Friday, June 30, 2006

Noticed: Vintage Rock Tees ... On Kids!

My oldest daughter (9) has a classmate especially fond of a black AC/DC shirt -- a sweet, well-behaved kid who kisses his mother when she picks him up at the end of the day. I've seen a dozen or so kids in their mid-teens wearing "ZOZO"/Led Zep, The Doors, Pink Floyd, KISS and even Yes(!?) T-shirts.

I wrote this off as a small-town, blue-collar phenomenon, until we took the fam to Kensington Market. The first store we entered, I had to make way for an 11-year-old girl wearing a snazzy-looking Guns 'n Roses T. Behind her was her old man -- a fella my age, wearing clothes identical to mine: Dockers and a polo shirt. We gave each other the nod, but as he passed I wondered what, exactly, was going on?

I'm still not sure. Is it an over-crowded market? Too many kids burning their own rap/hip-hop records? Are today's songs too darn short, lacking in ambition and musicality? (Wup - looks like that's my knee, jerking.) I just assumed my generation would be the only one born nostalgic, that the next generation would surely produce something of cultural value and heft, but it looks instead like our kids are nostalgic for the very same era we craved. In any case, if this means the guitar solo has returned, I'm all for it.

Tuesday, June 27, 2006

Confessions of a Former Would-Be Stereophile

Twenty years ago, with the first few heady paycheques from my first salaried job stashed in my bank account, I enlisted the help of my friend and neighbor and went on the prowl for a home stereo. Stereo salesmen saw a dewy-skinned, nattily dressed kid of 20 walking through their front door, and salivated. I was greeted with wine and cheese; I was ushered into "The Sound Chamber"; I was the recipient of hour-length lectures on Watts-Per-Channel, OHMs and "Rate of Impedance" (when I wittily referred to it as the Rate of Im-PU-dence, I could see this High Priest of Stereophonics literally restrain himself from throwing me out -- I came bearing money, after all).

When all was said and done, I must have burned a month's worth of daylight hours in my quest for the perfect sound system. I probably heard a working day's worth of Dire Straits' "Telegraph Road", a full days' worth of Tracy Chapman's "Fast Car", two days' worth of Sting's "Englishman In New York" and three days' worth of Robbie Robertson's "Somewhere Down That Crazy River" (to this day, I can't imagine any of these songs played at a volume level short of 11, the better to maximize their fibrillation-inducing bass line). One salesman was exceedingly fond of The Judds' "Cow Cow Boogie" and played it over and over and over again. It was a change of pace at least, and I bought my stereo from him.

A couple of grand, a trunkful of boxes, and I was set for life -- or 20 years, with good behavior. And so it was. This winter my receiver finally crapped out on me. Our local tekkie fiddled with it for four months before finally admitting defeat, so I shook hands with him yesterday, then drove to the nearest stereo outlet.

This time I received no wine and cheese -- just the skunk-eye. I got right to the point and told the stereo salesman what I wanted. He asked me if I would be using said receiver for SurroundSound, and I said no. The man hadn't looked especially happy to see me to begin with, but now he looked downright peeved. He ushered me to their stock, pointed at my few options. Twenty minutes and $250 later, I walked out of the store with a receiver I hadn't bothered listening to.

There was a time when I structured a room around my stereo, when I placed my Ikea/Eames knock-off in a strategic spot between the two speakers and simply ... listened. That time has come and gone. I do like a house full of music -- music makes the dreariest tasks just a little easier -- but our television isn't large enough for me to say the words "Home Theatre" without sniggering. And even if it were, I'm still not sold on the vertigo-inducing "virtues" of SurroundSound.

I needed a receiver that worked, and I didn't need to spend a lot of time and money considering which one to take home. And I certainly didn't need a reintroduction to the world of the stereophile.

Friday, June 23, 2006

I'm Your Fan -- Just Don't Make Me Watch This!

I do like Leonard Cohen, but I've got to say: this does nothing for me. It resembles Dylan's birthday bash, minus the welcome dash of controversy and unpredictability. It's a big gala event that sounds like the cat's whiskers when it gets mention in the TV Guide, but after all the Big Stars and Beautiful People finish congratulating the Guest of Honour (and each other) the actual highlight ends up being the ten minutes where the Artist finally drags himself onstage, sits down on a stool and sings three songs. But hey -- I'm happy for Leonard.

Thursday, June 22, 2006

The End Is Nigh

School is almost out, as evinced by our family calendar.

Want a closer look?

If you need a translation, the words in question are: "Last Day of School" "Party" and "Crokinole Day" -- the latter being of particular significance, because after considerable hectoring and cajoling the girls have agreed to play with me. It was either that, or a spelling bee (a weekly event which seems to be in the cards this summer...).

Wednesday, June 21, 2006

Talkin' 'bout my generation

Christmas of '94: I was in the basement of the bookstore, talking music with my co-worker friend, and he said, "I'm thinking Beck might be the Dylan of our generation."

I looked at him. "Really?"

He nodded. My friend wasn't being ironic or provocative -- he was serious, so I had to give this some thought.

At the time, this observation seemed bang-on. Calling 1994 a "breakout" year for Beck would be an understatement: Beck's "Loser", from Mellow Gold was the Gen-X anthem -- our "The Times They Are A-Changin'" -- padding Beck's bank account with his first several-mil. Success bred confidence, and Beck quickly released two more CDs of older material that same year, both of them divergent from Mellow Gold as well as from each other. Lyrically, it was anyone's guess what he was up to, which put him in good standing with the Boomer Bard. Three radically different albums in one monumental year? Maybe my friend was right.

Twelve years on, the point is moot. My generation never had a Dylan, and it's just as well. We never had a Beatles, or a Stones, or a Hendrix, either. In 1994 we were still very much in awe of Bill Gates. It wasn't at all uncommon to find his picture taped to our lockers (usually the college shot of him in his savant-crouch in the hallway, a knit toque pulled down to the bridge of his beak). Just think about that for a second: Bill Gates.

Who else do we have from 1994? Kurt Cobain (and Courtney Love), of course. Douglas Coupland, Radiohead, River Phoenix. Chip Kidd and Dimebag Darrell, if you're in a catholic frame of mind. Madonna, if you're gay.

Which is why I link to a piece on Timothy Leary. The man may have been his own lethal Barnum & Bailey show, but I don't mind admitting that when it comes to lethal Barnum & Bailey shows, the 60s were colorful enough to cover several decades.

leary (sic): a. knowing, sly, wary of.

"He seems to have been blessed with an incapacity for shame, a gift for which he had many occasions to be thankful" -- Louis Menand profiles Timothy Leary for The New Yorker.

Monday, June 19, 2006

Gratuitous Hockey Post

The final 'Canes goal came as a relief, if only because I didn't want to stay up much longer. I was also a torn man: I should have been cheering for the Canadian team, but I wasn't. My daughters and my wife were, my friends and family in Edmonton were, but I couldn't quite bring myself to do it. I've cheered Edmonton in the past, but this year my heart just wasn't there. Carolina deserved the win, despite the fact that Carolinians didn't know what ice was until a carpetbagger from New York dropped a cube of it into their mint julip. Congratulations, Carolinian tax-payers! Enjoy the envy of Canadians (just about) everywhere!

Friday, June 16, 2006

The Obligatory "World Cup" Posting

My blogging impulse has been light of late (clearly). No reason, really, but I'll blame it on my wife's international itinerary. She zips out to some exotic locale, then staggers back in the grip of some exotic bug. She's just returned from Dusseldorf, Germany. You wouldn't expect her to come back with anything but a touch of World Cup Fever. Alas, it seems drinking the tap water in Dusseldorf is akin to drinking the tap water in Quito, Ecuador (not recommended).

To make matters worse, despite her proximity to real, live football and thousands of real, live football fans, she was unable to actually darken a stadium turnstile -- she was there to work, after all. She insists that physical attendance was a moot point, given how it was impossible to walk more than two metres without navigating around a Jumbotron or some other large-screen outdoor television. And she and an Aussie co-worker spent a pleasant afternoon in a biergarten, sipping pils and watching the Aussies beat Japan.

Which is more than I can claim. I've been reduced to catching the odd game on one of the city's "ethnic" channels, and talking soccer with my father in law (he loved watching the Czechs route America, even though his Montana background usually prompts him to cheer the home-team). I'm also thoroughly enjoying football commentary by Darko, whose beloved Croatian team "has character", as American sports-casters like to say. Also worthy of note, DV has managed to provoke commentary from the unusually taciturn F.C. Bearded, a Scot expat who hates the "fitba". Gouts of that beloved Scottish bile is expelled upon the subject, here.

Tuesday, June 13, 2006


Journaling -- I've never been good at it. I've kept a journal, am technically keeping one now, in fact. I can even be regular about it, but that's a word I use advisedly, the way old duffs are happiest when they are "regular".

I hopped on The Artist's Way bandwagon some years back, figuring if it was good enough for Martin Scorsese ("a valuable tool", he claims, right there on the back cover) it ought to be good enough for me. Guru Julia Cameron makes "morning pages" the cornerstone of her program -- three pages of longhand writing, first thing after you wake up. There's considerably more to her program, but the morning pages are non-negotiable.

Three pages in longhand are no problem for me, but I can assure you they'd be a problem for any reader foolish enough to take a peek -- a reader like, say, one of my daughters, when the box of spiral-bound notebooks is discovered a week or two after the funeral. "You know, I always wondered if Dad wasn't a little bitter about something, but that's not it at all: he was just an incorrigible whiner!" In my defense, Cameron advocates this sort of emotional enema. The thinking is if you get it out of your system first thing in the morning, you'll be more receptive to possibility the rest of the day. And it kinda sorta works, just not enough for me to add my impramatur to the back of the book (I try to keep an open mind, but I'm sorry: the New Age-speak really sticks in my craw. Dorothea Brande's book is easier medicine for hopeful skeptics like me).

So I've given up my morning whine, because I cringe at the thought of it becoming the public record. I think a glossier, if less cathartic, approach is to be found in Brian Eno's journal. It's also a little easier to maintain, because if all you've got to say is a sentence or two, you say it and you're done. He is consistently conscientious about considering alternatives, a worthy habit for anyone to develop, so that is the tack I'm attempting.

Eno's perspective on things is invariably unique and bracing, qualities you still won't find in abundance in my journals. I'd say my enterprise isn't so much the art of journaling as it is the dross of journaling. I've used spiral-bound notebooks in this effort, also hardcover unlined sketchbooks (my preference). My father (a no-journal sort of person) once passed along a leather-bound journal he received as a gift. I wrote in it for a bit, then finally tore off and discarded the cover because its hoity-toity "Chin up, good fellow!" demeanor was getting in the way of my words.

Obviously I'm not a Moleskines kinda guy. I understand their appeal -- used by Picasso, Van Gogh, Chatwin, Hemingway!! It may be these giants had their self-indulgent moleskine moments, but did their entries ever include: "Can't believe it: ankle still hurts! Bleah." I don't want to write that stuff in weenie leather-covered notebook that cost me $30. C'mon -- a thirty-dollar notebook!? Man, that better have cogito ergo sum on every freakin' page!

Or, failing that, this:

Now that is putting a Moleskine to good use! Link via Drawn!

Sunday, June 11, 2006

Grizzly Man

Given the deluge of accolades I was exposed to prior to seeing Werner Herzog's Grizzly Man, it was reasonable to expect some disappointment. It still seems a little strange to me that this is hailed as such a brilliant work: there were stretches where the film felt more like an extended episode of Jackass gone horribly awry. But there is (thankfully) a qualitative difference between the way Werner Herzog and Johnny Knoxville indulge, and when the film was finally over, I was astonished at how deeply it had affected me.

It quickly becomes obvious that Herzog has found something of a doppelganger in Timothy Treadwell. Herzog is infamous for subjecting himself, his actors and his hapless film crews to excruciating conditions, preferably in a remote corner of the jungle. Treadwell was in the habit of taking a camera, and occasionally a companion, into the Alaskan wilderness to frolic amongst grizzly bears. That camera was always on, and Treadwell was always talking. As for Herzog, he can choose his material, but the story inevitably becomes about himself. And though he doesn't run off at the mouth, his documentaries will never walk the objectivist's path of "silent photographer" -- Herzog must be heard.

Again and again, Treadwell demonstrates an unhinged perspective on his place in the cosmos. He films a flesh-ripping battle between two grizzlies, one of them nearly 12-feet tall, the other a mere 10. When the smaller bear lies prone in defeat, Treadwell approaches the bleeding hulk and chirps a few cheerful Pollyanna bromides in condolence. Treadwell offers a moral by example: if you treat these creatures as if they were your neighbor's dachshund, things are sure to end badly for you.

Herzog asserts at film's end that he can see no recognition in the eyes of these bears, just the dark existential reality of a violent universe intent on extinguishing humanity's flame. Treadwell thought the opposite, that he'd found kinship among these behemoth carnivores. And while I'm more accepting of Herzog's Teutonic stoicism than I am of Treadwell's naivete, I can't help thinking these two extremes suffer a similar lack of perspective. Treadwell thought his existence in the wild was charmed, and for this lack of insight was finally eaten by a bear; Herzog considers life something of a curse, an enduring struggle against a Will to Extinguish, yet lives on regardless of the peril he courts. Somewhere, someone is snickering -- and occasionally during this film that someone was me.


Here is the back page of the current WIRED: the post-singularity bookshelf. I especially like the title (the pink-bound item, top shelf to the right), Coping With Post-Singular Depression. That will be the book for me.

Tuesday, June 06, 2006

Personal Apocalypse

As our family approached the May long weekend (May 22 was Victoria Day, for you non-Canuckleheads), we figured a trip to our nation's capital might be just the thing. I have a sister there, my wife has a brother, and it's a terrific town for family-type activities. The day before we left, I busied myself with some last-minute house cleaning, and devoted a significant amount of time to backing up files on my computer, since it was showing signs of giving up the ghost. After a lengthy marathon in front of the monitor, I lay down for a short nap.

When I woke up, I was a little surprised to feel a slight twinge in my right ankle. I walked on it for a bit; it felt a little like a sprain. I paid it no further attention, and packed for the weekend.

We drove out early the next morning. When I stepped out of the car, my ankle really gave me the business. And so it went for the rest of the weekend: walking was incredibly painful, but by Monday the pain was beginning to let up a wee bit.

I mulled over my condition. I try not to worry or whinge, so I chalked it down to just one more early indignity I'm slated to suffer as I grow older. Some sort of arthritis, maybe. Or ... gout? Something manageable, at any rate.

We returned home, my computer crashed, and while I waited for the new one, I picked up books I'd put off. Easing back into bed one night, I grazed through an essay by a fellow Menno, who was trying to account for a sudden mistrust of air travel. He searched the far reaches of his consciousness for the reason, wondered about that Australian athlete who died from a blood clot in his leg, then rejected that notion for ... Oh dear Lord!! BLOOD CLOT!!!

That night proved to be grimly curious. Facing my potentially near-immediate departure from this Vale of Tears, I did some quick accounting of unfinished business. Relationships came under intense scrutiny, and with the scales now torn from my eyes I silently acknowledged numerous instances of incredibly selfish behaviour -- so many times when I asserted what I'd thought was my justifiable right, deliberately ignoring or even pointedly wounding someone I loved. I mulled over what I needed to say, to whom, and how. Creating this ledger had a strangely pacifying effect on my nerves, and I eventually fell into a restive sleep.

When I woke up, I got started on my mission. Three weeks later, I'm still at it, albeit with a steady decline in my zeal. The sawbones dismissed out-of-hand my fear of clotting, and suggested it was almost certainly muscular strain of some kind, but sent me to the x-ray room to check for hairline fractures. It's been a very slow, but steady, improvement (thanks for asking).

I indulge in this bit of hand-wringing because today is The Day of the Beast -- June 6, 2006, or 06/06/06, or 666 -- a day of significance to those of us who either take ourselves (and our Apocalyptic Literature) way too seriously, or conversely possess a particularly impish sense of humour. The Apocalypse of St. John The Divine meant the world to me in my youth; I read it as a 12-year-old, and I've yet to shake the sense that there's a global catastrophe lurking just beyond my doorstep. Conversely, and predictably enough, I now have a finely-tuned knee-jerk impatience whenever such Radical Cosmic Conversion scenarios are proposed in my vicinity. If you want to get me raving, ply me with a few drinks, then ask me what I think of the LaHaye/Jenkins juggernaut. Or Vernor Vinge's Singularity.

Oh, right -- you've caught me in the throes of an unselfish makeover, so let me save you some time and money: I fucking hate that shit.

Notwithstanding the social historical origins of Apocalyptic Literature, I think the broad religious appeal of apocalyptic scenarios stems from a deep impatience with other people -- and, dare I say, with God. Historically, apoca-lit is born in times of horrific persecution -- Revelation is a letter to a Church facing almost certain extinction, telling the Faithful that all physical evidence to the contrary, they, and not their persecutors, are the ones on the winning side of the equation. When your sons are being wrapped in tallow and lit like marshmallows, and your daughters are subjected to worse, you can be forgiven a little panicky impatience with the Divine. But what happens when the immediate threat disappears, our wealth and influence grow, and our baseline disenchantment with our compromised (or "fallen") existence remains? We are Believers, we've already recognized our need for change; why don't The Others? What's it going to take for Them to recognize the error of their ways? An Apocalypse, that's what (and isn't Apocalyptica, and the recognition of Other People's maddening error-ridden ways what Metal is all about?).

This all sits very close to the surface for me, what with the recent arrests of some local Muslims apparently intent on doing massive, grievous harm. Our nation's authorities are going out of their way to say this plot was in no way "religiously motivated", so I'm compelled to see-saw in the other direction. I figure you can be a Muslim, a Christian, a Jew, a Buddhist -- or, for that matter, an environmentalist, an animal-rights activist, yea even a Norwegian Black-Metal guitarist -- and be desirous of someone else's violent, Apocalyptic confrontation with "reality". Impatience and religious certitude will get you to that spot very quickly.

Perhaps this is just my impatience with the impatience of others, but I stare at this foot of mine that looks so normal and yet gives me such grief, and I get to wondering: why can't these personal apocalypses -- the twinge in the ankle, the lumps beneath the skin -- be enough? Attend to them in your own life and the lives of others if you want to be any good in this world, and give the doom and gloom and the violent conversion stories a break. See if that doesn't bring about a wee "singularity" of sorts.

But what do I know? Maybe you're still impatient. Fine, then: bang your head and wave the horns. Just please wear earplugs. As for me, I'd like to think I'm at my best when I take myself way too seriously and possess an impish sense of humour, so today when I can take a break from my gloriously unselfish behavior, I'll be watching Metal: A Headbanger's Journey and Why Should The Devil Have All The Good Music?

Oh, and one more thing: the actual "number of the Beast" is 616.


Saturday, June 03, 2006

Five Fave Crime Writers

Gideon Strauss ennumerates his five favourite crime writers. Nifty concept -- here are mine, in ascending order:

5. James Lee Burke -- best known for his Dave Robicheaux novels, set in New Orleans, but he's written other delights as well. It doesn't matter how he plays with geography or history, though: inevitably the story is about a Catholic recovering alcoholic with anger managment issues. It's all good, as far as I'm concerned.

4. Michael Connelly -- his Harry Bosch novels are compelling police procedurals, but for genuine crackerjack thrills head for his one-offs: Chasing The Dime is especially good.

3. Ian Rankin -- I just love the way Rebus gets beat up. It's no wonder he's so fond of single malts!

2. Richard Stark's (or Donald Westlake's) Parker Books -- discovered rather circuitously: I got enough of a kick out of Mel Gibson's bug-eyed Parker in Payback, so I sought out the John Frankenheimer/Lee Marvin original, Point Blank. Whoah, baby! Marvin sold me on Westlake, so now I'm scrounging used bookstores for Parker.

1. George Pelecanos -- straight-ahead prose, with two noteworthy narrative innovations: 1) he supplies a musical soundtrack that sends me directly to eMusic (or That Other On-line Vendor of Tunes Which Shall Remain Nameless); 2) he has patiently established a cast of characters who run in and out of each other's event horizons. I cannot overstate just how impressive this last feat is. Instead of betting the farm on one central character who gets hit in the head with a lead pipe every book, Pelecanos gives the reader a rotating cast subject to real-life trauma. Consider me hooked for life.

Update: wup -- looks like GS has added some musings on the theological appeal of said writings. Fast work!

Whisky: Reloaded

I'm back in action with a snazzy, quiet new box and a monitor that takes up a tiny fraction of the space my last one occupied. For the moment, I'm having some fun giving Windows XP the test-run, but it's only a matter of time before it gets bogged down by the muck and mire that floats around this wonderful internet of ours, so I'll be making the switch back to Ubuntu in the next day or so. (The Bro has given the latest Ubuntu incarnation a good run, and reports that the graphical system delivered a spectacular, and thoroughly unwelcome, crash -- a misadventure that would make a good update on the blog, I'd think (hint, hint).)

While off-line, I cleared up some of my reading projects, and added a few new titles to the pile. On a whim, I picked up this extended interview with U2's Bono -- a perverse whim, I'll admit: it's been a long time since I bothered reading any of his magazine interviews, and an even longer time since I've listened to his music. I enjoyed the book, though. He's a man of no small intelligence and nearly unassailable charm, and it's a treat to hear his reflections on music, the (mostly) fun life of a rock star, and the continent of Africa.

He talks a lot about Africa. Michka Assayas is close to Bono's ideal interviewer: a French agnostic who gently but persistently probes the artist on ambiguities and challenges him on potential contradictions, particularly when it comes to Africa. The two have a respect and appreciation for each other, and it makes this format work. The book arrived at a particularly good time for me, as I try to wrap my head around some of the concepts my wife juggles in her work with African agencies (her recommended reading is Out Of Poverty - And Into Something More Comfortable by journalist John Stackhouse).

It doesn't make me reach for the old U2 CDs, though, and I'm starting to wonder what that's all about. Near as I can tell, it's a voice issue, and Bono's falls hard on my ear. Similarly, Neil Young and Van Morrison. Elvis Costello. Ron Sexsmith. And now I can't help but get nervous. I mean, Ron Sexsmith -- how is this possible?! It wasn't so long ago when I thought Other Songs was about as perfect a CD as you could get. At this rate I'll be reduced to playing Dinah Jams 24/7. There are worse fates, I suppose.