Friday, December 2, 2016

Dishers and Takers: what do Trumpeters expect?

            “ You better worry, because that wave of truth and anger will come, and you, other so called progressives, and your immigrant neighbours will be the first to be washed away.”
            - F. Stevens, Hamilton
Letter to the Editor,
Hamilton Spectator,
November 11, 2016

            And people wonder why I’m depressed by a Trump victory?

            Like termites, these bigots have come swarming out of the rotten woodwork, into the letters pages, the radio-call in shows, and the Facebook echo chambers. They’re feeling vindicated now, as if their hatred of Mexicans, Muslims and scientists was somehow right all along. They’re feeling emboldened – their prejudices are official policy now. They’re excited by the purges to come. They’ve been baying for blood for months now, and yet wonder why “mainstream media” won’t respect them.

            What do they want? A gold star for their insight? A pat on the head for the deep understanding of issues?  

            Distain from the “liberal elites” was a common refrain among the Trumpeters’ many grievances. It struck me as a little thin-skinned coming from a group that supposedly admires toughness so much.  But then it’s always struck me how those who reserve the right to hold ridiculous ideas also feel entitled to immunity from scrutiny.

            To be sure, human beings deserve respect. But ideas are open to both criticism and ridicule When a politician offers up a program that’s unrealistic, unworkable, and downright dangerous, how much respect is it entitled to?  Just as when I’m confronted by a creationist, a 9-11 or an anti-vaxer, I’m not going to pretend that Donald Trump is a beacon of enlightenment. His policies aren’t just unworkable, but downright dangerous, and if that results in a little disdain for the people that empowered him, well. . . life sucks.

            Perhaps I should ask of the Trumpeters directly: what do you expect?

            Don’t like liberal condescension? Your guy is a climate change denier, and made a young earth creationist his running mate. What do you expect?

            Resent charges of racism? Your guy is openly endorsed by the Ku Klux Klan! His signature issue is attacking ethnic and religious minorities. What do you expect?

            Resent accusations of callousness? Well, you seem quite ready to abandon a million Syrian refugees to their fate. You do know a lot of those people are going to die, don’t you? Just making sure.

            Resent charges of sexism? Your guy groped and openly bragged about groping women. What do you expect? Besides, have you seen some of the folks showing up to your rallies? The T-shirts and signs? What do you want, the Gruber Prize?

            Think Hillary was out of touch? And Donald Trump, with his penthouses and private jets and mansions was just a regular good ol’ boy wasn’t he?

              Think Hillary was a war monger? And Donald “bomb the shit out of them and take their oil” is just such a dove!

            Think Hillary was mean? Oh come on! Like Donald was a model of civility at the podium!

            Think liberal commentators were mean? Like Rush Limbaugh and Ann Coulter are such paragons of decorum!

            Think I’m being hysterical? Well, you’ve read the letter above. When your fellow travellers write letters like that, what do you expect? 

Friday, November 11, 2016

Talking Heads and Pen Pushers: Nobody knows anything.

How the fuck did this happen?

            No, I’m not asking how Donald Trump got elected President of the United States – that’s bloody obvious. A pile of people went to the voting booths and put a little “x” beside his name on the ballot, or pressed a button or pulled a lever or whatever-the-fuck it is they do down there.

            Nor am I asking why they did that, which is also obvious: they think the magic-man will wave his fairy dust and make them all rich and powerful, without any of Hillary’s blah blah blahing. (When are the politicians going to get that “blah blah blah” doesn’t cut it anymore?)

            No, what I’m asking is how all those alleged experts, self-assured commentators, talking heads, pundits, pollsters and pin-headed pen pushers could have kept reassuring me that it couldn’t happen. From each and every one of ‘em, the line was the same: “Trump’s done, Amen”. I’m looking at you Scott Gilmore of Macleans, who wrote October 31 (page 32) “Without some cataclysmic surprise, Donald Trump has lost”. Cataclysmic surprise indeed! And you Jonathon Gatehouse, writing in the same issue of the same magazine that Trump’s presidential hopes were “plummeting”. And you Nick Taylor-Vaisey, telling me just a few pages later his “campaign may be melting down”.  That’s just one lousy magazine! [i]

            Everywhere you looked, even the conservative ones were doing their “thank God that’s over” victory lapses before the race was even over. By what evidence, data or logic did they come to this complacent conclusion? Apparently just ‘cause all the other ones said so. “He’s so ridiculous, he couldn’t possibly  make it. The People couldn’t be that stupid”.

            Well, they can and they were. But these egg-headed experts were just as clueless.
Was it naivete? Wistful thinking or wilful blindness? Only Michael Moore, who actually talks to working class people, saw it coming. He tried to sound the alarm, but they didn’t listen to him either.

            I remember after the first debate having a sinking, stinking feeling that Trump had it in the bag. “My money’s on Trump” I wrote in my journal. Everyone went on about how much more presidential, more professional, more eloquent, more logical, more factual, more inclusive, more policy specific, more graceful under pressure Hillary was, which was absolutely true. And it didn’t matter a bucket of dog spit! If any of that mattered, Trump wouldn’t have gotten that far.

            Do you think a Trump supporter cares that he groped women? Hates Mexicans? Had no political experience? No fucking clue what he was talking about? If they cared, they wouldn’t have been Donald Trump supporters. So it didn’t matter how much more qualified Hilary proved herself to be, she couldn’t dent his narrative and didn’t really try. What she needed to do was try to undermine Trump on his own terms, demonstrating, somehow, that he couldn’t actually do what he promised, while she, somehow, could. How could she, or indeed anyone, have done that? Well. . .not by doing what she did. Not with all that blah blah blahing. . .

Trump had won, I felt it, I smelt it. But everyone, I say everyone, went on about how wonderful Hilary had been and how ridiculous Trump was and how it was as good as done. So of course I think to myself that I’m just imagining things because, after all, what do I know? I’m just a lousy peanut-gallerist, they’re the experts, they’re supposed to know this shit, not me.    

Would it have made a difference? Probably not, but maybe the Trumpeters might not be so god-damned smug right now.   

[i] Gilmore, Scott. “The Morning After Donald Trump” Macleands, October 31, 2016, page 32
Gatehouse, Jonathon “Could This Get Any Worse?” Macleans, October 31, 2016. page 28
(Damn friggin’ right it can!)
Taylor – Vaisey, Nick. “The Perfect Voters”. Macleans, Occtober 31, 2016

Thursday, November 10, 2016

Slow Suicide Trumps all. . . (In which the author gives up on his fellow man)

They say most species go extinct eventually, and dogs, given the chance, will eat themselves to death. Why should humans, being apes, behave any differently?

The Easter Islanders chopped down every tree on their island to erect their statues, and erected themselves out of existence. Did not one of them see they were on the march to extinction?

Ronald Wright, in his CBC lecture series, argued that most great civilizations of the past went the same way. The Mesopotamians. The Greeks. The Romans. Each consumed more than their environment could provide. Each went down like a deck of cards.

Now it’s our turn. 

As I write, it is almost impossible that Donald Trump will not be the next President of the United States. The nation that produced Thomas Jefferson and Frederick Douglas is following Bozo the Clown en-masse into his little car to oblivion. Legions of the alienated, the disillusioned, the disenchanted, the disenfranchised, the lost and forgotten have spit up the lies they’ve been force fed for generations. But instead of rolling up their sleeves and taking on the real enemy, they’ve accepted the poisoned kool-aid of the nearest miracle man, following him lemming-like straight to a precipice in search of la-la land.

Democrats are as much to blame as anyone: complacent, self-satisfied, self-serving, tone-deaf dullards all. They saw Trump blow away his rivals like match-sticks, and huge swaths of their own party – the youngest, most energetic, most ready-to-vote dedicated among them - throw themselves behind a self-proclaimed socialist. The people were thirsting for change, salivating for something different, and what did these donkeys offer? More of the same! Here’s Hillary Clinton, Ms. Establishment, best friend of Wall Street, Goldman-Sachs Laureate, and her melba toast running mate. Isn’t that exciting folks?

Trump is our nemesis, sent to punish our hubris and complacency.  He’s the kind of phoney revolutionary folks go for when real revolutionaries can’t get their act together. They promise miracles, blame everything on outsiders and minorities, and hearken back to mythical golden ages. They offer easy answers and quick fixes; they shield delicate minds from pesky realities, and protect them from the burden of thought.

The scariest thing about a Trump Presidency is the thing probably least focussed on; his environmental policy. Whatever his misogyny or his racism or his voodoo economics, there’s little he can do that can’t be undone by the next President (god willing, someone else). But Climate Change is happening in real time. It may be too late already. It will not wait another four years. Trump wants to tear up the Paris Climate treaty, drill for oil wherever it may be found, and go back to burning coal. He apparently wants to take back the title of “World’s Biggest Polluter”.  Without the USA onboard, the rest of the world’s efforts are largely token. There’s no way China or India will do much if America doesn’t do anything. Billions more tons of carbon pumped into the air just when there desperately needs to be less. This decade was our last chance – we may as well give up now.

This is not a trivial issue, and this isn't hyperboyle. This will NOT resolve itself, and it is NOT reversible. This WILL have real, very bad consequences that we will not be able to undue. So sit there and laugh all you want, but the science is in, and as indisputable as heliocentrism: the climate is changing, and Trump and his groupies won't even try to stop it.

Interesting how those most callous about Climate Change are the ones who will never have to live with its consequences. Seventy-year old Trump will be long gone before the caps melt. He will never have to live in that world. Someone else will have to pay his bill. Not only doesn’t he care, I’ll bet Mr. “I don’t pay taxes” is tickled pink. “Makes him smart” I suppose.

Trump has exploited legitimate grievances to satisfy his boundless ego, and raised people’s desperate hopes with promises he knows damn well he can’t keep, emboldening racists and anti-semites and sexists and every kind of bigot along the way. But he was chosen by the people. Every democratic society gets the leader it deserves, and democratic societies have a healthy record of voting democracy away. Meanwhile, we’re fast clearing every tree on the island, and just elected to keep right on going, though the end is clearly in sight. We don’t care that bozo’s car is heading straight for the abyss, so long as we get a turn in the front seat.

Maybe our statues will outlive us.    

Saturday, September 17, 2016

"Won't you come and read my blogpost?" said the pseudo intellectual: horror fiction, fairy tales, and the world

As Climate change with Indian summer conspires, to keep autumnal winds away,
I set my mind to poetry, for a lesson come Monday. . .

            Sorry. That’s in aid of saying I’m preparing a poetry lesson for Monday. Digging through old volumes, looking for examples of personification, or figurative language, or whatever soulless term the GED insists poetry can be understood by, I stumble across “The Spider and the Fly: a Fable” by Marry Howitt. You probably know the first line:

“Won’t you walk into my parlour?” said the Spider to the Fly

The classic line by which every lecherous predator attempts to woo a witless victim. It goes on in this fashion for some while, my favourite passage concerning the pantry:

Said the cunning spider to the fly, “Dear friend, what shall I do?
To prove the warm affection I’ve always felt for you?
I’ve within my pantry good store of all that’s nice; I’m sure you’re very welcome; will you please to take a slice?”
“Oh no, no,” said the little fly, “kind sir that cannot be;
I’ve heard what’s in your pantry, and I do not wish to see.”

I was struck by a couple things, and not just the direct inspiration for “Cobweb Hotel”. First, was Howitt’s masterful use of rhythm to create a sense of dread. Little poem it may be, it reads like a prototypal horror story: in the very use of one of nature’s most terrifying arrangements (ask any arachnophobe), silvery words spilling from an obvious danger. Be it a spider, or a big bad wolf, or a witch with a gingerbread house, or a Dracula, or a well dressed Mephistopheles or any number of saucy succubi occupying our silver screens, disguised menace is one of horror’s most prevalent themes. The spider’s words may as well come from Hannibal Lector, they are so obviously a means to an evil end. The knowledge tickles the spidey senses, warning of impending menace, or imminent doom. Even in a little poem like this, it’s titillating (at least until one remembers the darker implications – see below).

Alas, it also takes patience and imagination on the part of the reader to work – jaded modern audiences need to co-operate if they are to feel anything, and saddly so few of them do. These days, folks are more likely to say “to hell with the poem, show me what the spider does!” They don’t want their senses pricked, or to flirt with vague dread – they want the immediate visceral experience of violence. They want to see someone skinned alive, or disembowelled or deflowered, to watch it happening, and not merely hinted at.  It seems more sadistic than anything else; I’ve never understood the appeal. Such spectacles may contain the rush of an intense physical experience, but don’t allow the imagination to create its own terrors, and leave nothing else for the mind to contemplate. They certainly have no allegorical value.  

Which is not what anybody wants these days, which is exactly my point.

The second, probably more important thing: this is definitely the archetypical cautionary tale adults have been foisting on children since time immemorial. Basically, “don’t talk to strangers”. Least of all the ones who flatter you. This mantra was drilled into our head again and again growing up – they never specified what the strangers wanted with you, but they were to be avoided at all cost. (And the message doesn’t go away in adulthood, it just reverses itself: social norms demand you don’t talk to strange children). Horrible world that we live in, this conditioning is sadly necessary. But I think about all those other archetypes of children’s horror stories – orphanages, wicked step-moms etc. – and wonder if they would be archetypal fears at all if adults didn’t insist on trotting them out so often.

Do children really fear their step-moms so much? Why are they being taught to do so?

When I was little, I of course feared losing my parents, but I did not dwell on it, and even then wondered why so many cartoon and storybook writers insisted on reminding me of the possibility. What I actually feared most though, prodded by Pinochio, American Tale and others, was being sold into slavery. (To this day it pisses me off that Pinochio never went back to rescue the other donkeys).  Sadly this happens as well in many parts of the world, not with western indifference, but active participation: how many of our clothes and shoes are stitched together by child-slaves in the third world?

Does no one notice the hypocrisy?

But getting back to “The Spider and the Fly”: the spider could stand in for just about anyone who would abuse your trust. He could be a record executive who wants to exploit your talent for all we know. But let’s face it: nine times out of ten, the spider is a sex predator. It is our instinctive conclusion any time someone tries to lure you into his lair. Is this a modern preoccupation, or did it occur to readers in Howitt’s day? It cannot be a coincidence that the Spider is male and the Fly female. Maybe Howitt was only thinking of a maiden’s modesty. I don’t know. But these days, we have a pretty good idea of what goes on in the spider’s pantries,  and it’s far worse than anything that could be hinted at in a mere poem.


Sunday, August 14, 2016

The Medicine and the Poison: thoughts on Merhcant of Venice

Having never seen a production of it before, I took out a copy of  Merchant of Venice, directed by Michael Radford, and starring Al Pacino[1]. I didn’t like it. Despite Pacino giving as magnificent a performance as any I’ve seen anywhere in anything, I couldn’t get over the ugly anti-semitism and apparent injustice at the heart of it all.

that line feel so weird to write?), but I couldn’t help finding him more callous than evil, driven to lash out by a lifetime of prejudice – how lenient would you be with someone who spits on you regularly? – and, at least as portrayed by Pacino, finally over the edge by the abrupt departure of his daughter (she could have left a note). Whatever the case, there’s too much nuance here to take any pleasure in his downfall, which is far more thorough than justice would strictly demand. He is not just thwarted, but completely ruined, stamped into the ground and washed out completely. He doesn’t even get his initial loan back. And while this might feel like just desserts for a bastard like Richard III, who in this day and age can relish the spectacle of a Jewish financier being ruined by a Christian court?

Granted, Shylock isn’t the most sympathetic of characters (and why did
There are a couple things at play here. The first is hindsight: we in the twenty-first century know where the kind of attitudes that created Shylock will eventually lead, and not even the golden pen of William Shakespeare can make the archetype of the sleazy Jewish money-lender palpable ever again[2]. Let’s face it ladies and gentlemen, for all his wonderful “If you prick us” speeches, Shylock is still the bad guy, still the merciless would-be hewer of flesh, still the embodiment of all the worst prejudices of a viciously intolerant age. And at the end of the play these prejudices are vigorously upheld, all but laughing at the silliness of a Jew who thought Christian law could ever benefit him. Alas, we can’t get around that, no matter how wonderful the Pacinos of the world might play him. The more they humanize the villain, the more problematic his comeuppance becomes.

Yet, here I’m confronted with a paradox: suppose Shylock had not been humanized? If the text only allowed for shallow portrayals of a truly villainous sleazebag, would the conclusion be any more palatable? Of course not. Then it would have been only a vile piece of hate speech quite rightly forgotten by history. Shakespeare is no one’s propagandist, no cheer-leader for any social more. No motivation is allowed to be simple. No attitude goes unchallenged, even if only by the bad-guy’s speeches (and how many villainous monologues in all of literature and fictioin, I wonder, are just reflections of doubts and fears we dare not utter?). You will notice that the words condemning anti-Semitism, challenging slavery and calling out the hypocrisy of the age are the ones best remembered today, and hold up so much better than the ones upholding them.  To the extent Merchant of Venice is quoted at all, it is the “If you prick us, do we not bleed” speech, the moment attacking the dominant values of the day. If Shakespeare wanted his audience to walk away feeling complacent in their prejudices, he had a funny way of going about it.

Which is why, despite my discomfort with the play, I would never call for its censorship, and not have productions of it stopped. Unlike many PC Maoists out there, I believe there is still value in art which falls on the wrong side of history. Even in work we now find repellent, we can still find beauty and wisdom. Silencing The Merchant of Venice for its anti-semitism would also take from us the most powerful condemnations of anti-semitism ever written.

I sometimes harbour the fantasy that the ending of Merchant of Venice isn’t its real ending at all, but one foisted on him by the authorities, or even tacked on by unscrupulous editors later on. It wouldn’t be the first time – tampering with the work was incredibly easy to do, as documented by Bill Bryson in his nifty little book Shakespeare. It was so easy, it’s a miracle we have any of the original works at all. A hopeless little fantasy I know (though no worse than many of the dumb conspiracies surrounding the bard today, thoroughly demolished by Bryson), but I have a hard time believing the man who wrote “if you prick us, do we not bleed” could really have been such a bigot. We musn’t romanticize – people are the products of their time. Even Shakespeare. At the same time, artists must be conscious of the regimes they live under, and in a world where the wrong words can get you beheaded, they have to be sneaky. That so much more poetry goes into questioning prejudice than upholding it makes me wonder if the man who wrote those words must, on some level, have felt them. And maybe he believed some of his audience might feel it too. Maybe some of them did.


Thus are seeds planted, even in the weediest gardens.

[1] I really wish he’d release his version of Richard III. Despite making a documentary about making Richard III, so far as I can tell, he hasn’t released his Richard III
[2] Though who knows: people still read The Protocols of the Elders of Zion

Sunday, July 31, 2016

All's Well that Ends Well is Hell: Canadian Stage stage a clunker

Don't believe the hype: this year's Canadian Stage production of All's Well that Ends Well is wrist-splittingly wretched.

I was already in a foul mood when they decided to bombard the audience with ear-splitting elevator muzak before the show even began. I find intrusive music like this something of an assault, like being groped in a public place: a violation of my personal space I neither requested nor authorized.  Yet retailers, restaurants, and waiting rooms seem to think you want to listen to shitty pop-music, and a whole generation of snot-noses have apparently never learned about head-phones. . .

But I digress. The play hadn't even started yet and I was already wishing I were drowning in Lake Ontario. Not an auspicious beginning. And it didn't get better: the whole play is suffused with stomach-churning EDM, blared unrelentingly through every set-transition and a great many scenes. I should have brought ear-plugs. And maybe an ipod. Because then I wouldn't have had to endure director Ted Witzel's grade-school poetry being read between the scenes (or indeed, any of his lousy play). Why this hack thought his own work would enhance the Bard (especially since it bore no relevance to anything actually happening on stage) is not as much a mystery as it might at first seem: after all, it requires a special kind of audacity to butcher a play in this fashion, an audacity that probably really thinks William Shakespeare of Stratford by himself isn't up to snuff.

The show is loud, crude, and grotesque. You can argue all you want that the ugliness is all in the original text, but the choice of presentation lies with each production. You can allude to something naughty with innuendo, or you can build a great big neon sign saying PENIS! You can decide what to emphasize, what to play up, downplay, or whether to insert phallic sausage references. The Bard gives you that leeway. What appears on stage is what the director wants, and if the production is trite and vulgar, it's because the director wanted it that way.

I hated every minute. But that's just me. If you yourself find butt-plugs hilarious, you just might dig this one.    

Sunday, July 10, 2016

The Place Where I Lived; In Which the Author goes home

Wandering the Salvation Army depot downtown Hamilton not long ago, I was about to leave, having found nothing I needed amongst the used clothing racks, when I saw something that stopped me cold.

Behind the cashier, sharing a shelf with a marionette clown and a novelty baseball, was a framed picture – a photograph – of a tall church on a lonely hill. It was a rather stark photo, shot in reddish grey and white. The church was not a grand stone Cathedral of European antiquity, but a humble wooden steeple in state of ever so slight decay, standing beacon like in the middle of what looks to be farmland. I suspect it was taken somewhere in rural Ontario, or maybe the American mid-west. At the foot of the hill was a dirt road, with a dust cloud off in the distance, as if a speeding coach were zooming away.

I stood transfixed. It wasn’t just that this kind of rural gothic was exactly suited to my taste, but that this particular picture played a large role in forming my taste. This very picture had been hanging on my parents’ wall in the basement, and had been destroyed in the flood of ’14. I spent most of my formative years staring at this picture, and thought it had been gone forever.  

Funny how the mind of a kid works: when I was little, I thought the focal point of the picture was not the church, but the dust cloud. And I thought it was coming towards us, rather than going away. Something was coming. Something noisy and harsh to disrupt the staid tranquility of the scene. It was actually quite ominous – a picture of almost tomblike stillness, under permanent threat of ever imminent invasion.  
            The rest of the artwork in the basement lacked this impending chaos, but all shared its vaguely gothic quality. Right beside it there was another picture (photo or painting, I couldn’t tell) of an old derelict house in a field of snow. The house looked comparatively modern, but like the church, a completely dead monument to the past, and in this case, literally frozen in time.
            Somewhat incongruously, there was also hanging, a train yard, with a freight train pulling away. Again, I used to think the train was arriving, and thought it only slightly odd that it seemed to pulling in backwards. As a kid you trust such things: even if they appear unusual, there must be a good reason for them to happen if they’re happening. Looking at the back of the train meant no engines and no engineers, no evidence of human presence or agency. The train station appeared just as deserted as the church or the house.
            The theme of desertion abandons us (ha!) in next room which was my father’s study. Dad had a big picture of Ponce-de Leon or some such guy. A very grave, regal figure with a dark beard (the painting, not Dad), this man would have fit perfectly in any of the other pictures (even the train station). He too was a figure from the past, ancient, unchanging, unmoving. As it was, he was very at home in a study, hanging on imitation wood panelling between vast shelves of dusty books. He bespoke knowledge (if not wisdom), and disciplined scholarship.
Dad’s study was not off-limits to us – indeed, it was open access all around. But it was clearly grown-up territory. This was a place where work was done, all books and machinery. Dad was (is) a gadget hound, particularly in the realm of audio-hi-fi. On the north wall, in between two ground view windows that stared down at you like eyes, was his setup: a massive floor-to-ceiling stack of machinery, every bit as grandly imposing as Deep Thought from the Hitchiker’s Guide to the Galaxy.  At its base was the Marantz deck, a dreadnaught of an amplifier, to which was connected the Teac Equalizer and Reel-to-Reel machine, Nacamichi tape deck and Cd-player, Technics turntable, and Celestion Ditton 44 speakers (which were taller than I was). When given the right command, this monster could move mountains.

(Am I supposed to be impressed by your piddly little ipod?)   

 Like the church on the hill, this stack stood unchanged, apparently carved out of the earth itself, from before I was born to the very Day of the Flood. My brother and I tried to save it – the Marantz at least – but just as you can’t uproot a tree in a hurry, there were too many cables anchoring it to the ground. Too many things to unscrew and unplug, while water was rushing in. Sometimes you just gotta concede.

Anyway, this is the place where I lived. To a kid, everything looks big and foreboding, and unimaginably archaic. To me it looked looming and shadowy as well, and just a bit surreal (to say nothing about stuff like this playing on the big cathode ray tube-television:). But to me it was home; it was warm and safe, and it was where I wanted to be. Perhaps it was there I developed a lifelong taste for solitary looming, shadowy things, and became an incurable antiquarian. Why I feel so at home in churchyards and on country roads, and attracted so much to old, lonely buildings, though only from the outside – never from within.

To my horror, the photo on the wall was not for sale; it was for auction. I put in a ridiculously high bid, but did not win it, even though I still had the highest bid when I checked on the closing day. Some smart alec probably snuck in at the very last moment with an extra dollar or two. I really wish I’d thought to examine the picture first, to find out who took it or published it, which might have given me a clue as to where it came from. I’ve tried Googling “Church on a Hill”, and it hasn’t helped so far. In any case, it was clearly not a one-off work. Maybe not mass-produced, but copies exist in the world. In my mind, that makes it more valuable, not less.

Places I didn't live: In Which the Author Doesn't Go Home

They say you can never go home. Who exactly says that? Can't say I know, but I have heard it said. I think about it every time I revisit my childhood home, which is actually quite often. It’s funny the things that do come back to you, and the things that just don’t.

Of course, my childhood home was almost entirely washed away by the flood of 2014. True, the room where I spent most of my time and stored the accumulated artifacts of my life up until then, were drowned – “washed away” is definitely the wrong phrase – in a deluge of shit-laced sewer backup. There was no attempt to restore it to its original state, my folks seeing it more as an “out-with-the-old-in-with-the-new-opportunity.

So that particular bit of nostalgia is gone without a trace, but there are little bits elsewhere that remain.

The woods by the creek are still there, and the foliage is denser than ever. When I was growing up, kids would ride their bikes over the little hills and mounds in there, and were constantly sculpting them with shovels. Grown-ups, true to their mission to stamp out fun where ever it may be found, sent bulldozers in to flatten the mounds out, either stupidly ignorant of, or contemptuously indifferent to, the damage to the landscape – the bulldozer treads just butchered the landscape and crushed all manner of plant life. Just so kids couldn’t ride their bikes over a dirt path. It was a typically upper-middle class solution to a non-problem, but the busy-bodies have since turned their attentions elsewhere. The woods are still there, even if the hills are gone. The pathways are much too narrow for bicycles now, but kids still find their way in, as they always will.

The grassy field beyond the woods has not been paved over with houses yet, but give it time; Canadians hate nothing so much as undeveloped green space.

Strolling the neighbourhood, I’m struck by how clean everything is. No chip-bags, chocolate bar wrappers or cigarette butts in sight. You can walk the streets in your bare feet, and I often do – I find the rough concrete scratching the itchy soles of my feet as evocative of summer as grass between my toes, which is also common here. True, power tools often shatter the peace, but these are no worse than the obnoxious motor bikes revving their engines outside my apartment window all hours of every day. I marvel at the lush green lawns and the tall trees lining every street, forming a leafy archway overhead, and remember a time when this sort of thing wasn’t the exclusive preserve of the super-wealthy.

Thank you globalization!

You need to be super wealthy to own a home here now; the kinds of people moving in are the kinds of people who like to turn tasteful detached bungalows into three story mansions, and buy their kids Mercedes for their sixteenth birthdays. Everywhere I look, the physical manifestations of my memories are replaced by ornaments of excessive wealth. Renovations, facelifts and landscaping, all gaudy and garish clashing colours and mismatched materials, almost defiantly out of character with the neighbourhood, or even the merest aesthetic consideration.
It wasn’t always this way.

There are also a couple of places I really wish they would change. There are couple houses in the old neighbourhood whose pale blue and white motif has always lent them a kind of sickly quality. I’ve always found them cold and foreboding, not in the gothic haunted house kind of way – that would be to flatter them – but with a kind of stultifying aura of age.

I don’t know what created this impression, but I’ve carried it with me all my life. I must have been no more than four years old when I had a vivid dream of visiting one of these houses. In the dream, the place was run like a dusty museum, filled with glass china cabinets and stiff, uncomfortable furniture you weren’t allowed to sit on. Everything was of that sickly blue and white, and could have been a hundred years old. The matron of the house, a prim but not unfriendly old woman, introduced me to her “daughters”, who were no more than animated piles of clothes, Victorian style dresses with no heads or hands. even at that age I suspected there were people with no more personality than the clothes they wore.

Rubbish of course. I never set foot in either of those houses and have no idea what their owners were like. I suppose four-year olds are judgmental. I guess there was something about the places, the ghastly pallor, the dreary sense of order, that struck a fidgety young ruffian as unbearably oppressive. As if, alone in that warm and animated neighbourhood, these were places where the stomping and shouting of little boys, was unwelcome. Unjust no doubt – who knows what kind of people lived there? But try arguing that with a four-year old.

At least one of those houses has since been purchased by a youngish couple who are warm and friendly as can be. They keep their curtains open, and the large screen television in their living room is usually playing sports. This actually humanizes the place. But even if I was wrong about those particular places, I know that such places exist – alleged homes run like mausoleums, and I will always feel ill-at ease in them.     

Dialectics on Poodle-play: Thoughts on Zappa

Been listening to a lot of Frank Zappa lately. I tend to do that in the warm months – don’t ask why. I think the tradition started in Teacher’s College. I’d recently got my hands on a copy of Sheik Yerbouti (sic), which I’d not heard in its entirety before.  There’s not much I can say about Zappa here that hasn’t already been said before, so I’m not going to go too much into how amazing instrumentals are sometimes stuffed into lousy songs, or how much more pronounced the keyboards seem to be. I don’t need some student of Zappa studies pointing out all my errors of fact or omission. Doubtless there will be contrary evidence to everything I say. But there was something that struck me that I wanted to comment on.

No doubt, Zappa was a paradoxical, contradictory figure. He was known for taking music more seriously than just about anybody in the business – a notorious workaholic, more dedicated and disciplined than any mere mortal should be (and no one who heard him take on the PMRC could doubt he was a serious thinker as well). And yet, he could not write a single song lyric that wasn’t a joke. Or would not more likely, as I don’t imagine there was anything Zappa couldn’t do. He never wrote a sincere ballad, or straightforward rock song. For all their deeply subversive qualities, out-and-out protest songs weren’t his bag either (“Trouble Every Day”)? No, sarcasm and ridicule were his weapons of choice, lifting the lid on life’s absurdities with bemusement/amusement rather than outrage, let alone mere human emotions like happiness or sadness.

Yet, there are times I wonder. . .

As I said, the music itself was never a joke. There are countless moments of genuine feeling all over the catalogue. Only when he put words to it, did it become silly. Think “Sofa Number One”, a bittersweet little ditty that almost grows cosmic at the end. But when he added lyrics to the exact same tune for “Sofa Number Two”, what we get is nonsensical German, uttered in an exaggerated guttural dialect. Sure it was funny, but was that really what he was thinking when he composed the piece?

Or how about the closing chorus to “Tryin’ to grow a Chin” off Sheik Yerbouti? The melody’s inspiring, the song builds up to it in a beautifully executed crescendo. For any other artist this would be an anthemic moment, or a denouement of a stage musical. For Zappa, a novelty suicide note:

I wanna be dead,
In bed
Please kill me,
‘Cause that would thrill me.

Doesn’t it feel great belting out those words?

The song itself is a spoof of pimply teenaged angst, but one never gets thinks for a second that Zappa has any genuine sympathy for such issues (true enough, angst can be insufferable, but let they who’ve never indulged in it cast the first stone). I can’t help wondering though, was this really all he had in mind when he wrote the song? Was that much energy really expended just to give us a joke chorus?

Zappa was the sort of guy who knew what he was doing. I very much doubt anything was done by accident, and I doubt he’d have anything but contempt for this kind of speculation. And yet. . .the incongruity is there. He was the sort of artist who chose not to express himself through words, which weren’t his natural medium after all, but I can’t help but wonder. . .could he have done so?

Was he capable?

There are some folks who have difficulty showing genuine emotion. Who need to hide behind a stoic sheen or sardonic mask. Some folks just can’t put it into words. I wonder if Zappa was one of these. He felt plenty – you can feel it in his notes. But when it came to words – to attaching concrete meanings to abstract sounds - he needed to infuse it with nonsense.  Maybe using sincere words would have let the world in too close, or maybe it would have been telling. Or. . .

Zappa admitted he had little patience for books, so it probably shouldn’t surprise us he had little aptitude for poetry. Maybe language was the one instrument he couldn’t master.

Speculating about genius is a mug’s game. I’m probably wrong. All the same, when I listen to “Tryin’ to Grow a Chin”, I can’t help but wonder. . .


Sunday, April 24, 2016

More Turkeys: In Which the Author Breaks Turkish Law.

"Recep Tayyip Erdoğan." is a twerp.

There. I've done it. I could be arrested in Turkey now. I must never try and enter the place. In Turkey it is illegal to insult the president (translation: criticize his government), and it fully expects other governments to enforce this law in their own countries as well - as Germany was recently quite happy to do. Let's hope my government has more guts than Germany's.

Now, Turkey has seen fit to detain foreign journalists as well as her own, as Dutch writer Ebru Umar has learned.  

Tin-pot dictatorships detaining journalists is nothing new. What's galling about this case is that until recently Turkey claimed to be a democracy, and presumed for herself a place among civilized nations. It's depressing to see such places sink backwards, and depressing to see no one in power calling her out on her bullshit. According to the above article, more than 1800 cases have been prosecuted in Turkey since 2014, and more than a hundred journalists imprisoned. Umar isn't the first Duch Woman to be arrested either: they nabbed Frederike Geerdink last year.

Think about this next time you open up your local tabloid and see a grotesquely offensive caricature of your Prime Minister or President in the editorial cartoon. In many parts of the world publishing cartoons is a criminal offense. The ability to publish such cartoons is a very simple acid test of the health of a democracy. Those who would tamper with such rights are beneath contempt.

So yeah, Erdogan is a petty tyrant, a tin-pot dictator, a twerp, a scoundrel, an all around asshole. It needs to be said; stopping people from saying it doesn't make it any less true. 

Friday, April 15, 2016

With Tongue Firmly Bursting from Cheek: Thoughts on Kiss.

Finding myself in a record store with a coupon felt a lot like it used to feel when my grandparents gave me a small paper bag, said “take what you want” and let me loose in their general store. Under such conditions, I acquired my very first Kiss record. As it was only four dollars, and someone else’s four dollars to boot, I figured “why not?”.

Rock and Roll Over was exactly as I expected: unremarkable, but not unappealing. Lead track “I Want You” pretty much sets the pace, right down to the unambiguous title. It kicks off with a wimpy Boston-esque acoustic intro that’s over before you were really sure it began, switching to its teenaged tantrum of a chorus.  The whole album more or-less follows the formula – “get it out of the way” verse, “more like a chant” chorus, ‘nother verse, short bridge, chant-chorus, chant chorus.  It feels almost factory produced. And lyrically[1], there’s nothing here your average horny fifteen-year old couldn’t have written. Who else could’ve penned a petulant refrain like “I Want You”, or “meet me in the ladies room” with a straight face? Was there ever a band up until that point so unashamedly unsophisticated and unabashedly crude?

Yet for all that, it’s catchy as hell. The secret weapon here is of course Ace Frehely, who, if no Blackmore or Iommi, manages to infuse even the lamest choruses with flare and groove.  I confess, I’ve always liked Paul Stanley’s singing, and ringmaster Gene Simmons keeps it all anchored together. The formula works. I suspect Master Simmons realized early on that whatever else he had planned for this mega-venture called Kiss, the whole project would be dead in the water if they couldn’t write songs people wanted to hear.

I was particularly interested in the production by Eddie Kramer. It’s bass heavy, and muffled. It sounds like the band is performing in your living room, and I can’t help picturing them recording in a studio with a shag carpet. Now, I have no idea if Record Plant Studios actually has shag carpet in their recording rooms, but that’s what it feels like. There is something there absorbing the echoes. Compare that with the approach that would become fashionable in the eighties, when every band on the planet, Kiss included, apparently lost their bass player and took to recording in a tin-can[2].   

For me, it’s all very evocative of an era – the Seventies – which I directly experienced, but got all its detritus growing up. Re-runs, film strips, fashions and furniture my folks hadn’t gotten rid of, movies that were still pretty recent and songs that weren’t yet that old. It takes no great leap of the imagination to place my pre-adolescence a little bit earlier than it actually happened. (Okay, a full decade earlier, but bear with me).

Picture if you will, a nerdy teenager in the Seventies, living in a room stacked high with comic books and Kenner action figures, and recent memories of Hannah Barbara. Chemicals are raging inside, but you’re not sure where they fit in your current world. You find four spandex-clad masked superheroes singing what you’re thinking, and BOOM – lifelong Kiss fan is born.

(Why mention Hannah Barbara? Evocative of the era. And those cartoons were no-less fantastical than the Don Juan world of Kiss. It’s entirely appropriate that Hanna Barbara produced Kiss meet the Phantom in the Park; it shouldn’t surprise anyone that Kiss coexists in the same world as Scooby-Doo).

Of course, this little counter-factual thought experiment only goes so far. I actually was a nerdy teenager in a room full of comic books and Kenner action figures, with recent memories of Hannah Barbara, and Star Wars and Dungeons and Dragons and every other badge of nerd-dom imaginable, and I never got into Kiss. I was fascinated by their imagery, but was deeply disappointed to hear how much they sounded like frat-boys. I mean, how could you dress like a demon and never sing about demons? Where were the swords? The Space-ships? The Conan-themed concept albums?  Maybe it was the Catholic abstinence-only education, but I was weary of anything overtly sexual back then, and couldn’t relate to party-bands (mainly ‘cause I didn’t get invited to those kind of parties). Hormones could be channelled into pulp fiction and dime novels, but rarely openly confronted or declared.  More importantly, the music itself, mid-paced rock songs, seemed kind of well, sedate to a kid who’d already discovered Black Sabbath. (And Rush ruined just about every other band).

But. . .remember, we’re evoking the era. The year is 1976, and Rock and Roll Over is Kiss’s fifth studio album. Heavy Metal is a very new, loosely defined thing with only a few practitioners (and more than a few who no longer fit the bill today). There is no thrash Metal, no symphonic Power Metal, no Death Metal, Bay Area and Gothenburg are just points on a map, and   Norway exports nothing but peat moss. The world has yet to discover Sad Wings of Destiny, or 2112[3].  Heck, Star Wars hasn’t even come out yet! We are not yet spoiled by the embarrassment of sonic riches yet to come, and the pickings are slim. Into this world parachutes Kiss. . .

            Consider also, that Kiss were never about the records. Picture if you will, the live show, all explosions and spotlights, a choreographed spectacle which no one else at the time was doing, at least on nothing near the same scale. I can’t help but admire anyone who takes theatre seriously. I’ve been to hundreds of shows and am constantly dismayed by how many “performers” can’t respect the science of the stage – looking bored, showing up drunk, opening with slow songs, mumbling to the crowd. . . While the punks may bristle at the blatant capitalism of it all, there comes with it both professionalism and craftsmanship – ticket buying fans are guaranteed to get what they pay for. Compare this with the contempt artistes like Zepplin or G’n’R often showed to common folk who actually had to work for a living. . .

Back to our fifteen year old. Martin Popoff formulated it thus: kid is enraptured by Kiss show, picks up guitar, learns a few Kiss songs, finds they’re not that hard and soon surpasses Frehely. By the time he’s twenty five, he’s guitar wizard in his own right, has his own band, and BOOM: the year is 1986, and there are Metal bands everywhere.    

Everyone from Anthrax to Zombie cite Kiss as an influence. It’s not really there in the songs – would you have guessed Thomas Quorthon was a huge Kiss fan? (Or Garth Brooks for that matter?). But the performance aesthetic – knees bent, shoulder width apart, rictus-grin, tongue like thrust out like a whale-harpoon, chrome, steel and leather[4] - that’s all Kiss[5].  That, and the lust for glory, to stand on stage and command an audience. More inspiration than influence, their impact has been huge. They’re not really a band, but an idealization of what a band should be like.

Besides, how could anyone not like “Rock and Roll all Nite”?

[1] I swear “Love ‘em, Leave ‘em” sounds a lot like “Normal People”, which is probably the very last thing this band would ever sing about.     

[2] Judas Priest were the worst offenders. Ian Hill was still in the band pics but you’d be hard-pressed to hear him anywhwere.
[3] Alright, released the same year, but the first real statements by either outfit. Consider the era Up Until Then.
[4] Priest played their part here.
[5] Though Gene Simmons did not invent the Malocchio. 

The Turkey rules the Roost: How Recep Erdogan came run things in Germany

           So. . .

             Having destroyed freedom of speech in Turkey, it now looks like Recep Erdogan wants to destroy it in Germany as well. Don’t laugh: he just might.

            According to the Guardian It started when a comedian named Jan Böhmermann read out a less than flattering poem about Erdogan on German television. The legendarily thin-skinned Erdogan went crying to Angela Merkel, demanding Bohmermann be prosecuted. After which Merkel, as leader of one of the world’s strongest democracies, told Erdogan in uncertain terms to screw off, right?


            No actually. She frumped disapprovingly over this “deliberately offensive text”, which is only to be expected in diplomatic circles. After all, what is one world leader supposed to say to another? But it would never go to trial. Would it?

             Well. . .there is a law. Paragraph 103 of the Criminal Code forbids insulting representatives of foreign states. And there are some German politicians who seem quite keen to enforce it. No less than the general secretary of the Merkel's party Christian Democratic Union (CDU), Peter Tauber exclaimed:

“In a constitutional democracy we all have to stick to the rules, and one of these rules is that offending foreign heads of state is punishable by law,”  

              Wow. Nobody tell Kim Jong Un.

              Isn’t it interesting that Mr. Tauber thinks protecting the delicate feelings of foreign despots is more integral to Constitutional Democracy than upholding the rights of its own citizens? And why am I not surprised that a politician would want to enforce a law designed to protect politicians from ridicule?  

              Granted, I’m no lawyer, but all the same, I’m at a loss as to how German lawmakers figured this little stipulation was consistent with Constitutional Democracy. Basically, it means that any tin-pot dictator’s cult of personality is technically enforceable in Germany.
I hope it doesn’t have an extradition treaty with any of these places.

            That’s the obvious part. But there is a little worm in the ointment that complicates things a little. It doesn’t change anything, but it complicates it just a bit. Let’s look at what Böhmermann actually said. Like all the best comedians, most of what he said is true. He accuses Erdogen of “repressing minorities” – true! – “kicking kurds” – true! – “slapping Christians” – true! – “while watching child porn” – oh dear.

            Accusing someone of watching child porn is not a small thing, and it’s only natural that Erdogen would take exception to it. It muddies the waters because it takes us from the realm of political commentary into the world of slander and libel, where, under most juristictions, Erdogen would have a much stronger case.

              What is libel? The technical definitions vary, but it basically amounts to false accusation, or defamation, or falsehoods that could damage a reputation. Spurious accusation of child pornography could destroy a life just as thoroughly as a physical assault, so laws are in place to prevent them being made willy-nilly.
Newspapers have to be super careful when reporting on such things; it’s why in criminal trials, even where the evidence seems overwhelming, the crime is always “alleged” and the defendant is always “the accused”.

             A chief defense against libel law is that of “fair-comment”. It is fair to comment on certain things and express an opinion. So, for example, in a restaurant review, you are free to say it’s a lousy restaurant, but not that they put rats in the stew. The former is just your opinion; the later is a lie.[1] The former is fair comment, the latter would be slander. I wonder if Böhmermann has opened himself up to a charge of slander, rather nullifying his fair (and necessary) political comment with a cheap (and not-terribly funny) joke.

             The existence of libel law – in theory – shouldn’t amount to a limitation on your freedom of expression. You are free to speak the truth. You do have to prove that it is the truth. Which strikes me as only fair and reasonable: say what you will, but be prepared to back up your words.  I personally have always thought of freedom of expression as the ability to speak the truth rather than the ability to blab: but as one man’s truth is another man’s blabbery, the definition should be as inclusive as possible and come with as few external fetters as possible.

            Unfortunately, libel law is often used to limit freedom of expression, and limit the truth. In Britain, anybody can sue anybody for just about anything. The British Chiropractic Association sued Dr. ___________ for telling the British public that chiropractic is full of shit[2]. He didn’t slander them: all he did was publish the data. In my home town, developers have sued residents for speaking out against them – their case was weak, but they were counting on their victims to be unable to bear the court costs. In the hands of the rich, this law, like most others can be a gag for the poor.

            But libel law isn’t the only gag available to the psychotically insecure, and dictators aren’t the only ones ins search of them. I don’t even know if Erdogen’s going for libel. What interests me is that laws exist in democratic countries which give foreign dictators a measure of control over their citizenry, and many people seem happy to relinquish this control. Germany isn’t the only place with such laws on the books: Italy, Poland and Switzerland have them too, and in Britain’s it’s still technically illegal to call for abolishing the monarchy in print. Not so long ago, many people happily conceded that the Ayatolah Komeny should have the power of life and death over British citizens. Many seem to think the Charlie Hebo staff had it coming. Ireland still has blasphemy laws on its books. In Canada, citizens can be hauled before “Human Rights Tribunals” without legal representation, for any perceived slight. Some conservatives want to criminalize criticism of Israel (anti-semitism), and some liberals want to criticise criticism of Islam (Islamophobia) and both call for ever expanding the hate speech or obscenity laws.

           Meanwhile, bloggers have been arrested and lashed by their government in Saudi Arabia[3], or lynched by their countrymen in Bangladesh for the despicable crime of expressing their thoughts. Both must have known the risks and both thought them worth taking. Courageous people the world over are dying for what we in the first world are quite relinquishing. How inspiring and sickening it is at the same time.   

Update:  Merkel's caved in, and is letting the prosecution go ahead: 

Most concerning is this little quote from the CDU Parliamentary Faction leader:

“In a constitutional democracy, it is up to the courts to decide where the boundaries lie."

So, the courts get to decide the limits of satire, and the limits of speech, and the limits of thought. Has the Parliamentary Faction leader considered that the courts decide such things in dictatorships as well?

Autocrats of the world, rejoice!

[1] Assuming of course they don’t actually do this – but even if they did, you’d need damn good evidence for it before committing it to print. You’d be better off just repeating what other people say.
[2] Fortunately, Dr.___________ is also a best-selling author, and so happened to have the resources to fight back. Many do not.
[3] Which Canada’s Liberal government is happily selling a billion dollars worth of armoured cars to.