Posts filed under ‘Books’

From the Sublime to the Ridiculous in 17 Days

Slam poetry to blow-up beavers; kd lang’s Hallelujah to Michael Bublé’s Mountie striptease. Eccentric Muse shares some final thoughts on the Vancouver Winter Olympics.

My friend Lynne asked me if I was going to write a follow-up piece on the Vancouver Winter Olympics closing ceremony as a kind of bookend to my Valentine To Canada.

I’ve been thinking about it (the closing ceremony, the Olympics in general, what they meant to Canada, blah blah blah) and reading/hearing a lot of commentary on it.  Yes, I agree they have heralded in a new spirit of Canadian patriotism, but like someone else said (I think perhaps it was Lloyd Robertson, grandpère of Canadian news broadcasting), there has been a gradual build to it.  It may have blossomed and borne fruit over the past 17 days, becoming more tangible and more focused, but it has roots going further back (much further back, given many Canadians’ dislike of their current government, which many–including me–do not see as facilitating that burgeoning sense of pride but rather eroding it).

And yes, as others have mentioned, this newfound spirit of national pride will likely fade again.  Maybe not to levels as faint as they were before, when we were consumed with penis envy of our bigger, brasher, bolder and more bragalicious U.S. neighbours.  When, no matter how much we aimed for self-definition that was a positive and not a negative (read that as a visual metaphor, not an emotional one), we came up–ahem–short.

Probing the sub-text of the opening ceremonies, we even came up short in Shane Koyczan’s poem.  As much as I love it and him (more on that below), and as much as I’d point to that as the true highlight of the opening ceremonies–the big surprise, the flaunting of the very best of our idiosyncratic and oft-unheard art & culture–the performance of We Are More (generously, edited; cynically, censored) was still riddled with images that define us against the stereotypes commonly held of Canada and especially the differences between Canada and the U.S.

But all that aside, the opening ceremonies, although criticized for containing hackneyed Canadian images, appropriating and stereotyping native culture, excluding Eastern/Quebec content (oh, please … get your heads out of your asses, Ontario and Québec), I thought set exactly the right tone for the opening of the Games.  Artistic, but accessible.  Symbolically powerful, emotionally resonant, meaningful and aspirational.  Enough “we’re likeable-don’t you like us? You like us, you really like us!” head-puffing and heartlifting emotional triggers to satisfy the sternest cynic and quell the qualms of the most insecure citizen.

The opening ceremony was not the time to be too shocking or controversial.  We needed to be welcoming, not weird.  Nor was it the time to be self-deprecating–a trait that is woefully misunderstood, much like irony, these days.  Self-deprecation is the true mark of the Canadian character.  Not a lack of self-confidence, or a lack of self-definition.  Not a confused and wavering sense of self-identity, rather the opposite.  So much confidence and the courage of our convictions about who and what we are that, yes, we are able to make fun of ourselves.

The closing ceremonies were, however, that time.  The time to do something a little more revolutionary and even more self-definitional–with humour but also with that closeted Canadian delight in over-performing after being underestimated.  They shot for it, but they did not score.

Instead of satire, we got silliness.  Instead of edgy and progressive, we got amateur and hokey.

Perhaps everything, simply everything, would be a disappointment after the singularly spectacular, nationally-unifying moment on the ice a mere three hours earlier. Thank God for the mercy of having clasped that men’s hockey gold medal to our collective breasts that afternoon.  (I am of the ilk who believes that of all the medals we won, including the record-breaking golden 14, that was the only one that truly mattered. )

If we had been forced to endure the travesty of those closing ceremonies after suffering the unthinkable disappointment of losing the gold in our national game, well … there would not have been enough beer in Canada to cry into.

It started well.  Mocking and rectifying the failure of the fourth phallus, err, cauldron arm, to rise was a stroke of genius.  William Shatner, Mary Catharine O’Hara and Michael J. Fox hit the right balance between spoof and sincerity.

Still…still…leaving aside the expectedly stilted speeches and sad hand-off to Sochi, the inexplicably surreal blow-up moose and beavers (I’d actually put that in the “plus” column, simply for sheer absurdity and strangeness), it was the musical acts that were the greatest disappointment.  No, no … not Neil Young.   He was beautiful, standing in stark relief against the burning flame (better to burn out than to fade away), strumming Long May You Run. Brought just the right homey hootenanny feel to it.

Can we pretend that the entire high-school musical episode, replete with a bumbling Bublé, walking canoes and 30-foot cardboard Mounties, never happened?  Please?

After Neil, things went downhill even faster.  With the exception of the French Canadian bands, there were too many commercial acts who are too well-known…and too well-known as Canadian.  Presenting the best of Canada’s commercial music scene, already recognized and rewarded on the world stage, was a tactic for the opening ceremonies, not for the closing ones.  The closing ceremonies should have presented the rest of the best of Canada.

Also, choosing some camera angles that didn’t emphasize the thinning crowds and empty seats would have helped.

I suppose I should be grateful that we didn’t have to suffer through Céline.  My heart really could not have gone on.

Canada’s indie music scene is a national treasure.  We keep it to ourselves and we don’t export it, much like the French do with their best wines.  In fact, as soon as it’s exported, it becomes, by definition, mass market and infinitely less interesting.

After the jump, I present the musical line-up as Eccentric Muse would have done it, plus a special surprise from Shane Koyczan.  Enjoy the show.

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March 3, 2010 at 4:07 pm 4 comments

Sorry Seems To Be An Easy Word

"The Apology" by Mark Ryden

Eccentric Muse comes off the slopes and dives into some current events that have caught her attention.

This week, U.K. PM Gordon Brown issued an apology for the British government’s Child Migrants Programme, in which up to 150,000 children, aged three to about 14, were shipped off to populate the colonies, including Canada, in the early part of the 20th Century.  In reality, these children were no more than human chattel, embarrassing (many were the children of unwed mothers) and a drain on Mother England’s resources during a time of war.  They ended up as child labour on farms, in mines and in factories, certainly neglected, frequently sexually and physically abused.  My grandfather was, apparently, one of them:  a “Barnardo” orphan, named for the main child services agency that executed the policy.  He ended up in Northern Ontario somehow (the details are sketchy), meeting my grandmother and fathering three children by her, then leaving her in poverty to fend for herself.  That legacy of shame and pain runs through my family tree.  There’s a whole story here that deserves telling, but that’s not what I’m on about today:  of interest is the apology, because….

Also earlier this week,  Mayor Peter Kelly of Halifax, Nova Scotia apologized to the former residents of Africville, a black settlement in Halifax which was populated until 1970 by descendents of African slaves who made their way up the coast to freedom in Canada. (Incidentally, if you’re looking for an award-winning fictional novel based on one of these journeys, pick up Lawrence Hill’s The Book of Negroes; in the US, “Someone Knows My Name”:  Hill creates the extraordinary character of Aminata Diallo, whose story is tragic, moving, inspiring and ultimately redemptive.)

The community of Africville was a robust and deeply-textured one, but also a disenfranchised one.  After years of thinly-veiled neglect and outright racist hostility, during which city services like garbage collection, water and policing were denied to residents, Africville was destroyed:  razed by city planners who claimed it was a slum (with, as is typical, a disingenuous lack of awareness of their having made it so).  The last of the families was moved out, the land confiscated, bulldozers were brought in and this “blight” in the north end of town was wiped clean.   In 2002, a memorial plaque was erected and the patch of land that used to be Africville was recognized as a national historic site.

This week (during Black History Month, natch), we have an apology from the City of Halifax for their poor decision-making of 40 years ago.  Not, I note, an apology for their behaviour leading up to the decision, which was equally or more abhorrent.  There are boundaries to the apology commensurate with the level of liability that the City of Halifax is willing to take on, I guess.  I note as well that the other terms of the settlement, $3 million and 2.5 acres of land, is being given to the Africville Geneology Society.  There is so far no individual compensation offered. (Nor is there any financial settlement accompanying the UK apology).

This week’s two public apologies, on different continents and for different reasons, resonate with the 2008 apology to Canada’s native peoples.  At the root, all are apologies for stripping people of their histories  and their cultures. Is a trend emerging?  And if so (or even if not), does the increasing frequency of public apologies by governments erode the quality or value of the individual apologies being issued?  Throw some cash at the problem, issue a public declaration of contrition, get some press and let’s move on.  The devil on my right shoulder views these apologies cynically, and also believes that they are the politically and legally expedient thing to do: simply a risk mitigation strategy.  The angel on my left says, let’s give the benefit of the doubt to the apologizers…let’s also acknowledge our own complicity in the bad acts, and now let’s hold them (and ourselves) accountable for doing the right thing, which includes ongoing engagement in a process of reconciliation as well as taking concrete steps to prevent the same or similar things from happening again.  Let’s yank progress and future good acts from the still-clenched jaw of culpability when it opens its mouth to say “I’m sorry.”

None of these apologies has been unanimously accepted by the groups to whom they were directed (of course).  Both the Africville and native residential school apologies were mandated terms of the settlement agreements that were reached.  As such, both must meet the higher level of scrutiny of the affected groups and indeed, the rest of us who–as citizens of the country, province or city whose government is trying to make amends–are not just interested observers but also in some sense, co-apologists.   We evaluate the apology’s motive as a key factor in determining its sincerity, and whether it should be accepted.  Whether, in fact, we should forgive–or be forgiven.

I mean, this is the way it goes with apologies:  you need to mean it when you say it.  You need to acknowledge your accountability for the pain and damage you have caused free from any hidden agenda to benefit from your admission of guilt other than, possibly, obtaining the relief of confession and anticipating with humble hope the balm of forgiveness.  Without those essential elements, the receivers and observers of the apology smell a rat.  Like we do at a 6-year-old coming off the naughty step, we squint our eyes at the offender and suspect–with good reason–that what is being apologized for might not be what the perpetrator actually feels sorry about.

The non-apology apology is now a brightly shining, burnished-with-use tool atop every defence lawyer’s and PR/media strategist’s workbench.  Its too-frequent public appearance is undermining those apologies that are sincere.  Two words:  Tiger Woods.

Some apologies don’t need to be public, and issuing them publicly is to betray a woeful lack of understanding of exactly what you’ve done to feel sorry for.  Regardless, all apologies must include a commitment to never, ever again do whatever it was that got you into the pickle you’re now in. If you don’t know what you’ve done, you can’t very well promise never to do it again, can you?

Beware the non-apology apology that sounds like this:  I’m sorry for what happened or I’m sorry that you feel that way. Neither means that I accept responsibility for the act that caused the happening or the pain.  Perhaps the apology is not mine to give, in which case the apology is sympathy.  But this leads to another nefarious non-apology apology:  those that are offered on others’ behalf.  The apologist in this case is truly sorry and often feels a genuine sense of remorse.  This remorse, however, is combined with a desire for reconciliation that is so great, they will bear others’ burdens for them.  Their shallow sympathy does no one any favours and, in fact, absolves the real perpetrator of any need to change their bad behaviour.  These are the meaningless and even harmful apologies of the co-dependent.

Finally, beware the serial apologizers:  people (or institutions, and yes — I’m looking at you Catholic Church) who’ve taken the maxim “confession is good for the soul” to its illogical extreme.  Absolution is a given, as long as the right pose is struck, the right words are said.  To forgive is divine, so if you can’t forgive me after my apology, it’s your fault.

Extending The Hands Of Friendship

"Extending The Hand Of Friendship" by Simone McLeod

In this vein, I was heartened by the furor that ensued when the City of Winnipeg first announced it was contemplating giving $2.5 million to a group called “Youth For Christ” to build a community centre in downtown Winnipeg.  And today, I am saddened to learn that after a heated six-hour debate, Winnipeg’s City Council has voted 10:4 in favour of the proposal.  The money will start flowing, and the aboriginal youth who populate the area will soon have a community centre with an indoor skateboarding park, a performance-art studio and a job-training centre.  How is this a bad thing, you ask?  Well, on the surface, of course it’s not.  Drawing a parallel to Africville, however, Youth For Christ is now providing access to services that this population should have had all along, and that the city, province and federal government should be funding as a matter of course in keeping with the spirit of apology and restitution made in 2008, not to mention that it’s just bloody well the right thing to do for those citizens whose disadvantage is a direct result of government-sponsored systemic discrimination. Oh, and by the way:  these services should be respectful of native language, culture and spirituality and not, by all that is holy, hinge on these kids accepting Jesus Christ as their Personal Saviour or even having to put up with someone’s conversion efforts.  I mean, for the love of….. [insert Deity of your choice here].

Oh sure, John Courtney, the Executive Director of Youth For Christ, has danced with Fred-Astairian verbal lightness of foot to counter the criticisms of those (apparently a minority? how can this be?) who find it just a bit hypocritical and a lot insulting to have Youth For Christ–a group whose sole, self-admitted raison d’être is to convert youth to Christianity–running this new community centre that will serve a majority Aboriginal population.  He’s not even trying to say that staff won’t proselytize–he’s admitted outright that they will, although he prefers to refer to these activities euphemistically–but he does say that, should any kid not wish to receive Christ as his or her Personal Saviour, well, they won’t be denied access to the services that the community centre offers.  Uhhh, oh yeah John?!? Just how will that work, exactly? And just exactly what don’t you understand about systemic discrimination and the appropriation of culture in general, and the impact it has had on this population specifically?

No, Youth For Christ is not the Catholic Church, and this community centre is not a residential school.  But the devil-and-deep-blue-sea choice Youth For Christ is (or will be) implicitly presenting to these native kids is fundamentally the same:  here’s comfort, shelter, food, a job, a life … and in return, you need only give up your own culture, your own traditions and history, to obtain it.  Shame on you, City of Winnipeg.  You ought to be sorry and it’s already too late to apologize.

February 26, 2010 at 5:37 pm 7 comments

Winter Wonderland

Woman. Dog.  Not me or Molly.

Woman. Dog. Not me or Molly.

Woke up to snow this morning (some yesterday too) and a blistering blue sky that only now has clouded over.  The snow was that powdery early winter stuff–fine as sugar, blown away by the strong winds but still clinging to fence posts and grass.

Molly and I followed a trail of compressed snowprints:  two boots and four paws in front of us, stuck to the paved path where we walk, the warmth and weight of master and pet having been enough to cement their steps to the asphalt while the remaining snow had blown away to reveal a kind of reverse snowtrail.

It inspired a (not very good) haiku:

white winter morning
bootdogpaw embossed footprints
companions in snow

I’ll work on it.  I am reading The Story Of Edgar Sawtelle.  It’s about a boy and a special band of dogs that he and his family breed and care for, so my own and others’ attachments to their dogs is in the forefront of my mind these days.

December 7, 2008 at 4:43 pm Leave a comment

New World Order

paw_largeI promise to get back to writing silly flights of fancy soon, but I’m not quite done processing my thoughts around the momentous events down south yet.  I’ve tried to do a little of both here in this re-written (11/08/08) blog post.

Barack Obama’s 1994 autobiography, Dreams From My Father: A Story of Race and Inheritance, has shot to the top of the amazon.com and other bestseller lists. However, if you want to know what Barack himself is reading, you might want to check out Fareed Zakaria’s new book: The Post-American World. Zakaria is the editor of Newsweek International, and I caught an interview with him this a.m. on Nov 6th on CBC Radio 1.

Prior to that, I had an exchange with aurora*raby on gawker about what the next step is for the U.S. (this was Nov 2, before Obama won).  The left-leaning,  educated, predominantly northeast, urban gawker audience was raging against and in some cases vehemently insulted by an article in Germany’s der Spiegel calling the U.S. “a superpower around the globe, but a Third World country at home…” and making a number of other inflammatory (albeit closer to true than false) accusations. In a moment of sanity on a thread that was degenerating in somewhat surprising ways to me given the gawker demographic, aurora*raby commented:

“we prove ourselves to be one big alcoholic family (Bush’s, no doubt) if we lash out at constructive criticism. We are very close to throwing off the yoke. Let’s start thinking about the next step.”

It prompted me to think about the next step.  Also, over the next week, about leadership, globalization and the Starship Enterprise.  To get in the proper frame of mind, I suggest you click on this youtube vid for the soundtrack to the rest of this post.

More, after the jump.

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November 7, 2008 at 12:13 am Leave a comment

Seriously Eccentric Saturday Musings

Ok, brace yourselves. When nothing in particular occupies my mind, it leaves a lot of room for randomness. And so it begins …

Mama elephant and her kids - Kilimanjaro in background

Still reading The World Without Us. The author, Alan Weisman, is jumping around quite a bit from topic to topic; era to era; location to location. Since we’re often dealing in geologic time, you can imagine how disorienting this is. It suits me to a T. It forces the reader to seek patterns in trends and events across time and invest them with meaning that might not occur if she was led down a straight, chronological path.

Current mood: a heightened sense of excitement brought on by the bracing winds of chaotic intellectual stimulation. (Bite me, facebook and myspace. Let’s see you come up with an emoticon for that.)

After the jump, we travel to the origins of Homo sapiens accompanied by Paul Simon’s Graceland and U2’s One.

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August 23, 2008 at 7:44 pm Leave a comment

The World Without Us

I’m reading a book called The World Without Us. It’s “speculative non-fiction” by a writer named Alan Weisman, who poses the scenario of the elimination, in the blink of an eye, of all human life from the planet. Poof. We are gone, and the buildings, animals, plantlife, air and water start to revert to their natural state, decaying or growing as the case may be, without human intervention.

He details what will happen in 100 years; in 1,000 years; in 10,000 years: as seasons change, as the oceans rise and lakes and rivers reassert their natural pathways, and as trees, vines, plants and animals retake their habitats until the next ice age–which we’ve pushed back through the climate change already wrought–scours the slate clean again. In a best-case scenario he presents, it will take a minimum of 1,000 years for the earth’s oceans to cleanse the air of the carbon we’ve dug from the earth and spewed into the atmosphere since the dawn of the Industrial Age in about 1750. Eventually, there will be no trace left of us except, perhaps, for some stainless steel pots that will befuddle the next lifeforms to evolve or arrive on Earth; and the Statue of Liberty, cast in bronze, barnacled and buried under a mile of silt in the Atlantic Ocean.

Weisman is saying that it will take a tremendously long time but left to its own devices, the earth will replenish itself. This, evidently, is supposed to be good news–a message of hope that, despite our current predicament, if humans finally drive ourselves to extinction before doing too much more damage to the earth, air, water and other species, things will rectify themselves.

Well, ok … but the problem I’m having (and granted, I’m only on p. 51) is the implausibility of that scenario actually transpiring. Weisman overtly says that the premise is not to speculate on what ends humanity, only that it ends quickly and completely–all at once, everywhere.

But, but … it won’t happen that way, will it? Even a massive asteroid hit, a broadscale nuclear war, biological warfare or the outbreak of a world-wide plague will have human life petering out slowly, unevenly, inconsistently. There will be no quiet overtaking of our cities by kudzu, birch and aspen. Instead, as human beings slowly–slowly and agonizingly–die off, those small bands of survivors who’re left will not go gently into that good night. As resources dwindle, as infrastructure fails, as hope fades … human nature and, never mind that, our basic will to survive, will remain intact. And the will to survive is an individual, not collective, one. Individuals will fight for the basic resources to survive: food, water, shelter. Maybe, maybe, parents will share those resources with their own children. Maybe, maybe, small bands or communities will form, if they are more powerful together than alone. But civilization, government, order and what we in the coddled, so-called developed world construe as morality and humanity, will cease in any meaningful, effective way.

It won’t be pretty.

Perhaps I am a pessimist about human nature, informed by my study of social psychology, and more recently, my reading of The Road and Blindness, which foretell gruesome, cruel and barbaric acts perpetrated by humans on humans in the face of just such doomsday scenarios. There has never been a situation, in the lab or in the real world, throughout history, where–especially in the face of annihilation–those with power and resources have not wielded them to their own advantage, to the extent of overtaking and enslaving those without.

So. I struggle with the premise, and before humans are wiped from the face of the earth, I wonder how much more damage we will do, not just to each other but to our home planet.

Perhaps this doesn’t matter. Perhaps the lingering, cruel destruction of humanity–the “every man for himself” phase–is just a blip on the timeline, as brief as the 15 or 20 minutes of twilight marking the transition from day to night.

We are on an inevitable path, though, to this twilight. By 2100, if we do nothing to curb it, the earth’s atmosphere is projected to contain 900 parts per million of carbon dioxide (CO2), up from 380 ppm today, which is up from 280 ppm in the pre-industrial age. In other words, in less than 100 years, we will triple our CO2 emissions, which have taken 250 years to rise by slightly more than one-third. This is just one measure of the escalating destruction of our planet. Another is the exponential increase in the number of species we have eradicated in the last 100 years by deforestation–and the proportion of species that will be made extinct by climate change in the next 45-50 (between 15 to 37% by 2050, according to a January 2004 Nature article).

Mr. Weisman–as much as I appreciate your long-term view, I can’t buy it. We will not get to your 1,000 year recovery scenario. We have less than 50 years to dramatically and unequivocally turn back the clock on climate change, on the destruction of habitat, on greenhouse gas emissions and on species extinction. If not, there will not be much left to recover.

I leave you with a poem. In the end, I can’t process this kind of information with scientific facts, journal articles or non-fiction treatises. I need poetry and literature to fully grasp the beauty of what we are destroying, and to galvanize me into the action required to save it.

We Have A Beautiful Mother

Alice Walker, Earthling Poems, 1965-1990 Complete

We have a beautiful

mother

Her hills

are buffaloes

Her buffaloes

hills.


We have a beautiful

mother

Her oceans

are wombs

Her wombs

oceans.


We have a beautiful

mother

Her teeth

the white stones

at the edge

of the water

the summer

grasses

her plentiful

hair.


We have a beautiful

mother

Her green lap

immense

Her brown embrace

eternal

Her blue body

everything

we know.

August 18, 2008 at 11:12 pm 2 comments

Dorothy and Alice: Precocious Precursors to Potter

Ralph Steadman's Tea Party

Ralph Steadman's Mad Tea Party, 1967

I’m discovering more and more information about Dorothy, Alice and other kidlit heroines; the similarities between them; and their origins and evolution. Wendy of Peter Pan keeps coming up–and not just in the “Lost Girls” erotic graphic novel, by Alan Moore (of V for Vendetta, Watchmen and From Hell fame), where the intrepid trio share stories of their sexual adventures. That’s a dialogue for another time.

Naturally enough (for me), I started down this winding path because of the Homage to the Rabbits group number in the SYTYCD Finale, and now I am enmeshed in research into the literary analysis of The Wizard of Oz, Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, Peter Pan, fairy tales and their place in our culture and human psychology, and what they say about our apparently innate need to create fantasy worlds and live in them–if only briefly–through literature (also, stage and film).

First, an erratum: L. Frank Baum created a series of books, on which the 1939 movie starring Judy Garland was based, about Dorothy Gale and her adventures in a mythical land called Oz. So apologies for my lack of precision in Ramble Through The Looking Glass and I now note that Oz was indeed based on a book series.

More after the jump…

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August 17, 2008 at 2:24 pm 2 comments

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