Wednesday, October 28, 2020

That thing next week

If my blog is your respite from reflexive doom-scrolling, I apologize for this post. But it is remarkable to me that International Crisis Group, a high-profile preemptive deescalation outfit who typically comment on Yemen or Somalia, is issuing warnings about the risk of violence in the United States.

There is a reason for that:

Friday, October 23, 2020

“I left the colony.”

“Stay calm and decolonize,” continued.

Pop recently attended a high school reunion at the old bach. It was held in the town’s Mennonite Heritage Village, where a large “barn” serves various dishes our tribe has appropriated during our travels and travails. It was a small group, and he assured me a social distancing of sorts was adhered to.

Anyhoo, on his way out dad stopped at the museum gift shop and took a few shots of contempo Menno swag. It appears my tribe is re-branding itself via mildly ironic Plautdietsch puns.


I own a few similar items, courtesy of MJ’s Kafe (or, more accurately, friends and family who frequent the joint). They tend to generate conversation — not from my bunch, mind you, but from die enjlisch who puzzle over the strange spelling and say, “That almost looks German — what language is it?”

My kind might nod in acknowledgement. Or they might head for the other side of the street.

The one item of clothing that has prompted inquiry from a local Mennonite is a hoodie I purchased from the Canadian Mennonite University campus bookstore, during a family visit some years ago.

It was closing in on Christmas, and our church choir was struggling with the yearly cantata. Calls were made for a pinch-hitter director who might marshal a respectable performance out of us. A young woman on a family farm to the south of us had graduated from an honours music program somewhere — CMU, in fact. I was unaware of this when I wore the hoodie to her first choir practice with us. She took one look at this grizzled, gutty Lebowski embedded amongst the bassos and warily asked, “Wheeeeeen did you attend CMU?”

We cautiously played the Mennonite game until common points of reference were uncovered. “Make sure you talk to my parents at Christmas,” she said.

The Christmas meet-and-greet was pleasant, if short — the weather was ugly, and everyone was keen to get stranded at home, and not some cavernous Victorian church building. Still, the father and I had points of connection. But we were struggling with the constellation. 

He grew up Mennonite in Paraguay. In the '70s my grandfather pastored in Paraguay. I ran through some of the nationals my grandparents introduced me to, but none of the names were clicking with my new acquaintance. Finally he said, “I left the colony quite some time ago.”

Well, sure. I could have seen that. In the brief exchange I’d had with his wife it was clear she was a spirited woman with a sharp, potentially cutting, sense of humour. He was a deeply thoughtful sort, very careful with his words. I am, you could say, intimately familiar with this sort of union. Pairs of this nature tend not to suffer the foolishness that embeds itself in colony-imposed strictures.

We leave the colony — early.

Saturday, October 17, 2020

“The brainwashed do not know they are brainwashed.”

I played this old CD while transporting last weekend’s turkey remains to the township disposal site. In the car, with the volume at the optimal level, I marvelled anew at the capacity for some its passages to still send shivers down my spine, all these years later.

How many years later? I checked it out. It’s been 10, pretty much to the day, since I chanced across this marvelous album by this marvelous talent and his band.

Another reason for thanksgiving . . . 

Elsewhere: Rushkoff pines for the days of yore, when WE did all the pranking. I’m reflexively wary of such nostalgia — of any nostalgia, for that matter (at least I hope I am). For my money Carlos Lozado does a better job of summing up the current scene: “The counterculture never died. It just switched sides. Transgression now lives on the right, dogmatism on the left. (Emphasis mine.) It’s kinda what I was poking at with this KISS recollection, back when.

Tuesday, October 13, 2020

Transformed, by the renewing of your mind...

This won't hurt a bit...

Do not be configured to this age, but be transformed by the renewal of the intellect, so you may test the will of God, which is good and acceptable and perfect — verse 2 from chapter 12 of Paul’s letter to the Romans 

Stay calm, and decolonizeBuffy Sainte-Marie

These two exhortations take up bedrock space in my consciousness. I believe they are not far removed from each other, if at all.

Paul’s letter to the Roman Christians is a very dense and difficult read. He is striving to re-torque both Jewish and Pagan understanding of human/cosmic consequence into a new shared and mutually liberating framework. It is a bizarre and audacious undertaking, one that sets Paul and his proposed cosmology perfectly at odds with that of the reigning Roman Empire. Shortly after composing the letter Paul is arrested, and executed some time after that.

I don’t understand it very well at all. I’ve asked a couple of scholar friends to break down the rhetoric for me, and the typical qualifier to their subsequent attempts is, “First of all, there are scholars who devote their entire lives to this one letter . . .” Every now and then I get a flash of what Paul is pointing to, a glimpse of the Cosmic Wow that has him writing in circular fits. And the more I read about the Roman Empire, its class structures, and the immense burden of expectation placed on the Empire’s lowest subjects, the better I get at reading this letter.

As a child I memorized the King James Version: “And be not conformed to this world: but be ye transformed by the renewing of your mind . . .” etc

Stay calm, and decolonize.

We just celebrated Thanksgiving up here. My history with the holiday is uncomplicated — by celebrating Thanksgiving we actively take part in a rite my religion requires of its adherents. It’s easy and it’s delicious.

When asked, my Metis friends (all four of 'em) say they’re cool with that — you do you, cousin. My First Nations friends (all three of 'em) just smile and say, “For us it is a little complicated.”

“Decolonize.” Man, with my tribe the only way we were going to make it through at all was to build colonies in the desperate trust that the Russian Empire, or the British Empire, etc would allow us the privilege and — who knows? — maybe even offer us a smidgen of protection in the bargain.

More remains to be said . . .

Saturday, October 10, 2020

The Week, Links

Recommended long-read of the week goes to Francis Fukuyama. LIBERALISM AND ITS DISCONTENTS: The challenges from the left and the right begs, like the notorious essay that netted FF sustained attention thirty years ago, for a spirited Q&A follow-up, as Fukuyama piles up bones of contention like so many turkey carcasses after Thanksgiving Monday. Anyhoo, Fukuyama’s rhetorical perambulations lead to this money-quote:

I suspect that most religious conservatives critical of liberalism today in the United States and other developed countries do not fool themselves into thinking that they can turn the clock back to a period when their social views were mainstream. Their complaint is a different one: that contemporary liberals are ready to tolerate any set of views, from radical Islam to Satanism, other than those of religious conservatives, and that they find their own freedom constrained.

This complaint is a serious one.

Read it here.

Also:

  • Headlines I never expected to read: Why China’s liberals like Trump; and (at Quartz, of all places!) How Trump’s presidency changed Europe for the better.
  • “Times as weighty as these do not allow for easy enlightenment” — indeed. James Jiang’s profile of Eileen Chang has sent me to the lye-berry.
  • And finally: Is Pandemic Brain changing your taste in music? Personally, I’ve been giving podcasts more and more airtime, but that was a trend started some years before COVID hit. Just this morning I discovered Lost Notes: a collection of the greatest music stories never toldover here. Michael Donaldson brought this to my attention over at his 8sided.blog, a reliable source of internet joy I recommend to anyone who loves music.

Returning to the subject of turkey carcasses come Monday morning — it’s Thanksgiving weekend for us Canuckleheads, so I am wishing you, dear reader, a happy Thanksgiving.

This year's Thanksgiving playlist, courtesy of...

Wednesday, October 07, 2020

Guitars I Dig: EVH’s Frankenstrat

Eddie Van Halen’s Frankenstrat is a workhorse guitar, akin to Steve Vai’s Evo or Brad Gillis’ “shovel” — arguably the most famous workhorse guitar in the history of rock ‘n’ roll.

A first in its 40 year history -- being treated with kid gloves.

EVH only made two of these babies — one in 1978, out of parts of undetermined vintage; the other in 1979 out of Charvel parts from that year. The original is the one that “took” to its maker — EVH played it hard and played it often, only retiring it recently after Fender’s luthiers produced a clone that played, to Eddie’s sensibilities, better than the original.

What I find so terrifically charming about this guitar is just how hammered it is. People who managed to catch last year’s Play It Loud exhibit at the NY Met almost invariably remarked on how beat up these iconic instruments were — and nobody’s more than EVH’s.

The Frankenstrat deservedly has its own wiki, and this guy did a remarkable job of chronicling his painstaking replication of the legendary instrument.

It is evident from both pages that EVH was none-too-gentle about getting his self-built guitar to do what he damn well expected it to do. EVH’s character is revealed in the instrument, I think. While the playing revealed his evident sensitivity, the instrument evidences his drive, stubbornness, force of will. At the end of the day, Van Halen was EVH’s band, and his alone.

RIP, Eddie Van Halen.

Post-script: EVH breaks it all down for Popular Mechanics.

Saturday, October 03, 2020

“Take a little trip with me”

Over in the louche corners of the web (the “louche-web” — remember, you heard it here first) people are asking themselves: I dunno, man, but is 2020 maybe, like, one REALLY bad trip?

"Well, we know where we're goin', but we don't know where we been..."

Erik Davis. Jules Evans. Douglas Rushkoff and Grant Morrison.

For a certain temperament that is exactly the right way to frame it, I think. Not that I’ve been much prone to partaking of so-called mind-altering substances, but I’ve experienced a few moments. 

The most recent was a few years ago, in my friend’s Yorkville apartment. I’d asked him to explain something about Heidegger for me, and was gazing down at the streets where hippies once had themselves QUITE the time. As my friend took care with his words, the sense he made of Heidegger for me was in credible. And the vertigo I experienced . . . 

. . . there is that moment after you have strapped yourself into a thrill-ride when the entire machine slowly cranks and torques into a position where you begin to wonder if you will rocket into the earth or if it will fall down on top of you instead.

Only the vertigo never left. My POV had been altered permanently. I thought I had been looking at roots, but it turned out I was staring at leaves and there was this immense sky behind them. My sense of balance would eventually return, but it took some time.

So, yeah, 2020 — a person who wants to emerge from all its dark wisdom will need a source of gentle, human touch. And freshly-squeezed orange juice.

*****

There is something about spoken-word performances woven into a musical tapestry that holds an unfailing appeal for me. Pink Floyd excelled at this, for a couple of records at least. The Shamen made Terrence McKenna’s prolonged bafflegab enticing. And Steven Wilson turned Voyage 34 into an experience the listener, unlike poor Brian, could recover from.

“Whatever Happened To Gus” — my favourite MMW track.

I was prepped for this scene by a childhood spent listening to film soundtracks. The trend in the 70s was to release some of the music with a smattering, or even all, of the film’s dialogue. Star Wars, Indiana Jones, even Apocalypse Now — among other spoken-word-set-to-music finery, including Strange Brew.

Then Quentin Tarantino came along and took it to another level.

I recently picked up Vangelis’ Blade Runner Trilogy, and I’d say he’s taken it to his own level. The first two discs are from the movie, but the third is “inspired by” it — and it, too, has bits of found-speech peppered into the mix. This move provoked some eye-rolling among critics, but I kind of dig it. For whatever reason, spoken word performances set to music suggest an ethereal realm of thought and possibility where sung music constrains with its necessary formality (exceptions allowed for, of course).

It’s trippy — you dig?

Post title pinched from War.

Wednesday, September 23, 2020

The Week, Links

I shall be offline for the next few days — a break long overdue. But here is some of what I hope to mull over, with varying degrees of care or focus.

Discouragement over public discourse as represented in MSM contributes in no small way to my current malaise. And yes, yes. But — it seems to me if Jay Scott were still alive and opining, he’d be doing it at Substack or Medium, or some other place with a malleable firewall. Something integral has been lost in this transition, I think. A particular exercise and expression of liberalism is getting siloed at the worst possible moment. It does indeed feel like The Cherry Orchard.

Anyhoo, catch the good content while you can. 

  • “[M]arket forces instaured principally by decisions made by Boomers decades ago, along with the desperation and naïveté of Millennials, are coming together to somehow make our culture’s productions far more radical and far more conventional at the same time.” Justin E.H. Smith unpacks The New Eliminationism: Notes on the Economics of Cancel Culture, here. Smith, rather generously, offers his newsletter for free, with option to pay.
  • “Kołakowski is distinguishing between two ways of being in the world — two ways that we all engage in, though the proportionate influences of the two ‘cores’ will differ greatly from one person to the next. As a philosopher, he is aware of and determined to resist the common inclination to ‘include myth in the technological order,’ which is to say, the order of analytical reason. . . Something deep-seated is at work when student protesters’ interpretations of events, and their proffered remedies for historical or current injustice, are challenged and the students reply, ‘You are denying my very identity.’ This response makes sense only within the mythical core, not the technological core. One cannot analytically pick apart a complex, integrated mythical framework and say, ‘I choose this but not that’ without tearing holes in the web and leaving it dangling and useless. That is what instrumental reason always does to myth.” (Smith touches on this too, BTW) I shall be reading and pondering Jacobs and Kolakowski.

Back Sundayish, hopefully.

Monday, September 21, 2020

“Care” vs. “Vigilance”

“Care” and “vigilance” exist on a rhetorical continuum.

“I take care to . . .”

“I am vigilant to . . .”

“We must be careful we don’t  . . .”

“We must remain vigilant that we not . . .”

One of the deep benefits of a childhood and adolescence that (ideally) subjected every decision to the question, “What would please Jesus the most?” is the understanding it gave me of the necessity, as well as the very real dangers, of Vigilance. It led me to the adult understanding that Care is what produces The Good Stuff.

Art — a vital element in The Good Stuff — exists somewhere just outside the boundaries of mere vigilance.

Another benefit of my pious childhood: I understood that every single time I turned on the radio I was enjoying the product of people who were moral midgets at best, and utter monsters at worst.

“Being a muse is a thankless job, and the pay is lousy... I suppose it could be considered unfortunate that hearing the intro to ‘Brown Eyed Girl’ come over the grocery store’s speaker system is my signal to hit the checkout counter and get out, ASAP.” Van Morrison muse Janet Planet, right.

I also understood that this stuff existed on a plane that the artists on my team simply weren’t attaining. The Good Stuff resided a little closer to the Platonic Ideal than did the Christian Stuff.

The common, if not universal, misunderstanding at the time was that artists were required to be monsters in order to produce The Good Stuff. There is a hint of truth in that sentiment, but in the '70s nobody artsy was taking the hint, EVERYBODY was behaving monstrously.

Cut to the Pandemic Present, where Vigilance is very much a necessity — a matter of life and death, in fact.

Van Morrison is set to release a set of songs protesting masks.

He is not at all alone in his sentiments — I am continuously surprised by arty types who out themselves as virulently anti-mask. It doesn’t change my admiration of their previous work, or even alter (much) my enjoyment of them as public characters. I’m disappointed certainly, but I understand I’m as capable as anyone of being gobsmackingly thick about things, particularly when it comes to matters of vigilance. To that end I hope to inform my vigilance with as much care as I can muster. One example: I mask up whenever I step out — less for my sake than for those I encounter.

Also in the news, J.K. Rowling takes a break from her Twitter-feed of clanging concerns over trans-gender politics to release a novel in which the villain is a fella wearing a dress. Hardly her finest hour, by my reckoning, but it has no bearing on the majestic empathy painstakingly woven into the Harry Potter series. My daughter self-identifies as Trans — the HP books remain the most precious in his library.

Conversely there is something a little perverse and self-defeating about re-tooling artistic works from the past to ease the social anxieties of the present. Changing the lyrics of “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down” so you can sing it with a clean conscience suggests you probably don’t appreciate what makes the song so powerful and discomfiting to begin with. Trust me — I grew up on Christian Rock. The saddest truth I finally had to acknowledge was taking an AC/DC song and replacing the word “balls” with “Jesus” was not an improvement. 

Which is not to suggest either Van or J.K. are playing their A-game right now — they’re not. Mebbe replacing the word “mask” with “Jesus” is an idea whose time has come?

All I know is when Jo and Van were playing their A-game — Harry Potter, Astral Weeks — we got work that stands just outside the merciless glare of vigilance. We got The Good Stuff.

This post is the product of vigilance. My fiction, and my bread and soup, are the product of care.