Sunday, November 27, 2005

Lack of Sleep, Free Forming...


"You’re a new dad, miserable yet?"
"No. A touch fatigued, but by no means miserable."
"Getting any sleep?"
"Enough to keep alive. An average of 6hrs per night, which is apparently luxury."
"Has he peed on you? On the walls? The change table? The ceiling? The cat? "
"Yes, no, yes, no, no."
"Getting any sleep?"
"Haven’t you asked this? Yes. Around 6hrs per night."
"Any screaming tantrums? And those are from you, I mean?"
"No, but I’m working up to one."
"When’s the Briss?"
"Last I checked I wasn’t Jewish. Nor is my wife. By association, neither is our son."
"Hey, doesn’t hurt to ask. Incidentally, getting any sleep?"
"Yowza. Little touchy, aren’t we?"

Life of a new father. And it's Christmas already. How did it get so late so soon?

Random thoughts. The young master snores gently, swaddled in a blanket, resting on a broad pillow on my lap. It’s dry and cold, mid-November. My son will more-or-less sleep from around 1am at the latest to 8:30am at the latest, with a few squeaks in-between for feedings (‘squeaks’ meaning that he makes some noise, my sleepy wife rolls over to feed him, and he falls back asleep either mid-feed or shortly thereafter).


This puts us both at an average of 6, sometimes a luxurious 7 hours of sleep a night (granted, it doesn’t feel like it), which is close to Statscan normal for sleep in Canada. Here’s to the status quo.

But the sleep your body needs isn’t the sleep your brain needs. Sleep is necessarily thin at the moment, with one ear attuned to any sound out of Matthew. It’s a ‘fast’ sleep if that makes any sense – I will wake up with his feedings for a few seconds and get unconscious a few minutes later rather like turning off a light. And very few dreams. Ususally about my father, in a relatively harmless context these days, with the faint recognition that he’s dead in the background of my sleep. If I dream about going to the movies and see him in the popcorn line, there’s a faint glimmer of “Oh, this must be happening before he died.”

I shouldn’t complain, at least the sleep hours are building up. There have only been a few occasions where Matthew has woken up with an all-out howl, a screechy dry sound that’s scary as hell at 3am. Its usually an unsubtle hint that he needs a feeding or a change, but occasionally it’s longer, higher pitched. A baby screeching when they feed is unnerving.


What does it? An errant air bubble. A touch of acid reflux. A bad dream, in whatever syntax babies dream about. Or literally growing pains, the first few days with the new appendages. Babies can’t quite control their motion, so they’ll wake themselves up by flailing, which upsets them, which means they can’t sleep, which upsets them, which makes them flail, which upsets them, tiring them out but they can’t sleep, and so on. So in all this…yes, we’re sleeping.


For now. All things turn on a dime and change litters the floors in the wake of a baby. A brief homage to Noir fiction there- Saturday was Hembeck’s birthday, I’d asked how old he was and he replied “Just like the ‘steel monster that spits lead’ in Dashiell Hammet stories, I am 45.” I’ll be 45 in 8 years, which seems impassable but the last 6 have pretty much flown by.

I collect movies, and when they are spat out onto DVD I’m beginning to take offence to the dates. There’s a Special Edition of Jumaji (which would be a change of pace, the film itself isn’t too special) on it’s 10th Anniversary and that unnerves me, both the existence of a special edition and the fact it’s 10 years old. Can’t be. No more than 5. That’s the rule. Heathers can’t be 17yrs old. Blade Runner working on 23 yrs and dating relatively well and that's ok, that's identifiably in childhood. But Withnail & I can't be 1986. Must be a typo.


John Lennon everywhere. Yoko Ono is selling the handwritten lyrics to 'Give Peace a Chance' which makes numerous people get warm and runny. And if that gesture is tied into the DVD re-release of Imagine then its just coincidence. No offence to Yoko. Or Lennon. Always liked "So this is Christmas", but I'm getting tired of the beatification of Lennon, especially endless flips clips of the Vigil for Peace in Montreal (it was Montreal, right? I know he camped out in Toronto as well). When faced with the horrors of war in Vietnam and armed with the money that only the Beatles could bring you, he went to bed. In a hotel suite. Now if my knowledge of history is correct (based solely on “The Ballad of John and Yoko,” Lennon fans feel free to comment and call me ill-informed), he already was on his honeymoon where spending a few days in bed is de rigeur.

It’s the reverence around the event that’s getting under my skin by those who regard a long nap as a political statement.

He stood up against the war!”
“A lot of people did. Protests, marches, letter-writing campaigns, legal work on behalf of contentious objectors…”
“Yeah, but he put it on the line!”
“On the bed, actually. He went to bed for a few days as protest.”
“Protest bed!”
“A comfy protest bed? Was there protest room-service? Were any lives of Vietnamese civilians, Viet Cong regulars or American and Australian soldiers spared by individuals saying ‘Hey, we were going out on patrol, but I’ve found out that John and Yoko are doing a bed-in, over in Montreal, and it kinda makes you think…I mean, if stopping the war means so much to the man that he’s going to stay in bed, I mean, really…’”

I understand the broad ramifications of the term vigil, yes. But a catered vigil seems more and more like a photo-op rather than a period of silent meditation, or is it just me? Cindy Sheehan at least camped out at Crawford, Texas in the heat. Sunburn instead of room service. Or is that cynical?


Probably. And Lennon devoted himself to the cause, so I shouldn't quibble over a photo op. For that matter, I loathed Lady Elton revamping “Goodbye Norma Jean” when Princess Diana died, both musically and spiritually: it’s a perfectly time-capsuled 70’s song, revamping it is a bad idea and with saccharine lyrics it’s even worse. That said…he did know the late lady, maybe it’s what she wanted. And the single raised million of dollars/pounds for her pet charities, all of whom needed the money. So, as always, what do I know?


And music creeps up on you. After my snippy comment a few months ago about not wanting to be in a room with people who get misty at a chorus of Alphaville’s ‘Forever Young’, I find myself in a headspace where all I can hear is Alphaville’s ‘Big in Japan’, occasionally seguing into Tom Waits’ ‘Big in Japan’, a very different song both sonically and in mood.

A weird mashup. Waits’ ‘Big in Japan’ is a CD memory with flashes from a Waits concert seen shortly before my wedding, waaaaay back in ’99, all Bourbon and Waits’ weird ballroom mirror hat (must be seen to be believed) with a Chocolate Jesus to sweeten the blows. Alphaville’s version is 1985 or so, Crystal bits of snowflakes all around my head and in the wind, I had no illusions that I’d ever find a glimpse of summer’s heatwaves in her eyes.

And some reader is thinking “And thank YOU for that,” bashing their brain to remove the aforementioned Alphaville.


Noel Coward is right again, it’s amazing the potency of cheap music. Cheap verse. Indirectly back to fil noir. Dennis Potter nailed the sensation in ‘The Singing Detective’ and ‘Pennies from Heaven,’ in a dark sort of way. If you can find the ‘Pennies from Heaven’ novel, you’ll be amazed that both the UK version and the glorious-and-horrible US version adhere frighteningly close to the source material in mood.

Backup. Cheap music and power. Pete Townsend was discussing Abba in the early 80’s and said "I remember hearing 'S.O.S.' on the radio in the States and realizing that it was Abba. But it was too late, because I was already transported by it.” The Pete Townsend of 1982 wasn’t the Townsend who sold Tommy to broadway, and to date I don’t think that Quadraphonea and Mamma Mia fans would appreciate being in the same room. But he had a point- music will take you (often dragged, kicking and screaming) someplace.

Object lesson- a disc of old MP3’s. The disc must be 6 years old if it’s a day, I don’t remember why I packed on most of the content. One song comes on – 'That’s All I Have to Say', by Art Garfunkel. Already, horribly uncool. It was used in the original, inexplicably culty film of 'The last Unicorn,' and its on the same early 80’s disc with 'Bright Eyes', from the slightly more explicably culty 'Watership Down' (there are very few vicious bunny cult films).


'Bright Eyes' will make anyone weep, whether they’re aware of 'Watership Down’s' beaten-up bunnies or not (seen it recently? sentimental but rather dark little flick…), the most notorious hardcore mohawked punk that I knew in high school would mist up if you hummed it, shortly before attempting to stomp you within an inch of your life (it was still worth doing it for the look on his face).

But…another story. 'That’s All I have to Say' boils down to lyrics like this:

“I’ve had time
To write a book about
The way we act and love
But I haven’t got a paragraph
Words are always getting in my way
Anyway, I love you
That’s all I have to tell you
That’s all I have to say…”

Etc. Cole Porter it ain’t. But sort of pretty in an overiced birthday cake sort of way. In his autobiography, Joe Jackson (a man not known for sentiment) wrote that “the Russians were never afraid of sentimentality, they figured it was at least half way to sincerity,” and he was discussing Prokoviev rather than Art Garfunkel, but the same tone grudging respect slips in. Some things slip under the wire.

So that’s probably why I copied the track- sort of sweet. A nice voice. Not too sweet. I helped a friend get rid of a box of CD’s that had belonged to her parents and she couldn’t get the used CD’s places to take (there was a lot of Celine Dion and Air Supply and Phil Collins which I took great delight in flinging against a wall - very few of them shattered), protecting the world’s diabetics from more treacle.

And full disclosure…I did keep Collin’s ‘Face Dances’, because of Joe Jackson’s defense of things sentimental. 'In the Air Tonight', 'The Roof is Leaking' and 'You Know What I Mean' are halfway there, or were at least halfway there when I first heard them, at 13 or so. Sometimes you can get that transport to a not-bad place, or at least something enough in context that you can say “Loved this tune when I was 13” with a half smile rather than a cringe.

Or sometimes the half-smile and the cringe at one time- my friend Jon (in grade 10 at the time, all of perhaps 15), wearing one of those black t-shirts that looks like a tuxedo jacket, muttering contemptuously that Collins’ 'This Must Be Love' struck him as “Such a grade 8 slow dance song.” Now, that’s funny. We didn’t always speak the same language, but I always liked Jon.

The reader thinks, “Sort of sweet is fine, but why save it? There’s lots of sort-of-sweet around.”


Yeah. Lets assume that 'All I Have to Say' got under the radar the first time I heard it, probably from a record belonging to some buddy’s older brother. I had been listening to a lot of the bands that wouldn’t get me chuckled at in later years (or at least chuckled at in a different tone- the Stranglers, Cure, the Doors, Springsteen’s Nebraska, Tom Waits’ ‘Rain Dogs’), but why does Art Garfunkel’s tune win out?

And on a Friday morning years later I hear it on a disc of random mp3’s (very random- everything from Billy Connelly riffs to Lou Reed concerts and Dylan bootlegs) and, thank you Mr. Townsend, I get transported. Those lyrics were transcribed in the haze of teenage affection on a birthday card to a not-quite-girlfriend, delivered with a small white Gund teddy bear, at 17 or so (me), 14 or so (her, and if we could skip the jailbait jokes, I’d appreciate it). Met with a hug and a gentle kiss and the shape of her in that hug burned in. A millisecond by millisecond summation. My arms are around you. We fit together. I know the shape of you. I could rest here and be happy.

Another story. Good memories but inert- left in a box in the back of my brain, pushed aside due to everything else happening in the, oh, almost 20 years…and brought back in living colour on a Friday morning in weird detail. The soft texture of her sweatshirt, my hands on her lower back (cotton, dried on a clothesline in her backyard, a bit rough to the touch), the scent of her shampoo (Johnson and Johnson’s Baby Shampoo, and again, please spare the jailbait jokes). All from a tune.

So, here’s to Townsend. And Garfunkel. Flashes of a pleasant past. The next tracks on the disc don’t have the same quality, which is fine- who could live with flashbacks every 5 seconds? I have enough negative flashbacks daily- worth savouring the good ones.

Saturday, November 26, 2005


I have a friend at a rival company from mine. The peekaboo about what I do for a living is because certain other rival companies have taken great offence at blogging, to the extent that they have fired people for mentioning their firms in print. Or in pixel, I suppose. I don’t think that any of the dozen or so people who know of this blog’s existence belong to law firms, and not only have I not identified the company I work for but I haven’t said anything nasty about it. I probably can’t, it’s a good job and the pay's good and the people gave me baby clothes and a cake last week etc...but let’s be careful nonetheless. So…

…after all that, my friend works at a rival company that does the same thing as mine, and is in fact a few steps away in downtown Toronto. We met at a job-finding course post-9/11 (when job-finding required a course, determination, luck, connections, some voodoo would have been useful) with similar tech-writing backgrounds.

He’s Eastern European with a Belgian influence, let’s nod to Kafka and call him K. Dedicated mathematician, no fear of numbers and a great respect for same. I am about as numerically intimidated as you can get but have great respect for anyone who takes the time to work theory into practice, so we get along like a house on fire.

I’m trying to have lunch with K. this week, as the week before. I tend to get taken into meetings at the last minute or have to visit one of this company’s offices a few blocks north, so lunch tends to get delayed at the last minute. More times than not, I’ll meet him and we’ll go to the cafeteria of his company, where the food is cheap and good. Surprisingly good. Since all human activity can be rooted to some kind of craving for indulgence, I was considering applying for a job on those terms alone in hopes I might find a like-minded soul.

“Why do you want to work here?”

“Well, I can do the same stuff for your company as well as the one I’m working for right now. I just have to change the company name. I mean, both firms do essentially the same thing, they just feature different colours and have a different jingle for the TV ads.”

“Yes, but we’re heavily invested in overseas…”

“So is my company. Just a different sea. Get out your numbers, I’ll get out ours, we’ll see that we’re more or less the same entity. Really what I’m here for is the food.”


“I met my buddy K. a few weeks ago for lunch, and the boeuf bourgenion in the cafeteria was amazing. I could taste the wine in it. Beef melted in your mouth. And all for 6 bucks! Can’t get a burger for that downtown.”

“So you want to work here for the food.”

“Well, a raise would be nice.”

“Ah. You want to leave your present position with our rival, get a raise in pay, and have lunch. What else can you bring to our firm?”

“An appetite, primarily.”

“Sir, I think your grasp of what we do is…wait…that boeuf…was there a hint of Dijon?”

“The fresh parsley was nice too.”

“Makes the meal, it does. Sir, I think I like the cut of your jib. And I’ve got a little secret for you...your firm, our firm, the firm across the street with the ostentatious gold trim, we’re all mutton dressed up as lamb. Me, I came in hoping to make a dent in the world of business. But between the paperwork and the harsh lighting, I decided that I’d just stay for the food. Have you tried the tabouli?”

“They make tabouli? Not yet. The next time I meet K., I’ll…”

“No time like the present. What segment does K. work in? I’ll book him a day off and we’ll get the first service for lunch. Now, we’re not licensed, but if we sneak upstairs into the main boardroom, I’ve got a pipe of Medoc hidden behind the annual report for 2002…”

Unlikely, granted. Especially the Medoc.

Wednesday, November 02, 2005

All Things Change


"There are people out there working, trying to make a living. Do you think that they care whether or not an actor is typecast? I make a lot of dough...I never look at the left side of the menu where the prices are. Why would I care that I got the chance to play one of the greatest characters in the history of television? I always answer that very quickly with 'It's not cancer.'"

-Peter Falk, on typecasting and Columbo

I haven't been blogging for the most basic of reasons - either busy bouncing an infant on my knee, or too tired to put together cohesive thoughts, and fighting a desire to write about favorite movies, messy US politics, weird office interactions...anything but the impassibly wide gulf between what I know to do as a father and what will be required over the next, well, henceforth. And it's a substantial henceforth.


I have a healthy baby boy, my wife is intact and happy and in good health after the birth and my mother's Oncologist has thrown her out onto the street (I'll get into that later). And being thrown out of an Oncologist's clinic is tantamount to being thrown out of a leper colony, or being told "Listen, this place is hot and stuffy and full of riff-raff, why don't you just go home?" when that place is the Kingston Pen. Those three pieces of good news put everything else into perspective. Life in a broad term is good and that's worth writing about. None of it is cancer.


Mention cancer, think of cigars. I still smoke a cigar every year or so, which I don't think will kill me. I broke that particular rule on a brief vacation in Cuba, which was horribly, seductively easy to do. I wandered along the beach with a full-sized Cohiba accompanying my a second rum and coke (heavy on the rum and lime, light on the coke), feeling the blue cool water lap against my feet. It was 9:15am on a Wednesday and I could only see the day go uphill from there, but recognized that it was perhaps not a good habit to get into.

I didn't hand out cigars at my son's birth, primarily because so few people smoke them in the 21st century and I was too frazzed/tired/overwhelmed to worry about such things (any activity learned from re-runs of 'The Flintstones' is not a wise life-choice). But I desperately wanted a cigar for a few hours, smoky clothes and tar and everything. I lived for awhile close to a tobacconist with a walk-in humidor and an espresso machine, every so often I'd go in and say "I don't smoke, but could I buy a coffee and just sit in there and inhale for a few minutes?"


Here's to petty luxuries. Somebody had suggested that we have a small bottle of Champagne in the delivery room, Abby was indifferent and it did nothing for me...I didn't want a bottle of lukewarm champagne in a room filled with afterbirth, I wanted to leave the hospital with a healthy wife and a healthy baby and have a crisp cold bottle of Champagne in the privacy of my own home.

To be more specific: I wanted to leave the hospital with a healthy wife and healthy baby. And while the odds were in our favour, I wanted it over and looked back upon fondly at a safe distance.

Midway through the procedure (the birthing? the process? the labour?) I sort of changed my mind- the nursing staff and obstetrician were so efficient, professional and genuinely nice that I would have run out and bought them bottles of whatever they wanted. That said, they probably would have declined- this was at the end of the day a hospital and part of the objective was to have a safe birth and move to a room and go home as quickly and cost-efficiently as possible. But I paced the hallways fighting the impulse to offer them anything and everything I owned. Immediate gratitude. A sort of forced attrition, channeled into a focused, perfect wave perspective.

I wanted to fall to my knees and thank the staff because they were allowing my wife to give a safe childbirth, in the same way that I can't quite look my family doctor in the eye because of the attention and caring that he gave my father. Gratitude doesn't say it. He tried to save my father and did everything he could to make him comfortable in his last days. The delivery staff were about to do the opposite, they were going to hand over a new life. How do you say thank you in enough detail?

And on that topic, last week my mother's Oncologist told her "You're cured. You can go back to your family doctor." This means that the frequent check-ups worked and the Platinum chemotherapy worked and, years later, there's been no relapse. If 'cure' is too broad a term, I'll still take it given the alternatives. There's another side to this story - a good friend of mine is facing cancer in his own mother, and I know what he's going through, literally. His mother also sent a card and gift in honour of my baby and that's uncalled for and welcome. Can't let a little thing like cancer get in the way of decorum, so to this woman, thanks. Attention has been paid.


So stick to something small. I'll splurge a few bucks on a small Cohiba, swirl the sweet smell of rich tobacco around my mouth for a few minutes (before it turns acrid and overwhelming) on my back patio on a cool night. A belated cigar for Matthew, and celebratory for my mother. An acknowledgementof tabula rasa, a small one, propped clean and without dust in the corner.

Saturday, October 29, 2005

Next round

"You're not blogging anymore?"
"I'm not avoiding it, just haven't had the time."
"Babies sleep."
"Ever had one?"
"What, they sleep 22hrs a day."
"Not consecutively."
"'d think there would be a lot to write about."
"There is. Most of it isn't fit for public consumption."
"Too in-progress. Call it that. Besides, it's a damn BLOG. Few if any of the 11 readers would be heartbroken between updates."
"Never said they would be. I just thought you wrote to keep sane."
"I do."
"So, publish."
"Not a lot to say at the moment."
"That's stopped you before?"

Sigh. Baby is fine. Nicknamed 'Mouse' from time to time due to a habit of squeaking. Not crying, squeaking.

Saturday, October 08, 2005

And all is well


Matthew John Elias born late on Oct 3rd. Not a bad thing at all :)

Monday, October 03, 2005

And still waiting...

Contractions every so often? Come back when they're every 5 minutes. And trust us, you'll know.

So...water broken...patience. 5:32am on Oct 3rd, another visit. 4 people will go into the labour room, and 5 will come out. No tricks.

Sunday, October 02, 2005

Bringing up Baby

...and as of 1:50am on Sunday, October 2nd, it begins.

Off to the hospital, 6:04am. Living prologue.

Sunday, September 18, 2005

The personal is politi...ah, screw it


The problem with a posture is that, eventually, somebody asks you to do something, or asks 'did you REALLY do that?' and it rarely ends well if the action began and ended with a posture.

I've never quite accepted the whole "The personal is political" argument if it's brought up at a dinner party. It's a cheap posture that you can take in a group of like-minded people (or be the stand alone hero to kick up the dust if that is your want) and feel like you're accomplishing something.

(the Karmic Boomerang is being flung far and wide with this one I'm aware...but hoping for the best)

It's not the phrase or philosophy itself, but the company it keeps. I've had it tossed-off in my direction (an especially apt turn of phrase, that), with the casual air of one who is sure they are in the know by:


-A woman insisting that if I didn't protect the unborn child I wasn't worthy of a higher education (U of T, 1992). I think the University had not condemned abortion, or had a safe-sex initiative week, or some such. Regardless, my personal choice of heading to (for corn's sake) a religious studies class was, to her, a political statement.


-A guy (on the clearly opposite end of the spectrum) putting a pamphlet on my windshield as I sat in my car, eating a slice of Domino's pizza. Domino's sponsors family-values type groups in the United States, most of which (if not all, do the research yourself) run a pro-life agenda. "You've just contributed to reproductive tyranny," he said, slipping the pamphlet under my windshield wiper, and leaving without explaining what the pamphlet was about (he put it face up, so I couldn't read it through the windscreen).
The pamphlet turned out to be a quite informative listing of the groups that Domino's financed, and a number of US and Canadian agencies that promote planned parenthood rather than pro-life. But the guy, in a fit of righteous indignation, was simply putting me in the not-part-of-the-solution-part-of-the-problem file. To top everything else off, the pizza wasn't great.

This struck me as pretty awkward as political discourse goes, although I was sort of impressed at his gumption. I didn't even know that there WERE any Domino's pizzas in Toronto, or in Canada for that matter, I'd just happened to find one on the way back from a job interview and decided I was hungry. But THIS guy had taken the time to stake one out. For a moment I thought he was a representative from Pizza Pizza or Pizza Nova or some other Canadian-owned franchise, but how it tied into reproductive tyranny I didn't know.


-A Jehovah's witness at my door, asking if I had time to discuss my relationship with Jesus, if I had one, and maybe if I had an open mind I might want to learn. My personal choice was not to debate religion at that particular time. Her political reading was a bit bleaker, she said "So does this mean that you are happy with all of the horrible things happening in the world today?" and my personal statement (to hope that the door didn't bump her ass on the way out) was to her a political statement that the various wars, famines and diseases were just fine by me and, since they were happening on her watch, were somehow my fault.


-A friend dismissing the death of Pauline Kael a few years ago. She was never a favorite of mine (too many indiosyncracies), but she was an undeniable groundbreaker as US film criticism goes, so credit where credit is due. His comment was along the lines that it was a shame that she didn't spend more time promoting a feminist perspective in her film criticism, to wit, "Having ovaries isn't enough." And this from a man who lacked ovaries.

All of the above strikes me as easy posturing, the political (or, I suppose personal) equivalent of pubs in Boston which used to have cans for quarters that would be sent to the IRA ("Kill a British Soldier"). Or for that matter, the LEGEND of those pubs, those cans, those quarters. The kind of posturing makes for a grand position at a dinner party with no fear of getting one's hands dirty. Or bloody. Or simply, worked.

So with all this preface...sections of a good editorial on the nature of posturing from today's New York Times.

September 18, 2005
Message: I Care About the Black Folks


ONCE Toto parts the curtain, the Wizard of Oz can never be the wizard again. He is forever Professor Marvel, blowhard and snake-oil salesman. Hurricane Katrina, which is likely to endure in the American psyche as long as L. Frank Baum's mythic tornado, has similarly unmasked George W. Bush.

The worst storm in our history proved perfect for exposing this president because in one big blast it illuminated all his failings: the rampant cronyism, the empty sloganeering of "compassionate conservatism," the lack of concern for the "underprivileged" his mother condescended to at the Astrodome, the reckless lack of planning for all government operations except tax cuts, the use of spin and photo-ops to camouflage failure and to substitute for action.

In the chaos unleashed by Katrina, these plot strands coalesced into a single tragic epic played out in real time on television...another round of prayers at the Washington National Cathedral, another ludicrously overhyped prime-time address flecked with speechwriters' "poetry" and framed by a picturesque backdrop. Reruns never eclipse a riveting new show.


Nor can the president's acceptance of "responsibility" for the disaster dislodge what came before. Mr. Bush didn't cough up his modified-limited mea culpa until he'd seen his whole administration flash before his eyes...It came only after America's highest-rated TV news anchor, Brian Williams, started talking about Katrina the way Walter Cronkite once did about Vietnam...The "compassion" photos are outweighed by the cinéma vérité of poor people screaming for their lives. The government effort to keep body recovery efforts in New Orleans as invisible as the coffins from Iraq was abandoned when challenged in court by CNN.

...The two top deputies at FEMA remaining after Michael Brown's departure, one of them a former local TV newsman, are not disaster relief specialists but experts in P.R., which they'd practiced as advance men for various Bush campaigns. Thus The Salt Lake Tribune discovered a week after the hurricane that some 1,000 firefighters from Utah and elsewhere were sent not to the Gulf Coast but to Atlanta, to be trained as "community relations officers for FEMA" rather than used as emergency workers to rescue the dying in New Orleans. When 50 of them were finally dispatched to Louisiana, the paper reported, their first assignment was "to stand beside President Bush" as he toured devastated areas.

...With or without a 9/11-style commission, the answers will come out. There are too many Americans who are angry and too many reporters who are on the case. (NBC and CNN are both opening full-time bureaus in New Orleans.)...If the era of Great Society big government is over, the era of big government for special interests is proving a fiasco. Especially when it's presided over by a self-styled C.E.O. with a consistent three-decade record of running private and public enterprises alike into a ditch.

What comes next? Having turned the page on Mr. Bush, the country hungers for a vision that is something other than either liberal boilerplate or Rovian stagecraft. At this point, merely plain old competence, integrity and heart might do.


Saturday, September 10, 2005

State of Readiness

"Are you ready for the baby?"


I'm getting this question a lot. It's hard to answer without going into a long explanation about one's levels of 'ready'. How can anyone be ready for a baby? I will sometimes say "We've got the crib, diaper pail, clothes..." and the person asking the question will say "You call THAT ready? What you need is..." before starting a list of horrors or the way things were when THEY had kids, back in the days of rock, flint and raw meat (they are ususally referring to the early to mid-90's). Not all questions end up like that, but when I think I'm going to get a smug, self-righteous "You don't know what you're in for" kind of response, I've started giving short answers just to watch the different looks on people's faces:

Are you ready for the baby?
Not quite, we've got a lot of stuff to get together. I'm going to ask the doctor to put this on hold for another month and a half. They can do that, can't they?

Are you ready for the baby?
More or less. We couldn't decide on disposible or cloth diapers, so now we're just putting newspapers everywhere. The floors, the walls, the crib. Saves money.

Are you ready for the baby?
What baby...oh! Yeah, I'm ready. Sorry, what with my wife and I drinking as much as we are, it's hard to keep track...and your name is?

Are you ready for the baby?
Absolutely! We've got mesquite, hickory chips, a nice chipotle marinade, getting a big enough skewer was a bit of a challenge, but...
(the above answer was met with a straight-faced response "And that's good, because with the slow-cook method, you won't have to trim off the fat.")
Fatherly advice arrives from time to time. Mr. Groucho wrote me with:

When you are a parent you will feel like you could not be more tired at all in your life, and you will see how incredibly hard it is just to get the simplest things done. Dinnertime. Bathtime. You will always feel like you could be doing more and you're not. But any day where the kids are more or less fed and more or less clean and more or less happy is a good day. Don't beat yourself up.
I'd written the D.I. (an artist with two kids who I've known for a long time), with this:

I seem to recall that years ago, you mentioned that the last few weeks ofpregnancy were 'a treat and a half.' My friend, as always, your acumen has proven to be true.
He came back with this:

Caitlin would often get angry with me.
She would get upset and worried almost frantic.
I would sit calmly and ask her to stay calm.
This is not to say I was calm; I just appeared that way to her.
On the night of Rhys' birth Caitlin woke me up at 2:00.
She said she thought she might be having contractions.
I told her to wake me when she was sure.
Fifteen minutes later she was sure and off we went.

It is one of the unexplained jobs of fathers.
You are not emotionless you just act like you are.
They hate you for it at the time and curse you for it later.
Today's Dads admit it afterwards and no hard feelings.

Try to be strong and calm.
This will help with the surprises.
There are always surprises.

Rest while you can.
DeJesus at work, with 3 young boys:

You can't bank sleep, you know, store it up, so don't even try. And you'll be fine. Everyone manages to be fine. Seperate room for the baby? Abby staying home full time for awhile? You're laughing.
Nadja, with one son:

When I was pregnant with Nick, I'd just lost my job and we'd just bought the house and Hector couldn't work in Canada yet and I was on EI and he was borrowing money from his family. And we were fine. Just do it. There's no perfect time, do it, you'll be fine.
My father in law, shortly after Abby and I were married, probably in anticipation of this day:

I was scared. I'd just bought that little house and Abby was still a baby and I'd borrowed money from everyone I knew, and I didn't know how I was going to keep it up. I was scared. Bone scared. all worked out, didn't it?
All of the above counts as hope. I'll scratch up the rest myself, time permitting.

Tuesday, August 30, 2005

Written and Grooved


I live not far from a Subway station in Toronto. I don't use it often- it's more convenient for me to take a streetcar (which is even closer), but the overall walk time from my front door to the subway is 15 minutes. I can even shave a few minutes off that time if I take sidestreets (the main, most direct route is actually misleading, since it curves), so let's call it 12 minutes.

My previous apartment was a 10 minute walk from the subway. My new walk isn't far chronologically, but as precentages go...perhaps my brain has said that I can't be expected to walk 50% extra without some kind of price being exacted. Or perhaps I'm simply patterned. My brain isn't used to the route or the area, therefore it is impassable. Walk along two sidestreets and over a bridge past the German deli and the bulk food store to the subway? That's crazy talk. You can get to the streetcar in, what, 10 minutes, and that takes you right to your office's front door.


Patterns. My brain is used to method A- 5 years of walking from point A to point B at St. Clair and Yonge (an area I loved, and was familiar with). So when I move to a walk that takes no more than 5 minutes extra in the upper beaches, it must be longer, impassible, not in the programming. Patterns.


My friend Hembeck has lost a toe in the last year. There's no punch line. He stubbed his toe, and watched it turn black, and had a walk-in clinic physician tell him "Go to the hospital. Don't go home first- GO TO THE HOSPITAL." He was admitted, blood was taken, and a few minutes later somebody said "You're not treating your diabetes properly." Hembeck, bless him, said "What diabetes?" and learned something new about himself that day- he learned he'd deeloped adult onset diabetes to be precise.

Circulation issues. The doctor drew lines around his toe with a magic marker, saying "If the gangrene (and correct me if the term is wrong) goes past this line, you lose the toe. Past this line, the foot. This line, the leg." I was perhaps the 14th person to tell him that he was lucky he didn't wake up blind (learned from Alnilam, rather than my years at the Mayo clinic), and was the 14th person to hear that his new nickname, 9-toed-Hembeck, was here to stay.


The interesting part of this is...he's feeling phantom pain in the now missing toe. Again, not unusual. Anyone who's lost an appendage or a limb will 'feel' it in those all important quotes because the brain has never had a chance to be without it. The weird part in Hembeck's case is that he has trouble feeling his very present feet - again, circulation issues - but can feel his missing toe. A phantom floating on a visit of fog. Result of patterns.


Your brain doesn't always know what's real. I've met celebrities, ususally passing them in a hallway or leaving a screening, and from time to time, your brain just says "Wow, that looks like..." or "It's AMAZING how much she looks like..." and overloads, since your brain has seen X on a screen or on TV and X doesn't belong in this world. I saw Catherine O'Hara at a kitchen store, and must have been staring, thinking "that can't be..." until (possibly being used to this kind of thing) she finally blinked and said "Yes, it's me," rather pleasantly and I apologized and said she was great in Beetlejuice and did the best Meryl Streep impersonation known to man before beating a hasty retreat. And no, it's not my picture or autograph, it just looks like she did that day.

You probably become immune to this if you travel in those circles, but there must be exceptions. I saw Dan Ackroyd in the presence of a film-critic friend and watched him become jaw-dropping, dumbstruck, starstruck for a second (but just a second). He later said "I'd never met a Ghostbuster." I thanked Ackroyd for 'Dragnet', and he said "Ah. You must be the one who saw it" before inviting us to see his blues band that evening.

Patterns. I'm about to become a father, so all existing patterns are probably going to get blown out of the water, except for the one I'm dreading, and maybe it's the one that will transform itself. The child will come back to our new place, and various family will enter and I'll wait for my father. My mother will arrive, with my sister, and otherwise alone, and I'll have a faint, primal idea that the townhouse is painted, why haven't I shown my father? Then the memory. Then my mother, holding the baby, and where's my father. I can imagine the smile, the looks in his face as he holds a grandson. It won't happen, as such.


If this transforms itself, it will be that his absence is not conspicious, that holding and facial expresssions notwithstanding, his presence is still accepted, welcomed, known.

Sunday, August 28, 2005

Jesus! No, seriously, Jesus...


How precisely did a Mel Gibson Jesus movie suddenly become 'all that is right' on moral terms for American film? Most of the fuss has died down and I'm not going to kick at the flick because its too easy- most of it has been said on political terms, so-called moral terms, and damned if the evangelicals didn't get their teeth into it. And all that said, it will be a staple in Church basements (certain churches) for years, despite the simple's just another Jesus movie.

A bit bloodier, yeah. CGI laiden, uh-huh. And the Aramaeic was a unique touch, its not like a great deal of people are going to storm out of the theatre and claim that the Aramaeic wasn't like they remembered it in the old country (might be wrong there- a film critic friend of mine heard devotees grumbling about the autenticity of Liv Tyler's Elvish accent in one of the Lord of the Rings films). And it's still shot with Italian extras and costumes borrowed from Cinecetta, like most other Jesus films. And if you bring up the Utah Jesus flicks (King of Kings, Greatest Story Ever Told), true, they don't look like Cinecetta. They look like Utah.


There are ways to do the Jesus film in such a way that it doesn't look like a well intended Sunday school production, or like a sermon; Pasolini's "The Gospel According to St. Matthew" (or Il Vangelo Secondo Matteo if you want to be fussy) is beautifully done, the best instincts of a soon-to-be-excommuicated Italian Marxist working with neo-realist traditions. I didn't say it was a light flick, but it is well done and rather haunting, if anachronistic (Bessie Smith coming up on the soundtrack with a chorus of 'Motherless Child' is something else, but works rather nicely). And 'Jesus of Montreal' gets a little self-consciously artsy, but it's about that particular crowd and as such lets you see and feel on their terms. For all its faults (the wailing 80's Quebecois-pop soundtrack being high on the list), the depiction of the resurrection is a work of art.

A nice touch - the film veers towards melodrama from time to time and diffuses it instantly. A priest is caught early on in an obviously carnal relationship with an actress and they shrug it off. She says "This isn't a bedroom farce", and he says "I'm not really a good priest." And the story goes on without the finger-wagging gotcha moment.

You could go deeper than all this if you were bored or ambitious- some critics suggest that The Gospel According to St. Matthew is more about being an Italian Marxist and reading the gospels as a tract to collectivism (hey, I don't write this stuff, I write about it from time to time, ok?), and Jesus of Montreal can be seen more about the Catholic/Sinner battle in and around anyone dealing with the church in Quebec.

So before getting into the anti-semitic controversy around The Passion of The Christ, and the cynical (VERY cynical) marketing, and the blood, the strength of the convervative movement in the US and the impact of the first splatter Jesus film...two credits where credit is due:

1. An early scene with Mary, mopping up Jesus' blood in the background of a scene. It takes a few minutes to figure out what she's doing, you eventually see that she's been listening at the floor, finally freezing over a particular spot. The camera tracks downward through the floor into the holding cell of Christ. Its a gentle moment after a series of brutal ones, nicely observed, almost touching.

2. Gibson made his intentions clear. Gibson took flak for the fact that, rather than deal with the top 10 hits of Jesus' life (sermon on the mount, curing lepers, feeding the hungry, begging for tolerance) that he instead focused on the last 12hrs which were, as the bible suggests, kind of a downer. But at least Gibson didn't promise 'The Greatest Story Ever Told' or 'King of Kings', he starts the film with a quote about Christ suffering for humanity. The movie is about the suffering- Gibson saying 'Wanna see how bad it got? Voila.'

That said, I don’t think Gibson’s film was any more anti-semitic than a raft of other Jesus films. For that matter, I’m not Jewish. I won’t get hit by anti-semitic imagery in the same way. The Pharisees don’t come off particularly well, but they rarely do in such works, the usual dodge being that its not the Pharisees per ce that do Jesus in, but one or two nasty ones skittering around the edges. I don’t think Gibson’s smart enough as a director to be actively or even subliminally anti-Semitic. I don’t think he believes that the Jews in toto are responsible for the death of Christ. I think he believes that the guys with the beards in the tall hats killed Christ, like he remembers from those illustrated bible lessons in Sunday school. If he believes otherwise, it doesn’t come across in the film.

I do have a close friend who is a film critic, and Jewish, and he was more disturbed by the violence in the film rather than any anti-Semitic overtones, particularly the flaying scene, which is pretty explicit. Or…not? I’m not sure what this says about me, but I could deal with the flaying, it just felt like so Kayro syrup-based blood. There are a few horrible shots of the rasp taking skin off Jesus’ back, but most of it seems more geared to response shots- grimaces, Roman soldiers swinging and grinning. Gibson could have made it even more effective (horrible?) with less blood- good filmmakers will let your mind will fill in the blanks.

Note: I don’t own a copy of The Passion of the Christ, I haven’t done a frame-by-frame analysis, so if anyone who wants to send screengrabs and disagree, be my guest. And if you’re the kind to do that, you’re probably paid to do such things, and how do I get YOUR job?


Hitchcock did the old stab-and-switch properly in ‘Pyscho’, where you never see the blade enter Janet Leigh’s skin in the shower. I don’t care what you remember- rent the DVD or find one of the hundreds of published frame-by-frame critiques of the film and you will discover that you never see the blade touch Janet Leigh. And no, it wasn’t re-cut at some time in the 70’s or due to pressure from church groups or whatever conspiracy theory you’ve heard, the blade does not penetrate the skin. The MPAA censors at the time swore that they saw it, and Hitchcock submitted the same unchanged print 3 times, each time claiming he’d trimmed it, until it was approved uncut. I won’t say that Gibson’s quite smart enough as a filmmaker to get away with this subtely – the flay does land a few times – but to be fair, its more horrible by association than portrayal.


Want a legitimately religious film, at least as 'this is how people cope with religion' rather than a sermon? Try ‘Dead Man Walking’, which overplays its hand in one shot that almost ruins the flick (for those who haven’t seen it, I won’t reveal the shot that I dislike; suffice to say that a little Christ imagery goes a long way and it gets laid on thick). But director Tim Robbins is smart enough (or faithful enough to his subject) to end the film on a prayer, literally. It’s the same impulse that Gibson can’t quite manage. Robbins says “We are all subject to God and all prayers are heard. For example…” and leaves us fumbling for grace. Between our dreams and actions lie this world, and all that, echo chambered or not.

Saturday, August 13, 2005

God did what? I didn't read that part...

Let’s talk Miracles and science. A matter of perspective, especially within the lower level of miracles. I make dumplings from time to time, which are just flour, egg, salt, little baking powder, assorted spices. For chicken stew I tend to toss in chives, tarragon or sage.


Allegedly, all WASPs eat sage. A friend of mine (Portuguese) went to a dinner with his then-girlfriend (Scottish) and came back astounded. “Stinking of sage, Michael, your people are stinking of sage” This was the same man who from time to time would pick up a loaf of Wonderbread and say “Look Mike, the food of your people…”

Anyhow- low level exhibition of the deity. The dumplings always look horrible and sticky. You take a spoonful of the foul stuff and drop it onto the steaming stew, whereupon it sort of melts and you’re sure the stew is ruined. Then you put the top on the pot, let it steam for 10 minutes or so and…voila…perfectly shaped dumplings. Soft, but not too soft. Chewy, but not too chewy. Done correctly, they taste sort of like a whole wheat sponge infused with chicken (and sage or tarragon) that has been wrung out just enough to be palatable and maybe even delicious.'s a low level miracle, but it always seems to work. Or maybe its just the naturally leening qualities of eggs plus the flour and baking powder responding to heat. It’s hard NOT to make good dumplings in such a situation. That explanation lacks the poetry of the miracle of the dumplings, but who writes poems about dumplings? Chalk it up to science.


One other low level miracle (or at least proof that the good Lord works in strange and mysterious ways) is the art of mimicry. I was at a party around 10 years ago and watched a nationally known Canadian journalist transform herself seamlessly into Dennis the Menace (complete with his dog Ruff) with only a sideways baseball cap and a bright eyed enthusiasm that one is born with, rather than aspires to (we were playing a party game, but alcohol was also a factor). And I was briefly in a band with a 6’1 longhaired Finnish-Canadian drummer with heavy metal leanings who, for some unfathomable reason, did the best Jack Benny impersonation I’ve ever seen.

First assumption: God not only has a sense of humour, it’s a weird one.


This brings up the topic of 'Intelligent Design',, which can either be seen as a compromise in the Creation / Evolution argument, or a gutless cop-out by either side in that particular argument. You can sum it up simply in several dozen ways. My personal favorite boils down to “Well, yes, evolution works. But God invented it.”

I used the much-grumbled upon Wikipedia,(sort of an open source encyclopedia which is either wonderful and represents a free exchange of information, or is specious and grossly inaccurate and the repository of crackpots) to link the term, because its at least flexible enough to let everyone kick at that particular can, and even tosses this definition of Intelligent Design (ID) into the pot:

The majority of ID advocates state that their focus is on detecting evidence of design in nature, without regard to who or what the designer might be. However, ID advocate William Dembski in his book "The Design Inference"[1] lists God or an alien life force as two possible options.

So. The X-Files fans and the Come to Jesus types might have just found themselves on the same lifeboat (probably eyeing each other as potential shark buffet). If you’re religious, this could fit in well with the previously mentioned First Assumption.


I have less of a problem with school boards that prohibit teaching evolution entirely than boards who have decided to embrace the whole Intelligent Design idea. If you are a diehard creationist, at least you’ve tied yourself to a set of rules, even if they’re a bit dodgy. Last I checked, creationist professed the belief that the world was 6000 years old or so, and a few even suggest that Noah’s Ark was full of dinosaurs at one time. Probably the smaller ones. Or it was a really REALLY big ark.

I don’t agree with the creationists but I’m not trying to knock them entirely. At least they’ve made that particular leap of faith in the direction of faith (where, admittedly, its easy to find a soft landing). The Intelligent Design movement worries me because it feels like a halfway maneuver, something along the lines of “Fine, the whole ‘evolution’ math works out on the blackboard. We agree. Therefore, God made the blackboard. No? But we agreed on the math...”, and so on. Sort of like shaking Darwin’s hand while giving a thumbs-up to God behind his back.


The movement feels like an escape clause rather than the compromise that its supporters suggest. It makes it much easier to say something along the lines of “Why don’t we just knock the whole evolution theory out of the equation, it takes ages to explain, and since we’ve agreed that God started the whole thing, why not just say its all God?” Why do we have to teach religion in Science class?


For that matter, why do we have to teach it at the movies? A thought for another evening...

Monday, July 25, 2005

A Bitter Moment

I was asked by a friend a few weeks ago exactly why I had broken off contact with another, mutual (at least at one time) friend. I didn't want to answer - my issues with said person aren't her business - but I did say that when it came to the mutual (former) friend, I'd finally realized that there wasn't much hope with this person as discourse goes (discourse implying a two-way conversation rather than an audience/monologue situation). She asked for details, and I said:

Some people have conversations, others hold court. I realized that the whole 'friendship' had been rendered moot by the frequent requests (if not commands) to attend a session in some other guise (most often a chat). I was raised in the Baptist Church, and I am intimately acquainted with the way that a so-called chat segues a sermon. This occurance does not happen by accident. Most frequently, the sermon would be about how awful things were for this person, or how much better things would be if this person was simply listened to since they had been so maltreated of late/over their lifetime/for the common good, etc.

And since I was so good, so decent, really, how could I not agree?

I got tired of that, and for the fact that it hadn't always been that way. But what I pegged as eccentricity gradually segued into outright listen-to-me-or-you're-insensitive manipulations. A tendancy to throw tantrums. And every question had a pre-programmed answer, expected. How do you answer 'no' to anything framed like 'you're a decent person and I'm a wretch who needs 300 bucks and will starve without it, but really, the choice is up to you...'

It is the hallmark of a manipulator, outward or hidden, direct or sideways, to pitch a fit. Somebody who has learned that if you scream, most people will do something to stop you from screaming.

So, there's the tantrum. As an observer of the tantrum there are a series of choices. You can endure the tantrum. You can evaluate the tantrum. You can estimate the length of the tantrum. You can consider the cause of the tantrum. You can schedule around the tantrum (a frequent step), or build tantrum-time into the friendship. You can pity the tantrum, resent the tantrum, de-value the tantrum or put the tantrum into its own box, accept that it's going to happen. You can even get used to the tantrum, accept it as that broken step on the way upstairs, the one that always squeaks no matter what you do to fix it. All these ways around the tantrum.

But the one thing you cannot do, despite the implication by the tantrum-ee, is prevent the tantrum. They will always have the tantrum. It is part of the schtick.

So all that said, once it is realized that the tantrum, like gravity and the firmness of the earth is inevitable, one can remove one's self from the equation in good conscience. Its not like one has lost a friend, that's already past. One has just disengaged from a figurehead. Posessed of tantrums.

All this I told her. She nodded and agreed.

Friday, July 08, 2005

Moving and the Karmic Boomerang


I'm moving. With very short notice. Put simply, my wife and I have rented a wide two bedroom floor of a townhouse which includes a finished basement (which simply isn't found in Toronto). Plus the upstairs couple have a child, which is a clever move on the landlord's part- one couple with a screaming kid is loathe to complain about another couple with a screaming kid.

And I am happy with the new place, incredibly so. Bigger. Surrounded by trees. Close to where my wife works. 5 minutes from two streetcars and even a GO train. It's even another 1920's building (I seem to have luck with them, having lived in 3 in Toronto), all corresponding to the right place, right price, with the added bonus that it is all comes together before said baby. One can move when the gift horse arrives and avoid peering between its lips.

So it's all good. But its one of the few times in my life, I want nothing more than to climb into bed, pull the covers over my head and pretend that none of it is there, that it will all...go...away. And I will wake up moved and orderly and posessed of laughter and ability and sighing. And all that crap.


Problem is- I am loathe to leave the building I'm living in at the moment. It's old and quiet and in a great area, and I've loved it for years. It's also too small for an infant for very long. I've given notice, not enough to match the lease. This isn't uncommon, and will most likely be a penalty rather than a gnashing of teeth. But I am fond of my landlord, she has been good to me. This building has. It has seen, even in 6 short years, a good deal of black and white in terms of good times and things lost.


My father built shelves in the kitchen, he's firmly gone. My grandmother wanted pictures of the interior, a handful of polaroids that were found in her top drawer and returned to me along with my copy of her will. Gone. It is normal and living and happens to the world, and still hurts in no uncertain terms.

And leads into uncertain terms. I'm operating without a net. But its a new place with more space, and with an infant en route...that imaginary safety net has already more or less been severed, correct? You can give up a job if you don't like it, take the hit and survive on potatoes and celery for a few months. Bad relationship? Give up your CDs and take a friend's couch for a few days. Marriage? Bite the bullet and pay a laywer. Parenthood? You stay. End of line.

(Robin Williams said that he gave up drinking when he became a father, understood that he couldn't lean over the bassinet and say "Here's a change little guy, today Daddy's going to throw up on YOU.")


Trying to spread my karma around carefully these days. The Karmic Boomerang cuts a wide swath. To wit: January 2nd this year, I wrote about a person from the past who sent me a specious article from a specious source:

"Incidentally, free advice for other bloggers. Cite your sources...So, proselytizers, waste less time of the passers by and learn to read, ok?"

The Karmic boomerang hits me. The ACTUAL Theodore Roethke quote from the previous entry should have been:
"What falls away is always. And is near."
(somebody mutters "Oh really, Mr. Poetry scholar, or would-be of same?")

Putting the boomerang down for a moment in a futile attempt at dignity, I could make a case for the transcendency of good poetry, that you remember the feeling of the piece, rather than the actual syntax, and thus stay faithful to the intent of the poet but...that would just be obnoxious.

Boomerang, One. Me, Zero. I also cited Joyce in my last piece, the quote about poems in Alexandria is actually from Ulysses not Stephen Hero, but I never said it was FROM Stephen Hero, I was just trying to make a point about taking the piss out of writers with too high an...opinion...of...their...abilities...


Great segue to discuss Roethke, tho. Or poets in general, since one influence always leads to another.
I saw a young snake glide
Out of the mottled shade
And hang, limp on a stone:
A thin mouth, and a tongue
Stayed, in the still air.

It turned; it drew away;
Its shadow bent in half;
It quickened and was gone

I felt my slow blood warm.
I longed to be that thing.
The pure, sensuous form.

And I may be, some time.
-From 'Snake'
Roethke. A holdover from high school and university poetry classes. Like the best of Robert Frost, but distilled. More cautious. If you try to imitate Frost, and you read like a Hallmark card. If you imitate Roethke, you read like Hallmark through a hangover. Both comments are intended as compliments to Messrs Frost and Roethke- often imitated. Never duplicated. The man writes about snakes, like D.H. Lawrence did, but Roethke wants to be the beast that Lawrence regretted expeling. Conclusion- we all hang out in Eden, for a bit? Or at least Et In Arcadia Ego? We'll always have Paris?

My favorite Frost poems were always the weirder ones:


May no fate willfully misunderstand me
And half grant what I wish and snatch me away
Not to return. Earth's the right place for love:
I don't know where it's likely to go better.
I'd like to go by climbing a birch tree
And climb black branches up a snow-white trunk
Toward heaven, till the tree could bear no more,
But dipped its top and set me down again.
That would be good both going and coming back.
One could do worse than be a swinger of birches.
-From 'Birches', Robert Frost
...but I digress. It's a hot muggy night in Toronto. So with the weight of responsibility and a yowling cat at my feet (doesn't care for the humidity, or the fact that my wife has gone to bed early, he likes the place to himself in the evenings)...I'm back to Roethke, in a circuitious fashion.

(the reader thinks "circuitious...big word for somebody who doesn't check his sources before publishing")

(the author thinks "At least I came clean")

Why Roethke then? Out of Lawrence, Eliot, Frost, Nowlan, Cohen, Auden, Dickey, etc? Association and resonance, a big question- why remember one thing, not another?


It's 1984 and high school and one of the utilitarian green textbooks that our English classes dispenses features Roethke's 'Elegy for Jane'. I read it and admire the flow. A year later a classmate of mine swallows two bottles of sleeping pills and a large glass of milk and the aftermath of that is something that is not mine to recount. The act itself was ill-advised at best. The response from her so-called friends, on several levels, was nauseating. I found the poem and it hit me with an ache that echoed:
Elegy for Jane
(My student, thrown by a horse)

I remember the neckcurls, limp and damp as tendrils;
And her quick look, a sidelong pickerel smile;
And how, once startled into talk, the light syllables leaped for her,
And she balanced in the delight of her thought,

A wren, happy, tail into the wind,
Her song trembling the twigs and small branches.
The shade sang with her;
The leaves, their whispers turned to kissing,
And the mould sang in the bleached valleys under the rose.

Oh, when she was sad, she cast herself down into such a pure depth,
Even a father could not find her:
Scraping her cheek against straw,
Stirring the clearest water.

My sparrow, you are not here,
Waiting like a fern, making a spiney shadow.
The sides of wet stones cannot console me,
Nor the moss, wound with the last light.

If only I could nudge you from this sleep,
My maimed darling, my skittery pigeon.
Over this damp grave I speak the words of my love:
I, with no rights in this matter,
Neither father nor lover.
There's no deep confession hiding behind my fondness for this poem, or any long story behind my classmate. I liked her. I thought she deserved better than the aftermath of her death. That story rolls onto itself without resolution. I come back to this poem because Roethke had lived in the same place for awhile, different world different context different time, didn't matter. Something...clicked. The mark of good poetry (and damn is it rare). This hits me in the prelude to a move. People die. All things change.

And before I come across all sensitive and stuff...the latest wave of 80’s nostalgia is getting me down, partially because I don’t want to be stuck in a room full of people who weep at a chorus of Alphaville’s ‘Forever Young’ and mostly because I can’t stand the idea that I saw ‘Sixteen Candles’ 21 years ago. I think admission was $3.50.


(somebody mutters "21 years ago? Wow. Did the Lumière brothers sit behind you and fling spitballs?" and they can go to hell)

And in interest of full disclosure before I sound too high and mighty with the Alphaville crack - Don Henley’s ‘The Boys of Summer’ will make me stare into the middle distance and have flashbacks of a skinny Rumanian girl with big brown eyes, long lashes and very soft, pouty and infinitely kissable lips who treated me terribly when she wasn’t kissing me (which was most of the time around the mid 80’s)…but I digress.

‘Sixteen Candles’ remains the only John Hughes flick I can stomach years later, partially because it’s harmless fluff and mostly because Hughes was much better at nailing adolescent boys than girls. Molly Ringwald’s dream date angst looks to be what a director in his early-40’s believes a 16yr old girl wants, and it obviously worked for some (the flick has a fiercely loyal cult). The dialogue is sub-Archie comics quality, with the high point being the kindly dad assuaging his daughter’s heartbreak by saying “That’s why it’s called a crush, honey. If it felt good, they’d call it something else.”


Then again, a retreat to the Archie comics approach to life works for some. I used to know a woman who, when stressed out, would drink Diet Coke and read Archie Comics digests under her bedsheets, pretending to be 12. She was 30 at the time.


There’s a great tracking shot along a gymnasium wall that I can’t ever forget- the camera glides along a lineup of tall, short, geeky, disinterested, transfixed and gadget laiden boys camped out against the wall at a high school dance. And even at the time I thought “Yeah, I’m in there somewhere.” Any movie that brings out a sense of self awareness in the viewer tends stick in the mind.


That said…I developed no sense of self-awareness from the Anthony Michael Hall character (idenfitied only as ‘The Geek’), who does a frighteningly good impersonation of ME at the age of 14 or so. All the parts were there. The Lauren shirt (in homage to Richard Gere, who got all the babes). The reversible jacket (tied around the waist in the best GQ style). And the undeniable self confidence and absolute faith in one’s own ability and sophistication without ANY basis whatsoever in reality.

There’s something to be said for the enthusiasm and guilelessness of the young and horny. They are driven by an honest impulse. They are honestly horny.

I take some relief in the fact that Hughes didn’t take the easy way out and have his character ‘grow up’ through some invaluable life lesson. By the end of the flick, he’s learned nothing and gotten the girl. I also went through that non-learning curve at around the same age and, against all odds, even got the girl from time to time.

So…there’s hope.

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