Tuesday, March 24, 2020

Taking pause

Sundays used to be deadly boring, back in the 70s.
No, really...
Everything in the village was closed, except for the Grow Sir, and how much soft-serve ice cream could a kid actually consume in a given day? If you were bored enough, and you (ahem) permitted yourself access to the parental change jar, you found out — once.

Then it was back to normal. Which was boring.

Sunday afternoon television was programming brought to you from the Most Boring Pit of Hell. Of the four channels caught by the roof antenna, only two were commercial channels from the city. One played a long boring movie frequently interrupted by the same four local ads, the other offered sports with the exact same ads. The other two were the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation —  one delivered English Canadian content, the other French. The English had Hymn Sing, the French had something involving two or three fellows in bucket chairs talking excitedly over each other.

You could read a book for an hour, maybe two if you were a particularly nerdy kid. But sooner or later the walls closed in, and you had to go outside.

If it was winter, maybe you dragged the toboggan to the hill just west of town. Or maybe you and the neighborhood kids played Fox and Goose in someone’s pristinely snow-blanketed garden. Some kids played road hockey, but in the 70s nobody had money for a net. You used giant blocks of road snow for goal posts, and a sponge puck, which you chased down the street after someone “scored.”

If it was summer, you could ride your bike to a friend’s place and kill time there, reading his comic books for a change. Sporty types might play a little football, or if you had one of those small plastic footballs from the hardware store you could play “Aunty-Aunty-Over” for a few minutes — hucking the little ball over the roof of your house and hoping your friend on the other side wouldn’t catch it, race around the building and claim his due reward — a vicious punch to your shoulder.

Sundays were so freaking boring, church truly was a relief — even Sunday night service. For an hour or two you could quell the dread you felt over your freakishly changing body by contemplating the wondrous transformations taking place amongst the others. And if your youth pastor was hip you put together musicals and puppet shows.

You learned songs you probably still sing to yourself, forty years on.


Flash-forward to 1990. I was in Toronto, the Centre Of The Universe, and the 70s were LONG gone.

And yet Sundays were still boring. The only stores open were mom-and-pop corner stores, everything else was closed. And in theory you had 57 channels, but with the exception of Much Music (how long you stayed tuned depended on how many repetitions of C+C Music Factory you could endure) the content hadn’t really changed. If you were in your 20s the best you could do was ride your bike to a buddy’s to see if he had any beer in his fridge. Plus ça change.

And Bob Rae — the guy I didn’t just vote, but actually campaigned, for — was he seriously hoping to enforce a “common pause day” in Ontario? A day I could better spend pinballing from one record store to the next, when I wasn’t ensconcing myself in the World’s Biggest Bookstore? Ex-squeeze me? Rae’s idea truly was just that self-evidently, spectacularly BAD.
Give the people what they want, Bob.

Flash-forward to 2020. A friend owns and operates the local hardware store. It’s been a seven-days-a-week affair since '92. “We closed one day for my mother’s funeral,” he tells me. “It took just over two weeks for the numbers to get back up to the daily norm.” He, too, remembers — rather fondly — when Sundays were boring.

Now I’m doing a little basic math. Most years have 52 Sundays — multiply that by 28 and you get a total of 1,456 24-hour units we collectively fed through the consumption machine. Factor in Leap Years and round up just a tad, and that’s four years we’re talking about.

If that’s how many common pause days are now required of us, I sure hope there is a merciful God — because we’re gonna need help.
"Come, let us sing..."

Tuesday, March 17, 2020

Party Of Shine

I am having such a blast listening to this band/album/group of songs — Party Of Shine.
Social media flagged them for me. Jeff Johnson, formerly of this band, is the driving force of said Party. Tommy Womack wrote copy for their debut, and I cannot in any way improve on anything he said, so do check it out. With Tommy I will affirm elements of Crazy Horse, MC5 and early Stooges, and make personal note of just a soupçon of Nick Cave in the mix. It’s chunky growl and howl delivered in a hearty sauce of clatter and fuzz — good fer what ails ya.
Direct quote: "We sound like Duran Duran ... in Hell!"
Party Of Shine is streaming at all the usual locations. It’s a fact that Apple pays better than most, but it’s still pennies-per-glass, so please just hit “buy all” and give the boys another mittful of change to keep the Party going.

Party Of Shine: homepage, Facebook page.
Another shot of Whisky: Tommy Womack.

Saturday, March 14, 2020

“Happy happy, joy joy...”

Well, here we are.
"We'll meet again/Don't know where, don't know when..."
On Thursday morning I consulted my notes. “Toronto The (not so) Good” was the strongest contender for this week’s post.

I wasn’t looking forward to it. It was mopey material, for one thing. Worse, most of what I was gassing on about could be found elsewhere — “This town has lost its snap,” basically. And my only potentially unique insight could be summed up in two bullet points:
  • Car is a terrible way to get around the city.
  • Car is the best way to get around the city.
I have no idea how city and provincial and national governments can come together to turn that equation on its head, other than to make public transit free to all (which has always struck me as a no-brainer, but then I’m not a politician who has to work within volatile public expectations of what is acceptable and what is beyond the pale). I can only profer my sincere best wishes to all involved.

I typed the above words and a few hundred more. Eventually I noticed my newsfeed getting increasingly agitated. The headlines changed every 30 seconds. And they were changing about exactly one subject, to the point where the escalation of violence between Iranian-backed militia and UK/US troops — resulting in US casualties — was a distant footnote of passing concern.

OK then.

The various newsletters I subscribe to all have their Asian correspondents, and without exception they’ve been outstandingly magnanimous toward their Western readers. They exhibit, I must say, remarkable depth of character. The temptation to open fire on collective (and, let’s face it, singular) stupidity must be enormous — I know I’m having trouble staring it down.

Instead, they suggest some gentle tactics for dealing with the new reality. Including:
  • Find something to make you happy at home.
My guitar has gathered some dust since Christmas. At some point I grew discouraged with the plateau I’d reached, and let that discouragement feed my laziness, and vice-versa. Out it now comes.

Hey, if you’ve got happy-making home-based activities, please share.

One final note, in the Never let a serious crisis go to waste category:

Both my adult children have lovingly confronted the 'rents on ways we can make better choices for a sustainable human future. We can all do better — so why not? Why not apply some of the heat we now feel in the fever of this COVID moment to the collective challenge of being more responsible and, for those of us who ascribe to the mindset, grateful stewards of our natural home?

Monday, March 09, 2020

Attractions and distractions

Twenty-plus years ago, when our family left the city for the rural routes of Ontario, the first people to welcome us were Denis Grignon and his lovely wife Nancy Payne. After our first shared meal I thought we’d been given the low-down on pretty much everything going on in these parts. Over the years and over many more visits, many of them mano e' mano with Denis, I’ve realized I am still just scratching the surface.
Portrait of podcaster, with fuel for fire.
Denis is a super-inquisitive guy, friendly to all, and keen to suss out a good story no matter who he’s with. He’s worked for CBC, been the morning guy for BOB radio, and is a sought-after stand-up comic — an engaging and entertaining chap, in other words. So I have no difficulty recommending his new podcast, The Advocate Podcast: Stories from Kawartha Lakes.

I’m happy he’s doing this. He and I tend to get together once or twice a year, and I always feel like I should have my notebook and pen handy because he is a trove of inside information for this neck of the woods, and a few others I’ve yet to set foot in. His bi-weekly podcast is, at this point, only two episodes in — and alongside a wide array of local event info, I’ve already learned the definition of “consanguineous” and which food-item should never ever be introduced to the community chili pot. Check it out.

Also: I’ve a handful of posts that draw a near-continuous flow — well, trickle really — of traffic. One of the tops is The Inexorcisable John Gardner. Today, while scrolling through back-end stats, I discovered the commenter who cleared the research block at the beginning of my post has a blog of his ownYears Of The B.A.S.S.: A Journey Through The Best American Short Stories Anthology from 1978-2019.
Portrait of blogger, with grist for mill.
It’s a fabulous concept I wish I’d thought of. Blogger Jakon uses the anthologies, introductions and stories as springboards for personal recollections and thoughts that launch out in some truly unique directions. I’m having a hoot catching up with his past entries (twelve years’ worth!) and look forward to more. Check it out.

Friday, March 06, 2020

Supersuckers, Play That Rock 'n' Roll

I’m grinning.
All eleven herbs and spices are present and accounted for, the oil in the fryer is fresh, and this is hands-down the tastiest basket of chicken-fried rock ‘n’ roll I’ve had in ages.

And Eddie Spaghetti — how does this guy keep the back alley wordplay so fresh? “That’s A Thing?” somehow manages to further mine the Dad Rock hilarity of “What’s Up (With This **********ing Thing?)” so now I’m holding out hope for a triptych. And I’m guessing he’s the genius who resurrected Allen Toussaint’sA Certain Girl” — a song that gets all its traction from the evident fun everybody’s having while performing it.

America, this man and his band are a national treasure.

Get Play That Rock 'n' Roll here.

Tuesday, March 03, 2020

The Black History Month that was

Over at PopMatters Mark Montgomery French has, in celebration of this leap year’s Black History Month, curated 29 black music documentaries. Quite the gift, really — most of these were completely new to me.

I also admit I followed French from day to day, quietly hoping he’d get around to A Band Called Death or Bad Brains: A Band in DC. But, lucky me — I get to claim the privilege!

Check out French’s list, 29 Black Music Documentaries for Black History Month 2020. And please consider adding these two docs to your playlist.

Friday, February 28, 2020

Word substitutes

Some (mostly) analog sources of delight:
Snow — I don’t mind it, truth be told. Improves the view.

And I finally dropped plastic on the new Tool album/commodity fetish.
I’m still partial to the packaging of 10,000 Days but this is in no way disappointing.

Appropo of absolutely nothing, Scott sent me a copy of William Gibson’s latest — autographed to me!
Another book I’m reading — The Inconvenient Indian: A Curious Account of Native People in North America by Thomas King.
We are having a moment here in Canada (begun some 400+ years ago). I have other books on the history of the matter, but this one’s been calling for a while — time to take and read.

Friday, February 21, 2020

Portis, Grossman, and the languishing of Great Works

RIP, Charles Portis.

In the '90s the cool kids were all reading Charles Portis.

His books were out of print rareties, for one thing — except for True Grit, which was usually buried in the Westerns shelf, alongside Louis L’Amour and Max Brand. If you wanted to read Portis — the real Portis, mind you, the stuff Hollywood couldn’t possibly bastardize — you had to keep a diligent eye out during your weekly trawl of used book stores.

In '91 Gringos was published. The bookflap made it sound like one of Robert Stone’s more realized efforts. My opportunity to become a full-fledged Portis-head, at last!

I put it down after 30 pages.

Still, the hip kids kept waxing hip about Portis. When his ouevre was finally re-released in the Aughts I picked up Masters Of Atlantis, figuring the subject matter would make it an easy finish.

It did and it was. I thought the novel’s ability to evoke was almost narcotic. It put me back in touch with that pre-digital era when a person could sit in an otherwise empty room and allow his thoughts to fill it. Blank walls, long winter nights, geographic solitude all conspiring to stir thoughts that had every potential of taking a dangerously religious turn — heady stuff, no question.

When I finished, though, the book went directly to the “out” box. The likelihood of ever desiring to pick it up again was just that low.

A younger version of myself would roll up his sleeves and either give account for why I remain unable to dig Portis, possibly taking the Great Man down a peg or two, or else begrudgingly assent to conversion. The 55-year-old version of me will simply note that, much as I was able to admire Masters Of Atlantis, Jim Harrison covers similar material and embues it with Harrisonian frisson — which draws me back for repeat visits. Similarly, although True Grit does hold a place on my shelf, I am more prone to revisiting Little Big Man or even Blood Meridian. For aging bloggers with limited time there is no accounting for taste, and those are mine.

Other, better Portis-'splication: the late D.G. Meyers adored Masters Of Atlantis. The concluding paragraph of Meyers’ lovely and compelling essay:
Portis’s secret in Masters of Atlantis is to tell the story of an obscure luckless religious cult, a den of nutcases, as if it were straight reporting, factually correct, without exaggeration for comic effect. The result is so funny you can’t read it safely in a public place. Masters of Atlantis is a great joy to read — it is the very novel for which the phrase “curl up with” seems to have been invented — but it leaves a curious aftertaste. You begin to worry if the intellectual independence of which you are so proud, the principled shunning of America’s consumer culture, the patient acquisition of rare and unpopular knowledge over the course of a lifetime, doesn’t make you just as nutty as the Gnomons. Who knows but that the literary life is nothing more than another esoteric New Age religious cult?
Read the whole thing here.
Flanked by the competition.
Some see the book [True Grit] as Portis’s albatross. Ron Rosenbaum, whose enthusiasm for the novelist’s lesser-known works was instrumental in their republication, found it necessary (in a 1998 Esquire piece) to distance Portis from his most famous creation (“too popular for its own good”), in order to make his case for the true gems of the Portis canon. But the novel occupies a position similar to that of Lolita in relation to Nabokov’s works: Though it might not be your personal favorite, it cannot be subtracted from the oeuvre; nor can his other writings fall outside its shadow.
 Over at The Believer Ed Park reckons with True Grit, in juxtaposition with Portis’ other work.

And finally: somewhere in this house is a copy of Vasily Grossman’s Life & Fate, with a bookmark firmly lodged one-third of the way through. Bookmark and book are likely in the latter stages of petrification — I bought and started the novel back in '85, put it down sometime before '90 and have yet to pick it up again. Odds seem long against me ever doing so.

Good thing Ashutosh Jogalekar did, though. Over at 3 Quarks Daily he culls some of the more memorable quotes from the novel while making The Case For Dumb Kindness. Also: LARB has recently published some terrific pieces on Grossman: Philip Ó Ceallaigh's “But There Has Been a Catastrophe”: On Vasily Grossman’s “Stalingrad,” here; and Vasily Grossman: Myths and Counter-Myths by Yury Bit-Yunan and Robert Chandler, over here. Anyone with even a passing interest in Cold War history and/or literature will be well-served by all three pieces.

Thursday, February 13, 2020

Ten Thousand Villages, and Mennonite moms of a certain age

Over at The Drunken Menno SLKlassen draws a parallel between her mother’s passing and the corporate shuttering of Ten Thousand Villagesstores, not actual villages (so far as I know).

Ten Thousand Villages (TTV) stores were larded with tchotchkes, knick-knacks, furniture and fine goods from all over the developing world. This was an initiative begun over seven decades ago by the Mennonite Central Committee and thus devoted to fair trade many years before that became a catch-phrase and consumerist smokescreen.
10,000 Utputzdinja
When I first heard the announcement of closure I was saddened and, until I gave it a moment’s thought, surprised. Only when I read Ms. Klassen’s post did I think to equate the demise of Ten Thousand Villages with the relentless fading of her, and my, mother’s generation of Mennonite women.

At some point in the '80s the cornucopeia of our family Christmas gifts received character notes from the MCC “International Crafts” wing of their Self Help thrift stores. This wing gradually grew to become TTV and robustly expanded into the public square in the '90s.

My parents were in San Jose during the back end of that decade. My mother, on request, coordinated and managed the International Gift Faire — a TTV event held every fall in the church gym. By all accounts the yearly weekend business was robust.

When my parents moved back to Winnipeg, TTV remained a regular visit for mom. Even in my mother’s declining years as mobility became increasingly painful and difficult, TTV was usually included in her weekly circuit of thrift stores.

The thrift store circuit was a late-in-life innovation for mom — a way to continue enjoying the novelty of item exploration and acquisition without placing a burden on her immediate environment. Having already downsized from house to apartment, my mother adhered to a strict regimen of donating at least as many items as she was taking home. The staff at TTV neither bartered nor traded, but the outlets were still frequently placed in close proximity to Self Help stores run by MCC volunteers.

This past Christmas — the first since my mother died — the gift exchange was markedly leaner and less colourful. As with Ms. Klassen’s family, we survivors had never made Ten Thousand Villages a habitual destination. In fact, our most recent purchase at TTV was in the summer — a hand-tooled jointed wooden box in which we placed our mother’s ashes for interment at the cemetery.

Seems kinda fitting.

My condolences to Ms. Klassen.

Tuesday, February 04, 2020

The Death Of Stalin

I blame Collective Arts’ IPA No. 12* but I found the first five minutes of The Death Of Stalin thoroughly discombobulating.
First off, who's that under all the nose-putty?
The opening scene is set at a classical music concert sometime in the past. The sound-tech guy takes a phone call and answers in English with a British accent. Whatever he hears coming from the other end throws him into a histrionic flap. He’s, what, British Secret Service? Nope, he’s in charge of this event. Maybe this is happening in London? No, too many visual cues suggesting somewhere in Russia. The absence of subtitles was throwing me off.

Next scene is somewhere else, with a guy who looks kinda like Stalin, also speaking English with a British accent. His right hand man returns banter with his own British accent. So okay, the Russians are speaking the King’s English in this movie. Kinda rare these days — even Tarantino resorts to subtitles — but I think I get it. Then Steve Buscemi shows up, sans British accent. Wait: he’s Kruschev??

This experience was akin to the first bike ride in spring. The derailleur is off, so no matter which gear you try the chain is slipping and you’re not making progress. One proper adjustment later, you’re flying.

For the next 90 minutes of TDOS I was flying. When the end-credits rolled I logged into FB, updated my status with:
“Seemed like a good weekend to watch The Death Of Stalin. Soviet enthusiasm for discharging weapons upon their own felt a touch exaggerated, but probably erred on the side of understatement. And Steve Buscemi’s Brooklyn accent actually kinda worked to set Kruschev apart, in character, from the other manipulators in the room.”
I hit post, then hit the sack.

In the morning the only response to my post was Joel’s, with a link to this video:

If you can’t be bothered to watch, the gist of the complaint is summed up by The Cynical Historian (“Cypher”) in his video description, to wit:
“Some of the license taken is necessary, but there are some dangerous falsehoods and misconceptions this movie proliferates. They needed to take greater care with such a touchy subject.”
And Kruschev never spoke English with a Brooklyn nasality. But, sure, alright. Since I was the doofus who raised the spectre of historicity to begin with, the correction was more than fair game.

However, Cypher’s finger-wagging — “They needed to take greater care with such a touchy subject” — is, to my mind, easily deflected. I could be wrong here too, of course. Maybe the world would be a better place if Shakespeare had “taken greater care” with Richard III.

Not that I equate The Death Of Stalin with Shakespeare. TDOS views more like a hybrid of Duck Soup and Natural Born Killers, concluding with heady finishing notes of Pineapple Express. That may or may not be to the tastes of contemporary Russian cinema audiences, depending. But it plays well to a certain subset of the American cinema audience.

Ironically enough, the Americans digging TDOS are the Americans most likely to earnestly take on board Cypher’s criticisms. They’re the same Americans who made a point of checking out Anthony Lane’s thoughts on the movie.

i.e., They’re the same Americans glued to the news this weekend, even though utterly assured that impeachment will be a wash.

To view TDOS as any sort of commentary on Stalin and Russia is to commit to a double misreading.

Writer/Director Armando Ianucci is the big kahuna responsible for rolling out the HBO political satire Veep. He left at the close of season five, when its satire couldn’t keep up with the headlines. Disembarking at the Land of the Rose he came home to a political scene every bit as bonkers as the one he’d left behind.

Satirists can no longer satirise the contemporary political scene using contemporary political touchpoints — there is no way to render them any more grotesque than they already are. So Ianucci reached for the most grotesque political moment in living memory, and recomposed it set to recognisably contemporary Western cringe-comedy beats.

We aren’t watching a satire of Russian history — we are watching a satire of the Western Populist Present, the goons and clods who “lead” it, and the rubes and plebes who throw themselves into its collective pyre, wittingly or not.

That addresses misreading number one. The second misreading is of the American movie audience, the bulk of which cannot be bothered with this movie. Within this enormous group is another subset posting “red pill” take-downs of Star Wars and MCU movies. This is the “Pinochet did nothing wrong” bunch, and they also can’t be bothered to parse “Great Man Of History” vs. “Change from the top or bottom?” issues of historical interpretation — for them the matter settles squarely in the “Great Man” camp.

This bunch thinks “Putin’s a great guy.”

I’m not knocking Cypher’s exhortation toward deeper reading and pondering — “The answer lies in further study” is a personal motto. But at this point in history, those who place any value whatsoever in the tradition of American Liberalism dearly need to get their eye back on the ball and keep it there. And getting touchy about The Death Of Stalin is a distraction.

*Honestly, it is time for Hogtown to relinquish “Centre Of The Universe” status to Hamilton. Cos Toronto — man, we haven’t had that Spirit here since 1979.