Thursday, March 31, 2011

This week's rundown of cheap shots


Harper now says ‘no’ to one-on-one debate with Ignatieff
From the National Post. It sounds a bit better than:

Harper ‘backing out’ of one-on-one debate, Ignatieff says
from the Toronto Star. In sadder news, the Globe and Mail points out that:

PM makes his regrets official on royal wedding
Rumour has it that somebody told Harper that the ceremony might degrade into a one-on-one debate and he didn't want to take the chance. On that topic, the Globe continues with:

Canada won’t put boots on the ground in Libya, Harper says
Why not? Did they invite us to a series of one-on-one debates? We can't get Harper's opinion on that because, as the Star tells us:

Harper taking only five questions per day from media
Five questions full stop, not debatable. At least the Post sees where the sun sets and suggests that:

In the West, the debate is Layton versus Harper
Until recently, at least. It possible that the east is looking a lot more accessible since at least they're avoiding the D word as not to offend somebody's delicate sensitivities.

March 31, 2011

Friday, March 25, 2011

For Printing


Now that it's all happening, feel free to print this Gilles Duceppe quote (collected from CTV News) on a small piece of paper and hand it to the person of your choice when they start Conservative talking points about coalitions:


The alarmist Conservative talk was scoffed at by Bloc Leader Gilles Duceppe, who has pointedly noted that Harper proposed defeating Paul Martin's minority Liberal government on its throne speech in 2004 and replacing it, with NDP and Bloc backing.

Duceppe revelled in the details this week, describing the Delta Hotel on Maissonneuve Boulevard in Montreal where Harper convened the conspirators.

"He was coming in my office saying, 'If Martin is going to lose confidence, what do you want in the throne speech? What would you like in the budget?"' Duceppe recalled.

April's going to be horrible.

Sunday, March 13, 2011

Destruction

Poster created by James White, on sale at Signalnoise.
All profits will be donated to Japanese disaster relief.

Tuesday, March 08, 2011

Dear Doctor George - Lukewarm Dead

Dear Doctor George –

I’m a guy in his early fort...er...I mean I’m a guy north of thirty-eight who leads a pretty normal life except for the fact that I appear to have a medical problem. Every time I drink 3/4s of a bottle of Vinho Verde and eat around a two cups of heavily salted and buttered popcorn (popped in a pot, none of that microwave kibble) while watching The Walking Dead until 1:00am, I wake up and hate the universe due to the great pain in my skull. Could the wine or popcorn be poisoning me? Could I catch the Zombie plague from the TV?

Deeply concerned, Migranious
______________________________________

Dear Migranious-

This is a most unusual condition that you have presented. For the past several years, my colleague and spouse Dr. Jonie Falk and I have conducted extensive clinical studies, both laboratory-based and in the field, to determine the existence of a positive correlation between the consumption of Vinho Verde and post REM headaches. Our research findings (as published in the journal Imbibing Academics - Special Edition: Iberia Vol. 4.2) determined that the consumption of said beverage demonstrates only a statistically insignificant positive correlation. Given the rather large sample used to derive these findings, I can say with certainty that the cause of your malaise a tête is due to some external variable.

Please allow me to dabble in my professional hobby, popular-psychology, and posit the following notion: Your headache was actually caused by the voluminous and repetitive consumption of sub-standard visual media commonly referred to as Zombie Melodramaticus. You may not have noticed the initial symptoms such as snickering at poorly written dialogue, eye-rolling at patently unoriginal characterizations or even making sarcastic comments at laughable plotting such as the choice to have a character saw through his own wrist - rather then the 3/4 inch pipe he was handcuffed to - with a metal hacksaw.

I humbly suggest that you refrain from extended bouts of consuming this or similar media in the future and allow moderation to be your guide.

All the best, Doctor G

Sunday, March 06, 2011

Continuations


Souza worked with me at two different departments in a past job. She brought me tins of Portuguese olive oil upon request and kept candy in a clear dish at her desk for passers by. She was out of town when I stopped working that job and called me when she found out I was gone. "It is what it is, right?" I told her, careful not to violate a confidentiality agreement. "But everything was resolved fairly and there's no bad blood with anyone at the company."


It didn't explain a lot (including my side of that particular story), but it was a factually accurate statement and was exactly the kind of thing to say after things have been agreed upon and papers signed. Souza was a nice woman who knew enough to understand that you didn't ask for other details. She said she wanted to keep in touch, and we do. I didn't tell her about that base instinct (the one that I don't want to trust on any intellectual level) that was telling me You don't have to worry about losing your job in a straightforward but still not-quite reassuring way. When I was interviewing and networking and hit with the standard worries - money, career, future, self-worth or absolute lack thereof - the instinct would return with You REALLY don't have to worry about this while sounding like the advice of somebody in the know.

I was optimistic, but didn't quite trust it. Then I landed a good job with far less angst than I'd expected. It's a good fit. Occasionally, I even think I know what I'm doing. It's patchy. But it happens from time to time.
___________________________________

I get to work on a Thursday and have three and a half hours to get things done before heading to a seminar about managing Social Intranets. In the time before I go, I manage to create profiles for new hires, write some news messages and arrange some security settings. I track what I'm doing move-by-move and occasionally write down new procedures to eventually establish best practices. I time the complicated, boring set-up stuff to see if I can get it down to a science and be able to plot out how long I'll take to finish a project. It's not exactly exciting or creative; I've not been asked to translate bullet-point lists into articles and write précis based on two or three different pieces. It's meat and potatoes communication and web administration, but it's a straight line of work that I can do and record and build into measurable results.

I leave the office at noon. An out-of-office message refers calls to my cell. I've got a stack of business cards to distribute if I'm introduced to anybody interesting. I walk to the subway past the intersection at Yonge and Eglinton where my father walked to his office for over 20 years (only a few blocks away from my own) and I'm listening to ancient National Lampoon Radio Hour broadcasts on a bluetooth headset. I'm amused at the fact that, in the office, I'm paid to work, to tinker with HTML code and security settings and intranet communications and embedded video and communication plans. Out of the office, asked to attend a seminar, I'm being paid to think on behalf of my company, to assess information and see what we can use for business. It's a good sensation. I get out at St. Patrick station to walk to the hotel feeling like a grown-up, a turn of phrase I've loathed since I was a kid. Even then, I knew it was juvenile. But it's the only honest one that comes to mind, right now.
___________________________________

The first symptom of realizing one's age; you can't walk around your city without flashbacks. 90% of them are benign and carry no more weight than simple recognition. 5% strike a chord that lasts for a few minutes, or days, but won't bring you down. The remaining 5% are part of a crapshoot as to whether they will inspire you or open an old would. In practice, they simply reinforce the fact you never forget the things which change you.
___________________________________

I'm walking from the subway to the hotel that's holding the seminar. I pass an intersection where I took a few days of classes on a web authoring tool for my former job, delighted and mildly surprised that they felt I should attend. It felt good being downtown for a change of pace, rather than in the far west end. Then that job was drawn to a close and I was downtown a lot, interviewing, feeling put-out but still hearing that same You don't have to worry about this statement from somewhere indefinable. That might just be another crapshoot on the part of my psyche - a few hormones to the left or right and I could have spent the same time hearing the voice tell me I was doomed and to invest in canned food and shotguns. But it didn't - I carried on. That's where the prologue becomes irrelevant, at least for this instance.

On the street leading to the hotel, there's a tall condo. I had two friends living together there when they were happy. Something happened to that happiness and they moved out. She eventually married in the conventional way and had two children. He found somebody and they declared themselves married without the usual trappings and it worked for them so who is the rest of the world to judge? All of it meant a lot at the time; it turned into past-history so gradually that the initial impact of it all has faded from most people, except maybe from the two friends themselves. Less irrelevant than my prologue. You can always trace where you are from where you came.
__________________________________

I am navigating by very old charts. The hotel that's holding the seminar used to be a Holiday Inn (I think) behind Nathan Phillips Square. I used to play a grand piano there when I was 14 or so, on Saturday afternoons when there weren't a lot of people around and nobody seemed to mind. Every so often some employee would figure out I wasn't a guest and suggest that it was time to stop and I'd leave. I met a moviestar there, a tough guy who was sitting with an even bigger, tough guy to his right on a couch in that lounge. I approached him and told him he was a great actor, especially in that movie where he wore the mohawk and carried the gun. He didn't look impressed at first, then smiled, introduced me to his (I assume) bodyguard and told me he was always happy to meet somebody who appreciated what he did. I eventually stopped camping out there on Saturday afternoons, I can't remember why. It was a distant memory by the time I was 16 and a better pianist.

The hotel is now part of U of T and appears to be doing double duty as some kind of student meeting centre. It feels like a dorm, despite the meeting rooms and good carpeting. It has always been a weirdly laid out hotel, with escalators dropped in unexpected places and long walks down hallways devoid of doors. I find the meeting room and spend 90 minutes listening to theories about managing a decent social intranet. You can Google the term yourself, but the session was interesting for the faithful and I reconnected briefly with a guy named Geoff who I met in a networking session between jobs. We'd talked about his idea for being a Social Media consultant for people who don't have the time or inclination to leverage the medium for their own business or publicity; over a business lunch it became obvious that we were looking at the idea from two very different angles that didn't quite jibe, but we parted believing that the other person was a decent enough guy and did know his stuff, maybe something could come together at another time.

Maybe it did- I chatted with Geoff for a few minutes about his new job and mine and agreed to compare some notes about what we're both doing. I'm mentioning it here because the notion of networking always made my skin crawl - I spent a few awkward evenings at so-called parties where people handed out business cards and acted like it was desperately important to learn everything they could about me for future use. That wasn't the case with Geoff, or with this seminar, and it felt good being paid to be in a room with people on the same wavelength. Some of the points I made in the interview for my present job came out of my discussions with Geoff, and I told him so. Credit where credit is due, and all. And a nod to the whole networking idea; sometimes the system works.
___________________________________________

I also remembered doing very stupid in that hotel. I had attended a Parents Against Drugs seminar there when I was 18 or so, not as a speaker but as sort of a participant- I'd taken part in an anti-drug play in my last months of high school and that play had been filmed. Three cast members were invited to answer questions about it (the three who our drama teacher had been able to reach on short notice) and I was part of that lucky number.

By that time of the year, we were all sick of that particular teacher, of high school as a concept, and very sick of the show itself. So we arrived decidedly buzzed on a bottle of red wine that somebody had procured with their sister's driver's license. We weren't fall-down drunk by that point and had entered the headachey, this-wasn't-a-good-idea stage of coming down, nothing that a dark room with a video playing and lots of black coffee couldn't take care of.

I ended up being seated with the parents of a child - I think he was 14 - who dropped something mind-expanding after a concert and walked into heavy traffic to be hit by a car and killed instantly. It had garnered a lot of attention and everyone I knew seemed to know somebody who'd known this kid. I didn't intend any disrespect for the child or his parents, I was just buzzed and sitting at their table, wondering how this had happened and when were they going to start the video?

The child's mother had become a crusader for the drug-awareness cause. She was friendly, surprisingly lively and very actively working the table to see who was there and why. She moved past the other cast members and I rather quickly, offering sincere thanks for our efforts and letting us know that the show was groundbreaking. We weren't so sure, but we'd been doing it for months and were pretty much immune to any effect it might have on an audience. I was looking for coffee when the child's father spoke to me out of nowhere and quietly, not-sentimentally asked "Has my son's death made a difference?"

I don't know if anyone else heard it. He didn't look like this question was his conversation-starter, his wife was doing a very good job keeping the flame and he'd been rather quiet until that point. It was a valid question. I wasn't a good person to answer it. I wanted him to ask it to some kind of social worker in the room, somebody who'd give him an answer with statistics and interviews and case studies. I was very aware of the fact I was 17 and coming off a cheap-wine buzz and that I didn't come into the room expecting to be in front of that question. I didn't feel like my conduct was radiating the respect the situation deserved. It wasn't shame that hit me exactly (although it's here now) but a great sense of impropriety. I couldn't say We're here for a goof and to back up our teacher and didn't expect to find something so real, I'm sorry to a man who lost his son to the kind of dumb thing most kids do at that age. I wasn't the person he should have spoken to. I would gladly have confessed all and changed places on short notice if I could have thought of a better person to answer.

I was honest. I said "I think it's made a difference. I know a lot of people who are more careful now." I mentioned the people I knew who'd known or almost-known his son, how sorry they were. He nodded, not emotionally but thoughtfully. The lights dimmed and the video played. The child's mother spoke for a few minutes when it was over, and the cast and I answered a few questions about how it was workshopped, and it was done.

I have a son now, and the hotel brought it back. I did a few other truly dumb things in my adolescence (later to be supplanted by the dumb things of the early 20s), most of them only self-wounding. But that particular event convinced me I never wanted to be in that kind of position again, suddenly close to genuine tragedy after coming in expecting a quiet, we-got-away-with-it lark. Decades later, no disrespect was intended. That sentiment wouldn't have mattered when faced with a drunk teen, but it went under the radar. Mea Culpa.
___________________________________________

I walked out of the hotel and towards Holy Trinity Church beside the Eaton's Centre. I was married there eleven years before and wanted to walk in for a few minutes. The doors were locked, which I attributed to the clearly marked hours of operation on the door rather than some divine statement, and thought about my wedding. My wife and I are still speaking to around 98% of the people who attended, an above-average ratio for such things in some quarters. There's been a lot of deaths - two grandmothers, my father, an aunt and an uncle and family friends. My mother's bout with cancer actually began almost a month to the day after the ceremony, and I can track the events after that with striking clarity. I try not to focus on it on the train ride home. Things were good at the wedding. It's enough to hold onto that on bad days.
____________________________________________

I get to work the next day and am hit by the location again. I lived at Yonge and Eglinton, had friends who worked there, spent an inordinate amount of money at used CD chops there and visited my father for lunch there for before he took a job further downtown. I walked around the area in shock for the first few days, not unpleasantly but heavily. I've seen the store change for decades now. I still look for Edwards bookstore or Fran's. I had a girlfriend with an apartment and a pool nearby, I remember the route I'd take late at night sheepishly looking for the last bus home. When I told Travis where I was working, he said "That place is like the Mafia, isn't it? Just when you think you're out, they keep draaaaaaging you back in..." and he's not without a point.

I can't find anywhere I lunched with my father. Restaurants in Toronto turn over frequently enough that almost anywhere I think of as comforting and holding memories of him is long gone. One exception; the Granite Brewery on Mt. Pleasant and I can't set foot in it without wondering if he was nearby, maybe have a beer and a Caesar salad, a steak sandwich. I'd rather remember than be reminded.

There's better stuff too, of course. My son's afternoon school is at St. Clair and Yonge. I can meet my wife for a quick lunch or cup of tea after she drops him off. I called her from my cell on my first week at work around 1:30pm.

She said, "I'm just dropping off Matthew."

I said, "I'm looking down Yonge St."

She said "I'm on Yonge St."

She was two subway stations and around 4km away at the top of a hill, invisible to the naked eye. But I said "I can see you" and felt a great wave of relief. The interal voice said You'll be okay, as things past and present shape themselves into the foundation I stand on. And as stated earlier, sometimes I even think I know what I'm doing. It doesn't last. But I do.



March, 2011

Friday, March 04, 2011

Spalding, Gone - 'And Everything Is Going Fine'



Most documentaries - even the good ones - will have a few moments of backstory in a formal ahem we're going to be exploring something here people sort of way to set up the next 90 minutes of programming. There's nothing wrong with that, and when properly applied it provides the context required to give the story it's due.

You have to be brave, utterly self-involved and indifferent to questioning masses to break that particular mold and it makes perfect sense that Steven Soderbergh has taken that approach to his Spalding Gray documentary And Everything Is Going Fine. Gray was brave, self-involved and indifferent to conventional audience expectations to his work (a few film ventures aside- he showed up in Beaches briefly, Garry Marshall being about as far from the Wooster Group as Bette Midler was from August Strindberg). I loved every frame of Soderbergh's film while not knowing if I can recommend it to anyone who's not familiar with Gray's life. It's all there, if you know how rather than where, to look; the Christian Scientist mother and WASPy upbringing in Providence, Rhode Island, the flailing of a young actor and the formation of the monologues that became his forum. It wouldn't be fair to call them his trademark; there are lots of monologists, few have ever nailed the form as honestly (often to a fault) as Spalding Gray.

If you need a précis, the film might not be for you. This doesn't mean that Soderbergh hasn't tried to make you welcome, it just means that the big finish occurs offscreen and it's that big finish that breaks the heart of every Gray afficinado who watches the film through watering eyes. The journey's more important than the increasingly inevitable destination; Gray's eventual fate was a motif that ran through all of his work, and seeing him succumbing to a not-quite-defined something near the end of the film is wrenching for everyone who knows how it comes to a close. Those in the know, know it. Those who aren't won't hear it from me.

If this all reads as overly cryptic, it's intended with respect. Soderbergh's tactic is to catch Gray at different points in his career through grainy video, shaky archival recordings and glossy network profiles that show him addressing the same points and memories from his life at different times in his life. Spalding in the early 80s might discuss his childhood backed up by a clip from Spalding in 2004 just after his accident in Ireland. It plays without the standard intro or narration or any additional context for those who don't know the basics, but even the uninitiated will be able to appreciate the wit and imagination of a born storyteller who transcended that particular cliché. By the time the clips become more recent and unrelentingly telling about his state of mind, it's impossible not to be struck with a sense of loss. Gray had a lot to give, a great deal of it screamingly funny and quietly, wrenchingly sad. It didn't have to end the way it did, but it's impossible to say that the seeds weren't planted a very long time ago.

I'm the perfect audience for And Everything is Going Fine. I was an actor when I saw Gray's first filmed monologue Swimming to Cambodia back in the 80s, I followed every cinematic and printed work he ever produced. A paramour in university told me once that I carried myself like Gray when I was acting and I took it as a great compliment, rather than worrying about the fact that I should be, you know, acting, rather than riffing on Spalding Gray. I knew everything before sitting down to watch Soderbergh's take on it all and still found myself in tears by the ending. I had an irrational, gut-response to it, not knowing if I wanted to horde every copy and distribute only to the Gray-faithful, or to hand it out at streetcorners along with copies of Swimming to Cambodia, Monster in a Box and Sex & Death to the Age 14.

I've decided to take a third option: if you don't know Spalding Gray from a hole in the ground, see the film and Google him after the fact. If you're a Gray admirer, watch it and prepare to see it all melt away again. Detractors are as welcome as well- you'll get to see the worst of Gray displayed alongside the best without a narrator or talking heads trying to justify it all. Viewers of all stripes are welcome to take away from it what they will. For my part, I simply felt shaken. Come back Spalding. All's forgiven. We miss you.


- March, 2011

Dear Doctor G - Charlie and the Squirrels

Dear Doctor G-

I’m not a follower of network TV, especially not Two and a Half Men which is a favourite of my 10yr old neighbor and my aunt in her mid-60s, thus representing the demographics so deeply desired by the producers. But the recent meltdown, weird self-aggrandizing and spectacularly unwise ramblings of the soon-to-be-bankrupt-or-institutionalized Charlie Sheen are not entirely dissimilar to those of a borderline sociopath I once knew (who I only believed to be eccentric, despite warnings from more perceptive souls) and the parallels are striking. At what point in one’s development is one supposed to stop believing that any level of karmic redress for past wrongs is past due? And does this have anything to do with the recent and exceedingly juvenile foundation of something referred to as Ford Nation by local enthusiasts, not to mention one’s recent discovery that a small family of squirrels have taken up residence in one’s attic, perhaps requiring an extension ladder, rat poison and application of chicken wire, putting yours truly into a lousy, put-upon mood? If one’s health is alright, one's child is developing at a steady rate, one's wife is happy with her job and one will be receiving a decent tax return, should one not stop flashing back to past exhibits of self-indulgent gonzo spurred by Charlie Sheen’s ramblings and delusions of grandeur?

Sincerely,
Boats Beating Ceaselessly Into the Past, in Toronto

____________________________________________________


Dear Boats Beating Ceaselessly Into the Past-

I fear that what you are experiencing has resulted from a trigger of sorts that, when pulled, fires a load of jagged memories from a wide-muzzled, psychological musket into the liquid, Narnia-like mirror that is your individual, pathos-laden, recollection or interpretation of people, places, and events, from a time when your future was, as penned and sung by the late and great Dr. Strummer of Drochaid a' Bhanna, unwritten.

Given the above, relatively simple diagnosis, my prognosis is for you to forego the application of poison within your domicile and seek out the services of a humane animal control professional who will gently remove the Tree-Ratticus With Good PR and relocate them to a more suitable environment. Conversely, you may initiate contact with a long lost misguided shooting enthusiast via a request to have him dispatch the family of squirrels with a borrowed pellet gun. Furthermore, I encourage you to put pen to keyboard and document this communiqué and resultant fallout in some sort of a public forum, perhaps a brochure or coloured pamphlet.

Yours in science and logic,

Doctor G

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