Friday, September 29, 2006

Reconvening With The Monks of Fall

I'm off to the Kawarthas to meet with my mates and slurp single malts. It's been 18 years and counting with this crew. The day someone scraped together the lucre for a bottle of Lagavulin was quite the revelation. Up to that point we'd been scruffy beer drinkers, who occasionally dipped into bourbon or blended whiskies that had a nose reminiscent of unleaded petrol.

But Lag! Oh! Oh my!!

I have cooled on Lag, since then. There's just too much contained in that tiny little glass. And it's bloody expensive. A bottle of Laphroaig is less than half the price, and its remove from Lag is not significant enough (to this aging palate, at least) to merit the expense. Last year our hurtin' Albertan introduced us to Bowmore Darkest, which was the hands-down highlight of the weekend. Not that different in price from Lag, but its pleasures were so much more nuanced than Lag's punch-in-the-gut.

But I ramble. I ramble because this year I have nothing to read to these jokers. I ramble because I have nothing more to say. So here's a picture of what I did on my summer vacation:

That's me, up in Northern Alberta. I pitched in with my brother in law and his friends to assemble a grain bin. The scene wasn't exactly raising the barn for Kelly McGillis (but then I'm not Harrison Ford -- and thank God for that!), but it was an incredibly satisfying day.

Alright, back on Monday. (Hey, Pattie -- we call ourselves The Nick Adams Society!)

Thursday, September 28, 2006

Crossing That Fine Line Between Clever And Stupid -- In The Wrong Direction

"Dad, this music is kind of dumb." This was my older daughter's solemn pronouncement upon being exposed to ... The New Pornographers. And I had to agree with her. I don't know what the fuss over them is all about. To my ears, this group operates under the conviction that Men Without Hats left a musical legacy that should be extended the same way Green Day extended the Buzzcocks' -- a dubious proposition at best.

I bought TNP's critically lauded Electric Version, confident that so many critics singing from the same page must surely be right. I regretted my purchase the second I slipped the CD into the player. I played it a half-dozen times after that, hoping I'd change my mind. Nope.

That was the same summer I bought the White Stripes' Elephant. There was no denying Jack White's blues ability as a guitar player. As a lyricist, though ... well, I didn't understand what he was on about, and he had a prissy mode of delivery that didn't inspire me to dance so much as it inspired me to try the "rope-a-dope" (all the moreso after I caught wind of White's charming behavior). Tsk -- it's not good for a man my age to experience violent impulses while listening to music. The better tack is to just side with my daughter: this music is kind of dumb.

The problem for both these groups, as I see it, lies in the "kind of". I'd say the music and the lyrics aren't dumb enough. It is a fine line between clever and stupid, and these tossers are too clever by half. If you want to see my daughters get up and dance with abandon, throw on some Van Halen (David Lee Roth-era -- of course). Throw on some ABBA. Throw on some Scissor Sisters. Music that's cheerful, preening, and dumb dumb dumb -- that's what gets the feet moving.

That's what gets our family up from the dinner table and jumping around the kitchen.

Wednesday, September 27, 2006

Progress Report, Take 2

This darn formatting is trickier than I expected! The downside to self-publishing is you've got no-one to blame but yourself when you don't meet your own deadlines.

Cowtown Pattie wondered if there were illustrations. I said, no, nothing beyond the cover. Then I got to thinking. Then I got to thinking out loud. Now I'm happy to report that the talented and lovely Jessica D'Eall seems game to throw in some illustrations, too. She's also considering giving this blog-thang a try -- excelsior, say I!

My next (not-to-be-trifled-with) deadline: that classy little holiday we've come to know as Halloween!

Tuesday, September 26, 2006

Why We Blog

Picking up the meme as generated by Prairie Mary, and expanded by Darko, I'll give the theme of Why We Blog a light twist and articulate three instances of how blogging has added value to my life:

1) It's made me funnier. I won't vouch for any improvement in my personality, but my wife recently commented that my writing has become funnier since blogging.

2) I've been introduced to the best books, thanks to blogging. People have left some terrific, and decidely off-beat reading suggestions in the comments. I've also picked up a few unexpected literary treasures by following links to this blog and reading blogged reviews of books the mainstream press can't be bothered with.

3) It has expanded my conversational range.
Again: where would we be without blogger comments? I've had no lack of thought (and even action) provoking dialogue with people who were absolute strangers just three years ago. When it comes to friendships, we do what we can with what we have -- and blogging has opened up the range of possibilities in personally beneficial ways.

So why do you blog?

Friday, September 22, 2006

Book Cover, Rough Sketch

Here's a rough sketch of the cover for my forthcoming book -- artistry courtesy of the talented and lovely Jessica D'Eall:

Walking, Early Fall

I've cautiously returned to my walking regime. My ankle seems to have returned to me.

The once gray fields now have a blanket of corn - this was the same field in April. Actually, this photo embodies some of my frustation with digital cameras: depth of field (heh) isn't a variable I can play with. Although, maybe I can - the camera has two-dozen settings I could experiment with, and the aperature might well be among them. Still, one year ago I would have taken a more visually pleasing shot with my trusty (clunky) old single lens reflex camera. This looks a little flat.

Here's a calendar-type shot of the old foundries:

We have a municipal election coming up. Looks like "Grant" took hold of the coveted intersection:

There's more, further up ahead, but that will have to wait for another posting.

Thursday, September 21, 2006

A Lovely Day For Linking

Slate compares and contrasts the four(!) different national versions of television's The Office, here. I was aware of the British and the American versions, of course, and generally preferred the original over the US ... but darn it if Steve Carrell doesn't get under a person's skin!

Ah, Searchie -- how lovely are the feet of them that bring comfort and company to the elderly and infirm. Still, however fond I may be of the Vans, slouchy boots and FM pumps, the Crocs remain an aesthetic lapse in the eyes of this beholder (they remind me too much of the "jellies" of Cyndi Lauper's day).

But who am I to pass aesthetic judgement? It's almost Friday, and thank God The Tiki Bar Is Open!! "Donn Beach and Trader Vic, it turns out, were the Stanley and Livingstone of the mid-century American jungle, blazing a trail deep into the world of pop fantasy and artifice from which America has yet to fully emerge." This (via ALD) has got me singing John Hiatt's delirious ode to a rippin' good bender. Hiatt takes care to point out that he remains a recovering alcoholic:

I know a drink ain't no solution
Haven't had one in 17 years
But if the Tiki Bar was close tonight
Well, I might just disappear!

Readers are encouraged to purchase the track at the MP3 venue of their choice, and get drunk on the music.

Tuesday, September 19, 2006

Progress Report

I have formatted the majority of my book - most of the stories are in their place, awaiting two more rounds of proof-reading. I've been fiddling on one final story, and am still not sure if it's worthy of inclusion. Also, my artist is working hard on the cover (which is taking a very delightful direction, I think). I will be posting an advance jpg of the cover in the next week or two.

And be assured I will do my utmost to make A BIG NOISE when it is available for purchase - still on schedule for the end of this month. Thanks to all of you who have been asking about it - especially you, DV.

It's the end of fiction as we know it (and I feel fine)!

“I wonder if the fiction market isn't in decline,” I said. “In fact, I wonder if the internet hasn't altered our taste for fiction to the point where we don't much care for it anymore. We read what we read on the internet, 99.9% of which is non-fiction — blogs, editorials, grand theories regarding entertainment, politics, religion, society. We entertain these theories during our daylight hours, and if they're provocative enough we approach the bookstore and buy something that either proves or disproves what we've been thinking about. Every day we willingly expose ourselves to a deluge of 'information'; a deluge unlike anything any previous generation ever had to process. Now we're text-messaging, e-mailing, downloading our music to provide us with a 24-hour soundtrack. We don't 'use' the novel to make sense of contemporary experience, the way we used to. 'Theory' appears to be more immediate and more dynamic than narrative. It also appears to offer limits. Fiction writers typically hate limits, but society craves them, so we turn to non-fiction. We are becoming a post-fiction society.”

This is the sort of thing you can expect me to say after I've enjoyed a dram or two of whisky. At the moment, however, I was sipping nothing more intoxicating than Corr's Black Cherry Soda. Mind you, this was at the Centre Street Deli, where I was also eating a plate of delicious smoked meat and savouring an enormous gherkin pickle. Rapturous food can inspire rapturous opinions; normally I'd blame the pickle, but that meat was succulent stuff.

Today, in the sober morning light, I sought confirmation in the bestseller lists. Having contributed to the Globe & Mail's statistics pool in years past, I deliberately avoided them along with other newspaper and magazine lists. The word “blindsided” was coined for just such institutions and their blinkered lists — the enquring reader is better off consulting the horoscopes page for an accurate take on what people are reading. Instead I went directly to to see what their bestsellers were.

As of 10:15 a.m. (Central), the number one bestseller is Freakonomics, followed by the memoirs of our former Governor General, Adrian Clarkson. So far, so good. Then we have Spellbound by Nora Roberts and Moral Disorder by Margaret Atwood — fiction, both. Number Five is Al Gore's An Inconvenient Truth — non-fiction again (hooray!). The next five are Reading Like A Writer (literary non-fiction), You: The Owner's Manual (self-help), Inside My Heart (memoir, self-help), Wayne Johnston's The Custodian of Paradise (fiction) and How To Win Friends And Influence People (I can hardly believe my eyes, but there you go: self-help again). Eight of the next fifteen entries are fiction, so IF this brief glimpse is in any way indicative fiction is still a healthy, selling genre—but in the minority. Of the top 25 titles, 11 are fiction (I include Paulo Coelho's The Alchemist, which exists in a dodgy category all its own — New Age self-help, dressed up as a cheerful novel).

If I look at my yearly list of books read, non-fiction is indeed gaining traction, but I'm still chiefly drawn to fiction. However, here is how my taste in novels has shifted: I used to seek out the “hip” first, then the literary, followed by genre fiction. These days genre comes first, literary second, and hip last. I am drawn, first and foremost, to stories involving easily identifiable characters struggling toward an easily identifiable conclusion. I am suspicious of “hip”, and judging from my nephews and nieces, so is the younger generation. Have today's Twenty-Somethings latched on to a novel the way I and my peers did to Coupland's Generation X, back in the day? Correct me if I'm wrong, but I very much doubt it. And as for the literary novel, my impulse is to read historical literary fiction before I pick up something that aspires to being contemporary. Again, if this list is any indication I am not alone.

“You just might have something there,” said my friend. She'd started the conversation by confessing her own waning interest in fiction. “Why don't you put it up on your blog and see what other people think.”

Alright then: what do you think?

Monday, September 18, 2006

WORLD-WIDE Release of Get Smart on DVD!! Alright: North American release? Would you believe...

It looks like Time-Life is finally releasing Get Smart! (my second-favourite childhood show) on DVD -- all five seasons at once, plus extras, packaged in a nifty "collector's" phonebooth (suitable for collecting dust in the finest corner of your basement). Here's the promo:

Another exciting bit of news: if you buy it directly from Time-Life, you will receive this package one year in advance of its release date for stores.

In the not-so-exciting department: this offer is available to US residents only. Hey, I thought Brian Mulroney signed my country away in order for me to capitalize on American goodies like this DVD set! I should have known something was rotten...

Addendum: according to the folks at, Canadians can pre-order the set via (non-shoe) phone, at 1-800-950-7887

Friday, September 15, 2006

"A Long Line of Nüscht": Vocation, Identity, Heredity

“That should keep you busy!” So said the Post Office Lady, as she handed me my latest Amazon order. I laughed, and went on my way. I know what’s going on. There are quite a few “welfare dads” in our town; you could characterize their lifestyle as indolent, if not idyllic. The implication being made is that my own lifestyle differs chiefly in the latter quality.

Always with the Post Office Lady. Someday I’ll puff myself up and make a big, maudlin deal about the outrageous implications behind her jibes. Or maybe not. It’s fun to just wink and make like she doesn’t know the half of just how deliriously luxurious my lot in life has been. Which is true, as far as it goes.

At this point it is tempting for me to construct a line of distinction between me and the welfare dads, but honestly: there but for the Grace of God go I. And I don’t mind the local ribbing. I’d like to think my presence in this town is a pleasant bit of mischief. The Post Office Lady takes note of all the Amazon packages. The local women see me tending to my daughters, or hanging wash on the line, and nudge their hubbies in the ribs. The hubbies snort, and mutter, “He’s gotta be gay.” I give everyone a cheerful wave. They wave back. It’s all good.

The locals I can handle. My ancestors, on the other hand, are among the Great Cloud of Witnesses. And there are days when I could swear I feel them breathing down my neck.

My mother’s father was a pastor. He made a point of telling us grandchildren he had once been a very successful farmer, but he’d left all that behind when he answered The Call. My mother tells us, with unmistakable displeasure, that he habitually followed that “call” and dragged the family with him into one sorry parsonage after another. He was a skillful carpenter, though, and my impression from my mother is that he and my grandmother would make a good go of the parsonage they were in. He was also an understated people person, and once everything (including the congregation) had more or less settled into an attractive spot, he’d swap situations with a pastor who was struggling in the woods, further afield. My mother was the oldest in the family, and has a keen recall of some of the marital strife this brought on.

John Prine’s carpenter-Grampa “built houses, stores and banks”; mine built houses, churches and apartment buildings. Those apartment buildings were important to him  he was a landlord, too. More than once I overheard him tell my father those buildings stood as proof to the businessmen in our community that he wasn’t “just” a preacher. My father didn’t think the businessmen were in need of any such persuasion, but then it might not have occurred to him that my grandfather was probably fishing for a little affirmation  from my father’s father.

My other grandfather was a banker. More accurately, he was a Credit Union manager, and he lived to see it become among the most successful banks on the continent. He came from a farming family, but as with most men of his era, he had a total disdain for blue-jeans. His gardening pants were dress pants that had seen better days, but didn’t look too wehrklempt.

He had a sunny smile and a wicked sense of humor  one I recall as being very Mennonite, taking enormous pleasure whenever some big-talker got put in his place. One anecdote he trotted out during the ritual family dinners regarded a pushy little loudmouth who was in the habit of bossing around his fellow workers, declaring that next to the boss-man, he was second-in-command. When the boss caught wind of this, he drove up and let the guy have it, declaring, “After me comes a long line of nüescht. Dann chemst du.” (A long line of nothing  then comes you.)

My siblings and I were the only grandchildren in the family, and he took us fishing (a high privilege, but I'll be happy if I never eat jackfish again). My last picture of him was taken on Boxing Day; he's with me and my brother, smiling and playing billiards in his basement. One hand is holding the cue, the other is uncharacteristically stuffed in his pocket. He had only partial use of that hand that day. He thought he might have suffered a stroke the night before. In fact, a tumor had grown in his brain, and he wasn’t going to live to see the summer.

I had thought the world of him before, but he was such a beautiful man those last months of his life. He loved giving stuff away, and signing cheques. The fields he owned he sold for a song to the farmer that was renting them. He was told of my plans to ride a motorcycle around the continent that summer, and let everyone know what a grand idea he thought this was. I dream of him every spring, when the snow thaws and the water runs off the fields into the ditch.

But, man: A long line of nüscht  dann chemst du.

There remains in me the deep impulse to prove myself to others that I’m not just … what? … the stay-at-home parent, the scribbler, the “kept man” who does a little housework, but otherwise fiddles and blogs. And there is an impulse on my father’s side of the family to locate and appreciate, albeit ironically, those members of the family tree whose earthly achievements are suspect. An overwhelming “work ethic” dogs this family. So does depression.

Unlike my mother’s father, I am not a carpenter. I once accepted a friend’s invitation to help him finish his basement. When everything was done, my friend clapped me on the shoulder and informed me that God had blessed me with two left hands.

I am not a farmer. When I was in my teens, my parents arranged for me to summer at my aunt and uncle’s farm. I hope I helped out a bit, but the older I grew, the more I realized just how hopelessly out-of-sync my thinking was with even the most casual farmer.
Protected prairie grasslands: all that arable soil, going to waste.
I am not a banker or a businessman  I don’t have the flint for it. We’ve got a neighbor using our shed for storage. I should be charging him rent, but I can’t bring myself to do it  he’s fallen on hard times. He’s also amazing with drywall and plaster, and has done some terrific work in our house. He’d like to think we’re pretty much square, but anyone with the slightest business-sense would vehemently beg to differ.

I’m told one of my forebears (five generations down the line, I think) was widely regarded as a lost cause. He married a real go-getter, though, and she single-handedly kept their ever-growing family clothed and fed. The locals, and eventually his own children, referred to him as “Fühla” (take a wild guess what that might mean). He had no trade to speak of, but Mennonite historians love him. Apparently he walked around town, took note of what was going on, then went home and wrote it all down in his journal.

The current guess is he was depressive, but I wonder. He and his wife had an average of one child a year for twelve years  did the sun only shine for the two of them once a year? Did he not make his wife laugh? Is it possible the two of them recognized and chafed at the absurd “Dann chemst du” posturing of their peers? Or could it be the only thing he was confident of was his ineptitude?

His children became disdainful  of that I am painfully aware.

There is laundry to be done today, along with dusting and vacuuming. Throw in the after-school homework agenda, and supper (roasted chicken with wild rice and vegetables)  along with this posting  and I’ve just managed to fill my day.

But I’ll be wondering if it isn’t more important to prove myself to my children than it is to prove myself to myself  or others. For better and for worse, it will be my children who return the favor.

Thursday, September 14, 2006

Who was that "Daddy"?

The loudest of our local TV stations, when it isn't attempting to set a new trend (or just take the credit for doing so), resorts to running the same Made-In-Canada movies again and again and again. I'm not sure if this is their way of flouting the CRTC, or subverting it, or subverting viewer expectations. Most likely it's just a lazy way of being "bad".

Anyhow, they've made a habit of airing Ron Mann's Comic Book Confidential -- a documentary about (you guessed it) comic books. It comes up during the most unexpected times. I'll be surfing channels, too bored to rouse myself, too tired to read a book, and *click*: there it is. And I'll watch it. Again.

Mann shot and framed some terrific material in that film. Will Eisner, Jack Kirby, Harvey Kurtzman -- so many of these comic book pioneers come across as likeable and intelligent. We also meet Spider-Man creator Stan Lee, and he comes across as likeable, intelligent -- and (dare I say?) just a little sleazy. And then Mann slips into the underground, where sleazy is a given, and intelligent and likeable is not. Throw in a soundtrack courtesy of Shadowy Men On A Shadowy Planet (Dick Dale's jittery progeny, who brought you the themesong to The Kids In The Hall) and it makes for a real Garbage Pail Kids-type treat.

Mann's latest flick is Tales of the Rat Fink -- an homage to the founder of hot-rod low-brow culture, Ed "Big Daddy" Roth.

Roth is one of those characters who existed on the frame of my frame of reference. My youngest uncle, who was finishing high school and (naturally) still lived with my grandparents when I was a tot, assembled the Revell models Roth designed. And the man himself always seemed to be leering at me from the corners of my shabbiest comics. I didn't know who this guy was, but he was certainly a curiosity. "Big Daddy" Roth was one of those personalities I'd always meant to Google, just to learn his story.

Ron Mann saves me the trouble, and (this guy assures us) does an entertaining job of it, too. Based on their looks alone, I'd say these are talking cars with a more provocative point of view than the last ones had. This flick just might require me to step into my (decidedly non-Rothian) Echo, and make a trip into the city -- looking like a bum and listening to The Sadies, of course.

All Too Credible Violence

Douglas Coupland published Hey Nostradamus!, a novel set in Vancouver with roots in the high-school massacre at Columbine, Colorado, and a British reporter who interviewed him wrote that murder of the kind he described was just not credible in Canada, putting Canadians in the untenable position of having to say, Hold on, man, what about Clifford Olson, Karla and Paul -- or, just down the road, Robert Picton and his gruesome pig farm? Noah Richler, This Is My Country, What's Yours?

Yes, and now Montreal -- twice.

Wednesday, September 13, 2006

Small "L" Liberalism & The Novel

And I started thinking, What if this guy is right? I mean, if I'm really a liberal, shouldn't I be questioning eeeeeeeeeeverything? Spalding Gray, Swimming To Cambodia.

Gideon Strauss asks me if I think the novel is an inherently liberal medium. Rather than admit I didn't know what he meant, I formed a hazy, media-infused impression of what (picture Jimmy Swaggart in Full-Contempt-Mode) “liiiii-bruuull” embodied. Then I retreated to my bookshelves to see if there weren't novels that epitomized its opposite. Mystery novels, I thought, were probably as conservative in nature as you could hope to find: seeking and singling out the individualist transgressor, and momentarily returning society to its functioning, collective ideal.

Then I considered the novelists who have made headlines in the last five years. Tom Wolfe, Martin Amis – even Michel Houllebeqc, with his pornographic ravings – seem to be begging for some restraining order that might return Western Civilization (or maybe just the poor, tormented author) back to the loving fold of the Great Chain of Being.

Of those three, I have to admit Wolfe is a guilty pleasure. His public posturing irks me to no end, and I love it when James Wood tears a strip off him. But I gobble up his novels – sorry! And even though I long ago wearied of Amis's fiction (sorry, again!), his criticism is among the clearest, most insightful and delightfully written (highly recommended). And I'd rather read about Houllebecq than force myself through another of his novels – tedious adolescent stuff, that.

When I considered how guarded I was in declaring the merits of those fiddlers three, and my impulse toward silence when it comes to hefty discussions surrounding the pleasures of the mystery novel, I thought, “Maybe I'm a liberal?” I recalled the above moment of self-doubt in Spalding Gray's monologue, which occurs after he's endured a conversational barrage from a psychotic coke-head who claims he's in charge of a nuclear silo, then proceeds to outline how a nuclear exchange could be won, and what an improvement that would be on life in general. Everything Gray would like to believe about humanity is turned inside out like a frog in a bio-lab, and he momentarily wonders if this guy's hideous take on things is accurate. Of course, he gives his head a shake and declares, no: this is wrong, wrong, wrong.

And this brought to mind a passage from John Gardner's The Art of Fiction:

No ignoramus – no writer who has kept himself innocent of education – has ever produced great art. One trouble with having read nothing worth reading is that one never fully understands the other side of one's argument, never understands that the argument is an old one (all great arguments are), never understands the dignity and worth of the people one has cast as enemies. Witness John Steinbeck's failure in
The Grapes of Wrath. It should have been one of America's great books. But while Steinbeck knew all there was to know about Okies and the countless sorrows of their move to California to find work, he knew nothing about the California ranchers who employed and exploited them; he had no clue to, or interest in, their reasons for behaving as they did; and the result is that Steinbeck wrote not a great and firm novel but a disappointing melodrama in which complex good is pitted against unmitigated, unbelievable evil.

For the moment, let's just tiptoe around Steinbeck's “failure” and focus on Gardner's creative imperative: walk two moons in your chosen enemy's moccasins before you commit his portrait to paper. Hey, if that's “liberal” I'd like to call myself one! In fact, I hope that's what I am when faced with argument: someone willing to accord worth to my adversary, and weigh the persuasive merits of their perspective.

Alas, it seems I'm somewhat off the mark when it comes to Gideon's question regarding liberalism and the novel. He wonders, “Is the novel in origin and essence liberal – that is, committed to the expression and exploration of freedom above all else?”


Um ... maybe? If you frame it that way, I have to wonder how the novel sets itself apart from narrative, or the printed word in general. The answer would probably be in the scale of its imaginative invitation. If so, the question is one of degree, and not overall effect: Augustine's account of stealing apples is as trenchantly evocative of our humanity as Rose of Sharon's perverse act of self-sacrifice.

But I'm also deeply skeptical when faced with any individualistic claim.

Perhaps the best thing for me to do at this point is concede that this is an Important Question, but one I will leave to the school of philosophy and literary theory. Theirs is a path I eschewed in my late-20s after wearying of the po-mo wonks who crowded the Halls of Academia. Does Reader Response Theory still turn the academic crank? Don't know, don't care – I've consciously chosen not to lose any more sleep over that bleak and charmless take on things, opting instead to exercise caution, ask for wisdom and proceed on intuition.

Hey, whattaya know: I just might be a liberal after all!

Tangential note: it gives me a cussed pleasure to see The Globe & Mail adhering to its short-sighted, skinflint on-line policy. They've removed their review of Noah Richler's This Is My Country, What's Yours?, and it's just as well. I appreciated reviewer Aritha van Herk's enthusiasm for the book, but wished she had run her piece through the word-processor one more time. Here is Brian Bethune's (more adroit) review for Maclean's.

Monday, September 11, 2006


In my penultimate year of high school, our class was required to fill out one of those computer-generated “tests” that helped determine your propensity for certain vocations. It was a lengthy and arcane bit of business, and when the results were in the two most highly recommended vocations for yours truly were: #1) Floral Artistry, and #2) The Military.

Both options presented some serious drawbacks for this all-too-hetero all-too-Mennonite ploughboy. Fortunately(?), the test required an appointment with our school guidance counsellor, so I shuffled to his office with these results in hand, very much intent on getting genuine guidance.

He was a genial, relaxed man with a handlebar mustache. As we talked, he propped his feet on his desk and smiled at me. The first thing he said about my test results was, “These things aren't definitive in any way. At their best, they might provide some unusual possibilities you might not have considered before.” He looked at me, his smile very much fixed in place and growing creepier with each passing second.

“I dunno, man,” I said. “I mean, florist or soldier – either one seems like a stretch.”

That creepy smile. The feet on the desk, hands folded across his belly – and silence. “Your father's a pastor,” he finally said. “Have you given any consideration to the ministry?”

I stammered and said, No, not really.

“Well,” he said, his smile sinking deeper, taking on a knowing quality, “maybe you just haven't received The Call yet.”

This was a Mennonite high school I attended, and my father was a known entity. Even so, I was gobsmacked. A quarter-century later, I'm still non-plussed by his assertion. Of course, it could simply be a matter of my not receiving The Call ... yet.

Here's where I currently work:

Also here:

At Cafe Rhythm & Books I cook and serve the weekend breakfast menu (chiefly baked french toast, and an assortment of crepes). I do some organizing of the book selection. I'm hoping to launch my own book here, next month.

I'll leave it at that, for now. Lately I've been thinking a lot about vocation, so I'll try to hash out some of what I've considered, particularly as it relates to genealogy and social expectations (subjects with which I have more than a passing familiarity). And today, the fifth-year anniversary of when so many of our citizens were killed at their place of work, seems like an appropriate time to start.

Friday, September 08, 2006

Creaky Franchises, Take 2

Just before the summer got underway, the George Lucas Empire announced that due to public outcry it would condescend to releasing the original (as opposed to the digitally fiddled-with) Star Wars movies. Here was our chance "to see the pioneering, if dated, motion control model work!" -- the actual words from the Lucasfilm press release.

Gee, is it me, or does the punch taste funny?

Despite my hallowed estimation of this film, I haven't bothered to reach for my credit card. Original or remake, the truth is, I don't really care. I've seen the messed-with versions a couple of times. Some of the changes are, I have to admit, improvements (the dogfight over the Death Star now has narrative sequencing that doesn't rely on the audience's instinctual "filling in"); some of it is egregious (I belong to the "Han shoots first" camp); most of it is banal. Whatever. Over the years I've seen both "versions" so many times, it no longer matters which one is playing.

Now this, on the other hand, is exciting news! The original Lego Star Wars game had more excitement, more surprises, more thrills, more humour and more emotional content than the movies it was based on. Graphically speaking, it represented the best that a video game can be by coming up with a wholly unique aesthetic (everything is Lego!) and not trying to ape "reality". Its playability walked a fine line between being a quick study, while still representing enough of a challenge to retain interest. This was one of those rare games I played from beginning to end, figuring out all the puzzles and seeking out all the surprises and bonuses (something I don't usually have patience for). It's been a year, and the girls are still playing the game.

So, yes, once again I've dropped plastic for Lucas. I'm looking forward to features like swapping heads with bodies, building my own landspeeder, etc. Typical Lego stuff, in other words, the nature of which gets me wondering: why doesn't Lucas just make Star Wars public domain? In the case of the movies, this might allow a guy like me the choice to keep the tidied-up dogfight, but switch back to Han shoots first.

And why stop there? Why not make up your own aliens, or swap heads and bodies? Why not (gasp!) mess with the storyline? We might finally get a Star Wars product that does better than trade on creaky nostalgia, something that generates actual interest and excitement. Something, in other words, that recaptures the spirit of the original.

Other gaming news:
WIRED has an uncharacteristically dire piece on Playstation 3 and the future of Sony, here.

Thursday, September 07, 2006

Canada & The Literature of Landscape

If you're a Canadian, it's almost certain you've committed yourself to a long-distance relationship at some point in your life. You can't be a Canadian and escape this fate, because you can't be a Canadian and escape the fact of its enormous distances. In my Winnipeg high school, I had a friend who fell hard for a girl in Thompson. Two cities in the same province, connected by a single, uninterrupted highway – pretty straightforward, right? Now go to Google Maps and take a look at what they encountered whenever they got itchy for a little face-time.

I once fiddled with a short story about a guy from Toronto in love with a girl from Calgary. They squeeze sugar from the phone for a couple of months, until he can't take it anymore. He quits his job and climbs into the car, but not before one final phone call to his sweetheart. He begs her to put on exactly the same outfit she was wearing the last time they were together; he'll do likewise, in an effort to meet at the common ground of shared memory.

So he drives through the Canadian Shield, and the Prairie Grasslands, and finally into the Alberta Foothills, thinking all the time of this woman, her complexities, her beauty, her foibles, the conversations that connected and the ones that didn't. When he finally arrives in Calagary, she opens the apartment door, dressed in the agreed-upon outfit. But she's had a hair-cut, and that's change enough to puncture his fantasy life and end the relationship.

Distance accounts for just about everything in Canada. And that is the chief reason why I can't wait to tuck into Noah Richler's This Is My Country, What's Yours? A Literary Atlas Of Canada. I caught precious few snippets of the CBC radio series that laid the groundwork for the book (and until I can claim it in my taxes, I can't quite justify the $$ for the CDs, available here (scroll down to A Literary Atlas Of Canada ($100 for all 10 shows))), but what I heard was immediately engaging, entirely entertaining and filled with worthy insights. There hasn't been an honest attempt at coming to terms with the scattershot CanLit scene, or The National Consciousness(es), since the tweed-and-patchouli days of Frye & Atwood. Those days are long gone, and if the early reviews are correct this effort by fils Richler is more than a rip-off "update". It has legs and intelligence, and it couldn't come at a better time.

Wednesday, September 06, 2006

Do The Duties of Fall Include Blogging?

The girls are back in school. For the next week or so, their sleep-time will be marked by passionate but inarticulate chatter, and (in the case of the youngest) grinding teeth. I'm not sure what marks my sleep-time; my wife couldn't tell you, either, because I fall asleep last and wake up first.

I've been mulling over several possible topics, including commentary on two DVDs: Metal: A Headbanger's Journey and Why Should The Devil Have All The Good Music. Both were provocative, amusing and unsettling documentaries looking at what sort of purposes extreme music serves. There's plenty to comment on, but at this moment I find I don't much care to. In fact, I think I got turned off.

For both movies, the subject quickly gains theological import. But instead of training the camera on a bunch of pious propeller-heads with vandyke beards who jump at the chance to pontificate at length, we're subjected to a bunch of pierced, tattooed and edgily-coiffed personalities who jump at the chance to pontificate at length. I know that's what I paid for, but the overall effect gets to be pretty dreary, particularly when said pontificators have difficulty mustering up a sense of humour. I'd say of the two, Why Should The Devil is more amusing -- both intentionally, and otherwise. Why's material also opens itself up to some genuine surprises, while the world of Metal is quite predictable (nice to see, though, that Ronnie James Dio has a penchant for collecting cute ceramic froggies). Perhaps if Metal's Sam Dunn is up for another round with the material, he might consider contrasting Wacken with Cornerstone, and his reactions to the two. That would certainly be of anthropological interest, I would think.

But, whatever. Back to the tasks of fall. Canning tomatoes. Draining, cleaning and putting away the pool. Sealing the house against winter-dazed flies and bees. Killing the hamsters.

That's right: killing the hamsters. The girls' dwarf hamsters have passed the two-year mark, and they are in sad, sad shape. Neither of them runs on the wheel anymore. One of them has probably suffered a stroke: it is verifiably blind, and can't seem to use the left side of its body. Combine this with the fact that it's been months since either of my daughters has played with the little blighters, and I think we're dealing with some genuinely miserable creatures. Time for humanity to assert some control over its lesser charges.

And so it is with heavy heart that I leave my computer and head for the back yard, where the end for these creatures awaits...

Friday, September 01, 2006

Choosing One's Seal

Tsk - DV lured me to this site, and now I can't decide which seal I like best - Sub-Genius:

Not "whisky", but still:

Of course, there's always Star Trek:

Ed Benedict, 1912-2006

"It's amazing to me that a guy with such a crusty exterior can make drawings this cute!" - John Kricfalusi

Hanna Barbera Flintstones stylist Ed Benedict passed away August 28, and Ren & Stimpy creator John Kricfalusi gives him a sweet and very touching send-off, here. (H/T: Drawn!)

"Me code pretty one day."

(With apologies to David Sedaris and my brother.)

Word-processing software came into its own just as I was figuring out how to construct an undergraduate essay (or a short story, for that matter). I can clearly recall the night my friend and his fancy-pants PC introduced me to WordStar 2.0. Kids these days, with their text-messaging and the Google and whatnot, have no idea what was required for undergraduate essay writing a mere (*cough*) 20 years ago.

First, there was the research: shlepping to the library and digging out the half-dozen available books on your subject matter, the contents of which your prof had no doubt committed to memory. There followed notes, and an outline (I'm sure the kids and I are on the same page, here – right?). When that was done, you wrote out your entire essay by hand. Once you had a suitably impressive sheaf of scrawled paper (scarred with pen-strokes, blots and revisions), you breathed a quick prayer that you'd met the word-count. Then you brewed up a fresh pot of coffee, unpacked the half-tonne "portable typewriter" your father used for his thesis, and got to work. Typing. Carefully. Retracing your steps and whiting out your errors, one freakin' letter at a time. Then typing over that, taking a deep breath, and proceeding with the rest of the paper in the absurd hope this never happened again. And that was just for the little mistakes. If you somehow missed a significant, last-minute revision (not an uncommon occurrence for me), you had to discard all the pages affected by the omitted text, and re-start from where you'd screwed up.

Now here was WordStar. With a feature called Spell-Check (sure, it was American english – but still). "Also," said my friend, "you can erase entire words just by hitting Control/Backspace, or Control/Delete." Entire words! "Or blocks of text, by highlighting, then hitting Delete." Blocks of text!! "There's also a cut-and-paste option..."

You've seen those kids who show up and play with your kids, then when it's time to go home, they don't want to leave your house without their favourite toy? Well...

I was still living at home, and attending the local university. My father had expressed interest in getting a home computer, so he and I hit the road and inspected one fly-by-night-PC-clone-outfit after another, until we were satisfied that Outfit X was the one for our purposes. He signed the cheque for it, we brought it home and I set it up.

The idea was, of course, that I would teach him how to use it. This was very much pre-Windows – the day of the DOS-line. Using the word-processor to type was no problem, but command lines were another matter. I can't remember just what we were trying to get the printer to do, but the image that sticks in my head is of my frustrated father, standing over the printer and pressing the "print" button, applying an ever-increasing amount of pressure on that one crummy button with every failed operation.

That image stays top-of-mind whenever I call my brother to bail me out of some mess I've made with Linux. So long as he's chuckling to himself after hanging up the phone, I'm sure I'm safe. But this leads me to...

Whisky Prajer: Corporate Shill

After some tweaking, I'm back on eMusic. From first-hand experience, I can confidently say to Linux users everywhere that the eMusic tar.gz patch is crap. Months ago – the salad days, when eMusic was offering 50 free downloads to new members – I screwed up every last free download figuring out how (not) to use it. So do not waste your time with it, go here instead and install this Java-based application. (But really: if you're a Linux user and you've come here for my expertise ... well, that's pretty sad.)

I still have extreme reservations about installing third-party software, so let's call this a “trial marriage”. All the same, eMusic's selection is keeping me on their side of the threshold. To name just a few examples of artists whose CDs are typically a costly affair (at least for Canuckle-heads like myself): Townes Van Zandt, Josh Ritter, Steve Forbert, The Drive-By Truckers, Joe Henry, Peter Case, Stacey Earle, Pierce Pettis, Kate Campbell, John Hiatt, The Be Good Tanyas, The Waiffs, Neko Case, (Stacey's lesser-known older brother) Steve Earle, The Legendary Shack-Shakers, Reverend Horton Heat, The Cramps, Moxy Fruvous .... (get me a paper bag, I'm hyperventilating!)

There's also some early Medeski, Martin & Wood (including this incredible song, from Friday Afternoon In The Universe) and a heap of jazz to be had (though I have to admit, I'm still a hold-out for the CD when it comes to jazz or classical – MP3 sound compression does not serve these genres well. I should also mention, eMusic's "Metal" selection leaves a lot to be desired (but perhaps that's just because metalheads are used to getting their music for free)).

Finally, they stock two artists whose work I promote out of a sense of mission: my man, Jason Ringenberg (whom I've written about here and here; it'd sure be nice to see the entire Scorchers' back catalogue made available, but that's beyond his control so I'm not holding my breath), and Mark Heard, whose Mosaics I somehow missed the first time around (more on that later, I suspect, considering my earlier recollection, here).

In the meantime, perhaps my brother has some thoughts re: Linux and the MP3 market?