Friday, August 31, 2007

The Winnipeg Neighborhood

There were parts of the old neighborhood that had changed significantly. An elementary school that had been located around the corner from my family's house was razed and its enormous yard rezoned for further suburban development. That added a few new streets, and a few dozen houses.

Commercially speaking, it was a case of the more things change, the more they stay the same. The mall where I first bought pizza by the slice and hung out with my mates was gone; in its place was a "Power Center" -- a parking lot hemmed in by the usual franchises and outlets. The automotive parts shop that kept my motorbike running was now a very flashy fitness center. A privately owned family restaurant where a number of my friends got their first job built a larger, swankier-looking restaurant -- right beside the old one, which was empty and looking for a renter. A little further down the main drag we passed a former Pizza Hut that now housed a dentist's office.

The dentist's office caught my wife's imagination. "That's Winnipeg right there," she said. "There's no telling what people will do with the buildings that are available to them. I mean, a dentist's office? The roof is still red, for Pete's sake!"

There is a certain degree of cognitive dissonance at play in commercial Winnipeg. Commercial Winnipeg has precious few neighborhoods, but it stretches through the entire city in very distinct arteries. As a consequence, the commercial life-cycles tend to be short-lived and the storefronts often shabby. Contrast this to Ottawa, a city of similar size, but with distinct commercial neighborhoods where a person can spend a few pleasant hours strolling.

When Carol Shields' Republic of Love received a rave in the NYTBR, Winnipeggers were duly proud. But when the reviewer concluded the piece by saying she wanted to take the next flight to Winnipeg to see these magical locations, even those of us who loved the city had to snicker. Shields consciously made use of existing locales, but if this person ever did catch that flight she was sure to have been shocked by what she saw. Winnipeg has a penchant for malls (due in no small part to the extremes in weather), but frequently struggles to come up with common spaces that are as vibrant and inviting as the tiny pockets portrayed by Ms. Shields.

But enough of my yakking. This is the storefront of my former employer (blogged about here):

The businesses on either side aren't much to look at; the drugstore-grill I mentioned has been re-tooled into a cheque-cashing joint and a Halal meat market, and a used-clothing store has taken residence to the east. I think the National Typewriter building is indicative of the challenge that Winnipeg faces on a massive scale. Here we have a pre-Depression era business building, more solidly constructed with an acute eye toward aesthetics than anything built in the last 50 years -- yet it languishes.

Here is another detail shot of the gables holding up what must now be a very leaky roof.

The stained glass detailing is simple and elegant. Unfortunately, what was once an apartment for a family is now in ruins, holding nothing but trash. There goes the neighborhood.

A little further east is the University of Winnipeg, which government man Lloyd Axworthy has taken under his wing as his next uber-project. The entirety of the U of W's green space is gone, and a massive redevelopment is under way. The university is uniquely located: literally next door to the city's bus depot. Also within easy access: the Salvation Army, the YMCA, the Hudson's Bay and the arena formerly known as Eatons. Just how Axworthy's development scheme will actually contribute to the neighborhood remains to be seen. I certainly wish it success, but can't help being somewhat skeptical. Winnipeg has seen its share of grand developments that missed crucial little details.

The tendency is for Winnipeg politicians to think big and act bigger -- hence big projects like The Forks. But there are also places where attention is being paid to smaller details, and where success has potentially deeper roots. The Old Market is one such, a neighborhood of turn-of-the-century multi-floor warehouses that are now home to studios, theaters, fashion designers, junkies, prostitutes and roll-up-yer-sleeves religious communities. Police headquarters are also right there, and with a little common sense the place can be safely navigated by foot or by car.

The Old Market also houses my new favorite bike shop: Natural Cycle.

The Emma Goldman Society has an office on the second floor, and the entire building is run via collectivist principles. Lay down a loonie and help yourself to a tire:

The bicycles for sale and for rent are chiefly scavenged mods (or, more accurately, vice versa), though NC also sells Dutch monsters, and isn't afraid of constructing its own models from scratch.

Here's a particularly flashy mod:

My last day of our visit, I talked with a friend over breakfast. I said that Winnipeg struck me as being similar to the village I was currently living in: some of our citizens are doing very well for themselves, most are working hard to get by, the mortgage rates are low enough that an artist can afford to starve here, and there is also a significant segment of the populace that is in trouble and is causing trouble. But everyone is used to getting into their cars to get what they want, and this has had its effect on the commercial neighborhood, and I think weakens the overall fabric of the community. If community ethics is the art of compromise, then I think the questions are: how best to counter this gasoline-fueled impulse? And how best to work with it?

Tuesday, August 28, 2007

The Necessary Facade

While visiting in Winnipeg, I took my wife to see one of the libraries I grew up in. It was late at night and we'd just finished a long, private dinner. We talked about the future, tried to figure out what choices we were facing and what plans we should make. Our daughters are edging into adolescence while my wife and I are sliding into middle-age, so these discussions can get a bit intense. Large emotions and expectations are compressed into a relatively short discussion, and a bit of breathing space and perspective is needed as a nightcap. My old neighborhood seemed like a good evening destination.

The library hadn't changed a bit. There it stood, next to the arena: one little box sharing a parking lot with a much larger box. I felt compelled to at least try to take some comfort in this — if the exterior was any indication, the interior might be unaltered as well. I remembered the bright florescent lights, the stacks devoted to 70s pop culture, vinyl cushioned chairs that made a kid so comfortable he lost track of time and had to be gently informed by the librarian that his mother had called to say supper was ready.

Of course, the interior has changed; so has the content and technology (card file and microfiche, say hello to the Internet). I knew this. It is a very different library from the one I spent my days in, so it peeved me to face an exterior that was unchanged. I didn't want to feel nostalgic toward this building. I wanted to see progress — add content, open up the space a bit, make it more inviting to the public. I wanted to face an aesthetic smirk, something that in effect said, “We've moved on, you geezer. What about you?” But I was facing a smirk of a different order.

The nearly immaculate preservation of an old library strikes me as a strange thing for me to get tetchy about, but there it is. Coincidentally, I've been playing a bit with my own appearance. When I finally recovered enough from my pneumonia to walk around town and visit with people, I received numerous compliments about how young I was looking. Losing 15 pounds will do that, but I'd also let my hair grow: my traditional buzz-cut was shaggy and some of my curl was back. At first, when told I looked “10 years younger,” I was tempted to reach for the clippers and combs, following a cussed impulse to look my age, dammit. I asked my wife for some insight, and she agreed that I didn't look as gray with longer hair, but more to the point, I also didn't look as severe (or probably grumpy, mopey and obsessed with mid-lifey things) as I do with a buzz.

The barber's chair still beckons, and I'm still tempted — especially when some photos look suspiciously like a guy who's trying to camouflage his receding hairline (one of my grandfathers had a notorious comb-over). But I've got enough hair to play with, so why not play? It's not about “looking younger,” it's about exploring possibilities and potential that in fact are there.

Next: a few Winnipeg photos.

Friday, August 24, 2007


A rat with baby-blue fur scampers from the sewer to the shadows and crevices of Paris, France, and the camera follows him from behind. Once inside the walls of Parisian row housing, the rat sprints from house to house, room to room. He is on a quest for food, and we are seeing not just the exotic details of his world (the interior of these walls is surprisingly charming, for all its squalor), but telling details of the human world, too. Most of the latter are shop-worn caricatures of the French, but in Ratatouille they get a laugh because the perspective is fresh and unexpected.

Suddenly the rat stops, the camera sweeps over his shoulder and takes in everything he sees. He has arrived at the kitchen of a once-famous restaurant. It is immediately apparent that this rat is becoming aware of his deepest aspirations. He wants desperately to leave the Rat World and join The Real World. And so, alas, does this movie.

A city, a kitchen, a cook from humble origins who wants to be a star. The previously unseen is abandoned for the familiar. The viewer's heart sinks.

And just how is a movie-lovin' guy supposed to approach a Pixar product? This is the group of people responsible for some of the most spectacular and emotionally resonant American films of the last two decades. Monsters, Inc. is dazzlingly unique and one of my top-ten cinematic faves. Toy Story 1 & 2 were arguably the best original and sequel to hit the silver screens since The Godfather 1 & 2. To watch a Pixar film was to enter a vigorously imagined Other world, populated by recognizably Real people. So the last two Pixar productions fell considerably short of this standard — is that such a crime? They're still more compelling entertainment than, say, Happily N'ever After.

Admitting to viewer dissatisfaction with a Pixar film feels akin to treason — particularly after Ratatouille closes with a formerly-villainous critic lecturing his audience about what a bunch of self-satisfied parasites critics are (lazily feeding like vampires off the lifeblood of artistry, and all that). But here, too, I chafe. This is the second film written and directed by Brad Bird that trumpets the glories of exceptionalism, and while the A Star Is Born narrative has its appeal, it only needs to be repeated once before it wears out its welcome. If you're exceptional, you don't tell — you do.

Cars and Ratatouille both conclude with morals that sound a lot like corporate mission statements: character is more important than victory, and everyone could stand to work at being receptive to the exceptional coming from unexpected sources. Those are fine sentiments for an entertainment giant to ascribe to. I expect John Lasseter and Brad Bird really, truly believe in them. I'm also hoping Pixar takes them seriously enough to once again deliver the truly exceptional.

Post-script: here are some snarky thoughts I had after encountering some post-The Incredibles chatter. In hindsight I think I made a mountain out of a molehill — "too ordinary" "not ordinary enough." Looks like I have trouble making up my own mind. The Incredibles "twas" indeed a good movie: I enjoyed the Bond-villain lair, the camper/rocket-ride back to the city, the discovery of Jack-Jack's abilities. But I still think my response was in tune with what I was reading.

Wednesday, August 22, 2007

Signs of Life (elsewhere)

The voyage has concluded, and I'll be posting some thoughts and pictures in the next few days. While I collect and sort through all that, here are a few items that caught my eye:

Um ... fact checker?
So many differing versions of what Kerouac did to get his unique style on the page. Most accounts say he was a speed freak and a drunk, who finally succumbed to being just plain drunk. Seems to me at least one girlfriend claimed to lay out his benzadrine-sweaty T-shirts on the apartment radiator while Jack typed out On The Road on his infamous scroll. But David Gates says not so: Jack simply drank a lot of coffee.

The bookstores explored on Maude Newton make me wish I'd taken my little camera into some of the shops I visited in Winnipeg. Even McNally Robinson (dubbed "McSurly Robbersons" by my wife) is feted. Mind you, we've yet to see the NYC store.

Original content coming soon.

Thursday, August 16, 2007

Signs of Life (elsewhere)

The road trip proceeds apace while my rate of posting slows. I've had several readable items at my side; the best fodder for thought has been the August issue of The Believer. Andy Selsberg's The Official Handbook To The Official Handbook is online in its entirety and is worth a look.

Prairie Mary informs that Peter Butala (all-around mensch and husband to prairie writer Sharon has passed away.

DarkoV unpacks Cognitive Reserve for us (and Phil seems similarly in tune).

And getting back to field guides, Yahmdallah uncovered this beaut to tattoos. We all know what mine says about me. But one question remains: what are tattoos like these trying to communicate? (HT: Boing Boing)

Sunday, August 12, 2007

Tia Maria Torte: The History

My first apartment was located in an appropriately bohemian quarter of Winnipeg (Osborne Village, circa 1987). My weekends were spent typically enough for a guy my age in that part of town, and it wasn't uncommon for me to conclude a late night with a short pit-stop at Baked Expectations for a slice of Tia Maria Torte to go. At the time, it was made with enormous chocolate chip cookies soaked in a Tia Maria solution, and held together with sweetened whipping cream. I may have eaten a portion of the enormous slice before cashing in for the night but most of it was reserved for breakfast, washed down with a pot of strong black coffee.

For my fortieth birthday, my friend hosted a breakfast and served ... Tia Maria Torte, and strong black coffee. To have been observed with such care and affection was incredible. I was, and remain, grateful.

Tuesday, August 07, 2007

Alive amid the roiling prairie sea

We're here! We've already had Tia Maria Torte and black coffee for breakfast, shopped at the surly-staffed McNally-Robinson superstore (thanks to their remainder purchaser, my suitcase is half-full!), and had some mighty fine vittles both purchased and home-cooked. Details and pictures to follow.

Thursday, August 02, 2007

On The Road (Again)

To Manitoba via the North Superior route. Then back again, probably via the States (more hotels with pools on their side of the border). I've got our digital camera and internet access throughout, so I'll be sure to post. Just brace yourself for "vacation kwality" posting.


Three Books

It's been some years since I last read Leigh Brackett; in fact I was 21 or so when I finished The Reavers of Skaith and decided I was getting too old for fun fiction and should concentrate instead on writers I might work into my honors thesis — and, more appropriately, attempt to emulate in my own efforts at serious fiction.

My loss. Brackett was a writer who jumped with apparent ease from one pulp genre to the next, creating clean lean stories that hewed to convention but bore enough subtle distinctions to deliver a surprising and satisfying conclusion. The Sword of Rhiannon is a first-class example of Brackett’s facility: anyone with a passing knowledge of Celtic mythology — or the Martian books of Edgar Rice Burroughs, or the Sword & Sorcery tales of Robert E. Howard — will recognise the stock characters and general direction of the story. Like Howard and Burroughs, Brackett is intent on delivering a muscular narrative, but while she’s not afraid of bold-strokes description, her choice of words never gets quite so florid as her male progenitors. Brackett seemed to assume that “Brawny arms” “heaving bosoms” and other generic clichés didn't just distract her, but her readers as well.

It’s been suggested — well, it’s actually been said outright — that Brackett's script contributions are what made The Empire Strikes Back the best of the Star Wars lot. After reading TSOR, which delivered a quick Martian Sword & Sorcery punch within 150 pages — I'm pretty much persuaded. When I finished the novel, I wondered why she and her pulp creations weren’t household names the way John Carter or Conan are. It could be Brackett’s gifts were best suited to tuning up or fixing what was already there. If so, that’s no small thing. Hollywood (and I) have been missing her for decades.

Housekeeping vs. The Dirt is Nick Hornby’s follow up to his previous collection of literary reviews for The Believer: The Polysyllabic Spree. Said Spree (a variously numbered cult of young men and women in charge of the magazine) may censor his lightest attempts at snarkiness, but Hornby’s good-natured observations still cut to some critical truths. Just prior to declaring, “It goes without saying that [Ian McEwan’s] Saturday is a very good novel,” Hornby writes:

[T]he world of books seems to be getting more bookish. Anita Brookner’s new novel is about a novelist. David Lodge and Colm Tóibín wrote novels about Henry James. In
The Line of Beauty, Alan Hollinghurst wrote about a guy writing a thesis on Henry James. And in Ian McEwan’s Saturday, the central character’s father-in-law and daughter are both serious published poets and past winners of Oxford University’s Newdigate Prize for undergraduate poetry. And though nobody should ever tell a writer what to write about....Actually, forget that. Maybe somebody should. Sort it out, guys! You can’t all write literature about literature! One book a year, maybe, between you — but all of the above titles were published in the last six months. Taken as a group, these novels seem to raise the white flag: we give in! It’s hopeless! We don’t know what those people out there want! Pull up the drawbridge!

I loved it. I read it out loud to my wife as she made the Sunday night pizza, and she loved it, too. The book is worth whatever The Believer or Amazon is charging for it, so buy, take and read. Hornby is clearly having fun, and so will you.

When I first read this creative essay by Josip Novakovich, I was reminded (not to put too fine a point to it) of essays I’d written as a very young, creative type guy. I won’t pretend to have attained the same insight, prosaic quality or emotional punch as Novakovich, but that ability to just dump the brain’s filing cabinet onto the floor and choose seemingly random bits that wind up generating their own electromagnetic fields of significance ... God, I miss that capacity! I bought Novakovich’s Writing Fiction Step By Step hoping the exercises therein would pull me out of the deeper ruts I’d carved for myself as a writer, and possibly get me thinking (and working) more productively on my current novel.

Novakovich does not disappoint. In fact, he delivers with a vengeance. I’ve no doubt Novakovich has performed every one of these exercises. He cheerfully describes writing as “a strenuous sport and a demanding art,” adding, “You must be mentally fit to do it well.” In other words, this is an exercise program for writers willing to build up the mental muscles with the dedication of a would-be Charles Atlas.

This book works well as a companion piece to Madison Smartt Bell’s Narrative Design. For a fiction writer, both books are helpful in their own distinctive way: while Bell examines the choices made by accomplished short story writers, Novakovich’s exercises offer an entry point for the writer to discover and make those choices via experience. I began the book with the intention of doing every last exercise suggested, but quickly found that just reading the exercises and Novakovich's short meditations of their possibilities was often enough to get me up and writing — often in a very different direction than the one suggested. An excellent resource for anyone (including bloggers) experiencing creative freeze.

Wednesday, August 01, 2007

Walking Away From Faith by Ruth A. Tucker, and a Calvinist-inspired bunny-trail of some significance

I dreamed I had a fever
I was pushin one-oh-three
My mom’s all upset - cryin’ by my bedside
Everybody’s prayin’ for me
I hear a scratchin at the window
I somehow twist myself around
I realize I’m eyes to eyes
With the fella in the Brite Nitegown

Brite Nitegown
Brite Nitegown
You can’t fight with the fella
In the Brite Nitegown

Donald Fagen (mp3 here)

“One-oh-three,” you say? That's kid stuff. The “scratchin at the window,” however, was tangible enough to put me in a metaphysical frame of mind, so among the curiosities I pulled from my laden bookshelves while I was sick was Walking Away From Faith, by Ruth A. Tucker. I'm not sure who clued me in to this book (probably JT) but I was completely taken with it. I found Tucker to be plain-spoken, and forthright about her own doubts and insecurities — a religious academic attempting to explore without guile or defensiveness the issue of apostasy. Intellectually she was both perceptive and receptive in fairly equal measure. A quick Google search reveals that this book receives glowing recommendations from both evangelical atheists (here is one such) and evangelical Christians — surely the most unique distinction for a religious book you could hope to find.

As I scanned the Google links, I was surprised to see how few of them pertained to the book. It's received precious little attention from the commercially-funded religious rags, and after investigating a little further I began to see why: the book and its subject matter have been eclipsed by the treatment Tucker has received at the hands of her former employers, Calvin College and Theological Seminary.

I would dearly love to comment on this specific case, but the only account on record is Tucker's (here). It's as surely biased as all first-person accounts must be, but she's attentive to pertinent details and the fact that Calvin remains mute in response to her objections is more than a little damning of them. Certainly church-funded academia is no stranger to immoral administration. I have a professor friend who has been the recipient of shabby treatment from both public universities and religious colleges: he asserts in no uncertain terms that Christian colleges will screw-over an exiting staff-member more thoroughly than any public institution, because a) there are fewer accountability hoops for the administrations of religious institutions to jump through, and b) the administration, whose chief concern is public perception among the school's donor base, will invoke without censure the self-serving “godliness clause” (JT unpacks it all here).

Instead I'll do the usual: speak from personal experience and make a few scandalous generalizations in an effort to provoke.

So far as I'm concerned, nothing sucks the air out of a room faster than a man intent on selling a Calvinist Benefits Package. Thanks to prolonged manifold exposure (I skulked in the hallways of the ICS and as an MCC hack did some work with CPJ in the mid-90s) on this issue my knee-jerk has been finely-tuned to a hair-trigger response. Recently, however, I've been surprised to discover two spokesmen on behalf of John Calvin (The Man) who snuck past my defences and forced me to reconsider my deeply-entrenched predjudices — and they weren't men at all. I'm speaking of Marilynne Robinson and, of course, Tucker. (Actually, Seerveld has slipped through on occasion as well, but he's a dude and I'm trying not to complicate my invective.)

It's head-slappingly obvious where I'm going with this: if today's self-styled Calvinistas want their public voice to be anything more trenchant than a nostalgic echo of post-war glory days, the fellas running the academies and churches are going to have to roll up their sleeves and work bloody hard to address gender representation, gender discrepancies and public accountability.

On all three issues George W. Bush and his administration are holding to a higher standard than Calvin College does. If that doesn't cause consternation among my neo-Cal friends, I truly fear for the soul of their religion.


Getting back to Tucker's book: it's well-written, well-considered and she never condescends. This is the first I've encountered anything like it on the market, so I highly recommend the book to anyone with a vested interest in the subject matter (particularly those readers who aren't as taken with Annie Dillard as I am). Quibbles: the last chapter felt a bit rushed (possibly written while her position was being terminated?), and the font used should, I think, be avoided by all publishers everywhere. I hope once Ms. Tucker has regained her footing she'll publish other books. She's someone I don't mind listening to.