Tuesday, September 27, 2005

The "Life" of an Army Wife

In a word, heartbreaking.

It's a shame he didn't make it to 86...

KAOS agent: Look, I'm a sportsman - I'll let you choose the way you die.
Maxwell Smart: Alright, how about old age?

You got it! Don Adams, life-long smoker, dead at 82.

Re-convening with the Monks of Autumn

Unless something momentous springs to mind and simply has to be expressed, this is likely to be my only posting this week. On Friday I'll be meeting with a bunch of cobbers for the 17th annual gathering of the Nick Adams Society, and part of the collective bargain requires a piece of prose from each member. I've got my work cut out for me.

The NAS is a mongrel assembly (or "motley crew", if you prefer - the moniker is in fact more applicable to us than it is to the band that claimed it, since we are more demonstrably prone to sea changes of the heart than they ever were. If my use of "motley" confuses you, you're not alone. Look it up in the dictionary, or simply trust me on this: Yeats knows his English better than Nikki Sixx does. But I digress.)

We're twelve guys, most of whom are veterans who survived the academic and emotional carnage of a particular "Bible College". Some of us, in our early 20s, fixed onto Hemingway's macho post-religious musings ("Nada y pues nada" - damn straight) for succor. Someone else scored access to a cottage in the Kawartha Lakes, and we indulged in a weekend of unbridled (and unexceptional) craziness.

For some inexplicable reason, we kept returning every fall. The craziness took on a gentle shape, and now the event serves as a yearly retreat for diverse people of surprisingly common ground. The fury of our heresies is no more (or less) remarkable than the immovability of our orthodoxies. So ... same time next year?


Friday, September 23, 2005

What a glorious time to be free....

I climbed behind the wheel of my car, shut the door, got the thing rolling and drove off at a nice, slow pace. My friend had borrowed the car earlier, and left this in the CD player:

It was playing at a lower volume than I usually have it, so that the bass was almost lost while the highs hissed and tapped away, holding down the backbeat. I thought, This is the soundtrack of a mature man, driving car with the windows rolled up and the a/c on.

Thursday, September 22, 2005

Tijuana Straits by Kem Nunn: The Sound of One Fan Squawking

The sun was climbing fast by the time he reached the Sea View, heating up the streets, and the machinery of the town was heating up as well, moving into high gear now, the boomer gear, greased with hash oil and cocoa butter, hot-wired with cocaine, chugging to some New Wave anthem, and his heart was beating time, hammering erratically as he reached his room and stepped inside. What (Ike) knew for certain, leaning against his doorjamb, staring into the shabby room, was that he was not the same person who had stood there the night before.


The mud had already engulfed the great tabernacle of his chest and much of his neck and there was little (Nacho) could do by the time the others found him, save tilt that great head in one last effort to draw breath, so that as Armando and Chico reached the edge of the bog, all that actually remained of their companion was his face - as if that appendage had been flayed then spread upon the muddy ground in performance of a ghastly ritual. Or perhaps that scarred visage had been no more than a Halloween mask all along, fallen now in the aftermath of some reverie. But this sank too, even as they watched it, the mud closing over it, until all that lingered were a few unctuous bubbles. And finally these too were gone and everything that had been Nacho was gone with them, taken into the earth even as the bubbles were taken into the air, yet to what depth and station of hell he might descend, there were none there to say with certainty.

These two passages were written by "surf noir master" Kem Nunn. The first comes from Tapping The Source (published 1984), the latter from Tijuana Straits (2004). People luuuuv Tapping: it has a cult following that grows little by little with every passing year. Tijuana Straits, on the other hand, is likely fated to be one of those items which "Nunn completists" late-to-the-fold will seek out and pay scant few bucks for.

I frankly think the first passage is superior, word for word, to the latter. We get a fairly straight-forward picture of Ike, Tapping's protagonist, in the throes of a well-deserved hangover. In one night's extended stretch of bacchanalian excess, he has indeed opened the doors of perception. He now sees everything differently: the town he's come to save his sister from, his relationship with the girl down the hall (addressed in an earlier paragraph - I left it alone to avoid any spoilers), and most importantly, himself. Not too many metaphors here, but we have a sensual juxtaposition between hash oil and cocoa butter which covers a wide swath of territory, and neatly sums up the mess he's in. Nice.

Twenty years later, we now have a very different "voice" - it seems to originate from the Cormac McCarthy school of writing, which shuns no metaphor as too extreme. I'm a fan of McCarthy - he takes wild risks with his prose, and I think he pulls it off. I also think McCarthy is McCarthy, and no-one should try his stunts at home, especially if (as in Nunn's case) you've already proven yourself to be more than competent at the basics.

In the Tijuana paragraph, the metaphors snap out like firecrackers (heh!). "Great tabernacle" might hold some symbolic water, what with the chest containing the heart and all, but the metaphor is ornate, a choice which clashes with the subject: an enormous thug who has proven himself to be less than clever, as evidenced finally by his fate in the bog. Consequently, "tabernacle" sounds alarm bells. The rest of the paragraph - "appendage...flayed" "scarred visage" "ghastly ritual" - lurches to a crescendo with all the subtlety of a wheezy circus organ. "Unctuous bubbles" I rather like for its percussive comic interruption. But then we get the capper, a gassy meditation on this lunk's eternal fate.

Why, you might reasonably ask, should I pick on Nunn, and why should he bother to care? He's secured cult status; guys like me make a point of buying whatever comes next, and guys who are considerably less prone to thinking about prosaic choices really dig his stuff. He's even got trade rags like Publisher's Weekly and Booklist singing his praises, and hipsters in the trenches of glossies like GQ eating out of the palm of his hand.

I parse because I care. To my mind, Nunn's writing has slipped by steady increments since Tapping. I'm clearly crazy for Tapping; I also loved Unassigned Territory's quixotic exploration of the connection between religious certainty and desperate debauchery; I thought Pomona Queen was funny, scary, and terribly sad. But with each successive title, Nunn has increasingly indulged in arcane "scenic meditations", which (as in the above scene) are either beside the point, or worse, inflate the significance of events that would otherwise have played as melodrama (as in The Dogs of Winter).

Nothing wrong with melodrama - it has a respectible lineage, and when it works, I cry. But even if Dogs' language had been pared down, this business of "death by surf".... I'm not a surfer; I clearly don't understand why this "tragic" ending holds appeal to surfers, but I guess it must, since documentaries, memoirs, and movies go back to it again and again. As a landlocked reader, it's disappointingly predictable (another reason why I liked Tapping - no death by surf scenes).

I'll conclude with a quick look at two of Nunn's overleaf promoters: Elmore Leonard ("Kem Nunn is one of a rare breed, a novelist who knows how to plot and tell a story. There is amazing energy here." - Tapping) and Robert Stone ("The all-time great surfing novel" - Tapping; "He has wrought a harrowing and moving story of unforgettable characters living, literally, on the edges." - Tijuana). Leonard's impramatur is polished up and used for every publication, as is. Stone's support is unwavering, and specific to each novel. Are they friends? Does Nunn consider Stone a contemporary? Whatever the case, I know a little bit about Stone's lifestyle, and suspect that, like Stone, Nunn is something of a "character".

On the other hand, everything I've seen on Leonard suggests the opposite. He has an understated charisma, people who meet him like him, but mostly he sits at the table and writes (with pen and paper). His risk-taking, such as it is, is reserved for topicality: Rwanda or Cuba might get lifted from the headlines and plonked into a book, but the research is solid (and attributed) and more importantly the characters are Leonard characters, resorting to the usual mixture of charm, cunning and lethal force to get to the book's conclusion. One thing Leonard never falls back on is writin'.

So here, then, from a guy with a heap of upublished paper in a drawer, is my modest proposal to Kem Nunn: a little more Leonard, and a little less Stone, please. There's no question the Stone-approach garnered spectacular work in your first three novels. I'm not saying reject it outright. I am saying, a little stretch in the other direction wouldn't hurt.

Tuesday, September 20, 2005

Bad Jeans = Bad Posture

For as long as I can remember, the belt on my jeans has rested on the top of my hipbones. I must be the "average build" that jeans designers have in mind, because I've never had a problem with "Plumber's Crack", or any other denim-design flaw. No reason for me to be adventurous, either - the Jordache jeans with the little horsey stitched into the change pocket was fun in the early 80s, but since then I've been happy with 501s, or (more likely) their closest generic knock-off.

Recently, for some reason that escapes me now, I bought a pair of jeans designed to be buckled around my actual waist (roughly 1 inch below my bellybutton). "They ride a little higher than usual," was my wife's tactful comment. She was also quick to add, "They look okay - really." I looked in the mirror and wondered what possessed me. At best, I felt like the scary dude on those Bantam Doc Savage covers. Well, actually, that's not entirely true. At best, I felt like Jerry Seinfeld sans fame, fortune and sex appeal.

Then there's the posture issue. Posture is something I have to pay attention to under the very best conditions, but these jeans make it almost impossible to imagine "the string pulling you from the top of your spine", or "the book on the head" or any of the other inner-visual clues I'm supposed to remember. These jeans are built for slouching, and that's just what I'll do. It's the high waist. Show me one vintage picture from the day when men buckled their pants below their armpits, and I'll show you a picture of a guy with execrable posture. Just look at Bogie, here. He's got a gat, and he's got the girl (not just any girl, either, but the whistle-inducing Bacal) - and he still can't find it in himself to stand tall. (Now that I think of it, even Doc's posture could use a little help. Bring those shoulders back and tilt your chin up, Clarke!)

That was certainly a part of Bogie's charm, but it's not a look I can pull off. Better for me to donate these jeans to Goodwill, and beat a hasty retreat to the box-store clothier, while it's still warm enough to wear shorts.

Saturday, September 17, 2005

The CBC Lockout: A Canadian Response

Apparently it's day 33 of the CBC lockout. Thirty-three days without my evening newscast or radio fare of choice. I have to say the experience is similar to the recent NHL lockout: nowhere near as bad for the consumer as the chattering classes predicted. I've watched slightly less TV than usual, and pretty much shut off my radio, and by and large I don't feel any poorer for it.

I read the newspaper more than I used to. The CBC union, figuring this media shift is probably the case across the board, has placed a bunch of photo-ads in the Globe & Mail, featuring the face of a chosen CBC personality looking grimly back at the viewer. "SILENCED" intrudes on the personality's forehead, and below his/her chin is the expected "Workers of the world unite" sentiment: "They shut me up but they can't shut you up. Please call or email (Prime Minister) Paul Martin," etc etc.

I thought the first few ads were a disaster. They all featured personalities I've wanted to see silenced for quite some time: stuffed shirts who might as well begin their programs with, "I'm **** - and you're not."; younger talent that excels in a witless sort of comedy that "cops a 'tude," then proceeds to deliver wheezy comic fare more in line with the geriatric Wayne & Shuster specials, than with the anarchic glory of K.I.T.H.; commentators who have resorted to lamenting how listeners/viewers "just don't understand" (as the parent of young children, let me state for the record: whining never helps) ... you get the picture.

But this campaign's genius, such as it is, lies in the Corporation's extensive roster. Sooner or later, the ads were going to include someone I genuinely respect and miss hearing, and that finally happened this weekend. I pulled some papers from the Blue Box and did a quick tally. On the "likeability" issue, CBC talent is evenly divided: half the people featured in these ads are people I would hate to see "silenced"; half are people I would love to see disappear.

I was going to ennumerate, and name names. But then the larger picture hove hazily into view. My hunch is most Canadians feel the same way. So-and-so clears his throat on the radio, and you just know he's wearing a bowtie - you reach for the stereo knob and crank the dial anywhere but there. But then you see what's-her-name introducing a documentary that unsettles you into thinking differently about something you once had a firm opinion on, and you're grateful your tax dollars are keeping the Corporation alive. And my hunch is people are split on different personalities. There might even be someone out there who wishes Jian Ghomeshi was back on the airwaves (my wife, for one - sigh).

This dramatically split response is apparently what car designers are after. They don't want to hear a focus group unanimously announce, "That looks pretty good." Better to get, "That rocks!" "That sucks!" in equal measure. My guess is the Corporation has achieved pretty much exactly that.

Good on 'em, then. It still doesn't endear me to the plight of either the management, or the union. Figure it out, kids, then get back to work.

Wednesday, September 14, 2005


Darn it all, but this was the shirt I should have bought!

New Addittion to my "Coffee"

I miss Mad Max Perkins, I really do. Some of his readers thought it was a put-on, but a couple of my friends in the biz confided that if his gusty hyperbole wasn't the real New York City deal, it was a spot-on impersonation. After reading a BookAngst entry, I was never too sure if I was bracingly refreshed, depressed, peeved, gratified ... you name it, so long as it's anything but indifferent.

But Perkins 2.0 announced his "retirement" from the blogosphere two months ago, and it seems he was serious. Worse, it seems he quit out of pure vanity: his ratings fell! Dude(?), that's no reason to quit writing!

Of course, there might be unstated reasons for not going on: maybe there's only so much to be said about the publishing industry. If so, I suspect Michael Blowhard has pretty much covered it. As someone else has pointed out, "if he'd put this stuff between some covers, you'd have to shell out at least $17 for the trade paperback (which would never appear on the best-sellers lists even if it were a runaway success according to M. Blowhard), yet here it is at your disposal, for free."

Anyone with thoughts, designs, aspirations toward publication could do much, much worse than take a sip of Michael's strong coffee.

Monday, September 12, 2005

The Shirt Remains The Same

Credit and possible apologies are due FCB for the title.

As I drew closer to my 40th birthday, I acted on an impulse that seemed so spectacularly foolish, I thought it might border on a crazed sort of wisdom: I went on-line and bought a T-shirt from a band's website. I won't bother you with who the band is (the members are 20 years younger than I am, and I've already embarrassed myself with the tattoo post), but the shirt is black and has a scary-looking skull on it. The catalog description read, "This is the shirt your mother warned you about!"

In the six months I've owned this shirt, I've only worn it once. Such a shirt would indeed have irked my mother - had I worn it in my teens. Were she to catch sight of me wearing it now, she might raise an eyebrow. More likely she'd just snicker at it for what it is: the indulgence of a man chin-deep in midlife.

As the pastor's wife, she could quickly spot men getting the midlife sillies, and she quietly pointed out behavior my father (and the rest of us) were oblivious to. This often related to hair. A newly-acquired hairpiece was a quick giveaway, but my mother also noticed which men were resorting to Grecian Formula. (She stopped sharing these observations after she caught me and my brother roaming the foyer crowd and parotting the TV commercial punchline: "Hey, Rocket - two minutes for looking so good!"). Then in 1985, she witnessed a host of gentleman in their 40s with a tiny "tail" sticking out from collar-clipped hairlines. Some even went so far as to dye and braid the little feller. She'd compliment the man in question, and the reply was universal: "Oh, my mother is fit to be tied."

My mother approved. "If that's all his midlife crisis amounts to, I'm all for it," she'd say.

This response occurred to me the first time I wore the "skull" shirt. Walking my girls to school, I bumped into four shirts of similar design on teenagers and eight-year-olds. I dropped off the girls, then went to pick up the mail at the post office and face the Post Office Ladies. We chatted amiably, as we always do, and I knew without a doubt they were looking at this ridiculous skull and thinking the self-same thoughts my mother did when she first saw a 40-year-old man sporting a tiny pink "tail" flipped over the collar of his pastel yellow Polo shirt. When, less than an hour later, I encountered a four-year-old wearing a black T with a flaming skull, I knew how completely I had just outed myself.

Yes, you know you've lost your "edge" when you're wearing the same shirt as a four-year-old. Why didn't I just grab the ring and put on a "Barney" shirt? Or better yet, design my own shirt with the monogram, "I'm wearing this in an effort to demonstrate just how cool I still am, despite my advancing years." For good measure, I could splash across my shoulders, "Please don't think me pathetic."

Robert Bly has it right. And yet, I can't help wondering if I didn't just pick the wrong era of shirt. In Oshawa I saw a guy my age (a little older, maybe) wearing a Judas Priest "British Steel" concert shirt. At first I marvelled at its mint condition, thinking he was clearly old enough to have seen them back in the day. Of course, whether or not he saw them on this tour was a moot point: the shirt is probably a reproduction of the original. But it fits, because he and the shirt are the same vintage. This is how it shakes down, then: a 13-year-old could wear that shirt and look cool; get the older gent to put on a Linkin Park shirt, and he looks lame.

Ah, but I'd look lame wearing any of the metal acts from my day. I simply lack all trace of the prerequisite conviction. Even back when they were the rage I recognized just how creaky it all was - I could never make it work today. The best I could achieve is "irony", and I'm too old for that.

No, the only band I could "wear" with any conviction would be that multi-cultural trio of suburban-bred geeks who filled countless rec-rooms with their esoteric, cymbal-smashing anthems: RUSH. Be on the lookout for me in this. And even if I embarrass you, please don't hesitate to shake my hand and say "hi".

Sunday, September 11, 2005


September 11 shouldn't be a Sunday. In my mind it's always a Tuesday, with me moving stuff around in the garage, answering the phone after shoving an old dishwasher into the corner, and hearing my mother-in-law ask me if I'm watching TV.

"No. Should I be?"

"Well, they've hit the World Trade Center and the Pentagon and ... well, it's really something you should see."

Who is "they"? And what should I do with the girls?

How awful that turning on the TV was actually something of a relief to me. Terrorists had clearly struck, but thankfully it wasn't on the global "paint your windows white" nuclear level I'd been expecting since I was a kid.

I didn't have to drag the girls into the basement, and that was something to be grateful for - for this parent/child, at least.

Thursday, September 08, 2005

Still Fond of the Rodent

In the early 80s, shortly after Michael Eisner took over Disney, a team of lawyers flew up to Winnipeg and spent a couple of weeks touring the city's daycare centres. At the end of two weeks, these lawyers issued over 20 notices to different centres, indicating they had 30 days to either apply for licensed use of character, or take a paint-roller to their beloved (and unauthorized) cartoon menageries. There was some muttering in the city's newspapers, but the daycare centres in question somehow found room in their budgets to buy a few gallons of white paint, and that was the end of that.

A year or two later, I went and got a tattoo of the corporate rodent, just over my left shoulderblade. Nothing unusual or particularly scandalous in its rendering. Classic foot-out pose, with some fine shadowing on the boots and buttons, and eyes that (my wife says) look a little mischievous. I thought about those daycare centres while the ink was being drilled into me.

The biker with the pencil could care. When he finished he said, "Just don't tell people I do Mickey Mouse tattoos."

"Right," I said. "The copyright thing."

He gave me a pained look. "Mickey Mouse tattoos," he said. "Don't you get it?"

Oh. Yeah, now I do!

This was about five years before every boy and girl was getting covered in ink or riddled with holes, or both at once. The rodent was a good conversation starter on the beach, or in the park. For a crucial moment in my young adulthood, his tattoo represented a combination of sweet-natured humor, with just a whiff of "danger". A few years later, with the advent of Grunge and Goth, he and I slipped back into squaresville. Conversation over.

Ah, but I still like the rodent. I like him even though his keepers have squandered the reputation he forged in the lean years of the Depression and the crucible of WWII. I like him even though he hasn't been in an entertaining film since before WWII.

I like him because, even though I'm no slouch with a pencil and pad, the rodent is incredibly difficult to draw. Try it sometime. Scratch three circles - use a compass, if you like - and see if you get anything more than a passing resemblance to the rodent (click on any of these images, if you need to take a closer look).

Then there's his character: I like the rodent because even though he starts every adventure in a childlike state of naive enthusiasm, a wily combative streak always comes to the surface once he realizes he's being pushed around.

In other words, I like the mouse because of Floyd Gottfredson.

Again, take your time and click on the images: the broken picket fence, the little guy standing on tip-toes to reach his gun, just below framed pictures (one in skewed disarray, as if ready to fall, just above the firearm). This bit, Mickey Attempts Suicide, is from the newspaper strip published in October, 1930. Note the date - not exactly the corporation cutout kiddie-fodder he is today. These days it's almost impossible to conceive of a "talking animal" strip appealing to adults, but Gottfredson's work was visceral, unsettling and direct. FG was asked about this particular episode, how it ever made it past the tight control exercised by both Walt and Roy Disney. By his account, at that moment the brothers were so focussed on delivering animated wows to the country's cinemas, they basically gave FG free rein to do as he pleased. Although this episode came to be considered somewhat scandalous during the Reagan years, in its day it was appreciated for its simple message of hope and perseverance.

If there's even a hint of truth to the rumors, Gottfredson's work surely helped save Disney's rep when Mickey Took on the Nazis:

Looking at these strips, it's interesting to consider just how topical the rodent was at the time - even to the point of controversy. Twenty-five years later, when the 60s took over, the mouse wasn't just irredeemably square, he was a mascot, hoodwinking the masses on behalf of The Corporation. Underground artists The Air Pirates parodied the rodent in a work titled Mickey Mouse Meets The Air Pirates. It's a fairly typical hippie effort at subversion, using the expected broad strokes. The rodent is presented as a lecherous dopehead, slacking off on his responsibilities to his "nephews". The conceit seems too obvious (and bourgeois) to be of critical concern to the corporation or anyone else, but when I consider the care that went into rendering such an articulate Depression-era portrait of the rodent, I have to wonder if Dan O'Neil and crew weren't in fact loving admirers of who Mickey Mouse used to be. Perhaps Air Pirates isn't so much scathing (ham-fisted) satire, as it is a lament for the rodent's sudden bankruptcy in the critical currency of the day.

Or perhaps I'm just making too much of a slender subject. All I know is, these days if the mouse isn't strapping on a pair of skates to appear in your local arena, he's being artistically rendered into tourist-ware. A sad fate for the rodent, because today's T-shirt will look gauche tomorrow, and there was a time when The Mouse had staying power.

This is an excellent Floyd Gottfredson tribute, as is this. Drawn! covers Air Pirates material, here. You can read the entirety of Mickey Mouse Meets The Air Pirates here. And thanks to this guy, I'm not too worried about receiving a "daycare" notice - provided, of course, I say:

The creator of "Whisky Prajer" is not affiliated with, maintained by, or in any way officially connected with the Walt Disney Company or any of its business units. This page has been created for my enjoyment and yours. Disney, Disneyland, Disney World are all trademarks of The Walt Disney Company. My views and opinions are not endorsed by, nor are they associated with The Walt Disney Company in any way. All Disney character images and some photographs are Copyright © The Walt Disney Company.

Wednesday, September 07, 2005

Friday, September 02, 2005

Pitching In

A small reminder: the soaring price of gasoline is due cause for nervousness, but it's important for us to contribute what we can to organizations that are doing their utmost to help the victims of Katrina. The American Red Cross is doing good work. And speaking from some personal experience, you will get maximum "relief" value for your dollar with those thrifty Mennos at the Mennonite Disaster Service.