Thursday, April 29, 2004

Zimmy, we hardly knew ye. Or maybe we just weren't paying attention...

I stumbled across a recent blog-post that pondered yet again why Bob Dylan would condescend to do a Victoria's Secret commercial (viewable here). C'mon people! You don't have to play his songs backward to figure it out! Robert's first officially recorded output is Baby Let Me Follow You Down. The leopard may have changed his name and religion a time or two (or three) ... but spots!? Never.

Wednesday, April 21, 2004

The Mennonites - Your Patron Saints of Mediocrity

Back in the early 90s, I was invited to sit in on a friend's class: "A History of The Anabaptists" held at the Toronto School of Theology. To my surprise, the prof descended from a line of Predigers, who also happened to hail from my small prairie town. I introduced myself. We shook hands, figured out exactly how we were related to each other, then parted as the class filed in. This was near the end of the semester, and he was wrapping up. He summarized some of the history -- as written by Mennonites, and other Anabaptists -- then paused, and after a deep sigh, said, "You get the impression these people think pretty highly of themselves, don't you?"

Yes, indeedy. In the small towns of Central Ontario there are dozens of museums devoted to the history of Mennonites, and though the script commonly proclaims the faithfulness of a loving God to these peaceful, frequently persecuted people, a visitor could be excused for thinking the subtext is, in fact, a warped-mirror reversal of that equation. In Winnipeg's East Kildonan district, there is an enormous quartz rock, left behind by the Ice Age, sitting squarely on the lawn of a Mennonite retirement home. A bronze plaque affixed to it reads, "We came. We toiled. God blessed." -- a statement that brings to mind Bart Simpson's Prayer of Thanksgiving: "We worked hard to pay for this grub, so thanks for nothing!"

The implicit is rarely made explicit by Mennonite historians within the fold. For that we rely rather bitterly on our novelists -- Rudy Wiebe, Miriam Toews*, et al. Occasionally we're blessed with the perspective of an outsider historian like James Urry, who quietly injects a note of realism in our otherwise hagiographic narratives. And, every once in a while, we get the really juicy stuff from magazines like this month's Saturday Night, whose cover story touts: "The Mennonite Mob: An unholy alliance of drug traffickers, contract killers, corrupt Mexican police ... and the brethren." (Read it here.)

The article, The Wages of Sin, is a tidy piece of investigative journalism by Andrew Mitrovica and Susan Bourette. If you hail from a small-town Mennonite community, it hardly comes as a surprise that Mexican Mennonites and their northern relatives are among the most successful drug mules and drug cartels in the hemisphere. Mitrovica and Bourette paint compelling portraits of a community becoming rapidly undone by its own pious stand-offishness, as well as a rigorously kept ignorance and arrogance that perfectly fosters the most ruthless criminal ambition. When they close with a Mennonite bishop's lament -- "All we can do is keep praying to God that he will help us and lead us" -- the reader (well, this reader) is left with a simmering stew of conflicting emotions.

Part of that response stems from my childhood experiences among South American Mennonites. In the schoolyards of our Canadian prairie town, children from these families were the subject of our worst taunts and ridicule. At the time I assumed this had to do with their hand-me-down clothes, their habitually passe coiffures, and their secondary grasp of English. Years later I learned that in fact our derision was "informed" by the opposing pieties of our elders: the South American Mennonites had left the prairies in defiance of the Canadian government's insistence on a public school curriculum, only to return with hat-in-hand after experiencing some fifty years of poverty while their compromising relatives to the north were increasingly "blessed."

Room was grudgingly made for another seat at the table, but this was not "fellowship" by any stretch of the imagination. In the 1970s, in a town of somewhat more than 5000 people, there were roughly 30 different Mennonite congregations, and they generally did their best to keep shy of each other's spitting range. The South American churches spoke and sang German, as much out of religious conviction as out of linguistic convenience. Some permitted harmony and instrumentation, others didn't. Possession of radios or televisions was a hotly debated issue. North American congregations had their own divisive issues: was baptism by annointing (pouring water) legitimate, or did you have to "submerge" to be a real Christian? "Speaking in tongues" -- of God, or of the devil? And all this was before the issue of divorce or sexual orientation stormed down the aisle.

To this day the "variety" of Mennonite congregations continues to increase in that town, due not in the least to population growth but to schism after schism rending a congregation into two or more fragments. Just as the South American kids on our playgrounds couldn't comprehend why "Paraguayan" was the Mennonite equivalent of the "N-word" (and we felt no shame using that term, either), I was at times nonplussed by the moral superiority they frequently expressed toward Ukrainian and French Catholic kids, and finally, toward me. When I matured enough to forsake my most insidious schoolyard behavior, it was my turn to be surprised: one Paraguayan friend was permitted by his parents to fraternize with me on our yard, but forbidden to enter our house. For whatever reason, they refused to allow me entrance into their house, as well.

In an environment like that, when you finally fall from God's Grace, you don't do it by half-measures. Kids raised in fearful, angry households and fearful angry churches, grow up to do terribly fearful, angry deeds. In my experience, the most consciously evil behavior occurs after a person declares, "I've had enough -- I'm through being the chump!" I doubt there's anyone from the Mennonite community who can watch Milos Forman & Peter Shaffer's Amadeus without experiencing a deep, visceral thrill at the vision of Salieri declaring, "From now on we are enemies, You and I," as he lifts the crucifix from his wall and dumps it into the fireplace.

But, as with Salieri, there's something about that level of vehement defiance that quickly turns pathetic. When Mitrovica and Bourette report of "young Mennonite thugs flaunting gold rings and designer clothes and driving expensive, brand-new trucks" while cartel leaders fund and star in their own B-grade Mexican-Mennonite gangsta movies, the images conjured are tawdry and repulsive. No doubt there already exists a plaut-dietsch variety of gangsta rap. Mediocrity piles upon mediocrity -- evil parades by in its most banal formulation.

Still, there's no good reason why these stories should ever enter our museums. By all means, please come and visit. Enjoy the pleasures of our hermetically-sealed Mennonite Lore. We only ask that when you exit, you close the door behind you, and acknowledge us as your patron saints of mediocrity.

* 05/01/04 - In the "anything-but-mediocre" category, The Globe & Mail is once again showering Toews with superlatives, this time courtesy of CBC Radio personality Bill Richardson. His rave for her latest novel, A Complicated Kindness, can be read here. Noah Richler is also impressed, here.

Tuesday, April 13, 2004

Jumping With New Shoes

Sunday was such a fine spring day, our whole family went outside, just to be and enjoy. My oldest daughter (7) has learned how to jump rope, so the four of us took turns attempting every conceivable jump-rope variation. My youngest daughter (5) worships her older sister, and predictably tries to do everything the older sister does, loudly proclaiming her panache where technique is clearly lacking.

The oldest did most of the skipping, really getting the rhythm down and keeping in synch. The youngest watched without interruption, mesmerized by the display. Finally she called out for a turn, and my wife and older daughter got the rope going.

To everyone's amazement, my five-year-old went ahead and skipped, first try. She had internalized the rhythm, and just naturally adjusted her feet to the rope. The rest of us hooted, cheered and whistled, and she continued for quite a stretch until it all came to a crashing halt. We tried again several times after that, but the spell was broken.

So now I have this vision of my youngest daughter, jumping rope, her eyes focused on something wonderful, something we are all seeing for the first time. She is unexpectedly able, but she still has the clumsiness that comes with a first attempt. She lands with flat feet, an effect magnified by the size of her shoes. She's wearing her older sister's hand-me-down sneakers, and they are too large for her. I'm caught so completely off guard, I'm thinking she might as well be wearing a pair of my shoes.

But this silent exaggeration is just a form of denial on my part - because how else can I possibly respond to something so exhilarating, and heartbreaking, as seeing my youngest child grow into a pair of shoes, and learn how to jump?

Monday, April 12, 2004

Tarantino's Star Wars

Quentin Tarantino doesn't just do his best thinking out loud, he does all his thinking out loud. And he thinks twice as much when someone has a camera trained on him. So here's hoping his recent comments about making a third installment of Kill Bill dissipate in a haze of marijuana smoke.

I don't often get angry after seeing a movie, but Kill Bill Volume I got me fuming. What an easy, lazy film to make. Tarantino's ability to play with character - a talent that requires discipline and restraint - was forfeited when Mirimax gave him a blank cheque to indulge in visual spectacle. Now Tarantino is making his own Star Wars movies, and receiving the sort of media treatment that prods a begrudging public into theatre seats ("I wasn't going to go, but then I saw the commercial, and it looked, well, kinda cool...").

If it helps anyone reading this, I'll confess I'm tempted to see volume II. I think Michael Madsen is capable of saving almost any movie: witness Thelma & Louise, or Free Willy. But I once thought that of Uma Thurman - and Quentin Tarantino for that matter - and Kill Bill I gave us three hours of proof that it ain't necessarily so. So be strong. If we, who were conned into seeing the first installment, can just stay home for the next three hours, perhaps Tarantino will be dissuaded from adding another six to the mix.

Sunday, April 04, 2004

What Peter Ustinov Taught Me About Customer Service

In the mid-90s, the independent bookstore I worked for managed to get Peter Ustinov in to sign his penultimate collection of memoirs. I rolled my eyes at this news, wondering who would possibly turn up to get a book signed by someone we were supposed to address as "Sir Peter."

The answer, as it turned out, was nearly everyone in Toronto. The store had never been so full, but it was a polite group that crowded the premises, and they parted on cue as Sir Peter entered with his personal assistant. We propped him behind a small desk, and his assistant quickly opened a Thermos and filled a crystal glass with something clear and suspiciously odourless. Ustinov uncapped his fountain pen, then held his hands out to his public, and got to work.

It pains me to confess I was an all-too-typical member of Generation X. I had just earned an undergraduate degree from Canada's finest university, and after all that time and expense, it seemed a humiliation to be earning a pittance and fetching books for whoever happened to walk through the front door. I looked around at the crowd, and swallowed my contempt. The way these people dressed! Folks I'd never seen before, but would recognize anywhere, with their coke-bottle glasses, their K-Mart threads, their complete lack of irony! I glanced at the knight behind the table, and saw that he, too, was not that far removed from these people - commoners who put the "oi!" into "hoi poloi". He wore a flannel suit we could have draped over our windows, and a brilliant turquoise waistcoat underneath.

He took his time, asking each customer their name, and expressing his gratitude whenever they mentioned any role of his they particularly appreciated. A middle-aged brother-and-sister team I'd noticed waiting impatiently, lunged forward when it was their turn, and gushed. Ustinov's smile grew until his eyes disappeared. "Do I detect an accent?" he asked. Indeed, they hailed from somewhere in the Steppes of Russia. "A-ha!" he cheered, immediately switching to their native tongue. They were ecstatic.

Over the course of the signing, I began to soften. A man who had excelled in ways I couldn't hope to, whose money and fame were entirely beyond my ken, was treating his customers with small but palpable displays of respect and gratitude. When the last of them had left, he drained his Thermos, then thanked each of us, and left with his assistant.

Peter Ustinov's visit was one of three episodes that got me thinking less of myself, and more about the people who frequented our store. This is provocation at its best - a worthy quality in any human being.

Robert E. Howard - the Plath of the Pulps

In the early years of my adolescence our family made preparations to leave the small town for the big, bad city. One evening, after a day of house hunting, my mother unpacked the usual suppertime bucket of chicken and declared, "I don't want you reading Conan, or listening to heavy metal music." The year was 1978, and she had clearly seen too many bedrooms of my pimply-faced contemporaries.

But as with any parental decree, there were nuances to be exploited. Regarding the latter aspect, music, my parents had just passed down to me the green plastic solid-state hi-fi stereo that once sat in our living room. I had no records to play, so I listened to FM radio. My parents weren't deaf - they knew I listened to rock & roll - so they were definitely practicing some degree of compromise. With this awareness, I quickly developed a sophisticated attitude toward secular culture which, I suspect, informs most cultural criticism: feel free to enjoy something, just so long as you don't approve of it.

In practice, this meant if you were lying on your bed, grooving to the relatively innocent stylings of BTO or April Wine, and the DJ chose to slip a little Judas Priest into the mix, it was no big deal to stay put and enjoy, erm, endure the rest of the song. Regarding Conan The Barbarian, you might need to tweak the principle a little, but you could probably borrow the odd book or two from the library - just to build up your intellectual resistance. In either case, buying the material amounted to a clear transgression.

A quarter century later, my CD collection contains a few purchases that I enjoy, but in no way approve of. And I see Dark Horse Comics has resurrected the Conan title, to coincide with a Del Rey print run of the original stories by Robert E. Howard. Unsheathe your credit cards, you dogs, and dive into the fray!

I didn’t really “take” to Conan, originally. I borrowed a couple of the short story collections, but couldn’t make it past the first few pages. Even as a teen wildly adrift in a tidal wave of hormones, I thought the prose histrionic. I was steadily graduating from the riotous rabble of Tarzan and Doc Savage to the more cultured pleasures of Louis L'amour, and Alistair MacLean.

In hindsight, I wonder if it wasn't the prosaic meddling of Lin Carter and L. Sprague DeCamp that turned me off the Conan stories. I had friends who were Conan fanatics, and they scoffed at the revisionists, including those responsible for the movie, insisting that Howard, Conan's creator, was the only one who "got" the character. They remained adamant about this, so in my late teens I went back to the local library and signed out The Hour Of The Dragon, the only Conan novel written by Howard.

To this day, I can easily recall lines I last read over 20 years ago. My favorite: "At a glance, the Captain knew what he had found: an empty purse, and a ready blade." I could recite a half-dozen more, but that one encapsulates what is so endearing about Howard's point of view. What the reader understands is a) the foreign Captain is observing a recently deposed king (Conan) and b) this "empty purse/ready blade" mode is one Conan is entirely comfortable with. This evocation of willful independence and cheerful volatility had considerable cache at the time, not just with me but also with America. We were nostril-deep in the Reagan/Rambo bluster – it seemed everyone was caught up in adolescent hormonal fury. I recall Oprah asking Sylvester Stallone what sort of love he aspired to, and without a moment's pause he said, "The love of a teen-ager. Man, back then all you needed was your girl and the T-shirt on your back." In THOTD these are precisely the straits Conan has been shipwrecked upon: no kingdom, no shirt, just a sword and a girl waiting - and he couldn't be happier! Rambo had nothing on this cat.

I savored Howard's lusty depictions of physical strength and personal freedom, but these stereotypes were common to L'Amour and Edgar Rice Burroughs, as well. It was Howard's treatment of the supernatural that set him apart. Conan's foes resorted to the occult in an effort to undo the man, but were foiled by the barbarian's personal code: be forthright, shun conspirators, and choose confrontation over cowardice. If fantasy is a metaphorical method of dealing with the animus from within and without, Howard's Conan stories are a worthy, if rudimentary, first step.

Of course, you want an adolescent reader to be selective about what he takes from such stuff. And things get complicated with Howard, because it's almost impossible to separate the stories from the man who wrote them. He claimed the man and the work were the same, which raises some thorny problems. I doubt a single Howard title has been printed without mention of his suicide at the age of 30, and the lines he left behind in his typewriter:

All fled - all done, so lift me on the pyre -
The feast is over and the lamps expire.

And there we have it, America’s surest moneymaker: the hoary myth of the doomed romantic writer. The girls get Sylvia Plath; the boys get Robert E. Howard.

Like Plath, Howard was a character with innate appeal to his own gender, of a certain age. He appears to have been a momma's boy in the extreme, not just keeping house for the old gal, but diligently attending to her most intimate needs as her health deteriorated from TB. His father, a small-town doctor, disappeared for days or weeks at a time, returning to pay the bills and hector Robert into making something of himself. Robert lifted weights, boxed behind the local watering holes, and wrote pulp. His few friends express an undeniable fondness for the man, but quickly admit his behavior was often outrageous. His neighbors complained of his writing routine: not only was he given to pounding the typewriter for 18 hours at a stretch, but Howard also liked to shout his prose as he laid it down. You can't help but feel for the beleaguered neighbor who overhears the 28-year-old fella next-door bellow, "Oh, tiger of the North, you are as cold as the snowy mountains which bred you. Take me and crush me with your fierce love!" while his bed-ridden mother down the hall coughs out a lung.

An enlightened soul might point out the disconnect between a housekept momma's boy and his buccaneering fiction, but Howard would protest. He was among the pre-Depression writers who declared their fiction aspired to a "terrible honesty" (to quote Dashiell Hammett). Thus, Conan and The Hyborian Age weren't just entertaining fictional constructs, or even a representation of the author's point of view - they were The Way Things Really Are. It’s all fine and dandy if a fictional ubermensch conquers all, but it’s not so good if a scrawny reader with greasy hair gets to thinking he lives in a paranoid universe determined to annihilate him.

So, should we be concerned for today’s adolescent? When I asked my local Comic Book Guy if kids were buying Conan, he shrugged and said, “Nah - not really. Mostly geezers your age.” Ouch. Checking the stats on I see The Coming of Conan The Cimmerian has broken the top 1000 (758, as of this posting), thanks largely to a promotional boost from Men’s Health magazine. That’s right: the issue with The Rock on the cover. Again, my demographic, and again … ouch! “Read Howard,” entreats MH, “and ask again, Who dies first? Thankfully, our plump, overcoddled sensitivities.”

Yes, indeed - we ought to be very concerned for today’s adolescent. Because their fathers are reading Conan, and they’re listening to heavy metal music.