Wednesday, August 27, 2008

Putting A Price On Play

“Dad, is it alright if I buy this?”

My daughter held out a plastic cutesy-animal toy. Its target market was probably girls in the six-to-eight range. She is eleven.

“Sure,” I said. My wife raised an eyebrow.

I knew what my wife was thinking. I was thinking it too: eleven is early adolescence. My daughter is increasingly insistent on expanding her borders and participating in everything from adult conversation to chores around the house. She is also developing a recognition for “cool.” At the same time she still wants to play, specifically “pretend stories.” She'll take this toy home, and probably generate several weeks' worth of stories with it. But odds are high she's going to lose the urge to “pretend” with toys at some later point this winter. Is this money wasted?

I don't want to be among the chorus that ridicules and shames her out of the impulse. I googled “value of play” and turned up dozens of links to high-falutin' character-development theories. Education theorists are particularly concerned with its efficacy. It's tempting for me to jump on the bandwagon and blow my one-note trumpet — I privately played out stories of my own right into my teen years. Eventually I grew too self-conscious about the practice, and opted instead to sublimate visa vis the written word. If these theories were accepted at face value, I would surely qualify as the very flower of humanity: emotionally secure, comfortable with compromise, facilitator of discussion, etc. I won't argue, but my family might.

The concern for these theorists is the utilitarian value of play. Go ahead and read that last sentence again, then tell me you don't spot an oxymoron in there somewhere. Hey, if one of these eggheads wants to identify the fiber in my Sunday morning danish, they're welcome to it. So far as I'm concerned, the sound of an eleven year old girl projecting funny voices on funny animals and cracking up her younger sister is fine for what it is: a happy girl having fun. Long may it continue.

Monday, August 18, 2008

The Summer Soundtrack Disc 2: Anthems & Oddities

As with Disc One, Disc Two continues my godson's initiation into the soundtrack to the early life of his old man (and me).

“Trumpet Of Jesus” The Imperials We start with an oddity that was meant to be an anthem. A friend of mine slipped this number into a mixed CD of otherwise lovely music which I first saw fit to play at a party. The event came to a full stop as the crowd witnessed me nearly wetting my pants with laughter. “Trumpet” isn’t offensive, like this Imperials number — it’s just flavorless corn. I couldn’t subject my godson to the whole thing, however, so I cut it short after the first few bars and closed it with the sound effect of a stylus being pulled across an LP.

“School’s Out” Alice Cooper I’m nearing the end of my Alice ride, but this is a number I’ve enjoyed since childhood. It’s also one of his funniest songs. Lyrically, Alice transitions easily from the Porteresque, “Well we can’t salute ya, can’t find a flag/If that don’t suit ya, that’s a drag” to the gleefully incoherent, “We’ve got no class and we got no principles ... we can’t even think of a word that rhymes.” I'm told it's also a staple on Guitar Hero, my godson's current favorite video game. Every summer soundtrack should start with this song. (A)

“Loser” Beck The only line in this song that makes a lick of sense is the chorus: “I’m a loser, baby/So why don’t you kill me?” I can remember exactly where I was and how I reacted when I first heard this song. At the time I noticed kids my age reading this weird-looking book on the subway: Generation X. When I finally picked up my own copy, I figured this was the book's, and our, theme song. (A)

“Drugs In My Pocket” The Monks My high school basketball team, of which I was not a member, used to warm up to Bad Habits. I don’t think any of them realized The Monks were actually a parody act — I know I didn’t. The song is pretty silly, alright, but not a little catchy, too. I was actually looking for their other greatest hit, “Nice Legs Shame About The Face” but had to settle for this.

“Thank You For Sending Me An Angel” Talking Heads I’ve been enjoying the recently polished-up re-released Talking Heads. More Songs About Buildings And Food is especially new on the ears: I hadn’t realized just how trippy Eno’s production had been. (A)

“One Way Or Another” Blondie In her most popular songs Deborah Harry projected a particular persona that suggested the singer was juuuuuust a little crazy. Now, I would never go so far as to say this was in fact the reality for Harry, anymore than I’d suggest Johnny Cash really did shoot a man in Reno just to watch him die. But she was very convincing, and nowhere moreso than on this song. She starts by stalking her prey, and concludes by "giving (him) the slip." A young man listens and thinks, Whoa: kinda exciting! An older man listens and tallies up a ledger of regret. (A)

“I Need A Lover (That Won’t Drive Me Crazy)” Pat Benatar Speaking of personas, Pat Benatar’s original attempt at being the “Bad Sexy Girl” struck me as a pose, even when I was 14 years old. But, man, did that girl ever have a set of pipes. And she was very easy on the eyes. (A)

“Long Cool Woman (In A Black Dress)” The Hollies
For many, many years a person could not walk down a fairground midway without hearing this song being played at 11. Just listening to it now conjures up an olfactory miasma of popcorn, cotton candy, cigarette smoke and pogos and churros fresh out of the fryer. (A)

“I’m An Adult Now” The Pursuit Of Happiness Another GenX anthem that is funny because it’s true. “Gotta get up and take on that world. When you’re an adult it’s no cliché, it’s the truth!” (YT)

“In The Ghetto” Elvis Presley
It’s time to slow things down with a few oddities. Elvis’ expression of earnest concern is almost comical, as is his pronunciation of “Ghetto.” An easy song to sing along dramatically to. (A)

“Ringo” Lorne Greene My godson’s father and I had a grade five music teacher who would play us selections from his Reader’s Digest Boxed Set of Pop Music From The 60s. This was a regularly requested favorite, until we’d memorized the lyrics and substituted them with the usual schoolyard silliness. (A)

“Da Da Da” Trio How in the world did this weird little ditty from Germany pull us onto the gymnasium floor? How does it still? (A)

“I Will Survive” Gloria Gaynor A BIG favorite in our house. And who doesn’t get shivers down their spine when Gloria pauses, sings a plaintive, catch-my-breath “Oh,” then regains her high dudgeon as the harp-strings glide back in? (A)

“Common People” William Shatner So far as I’m concerned, Shatner owns this song. And this is its definitive video. (A)

“Hit Me With Your Best Shot” Pat Benatar I didn’t realize, and could have easily foreseen, that would-be Guitar Heroes eventually suffer from Anthem Fatigue. When I visited my godson this summer, it quickly became apparent that this inclusion was extremely unwelcome. No surprise, really. Its fastidious squeaky-clean production contributes to the final effect. Ah, well: we have a miss. (A)

“My Sharona” The Knack
Reality Bites was pretty thin gruel for a movie, but I remain grateful for the scene where Janeane Garofalo says to a convenience store clerk, “Ooo! Please turn this song up! I assure you, you will NOT regret it!” (A)

“You’ve Got Another Thing Comin'” Judas Priest And so did all the fans who thought singer Rob Halford wore leather, studs and dog-collars because he was such a tough guy. Even the most homophobic headbangers had to admit, though, the Dude sure could howl. (A)

“Solsbury Hill” Peter Gabriel My all-time favorite from Gabriel’s considerable ouevre. For reasons I could never articulate, I always get choked up and have to quit whenever I try to sing along. (A)

“Creep” Radiohead The other side of the “One Way Or Another” coin. (A)

“Only You (And You Alone)” Alvin & The Chipmunks (A) My younger daughter is deeply entrenched in an Alvin & The Chipmunks phase. But even she enjoys my “Trumpet Of Jesus” treatment of this piece: just a few early bars, followed by a record-zip and we’re straight into...

“Burning Love” Elvis Presley Sure he was cheesy — but he was The King. (A)

“I Love Rock ‘n’ Roll” Joan Jett & The Blackhearts My older daughter’s current fave. Jett’s is a persona that trumps all poses. And she kicks out as swell a closing anthem as you’re likely to find for any summertime soundtrack. (A, e)

Sunday, August 17, 2008

McNally Robinson, Polo Park

This was my regular retreat during our Winnipeg visit: McNally Robinson's new outlet in Polo Park.

Unlike their competition, that other Canadian Mega-lo-Bookstore, McNR still offers its browsers comfortable seating.

This is the vantage point from the central customer service hub. Various shelves extend out from it, like spokes on a wheel.

The effect for the first-time customer is a little discombobulating, but not unpleasant. Even though I suffer a touch of agoraphobia, I didn't seem to mind getting spatially disoriented by shelves of books. Once I located the exits, I was happily ensconced in my "natural" environment.

Speaking as a former bookstore employee, I suspect the store's design probably looked stunning on paper: staff at the hub have fairly clear sight-lines through most of the store. In reality, there is no one perch where a single staffer has a clear vision of the entire store. Theft is a problem that dogs bookstores especially; I saw several arty "package" books that had been opened and pilfered, a sight that always depresses me. With bookstore profit margins growing slimmer each year, this has got to be of grave concern to management.

That aside, I've got nothing but love for this place, and wish McNR every success. The official McNally Robinson site is here.

Great Expectations: Can I Get A "LOC" On That?

Now that Nick Hornby has gone AWO my L from the pages of The Believer, I am sorely tempted to pick up the slack and post my own list of Books Bought/Books Read (A, A). Unfortunately I do not read or process the written word nearly as adroitly as Hornby does. Note the rotating images on the right sidebar of this blog. Everything “On The Floor” is what resides by my side of the bed. Note also that of the current four I've only bothered to comment on one. Of the remaining three, one is a periodical (the interview with Mike Davis is very beguiling, and has me searching for titles in his back-catalog), one is an artfully constructed pillow-book that keeps me from sleep (author Dennis Danvers explains why), and the last is a novel that intimidates me because (a) it is written by a contemporary who is (b) masterfully covering material and an era that I once, in a rare and prolonged fever of ambition and logorrhea, attempted to capture and portray.

Clearly I'd have a great deal more to say about books bought than I would about books read. I've just returned from Winnipeg with a suitcase full of books purchased from McNally Robinson (I couldn't seem to nail down a visit to Aqua Books or Nerman's — sorry guys), all of which I fully intend to read. It's not going to happen, of course — my eyes are bigger than my reading-lobe. But cue-up the sound of well-oiled suitcase hinges, and let's look at the contents because this is what a typical monthly entry might look like:

The Bicycling Guide To Complete Bicycle Maintenance & Repair (A). Hoo-boy: given my history of botching the simplest bicycle repairs, this surely qualifies as the hope that will not die. The price was right, and perhaps I've accrued enough unhappy experiences to be able to apply a little wisdom to any future attempts at handiness. Or maybe this book will simply be another testament to ambitions unrealized. Speaking of which...

The Successful Novelist by David Morrell (A). I recently rented and re-watched First Blood, then watched it with Morrell's commentary on. Two things struck me: (1) there was a time when Sylvester Stallone, or someone very close to him, had an impeccable sense of what made for a captivating story, and (2) David Morrell, whose novel was markedly different from the movie, has a very agreeable and pragmatic approach to craft. When I pulled this book from the shelf and opened it up I was pleased to see him quickly address and dispose of the usual (and often unspoken) reasons for writing fiction: wealth and fame. “As Rambo's creator, I have experience in that regard, and if your idea of a good time is to be forced to get an unlisted phone number, swear your friends to secrecy about your address, and make sure your doors are locked because of stalkers, you're welcome to it.” The guy still loves what he does — teaching and writing — so I'm looking forward to reading his thoughts on the process and the business. Likelihood of my reading it to completion: lead-pipe cinch.

The Abstinence Teacher by Tom Perrotta (A). I thought Perrotta's Little Children was one of the better books I read last year, so I picked up his latest to be remaindered. Based on the bookflap alone, Perrotta's concept doesn't seem as likely to surprise me to the degree that Little Children did, but his narration is usually wry enough to get me laughing and cringing at the same time. Likelihood Of Completion: high.

The Translator by John Crowley (A). So far as his admirers are concerned, and I count myself among them, Crowley can do no wrong. But to be perfectly honest: after Little, Big I've had trouble making it past the finish line with his novels. This one is only 295 pages long, and I like the concept: “The Translator tells of the relationship between an exiled Russian poet and his American translator during the Cuban missile crisis, a time when a writer's words — especially forbidden ones — could be powerful enough to change the course of history.” LOC: better than Aegypt, not as good as Little, Big.

JPod by Douglas Coupland (A). There is a scene that occurs in the later pages of Microserfs where one of the characters, after being exposed to some of the more extreme instances of body-piercing, blurts out in a state of horror, “But your body is your hard-drive!” I laughed when I read that, because by that point of the novel I knew exactly what she meant. Depending on the critic, Coupland is either praised or decried for his devoted attention to the superficial. I'm in the “praise” camp, because he frequently plumbs surprising depths with his superficialness. LOC: so-so. I finish half the Coupland books I pick up. At the time of its publication Microserfs was an easy finish. JPod is its long-awaited follow-up, so you'd think my chances of completion should be good. However, since the book was published its material has cooled somewhat: the CBC produced a short-lived series based on the book. What little I saw certainly qualified as “superficial.” I'll have to shake off a few memories for me to finish this baby.

The Devil In The White City by Erik Larson (A). It's been a while since I last purchased popular history. When I was in my 20s I was in the habit of reading one such book every month. By the close of my 30s that had dwindled to one a year. LOC: pretty shaky.

The World's Religions by Huston Smith
(A). This is the spinach in my literary diet. I thought Smith's written response to his buddy Marcus Borg was uneven, but provocative enough to get me wondering what he made of the “competition” so I went ahead and bought this. LOC: fair to middling.

And how many of these are likely to be read by the end of this month? Mmmmm ... one, maybe two. So, no: a monthly attempt to ape Mr. Hornby should be avoided at all cost. It's best if I just return my blogular attention to the second disc of my summertime soundtrack.

Wednesday, August 13, 2008

Lit-Quick: Tides Of War by Steven Pressfield

The soldier thinks he knows fear. Tell that to the farmer. I have corked off at battle's eve and snoozed sound as stone; now on my landsman's bunk I tossed, sleepless as Cerberus. The farmer greets the dawn with one query only: what calamity has struck overnight?

So intones Polemides, the chief narrator of Stephen Pressfield's Tides Of War (A). Polemides then provides a litany of the farmer's woes which is as entertaining and as depressing as anything George Carlin cooked up in his prime, and concludes with a punchline that is note-perfect in its absurdity and acuity. The jacket blurbs extol Pressfield's portraits of ancient battle, and although they are what the reader remembers most immediately Pressfield's real genius is exercised in his gradually persuading the reader of a seemingly "foreign" point of view.

Why would a farmer, who has already experienced the torments of the battlefield, return to war on an enterprise that seems shaky from the outset? How, then, do the survivors of the debacle then persuade themselves to re-engage in battle? How do we, the "Army Of One" generation, understand a culture that commits itself to war through an ideology cultivated beneath a skein of temperamental gods? What sort of genius takes possession of the one man who acts as catalyst for all these terrible engagements? Pressfield's evocation of the emotional lives and metaphysical musings of his ancient subjects subtlety lulls the modern reader into a state of self-recognition. And that, I think, is what makes Stephen Pressfield one of America's finest living novelists.

Saturday, August 02, 2008

"I'm gonna drive like I never been hurt"

Props to anyone (besides DV) who can name the song/composer of this lyric. If the name doesn't spring to mind, you're missing out on one of this summer's great CDs.

Our family is driving west for another Winnipeg gathering. As far as blogging is concerned I'll do what I did last year, then return to the contents of The Summer Soundtrack, Disc Two.

Stay tuned for a few random shots of The Old Smoke.