Monday, November 28, 2005

The Lost Art of Gaging the Public Mood

They call it "polling" these days. I mostly ignore them. At best, they're inaccurate; at worst, they're a distraction from genuine political discussion, and I loathe their contribution to "horse race" news coverage.

Poll-reports were a joke during the last Canadian election, and I don't expect any improvement this time around. The best public analysis I heard came the day before the election, from a friend of mine who is in politics. A friend of his had been canvassing hard for his Conservative candidate, knocking on a lot of doors and shaking a lot of hands. He told my friend there was no way the Conservatives were going to win this one. My friend asked why, and the explanation went something like this:

"I've been in politics since as long as I've been conscious. I canvassed with my father on his first campaign, and I've canvassed ever since. In the last 20 years, I've developed a pretty good sense of what people's unspoken inclinations are. Usually when they tell you they haven't yet decided who they'll vote for, they're just bluffing to get you off their porch. This time around, the people telling me they were undecided were genuinely undecided. They had no idea how they were going to cast their vote. And when you are truly unsure of who you're voting for, the one thing you will almost never do is take a chance on that vote. We're in for another Liberal government."

I'm not so sure that's the way the vote will "swing" this time around. If I were to prognosticate, I'd say: another minority government, quite possibly Conservative (no majority in their cards, though: Quebec will never vote Conservative, and Ontario is still Conservative-shy after being gutted by Mike Harris). Also this: the lowest voter turn-out, ever.

Thursday, November 24, 2005

Geek Novels

Since I'm confessing to my geek tendencies, I'll direct readers to The Guardian's list of the 20 Best Geek Novels Written in English Since 1932 (via 2Blowhards). To my amusement/horror, I've picked up 19 of the 20 and completed (at least once) 11. Would that this made me a competent programmer...

Here is the list (an asterisk indicates I've cracked the covers; an "R" means I've read it):

1. The HitchHiker's Guide to the Galaxy -- Douglas Adams (*)
2. Nineteen Eighty-Four -- George Orwell (R)
3. Brave New World -- Aldous Huxley (*)
4. Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? -- Philip Dick (*)
5. Neuromancer -- William Gibson (R)
6. Dune -- Frank Herbert (R)
7. I, Robot -- Isaac Asimov (R)
8. Foundation -- Isaac Asimov (R)
9. The Colour of Magic -- Terry Pratchett (*)
10. Microserfs -- Douglas Coupland (R)
11. Snow Crash -- Neal Stephenson (R)
12. Watchmen -- Alan Moore & Dave Gibbons (R)
13. Cryptonomicon -- Neal Stephenson (*)
14. Consider Phlebas -- Iain M Banks
15. Stranger in a Strange Land -- Robert Heinlein (R)
16. The Man in the High Castle -- Philip K Dick (*)
17. American Gods -- Neil Gaiman (*)
18. The Diamond Age -- Neal Stephenson (R)
19. The Illuminatus! Trilogy -- Robert Shea & Robert Anton Wilson (R)
20. Trouble with Lichen - John Wyndham

In my original post, I said I'd read 15 of these titles. I lied. I silently did a sleight-of-hand, substituting titles of authors I'd read. For instance, I've read Wyndham's The Chrysalids, and Dick's Ubik and Valis, and Pratchett's Discworld. Surely these books represent their authors' best prose as ably as the ones listed? I've read enough of the two Dick books mentioned to realize this assumption of mine is faulty. The truth does count for something, so judge me by the amended results (while I'm in full disclosure mode: I haven't read the entire Illuminatus! Trilogy, either, but I did read the first book, The Eye In The Pyramid, and it left me with the unshakeable certainty that not only would other two books would be just as pointlessly crazy as the first, but that I'd be unable to tell which "episode" occurred in what book once I was finished them all).

If I could go back in time, there are books on this list I'd encourage my younger self to drop in favor of a good comic. Asimov's Foundation is a tedious slog, but qualifies as a light-hearted, entertaining lark next to Dune. I had declared myself a sci-fi geek, however, and read both out of a bounden sense of duty. Ditto, Stranger In A Strange Land, which I think actually marks an unfortunate turning point in Heinlein's work.

Liar or no, I still believe I'm qualified to make a little informed forecasting, so here goes: in the next ten years the list will have to include China MiƩville (probably by giving Mr. Wyndham the heave-ho).

Post-Script: Here's a nifty defense of what I've typically considered "dystopian" literature (which
definitely includes Philip K. Dick. Link from ALD.

Wednesday, November 23, 2005

Virtual Reality: Too Much Is Not Enough

Microsoft releases its new X-Box 360 today. I, for one, could not be more underwhelmed. But then, I'm not the target demographic. I'm too old, too impatient, and a foul-weather gamer at best - if there's even so much as a book to be dusted or a half-decent TV commercial to be watched, I'll choose that over the gaming experience.

Nevertheless, I am a gamer. And when all the elements are in place I have terrific fun at it, too. But that is an astonishing rarity, for a very simple reason: game developers show so little imagination. This surprises me, given the sort of hardware that's been developed in the last 15 years. The average game pad has a minimum of eight buttons within immediate reach of your thumbs and fingers. Most games respond not just to a singular button being pressed, but to combinations being pressed in sequence. I'll let someone else figure out the mathematics (is that eight squared? Eight cubed?! More?!?). The long and short of it is we're dealing with an incredible variable that should conceivably result in a fertile breadth of interactive entertainment.

Alas, what we typically have is "Run + Jump + Kick + FIRE!" or "Accelerate + Turn + Brake + Turn" etc. The evolution from Pong to Castle Wolfenstein was indeed a remarkable one, chronicled in a pre-Cambrian bit-torrent sludge of quarter-plugging video games, but everything we've seen since shows no development whatsoever. The challenge, as currently framed by programmers, is how to make the familiar more interesting. To my mind, that's a bloody boring challenge.

The only people who can respond to this challenge are the CGI folks. The tack usually taken is to provide ever more "realistic" graphics. A lot of what we see as a result is very impressive, but this too seems to me to be a limiting and stagnant approach to gaming entertainment. Invariably, the graphics will look stiff and disappointing when compared to what you see outside your window (or, to use a more pertinent example that makes me shudder, outside your car's windshield. I can't help wondering if today's 16-year-old (exceptions allowed for) isn't a touch more prone to recklessness after playing a game like Need For Speed: Most Wanted).

If "realistic" is the predominant school of CGI rendering, the secondary school is "arcade". The former strives for exactly that; the latter bends the rules. Both work with laws of physics that relate to the ones we experience in life, but arcade CGI people will fudge and flex what we know - though very rarely, if ever, actually breaking our physical expectations on screen. Thus, Need For Speed will give you a Porsche physically responding to its surroundings - a rain-slick street, a brick restraining wall - the way you'd expect a Porsche to respond, while The Simpsons Hit & Run gives you a pink sedan that takes an incredible beating before bursting into flames and ejecting Bart Simpson, the driver, unscathed.

I tend to favor the latter, for several reasons. Playing with expectations is fun, and The Simpsons Hit & Run plays with a host of them. Kids drive cars, run over pedestrians who say things like "Spines don't bend that way!" or "This is a bad day for generic characters everywhere!" They jump incredible heights, fall off multi-storied buildings and land on their toes - all in aid of the sort of narrative hijinx you expect from Matt Groening's stable of writers. The action still takes place in a framework of limited expectations, but it exceeds those modest expectations and gets full marks from me.

It also looks unreal - it's 3-D rendering, but of the sort that is post-Toy Story, pre-The Incredibles. That is, it looks "animated", not "real".

"Animated" is another preference of mine. If something looks stiff, well - the viewer just assumes it's supposed to. Conversely, when "reality" is brought into play, it immediately distances the viewer with its discordant references: a game like LEGO Star Wars can be quite charming, where the other Star Wars offerings leave me cold.

Similarly, I'm curious to give the latest James Bond game (From Russia With Love) a spin. I'll admit I'm not expecting great things, even though the premise - Sean Connery! 1963!!! - is so very promising. The screen-shots alone are a disappointment. That looks like a boat, alright; that looks a lot like Connery; she almost looks like Tatiana; but that doesn't look anything like water.

The usual resort for Reality CGI programmers is "cover of darkness". So Wolfenstein looked absurd with its pastel blue flooring and bright red walls? Put it all in shadows and nightfall, and call it "Doom". As Walt Kelly's character Pogo self-consciously noted, "These silouhettes sure save a mess of drawin'." I'm sure most of From Russia With Love takes place at night. But I look at the terrific cover art for the game (borrowed from the movie posters of the time) and wonder why they didn't go the animated route, instead? Something like, say, XIII is the perfect example of how entrancing that technique can be. Drawing within the lines can provide surprisingly smart drama for the viewer/player - why not give it a shot?

But these are the minor kvetchings of a nearly-indifferent consumer. I won't pay the full $60 for a half-baked First-Person Shooter, or even a thrillingly engineered Race-and-Chase. I'll bide my time for the next year or two and get them used - if I'm still curious. In the meantime, I might just peruse some of the Open Source games available. My brother tells me the recent Castle Wolfenstein engine has been released to the public, to some amusing results. Allied Troops could be fighting the Nazis in North Africa, only to see the Millennium Falcon fly off overhead. One minute you might be fighting monsters, the next you might be firing a salvo at an angry George Jetson. It's still a First-Person Shooter, but at least you're a shooter in a world that's more akin to something imagined by Philip Jose Farmer - or stranger. And that's a step in the right direction.

Tuesday, November 22, 2005

"Country Boy", Take 2

Question: What do you get when you play country music backwards?
Answer: You get your dog back, your truck back, your wife back...

Of course, the pleasures of country needn't all be relegated to the fields of gloom and doom (erm ... right). Some of the most bumptuous, infectious music I enjoy falls within the country format, most notably the rock-a-hillbilly stylings of BR5-49. These guys are capable of "wistful", but mostly they're intent on keeping the honky-tonk hoppin'.

BR5-49 ("Junior Samples'ever-flubbed phone number on Hee-Haw", according to the website) got its start playing in the window of Nashville's bar/bootery Robert’s Western World. The band payment at the time was to take home whatever fell into the "Tips" pickle jar, and BR5-49 did well for themselves.

If you give their first album (my personal fave) a spin, you'll quickly figure out why. The solos and fills aren't the most technically demanding in the genre, but they're clean and rambunctious. You don't have to see the band to actually see the band having fun: you might not know who Gary Bennett, Don Herron, Chuck Mead, Smilin' Jay McDowell and "Hawk" Shaw Wilson are, but you know their heads are bobbing along as they pull one terrific riff after another out of their instruments.

Just the tonic for chasing away the blues. Pick up that phone, and dial now...

Confessions of a Sometime "Country Boy"

Here's the thing about country music: Like most categories of popular culture, it resembles a dumpster filled 98 percent with brightly wrapped, completely empty boxes. But if you dive the dumpster, and if you have the right kind of sensibility, you can find touchingly sincere, clever, unpretentious, and readily accessible simple pleasures scattered among the wretched refuse.

So says Daniel Menaker at Slate, and for the most part, I agree with him. I would rather the broken knob on my car radio be tuned to a crappy pop radio station than to a crappy country music station. And yet, and yet ... when a country song works, I think it is so much more direct and immediate than when a pop song works.

I suppose great country music has its complexities, as well. But it's all delivered in a straight-forward 4/4, three-chord, three-minute approach that only allows for so much variance before it sheds "country" and becomes something else. The country music that haunts me is bafflingly simple stuff. T-Bone Burnett's best album to date was an accoustic country effort that curbed his allegorical impulse in favor of quiet meditations on those lifelines his divorce-wounded heart couldn't relinquish: love, guilt, forgiveness and the safety of his daughters. I shared it with a musical friend, who later told me, "There's an intimacy evoked that makes you feel uncomfortable after a while."

Emmylou Harris is masterful at that, especially when she's working with Daniel Lanois. Lyle Lovett can evoke that sort of thing to a lesser degree, with his spare, essay-length songs on physical space and emotional isolation - but his artistic sensibility is too calculated to truly entice the listener. And should the listener be foolish enough to bite, Lovett is quick to deliver a well-placed nudge in the ribs with "Stand By Your Man", or "She's Leavin' Me (Because She Really Wants To)". Those are fine jokes, in fact (I'm smiling as I type), but they won't carry you to the end of the line.

I'm thinking these days of Johnny Cash. How can I not, with all the hooplah surrounding his bio-pic? I think everyone was alternately cheered and unsettled by his death following so closely on the heels of June Carter's. The big man could be as jokey as your local grocer (think, "One Piece At A Time"), but when it came right down to it, he was a terrifically disturbed and disturbing person. I honestly can't see why any popular religious group would care to claim him. Listen to "The Man Comes Around" before you go to bed tonight, and tell me you slept well - tell me you slept at all. Is Cash's religion really yours? Is it really? Because if it is, I honestly don't know how you find the wherewithal to dress up, climb into the van and sing choruses come Sunday morning.

The movie will give us a manageable Johnny Cash, much the way Ray Charles was tamed for public consumption in his posthumus flick. It's the music, though, that slips under the skin and alternately discomfits and encourages. Discomfit and encourage - you don't typically find those qualities working in tandem in pop music. You don't typically find them working in tandem on country radio, either. And perhaps it's just as well, or we'd have to pull our cars over to the side, just to get a grip.

Sunday, November 20, 2005


It took the examples of several other bloggers for me to figure out how to do this exercise. Whatcha do is, you go to Google, you type in your first name, then you type in "needs", Google it, and watch the fun begin! Apparently, these are the first ten things "Whisky" needs:

1) Whisky needs to work on his tan
2) Whisky needs a cigar
3) Whisky needs to reach out
4) Whisky needs more smaller, adventurous companies to show what's possible
5) Whisky needs a range of ingredients and conditions
6) Whisky needs time and the love of a good cask
7) Whisky needs American ex-bourbon casks for maturation
8) Whisky needs some time to reveal his secrets
9) Whisky needs work
10) Whisky needs a second, or even a third chance

Sure glad I went with a nom de plume!

Wednesday, November 16, 2005

Lit Links

Slate is going to College this week. Among the many articles of interest is this survey of "Books that rocked my college world", a list compiled by Slate-appointed "famous people". There are a few titles that recommend themselves to me, most notably Nicholson Baker's choice: Personal Knowledge: Towards a Post-Critical Philosophy by "chemist-epistomologist" (Baker's term) Michael Polanyi. In Baker's telling, Polanyi's analysis seems to be precisely the cheerful sort of head-scratching I can get into. I've had a few items waiting in my Amazon docket: looks like I'll be making my "Free Shipping" points this week.

When I considered the books that rocked my college world, I finally had to tip my hat to a sentiment voiced by Robert Stone, in one of those laborious reconsiderations of American Literary Icons. The subject under scrutiny this time was Jack Kerouac, who was being uncermoniously exhumed in several biographies. Stone has his own history with Kerouac. It seems Stone's mother (a bit of a flake, in his telling) sent him a copy of On The Road while Stone was in the Merchant Marines. Stone went on to hang out with Neal Cassady and Ken Kesey, during their maddest years. He struggles to acknowledge the genuine appeal of Kerouac, and says finally that American writers inevitably fall somewhere on a scale set on either extreme by Kerouac or Hemingway (Stone's preferences tilt toward the latter, he says).

If I acknowledge the masculine hubris of that sentiment and briskly move on, I'll amend it somewhat for my personal needs and say that both writers embodied a romantic recklessness that, for better and for worse, influenced some of my own decision making and nudged me right out of my college world. There's future blog material here, because the older I get, the greater my disenchantment grows with both writers. Those two behaved like absolute shits, but they established their own "eXtreme" schools of writing, so they both receive "Get Out Of Jail Free" cards - for now. You kids out there: I managed to read On The Road without becoming a reckless driver and a sweat-drenched speed-freak; similarly, I finished The Sun Also Rises without turning into a drunken anti-Semite with a passion for the bull-fights. See if you can't do the same.

Getting back to "cheerfulness" for a moment: I think that's the quality to C.S. Lewis's writing that has always appealed to me, even in his flawed and blustery "apologetics". We've been reading The Chronicles of Narnia to the girls, in wary anticipation of the movies. As with The Lord of the Rings, there is an imagery evoked by the words that I will regret losing to the movies, and Adam Gopnik correctly identifies their intrinsic appeal. He occasionally overstays his welcome when it comes to critical commentary - "the futile hope of the mystic", my ass - but many of his observations are acute:

The British, of course, are capable of being embarrassed by anybody, and that they are embarrassed by Lewis does not prove that he is embarrassing. But the double vision of the man creates something of a transatlantic misunderstanding. If in England he is subject to condescension, his admirers here have made him hostage to a cult.

Gopnik works hard at staking out the middle ground, which for the most part makes for a rewarding read - here.

Hey - what were the books that rocked your college world?

Sunday, November 13, 2005

The Entertainer

Most of the Mennonite churches in my childhood town had a Boy's Brigade program: the Boy Scouts basically, with a few Bible verses thrown in. It's a little ironic that Mennonites embraced the military trappings of this program. The call to order required a Captain and Lieutenants, a Sargeant, Corporals, Lance Corporals and Brigadiers all executing a military drill: stand at attention, stand at ease, stand easy (haven't forgotten any of this stuff — yikes!). I guess the powers that were figured a little marching didn't necessarily lead to taking up arms, and that boys were suckers for uniforms and drills.

We were and we weren't. Most of us wore the shirt  a forest-green polyester work-shirt with a few red badges sloppily sewn onto the sleeve (my mother was so disgusted at the lack of quality, she took it upon herself to re-affix all my badges) — but chafed at the bogus authority structure. We were there for the floor hockey, and put up with the drills by making with the wisecracks.

Campouts were part of the deal, too. Some batallions took their campouts very seriously, insisting on a requisite level of "roughing it", which could involve a lengthy hike with pack, or a canoe trip, or both. Our batallion leaders weren't quite so strident on this issue. The captain figured a fall campout was a worthy enterprise, but couldn't see himself sleeping in a tent with a bunch of rowdy adolescents. He opted instead to park a large trailer at a provincial campground, in which he and the other men could sleep, or watch the football game on his little b&w TV set, while the rest of us froze in our tents — thus fulfilling the "roughing it" requirement.

The experience proved to be rough indeed. A cold drizzle fell the entire weekend, and temperatures dipped to the freezing point at night. In the morning, after we scorched our pancakes on the Coleman stove, we found the Aunt Jemima's syrup was frozen inside the plastic container, where it remained untasted. We pilfered the campground's supply of firewood (paid for by the tax-payer, in those salad days of waning Trudeau-mania) and desperately built the largest campfire we could. We huddled around that campfire for the next 36 hours, moving only when the smoke pitched our way and brought us to tears.

One of the guys, a fellow "corporal", was a born entertainer. He could be a merciless joker with guys, and had an easy, natural charm around girls that was the envy of us all. He took immediate note of the bitter disparity between our situation and that of the men who drove us here, and made frequent, pointed commentary. When it was clear we were in for the long haul, he hunkered down and took it upon himself to entertain the troops.

He had had a bit part in his school's production of Fiddler on the Roof, and like any bit-player, knew the entire score from start-to-finish. In one afternoon he sang and recited every song and every line of dialogue from that show, slipping from basso to falsetto when necessary. I stood and watched this guy, and watched the reaction of the campers to this guy. His performance could have brought the usual adolescent churlishness to the fore — hoots, catcalls, "aww, shut-up already!", etc. Instead, every one of the boys (ages 12-17) silently listened to his performance, never once interrupting, and laughing only when he delivered the scripted punchlines.

So remarkable: all these boys with their weird, adolescent bodies and all the crazed behavior that comes with the tidal wave of hormones, just huddling in the rain and quietly listening to one of their own singing "Matchmaker, Matchmaker Make Me A Match". One of those rare, luminescent moments that takes place precisely when you least expect it.

Saturday, November 12, 2005

Identity Crisis?

Busy time out here - we're hosting my family from Manitoba, so I stay off-line most days. My brother the nerd is rearranging all my software furniture, keeping the sightlines clean, clearing a path in the clutter so's I can do what I do with less effort (at least, that's the goal). Everything is under consideration, including a merger with Whisky Prajer and My Day-Gig: Stay Home, Daddy-O (both written by yours truly).

"Whisky Prajer" was the moniker I adopted when I first started blogging. I'd hoped to spare my Reverend father a little embarrassment by anonymously posting my less-orthodox musings. He, however, set the record straight by forwarding both my sites to anyone he thought might be interested. So here I sit, rattling off my weirdness on this site, and coloring within the lines on my other site, and thinking, Perhaps this is counter-productive? If I could post pictures on my other site, I'd probably bring my archived material from WP and add it to Daddy-O and do all my work there, because (a) that's who I am, and (b) that's the site I've got the most control over.

If you have any thoughts or recommendations, let me know.

Wednesday, November 09, 2005

Shake Hands With The Menno, Part II

David Bergen wins the coveted Giller Prize for his novel The Time In Between - congratulations! A friend has asked me to opine on the state of Mennonite literature. So far I've demurred, having no wish to become a Mennonitische Northrop Frye. Besides, I have dreams of winning my own Giller. First we take Altona, then we take New Berlin! (or "Kitchener", as it's come to be known)

Monday, November 07, 2005

Gilead by Marilynne Robinson

Now, at that point I did feel that Jack Boughton was, so to speak, winning the conversation, and furthermore, that he was no happier about it than I was, maybe even a little disgusted. Certainly I found myself in a false position yet again. I felt like pleading old age. But I was sitting there in my church, with the sweet and irrefragable daylight pouring in through the windows. And I felt, as I have often felt, that my failing the truth could have no bearing at all on the Truth itself, which could never conceivably be in any sense dependent on me or on anyone. And my heart rose up within me  that's exactly what it felt like  and I said, I have heard any number of fine sermons in my life, and I have known any number of deep souls. I am well aware that people find fault, but it seems to me to be presumptuous to judge the authenticity of anyone's religion, except one's own. And that is also presumptuous.

And I said, 
When this old sanctuary is full of silence and prayer, every book Karl Barth ever will write would not be a feather in the scales against it from the point of view of profundity, and I would not believe in Barth's own authenticity if I did not also believe he would know and recognize the truth of that, and honor it, too.

I hope readers who have absorbed and taken nourishment from Marilynne Robinson's brilliant novel, Gilead, will find fault with my choice of excerpt. It could be the most didactic bit of prose you will find in the novel's entirety, only hinting at the sublime pleasures and tensions she sustains with her articulate attention to the poetic rhythms of a spiritual life. But I think it highlights the strength of character in this novel of hers, and this novel is all character.

This excerpt captures perfectly those vain arguments we all enter, foolishly hoping to be persuaded out of our convictions. Jack Boughton has broached the subject of Karl Barth, the neo-orthodox theologian who John Ames, the book's narrator, reads with delight. Boughton slides in and cunningly uses Barth as a means to critique the piety he faces in Ames (a tactic not dissimilar, perhaps, to some of my own). Ames is wise enough to intuit that such fault-finding is thin and bitter broth for young Boughton, but does not yet have the insight to appreciate the torment within his tormentor. Ames's life has not been without its own sorrows, but as ever he reaches for the only constants he knows: “sweet, irrefragable daylight”; “silence and prayer.”

This proves to be a conversation-stopper, as so many of his poetic metaphors are. The only internal monologue any of us can be certain of is our own, and as Ames articulates his, we realize just how dodgy this monologue can get without the external impertinences of an engaged life. The book begins with the elderly Ames joyously ready to shed his mortal coil, and choosing to fill his notebook with reminiscences of previous difficulties and the eternal delights that seem to have flowered in their wake. Life has one final difficulty to fling at him, however, in the form of a namesake he never asked for.

I hesitated to read this book because too many people were recommending it. It seems to win over the faithful and the infidel alike. The fine folks at Books & Culture are smitten with it; so are atheists like James Wood and Nick Hornby (in fact, after singing Robinson's praises, Hornby promptly declared he was ready to spend the next several years in a theological college — a claim he quickly renounced in his next month's column after having read (insert sound of my grinding teeth) A Complicated Kindness by Miriam Toews).

Furthermore, I was informed by DV that the Amazon “recommendation engine” had noted his recent purchase of Peter DeVries' The Blood of the Lamb, and had “thought he might also enjoy” ... Gilead. Visitors who have followed my reading habits will already be aware that DeVries, born to a Calvinist household, takes it upon himself to deflower the Calvinist TULIP — first with ribald glee, and finally with a savage and irrefutable anguish. Now, Ms. Robinson has stated for the public record that she is a resolute Calvinist (possibly the only Calvinist to gain full access to the American public square — no small feat). Can this absurd disparity, generated by this absurd engine, co-exist promisingly for the perceptive reader?

To my incredulity and delight, it can. Hornby and Wood are right on the money in their generous appraisal. “Robinson's words have a spiritual force that's very rare in contemporary fiction,” says Wood, an indication he has come across a genuine find. Hornby says Gilead achieves “an astonishing hush” that has turned him into “a wiser and better person.” Hornby's being somewhat cheeky in the latter statement, but only a little. He says, “I didn't even mind that it's essentially a book about Christianity, narrated by a Christian; in fact, for the first time I understood the point of Christianity — or at least, I understood how it might be used to assist thought.” The emphasis is mine, and it's important. Typically, whenever Christianity is used as the starting point of any discussion, whether by friend or foe, it is not in an effort to assist thought — quite the opposite. In one slim, magnificent novel, Marilynne Robinson provides the antidote, proving that if a “religious” writer can assiduously measure the height, breadth and depth of human experience, they can achieve what all writers strive for: transcendence.

Sunday, November 06, 2005

Unspeakable: Facing Up To Evil In An Age Of Genocide And Terror by Os Guinness

I should state at the outset that my first inclination is to give this book a silent pass. I've been told, though, that members of my larger family occasionally drop by to read my thoughts. I don't know if my infrequent testing of evangelical waters surprises them, gives them hope, or causes them grievous disappointment, but I do feel compelled to acknowledge those times when I look over my shoulder at a pasture that to my mind has grown inhospitable to my soul. If nothing else, I know Gideon Strauss stops by from time to time - this one's for you, Tathagata!

"A guide to life's greatest challenge," claims Unspeakable's cover blurb. These bits of ad-copy are usually just publisher's hyperbole, often stamped on the book-jacket without the author's knowledge or consent. It might well have been approved by Guinness, however: he attempts precisely that, and he frequently achieves acute insight. Guinness's perspicacity, however, is not unblinkered - is even, at times, ungenerous - a trait you can expect me to mirror here and now.

First some perspective: this is not my first exposure to Dr. Guinness. I first encountered him when I was an ardent contributing member of a church youth group. My zeal and idealism set me up for frequent despair (still does). More often than not, the resulting anguish brought me to my father's library where I searched the stacks for some morsel of encouragement. In my late teens, I pulled out a large book with a doozy of a title: The Dust of Death: A Critique of the Establishment and the Counter Culture and the Proposal for a Third Way - by Os Guinness. Even now my heart beats with hopeful anticipation! "The proposal for a third way"! A quick look at the back only added to my hopes: this Guinness guy sported a trim Van Dyke beard (anti-establishment!) and was an heir to the famed brewery giant (establishment)! I pinched it, and read it in the space of a week.

Guinness's coverage of the Counter Culture was dizzying. He catalogued not just the usual American suspects (the Weathermen, the Diggers, and the Black Panthers) but introduced me to the antics of those zany bike-pedaling anarchists in Amsterdam: Provo. I was transfixed by this generational litany of idealistic rage that expressed itself in both tragedy (the Weathermen/Black Panthers) and comedy (Diggers/Provo). As a bonus, I could take absolute comfort in Guinness's clear-sighted over-arching critique that was, he assured me, his effort to "reclaim the culture" The proof? He came out as a staunch advocate of Larry Norman's evangelical rock & roll.

I haven't read that book in over 20 years, and I still recall various tidbits that delighted me. I think I was just encouraged that someone could be intelligent, culturally observant and pious (a word that, I still believe, has been unfairly maligned). But I lost track of Guinness not long after that - pretty much around the time I got tired of listening to Larry Norman. Norman wasn't doing anything particularly innovative with his art, and it seemed to me that neither was Guinness - a lot of finger-wagging, and "here's where you're wrong and scripture is right". Guinness might claim with some justification that what he does is somewhat distinct from "artistry", but I would say otherwise. I think Jean Luc Godard hit the nail on the head when he said, "The way to properly critique a movie is to make another movie." And in that manner, Guinness has been riffing out the ink-and-paper equivalent of Normanesque evangelical rock & roll for the last 20 years.

Guinness's evangelical rock & roll, while "classic," is not without nuance. It seems he has cultivated a profound kinship with many perspectives of Orthodox Judaism. His insight into the work and person of Elie Wiesel, for instance, is among the most unique and penetrating I've seen, and he speaks with genuine authority on the thought of Primo Levi, Simon Wiesenthal and Philip Hallie. There is some shared ground in the "Judeo-Christian" landscape, even for an evangelical, and Guinness finds it and cultivates it.

Alas, he does not do so for the Eastern religions. Perhaps life is too short - perhaps there is only so much one man can achieve, intellectually and spiritually - but his encapsulation of eastern thought and teaching, while strenuous, is not empathetic. Worse than that, it is reductionist and unsympathetic, despite his protests to the contrary. In the wake of Viet Nam and the Khmer Rouge in Cambodia, Buddhists have done a great deal of soul-searching on the nature of evil, and have a great deal more to say, with a great deal more nuance, than Guinness suggests.

On this issue Guinness plays the numbers game, and is to some degree right in doing so, by pointing out how the "western" religions are numerically more prone to address injustice than the "eastern" ones have been. But on the issue of Viet Nam alone, it would do him and all of North American evangelicalism well to acknowledge a) the profound and unrelenting trans-generational carnage that our chemical warfare has caused, and b) that the chief efforts of relief and redress have not been "Christian", but have come from these same eastern religions Guinness paints indirectly as apathetic.

Perhaps I'm being overly-simplistic of current political realities. Guinness does address the genocides of the Holocaust, Bosnia/Serbia, and Rwanda, as well as the horrors of My Lai and Abu Ghraib among others. Worthy coverage, to be sure. The current author photo portrays a smiling bald man who no longer sports the Van Dyke. It is no longer in him to sit up all night and write a book recounting a litany of what has transpired and how little has been done to acknowledge/stem the tide.

Personally, my artistic and spiritual sensibilities must include and incorporate an "eastern" sensibility. It's all well and good to assert with Solzhenitsyn that "The line dividing good and evil cuts through the heart of every human being"; it's something a touch more suggestive to say "our hearts are black and white like a zebra's stripes" (Guinness). But there are Buddhists who would assert something even more controversial: that our boldest efforts to do good are most easily employed to do the very opposite when we are not intimately attentive to the subtleties of their method.

Guinness's current efforts to transform the culture amount to a cry to wake up and do something. As such, I simply can't recommend this book, except to evangelicals who are horrified at the mass-indulged Magick-think behind The Prayer of Jabez. But in the face of such popular, facile, evangelical best-sellers and the larger, more-horrific realities they permit, I don't mind echoing the sentiments of the French Huguenots in the village of Le Chambon, who rescued thousands of Jewish children from the Nazis, and who Guinness echoes as well: "Always ready to help" And conversely (Solzhenitsyn, via Guinness): evil might seek to dominate the world through The Lie, "but not through me."

Friday, November 04, 2005

Thursday, November 03, 2005

NHL Brand-Doctoring and Real Hockey: A Consumer Follow-Up

Last year, in the peace and quiet of the NHL lockout, I happily dissed the league, inferring its imminent demise. So it comes as a bit of a surprise to watch the "new" game, and find myself ... well, more or less pleased with the changes made.

Just listening to the sports highlights on the radio can be a thrill. Take last night's scores: the Ottawa Senators thumped the Buffalo Sabres 10-4. Ten to four! The score climbed into the double-digits! I won't bother googling stats to prove myself wrong, but the last time I remember that kind of score was the 1970s. High scores are a good thing. For the past twenty years, and particularly the last seven, the score rarely broke five, and usually peaked at three. We're talking about the ascension (if you want to call it that) of dump-and-chase, clutch-and-grab hockey, which can be translated to a single Canadian letter: Zzzzzzzz. Now, it's almost a gaurantee each team will pocket at least one goal per period, giving the build-up of audience tension the necessary explosive release to keep them watching to the last minute. At this rate, even the Leafs might be able to turn in an entertaining game.

That's not to say I completely advocate all the changes. I think (heaven forfend) Don Cherry has a point when he complains about the current "firing line" that's been established by the blue line: allowing a sharp-shooter forward to sit at the point and fire slapshot after slapshot without getting knocked off his skates does not make for attractive hockey. Still and all, it's nice to see a game that more closely resembles what you see in Europe.

But the hockey game I'm currently most taken with resides not in the arena (or the GameCube) but on the kitchen table. Yep: tabletop hockey. The model you see here is precisely the same as the one I played when I was a kid. It belonged to my father, so I'm guessing its vintage is mid-1950s (I cadged the photo from here). The players are tin, the teams are The Original Six. The pictured model is in near immaculate condition (note the glossy "ice" surface) - not at all the condition our game was in when we finally sold it in a yard sale. Still, it amazes me to consider just how well this model endured the ravages of time. Two generations of players, and boys at that.

The "ice" was constructed of a sort of fibre-board that almost resembled cardboard. Resilient stuff, that. Whenever our centre player managed to monopolize the puck, we would carefully line up the shot, then ram it home with near deadly force. It wasn't uncommon to have to reach for the band-aids after a game: we frequently tore open the skin on our fingertips in our frenzied working of the metal rods. I'm not sure if they were ever "capped", either. I only remember the electrical tape that was wrapped around the ends. When we finally sold the game, it had developed some serious flaws (the fibre board was finally all but shredded) and couldn't be played. Still, that game was good for nearly 30 years of play.

Now that my daughters are at an age where they don't mind proving their superiority over the old man, I'm looking out for something similar. Just browsing around the web, it looks like Stiga has claimed table-top dominion (I'd be grateful for any recommendations on this!). I somehow doubt the current models could endure 10 years of abuse, never mind thrice that, but I'll take what I can get and be happy for that. Because as fun as video hockey can be, the physical thrill of table hockey beats button-mashing (bloodied) hands down.

Wednesday, November 02, 2005

Star Wars: Redux

"Star Wars, at its secret, spiky intellectual heart, has more in common with films like Peter Greenaway's Prospero's Books or even Matthew Barney's The Cremaster Cycle than with the countless cartoon blockbusters it spawned."

Oh, no question - them, and Ed Wood's Plan 9 From Outer Space. Someone prone to a little common sense would simply assert that the last four Star Wars movies demonstrate Lucas's inept management of the most basic elements of storytelling. But that's the beauty of po-mo self-consciousness: wield it deftly enough, and you can get a giggle out of the very stones beneath your feet. Aidan Wasley of Slate gives Lucas the po-mo treatment, here.

My last word on the matter: I have, in a moldy cardboard box in my basement, several Star Wars magazines that were rushed into print the summer of 1977 - most of them spin-offs from Forrest J. Ackerman's Fangoria press. It's all breathless stuff, printed on pulp paper, with typos and poorly reproduced b&w stills from the movie. In its own weird and inevitable way, it probably contributes to the myth of Lucas's genius more significantly than the first two movies did. One of these rags (a "Poster-Mag!" - a large single sheet of medium-gloss paper that folds out into a large poster of Darth Vader and Storm Troopers boarding the Rebel cruiser) provides a lengthy history of Darth Vader and his origins. This was pulled, we are told, from George Lucas's fabled "red spiral-bound notebook" - an original text as mythical and valuable to SW fans as Q or the Dead Sea Scrolls are to New Testament scholars. Read 25 years later, it's amusing to see where the "history" meets the final product, and where it veers. The origins of Vader's apparatus are bang-on, right up to the light-sabre duel with Kenobi in the volcanic caverns, even while Lucas (I assume) cagily asserts that Vader physically kills Anakin Skywalker. It's almost enough to get a dewy-eyed fan wondering if this Red Notebook - an original document, a repository of every Star Wars Galaxy detail and mythical nuance - is the real deal.

Again, the last four movies should make that theory smell like last month's baloney. And for the hold-outs who refuse to accept the evidence before their eyes, there's the "Making Of Star Wars" documentary that comes with the original boxed set. We get glimpses of Lucas' original studio proposal: they paint a picture of a man who is wildly uncertain as to what the adventures of "Luke Starkiller" (a 64-year-old general) actually entail. Before this proposal makes it to an executive's desk, someone passes it to Ralph McQuarrie, thinking a few of his illustrations might help sell the story. Mystery of mysteries, at this point the project begins to cohere.

There's yer genius, kids: Ralph McQuarry. Instead of looking for the Red Notebook, buy this book, and start making your own movies, because Lucas gave up on you 20 years ago.