a long, long time for what they want -- too much at once might ruin our sense of anticipation and interrupt our on-line conversation.

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Gratuitous Hockey Post

I couldn't help feeling some sense of deja vu in the final outcome of the Ducks/Oilers series. I wasn't cheering too hard for either team, but I did follow my father's habit of siding with the underdog, the appallingly-named "Mighty Ducks". The emotional cache was given some extra weight by coach Randy Carlisle, a former Winnipeg Jets defenseman.

The coach for the Edmonton Oilers is, of course, former Oiler centre Craig McTavish. Back when Winnipeg had an NHL team, there was no guarantee they'd make the play-offs, and when they did, fans became accustomed to watching their team get perfunctorily eliminated by one of the two Alberta teams. The fights with Calgary were sometimes close, but Edmonton was another story. So far as the Oilers were concerned, the Jets were little more than the scrawny workout partner who showed up to keep them in shape.

And so Carlisle's team has once again been dismissed by McTavish's: salt in the wounds. On the plus side, a series between Carolina (I can't imagine Buffalo rallying from its wounds) and Edmonton could be pretty intense. But once again, I'm not sure I can find it in me to cheer Edmonton. Funny how deeply these sport history resentments can run.

Thursday, May 25, 2006

"Summer" Reading

My summer reading doesn't differ substantively from the other three seasons, but I've enjoyed Slate's meditations on pulp fiction thrills so much, I caught some of their surfer dude spirit. I hereby commit myself to re-reading Dashiell Hammett.

The public declaration is a bit disingenuous of me; I was already set to give Hammett another peek, regardless. This is due to my current attempts at bedtime reading. You can see I've had trouble finishing Dennis Danvers' The Bright Spot -- two months "On The Floor", and counting. This is partially due to late-spring torpor, but chiefly due to the writing style. It's not a bad style, per se -- it just happens to be a style I've never enjoyed reading: specifically, Raymond Chandler's style.

There are Chandler-based movies I've enjoyed: the pal-mal confusion and sexual heat of Howard Hawks' The Big Sleep is still a thrill to see, and Robert Mitchum's turn in Farewell, My Lovely is softly evocative and has a boozy sweetness to it. But reading Chandler is another story -- he's always grated on me. There's too much of the wise-ass in his prose, and in my life I have been overly familiar with wise-asses. The fact that I once attempted to be one myself only makes the presence of wise-assery all the more unbearable. So, no thank you to Messieurs Chandler, Parker and now, uh, "Sydney".

Hammett, on the other hand, is a horse of a slightly different colour. Not so much the wise-ass as something colder -- or should I say "cooler"? It's been 20 years since I last read him, though, and my memory of the experience may be way off the actual mark. So stay tuned...

Update: although Michael Blowhard makes no mention of my flip dismissal of Chandler, he clearly disagrees with my prognosis. And I have to admit there is indeed an enviable and evocative economy to such lines as: "He looked like a bouncer who had come into some money."

But since I've already committed myself to flippancy, I might as well come out and say: I just don't get this recent revival of Georges Simonon. I've only read two Maigret novels, and I'm disinclined to try any more. When you take Raymond Carver's minimalism and knit it to the bones of a mystery novel, you don't necessarily produce entertaining ficiton. Non?

Wednesday, May 24, 2006

Reading WIRED and Fast Company

I have become a regular WIRED reader, and I'm not altogether sure why. I remain a technophobe (if not a Luddite), so the pages devoted to gadgets and computer innovations are mostly lost on me. I'm genetically predisposed to viewing anyone's optimism with outright distrust, and WIRED is resolutely optimistic. And WIRED's writing style inevitably makes me a little nuts -- here's one example, on a topic I've been musing over of late: DEVO.

"[DEVO] recently extended the brand, helping Disney launch Devo 2.0, an ensemble of 10-to 13-year-old kids who sing Devo classics. Is it evolution or devolution that a band once considered too odd for radio is the latest offering from one of the largest media companies on the planet?"

Waiting for the writer's prognosis? Final paragraph: "Devo 2.0 updates the idea for a new generation. 'It could be an interesting new way to look at Devo,' [DEVO frontman Mark Mothersbaugh] reflects. 'Or it could be really stupid.'" Judgement appears to be suspended, but the subject matter is portrayed with such cheerful brio that the inescapable conclusion for this reader is -- because Mothersbaugh's take on things is so ironic, Devo 2.0 is probably really stupid and "rilly kewl".

This sort of reportage represents an improvement of sorts on the earlier WIRED's billboard-style "The Revolution Is Here!" optimism. After retrieving a few 10-year-old issues from the basement and contrasting them with the current magazine, I have to say I miss the high-grade quality of paper, and the charming insertion of Marshall McLuhan's visage (and words) into the monthly masthead. The current WIRED is slimmer, void of McLuhan, and built to be read faster. It's probably the latter I enjoy most: a great deal of what WIRED gassed on about in the 90s was worth less than half the type & hype.

In tandem with WIRED is Fast Company, a magazine my wife subscribes to. FC serves to keep her company (heh), I think. The bulk of any given issue acknowledges the condition of North American life -- we work too long and too hard, for and with people who make us crazy -- then offers up tactical analysis and a bromide or two to keep the reader going. FC is, at heart, as optimistic as WIRED, but is a bit more even-tempered about it. WIRED and FC both make a point of rejoicing at those strange intersections where anarchy and the corporation meet. And they are both unabashadly "lite" about subjects that have at times mired me in the Slough of Despond.

I think I read both magazines in an effort to enhance some personal sense of possibility. For much of my 20s and 30s I read text-heavy monthlies of the What Is To Be Done? mindset. I supplemented this ideological diet with glossies -- Esquire and GQ were frequent purchases, and from 94-97 Details was something of a lifeline. Today all three of those magazines seem like they're being published by and for some alien species. I didn't complain when the cheesecake factor was gradually upped in the first two, and the gay slant of the new Details was a bit of a curiosity at first. But all three reached a tipping point at roughly the same time. Of course, maybe it was just me -- but I doubt it, because the focus on distraction seemed to intensify after 9/11, and after two or three months of looking at the same magazines, the same girls, cars, watches and suits and repeatedly asking myself, "Honestly: who the hell cares about this shit?" I stopped buying them. (Full disclosure: I still buy the occasional ish of British Esquire -- pretentiously literary (last December's all-star audience with Paul Auster was an enticing conceptual salad, lightly dressed with a tart vinaigrette) and unpretentiously laddy (I refer not just to the "birds", but to pieces like (again) last December's tribute to Led Zep thumper John Bonham), the magazine often embodies my notion of a truly guilty pleasure.)

As I alluded to earlier, so much of me and my way of thinking is heavy, that I genuinely enjoy a lighter approach to possibility and potential, wherever I end up finding it. Lately it's been in the pages of WIRED and Fast Company. If there are other (better?) resources that occur to you, tag the comments below: I'm all ears.

Friday, May 19, 2006

Superman Is A Dick

Just to prove to Cowtown Pattie that I'm not averse to theological controversy: Drawn! links to Superdickery, a site I've wasted time on before (thanks to Boing Boing). This is the cover that finally got me giggling. The word for Soop's body-language, I believe, is insouciant.



Unfortunately, there seems to be reams of irrefutable evidence that he's also a bad influence on my favorite super-hero, Batman:





Still not convinced? Go ahead and view all 191 examples.

Movies I Refuse To Watch

It's big, it's got buzz, everyone is seeing it and talking about it ... and that just makes me dig in my heels. I'm not going. Nope. Won't even rent it when it comes out. So there.

E.T. - The Extra-Terrestrial was the first such movie; The Passion of the Christ the most recent. Now we have The DaVinci Code. Oh, I was wavering for a bit. Several people at church have pressed me on the issue, saying I really should read the book (it's a United Church, and our chief concern is the comfort-level of our handbaskets). I've read enough of Dan Brown's prose to know I'd be frothing at the mouth by page 90 (reading bad prose to my kids is trial enough -- "'Oh, could we, Mother? Please?' asked Sophia excitedly." Argh). I figured I'd have an easier time digesting 90 minutes of Ron Howard's ham-fisted directing than I would the two or three hours of speed-reading Brown. But, wait: the movie is two and a half hours long! And it's crap.

Meh. I'd rather play Free-Cell.

Thursday, May 18, 2006

T Bone Burnett's The True False Identity

Most Americans are not what Wayne was in his movies -- a kindly killer -- and even to dream of being such an avenger is a dangerous game for the mind to play. -- John Wayne's America: The Politics of Celebrity by Garry Wills

I don't belong to the John Wayne generation -- my birthday is about five years off the mark. By the time I figured out what movies were for, my celebrity introduction to the Duke came from none other than Richard Pryor (of all people). Equipped with this colorful metafilter at too young an age, I had no hope of understanding what Wayne really meant to people. The closest I came was reading Garry Wills' book, which I heartily recommend.

The Duke as beer-goggled by Pryor & Wills -- a fitting entry point, I think, to the latest T Bone Burnett effort: The True False Identity

Cowboy with no cattle, warrior with no war
They don't make imposters like John Wayne anymore
- Fear Country

Bush the Younger has indeed been a horrible boon for the country's songwriters. The man and his methods have given us a lot to sing about, it seems: this month alone we get to hear directly from two disgruntled Boomer heavyweights -- Neil Young and now T Bone Burnett. But placed next to Burnett's TTFI, Young's Living With War comes off sounding like straight-forward, practical advice: "Impeach and move on." Listening to Young, a guy could even begin to feel ... hopeful.

Burnett's medicine is quite different. It burns, and leaves no sign our condition is going improve anytime soon. A malignant Personality has patiently taken hold of the American visage, and It isn't content with nationalist vagaries and cartoon effigies -- It is personal; It wants your face, too.

Who were you 30 years ago? Who are you now? Can you spot the difference?

Frank who was swank robbed a bank with a tank for a prank
Sam who was glam ran a scam from Siam to Viet Nam...
- Palestine, Texas

I may be too young to recognize the Duke, but I'm old enough to spot hipster stream - of - consciousness narratives when I see 'em. Frank, Sam et al parade by us in shorthand -- tinny echoes of the grotesques who populated Dylan's Desolation Row. This time it's the outlaw as goofball, and vice versa. It doesn't mean anything, unless you want it to. But within the same song, Burnett abruptly shifts gears, and voices a sentiment that is unmistakable:

Presidents come and presidents go
They rise like smoke and they fall like snow
Do you believe the things you say
Your lofty thoughts are filled with hay
What is this faith that you profess
That led you to this colossal mess


Let's dance about architecture for a moment: if it weren't for the music, this here-and-now opining would be jarring and out of place. But it's not. The hipster with his wordplay and the president with his bafflegab are two sides of the same ugly coin. This president, this administration is every bit as contemptuous of the preceeding generation's hard-won wisdom as the Diggers and the Black Panthers were. Several songs later when Burnett finally sings “We're marching up to Zion / That beautiful City of God” in a minor key, set to the industrial stomp and shuffle that's driven so much of this album, the listener can't help but wonder if we're not in fact pointed in the other direction.

As in any Burnett album, there are meditations on love and loss, betrayal and self-betrayal, and a despair that sits close to redemption. Play it, and see if you aren't groping for your own identity. You'll know you're close when you feel the pain -- and relief -- of recognition.

Here is the official T Bone Burnett site, where you'll find all sorts of goodies, including videos of recent performances. Also available on CD is an impressive 2-disc "best of" collection, Twenty Twenty: The Essential T Bone Burnett.

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Wednesday, May 17, 2006

The local landfill

I attended a public meeting last Monday, held locally by the Department of Resources in charge of our township's dump. If I understand the situation correctly, our dump was established in 1950, on what was then a convenient, if not environmentally appropriate, site. Important date, that. The site is in fact a flood plain. Toxins have been leaching from the flood plain into the swamplands, the tributaries, and into Lake Scugog.

In 1975, for political reasons obscure to me (which no doubt made perfect sense at the time -- I'm guessing the township was spared the looming burden of federal environmental standards, while Durham was awarded a plumb Waste Management contract) management of the township's dump was transferred to the Region of Durham -- the dump (i.e., waste management) and nothing else (water, hydro, any other public resource you care to name is the township's to deal with). Durham hosts Oshawa and environs, Ontario's politically hot "905" region, a population of half-a-million and growing. At the moment, Durham and Toronto are sending their trash to Michigan. Michigan will at some point close the border to these exports, and Ontario will be facing a genuine emergency. Residents in our township have two concerns: 1) the dump's increasing toxicity, and 2) the possibility that said emergency will require us to play host to a sudden staggering influx of 905 garbage.

Durham held this meeting in order to address these public concerns. First impression: wow, do we have a lot of pissed-off farmers! And for good reason: they haven't been able to drink their own well water for the last four years, or spread their own cow manure on their own fields. Durham routinely tests the groundwater for "trace elements" -- toxins considered to be a dependable indicator of the presence of other, greater toxins -- but this is a cost-effective test, and not an exhaustive test. A handful of farmers have sent water samples to independent labs for exhaustive testing, and the test results confirm toxic levels of mercury, lead and other heavy metals. Expensive tests, done on the farmers' own dime, and typically ignored by the government in office who finally defer to the test results submitted by their own Department of Resources.

Second impression: the Waste Management suits aren't "bad guys". They're trying to do the right thing, within the budgetary contraints set by the government in office, which is ostensibly set by the people who voted them in ("Say, kids: who wants higher taxes?!"). They acknowledge at the outset that waste is a problem. They've sought out and accepted their jobs because they have a vested interest in dealing with the problem, not because they want to get rich quick.

So Waste Management holds these meetings in hopes of keeping the locals calm: Public Relations, in other words. To this end, they informed us that 1) because of the legal conditions set in the 1950 public agreement, they are under no obligation to close or dismantle the landfill; 2) an environmental assessment is underway, conducted by an organization that meets the current government's standards, and the assessment will make recommendations that the Department will be obliged to meet; 3) emergency 905 dumping is the distant third and final resort (along with farmland expropriation) in the event of a closed Michigan border.

Residents stood up and shouted, Resources took a deep breath and repeated the same three points. Again, and again, and again.

Quite a depressing experience for yours truly. Going in to the meeting, I probably couldn't have said what I was anticipating. But coming out I realized what my tacit expectation had been: a democratic forum. I don't believe that's what I witnessed. The overriding enterprise was a public relations effort on behalf of Durham Waste Management. This isn't an inherently bad thing -- it simply wasn't the expected enterprise. I didn't expect it, and neither did anyone else attending the meeting. They attended in the slender hopes that their concerns would be heard and acknowledged as valid, and that immediate remedial action would be taken.

But this was not the public's forum, it was the Department's. This was a platform for the Department to communicate to the residents that the Department's mandate is being followed to the exact degree that funding and legality permits. Every one of the township's residents could have shown up and taken turns saying whatever the hell they wanted to say -- it didn't matter. It wasn't their meeting.

Tuesday, May 16, 2006

Meanwhile, on the bathtub faucet...

Not sure what the girls were playing, but this was the end result...

Random Thoughts on Bookstores: Independent vs. Superstore vs. Internet vs. ... ??

Tyler Cowen's What Are Independent Bookstores Really Good For? (Not Much), at Slate, prompts me to reflect. Here are some personal observations, in no particular order:

I'll start with the obvious: I love books. I love their compactness, and I love their heft. I delight in the ever-changing gallery of book-covers. I like the ineffable potential of each square little package: should you open the cover and begin reading, you may hear the whisper that allows you to keep going; you may encounter the bomb that changes everything. (Or you may simply fall asleep -- and isn't that also a gift?) My grandfather, who I never considered a particularly bookish man, said if a book contained one good idea, it was worth buying. I've taken that maxim to an extreme that's probably got him spinning, but there it is.

I love bookstores. Can't stay away from 'em. In fact, I like them more than I like reading the books themselves. Row upon row of fancy new-fangled, candy-coloured potential. I frequently dream of ancient, creaky bookstores with tall, bowed shelves full of books with every word metaphysical glow-rod. The scenario is a terrible delight -- salvation and damnation within four walls.

In the last four years, I've bought most of my books from a superstore. The stores are easy to find, they've got parking, and when you're facing that many books, there's bound to be something with appeal.

Most of those books were remaindered. Let's see: hardcover for $4.99, or paperback for $11.99. What to do, what to do... Unless we're talking about a friend's publication (where sales figures and royalties count for something), or Neal Stephenson (I can't believe I lugged The Confusion with me on a Montreal weekend!), the choice is obvious.

I purchased most of my "new" books on the internet. By and large, the internet discount is even better than the one I had as the employee of an independent bookstore. Which leads me to observe that...

I loved working in an independent bookstore. It gave me the opportunity to do just about everything: read and review books (on my own time, of course -- no myth is further from the truth than the hoary "Oh, it must be so nice to work in a book store: reading all those books!" If you've got time to read books on the floor, your store is doomed); shake hands and talk with the author (and meet the occasional celebrity); unpack and add books to the inventory (twice a week, it felt like Christmas!); converse with customers and make recommendations (and receive in kind); write ad-copy; answer phones (okay, not so much)....

If an independent bookstore is within walking distance, that's where you'll find me. I especially like the ones whose shelves are papered with written recommendations from the staff -- like tickets on a prayer-wheel.

When I'm in an independent, I'll make a point of buying something new at the cover price. Just so I can say, "I gave at the office."

I've almost always found the best books in the strangest places. Our town has a caffe-bookstore, where I picked up this collection of James Salter's short stories. I most certainly did not expect to find this book in my town. Kewl, no?

Saturday, May 13, 2006

Uninspired

Just how bad is it? Consider: I've used this title before.

I think I'm attempting to recover my pre-April stamina -- that effectively being the month my wife spent in Africa. My attention seems unmoored; I don't really listen to anyone for very long, I can't seem to finish any of my reading (ergo The Bright Spot's presence "On The Floor" for the past two months), and musically I'm compelled to brainlessly re-consuming rock from my youth ("On The Platter"). If I could justify it, I'd probably spend the day playing video games (I can't, thank God). I attend to the family, and to basic household maintenance.

So my apologies for the "lite" material of late. This, too, shall pass -- and if you have any advice toward its expediency, I'm all ears.

Friday, May 12, 2006

My first visit to NYC

In the spring of '87, my father signed over an airline voucher he'd received in compensation for getting bumped off a flight. He handed it to me and said, "It expires next month -- see what you can do." I stared at this piece of paper that could take me anywhere in continental USA. I was 21 years old. Where to go, where to go...?

I contemplated all manner of silliness and sought advice from friends and even an Enlgish professor of mine. Taos, New Mexico was one potential destination, for reasons that now escape me. So was Miami (yes, even prairie boys in the wilds of Winnipeg were enamoured with the sockless wardrobe of Mssrs. Crockett & Tubbs). But in the end, I did the right thing, and flew to NYC.

I had asked my English Prof friend if NYC wasn't pretty much like Toronto, only a lot larger. That earned me an amused giggle, which he quickly stifled. "Oh," said he, "there's really nothing to compare New York to."

No kidding.

My choice of shelter is about as emblematic as any of my other experiences during that visit. I scored a tiny private room at the West Side Y, just a stone's throw away from Lincoln Center on the one side and Central Park on the other. My first night there, it seemed like I was the only tennant who hand't come equipped with a musical instrument. Every seat in the orchestra had a representative; as I readied myself for sleep, I heard scales and bits of score being played by everything from piccolos to tubas. I felt like my bed was in the middle of an orchestra pit during pre-show warm-up, and I loved it.

You've caught me reminiscing, thanks to this Drawn! entry on the Carlton Arms Hotel. When I disembarked at LaGuardia and started plugging quarters into the phone, I had a number of inexpensive establishments tell me there was no room at the inn, including the Carlton Arms. Judging from the pictures on the site, the Arms would have been in the infancy of its current incarnation, which was just as well. Gives me something to look forward to, for my next visit.

Tuesday, May 09, 2006

Gratuitous Hockey Post

Well, well. We've gone from contemplating an "All-Canadian" series to contemplating an "All-American" one! Not that that's a bad thing. Go, California!

Sunday, May 07, 2006

Kensington Market

Our family drove down to Kensington Market in Toronto, yesterday. It's the first place we go whenever my wife or I start worrying that our girls might be getting a little too comfortable being small-town girls. I used to live a block away from the market, and though I don't miss the noise (particularly from the tormented escapees of the local mental health ward), I do miss the locale and the barrage of sensual stimuli.



Butterfly is the girls' favourite store, at the moment. Like most Kensington venues, it is tiiiiiiiiny. Being a bit of an agoraphobe, I get a little squirrely in these places; as pleasant as it is to have attractive young women constantly bumping into me (and asking me to move), I can only take a few minutes of it before I break for the door. No matter. Kensington stores bring their wares outside.



The market is also well-populated, and pretty much embodies what Jane Jacobs was all about. I can't imagine what rental rates are (15 years ago I was paying $600 a month for a tiny bachelor suite with a hot-plate), but it still seems to attract bohos of every stripe. It's a colourful place.



Alright, so the house above doesn't exactly have the best-kept garden. At least they've paid attention to appearance of their front steps...



Enough of this touristy gawking. Okay, kids: because you've been such an uncomplaining two-some, I'll let you share a single can of iced-tea! (Why yes, I am a cheap bastard -- hey, save a little for your old man!)

Phantom of the Bakery

We moved into our current house eight years ago, and every Sunday at 4:30 in the morning, I wake up (briefly, usually) to the smell of baking cookies. Our house is semi-detached, so I've always assumed this pleasant smell comes from the people adjoined to us. They keep different hours than we do, and it's not inexplicable that someone might be in the weekly habit of baking cookies at that (to my mind) God-forsaken hour.

This morning that sweet smell again pulled me from my sleep. I smiled and rolled over, ready to sink back into slumber, when it hit me: the tennants next door moved out two weeks ago. There's no-one there.

This odor has to originate from within the house; our windows are closed, and even if they weren't, there's no other place within sniffing range of our house that could produce the unmistakable smell of baking cookies. I'm told this house was one of four bakeries that serviced the community, back in the early 20th Century -- we have iron-work in our basement and shed left over from that period (and no, it doesn't smell like cookies). It's the strangest thing. The scent lingers right up until about 5:45 or so.

It's entirely possible, even likely, that there is simply a corner in my brain that, for whatever reason, has been tickled every Sunday morning at 4:30 for the last eight years. When I was a kid our family's Sunday morning tradition was to prop a few store-bought danishes into the oven and warm them up for breakfast -- melting icing sugar is not dissimilar to the smell of baking cookies. But I'm still mystified over why this should happen with such predictability. (The game's afoot!)

Friday, May 05, 2006

Cigars & Motorcycles

I've been culling short stories from my own personal slush pile, trimming their excesses and otherwise readying them for publication in a collection. I expect to include at least one story from as far back as 15 years ago. Re-reading it was a little like encountering an old lover on the street: nerve-wracking, delightful, fraught with the hope that everything in the interim had gone well with this now alien being.

As expected, this exercise has kicked up the silt in my psyche.

The other night I dreamed I was back on a motorcycle, wheeling into a neighboring town on the hunt of smokes. Cigars, actually. Schimmelpenninck Duets, to be specific: the brand Paul Auster expresses an unreserved fondness for. The tobacconist I was visiting had a drive-through option, which I queued up for. When I got to the window, the fella listened to my request, then informed me that it was too hoity-toity to be granted here, so why didn't I take it and my tenderfoot self back to the city, from whence I'd obviously come.

I felt misunderstood.

Back in the day, after two summers worth of motorcycle riding, I thought the experience highly overrated. Robert Pirsig and a host of magazine writers could wax as poetic as they wanted; the act of riding a motorcycle for long periods of time across wide swaths of landscape was in fact as onerous as sewing curtains for the church. Similarly, cigars. I've had a few dozen over the years. They coat your mouth with a variety of tar that can be not unpleasant, but in the main is unlikely to add much to your quality of life.

So why do I now want to get back on the motorcycle and smoke a cigar? My guess: perhaps I finally have the state of mind that can appreciate these experiences. My chief complaint about the motorcycle, when I was 20, was that it was too fast. I ripped through the scenery like a bee on a bullet, when what I really wanted to do was pedal through it and savor the experience. 20 years later, I don't have the time or the energy to push a bicycle to the West Coast and back. A motorcycle is a modest and manageably temperamental means of independence. It might be nice to feel the wind in my face and visit a friend in, say, Montreal or Port Elgin.

As for cigars, I dunno: seems to me a cigar is just a cigar. A Schimmelpenninck Duet is about as fine as they come, and about as much danger as I want to risk to my person when my daughters are at such a tender age. So if you do spot me with what appears to be a smoldering turd in my mouth, well ... be kind.

The Sacramental Aspect of Walking, Revisited

When I last dropped my wife at the airport, I stopped at the newsstand and, on a panicked whim, bought the May issue of The Walrus. I'd be curious to hear what some non-Canadians think, since I'm reflexively inclined to toe the line of nationalist self-denigration.

Of particular interest to me, though, was John Bentley Mays' essay, Walking off the Map: Hymns to the unknown city beneath our feet. It didn't catch my eye until today, when it finally took hold of my imagination with near totality:

In the cities of North America and Europe, a new way of understanding and enjoying urban reality has recently emerged among certain artists, architects, writers, and persons without portfolio. The people captivated by this cool passion can be recognized by their patient gaze at what most others ignore or find offensive - the sidewalk clutter of signage and graffiti, construction debris, untended laneways - and by their meditative preoccupation with odd rips in the urban fabric: vacant lots, condemned buildings, naked electrical transformer stations, other places where the skin of urban propriety has been torn or worn away. They are all walkers, and their tread through the city streets is intent and focused. We see them moving at the pace of dowsers looking for streams buried beneath the pavement; and dowsers they are, these seekers for the fugitive urban imaginary in the solid matter of the city...

Guy DeBord, leading intellectual of the poetical-anarcho-leftist Situationists ... promoted
la dérive, the drift, a mindfully disordered wander, as a way to subvert - if only for a revelatory moment - the numbing spectacle of the capitalist city. Greil Marcus on DeBord, quoted by Rebecca Solnit [and now me - ha!]: "The point was to encounter the unknown as a face of the known, astonishment on the terrain of boredom, innocence in the face of experience. So you can walk up the street without thinking, letting your mind drift, letting your legs, with their internal memory, carry you up and down and around turns, attending to the map of your own thoughts, the physical town replaced by an imaginary city."

The essay is illustrated with some stunning bits of photography. And these are some of the books Bentley Mays makes reference to. The essay is not available on-line, alas. But it is well worth a look for those of us compelled to walk.

Thursday, May 04, 2006

Gratuitous Hockey Post

With my hopes of an all-Canadian series dashed some time ago, I was slowly coming round to the idea of a California Confrontation. This didn't present much of a stretch for me, given my fondness for things Californian. And so I greeted this morning's news with raised coffee cup and a cheer. Yes, despite an almost overwhelming presence of Mennonite talent, the Calgary Flames were blanked by the Anaheim Mighty Ducks.

I still hate "The Mighty Ducks" as a name and franchise. But coach Randy Carlisle (once indefatigable defenceman for the Jets) carries a substantial charm-factor for this former Winnipeg resident. And what's not to like about San Jose? Go, California!

The Art Of The Rock & Roll Personage: Bun E. Carlos

In my youth it was generally accepted wisdom that if you were a rock & roll drummer of note, you would most certainly die young -- in all probability as a victim to your vices. The summer our family moved from our small-Mennonite-town to the sprawling Gateway to the West was the summer Keith Moon had his "accidental misadventure". Two years later, John Bonham had his.

Right smack in the middle of that (grade 9, for those keeping track) I saw my first portrait of Bun E. Carlos, drummer for Cheap Trick. The guy sharing my locker was in the habit of walking from class to class with a pair of drumsticks tucked in the back pocket of his jeans. He also had a Cheap Trick T that rarely left his torso. The way I remember it, the T featured only one image -- of Carlos, in his trademark shirt and tie, slouched behind his kit and smoking a filtered cigarette. I'm almost certainly wrong in my recollection. Everyone in that band had an ego that required attention: Robin Zander and Jon Brant were pretty-boys, and the accumlative effect of Rick Nielsen's bowties, ballcaps and Marty Feldman eyeballs was almost enough to give Angus Young's nasty schoolboy gig a run for the money. But Carlos ... that cat looked like he'd been pulled from the local bowling alley. In fact, he looked a lot like a fella who went to our church, only surlier and more pissed off.

There's little to say about his drumming skills: if At Budokan is any indication, Carlos' drumming signature is a sturdy lock on the pocket. But visually, there were so many stunning disconnects, flashing at me in that one portrait. To top it off, he smoked as he smacked. Surely he'd be the next Rock & Roll Fatality?

Nope. Still alive and kicking bass, and wearing his age better than the rest of the band -- just because he got there first.

Tuesday, May 02, 2006

Ode to the Home Stereo

Carl Sagan became a young Ph.D. in 1960 (about six months before Bob Dylan first arrived in Greenwich Village). His generation passionately loved the long-playing record -- they defined themselves and their worldview through the LP. They often studied LP's (like Harry Smith's Anthology or The Beatles' Sgt. Pepper) with a reverence and creativity that previous generations reserved for The Bible. To no small degree, the social movements that defined the 50's, 60's and 70's were shaped and held together by the LP format. It was The People's Format, an invention that invented a generation. The Celestial Monochord, courtesy of Cowtown Pattie.

Twenty years ago, I bought my stereo components: a receiver, CD player and tape deck (all NAD), hooked up via thick cables to a pair of large walnut-coloured Angstrom speakers. Just about $2000, once the taxes were figured in. My motorcycle was cheaper.

Note the absence of turntable. The compact disc was just beginning to take over. When you walked into a music store, the diminishing presence of the LP record was increasingly apparent. The death-knell of the LP had sounded, so I didn't bother spending the extra cash on a piece of equipment I wasn't likely to use.

When I bought my stereo, I had every expectation that I would sit and listen to music. Period. Not as "background", while I vaccuumed or cooked -- music would take centre stage, the way it did in the showroom. In fact, my apartment had the ideal set-up: one square room, separated from the rest via french doors, with one comfy chair located at the ideal intersection of broadcast sound. No television (I biked over to my friends' apartment for my weekly fix of STNG).

Times and expectations changed much faster than I could possibly have foreseen. When I moved from Winnipeg, where rent was affordable and apartments spacious, to Toronto (not so much), that stereo became an unshakeable albatross. The cables were the first to go -- hawked in aid of a month's rent. And it wasn't until I got married that those speakers had enough space to be correctly set up for a good evening's listening pleasure.

By that time my ruination as a would-be stereophile was nearly complete. With marriage came a television and VCR. Then my buddy at work bought his first Pentium-equipped computer. Now that he was playing real games, he gave me his Sega Genesis. I discovered Road Rash 3, and that was all she wrote.

These days the only time I sit down and listen to music is when I'm driving solo. Not the worst condition for music appreciation, but not exactly ideal, either. I miss the LP. I miss the consideration it invited: the liner notes, the little details you could decipher on the cover, etc. (The master of this medium has to be Mingus, with his abstract album covers, and liner notes supplied by his psychotherapist!) In these aspects, the CD gave the audiophile less, not more. What are we losing in this era of the MP3?