Tuesday, October 31, 2006

Scary Monsters

On this, my self-imposed deadline, I'm taking a one-day break from the book excerpts. Those of you keeping track at home, contrast this...

...with this.

Alright, here's a scary Halloween story for you, from my grade three year — H73, as I like to call it. I dressed up and attended my classroom Halloween party. A classmate poked me in the eye (by accident). I broke his ukelele (on purpose). From there things steadily deteriorated. Finally, my teacher sent me home early.

This incident seemed to set the tone for the rest of the year. I was a scrappy, insolent, miserable little shit. The next year I was in a different school. It felt like a new start, and I took hold of it as such. Big improvement — live and learn.

But, like Augustine's pears, that broken ukelele haunted me into adulthood. Even in my 20s, I had nights of niggling self-reflection when I wondered if I shouldn't track the guy down, give him a phone call and apologize. It took me a while to realize chances were pretty good that this bust-up ukelele meant a great deal more to me than it ever did to him. This doesn't excuse what I did — given the chance, I'd still apologize. But it readjusts my perspective into something a little more realistic and gracious. This is what psychotherapy is for.

Up for more? Flash forward to the present Halloween. My older daughter expressed a desire to play ringette. My wife and I pointed out all the drawbacks — her ringette-playing schoolmates have already played on this same team for at least two years, she would have to hustle, fight disappointment at being the least capable player, etc. Yes, yes: she was good with it all. “Put me in, Coach!”

We shelled out for some used equipment, and attended the first practise. Walking into the change room was like walking through the Looking Glass: on the other side of the doorway was another Me I hadn't anticipated. I rolled up my sleeves and brusquely got my daughter suited up. All the while I made impatient, snippy little comments.

“Dad, my helmet's too tight.”

“Well, don't think you're getting a new helmet. Because you're not.”

Whaa... Where'd this monster come from?!?

I did my best to be civil toward the other ringette parents (many of them going out of their way to make our introduction to the sport as painless as possible).

“Dad, why are you wincing?”

“I'm smiling. Now shut up and pay attention to your coach.”

The practise began. As expected, my daughter was the least capable of the bunch. I braced myself for the hot tears of disappointment, and the long (but not unwelcome) journey of re-selling the equipment. The buzzer finally sounded at the end of the hour, and my daughter staggered off the ice. “So, my poor, tired dear,” I said, putting on (I hoped) a sympathetic face, “how was it?”

“It was great! I loved it!”

“Uh ... does this mean you want to stick with it?” My daughter looked at me with such total incomprehension, I suddenly realized that somewhere between getting out of the car and helping her off the ice, I had gone and decamped to another planet.

Later that night, I described the situation to my wife. “Well,” she said, “it's always hard to face a new situation and deal with new people.”

“It's not new,” I moaned. “It's painfully familiar. This is an awful, awful thing we're doing.”

“I don't understand,” she said. “Isn't it good to see our daughter commit to a challenge and follow through?”

“It's not!” I yelped. “It's terrible! We're all going to die and go to Hell!”

My wife got to her feet. “I think you need to talk to somebody else,” she said.

I called my brother, and within five minutes we had it all unpacked. Ringette — the equipment, the sport itself — is not that different from hockey. And my brother and I, like most middle-class Canadian boys in the 70s, were enlisted to play minor hockey. Unlike most middle-class Canadian boys in the 70s, we were never very good at it.

I played it for four years, and my skillsets experienced only modest improvement. During my fourth year, at 12 years old, I was elligible to try out for the All Star Team. The try-outs took place on a Saturday afternoon. I asked my buddy if he was going. “Of course,” he said. “Aren't you?”

I wasn't, but I thought it behooved me to shrug and repeat after him. “Of course,” I said.

My father was surprised to hear this, but he agreed to escort us. I suited up and joined the others on the ice. After some warming up, we gathered at one end of the arena to do sprints. The coach paired us up, readied his stop-watch, then sent the first pair on their way. It was immediately obvious who was fast and who was slow. If a kid was especially slow, the coach cleared his watch before the kid made it to the end of the lap and signaled for the next pair to get going. Being 12 year old boys, we hooted and hollered at these obvious losers.

Then it was my turn. I knew I wasn't the fastest guy there, but I was also confident I could beat the loser I'd been teamed up with. Wrong. He left me to skate through his slush. And the pair that came behind me were practically breathing down my neck.

The next test was backwards skating. I fancied myself a sturdy defenceman and determined that I would prove myself in this event. And I did. This time I got lapped.

When the following fall arrived and it was time to enroll for hockey, I asked my father if I couldn't take a pass this year. He considered it. “Alright,” he finally said. “I wasn't sure if this was something that needed a little exposure in order for it to 'take', but maybe four years is enough. I just wanted to give you boys a chance I never had.”

It beats me why his parents didn't see fit to indulge him on that front. I'm guessing he had a clear aptitude for hockey as a kid, because the adult evidence remains strong. When I was 18 and he was in his 40s, he could skate circles around me. I doubt any of that has changed now that I'm in my 40s and he's in his 60s.

Now it's my daughter skating circles around me. She soars up the ringette learning curve like a bird taking flight. She's cheerfully aggressive, and a quick study of the game. The apple has fallen closer to the grandfather's tree than it did to her father's, and the only one who is surprised by any of this is Yours Truly — a 41-year-old man who follows his nine-year-old daughter into the arena, and whinges and bickers like a seven-year-old boy. I ask you: just how scary is that?

Monday, October 30, 2006

Kissing Einstein

The paint on the wall had a smooth nubbly feel to it — very much the eggshell finish advertised on the paint can. Sometimes at night, in a fit of baffled sleeplessness, I’d find myself sitting up in bed, feeling the weight of my hair fall past my shoulders, the folds of my nightie being gently pulled to the mattress as I blindly reached out to the wall and passed my palm over the surface, fighting panic as I registered the silence and stillness of the house. The air seemed to be thicker, dense with hush, a loamy blanket woven from the entwined effluence of my parents’ sleep-controlled breathing. In the all-encompassing darkness, my room, the four walls, the house itself was now quite alien—cool, detached, an impassive monster that cared nothing for the playing, the talking, the quarreling, the little tasks and the daily rituals its occupants expended their lives on. These were the images that cluttered my dreams in exaggerated form, balloons inflated into bizarre shape by exotic gases.

Sunday, October 29, 2006

The Spirit of '76

The flashes snapped in earnest now, deluging him. This was it, he realized. Front-page news. He had aspired his whole life to maintain a Gary Cooper sort of levelheadedness, but no-one would ever confuse Tom Raith with Coop after this. Now he was Crazed Father of Killer Teen...

Saturday, October 28, 2006

Footnote To A Bread Recipe

It was a lousy year for farmers and a great year for lawyers. We took to sleeping on the living room floor, just to catch whatever breeze the night could muster. And she was quick to tell me: sweat from sitting around didn’t taste near as good as sweat from honest work.

Friday, October 27, 2006

Sound the Trumpets -- Pagination Solved

Immediate digression: I just dropped the younger off at her karate class. As I returned home, I walked past an old car, an 80s-era GM clunker. A father was trying to hustle his boys out of the back seat, the back door wide open. We nodded to each other, and I caught a whiff of the car's interior -- that old car upholstery smell -- and it was like I'd been thrown into the back seat of the family car of my youth (my grandfather's old Cutlass Supreme). Memories, emotional associations ... whoah.

Alright: everyone using Mac Write or MS Word legitimately wonders, "What's the big hairy deal with this guy and pagination?" Well, I did use Word at first, but after experiencing less-than-stellar results in layout, I decided it might be a good time to learn the fine points of Open Office Writer -- the Open Source word processor preferred by most Linux users.

I didn't think pagination would be one of those fine points, but that was just my own naivete. Are you a Word user, accustomed to just click - and - pasting your page numbers? If so, are you curious to see how the other "half" lives? This is probably the most straight-forward tutorial on Writer pagination. I read it and took a stab at it. I repeated the process. And did it again. And again. It took me several hours and some gentle clarification from senior members at the Open Office Forum, but by golly, I finally got it.

I can now see exactly what the "problem" was: I was searching for Microsoft answers. I thought, Page numbers -- how hard can that be? The difficulty with OOo Writer is that it's not simply a matter of inserting page numbers: as with most Linux ware, it's a matter of configuring your initial template the most efficient way possible. For a newbie like me, this meant I had to bone up on OOo Writer structure and start from the beginning.

Not so MS Word. MS allows you to dive right in, follow your whims and throw a page number wherever you please. Middle of the page? Go ahead! Top left on the next page? We can do that too!! If the result is a document cluttered with code, some of it conflicting, well ... that's what the 1-800 number is for.

ANYWAY, if I get a little time tomorrow afternoon to work on the doc, I do believe it will be ready for public consumption. In the meantime, in anticipation of the blessed event, I'll post a story title and a snippet of prose in the days leading up to release.

Thursday, October 26, 2006

Review of the Day

Or, "Again with the iPod!" Here is a quick look at Steven Levy's The Perfect Thing: How The iPod Shuffles Commerce, Cultures, And Coolness. My favourite quote from reviewer Alan Jacobs:

This tendency — mon iPod, c'est moi — is irrational, perhaps, but irresistible: having just noted the last ten songs played randomly by my own iPod, I am deeply disappointed to see one of U2's most famous songs there, and even a little annoyed that the Beck song it pulled up is one of his more accessible. I would feel much cooler if it had pulled out something by the Dirty Three, or Charlie Patton, or Yo La Tengo. But as things stand I feel ordinary. This little electronic gadget, like a pocket-sized Freudian analyst, has somehow revealed — worse, allowed me to reveal — my inauthenticity, as though its famously fingerprint-attracting polished metal back had lifted itself before my appalled face and cried, Behold!

Well, when you start talking french to your iPod (just don't call it "ee-POD"), you can be sure your reflection will come back looking a little grubby. Still, curiosity got the better of me. I might be telling tales out of school by revealing this list of ten randomly shuffled songs from my wife's iPod, but bear in mind I'm the guy who put them there:

Steely Dan, "Black Friday"
Sting, "The Lazarus Heart"
Carolyn Arends, "Travelers"
Lisa Stansfield, "Soul Deep"
Steely Dan, "Everyone's Gone To The Movies"
Los Lobos, "Kiko & The Lavender Moon"
Shelby Lynne, "Why Can't You Be"
Bonnie Raitt, "Nobody's Girl"
Talking Heads, "Cross-eyed & Painless"
Erasure, "Breath of Life"
Emmylou Harris, "O Little Town of Bethlehem"
Bruce Cockburn, "Call It Democracy"
Eurythmics, "Sisters Are Doing It For Themselves"
Lisa Stansfield, "Tenderly"
Steve Bell, "The Lord's Prayer"

Hey, that's not 10 -- whoops! That "shuffle" feature is more entrancing than the paper's daily horoscope. Apparently Levy is convinced the iPod is wired to give Steely Dan top billing, which the casual reader might think is borne out by this random list of mine ... or rather, "my wife's". But the Dan happens to be one of my wife's favourite groups (and, quite coincidentally, my all-time personal fave), so I went ahead and ripped and uploaded their whole darn ouevre. That's a lot of songs, so the real surprise is seeing two from Lisa Stansfield in such a short span -- there's only one album by her in this little gizmo.

Maybe when I've taken a break from numbering pages, I'll see if I can't somehow generate a random selection of my music on the PC (in the interests of fair representation).

Over at Slate: iPod, Schmypod "Levy, a senior editor at Newsweek, is a prime example of the boomers who think the iPod is revolutionary. But really, they're grateful, because it's made them feel cool again" - Michael Agger

Formatting A Book Vs. Solving The Rubik's Cube

I was probably 14 when I saw my first Rubik's Cube. I was with my family, visiting another family whose kids were the right ages for my younger siblings, but the wrong ages for me.

Here was this messed-up cube. Here was bored little me.

Over the next hour and a half I solved exactly one layer. Try as I might, I could not get beyond that. But I couldn't stop. One unusual shuffle of these little blocks, and ... hey, that's new! Am I closer?

Of course, then my brother's playmate showed up, grabbed the thing from my hands and had it done in two minutes. "It's easy," he said. "You've just got to remember where the center pieces are."

Oh yeah. Sure.

So here I am, nearly 30 years later, tweaking this and that on my book format, pulling out my hair when faced with a change I could never have predicted. But I can't stop. My most recent hang-up? I spent most of yesterday and am beginning today with headers, footers and pagination.

Ah, well. Be assured the colours are slowly being shuffled into their correct order. The final layer is just about there.

Wednesday, October 25, 2006

Review of the Day

Man, oh man: no-one reviews a book like Martin Amis. He writes each one as if he's been storing up everything in his life for just this occasion. Here he is on Bob Woodward's latest. Link from ALD.

Tuesday, October 24, 2006

Movies And Remembering

I'm one of those pissants who can't decide if I've deep-sixed a cautious admiration for Clint Eastwood out of envy, or if I'm legitimately peeved with the man (ditto Steven Spielberg). This morning I was all set to commit to the latter position, but then I read Cowtown Pattie's review of Flags Of Our Fathers. She closes with this:

When I saw
Saving Private Ryan, I had to take a quick exit mid-movie to the ladies room. In the dark hallway outside, I came upon two older Vets standing off to the side. The old soldiers were sobbing quietly and consoling one another. I was embarrassed to be, albeit innocently, intruding into their private grief. It is these experiences I will remember more so than the actual films.

Well ... now me, too. There is something about watching these films get made, then putting on my cap and jacket and paying money to see them, that niggles at me. Isn't it just a bit tawdry of me to watch this stuff from the safety of my theatre seat, and expect to feel anything (thrills! chills! spills!) other than profound shame? And how should we judge the artistic intentions and moral obligations of Eastwood and Spielberg? Or are "moral obligations" a nettlesome subject that is only applied to the money-paying movie goer?

Back when Saving Private Ryan and The Thin Red Line were in theatres, my mother asked my great-uncle, a veteran who served the complete European tour from Juno Beach to Berlin, if he was at all inclined to see these movies. "Nope. Not at all." How about returning to Europe, and re-visiting some of the places he'd seen as a young man?

He was quiet for a bit, then he said that back when the surviving members of his regiment were on the boat leaving Europe, they all watched as the shoreline receded into the gray water. One of them wondered aloud if he mightn't someday return to the place. Someone else piped up and said, "Why? To look for your conscience?"

And that was all my great-uncle was going to say about that.

Elsewhere: Eastwood's FOOF gets a "meh" from Reelfanatic.

Five Years of The iPod, And When Does The Honeymoon End?

Well ... it's hard to say. So far as this lonely consumer is concerned, though, it ended a few days ago. And not a moment too soon.

DV's words of caution were timely. Listening to 800 of your favourite songs in MP3 format is a treat -- so long as you're using those tiny little eardrum blasters that come with the iPod. If you graduate to a pair of Sennheisers, things are still okay. But try bumping this up to speaker-quality, and you will quickly find yourself disappointed.

I haven't yet tried playing the iPod through our home stereo, and I don't think I'll bother (I'm certainly not dropping another $100 on Apple's docking bay). I have, however, hooked the iPod up to a pair of computer speakers. The quality is not-bad, but it is definitely a distant, tinny echo of what the artists were hoping you'd hear. I am not by nature a stereophile, but listening to MP3s is the aural equivalent of grabbing orange rind in hopes of squeezing out a glass of orange juice. The soundfile is so tightly compressed that any manual attempt you make to broaden it (i.e., fiddling with the "bass" and "treble" knobs, or messing with your multi-channel equalizer) will only highlight the extremes and eliminate the middle. No thanks.

If you want the convenience of 1000-plus songs shuffled at random, or carved into playlists, you're better off hooking your PC up to your home stereo and playing OGG files ripped from your CD collection. As for car stereos, I'm guessing we're still a few years away from a satisfactory digital revolution.

Still, when it comes to digital music, iPod is indisputably its present, and quite likely its future as well. Here is PC World's Five Lessons For the iPod's Fifth Anniversary. The video link at the bottom -- Apple Introduces the iPod -- is nine minutes long, and quite instructive. Steve Jobs pretty much had the iPod's across-the-board appeal nailed down (even though his praise for the speed of Apple's file-transfer, and the iPod's "impressive" battery-life is a shade wide of the mark).

Monday, October 23, 2006

"Western" Novels Recommended by George Pelecanos

"I got my sense of story from watching old movies on television with my father and grandfather on Sunday afternoons. Westerns were my favorites and remain so to this day."

So says crime writer George Pelecanos, on this list of 10 Westerns To Read. This got me thinking of the Sunday afternoon movies of my youth. Most of them would bore a kid to tears, but Pelecanos is right on the money re: westerns I can easily recall the thrill of seeing Vera Cruz the Sunday I was hanging out with a bunch of my mates in someone's family basement. "Anyone else side with Curly?", quoth Burt Lancaster after he draws and shoots two armed men -- with his gun-hand behind his back. (Needless to say, the film doesn't have quite the same effect on an adult re-viewing it in '06 as it did on an 11-year-old in '76.)

Pelecanos has some interesting picks, including a few I'd never heard of. I'd read Shane by Jack Schaefer -- but Monte Walsh? News to me. Looks like I'll be paying a visit to the local library this afternoon, perhaps to compile a list of my own. Larry McMurtry's Lonesome Dove would, of course, be included. Any others?

The School Portrait

How is it that the School Portrait carpet-baggers are still in business? I would have thought with the advent of digital photography that these travelling portrait-mills would have dried up and blown away. These days everyone pulls out a camera the size of a deck of cards and takes endless pictures of their progeny. If you've loaded up your memory card with 300 pictures of your kid blowing bubbles, odds are at least one of them is a winner. Otherwise, it's best to pay real money for a real pro (like my friend here).

Now cut to the bleary-eyed technicians who set up shop in the school gymnasium. They've honed a half-dozen tricks to keep their subjects from bursting into tears. Beyond that, there's little they do that your nine-year-old couldn't master in the course of an afternoon. It's a simple, uncluttered frame. The subject chooses the background colour. Three or four shots are taken. So long as two of them don't look completely hideous, the procedure ends in three minutes. Two weeks later the parent is looking at proofs and the corresponding package prices, ranging from $10 for two 3X5s to over $100 for key-chains and wall-paper.

Part of their success is due to the agressive marketing these people do. Back when we first got home with our newborn, the hospital gave us a coupon-book which included a "free portrait" of our daughter in her first month of life. My wife went ahead and booked the shoot. The photographer drove up, spent 20 minutes with our baby, then disappeared from our lives.

A couple of weeks later, I saw a car parked in front of our house. The driver was anxiously finishing a cigarette. He splashed on some cologne, then exited the car carrying a leather briefcase. Our Salesman of the Baby Photos.

I would have preferred the smoker's fug to the "woodsy" scent he hoped would cover it. With my hand over my nose and mouth, I surveyed the shots he took of my daughter. Most babies don't smile until they're at least a few months old, but here was mine with the corners of her mouth turned up. She looked like a freak.

He went through the complete run of packages available for purchase. We heard him out, then I said, "I think we'll just stick with the free shot, thanks." I kept eye-contact with my wife; there was no doubt we were on the same page.

Now it was time to play hardball. These are professional quality shots, you could typically expect to pay blah blah blah. Sorry. We still weren't interested. Well, we came out here in good faith...

"Good faith"?!?

I presented the coupon and pointed out the "No purchase required" caveat, and said this was exactly the scenario he was facing.

"So you don't want quality pictures of your baby?" said he.

"Not of this quality," said I.

"Well, they're just going into the garbage, then."

"There's a can by the front door," I said. "You can drop 'em there if you like."

"Oh no," he snarled. "We're shredding these."

My daughter has framed this contentious shot. She has it up on her dresser. She thinks it is "darling".

And that's why I just signed a cheque for $14 (two 3X5s and 8 wallet-size). These outfits stay in business because they have currency with the kids. What's a parent to do?

Anyhow, here's a shot I took this summer. I call it, "Guess Who's Fate It Is To Play The Straightman?"

Friday, October 20, 2006

Say It Ain't So!

Via seratoninrain:

Your Hidden Talent

You are a great communicator. You have a real way with words.
You're never at a loss to explain what you mean or how you feel.
People find it easy to empathize with you, no matter what your situation.
When you're up, you make everyone happy. But when you're down, everyone suffers.

Blogger Beta: If I Knew Then What I Know Now

Blogger Beta -- the pros: it is unbelievably fast. The pictures, video clips, etc. that were taking so darn long to upload now zip in and take their place at the table. Much appreciated.

The cons: I can't post "WP" comments on non-beta blogs!! Cobbers, if it feels like I've been shunning you the last week or so, let me just say no, no, no -- anything but. Blogger claims it is working to amend this, but until then, I may have to start commenting "anonymously".

The Week That Was

My wife flies back from San Francisco today. My anxiety levels should return to their regular low boil in the next day or two. And who knows? I might just find myself back in a blogging mood.

The girls and I managed quite well during her week of absence -- this has been the year of travel for her, and we've figured out our routine for dealing with it -- but there was one night where everything came to a head. A local friend with older daughters came by and asked if we'd be interested in some stylin' hand-me-downs. I said sure, so a couple of bags were handed over. Some mechanical "barking" could be heard coming from one of the bags. "Oh," said my friend, "those are just some MicroPets my kids wanted to give away."

Note to self: do not wait until the bedtime hour to settle the issue of who gets which toy.

Tears were flowing, and there seemed to be no immediate way to staunch them. The younger daughter was in a white hot fury over the injustice of the paper-scissors-stone outcome; the older was feeling badly for her sister's misery; and I was having none of it, because it's all too common for the younger to pull this stunt in an effort to steer things her way.

I hope escalation is a tactic that works better for the nations of this beleaguered planet than it did for the three of us that night.

When exhaustion finally took its toll and the urchins were asleep, I retreated to the office and opened my e-mail. Let's see what we have here... It seems my wife and her co-worker are slumming it in Haight-Ashbury. Music pouring out of a theatre; they walk, and notice a back exit door is open, so they step in to see what's going on. Security stops them before they get anywhere.

"Who's playing?" they ask.

"Bob Dylan and The Kings of Leon," they're told. "Show's just about over."

"Oh," says my beautiful wife. "We'd love to see them. Any chance we could just slip in and watch from the wings?"

"Hmm," says security. "I'll have to check." He disappears. A few minutes later he's back. "Sorry," he says. "Can't do that. But go to the front door. Sometimes they just let people walk in for the end of the show."

They walk to the front. No dice.

And now I can thank Dylan's security team for keeping our marriage on an even keel, and more or less free from the weeds of envy. More or less.

Tuesday, October 17, 2006

Awake In The Dark: The Best Of Roger Ebert

I'm happy to hear Roger Ebert is on the mend. I've been perusing Awake In The Dark: The Best of Roger Ebert and wondering if this was to be his last will and testament, critically speaking. It's an entertaining collection of pieces worth the price of admission. But it does as much to highlight the inadequacies of film criticism under a newspaper deadline as it does Ebert's method of fusing a beer-drinker's sense of mischief with a particular aesthetic insight.

Consider The Best -- a section in the book devoted to that annual moment when his editors insist he name The Best Film Of The Year. Right at the outset Ebert acknowledges that this sort of all-or-nothing deadline has the effect of nudging him to put his critical weight behind a perceived underdog. One such "Year Of The Underdog" was 1980, when Ebert allocated Raging Bull to status of second banana. Ebert's "best" film of that year? The Black Stallion -- and we duly get the full review.

So, no, this does not quite qualify as "The Best of Roger Ebert" (it could qualify, though, as Roger Ebert's "best of"). Readers on the hunt of such are better off dipping into The Great Movies and The Great Movies II, and seeking used copies of A Kiss Is Still A Kiss. Or, better yet (because Ebert is an unfailingly generous interlocutor with others in his trade), throw a few bucks down for Roger Ebert's Book of Film -- essentially The Norton Anthology of Film Writing.

Ebert is also, of course, a public personality. We've seen him in tightly formatted exchanges with the late Gene Siskel or the recent Richard Roeper. The formula has been reduced to fast-food basics, so we don't catch too many glimpses behind the curtain anymore. But I do recall the show when Ebert reversed his thumb, admitting his originally dismissive review of Clint Eastwood's Unforgiven was the result of too many extraneous pressures being brought to bear (getting married the day of his viewing and review submission figured prominently as one such pressure).

Now, I happen to think Eastwood's Unforgiven is slightly-better-than-mediocre (as are most of Eastwood's films). But viewing and reviewing a film the day you're getting married?! How charming is that? Any film that gets a thumbs-up on the day of your wedding is going to be one hell of a film -- and let's face facts: this oater simply did not qualify!

I would like to see a lot more of that. I don't want film reviews to turn into, well, blogs exactly. But some injection of the personal -- as opposed to this superior "objective" or "scholarly" tone we're accustomed to -- would, I think, go a long way to reviving film criticism as something the reading public actually cares about.

On that note, my all-time favourite piece by Roger Ebert is noticeably absent from this book. Some years back he attended the Calcutta Film Festival for the first time. He saw, first hand, droves of India's "untouchables". He experienced that continent's frightening and hilarious road etiquette. He commented with conviction on the fragility of human happiness. And he spoke of the ineffable deliciousness of a slice of pizza he'd been given in a Calcutta Dream Palace.

is the best of Roger Ebert, and I truly hope to someday see it preserved between hardcovers.

Friday, October 13, 2006

Jumping To iPod

There were two sights to greet me when I stepped out of the car at the 18th Annual Gathering of The Nick Adams Society. The first -- a deliriously happy subset of mates on the verge of killing a bottle of Caol Ila (the best whisky this year, but not quite as fine as last year's Bowmore Darkest) -- was pretty much a given. The second was not: the supply of this year's music did not issue forth from a Montreal Boom-Box, but from a jauntily propped iPod and a pair of high-end computer speakers.

I was amused, and made a few snide comments ("Aren't we too old to fall for the hype? Hey, that's not the U2 model, is it? It is?! Oh, we are definitely too old to listen to that shite!"). But over the course of the next day and a half, I became duly impressed -- won over, even.

This is my wife's birthday present:

She gets it tomorrow, the day before she boards a plane for San Francisco. In past business trips, she's been able to get a whack of work done on her lap-top while flying. What with the latest scares, the only thing she can now expect from her long flight is bad food, dodgy customer service, and unpredictable company (the terrorists have succeeded, damn their eyes!!). I have loaded this little gizmo to the walls with four gigs of her favourite music, while practising the greatest of restraint and not embedding one single tune that would qualify as one of my personal favourites (anything from these guys, for example). Here's hoping it makes her flight and her time away a shade more enjoyable.

Now, as I've noted before, I have become a Linux man. So when I first went shopping for an MP3 player, I wondered if there mightn't be something on the market that plays OGG. files (if you haven't played around with sound files, OGGs generally have a greater "depth" to them than AAC. or WAV. files, do -- nevermind MP3s). There is, in fact, quite a variety of players that support OGG files, so I stood in the MP3 aisle of a sound superstore and pondered all my options.

And pondered. And pondered.

And gradually took note of just how many freaking options there are for iPods. Dock 'em here, or dock 'em in this, or hook 'em up to this baby. You say you'd like to listen to your iPod while driving? Well you can!

Throw in the fact that I, your humble scribe, qualify by default as "the geek" in our marriage and it suddenly became clear that the decision was made for me.

In theory I am all for challenging iPod's command of this very significant corner of the market. I have purchased nothing from iTunes, and do not foresee the day when that will change. But at this moment, I'm guessing the suits at Apple get on their knees every morning and thank the Maker for Tony Fadell, much the way John Travolta and Sam Jackson do for Quentin Tarantino. Thanks to Fadell, iPod does not simply "have control" of this market: it owns it.

iPod still won't play OGGs, but that's become a moot point. At a certain age (*ahem*), you're no longer able to differentiate soundfile dynamics in earphones the size of jelly-beans. When I need the sound quality, I play the CD. When I need background music (which, for a kitchen guy like me, and a commuting woman like my wife, is 99% of the time), a half-decent docking station is just the thing.

Filling the iPod has been fun -- it scratches the geek itch to lurk among Linux forums, take notes and ascend the learning curve. Thanks to Linux, I'm able to rip a number of my wife's favourite discs, despite Sony's (to name just one corporation) abominable copy-protection programs. Understand: I'm not advocating music stealing. I walk the line in that regard, because I've got enough musician friends to keep me honest.

I've already paid to listen to the music; I am not now, nor have I ever been, a "file sharer"; I just want to play the music on my chosen device. But these copy protection programs are heinous things -- they are, in fact, much more agressive than mere "protection". The old department store adage, "When someone steals, we all pay the price" takes a nasty turn with these computer-hashing execute-files. They're the equivalent of walking in to a store, and being forced to leave your pants behind when you exit. No thanks.

So now my wife has 900 songs of her music tucked into a device the size of a cheap cigarette lighter. I'm looking at the growing pile of homemade CDs (again: perfectly legal transfers of purchased MP3s to CD) on our stereo -- discs fated for a landfill, when they finally glitch. And I'm thinking, How many of those failed CDs would it take to justify the expense of....

Wednesday, October 11, 2006

Whither (dee-dither) Fiction?

Slate begins its Fall Fiction Week here. At first glimpse, The Novel, 2.0 seemed like a promising riff off some of my own thoughts, but upon closer examination I'm doubtful. Let's start with the proposition: "What is the role of fiction in the age of the Internet?"

Oh! Oh! I know the answer!! Pick me, pick me!!

"Yes? 'Whisky'?"

Um ... to tell a story?

"*bzzzt* WRONG! Submitted answer is not esoteric enough to be given serious consideration. The correct answer will seek to determine why there hasn't been a Great American Novel since DeLillo's Underworld, and attempt to provide helpful clues that might point the way forward for po-mo literatis confined to a limited range of sleight-of-hand parlour tricks."

Right, then. Say, have I mentioned how much I enjoyed James Lee Burke's penultimate Dave Robicheaux novel? Nothing happens in Crusader's Cross that regular readers haven't come to expect from Burke -- Robicheaux remembers a painful episode from his impoverished past, digs around a bit in the corridors of power, snaps and loses it big-time, struggles to regain his equilibrium while everything around him gets thrown off-balance, etc. The eleven herbs and spices are all there, in other words, but Burke tweaks 'em just enough to sustain my interest (I note, with gratitude, that Clete Purcell doesn't perform the usual "break the logjam" function here as he does in other novels).

I love the white heat of Robicheaux's (and, I assume, Burke's) moral outrage. I love how they have to choke it down while struggling with common grace. I love how much it bugs Robicheaux to spot a virtue within an otherwise damnable cretin. And I love how the cretin always suffers before he takes the Three-Day Journey. Love it, love it, love it. Next to A Stained White Radiance, this is my favourite Robicheaux novel.

As for Whither American Letters, I'd say the problem is there aren't any ex-pats. Or if there are, the publishing machine is geared to ignore them. Even with the world-wide charms of the Internet, without exile and cunning, well ... good luck finding and promoting the American Joyce (or Kundera or Milosz).

Monday, October 09, 2006


This it is to testify, to speak out what the heart holds true. If the tongue and the heart are at odds, you are reciting, not testifying. Augustine, Childhood.

Canadians are eating the bird, today. For those of us who believe in an interested Deity, and make timid attempts to work out our faith in fear and trembling, Giving Thanks is one of the big priorities. It isn't just a matter of saying what you're thankful for before you grab your fork and knife -- you're required to do something, to serve and be gracious. And despite Augustine's assertion, it isn't even a matter of feeling grateful -- and thank God for that, because I sure don't "feel" thankful.

The human capacity to fuck things up on a monstrous scale cannot be denied -- not in 1945, and certainly not this morning when we woke up to the news. The people of Darfur know it. The people of North Korea know it. The people of New Orleans and one or two of our nation's finest "Reservations" know it, too. We live between the headlines, hoping for some transcendant gift while wondering if, in fact, we aren't still captive to the bloodthirsty gods of old.

And who, I ask again, really needs the headlines to aid our daily lamentation? Do we not have enough to lament in our own small circles? One friend from my past has died, two are in marriages that are foundering (or "transitioning", on their better days), one is experiencing a volatile career-shift, another is waiting for news of his second down-sizing.

There is no conclusion, here -- just a droning recital that hopes for a bit of life to blow through it, to lift the bones in some strange testifying dance.

Friday, October 06, 2006

Public Service Announcement

My brother has been taking note of the latest hacker news. The big "story" suggesting that Firefox was critically flawed in a way that could not be patched appears to have been a hoax. But we are, in fact, witnessing some surprising manipulations of javascript (more here and here, for starters). Sites that have been carriers of javascript infections include google, msn, yahoo, aol, wordpress powered blogs, myspace, etc.

In other words, the javascript issue will only get bigger. So far, it's a fairly easy problem to navigate around: you just disable javascript in your browser. This does result in a significant reduction of the Internet's Distraction (or, "Entertainment", if you prefer) Factor. Also, most on-line banking requires use of javascript. But if, after you've been surfing about, you have the need to do some banking (or exchange other critical information), you can typically shake the javascript piggy-backers by closing your browser. Open it up again, and you are more or less off to a fresh start.

That's my understanding of it, thus far -- which is, I admit, pretty sketchy. You are, as always, invited to enlighten me in the comments.

Tuesday, October 03, 2006

Tracking Identity and the Jewish Diaspora: Roth's American Pastoral & Lebrecht's The Song of Names

I like bookstores that encourage their employees to write little “recommended” tags for titles they love. They're basically personal book reviews on a post-it note. Our bookstore did that, and we sold some unusual items that way (my own “off-the-beaten-track” favorite was this book).

When Philip Roth came out with American Pastoral, a co-worker (and friend) tagged it thusly: “This is the masterpiece that Mordecai Richler's book should have been.” You non-Canuckle-heads will just have to take it on faith that Richler's final novel, Barney's Version, was a Big Event in our country. It won several awards — including the upstart, glitzy Giller — and had no trouble nationally out-pacing Roth's efforts when it came to book sales.

Also, at that time the advent of Roth's stellar re-ascension was almost unimaginable. He had spent the previous 20 years writing increasingly self-indulgent stuff, hall-of-mirrors metafictional riddles that earned him hearty claps on the back from Esquire and The New Yorker, while the public grew weary and picked up something else — his ex-wife's memoirs, for starters. They painted the picture of a man whose sexual proclivities weren't far removed from those of his self-despising (and self-abusing) characters. The possibility that this adolescent slouch could return to form and write emotionally compelling fiction that was topical seemed beyond consideration.

Then came American Pastoral, with its singular prose and heart-rending story of a father who watches helplessly as his daughter sinks into the lurid, furious underground of the 60s counter-culture. It could have been parlour-fiction; Roth gathered all the standard narrative expectations and slowly drove a stake through the reader's heart — again, and again, and again. But there was no denying the dizzying breadth and subtlety of Roth's observations. When I finished it, I thought my friend's comparison to Richler may have been unfair, but her appreciation for the novel was entirely merited.

I admired American Pastoral, and was completely drawn in to “Swede” Levov's heartbreaking love for his wayward daughter. Watching the adolescent fury slowly boil within her, her terrible expression of it and her resulting disappearance grew to be an all-consuming pursuit for me as a reader (how could it not be?). That this was also the story of a time in America when an immigrant could, by force of will and attention to method, build an economic empire that duly provided for his family and the larger community around him only added to its emotional import. More than a few landed Mennonites would consider this a similar backdrop to their own story.

But Roth ties a larger concern to what would otherwise receive glib classification as his generation's final coming-of-age story. American Pastoral could have simply been “Man loses daughter and wonders what the hell went wrong with his family and his country.” But Roth's enterprise is more particular, more keenly focused: he is at pains to give a full account of the terrible toll exacted when the Jewish Diaspora fully embraces American secular liberalism. Roth seems to suggest that another famous Jew's rhetorical question — ”For what shall it profit a man, if he shall gain the whole world, and lose his own soul?” — isn't Jewish enough in its extremity of vision.

“Swede” doesn't just barter away a soul he didn't know he had — he loses the world as well. Lest we miss the moral of the story, by book's end “Swede's” beloved daughter gives up all aspect of her personality, ethnicity and individuality and joins a cult, his beautiful goya wife willingly subjects herself to a neighbor's groping, and the neighbor's drunken wife plunges a fork into “Swede's” father. Like the old man, I sure got the point, but I wanted to protest: Is it really as bad as all that?

Roth followed this up with The Plot Against America, an “alternate history” in which the United States is a willing partner in Hitler's Final Solution. In other words, “Sonny — you have no idea.”

Well, maybe I don't. Still, there are more pleasurable ways to acquaint oneself with the subtleties of tension and torment within the Jewish Diaspora, and I am happy to report that Norman Lebrecht's The Song of Names delivers the goods on every level. It is a mystery story of a friend's disappearance, narrated with a wry wit that appreciates the ironies of genius and the unsavory appetites of the public. Much of it is set during the London Blitz, and the terrible silence that grows within Continental Europe. From this silence comes The Song of Names, as poignant a demonstration of Judaism's irresistable staying power as you are likely to find in any post-Holocaust novel.

The Song Of Names, in other words, is the masterpiece that Roth's novel should have been. Buy it here.

Never Mind The Bibles: A Theology of Punk!

It looks like Andrew -- published author, former journalist, aging punk wannabe -- is awake and raving with his latest manifesto, Never Mind The Bibles: A Theology of Punk, a free-for-all interactive read via Blogspot (hold the loogies, though. They're murder on keyboards).

Theology? Punk?!? Well, if such things make you nervous, then huh huh huh! -- tough titters for you.

But, hey -- enough of my yakkin'. Let's rock and roll.

Monday, October 02, 2006

Lovesick Lake

I'm told this was our 18th gathering. I never thought I'd lose track of such things, but then I never imagined our get-togethers would extend into 18 years -- at the same location, no less. I'm guessing the location could change soon. I will miss the place (even as I look forward to a more comfortable mattress).

Photo courtesy of Tom.