Thursday, June 22, 2006

On the damn page, if you please.

“Write one true thing. Write the truest thing you know.”

It’s a great sentiment, admittedly overquoted. Let’s ignore the fact that somebody, somewhere is going to bring up the point that Hemingway was frequently an overrated jerk. And I agree, but have always thought his short-stories were succinct and pure. Let’s make this issue all about YOU. What if the truest thing YOU can think of on short notice is that you had a really great frittata at that Greek place near the old bookshop on Queen St. East last Saturday afternoon?

There are two choices at this point. You can either write about it, and illustrate how it truly was God’s own frittata, or you can choose not to write anything that particular moment and wait until something more interesting occurs to write about, and meanwhile go back to working on that cure for cancer or whatever it is that fills your hours. And the glory of a frittata is not a cure for cancer. Few things are.

All that said, even if you're not working on that cancer cure, and all you feel like writing about is that fritatta, it doesn’t mean you shouldn’t write about your perfect frittata, it just means that you don’t have to.

And that explains my attitude towards blogging at the moment.

A film-critic friend of mine (we’ll refer to him as Burton) has recently started his own blog. I’d suggested this site and gave him the name of my blog, which surprised him. “I didn’t know you had one,” he said, “Why didn’t you tell anybody?”

I explained that the purpose of a blog for me was to write out anything that was on my nerves, good or bad. A blog allowed me to write something once and post it more-or-less unedited. And if I read it later and cringe (and oh heavens yes, I do), I at least won’t make the same mistakes more that a dozen times or so.

And the line between reportage or commentary or amusing anecdote or all-out self-indulgence is thin, and I tap-dance across it from time to time. So I haven’t told many people. But that idea contradicts itself immediately by posting anything at all. I guess I am working in a public forum because its easier to force yourself to write something if there is an audience somewhere (or potential of same). And being unedited to strangers is different than being unedited to friends.

Good excuse for sloppy grammar and spelling, somebody murmurs.

The product is offered ‘As Is’, I counter.

It’s an irrational response, I admit it. The blog itself represents an exercise in at least getting something out into solid pixels, whether it be random memories, issues around about my father, brief notes about my son and the whole festival of new-parenting, film criticism, rants about job searching, what have you.

Burton told me that he’d read through my blog, and said “Some of it was quite compelling. I was worried thought you’d stopped writing entirely.”

Compelling? Works for me. Beats banal. And I haven’t stopped writing entirely. I keep a fictional blog in another location. Creating a different, unreal life and forming a narrative is a piece of cake. However, the purpose of this blog is to not have the safety of fiction. And that said…it's easier to create stories than it is to sit down and think ‘What’s happened recently, or ever, that’s worth discussing?’

If I don’t write about baby Matthew, it’s because I’m too busy living that experience to know what’s worth recounting. Or maybe it’s enough simply to be part of the wave of relief that comes each morning, when the baby stirs, alive and healthy. It either takes it out of you, or puts you into a space where little else is important.

So, to the wee Matthew. Want a short history? He’s teething. He veers from hours of whining to being supernaturally quiet easily, and so much of his behaviour is summed up simply as “He’s a baby.” Speak to any parent of grown children for advice, you’ll get the same response.

He’s yowling unless he’s in arms. Why?
He’s a baby.
He’s falling asleep at 7:15am in his clothes. Is that normal?
He’s a baby.
Why is he so good one moment and inconsolable the next?
He’s a baby. I could write this down and you could frame it and hang it in several prime locations in your household so you can consult it at will.

(nobody has actually said that, but it must be tempting)

Matthew is almost 8 months old. Can’t walk, but has finally started to roll with a vengeance. Might skip crawling altogether and start toddling, which will be tiring and just fine (we live near a nice big park and around a 20 minute walk to a nice long boardwalk). The developmental stages you read about in parenting books are all being hit pretty much on time. He is looking to have green eyes, and is always up for a stroll. My wife rolls him around on an old-fashioned pram, I strap him to my back in a large carrier and wander Queen St. and the boardwalk when either of us gets fussy and need to get out of the house.

All this, and more. And nothing. What’s worth writing about? I don’t write about work, because nothing happens there that’s worth writing about. The pay is good, the people are nice, the location is just fine. If it drove me crazy, I’d write about it. In fact it does drive me crazy from time to time, but not enough to write about. Keeping up?

Write about what comes to mind. Write about what you don’t understand. Or take a deep breath and write about transcendence and beauty, since they're so big that you're bound to hit some corner or curve of them. The broadside of a barn, as it were, if the barn were, like, the ultimate barn, or prettiest barn, or some such.

Transcendence can be very cheap:

Elvis Costello’s ‘I want You’, sung through gritted teeth in 1983

Jackson Browne singing a simple arrangement of 'Linda Paloma'with Warren Zevon on piano, 1978

Andre Previn conducting Barber’s 'Adagio for Strings,' 1978

Bruce Springsteen with a guitar, singing ‘Shut out the Light’, bootlegged in 1982

Neil Young’s ‘Stringman’, solo piano from an Unplugged special, 1990

Nirvana’s arrangement of ‘Jesus Don’t Want me for a Sunbeam’, released 1992
Disagree? Be my guest.

And beauty? Maybe it fills a vacumn. When my father was sick, I was carrying around (of all things), a Japanese cookbook. It provided an unusual, but effective escape - I hadn’t planned on making anything ambitious from its recipes at the time, but the structure and presentation of the dishes intrigued me and kept me, as much as was possible, from fixating on my father’s upcoming death.

I liked the fact that those dishes existed at all. They were something that wasn’t frightening and sad. I’ve always had a weakness for Japanese design, and the idea of taking the time to boil down the same clump of kombu and bonito flakes twice for a particular dish (second-dashi for miso soup) struck me as exotic and far away from mouth-swabs and my father sleeping for 18hrs a day, wasting into something less than living.

Years later, I don’t associate Japanese food with my father’s illness or death. But when I am depressed or under some other kind of pressure, I’m lurk around Japanese restaurants. I want to see something drawn with care.

More transcendence. Bored at work, listening to Nino Rota’s jazzy and ethereal circus music for Fellini’s films. They’ve dated well in that they never quite belonged in the first place. La Dolce Vita’s finger-snapping bass segues into lush strings or cymbals and chimes with a smooth, disconcertingly ease. It sounds like a juggling act in musical terms, but the fling from form to form never overwhelms. Madman. Artist. Both Rota and Fellini.

Transendence. Writing one true thing.

Mamet's Oleanna is a nightmare to produce, act in, direct, discuss, or walk away unscathed from. It's ususally attacked, championed and dismissed with acid, which is enough to get my attention. If you haven't read it, do so. Ignore the movie, and ignore most productions (I've seen 3 in Toronto, all horrible).

If you read Oleanna and think “Yes! This proves my point!”, you really should read it again. Oleanna is a notorious favourite of people who are convinced that Mamet didn’t go far enough in painting academics as pseudo intellectual, or students as being easily led and filled with rage at having to fit into somebody else’s paradigm.

For my part? It’s a great nightmare. And I don’t think Mamet is particularily sympathetic to either party. I’ve always wanted to see a production where the director flips the sexes. Let a female prof were approached by a Men’s Group member, and make that group a bunch of entitlement junky frat-boys who’ve decided that the average white male is under attack. Or the touchy-feely-hidden-facist types along the lines of the Promise Keepers, or one of the Men’s Rights groups that suggested that Marc Lepine had a few valid points to make. The play becomes a hell of a lot scarier.

Scarier, but cut and dried. If you don’t read Oleanna as he-said she-said, it’s a much better play. The point isn’t that either side is right, the point is that they’re not speaking the same language while simultaneously defending the point that they’re entitled to their own syntax.

JOHN: And what would transpire.

CAROL: Transpire?

JOHN: Yes.

CAROL: “Happen?”

JOHN: Yes.

CAROL: Then say it.

It goes downhill from there. A great deal of political discourse does.

I read both Adbusters and National Review online, when one infuriates me I switch to the other. Adbusters usually gets on my nerves because of the free floating rage without compromise. National Review is the dead opposite, I can’t stand the free-floating smug and think the solutions are horrific. Both publications at their worst are like watching somebody tie a red towel around their neck and claiming to be Superman, for the cause. Acceptable behaviour up until the age of 8 or so, but a bit trying after that point.

That said, I support most of the muckraking that takes place in Adbusters, and I like the no-smoke-no-mirrors approach to advertising and double talk. This doesn't make them immune to it, however. I draw the line at being a full-fledged supporter due to this type of self-indulgent crap on their website:

We are a global network of artists, activists, writers, pranksters, students, educators and entrepreneurs who want to advance the new social activist movement of the information age. Our aim is to topple existing power structures and forge a major shift in the way we will live in the 21st century.

Why are pranksters supporting social activism? The point of pranking is pranking, and once the red towel of social activism is removed, there’s just a guy defacing signs.

As long as he doesn’t deface their signs, I suppose Adbusters is quite content. Time will tell. Sometimes, defacing a Nike poster is culturejamming. And sometimes the damn cigar remains a cigar.

The ‘artists’ fold is a more slippery slope – I was involved in a long forum discussion a few years ago with a woman who was complaining that there were no reform-party sponsored poets. I suggested that the moment you put on the reform party towel, you’re a member of the party first and foremost. And the moment the party says that they endorse your poem, it’s agitprop.

She told me that poetry was free and to go to hell you liberal pinko monkey (or some such). I stand by my position – write the poem first, and if you put on the towel for the left or right, so be it. But the poem must be devised without towel. And if you never take off the towel, then you produce the product typical of a functionary.



(and off, off, off goes the karmic boomerang, looking for a fine reason to smack me on the head with a resounding echo of ‘Hypocrite’ – I’ve got the goofy optimism that it might swing close but not connect, and yet quiver at the idea that the boomerang’s swath is wide and still eerily precise upon return)

Or in simpler terms…having somebody insist that they’re an artist is scary enough. But a true artist takes the hit. They say “I thought it was a good idea” when you ask why they’ve decided to recount the life of Saul/Paul and his trip to Damascus in finger puppets. It might be brilliant or dreadful, who knows? In the eye of the beholder.

When somebody insists they are an artist working towards ‘the cause’, I get frightened because I think about Russian poets being compelled to write sonnets for the 5 year plan. Or German expressionism getting wasted over the Horst Wessel movie.

A political artist who defends the politics of their work over the rest of its merits has abdicated the right to be called an artist. Propaganda’s purpose is propaganda. Suggesting that ‘The Passion of the Christ’ or ‘The West Wing’ are important not because of their content but because of their politics irritates me, because oh heavens, those apparatchiks and what they called art. And what was burned quietly in the background.

What about the great, socially minded artists? Too many to mention. I’m just suggesting they were artists first. Using an easy example, I don’t recall any comments in ‘The Grapes of Wrath’ that suggested another 4 years of Roosevelt will improve things, or that Hoover should have been re-elected. Did I miss a chapter?

And anybody of any political attitude can claim a product as their own. My personal favourite is a dreadful National Review piece about Conservative rock here, complete with a proviso that the list means nothing:

“In several cases, the musicians are outspoken liberals. Others are notorious libertines. For the purposes of this list, however, we don’t hold any of this against them.”

The statement “It’s conservative because I say so,” rattles under it, or more importantly “It’s conservative now,” saving the song from its previous life as an anthem for something (anything) other than the glory of pro-abstinence and pro-marriage (Beach Boys), on affirmation of the Bush doctrine (Bob Dylan, with a song 12 years pre-Bush at that).

This is admittedly knee-jerk on my part. I hear the word ‘activist’ dropped into conversations by people who expect a brief genuflect towards the term, usually with the same self-satisfied reverence that the term ‘entrepreneur’ or ‘spiritual person’ is dropped in different circles. I have an equal contempt for all 3 instances. If it’s poison from the right, it’ll be poison from the left as well. Choose your poison, or choose not to drink either bottle.

And all that's not a fritatta. Nor a cure for cancer. But here we are.


alice in newyorkland said...

Hmm. Beautiful things? Adagio for Strings in a certain North York living room, as I recall.
Also mystery novels. The British procedural kind. Early PD James. MUCH better than Hemingway...despite his Clean, Well...Lighted Places...
What's wrong with writing about frittatas???
xo alice

Blogger Templates by 2008