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January 22, 2014

Book Review: How Music Works by David Byrne


We all listen to music. Maybe we only have it playing in the background, use it to help us sleep or meditate, or perhaps you sit and listen to it carefully. However, no matter how or why you listen, it can't help but have an effect on you. The majority of us just take it for granted that we enjoy the music we listen to and never really stop to think why. While we can talk about the song's lyrics or how the combination of melody and rhythm make us feel good, we usually don't take it much further.

While this passive approach to music may be sufficient for the majority, philosophers and scholars have been fascinated with the why's and wherefores of music since the time of the ancient Greeks. While most study through the centuries has focused on either the physics, the psychological or emotional nature of music, hardly anybody has combined those fields with the more practical aspects involved with the creation and appreciation of music. That is until David Byrne wrote How Music Works. Originally published as a hardcover, a revised paperback edition has just been published by McSweeny's (distributed in Canada by Publisher's Group Canada) allowing Byrne to include new material reflecting the ever increasing nature of the way music works.

Byrne, who is probably best known as the former frontman for arguably one of the most interesting bands to come out of New York's 1970s so-called punk scene, Talking Heads, comes at his subject from all angles. As might be expected he talks about how "music works" in terms of its creation, but he doesn't stop there. He covers everything, from the variety of business models available to musicians today, the effect of technology not only on how we listen to music but how its produced to the correlation between the basic music scale and planetary orbits. Now, in case any of you are feeling a little overwhelmed by the latter, let me reassure you, as somebody who washed out of a basic physics course dealing with light and sound, that Byrne has the amazing ability to render every subject he discusses into language both accessible and intelligent.
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Naturally, as a performer and songwriter, he spends a large chunk of the book talking about the whys and hows of music creation. Right off the top he shows he's not afraid to challenge conventional wisdom about artistic creation by stating there's more than just moments of inspiration or whispers from some transcendental figure like a muse that goes into the writing of any piece of music. He posits the theory that context is as much a factor as anything else, and lays out a pretty convincing argument to support this hypothesis. He examines the history of Western music and the way it has evolved as the acoustics of the space it was played in changed from the massive concrete edifices of cathedrals, whose echoes made it impossible to play music with multiple parts and complicated phrasings, to the concert halls of today where the complicated melodies of orchestral music can be discerned.

Of course when the technology which allowed music to be recorded and listened to at any time entered the picture that provided a whole new context, a context which is continually evolving as the technology improves and grows easier to use and becomes financially more accessible. Byrne talks us through recording technology from the earliest days of Edison's wax tubes to today's digital equipment. He carefully details how each development not only changed the way music is listened to, but how it affected those who created and performed it. He talks of musicians, most famously Glenn Gould the Canadian piano genius, who stopped performing live completely. Instead they turned their energies into trying to produce perfection in the studio instead of having to live with the imperfections of live concerts. Thus the context changed from seeking to entertain people in a public setting to how to create note perfect reproductions of a piece using both personal abilities and technology in the pursuit of this goal.

However, it's not just the creation of music Byrne talks about, he also talks about the practicalities of making a living in the music business. How the odds are almost impossibly stacked against the musician who doesn't sell millions of copies of his or her record to ever really come out ahead if they sign a traditional deal with a record label. Again he takes us through the history of popular music in the recording age as musicians began to be signed by record companies in the early part of the 20th century to the situation in the present day. While much has been made of how people like Amanda Palmer have been able to fund recordings and tours through crowd source funding, Byrne points out they are still the exceptions to the rule.

While it's true advances in technology have made it easier for bands to record their own music, manufacture, distribution and touring still require outlays of money most of them don't have access to. He outlines the various types of deals available to musicians today, including the pros and cons of each, showing just how difficult it is for them to make a living wage. While digital download sites are now able to sell an artist's work without having to recoup costs such as shipping and manufacturing of product, none of these savings are being passed along to the musician in the form of increased royalties. i-Tunes, and others, still take the same percentage the big record companies used to take off the top before a band see's a cent.
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No matter what aspect of music Byrne talks about, his approach is wonderfully conversational. It's like being given the opportunity to sit down and talk with him about everything there is to do with the subject. On top of this he is able to illustrate each of his points with examples from his own career and experiences with the creation, science and business of music. Even when he starts talking about the physics, (and metaphysics) psychology and the various philosophies behind what music means to us as human beings and how it impacts us on emotional and spiritual levels, he manages to maintain this same tone.

The fact that he can make chapters about subjects with the potential to be as dry as the desert sands as enjoyable as his discussions about the early days at CBGBS with Talking Heads is one of the truly remarkable and wonderful parts of this book. True it's not a book you're going to sit down and read in one go, there's just too much information to be assimilated. However, at the same time, How Music Works makes some incredibly difficult and complex topics accessible without ever once talking down to its audience or assuming we share any of its author's experiences or inside information.

If you've ever had any interest in music, especially popular music, beyond listening to it, but haven't really had any idea of how to find out more about it, How Music Works is like owning your very own personal encyclopedia. Not only can you sit down and read it from cover to cover, you can also look up information on specific topics without having to wade through a great deal of extraneous detail. This book should probably be on the curriculums of all post secondary music programs, but can also be read with ease by anybody with even just a casual interest in the subject.

David Byrne has created some of the most interesting and intelligent popular music of his era, and this book he proves he's equally adept as a writer. Witty, insightful, thought provoking and always interesting, How Music Works isn't just for musicians, its for everyone who loves music.

(Article originally published at Empty Mirror as Book Review: How Music Works by David Byrne)

August 12, 2013

Book Review: Telegraph Avenue by Michael Chabon


The issue of race in North America, specifically the relationship between people of African descent and those of European ancestry (white people) is something most of us don't want to talk about. While there are no laws left on the books discriminating against people of colour, nothing we legislate is going to prevent the way people think or feel. Of course its not just race at issue, it's gender, religion and anything else that marks one group of people as different from another. The problem is further exasperated by the tendency to refer to distinct groups as communities. So in stead of communities being made up of the people living together in a geographic area, a geographic area is made up of various segregated communities

Of course there are those who are always willing cynically make use of the word community in order to further their own ends. How many times have you hear a business man or professional athlete talk about giving back to the community? How opening a chain of fast food restaurants or other business is anything but a grab for a neighbourhoods disposable income is beyond me, but it's amazing how often businesses openings are called gifts to a community as if they're supposed to be grateful for more minimum wage service industry jobs. Also which community are they talking about? Is it everybody within the geographic area, or just the people who are the same colour, sexual persuasion or religion as the person making the announcement?

The notion of community and its subtext of race plays a major role in Michael Chabon's most recent release, Telegraph Avenue, first published by < a href="http://www.harpercollins.ca">Harper Collins Canada in 2012 in hardcover and scheduled for release as a trade paperback in October 2013. There aren't many artists today both talented and brave enough to enter into these types of dangerous waters without seriously floundering or running ashore on some shoal or another. However Chabon not only navigates them safely, he does so with such aplomb its only after you've finished and enjoyed his story you realize the keenness of his observations regarding modern urban life.
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Set in what the author refers to as the freewheeling borderlands of Berkeley and Oakland California circa 2004, with a couple of sojourns into the 1970s, in an ethnically diverse but still predominately African American neighbourhood, Telegraph Avenue details the lives of two families who have intertwined professionally and personally. Archy Stallings and Nat Jaffe are co-owners of Brokeland Records, a used/collectible record shop barely hanging on by its fingernails financially. Their wives, Gwen and Aviva run Berkeley Birth Partners, mid wives performing home and hospital births according to their clients' wishes and needs.

The two partnerships have worked amicably, with the women's financial success compensating for the men's shortfalls, but events are about to become turbulent enough to shake the foundations of everything they have built. For the boys the threat comes from ex- professional quarterback Gibson Goode, the fourth richest African American in the US, and his plans to open his latest "Dogpile Thang" just down the street from them. Goode's multi-story entertainment complexes not only contain all the latest in entertainment diversions, they also include large used record emporiums selling the same mix of jazz, soul, funk and other classic African American music as Brokeland and at much "competitive" prices.

While the boys fret over what looks to be their impending doom, the women have their own problems. When a home birth develops complications and they're forced to rush their client to the hospital they work with, Gwen gets into an argument with the doctor on call. Patronizing and condescending he pushes all her buttons until she loses it. Unfortunately the consequences of her actions result in him filing an official complaint against the two, which means they could have their hospital privileges revoked and their business ruined. Just to make matters worse the husband of the woman who had to be rushed to the hospital intends to sue them because of what happened.

With Gwen expecting her's and Archy's first child the threat to their finances couldn't come at a worse time. Further straining their marriage is the sudden appearance of the child Archy fathered with another woman before he married Gwen. Compounding Archy's difficulties is the sudden reappearance in his life of his deadbeat father, Luther Stallings, former martial arts champion and star of a couple of Blaxploitation movies in the 1970s. Stallings brings with him not only the smell of failure, but a history with the city politician in Goode's pocket, who also doubles as the local undertaker and is one of the prime movers and shakers in the neighbourhood. Stallings relationship with said undertaker dates back to the days when the Black Panthers and drug dealers vied for control of the streets. Stalling hopes to cash in on this relationship due to his knowledge of certain events and information about the role played in them by the undertaker/city politician.

All these characters and plot lines play out against the backdrop of the faded beauty of the American urban landscape. Chabon's lively mix of people drawn from all ages, backgrounds, gender preferences and ethnicity are the mortar holding this crumbling, but still standing edifice together. When the politicians and business people who look down on them from their lofty perches of commerce and ambition talk about the good an enterprise like Dogpile Thang will bring to the "Community", they are playing a game of divide and conquer. They are trying to sell an image of African American prosperity. However, the reality is a store with little or no economic spin off for other businesses that will create a couple hundred minimum wage service industry jobs while lining the pockets of its owner and his supporters.
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Chabon has captured the way in which these type of people cynically manipulate the race card in order to feed their own ambitions. By making it sound like the opening of the store is some sort of benevolent gesture on their part, giving something back to the "community", all they're really doing is cloaking their greed in a veneer of fake "black pride". Opening a homeless shelter, sponsoring a lunch program for local schools or providing the funding for a recreation centre for neighbourhood people is giving back to the community. Opening a mega store is expanding your retail empire.

On the other hand the crazy mixed up and jumbled mess of people, businesses and streets Chabon describes in Telegraph Avenue is a real community. The premises Archy, Nat and Brokeland records occupy was a barber shop in a previous life. The men who gather in the record store on a semi-regular basis to talk music, life and the whole damn thing are continuing a tradition of community gatherings dating back sixty years or more. The store is a microcosm of the community at large as black, white, Indian, old and young congregate to while away the time in the useless conversations men so dearly love and have specialized in for eons no matter what their backgrounds.

Communities grow from the ground up and can't be created artificially or imposed by those from the outside. These flawed utopias, like the one Chabon describes so beautifully in his book, exist all over urban North America. While the fight between Brokeland records and Dogpile Thang ends in an unexpected way it also shows how change isn't a bad thing for a community, but only if it comes from within and isn't imposed on it. Like any living thing they need nurturing, and if there is any message to be taken away from this book its we've all missed the boat on what's needed for urban redevelopment. Instead of trying to impose order from without, governments and whomever need to help them build from within. Anything that will improve the quality of life for those living in a community from school meals to community health clinics are of far more use than more minimum wage jobs with no future.

Chabon writes in a kind of free flowing stream of conscious. As we move back and forth between his four major characters as they travel through their world and try deal with their situations, their perceptions and observations bring their community to life for us. We join them in the very public ritual of a funeral for one of the community's long standing fixtures, a musician and friend of the boys, and for the very private ritual of the birth of Gwen and Archy's child. We listen in as they do their best to try and hold on when events move so quickly they can't keep up and how they each manage to find a way to meet the needs of the occasion.

Chabon has managed to capture the essence of community. Whether its a family group or people loosely connected through geography and a shared appreciation for the history and traditions of the region, his descriptions of how people manage to coexist, if not in harmony than at least in a state of mutual acceptance, is remarkable. There's nothing neat and tidy about a community, or life, which is what makes them both all the more valuable. Telegraph Avenue is a wonderful celebration of this glorious mess which is a pleasure and an inspiration to read.

(Article originally published at Blogcritics.org as Book Review: Telegraph Avenue by Michael Chabon)

April 23, 2013

Book Review: The Honey Thief by Najaf Mazari & Robert Hillman


Whenever I've wanted to learn something about a culture I'd read the stories the people told each other. Not the stories others tell about them, or what's been written about them in history books, but the ones which have been passed down from generation to generation. They could be anything from myths to family histories, but they all contain elements of what a people believe in and their view of the world's history. The more stories you read the clearer a picture you begin to develop of how a people live and what matters to them.

In this era of globalization and cultural homogenization I think its even more important than ever to understand the things which distinguish various peoples from each other. It's become far too easy to make pejorative statements about an entire race or creed because we've not taken the time to understand the various nuances and distinctions among the wide variety of people who make up the population of a country let alone a religion. In the West we are especially guilty of making these types of generalizations when talking about countries outside North America and Europe. One of the most glaring examples of this is Afghanistan.

If ever a country has been the plaything of Western powers it's been this remote country bordering Pakistan and Iran. From the British and Russians manipulating its rulers back in the 19th century to the Russians and Americans using it to fight the Cold War in the 1980s and today's supposed ongoing war on terror being conducted by occupying NATO troops, peace is something that breaks out between what has been an almost constant state of war in the country for almost two centuries. Yet in spite of our countries direct involvement with the affairs of this nation, we know little or nothing about it.
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In the hopes of learning more about the country and its people I requested a copy of The Honey Thief written by Najaf Mazari and Robert Hillman published by Penguin Canada. Mazari immigrated from Afghanistan to Australia in 2000 escaping the Taliban. Technically speaking this book isn't about the people of Afghanistan, mainly because there is no one group of people who can be said to be Afghanistan. The country is divided along ethnic lines both geographically and socially and Mazari is Hazara. The Hazara now live, predominately, in the central mountainous region of the country known as the Hazarajat.

While the Hazara are the third largest ethnic group in Afghanistan, one of the first things we learn from Mazari is they have been one of the most persecuted. From the 19th century well into the 20th century they were the victims of what amounts to systematic genocide by the ruling Barakzai family of Afghanistan. When whole villages weren't being exterminated by government soldiers their land was been taken from them. When the members of the royal family weren't busy plotting against each other, they were buying the loyalty of their soldiers and friends by giving them Hazara land.

While the history of persecution obviously colours and shapes the lives of the Hazara people it's only one thread running through the narrative of the people. The stories in The Honey Thief are filled with details which will never find their way into history books. We learn about their ingenuity and their will to survive in spite of what the world throws at them. In "The Snow Leopard", a British photographer is taken into the mountains by a Hazara guide in search of Snow Leopards to photograph, we are given a guided tour of the environment they live in. We learn how the valleys in mountain ranges are used to grow food and how if a valley doesn't have good soil, they will carry soil from other areas into the valley in order to grow crops.

We also learn a little of their philosophy regarding the world around them. In the book's title story, "The Honey Thief", a young man is apprenticed to a bee keeper to learn the delicate mysteries of collecting honey. His new master tells him how he became a bee keeper after he was caught stealing honey by the young man's grandfather. It was thought, he explains to his new apprentice, since he was able to steal honey from the bees without being stung he would make a good bee keeper because bees hate it when people steal the honey they've worked so hard to collect. The bee keeper goes on to explain to his young charge bees, like all domestic animals, are slaves to men, and we steal from all of them.

This tale isn't meant as a morality lesson, rather a lesson in the realities of existence. Be aware of exactly what it is you're doing in order to survive and you will understand why others act they way do in response. Is it any wonder chickens will attempt to hide their eggs or bees attempt to sting us when we keep them enslaved and steal from them as well? This is quite a bit more sophisticated and honest understanding of the relationship between man and the beasts we use for food and domestic work than we hear expressed by most people.
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While the stories are both profoundly beautiful and moving they also serve to fill in the details of everyday life among the Hazara people outsiders would only learn after years of observation. While they might have a natural mistrust of strangers, especially those from other ethnic groups, once a person has shown his or herself to be harmless they will be accepted. Or, unlike other subsistence people whose lives depend on what they can produce from their fields or by the labour of their own hands, they understand the value of education. If the chance arises they will send their children, both boys and girls, to school.

While every Hazara child learns from their parent basic precepts of respect and obedience for their parents and their God, they also recognize there are exceptions to every rule. In the story "The Music School", a mute teenager learns how to give voice to his thoughts with a musical instrument. He is desperate to tell the young woman he loves how he feels about her, but his teacher has forbidden him to play in public until four years have passed from when he began his lessons.

Fearing she will have found someone else in that time he disobeys his teacher, plays for the young women and wins her heart. When he goes to return his instrument to his teacher's house he fully expects to be punished and probably be forbidden from studying anymore. Instead his teacher gives him six gold coins to help him start his new family and tells him to take the instrument home and bring it back the next day for another lesson. As the young man is leaving, stunned by his good fortune, his teacher says to him "God is patient with the obedient, but he treasures the disobedient".

Trying to write out stories which have only previously been told aloud is one of the hardest tasks facing a writer. However Mazari and Hillman have done a remarkable job with this collection of capturing the immediacy which exists between the storyteller and his or her audience. In fact there are times when reading these stories you can hear them being told to you in your mind's ear. There's something about the writing style they've employed which makes them read like they're being spoken aloud to you. The more you read, the more this world comes alive until you can almost picture yourself amongst a community as they gather to hear their stories.

Mazari finishes the book off with a collection of recipes for various Hazara dishes. The instructions for preparing the dishes are stories in of themselves as the various asides offer us even further insights into the people's attitudes towards life. The Honey Thief goes a long way towards belying the impression we've been given of the people of Afghanistan as either savages or ignorant peasants desperately needing to be saved by the West. Stories like this collection should be required reading for every journalist or politician prior to them making public statements about Afghanistan.

(Article first published as Book Review: The Honey Thief by Najaf Mazari and Robert Hillman on Blogcritics.)

March 5, 2013

Music Review: Balkan Arts 701: Bulgarian Folk Dances


Field recordings are usually made with portable recording equipment in less than what anybody would consider ideal conditions with the result being less than perfect recordings as far as sound quality is concerned. However, since the earliest days of recording music they have been invaluable tools for preserving the music of cultures all over the world. Music anthropologists in the 19th century used wax cylinders to record everything from Native American singers to Appalachian folk music.

Field recordings of African American blues and gospel music were often most white people's introductions to both genres. Even today field recordings are playing an invaluable role in ensuring older artists' music is recorded and not forgotten. The Music Maker Relief Foundation has used field recordings to help bring the music of Southern blues artists who otherwise might have been forgotten into homes and concert halls around the world. However field recordings aren't limited to North American music. The Centre for Traditional Music and Dance's archive of recordings is a treasure chest of music from around the world. One of their most interesting collections of recordings were those done in the Balkans during the 1960s and 1970s by Martin Koenig.

His Balkan Arts Centre (the forerunner of the Centre for Traditional Music and Dance) was formed to help keep the music and culture of that region alive. Koenig's original recordings were made into LPs and 45s which he used to teach the folk dances of the region. However, they were never made available to the public. Now that's all changing. A box of the original vinyl records was found in the Centre and have now been restored. They are being released as a 13 part series of special edition vinyl EPs by Evergreene Music with the first release being Balkan Arts 701: Bulgarian Folk Dances.
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Now don't worry if you don't have a turn table as every EP comes with a code which not only allows you to download the four tracks from the recording but also gives you access to liner notes, photos and additional audio files including a recording of an interview with Koeing. In the interview he talks about his experiences recording the music in communist Eastern Europe and why it was important then, and remains important today, these recordings exist.

Like most field recordings made prior to the digital age the sound quality of the four tracks aren't the greatest. However there are other compensations. This is music we would have no record of if these recordings hadn't been made. Folk music which encouraged nationalistic feelings, or celebrated ethnic differences, were strongly discouraged under communist rule in Eastern Europe. An entire generation grew up without knowing the traditional music of their culture. Recordings like these are the only way they have of learning anything about the music and the dances of their people.

Listening to the four cuts, "Zborinka", "Ruka", "Chukanoto" and "Dobrolushko Horo", the first thing you might notice is the similarities between this music and what we call "Gypsy" music. They both have a kind of wild abandonment to them and a heavy reliance on what sound to be stringed instruments. This only makes sense as Bulgarian folk music would have many of the same influences as other musics from the region. Like their neighbours in Romania, Bosnia and Greece, Bulgaria was at one point part of the Turkish ruled Ottoman Empire. You can hear this influence in rather high pitched skirling noise produced by the combination of a type of bagpipe and the violin.

The next thing you'll probably notice is the lack of anything like a bass line providing an underpinning for the song. Unlike the majority of the music we listen to which is built around a very distinctive beat there doesn't appear to be any one instrument responsible for maintaining the song's rhythm. However by listening closely you do hear the sound of a drum buried very deep in the mix. Whether that's intentional or a result of deficiencies in the recording process is unclear.
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However, even without the drum, you'll notice each of the songs has a pattern. Out of what appears to be a sort of free for all, with all the instruments playing leads at the same time, gradually evolves something we can discern as a carefully constructed song with a noticeable rhythm. The secret is to listen to the song as a whole, not the individual instruments, and then you'll be able to hear the song's pulse. This is the engine which propels the dancers who would move to the music.

It might be hard for us to remember this is dance music as it no way matches our idea of how it should sound. Even those of us familiar with other Eastern European music will feel somewhat lost as it doesn't have the definite beat of Polish Polkas or the Cossack music of Russia. No this is far wilder. Evoking the wind swept hills and crags where the shepherds who created it tend their flocks.

In fact it's hard to imagine this music ever being recorded in a proper studio setting. It sounds like it needs to be played out in the open air with its skirling notes being allowed to escape into the sky and the mountains. It's made to be played in the village square or on a hillside around an open fire not in the sterile environment of the recording studio. Thus we discover the real value of field recordings. They not only capture music, they capture the music and its environment like no other recordings can.

The four recordings on Bulgarian Folk Dances aren't, by any stretch of the imagination, high quality. However, they are exciting, exhilarating and a timely reminder that music used to be played for the sheer joy of making it and the chance it gave us to celebrate living. Listening to the music it's fun to try and imagine the kind of dancing it encouraged and the people who danced to it. How often have you been able to say that about anything you've heard recorded recently.

(Article first published as Music Review: Various Artists - Balkan Arts 701: Bulgarian Folk Dances on Blogcritics.)

February 22, 2013

Festival au Desert 2013 Cancelled Due To Uprising In Northern Mali


Almost since I began reviewing music seven years ago I've been receiving press releases inviting me to attend the annual Festival au Desert. This year instead of my annual invitation I received a release announcing the festival's cancellation due to the ongoing war in Northern Mali. However, the press release did announce they would be holding events in exile. Since the world can't come to North Africa this year they will attempt to bring North Africa to the world.

The situation in Northern Mali is confused right now, to say the least. In an effort to understand the situation better and find out more about what's happening with the Festival I contacted Chris Nolan who is the Festival's North American associate. For those who might not be familiar with the Festival perhaps a little background information is in order. The first Festival au Desert was held in 2001. However its origins lie in an annual Tuareg festival, known as Takoubelt in Kidal and Temakannit in Timbuktu, held at this time of the year. The Tuareg are a widely scattered nomadic people united by a common language, Tamashek whose traditional territory stretches from the Algerian Sahara in the north to Niger in the south. These were times when people could gather in one place to exchange information and resolve any difference that had arisen between tribes during the previous year. While in the past the meeting place had changed locations from year to year, it was decided to create a permanent location for the modern version of the festival. The current location is in Essakane, two hours north of Timbuktu, making it accessible to both locals and international attendees.

Initially the festival was limited to musicians from the region, dancing, camel races and other traditional activities. It has since been opened up to musicians from all over the world. For three days 30 or so groups representing a variety of musical traditions perform for audiences who come from all over the world. It is now not only a celebration of Tuareg culture, but all the cultures of the region and a cultural exchange between the area and the rest of the world. The current dates of the festival were chosen specifically to commemorate "La Flamee de la Paix" (The Flame of Peace). This was a ceremony which took place in 1996 to mark the end of the last Tuareg uprising and involved the burning of over 3000 firearms which were then transformed into a permanent monument. At the time it was hoped the treaty signed between the Malian government and the Tuareg would mean peace for the region and see real improvement in the living conditions among the Tuareg.

Ironically, and sadly, this year's festival has been cancelled because once again violence has returned to the region. The echo of the last notes from 2012's festival had barely died away when a new rebellion sprang up. The Malian government had failed to live up to its obligations under the treaty and there had been sporadic outbreaks of revolt since 2009. This time though it was a full scale and well organized uprising. However, unlike previous Tuareg revolts it soon became apparent this one was radically different. Previously they had been about preserving their land and culture, this time there was a new and rather nasty undertone.
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For more specific information about what has been going on since last January I turned to a series of articles written by Andy Morgan which have been published in various newspapers and gathered together at his web site Andy Morgan Writes. Morgan had been manager of the Tuareg band Tinariwen and helped them make the transition from a regional band to the international presence they are today. Morgan has lived and worked among the Tuareg enough to be able to offer a perspective few others can. One of the most important things he says we have to keep in mind is there is no one voice speaking for the Tuareg. Geography and the nomadic way of life ensure they are scattered over the entire Western Sahara. In each region tribal groups have their own leadership and govern themselves as autonomous units. Therefore those in Mali speak for the people of Mali and no one else. Complicating the current situation even more is the sharp division among those claiming to speak for the Tuareg of Northern Mali.

First there is the traditional chief of the Ifoghas tribe who are the hereditary leaders of the Tuareg in the North. While the chief himself is a traditional Tuareg, his son and heir, Alghabass Ag Intalla, is a recent convert to a fundamentalist form of Islam. He is head of a group calling itself Islamic Movement of Azawad (MIA) whose goal is the establishment of an Islamic Republic in the Tuareg territory of North of Mali - known as Azawad. Until recently he and his group were allied with the even more radical Islamic group Ansar ud Dine, headed by Iyad Ag Ghali, another Tuareg convert to radical Islam. It was his group who were responsible for the implementation of Shira law in the region. They also have direct links to and are funded by Al Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb.

Al Qaida's funds for their operations in North Mali came from smuggling operations (drugs, arms, cigarettes and people) and money laundering. All activities which would appear to be in contravention of Shira law, but as we've seen elsewhere, when it comes to raising money politicians tend to turn a blind eye to its origins. Iyad Ag Ghali's ambitions weren't just limited to the creation of an Islamic state in North Mali, he wanted all of Mali brought under Shira law. However, he had no claim to the leadership of the Tuareg. When he demanded to be made leader of what was meant to be a Tuareg uprising, he was refused and broke away from the body who most represent the Tuareg's interests, the National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad (MNLA).

Ag Ghali and Ansar ud Dine were able to take over the rebellion as they were the only group with funding. He was able to offer young unemployed Tuareg men money and equipment. As in other poverty stricken areas of the world there's nothing like financial security to bring people flocking to your cause. Philosophy and political ideals fall by the wayside when in competition with cash in hand. The depth of Ghali's followers beliefs can be measured in how quickly they abandoned him when the French troops arrived. It was one of the reasons armed resistance to the combined French, Chadian and Malian armies collapsed so quickly.

However, since hostilities began last year they were able to cause enough damage in the territories they controlled (they had captured Timbuktu and had begun to move South towards the Malian capital) to ensure a massive exodus of refugees from the area. At the same time the imposition of Shira law saw the banning of all music and to forced all musicians, Tuareg and others, into hiding and exile.

While Ansar ud Dine and their Al Qaida backers have disappeared into the mountains and the desert the question of who is leading or speaking for the Tuareg in North Mali still remains unclear. For while Alghabass Ag Intalla and his MIA can lay claim to being heir apparent to the hereditary chief, his father, who is still chief, is said to be opposed to his vision of an Islamic state. Intalla and the MIA have retreated to the Northern Mali city of Kidal where they have been joined by the ruling council of the MNLA. As of early February they were preparing to open negotiations with the French in an attempt to find a resolution to the conflict.

Unfortunately, just because the Al Qaida backed forces have fled the battlefield, it doesn't mean they aren't around. Much like the Taliban in Afghanistan and elsewhere they have merely faded into the background awaiting another opportunity. As long as the French troops remain on the ground they will continue to be dormant, but who knows what will happen after they leave. The only way of combating them is to ensure the conditions that led to their being able to recruit among the disaffected of the region are resolved. This means there has to be some resolution come to concerning the demands of the Tuareg people of the area.
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In an interview Andy Morgan conducted with Ag Intalla by phone near the beginning of February it was clear the MIA are still pushing for the establishment of an Islamic Republic in North Mali. However, as the majority of Tuareg would not be happy living under even his "kinder gentler" version of Shira law, he says some music will be tolerated as long as its not obscene, it's doubtful his vision will become a reality. He's currently doing his best to distance himself from his earlier position of supporting Ansar ud Dine and backing away from advocating violence. However he also says in the interview if you don't want to live in an Islamic Republic, live somewhere else. That's not going to play very well with either the Malian government, the French or the hundreds of thousands of people who have been displaced by the conflict and want to come home.

When all this is combined with a military coup which overthrew the democratically elected Malian government in March of 2012 and how the conflict has revived old tribal conflicts between the various people's living in the region, the fate of this year's Festival au Desert was in doubt from early on. According to Nolan organizers had hoped they might be able to move the location of the festival into the neighbouring country of Burkina Faso where a number of musicians had gone into exile. The idea was to caravan performers from Mali and the surrounding area to a place which was still accessible to international visitors but safe from the conflict. With the strictures against music and musicians in place that would have meant some difficulties in logistics, but it would have been possible. However when the French and Chadian armies showed up and hostilities intensified the idea had to be shelved. There was just no way they could have guaranteed anyone's safety under the new circumstances.

Aside from concerns of having to shepherd people through a war zone there was the risk of terrorist attacks. With both Al Qaida and Ansar ud Dine followers taking to the hills and desert there was no way to track their movements. Considering the recent hostage taking crises in Algeria and Al Qaida's penchant for fundraising through kidnappings, the risk involved with gathering musicians and foreign tourists in one spot was just too great. Even turning the festival grounds into an armed camp, which would have put a damper on proceedings, wouldn't be a guarantee against a rocket attack.

So, this year the festival will be held in exile at locations scattered around the world. As of now there are events scheduled to take place in Chicago in September and then in Scandinavia in November. Festival organizers are also in the process of arranging for three other performances in North America during July and August, two in the US and one in Canada. Those plans still need to be finalized but as the season advances keep an ear out for announcements about dates, locations and performers.

Of primary concern to anyone who has been following events in Mali has been the fate of musicians under the Shira law imposed by Ansar ud Dine. When I asked Chris Nolan about this he said the majority of musicians are probably better off than other refugees as they do have some financial resources at their disposal. While it's true they had to leave their homes, and any equipment left behind was confiscated or destroyed, they would not be suffering the same level of deprivation as most displaced people. He also reminded me some of the people living in the refugee camps had been there since the uprisings of the 1990s, too afraid to go home for fear of reprisals from the Malian army.

However, he also added we shouldn't underestimate the impact the imposition of Shira law had on the region. Aside from the role music plays socially - he posed the question imagine what your life would be like if all of a sudden all music was banned - this an area where history and cultural identity is kept alive orally through music. Griots, who Nolan likened to European bards, are the keepers of a tribe's history and stories. Through song and music they teach new generations about their history and culture. In recent years Tuareg bands, like Tinariwen, have been employing the same techniques to help ensure the continuation of their culture's traditions and to instil in their listeners a sense of pride in themselves.

According to Nolan the banning of music was an act of cultural genocide with the aim of suppressing the traditions of the indigenous peoples of the region. Once you begin to understand the implications of such a ban, it really makes you wonder how the leaders of any of the groups working towards an Islamic homeland would think they would have the support of either the Tuareg or any of the people native to the region.
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However, as Nolan said, and Andy Morgan confirms in his writings, it's what happens after the fighting stops which is really important. If the status-quo is maintained and nothing is done to address the rights of Tuareg people in the area and their justified fears of retaliation from the Malian army, unrest in one form or another will continue. It seems obvious to me what needs to happen. International pressure has to be brought to bear on Mali - and the other countries in Tuareg territory - forcing them to honour the treaties they signed with the Tuareg. These agreements have done everything from guaranteeing them land, rights and economic opportunities in exchange for surrendering parts of their territory. In what will sound like a familiar story to Native North Americans these treaties seem to exist only to be ignored or broken.

Some sort of international monitoring by neutral observers must be put in place to ensure all parties live up to the conditions of any new treaties negotiated, or the terms of the old ones are being implemented, If these types of guarantees are in place it might be enough to convince people it's safe to return to the region and generate hope for a better future. If people can be given evidence their lives will improve then just maybe the next criminal who comes around flashing guns and money won't be able to turn their heads with his blandishments. There might still be terror attacks in the future, but they won't have the sympathy or support of local people.

The cancellation of Festival au Desert this year is more than just another music festival not taking place.This festival was a symbol of how co-operation between cultures and the meeting of traditional ways of life and the modern world are possible and a benefit to all involved. It was also a symbol of pride and hope for the Tuareg. It was a chance for them and their African neighbours to celebrate their cultures with the rest of the world. For Western pop stars it was a reminder of the power of music and what it was that drew them to it in the first place. "It's one of the few honest things I have been part of in a long, long time...It reminded me of why I sang in the first place." said Robert Plant in an interview with Rolling Stone Magazine in March 2003. However, as Chris Nolan and Andy Morgan remind us, the cancellation is also emblematic of the problems which have plagued the entire region for the last half century.

Since 1960 the Tuareg have seen the gradual erosion of their way of life. While their land remains some of the most inhospitable on the earth, its also rich in natural resources. In Niger Uranium mining has not only displaced people but poisoned precious watering holes and upset the balance of nature in one of the most delicate ecosystems on the planet. Even the supposed economic benefits promised have failed to materialize as any profits from the operation leave the country without any spinoff for the local community. The same story is repeated across the Sahara as the Tuareg have been tossed aside in the hopes they will be fade away until the world forgets about them.

The first Arab armies, nearly a thousand years ago, named them Tuareg, rebels - rebels against Islam - in honour of how fiercely they defended themselves and their territory. Their pride in self and as a people which fed that initial resistance remains and continues to propel their efforts to survive. While musicians of other backgrounds were affected by the implementation of Shira law and it has been more than just Tuareg people displaced by the war, they are still the region's flashpoint. This most recent uprising might have been co-opted by those with ulterior agendas, but its origins have the same root cause of all the uprisings for the last 50 years. The Tuareg won't be cast aside or forgotten, and the sooner Mali and other countries face up to that reality the sooner there will be real peace in the region.

Festival au Desert 2013 has been forced into exile. Like the people and music it celebrates its been forced from its home by the very violence whose end it was meant to be commemorating. Hopefully 2014 will see Mali heading in a new direction, one which guarantees all its peoples their rights and freedoms. Most of all I hope next year to receive an email press release inviting me to cover the Festival au Desert at its home near Timbuktu and music will once again ring out across the desert.

(Article first published as Festival au Désert 2013 Cancelled Due to Uprising in Northern Mali on Blogcritics.)

(Festival photos by Alice Mutasa www.placesandseasons.com)

January 14, 2013

Music Site Review: Concert Vault


There was once a time when the only way you could get hold of the pop music you liked was by visiting a record store. If you didn't own either a record player or a tape deck of some kind the only way to listen to your favourite music was the radio. Which meant you were at the mercy of whatever your local station played. So if you didn't like the top 40 of the day you were usually out of luck. As for seeing your favourite band perform, that was only possible if they happened to go on tour and show up in your home town. If they were really popular they might show up on a television variety show and lip sync to one or two of their songs.

Prior to the 1980s, MTV and Much Music there was precious little live music on television in North America. The one or two shows, The Midnight Special and Rock Concert, to feature bands in concert were on late at night and the sound was usually crap as it was coming through your television's single tinny speaker. While advances in video and digital technology gave us more access to music through an increased variety of sources, we were still limited by the technology available for playing and transmitting. If you were lucky enough your television might have been able to hook up to your stereo, but the signal being broadcast was still only mono so you weren't much further ahead in terms of quality.

Everything changed with the Internet. First there was file sharing with sites like Napster allowing people to upload and download their favourite music. When the record companies panicked at the thought of losing control over their product they moved to quickly shut these sites down until they could figure out how to get their piece of the pie. Now the dust has settled on that front, there are a seemingly infinite number of sites out there allowing you to download and stream music (listen to online) or watch videos and concerts. However, like in the bad old days of top 40 radio, the majority of them seem to fixate on what is popular. If you have somewhat eclectic tastes finding one source to satisfy a craving for music of all genres and from all eras is as difficult as it ever has been.
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Thankfully there are some sites out there which take into account not everybody can be fit into the same round peg. One of the newest to launch specializes in audio and video of live concerts of all genres of popular music. Concert Vault is the brain child of Bill Sagan, best known as the CEO and founder of the music site Wolfgang's Vault. As with Wolfgang's Vault the bulk of the material on Concert Vault is taken from the archives of arguably the man who was the greatest promoter of popular music in the 20th century, Bill Graham. Sagan purchased the archive a number of years ago and has been finding new ways of putting it in the public's hands ever since.

At first glance Concert Vault is a little overwhelming. There are literally so many options available to a user it's difficult to know where to begin. However, Sagan and company have gone to a lot of effort to try and give you a variety of ways to experience the site. There's no way to make this embarrassment of riches easy to navigate, but if you take a couple of deep breaths and a few moments to get over your excitement, you'll find they have done the best job possible under the circumstances. First of all they've divided content up into eight distinct channels: rock, blues, jazz, country, folk/bluegrass, indie and interviews. There is also a separate channel for video only, which is itself divided up into the seven channels mentioned above. Of course you can also browse the site by performers through their A - Z index or check out their variety of themed playlists which gathers together selections from the vault.

Of course you always have the option of creating your own playlist or even queuing up a variety of concerts to play one after another in the "Queue" section of the site. While I'm not thrilled with sites that force you to use their own download managers (with the recent warnings about the threat to Java Script they might want to find another format anyway) I can understand their desire to control access and why they've chosen to go this route. The manager was easy to install and use and I had no problems downloading the concert I wanted (The Talking Heads live at Heatwave 1980 - brilliant, first introduction of their extended funk line up)

The first thing you should do is probably purchase a membership. While not necessary to stream product, it does ensure you unlimited access. You can either buy a monthly membership for $2.99 or pay an annual fee of $29.99. For that price you are given full access to the entire archive - non-members are limited in what they can view and listen to, unlimited streaming on all web browsers and mobile devices, special curated features and playlists for each of the seven music channels, the most you'll ever pay to download anything will be $5.00 and an annual credit of $24.00 against all purchases made at the Wolfgang's Vault Store. An extra $20.00 annually buys you a VIP membership. Honestly the only reason you'd want this is if you're planning on purchasing memorabilia from the store as it buys you a 10% discount and free domestic ground shipping.

Still the annual fee is a bargain even when you factor in having to maybe pay $5.00 for downloading an entire concert. Consider the fact it will cost you a minimum of something like $9.99 to download an album of music from iTunes and you can see how inexpensive this is. On top of that you're going to be downloading concerts you're not going to find anywhere else in the world - literally. Where else can you download the last concert ever given by the Sex Pistols and then flip a page and listen to Bill Monroe or Miles Davis.

What's even better is this isn't just a site for Boomers looking to relive their youth by downloading a Grateful Dead concert. Concert Vault also has wide variety of independent bands and you can listen to everybody from The Cowboy Junkies, REM to The Old 97's. Or check out some of the newer bands you might not have heard of before like Allah -Las, Alabama Shakes or Winter Sounds.

However, what makes Concert Vault special is the depth and breadth of historical recordings it puts at your disposal. To make a full inventory of what's available on the site would take weeks, but judging by the couple of skims I've made of its content I doubt you'll find a more complete collection of popular music in all its myriad forms anywhere else on the Internet. While some of the rarer selections might not be as pristine as we're used to when it comes to audio or video quality, a great many of them pre-date the digital era. Some of them, like a video recording of The Mink DeVille Band from 1978 in San Francisco, make up for their drawbacks in quality simply because of the opportunity they represent to see favoured artists at the height of their abilities when no other records of them exist.

I'm not an aficionado of online music sites, but from what I've seen of what's out there Concert Vault is definitely one of the best. In terms of organization, ease of use and diversity of content it would be hard for any site to compete. If you love music and want the opportunity to hear your favourite artists in concert without having to leave the comfort of your living room, this site will be a dream come true.


(Article first published as Music Site Review: Concert Vault on Blogcritics.)

April 11, 2012

Book Review: Sacré Bleu by Christopher Moore


The hardest thing for an author is to live up the expectations created by writing an original and inventive first novel. Readers can't help comparing each subsequent effort to first one. An author faces the choice of trying to either please their audience by repeating what they did or trusting in their abilities as a writer and going off in whatever direction their muse takes them. Sometimes those who follow the former path are able to repeat their success for a while, but eventually their writing becomes formulaic and stale. The author who risks the latter course may not have the same initial repeat success, but their work ends up standing the test of time far better as its constantly evolving.

Christopher Moore has followed both courses of action. On those occasions where he seems to fall back on the tried and true methods that made him popular, his books, while still better than most of what comes on the market, start to sound the same. Like hearing an old joke with the characters and situation changed, it might be funny but you have the strongest feeling you've heard it before and the punchline is never a surprise. However, he's also capable of creating works of near comic genius which tackle subjects others shy away from. Sacré Bleu, published by HarperCollins Canada April 3 2012 is Christopher Moore at his best and will remind you why he is considered one of the funniest and insightful authors of our time.

Set in Paris France in the mid to late1800s and featuring a cast of characters who read like a who's who of the Impressionist art movement, Sacré Bleu is part mystery, part fantasy, part historical fiction and entirely riveting. Underneath the obvious humour and Moore's familiar breezy narrative style is hidden one of the more interesting examinations of the relationship between an artist and his art - or as some would have it - their muse. What wouldn't an artist give to paint that picture he's always dreamed of painting? The painting that he can see in his mind's eye but somehow has never been able to make its way onto the canvas. What would he be willing to sacrifice for his art?
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The late 1800s were a time of enormous upheaval in the artistic community. Renoir, Van Gogh, Cézanne, Monet, Manet, Pissarro and Henri Toulouse-Lautrec along with many others were pushing the boundaries of what was considered acceptable art in both form and subject matter. Those who doubt the veracity of their work only need to spend some time in Paris in the summer and compare what they see with the paintings from that period. It's still amazing to see how with just light and colour they were able to capture the effects of August's heat on the city.

Although they are now considered establishment, at the time they were outsiders with most of them barely able to eke out an existence. Living in penury their only satisfaction came from their creations. A key element in the success of any painter's work is of course the quality of his paints. The purer the pigment used in making the colour, the more vivid and real the colour. In those days the purest colours were still being made by grinding up various minerals and mixing the resulting powder with oil. The rarest of these was "Sacré Bleu", the blue of the cloak of the Virgin Mary, made of ground up Lapis Lazuli. Lapis Lazuli only being available in Afghanistan meant the stone and paint were usually too expensive for painters struggling to get by. So if they offered a blue, "ultramarine" pigment guaranteed to be better than Sacré Bleu, to try, they would do so no questions asked.

Pure pigments to a painter are like heroin to a junkie. Once they get a taste they can't get enough. So it is with everyone of the painters who come in contact with the mysterious Colourman and his "ultramarine" blue. The main difference between their supplier and most pushers is the price that he exacts from his clients. Instead of cash he demands paintings made with his fantastic blue in exchange for his product. However he never exacts his price in person as each artist who uses his blue also manages to acquire a new model of extraordinary beauty who inspires their best work as well as becoming their supplier of their drug of choice.

As the model takes on a different form for each painter nobody even thinks to make the connection between the paint, the Colourman and the model until the mysterious death of Vincent van Gogh in rural Arles rouses suspicions among his painter friends back home in Paris. Just prior to his death he wrote Touluse-Lautrec that he dared not use his blue paint except at night and that everyone should beware a small wizened man accompanied by a donkey selling paints.

Led by Toulouse-Lautrec the painters of Paris start to put the pieces of the mystery surrounding The Colourman, his amazing blue paint and the mysterious model together. When the young baker with dreams of painting named Lucien Lessard's mysterious lover Juliette returns after a unexplained two year absence the picture really starts to come into focus. Lessard obsession with his lover and the portrait he is painting of her causes him to neglect his responsibilities at the family bakery and stops eating and sleeping. It's only when his mother knocks out Juliette with a crepe pan that his friends and family are able to drag him away from her. For nine days he lies in what appears to be a coma. When he finally awakes all he can think of are the painting he has created and finding his Juliette again.
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Lautrec had undergone a similar experience with a model a number of years ago and had only survived because his friends, including Lessard, had kidnapped him and sent him away from Paris. It turns out that each of their Impressionist friends has at one point in time had one model in particular whom they have obsessed over and who has featured in their most famous works.In each of these works, no matter what the subject matter, the now infamous ultramarine blue has been used. Even more mysterious is the fact while their friends have distinct memories of them having painted a whole series of canvasses involving the mysterious model, none of the painters can either remember painting them or has any idea of where they can have gone to. However, each of them can remember when the model left them, as her disappearance always coincided with a personal misfortune. One painter's beloved daughter died and another lost his wife. Whatever the case, there was always a price to be paid for producing their great works of art.

Moore's depictions of real historical figures are based on accounts of the people in question written while they were alive. So while some the characteristics he ascribes to them in the story might not be accurate a good deal of their activities described in the book actually happened. (In an afterward to the book Moore supplies the reader with details of his sources) Moore always tends towards affectionate irreverence with his characters, depicting them warts and all, but loving them because of their flaws. So while he may overemphasize things like Lautrec's drinking, his affection for prostitutes and some of his other affectations, it's never with malice and does nothing to diminish or demean the painter. In fact, by removing famous figures from the pedestals history has put them on and humanizing them their accomplishments as artists become even more amazing.

Against this backdrop of artistic genius two mysteries gradually unfold. The more traditional involves the Colourman and the strange hold his ultramarine blue paint has over artists and his relationship with the mysterious model. How can one woman have been so different for each artist who has painted her? How could she have been exactly what each painter needed to inspire his greatest work? These questions lead the reader directly into the second mystery at play - the mystery of inspiration. There is nothing more frustrating than asking an artist where their inspiration for a work came from, because nine times out of ten they aren't able to answer. The best you're likely to receive is, "it just came to me". On top of that, why do artists become so obsessed with their work to the point they will forget about everything else including eating and sleeping?

In classical mythology the answer was the muses, the most famous of whom was the goddess Eros. They supposedly provided artists with the desire and passion to create. Is the mysterious Juliette really the muse of legend as she claims? Has she really been so many different women to so many different painters and inspired them to so much great work? If she has, why does she do it? What's in it for her and why do all the painters she inspires have to suffer? Moore gives us the answer to the mystery of The Colourman and ultramarine, but as to the question of inspiration and muses, well that still remains a mystery. Oh, Juliette supplies something akin to an answer, but it doesn't really answer any of the questions.

Any of us who have ever had any artistic aspirations of any kind have at one time or another probably had romantic dreams of living in Paris. These dreams are based upon a Paris that existed from around 1860 until the start of WW ll. What would it have been like to drink absinth with Lautrec, smoke opium with Cocteau or share a coffee in a cafe with Joyce? In Sacré Bleu Christopher Moore captures both the spirit of artistic creation that captivates us and the price paid by those who actually lived it. Beneath the surface of what is primarily a lighthearted mystery story he gives us very real glimpses of what's exacted from those who dedicate themselves to the capriciousness of art. This is Christopher Moore at his best, underneath the laughter lies the truth the clown usually covers with a greasepaint smile.

(Article first published as Book Review: Sacré Bleu By Christopher Moore on Blogcritics.)

August 1, 2011

Book Review: Dancing Barefoot, The Patti Smith Story by Dave Thompsom

I was recently asked a question regarding the story of a person's life that gave me serious pause for thought about the reasons for writing biographies in general. The question was, what is there about this person's story that people will be able to identify with? After I had answered the question regarding the person under discussion to the best of my ability, it led me into thinking about why it is people would want to read about another person's life in the first place. If you've walked into a book store recently you can't have helped noticing non-fiction sections are awash with books about the lives of so-called celebrities. Rock stars, reality TV stars, movie stars, wives and husbands of movie stars and so on stare back at you from display tables and book shelves asking you to shell out your hard earned bucks to.... to what?

Some of them are obviously extensions of the type of coverage you'd expect from the celebrity gossip columns and television shows that pass for journalism or entertainment reporting these days. Collections of photos and filled with the titillating tid-bits aimed at perpetuating whatever myth has grown up around the subject matter. There are also the "My life with so and so" type, which are a version of the tell all book that involves ex-wives, husbands, butlers and pool-boys attempting to cash in on their relationship with the subject by telling the world how they were abused, under tipped or what was involved in a post pool party clean up. A little further up, or lower depending on your point of view, the food chain are the more in depth tomes tracing their subject's life from infancy to death based on interviews with such credible sources as friends of a friend of the guy who drove the ice cream truck through their neighbourhood. Unsubstantiated should be blazoned across the cover of these books rather than the ubiquitous "Unauthorized" as the pages are filled with "he (or she) said" followed by "he said" of quotes that can be neither proven or discredited as the author has gone to great pains to protect his or her sources anonymity.
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Candy floss books like those are people looking for to get the same fix of outrage and envy they receive from reading about "celebrity scandals" in their magazine of choice. Anybody who already buys a tabloid devoted to the antics of "Teen Moms" aren't going to be the most discerning or demanding of audiences and will be more than satisfied with anything that gives them more of the same but in a fancier package. However, what about biographies about the non-celebrity; the world leaders, the history makers, the great scientist and the brilliant artist? What are we looking for when we pick up a biography of someone like Harry Truman, Winston Churchill, Stephen Hawking or Pablo Picasso? These are people who have left an indelible stamp on history and I think its natural there will be curiosity as to what made them who they were and how it came about. How is it this person became so much more than the person sitting next to them in school? Was it they were simply smarter, did they catch some sort of lucky break or were they driven by some burning desire or ambition that propelled them to the pinnacles they obtained? But I also think we want more than just a person's what when we read a biography, we want to gain a deeper understanding of who they are.

We've seen their lives from the outside, but people are more than a collection of actions. It also seems the greater a person's accomplishments, the more interesting and complex they are, and some clue as to who that might be is something we're all naturally curious about. Maybe its just because we hope to find something of ourselves in the pages of their story and in the process some way of personally identifying with them and feeding that small part of ourselves where dreams live with "if they can do it why can't I"? Naturally each individual is going to have different variations on the above motivating their curiosity about the subject of a biography, and depending on who and what the person is known for, there's no saying it will have to be the same reason each time.

When I picked up the new biography of poet/musician Patti Smith, Dancing Barefoot: The Patti Smith Story, by Dave Thompson being published by the Chicago Review Press on August 2 2011, I was already fairly familiar with what her life and career have consisted of and was interested in seeing if the author would be able to provide any more insights into who she was. For while its true Smith recently published her own in depth autobiography,Just Kids it was primarily concerned with her early life in New York City and her relationship with her dear friend Robert Maplethorpe. The other major piece of biographical material available is the ten year in the making documentary by Stephen Sebring, Patti Smith - Dream Of Life, which, although it contains extensive footage of Smith and is remarkably moving in places, I found left me wanting to know more about her.
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Thompson was exhaustive in his research for this book and its not lacking in facts and information. Not only did he conduct extensive interviews with those who knew Patti at various points in her life, he seems to have read nearly everything ever written about her in both the press and other people's writings. However, even more promising as far as I was concerned, was his mentioning in the introduction how he tried to turn to her words and writings whenever possible for information. While the majority of the latter turned out to be interviews she had given at various points in her career, it also included her poetry, lyrics and even Just Kids and whatever other autobiographical writings he was able to access. Thompson also had the benefit of having been there himself when her career took off during the heydays of punk rock in the mid 1970s. (In fact portions of this book previously appeared in one of his earlier works, London's Burning:True Adventures on the Front Line of Punk 1976 -1977) which should have enabled him to bring his own emotional memories of the time to bear upon the subject.

The book traces Smith's life and career from pretty much her birth right to 2010. While a great deal of this was covered in Smith's Just Kids, Thompson switches the focus away from her relationship with Maplethorpe, although as that was such a formative part of who she is he can't ignore it, and focuses instead on those aspects of her life more directly related to her career. While there is still quite a bit of overlap between the two books, his emphasis on how her career was being shaped by those events distinguishes his work from hers. We also hear from those who knew Smith and Maplethorpe during this time, and their observations at least offer a different perspective on things Smith described in her book. While at times it feels somewhat strange to read these third person accounts it does help to explain how Smith was able to begin establishing herself as a force to be reckoned with in the artistic community of New York City in the late 60s early 70s.

There are also details, like Smith's fascination with Jim Morrison of the Doors, which she had barely touched on in her own book, that Thompson recounts. With descriptions of things like Smith standing at Morrison's grave in Paris for two hours in the pouring rain hoping to receive some sort of communion from beyond, he makes a case for Morrison's combination of rock and roll and poetry as one of the bigger influences on her career. While he never comes right out and says it in so many words, the fact that Thompson keeps bringing him up time and time again in relationship to Smith's work is an indication of the importance he places on it and his ability to cite her own references to the late rock and roll singer gives the suggestion credence. Personally I never thought that much of Morrison, so my own personal prejudices made it difficult to accept that Smith's work would have been inspired by someone whose work was, what I'd consider, far inferior to hers, but he does present a very convincing case in support of the theory.
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Thompson's meticulous research pays off for the reader in his recounting Smith's near fatal accident during a performance in Tampa Bay Florida when while dancing on stage she tripped over a monitor and fell over the edge to the concrete below damaging vertebrae in her neck. While rumours have circulated as to the cause of the accident the truth was as the opening act on the tour they were forced to work around the headlining group's gear and the monitor was not where she thought it would be. I'd never even heard of this incident, it's not mentioned in either her book or the movie, so was shocked to discover how serious it had been. For a while after the accident there was not only doubt as to whether she would ever perform again, but if she would ever walk again. Smith was part of the reason the fall was downplayed so much, as she was never aware how serious the problem was. Unused to pain medication she would cheerfully answer fine to people's queries as to how she was feeling. So unless you were actually in the hospital room to see her immobilized, you'd not have known the risk she was at.

While these and other facts are interesting and Thompson has done a fine job in organizing and relating them in a neat chronological package, I came to the end of the book not feeling like I had come to know the person behind the facts any better then I had before I started. Perhaps that's because I'd read her own book, own a copy of Sebring's movie and its accompanying book and have watched a number of interviews with her where she has discussed both herself and her career and was already familiar with her. Perhaps my expectations outstripped what is possible to accomplish within the format of a biography, but still I felt there has to be more to someone's life than the mere recitation of what happened to them and when. Thompson's background in journalism shows in his unwillingness to stray too far from laying out facts and very rarely expand upon them in an effort to give us more of a sense of who Patti Smith is. Don't get me wrong, that's not his fault, it's, at least as far as I'm concerned, one of the inherent flaws in the biographical genre. They reduce flesh and blood people down to facts and in the process remove the passion in their lives which made them so fascinating in the first place. You'll learn all about Patti Smith and her career by reading Dancing Barefoot, The Patti Smith Story but you won't know her any better after reading it then before you opened it.

(Article first published as WORKING GH Book Review: Dancing Barefoot: The Patti Smith Story by Dave Thompson on Blogcritics)

February 12, 2011

Music Review: Mamadou Diabate - Courage

If you look at old maps you'll notice Europe dominating the rest of the world. Not only is it in the centre of the map, it is also represented as being much larger than any of the surrounding continents. While the excuse could be made the maps were composed out of ignorance as they didn't know the locations or sizes of the other land masses at the time, there can be denying they also thought the world revolved around them, if not the whole universe. Remember it wasn't until after they burned Copernicus at the stake for espousing the view the world revolved around the sun, did that belief begin to take hold. So it's pretty easy to see how they could believe themselves to be the centre of the world.

Over the years, as more and more of the world was revealed through exploration, maps gradually became more accurate in their depiction of the world and countries' and continent's sizes in relation to each other, but our Euro-centric view of the world hasn't changed at the same speed. While we might recognize certain geo-political realities, when it comes to culture, we tend to diminish the creations of certain countries of the world as if they couldn't possibly have the traditions or history required to produce art of real quality. Aside from ignoring the fact these civilization existed long before Europe, it has resulted in the art produced in those regions being dismissed as "folk" art and not being appreciated appropriately.
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One of the most glaring examples of this is the way the music of the various African nations has been relegated to either the world music or folk categories down through the years without regard to what is being played. If the instruments aren't immediately recognizable as ones that look like they belong in a symphony, or the music being played doesn't fit into any of our preconceived notions of "what" it should sound like, the idea of it bearing any resemblance to what we call classical music is considered laughable by most people. The thing is, there are musicians and composers of all types scattered through out the length and breadth of Africa who, like their European counterparts, are playing music of incredible complexity and emotional depth passed down from generation to generation and which inspires the work of contemporary composers. All of which sounds remarkably similar to our definition of classical music.

It was while listening to the newest release, Courage on the World Village Music label, from Malian kora player and composer Mamadou Diabate these thoughts really took shape, I've been trying to put my finger on what bothers me so much about the practice of lumping all music from outside English speaking North America and Europe into one grouping, world music, no matter what type of music is produced. How can you put this man and what he creates into the same genre as, for example, the Tuareg musicians of the Northern Sahara and their electric tribal blues, let alone the same genre as the musicians of Southern India or Flamenco players from Andalusia in Spain? It makes as much sense as putting Jimi Hendrix and Mozart into the same musical category.
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This cultural snobbery has its roots in colonialism and European refusal to believe any "native" could be as sophisticated as them. While it is nowhere near as blatant as it once was the attitudes really haven't changed that much as I doubt very few people would believe the music Diabate composes on his twenty-one string Kora is every bit as intricate and sublime as the work of J.S Bach or other European classical composers. How could a man who plays an instrument which has its resonator made out of a calabash covered with cow skin, and whose only accompaniment is somebody playing a wooden xylophone (Lansan Fode Diabate - balafon), a small stringed instrument which looks like a stick stuck into a tube shaped drum with four strings (Abous Sissoko - ngoni), a percussion instrument made from a gourd (Adama Diarra - calabash) and a guy on acoustic bass (Noah Jarrett), be compared to one of the most revered European composers who lived?

Actually it was very easy. I was listening to the third of the eleven tracks on the CD, "Dafina", when it popped into my head how much this disc reminded me of a recording I had heard of Glen Gould playing Bach's Goldberg Variations. It was about the third or fourth time listening to the disc when I was struck by the similarity. It wasn't that track in particular which triggered the thought, it was more a cumulative effect of having listened to the music a few times and it no longer mattering what instruments were being used. Obviously Diabate's music doesn't sound much like a solo piano performance, (and he doesn't hum tunelessly along to his performance like Gould used to) rather it was the intricacy and arrangement of the notes - the patterns they formed - that put me in mind of the Bach.

I realize this is all very vague, but the best I can do is tell you is Diabate's music generated the same feelings the Bach did the first time I fully appreciated it and allowed it to carry me away. Each of the eleven tracks on the disc are a piece onto themselves and express individual themes or ideas. "Yaka Yaka", the opening track, is dedicated to the love he feels for his mother, while others are less personal and reflect the concerns he has with the state of the world. Track four, "Humanity" and the disc's closing track, "Bogna" (respect), were inspired by his understanding any hope we have of solving today's problems rests in us learning to treat each other with a heck of lot more respect and humanity than we do now. While we might not be able to "hear" the message in each track, their combined effect is to create a disc of amazing emotional power imbued with overwhelming sense of hope.
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Yet the title of the disc, Courage indicates Diabate does not cling to false hopes or suffers from any illusions about what is needed to overcome so many of our problems. Listening to his music you have the sense the courage he is referring to is the kind which allows you to stand up and admit you were wrong, the kind that allows you to forgive your enemy and look for the common ground you'll need to forge peace between you or the kind allowing you to respect other people's beliefs and not be scared of something because you don't understand it. Like Bach, Diabate's work has been inspired by something greater than his own personal feelings and objectives and he has responded by creating music every bit as technically sophisticated and emotionally uplifting as any composer you care to name. The Grammy he received in 2009 was for best Traditional World Album. I don't know if they have a Grammy for best Contemporary Composition, but if they do that's the category this disc should be considered under. This is a truly remarkable disc of music and deserves to be considered equal to anything written or recorded by any composer or symphony orchestra in the rest of the world.

(Article first published as Music Review: Mamadou Diabate - Courage on Blogcritics)

February 1, 2011

Music Review: Ballake Sissko & Vincent Segal - Chamber Music

The cello is not most peoples idea of a glamourous musical instrument. Even in the world of classical music, where there have at least been pieces of music written specifically for it, it plays second fiddle (couldn't help it) to its sexier kin in the string section, the violin. Outside of the concert hall it receives even less recognition, for while instruments like the trumpet, saxophone, clarinet, violin, and even its larger cousin the double bass have become staples in the world of jazz, you don't often hear a cello leading a jazz combo or showing up in your average rock band.

What most people don't realize, save those who have taken the time to sit and listen, is the astounding variety of sound and the wondrous richness of tone a cello can produce. As a child my parents decided, in spite of an almost complete lack of aptitude, I should play an instrument as part of my education, and I somehow ended up paired with a cello. For three years I learned proper bowing and fingering techniques, but it was soon obvious I was no match for the demands of the instrument, surrendered to the inevitable and stopped inflicting myself upon the poor long suffering music teachers in my school system. However, even my pitiful scraping of the strings were enough to convince me that in the hands of someone who knew what they were doing the cello would sound wonderful.
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All of which brings me to the intriguing new project released earlier this month by Six Degrees Records entitled Chamber Music. Normally the term chamber music refers to pieces performed by a condensed version of a symphony orchestra with the number of musicians reduced from its usual over a hundred to around thirty or forty. In this case though, we're dealing with something even less traditional as cellist Vincent Segal of France is joined by the kora playing Malian Ballake Sissoko. While this may seem like a strange combination at first glance, a twenty-six string traditional harp like African instrument being paired with an instrument from the European classical repertoire, the gap between the two men and their instruments isn't actually that large.

Both Segal and Sissoko, while trained in the classical traditions of their instruments, have worked in what most would considered non-standard genres musically before. For Segal this has meant working with everything from jazz combos to hip-hop groups while Sissoko has collaborated with people like Taj Mahal and contemporary composers. At the same time the music both men were initially trained in has far more in common than you'd think. In spite of increased exposure due to the proliferation of world music labels there is still the widespread misconception that music from African countries is either high energy pop music or tribal based drumming. Sissoko's training was in a much different type of music as like his father and grandfather before him he had been prepared for the role of historian, praise singer and bard for his people. The music he played was designed to help tell stories and create an atmosphere that was conducive to people listening to him, not to pulling them on their feet.

Even if you don't know anything about the two men or their backgrounds, as soon as you listen to them playing together the connection between them and their music is obvious. From the opening, title track "Chamber Music", to the closing song on the disc, it sounds as if they have been playing together for decades. First of all the two instruments compliment each other perfectly as the kora, much like a European harp, has a light almost ethereal sound that blends beautifully with the cello's rich, earthy tones. However, instead of the cello being relegated to being a support instrument, as is the case most often in European classical music, playing the bass line to the higher pitched instrument's melody, the two men have created pieces in which neither is confined to any set role.
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Some of the pieces are based on traditional African melodies Sissoko suggested and in those Segal has improvised an accompaniment. It's fascinating to hear the sounds of the two instruments interweaving as Segal mixes bowing, plucking and slapping his strings to create a solid foundation for the complex tunes Sissoko picks out on his kora. Then there are tunes like the more jazz sounding "Oscarine" where the leads they pass back and forth build off each other in much the same manner as you'd hear in any jazz combo. On this occasion the contrast between the sounds of the two instruments is at it's most striking and potent, pulling the listener into the music through our anticipation for the next interesting combination of tones.

While the disc is primarily a collection of instrumental tunes, the two men are joined by Malian Awa Sangho on the track "Regret". The song is a tribute to Sissoko's late friend, singer Kader Berry, and is a stirring and emotional piece in which you can hear the feelings of the title expressed in almost every note. Sangho's vocals are a third instrument and serve as a focal point for both the listeners and the two other instruments. While the cello delves into the depths of regret one can hear in the singer's voice, the kora echoes the sharpness of the pain felt from the loss of a dear friend.

Musical collaborations between cultures used to be few and far between. Times have changed however, and we are starting to see more and more musicians searching for the common ground which will allow them to work with others from different traditions. While it might seem a cellist trained in European classical music would have little in common with a traditional Malian kora player, Chamber Music proves otherwise. This is a wonderful combination of sound and style that will both surprise and delight listeners from all backgrounds

(Article first published as Music Review: Ballake Sissko & Vincent Segal - Chamber Music )

Music Review: Dhoad: Gypsies Of Rajasthan -Roots Traveller

While everybody assumes the people most refer to as Gypsies, who prefer the name Roma, are travellers. In fact the common stereotype we have of the Roma is they travel around in caravans stealing from regular hard working folk like ourselves. Since most decent hard working folk tend to spit on the Roma as soon as look at them, their opinions and views, on the whole, can probably be safely disregarded. Even the one part of the picture they manage to get partially right doesn't even begin to tell the story of these people. For, if they are such wanderers by choice, why are there permanent Roma settlements throughout Eastern Europe?

The people we call the Roma are descendant of folk who left the Rajasthan province of Northern India some time during the early part of the first millennium. The best guess is their migrations began around the same time the Mogul Empire began its expansion into Northern India from Persia. Maybe they were simply fleeing the fighting, or maybe they had no wish to live under the rule of this new Empire, we'll never know for sure. What we do know is they began to make the long trek West following the Silk Road through the Middle East and eventually made their way into Europe following the Danube River. A wonderful documentary movie, Latcho Drom, retraces the route they took through visits with musicians in each of the countries the Roma have settled in.

As with any diaspora of people, not everybody left, and there are still many in Rajasthan who are the descendants of those who didn't make the migration. However, as their role in the history of the Roma has been a relatively recent discovery for the world at large, we still know only a very little about the people and their culture. Aside from the movie mentioned above, their music was also featured in the film When The Road Bends: Tales Of A Gypsy Caravan, a documentary which followed the North American tour of Roma musicians from all over the world. Unfortunately both movies only offered samples of the type of music on offer from the people of Rajasthan and releases by individual bands from the region were scarce and hard to come by.
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Thankfully that situation looks like it's beginning to improve. While there might be something slightly cynical about a few thousand year old culture being "discovered", a benefit is the increased availability of music from the region. One such example is new disc out on the very good international music label, World Village Music, from the French based Rajasthan band, Dhoad: Gypsies Of Rajasthan, called Roots Travellers. Unfortunately, as sometimes happens, the review copy I received didn't contain the DVD included with the CD as a bonus feature. However judging by some of the stills you can see of them performing at their web site, both dancing and fire breathing appears to play a role, it has the potential for being quite the spectacular.

Dhoad are now the third or fourth group of musicians I've heard from this region of India and my experience this time was no different from the previous occasions. The difficulty faced by Western audiences listening to music from India is we are so unfamiliar with the both the scale in use and the sound of the instruments, no matter what region its from, initially, it all sounds the same. So don't be surprised if Dhoad, in spite of the word Gypsy included in their name, at first listen sound little or nothing like Roma music from the West and a whole lot like most everything else from South East Asia.

However as you start to pick out individual instruments within the mix you'll begin to hear patterns in both the instrumental work and vocal stylings that have things in common with bands in Romania and other European communities. The first of the disc's ten tracks, "Banno", is a good example of this as what catches your attention are the vocals and the multilayered rhythm of the tabla. The vocals have the high pitched, almost falsetto, nasal quality I've come to associate with male singers of a certain style from India and the tabla being played in a time signature my body raised on the basic syncopation of the West - everything a multiple of two or three - just can't recognize. Yet, when a break occurs and the vocals and tabla fall away leaving only the sound of their harmonium type instrument playing, all of a sudden there's a note of familiarity. In it I can hear the accordions of the bands from Eastern and Western Europe. It's not just the way the instrument sounds that is familiar, but the way it is being used. Both the tempo it is being played at and the quality it is adding to the music are identical to the contribution made by its Western counterpart.
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When the second set of vocals kicks in on the same track anybody familiar with other Roma bands will hear startling similarities between this singer's voice and vocalists in other bands. It might have been just my imagination, but there was even something about the way the language sounded that was somewhat the same as what I've heard sung by some Romanian Roma. Of course there are other songs on the disc where Dhoad are deliberately sounding like other musicians. "Rajasthani Reggae" starts off with an obvious nod in the direction of Jamaica - which doesn't really have much to do with Roma music no matter how you look at it, but is in keeping with the disc's title of Roots Travellers. They might not be the first band from outside the Caribbean to take a stab at a reggae tune, but theirs is one of the most original ventures into that genre you'll ever hear.

One of the most difficult things about listening to the music of another culture is avoiding the trap of interpreting what you hear based on the criteria you would use when judging music you're more familiar with. We tend to make decisions about someone's emotional state based on the sound of their voice. In most cases, even in the instance of listening to a song in another language like French or Spanish, we would be completely justified in our efforts as we share many vocal indicators in common with most Western languages. In the case of this recording though, all of those preconceived notions have to be discarded as the vocal clues given off by the singers aren't ones we're going to be familiar with. In fact if we judged them by our standards it would sound like all of the songs were plaintive appeals dealing with grief of one kind or another.

Listening to this disc is an adventure, a real journey into unknown territory. If you approach it with an open mind you will find ways to appreciate the music you hear for what it is, not what you anticipate music should be. Listen for the interplay of melody and rhythm, the intricate patterns made by the weaving together of the vocalists' harmonies, the tabla and other instruments to create a tapestry of sound both rich and colourful. While those who have an understanding of the music of South East Asia will obviously get more out of this disc than others, there's still plenty for the rest of us to enjoy. Don't think of this disc as a door that's closed to you, rather think of it as an opportunity to begin opening a door to a new world. You might feel a little lost at times, but you'll soon develop your own map for finding your way around.

(Article first published as Music Review: Dhoad Gypsies of Rajasthan - Roots Travellers on Blogcritics)

DVD Review - Discovering Hamlet

Having worked, read lived, breathed and died, in theatre for a little over a decade, I'll never be what would call a passive observer of the action taking place on a stage. In fact I'm probably the person you least want to sit beside when your in the audience of your local community theatre's production of anything. If you thought the critic from your paper was a snot, before the first scene is over you'll probably want to have me physically removed from the theatre. If its not the muttering under my breath about incompetent actors who shouldn't be allowed on stage, it will be because of the constant shifting around in my seat as I fight the urge to stand up and demand the show be closed down.

And that's just for those occasions when people are hacking their way through summer stock fare like Noel Coward or Neil Simon. When it comes to anybody foolish enough to try and attempt even the simplest of Shakespeare's work thinking if Mel can do it why can't I, I turn from being merely insufferable to deranged. Usually the only difficulty I'm faced with under those circumstances is figuring out what is pissing me off the most, the fact nobody understands what they're saying or how they attack their speeches like sprinters attempting a world record in the 100 meters.
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I refuse to apologize for any appearance of snobbery or elitism these attitudes might convey, for having experienced the magic and wonder of seeing Shakespeare performed by those who know how to speak the language, anything less is tantamount to sacrilege. Unfortunately the opportunities to see these works performed at those standards are few and far between if you don't live in a major metropolitan area or a community like Stratford Ontario, which hosts a professional Shakespearean festival every year.

Well, if you can't go to Shakespeare the next best thing is to bring it into your home. The new, two disc, DVD package of Discovering Hamlet, from the Acorn Media Group, provides the viewer with not only a chance to see great actors at work, but also provides some insight into what goes on prior to what you see on stage opening night. The first disc is a documentary made of the rehearsal process for a 1988 production of Hamlet directed by Derek Jacobi and starring Kenneth Branagh.The second disc features extra footage from the film, including extended versions of the interviews with the actors in the play, choreographing the stage fight between Hamlet and Laertes that ends the play and hanging out backstage with the actors at the opening night party.

In 1988 Branagh was just on the cusp of international renown as his film version of Shakespeare's Henry V would be released shortly after this production of Hamlet closed its run. He had already established himself as the next rising star of British classical theatre and was now set to climb the next rung on the ladder. As the director of the play, Derek Jacobi, says in an interview conducted many years after the film was made, the role of Hamlet is see as a bell-weather mark for classical actors of a certain age. All the great ones, and he listed Olivier, Gielgude, Richardson, Redgrave, Burton, and then shyly included himself, took on the role at roughly the same point in their careers and it was now Branagh's turn to put his stamp on it. The impression we're given is not only was Branagh tackling one of the more challenging roles in classical theatre, he was also feeling the pressure to step into the shoes of those who came before him. So not only does he have to learn an amazing amount of dialogue and create a character, he also has to do so knowing that his performance will be compared with those who have come before and judged accordingly.

If you think that's a daunting task wait until you hear the rest of what he's up against. Hamlet was being presented by Branagh's Renaissance Theatre Company in repertory with two other works by Shakespeare. Meaning, he was not only spending his days in rehearsal, at night he was performing in one of two other plays as well. The company has only four weeks with which to pull the production together with a first time director at the helm. For while Jacobi was, and is still, an accomplished actor, this was to be his first, and he now claims his last, directing job. As Jacobi is the first to admit, just because someone is a gifted actor, it doesn't mean they will have any talent for directing.
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The movie, which is narrated very capably by Patrick Stewart, joins the actors and director in the first week of rehearsal and then follows them though to just before Branagh walks on stage opening night. We don't actually see his performance, although we do see clips shot during the final dress rehearsal, but what the movie does is show us the process both actors and directors go through in preparing a play as complex and difficult as Hamlet. If nothing else, viewers will gain a far better understanding of just how much work it takes to bring a piece of professional theatre to life on stage. The actors not only are in rehearsal for close to eight hours a day, they are also expected to learn their lines when they're not rehearsing and are expected to have them memorized by the third if not the second week. (The fight scene I mentioned earlier was choreographed outside of the normal rehearsal hours, meaning the actors involved had to show up early that day.)

However, don't be looking for anybody giving away any acting tips or hints on how to mount your own production of Hamlet. In fact I had forgotten how frustrating it can be to talk to actors and directors about their process for developing a character or staging a play. It's not that they don't know what they're doing, it's just not the sort of thing you can easily articulate to people who are not directly involved with the project you're working on. While the woman (Dearbhla Molloy) playing the role of Hamlet's mother, Gertrude, says something about drawing upon her relationship with her son to help her prepare for the role, that's the closest any of the actors come to talking specifics about what they did to help them prepare. Even when we overhear the rehearsals via the camera, it doesn't make much of a difference as everybody seems to be talking in a shorthand incomprehensible to those who don't work in theatre. At one point we watch Jacobi giving notes to his actors - telling them things they need to work on to improve their performance - and while his words obviously mean a lot to his actors, the fact that he's telling them they need to listen to each other more instead of anticipating their lines will probably mean nothing to those who haven't worked in theatre in some capacity.
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The other thing you have to be aware of is even when the camera does capture some of Branagh's, or any character's performance for that matter, it will seem like they are overacting horribly. This is when you realize the huge difference between film and stage acting. Aside from having to memorize the whole script at once instead of merely whatever pages you'll be shooting on a day, actors are also having to make themselves understood by people who are as much as 200 feet away from them without using any amplification when they are on stage. On film they will look ridiculous because of the mediums tendency to exaggerate even the smallest motion. (In the interview conducted years later with Jacobi, the director of the movie asks him what he thinks is the biggest challenge facing the classical theatre today. Jacobi's answer is actors have become so reliant on amplification few know how to use their voices sufficiently well to handle the nuances required to perform Shakespeare live anymore.)

Discovering Hamlet won't tell you very much about the process of putting on a play or creating a character. However this glimpse of life backstage and in the rehearsal hall does help you realize there is real magic in the world of theatre, although it might not be quite what you were expecting. The magic is how these seemingly perfectly normal looking people, wearing jeans and t-shirts for the most part, transform themselves into princes, kings and queens. Perhaps after watching this two DVD set you'll begin to understand some of my frustration with watching less than stellar performances of Shakespeare. For while it might not allow you to experience the excitement of seeing the play performed, the glimpse you are offered of actors preparing will whet your appetite to seek out the plays as they should be seen. On stage and performed by actors who are able to fulfill Hamlet's instructions to the company of travelling players he hires in Act III scene 3: "Speak the speech, I pray you, as I pronounced it to you, trippingly on the tongue, but if you mouth it, as many of your players do, I had lief the town crier spoke my lines."

(Article first published as DVD Review: Discovering Hamlet on Blogcritics.)

December 1, 2010

Music Review: Various Performers -Baby How Can It Be? Songs Of Love, Lust & Contempt From The 1920s & 1930s

After more than five years of reviewing what feels like thousands of different music CDs a great many of the titles I've covered have vanished into the haze of my memory. It's one of the reasons I don't review nearly as many titles as I once did, there's only so many different ways I have of saying basically the same thing over and over again for music that's all beginning to sound suspiciously similar. For someone to stand out enough for me to remember not only their name, but exactly what they've done, means there was something remarkably distinctive about them. In some cases that might mean they were such an absolute horror show that you can't help but recall them with a shudder.

But as in the case of the Eden & John's East River String Band's disc, Some Cold Rainy Day, there are recordings where a love of the material being performed combines with the skill and passion necessary to bring it to life results in the creation of something truly special. On the above album Eden and John went deep into the past of American popular music for their material and play the tunes on instruments - vintage archtop guitar and resonator ukulele - from the era. However, these are not just lovingly presented museum pieces, Eden and John throw so much of themselves into the pieces they take on new life and are just as relevant as anything written today.

It turns out that John Heneghan, the John from the group's name, is not only a fan and performer of music from the 1920s and 30s, he's also an avid collector of recordings from the era. Blues, jazz, country and Hawaiian are only a few of the genres that are apparently represented in his vast collection of old 78 rpm discs. It was this resource that Heneghan drew upon when compiling the latest release for the Dust To Digital label. Baby How Can It Be: Songs Of Love, Lust & Contempt From The 1920s And 1930s is a three disc collection of over sixty tunes that cut across race, genre, geographical boundaries and gender. While the historical significance of this release is obvious, its a brilliant snap-shot of the variety of popular music created during those two decades, listeners are also going to be surprised and delighted by the material for its own sake. In fact you'll probably even experience quite a sense of regret that this music has been forgotten over the years, as a great deal of it is every bit as good, if not better, than most of what's being written today around the same themes.
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I think what might surprise people the most is how graphic some of the material is. If Tipper Gore had problems with the "Mature Content" of rap songs, I wonder what she'd make of songs with titles like "Let Me Play With It" or lyrics like those of the song "Pussy" where the singer talks about stroking his woman's pussy. The sexual innuendo isn't exactly subtle and the double entendres fly fast and thick in quite a few songs, but especially on the second disc of the set, subtitled "Lust". Oh and if you think only the male singers are raunchy, well you really have led a sheltered life haven't you. Don't worry, Mississippi Matilda will set you straight as she sings to you what's it like to be a "Hard Working Woman". There's also songs that won't offend the more delicate sensibilities out there as well like "Tip Toe Through The Tulips With Me", the original version by Eddie Peabody not Tiny Tim. It's still done on ukulele, and still annoying, but make sure you listen closely to the lyrics, you won't regret it.

While there are a few other familiar names that pop up in the credits and titles; Cab Calloway and His Orchestra, Blind Lemon Jefferson and Mississippi John Hurt are probably the three most widely recognized names; the reality is that even they aren't what you'd call household names anymore. While some of the material and the people performing them have very rightly been swallowed up by the mists of time, the majority are tunes well worth listening to, and if there were any justice in the world, would still be listened to on a regular basis today.

As previously mentioned the second disc in the set contains material that revolves around the theme of "Lust". Each of the other two discs are similarly organized with the first focusing on "Love" and the third on "Contempt". While you might be tempted to skip over the first disc in order to sample what "Lust" and "Contempt" have to offer (Love songs are a dime a dozen these days, but how many good contempt songs have you heard recently?) don't let yourself be prejudiced by thoughts of contemporary songs. Where else are you going to hear bands like Banjo Ikey Robinson and His Bull Fiddle Band or Little Kimbrough and Winston Holmes and songs with titles like "That's What The Bachelor's Made Out Of " (Taylor's Kentucky Boys) and "Insane Crazy Blues"? (Charlie Burse with Memphis Jug Band) Believe me when I tell you they don't write love songs like these anymore, and while not all of them are going to appeal to everyone, the great thing about this collection is if you don't like a tune - skip ahead to the next because its going to be something completely different from what's come before.
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Of course some of the best titles are to be found on the "Contempt" disc; "You Gonna Look Like A Monkey When You Get Old", "Wimmin-Aaah!", and "Its A Shame To Whip Your Wife On Sunday". The latter very pleasantly reminds listeners that there's no need to whip your wife, or do any manner of things on Sundays, as there plenty more days of the week for you to take care of those tasks without violating the Sabbath. While there is great material throughout the collection, there seems to have been something about "Contempt" that inspired people that little bit extra. Not only are there more songs on this side than either of the other two, there's no denying that on the whole they're a good deal more interesting. It's been said that love and hate are the opposite faces of the same coin, but in the case of popular music from the 1920 and 30s it seems like people might have spent a little more on despising then they did on adoring.

A lot of trouble has been taken with creating an appropriate package for the music on these three discs and you can't help but appreciate both the artwork and the photographs used as covers, labels for the CDs and in the accompanying booklet. The booklet and the disc's gatefolds are adorned with period photographs reflecting the title's themes and each disc comes complete with a label done in the Art Deco style of the period.

Baby How Can It Be: Songs Of Love, Lust & Contempt From The 1920s & 1930s is a veritable cross section of American popular music. What's truly wonderful about it is that no matter what genre the song, it predates the era of slick presentation and commercial concerns whose end result was to reduce everything to its lowest common denominator. This is a trip back to the days when not all popular songs sounded alike or adhered to some industry dictated formula for success. The material on these discs are the real roots of American popular music, but much of it has been forgotten or ignored over the years. While unfortunately a great deal of what was recorded in the time period represented by this collection has been lost, the samples offered by it give us some indication of just how rich and vibrant our popular music culture once was. If nothing else, maybe this collection will inspire people who hear it to seek out more of the same and others to open their eyes to the limitless possibilities of popular music.

(Article first published as Music Review: Various Artists - Baby How Can It Be? Songs Of Love, Lust & Contempt From The 1920s & 1930s on Blogcritics.)

June 25, 2010

Thoughts On South Africa And The World Cup

As the group stage of The Word Cup winds down the teams who are qualified to continue on to the elimination stage have been all but decided. While it would have been glorious if the home side of South Africa could have advanced, or even more than one team from the host continent (at this writing barring a miracle only Ghana will advance), the fact they were in a position to host the games at all is something to be celebrated. All credit for making the decision to award them the hosting duties has to be given to the governing body of international football - Federation Internationale de Football Association (FIFA) - when they could have easily made a safe decision and kept them in Europe or given a South American country a turn. In the weeks and months leading up the match newspapers have been filled with stories expressing concerns about violence in South Africa, lack of proper facilities, transportation, and a raft of other problems besetting the host nation.

It was almost impossible to find anyone willing to write something positive about the fact the games were being held here. Even South African's football fans came in for criticism because of their use of the "horrible" vuvuzela, a plastic replica of a traditional tribal horn, that makes an ear splitting din. Commentators have sniffed that they won't be able to hear themselves speak, (as if anything most sports commentators have to say is of any real value) or even worse they drown out the traditional sound of fans singing at matches. As that's only really a tradition in England and some of the European countries, that's not really much of a loss, especially when you consider some of the drivel sung by team supporters in the United Kingdom. Quite frankly fans blowing trumpets that make an ear splitting noise are a minor inconvenience when compared to the nightmares that British team supporters used to cause when they made their annual raiding trips to the continent. It's amazing how all the British tabloid press who have been raising dire warnings about South Africa have forgotten how fans from the United Kingdom were banned from travelling abroad after their rioting resulted in thirty-nine people dying in Belgium in 1985.

Yet here we are, nearly half way through the games, and even with half the private security people having gone on strike and a few technical problems, you'll hardly hear a word of complaint being voiced by anyone now they are under way. The only comments I've heard from commentators during the games I've watched is how wonderful the people of South Africa have been and how the whole nation seems to have thrown itself into trying to make them successful. I watched the first and last games the host nation played - their one all draw with Mexico and their two to one victory over France - and heard about how they would become the first host nation to fail to advance out of qualifying in ages. Yet, while I was disappointed for the players and their fans (while revelling in seeing the French players receive the humiliation they so richly deserved) I couldn't help thinking how wonderful to see the team playing in the World Cup and South Africa hosting it, no matter what the result.

Twenty years ago, in June of 1990, only four months after being released from prison, Nelson Mandela made one of his first international visits,to Canada. He came for two reasons, one was to thank the people of the country and our government for supporting the struggle against apartheid by boycotting everything to do with the white minority rule regime, and secondly to urge our government to not relax the economic sanctions prohibiting Canadians from doing business with South Africa. Even though he had been freed from jail, the white majority government continued to rule and the apartheid laws were still in force so victory was still far from assured at that time. It wasn't until Mandela was elected president in 1994 that you could really believe in the idea of a new South Africa.

If you're wondering why Mandela would visit a relatively internationally insignificant country like Canada on what was his first trip abroad, it was because our government at the time was one of the strongest advocates for sanctions in the so called developed world. I wasn't a supporter of Brian Mulroney, and in fact disagreed with almost everything he and his Progressive Conservative Party of Canada stood for. However I will always admire the way in which he played a leading role in fighting for South African freedom. As it also involved publicly disagreeing with two of his biggest allies internationally, Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher of the United Kingdom and President Ronald Regan of the United States, neither of whom would support sanctions against South Africa, his actions were even more impressive.

While our government played a large role in the latter stages of the fight against apartheid, Mandela also appreciated the fact that Canadians as individuals had been active for much longer. While it was important for him to address our politicians, and I believe he became the first non-leader of a country to address our houses of parliament officially, he also made sure to address people directly. Whether high school students as the link above describes or a public rally in Toronto Ontario, he thanked them for their help. My mother was one of those who went to see him speak when he was in Toronto, and she came away feeling like she had been part of history. You see, ever since I was aware enough to understand I knew she would never shop at certain stores because they wouldn't list where the fruit and vegetables they sold were grown. So at least from the late 1960's until the 1990's she never purchased anything grown or manufactured in South Africa, or had dealings with any company doing business with that country. Who could blame her for not feeling as if she might have had a little to do with helping ensure Mandela was able to stand there that day.

It has not been an easy sixteen years for South Africa and Nelson Mandela since his election in 1994. For close to a hundred years the majority of the nation's population had been living under the totalitarian rule of a small hand full of invaders because of the colour of their skin. They had been forced to live in poverty and any attempt at protest was met with ruthless violence. School children were shot down in the street in 1976 in Soweto protesting a law forcing them to be taught in Afrikaner, the language of the rulers, and now they had to find a way to live peacefully with the people responsible for those crimes.

While majority rule has brought about changes in the way in which people are treated, there is no way to eradicate all the damage that was wrought during the previous decades. Who knows how many generations it will take until the societal imbalances between the races is changed? Poverty and lack of education among the majority population can not be overcome instantly. Any dreams of instant prosperity that people might have harboured with democracy were quickly shattered as the reality of the task facing them became clear. Yet in spite of all the obstacles facing them this World Cup has shown the world that South Africa still believes in itself and continues to move forward. We can only hope that the people and her leaders can draw upon the success of the event to see for themselves just how far they have come in such a short time.

As time ran out on South Africa's final match of this World Cup, and the players and the fans celebrated their bittersweet victory over France, I was moved in a way that I didn't think possible by a sporting event as I thought back over the history leading up to this moment. It would have taken a minor miracle for them to be able to advance to the next stage of play, and it wasn't to be. Yet no matter what, the World Cup has to be considered a victory for South Africa and its people and one can't help but want to wish them well and hope for their continued success.

(Article first published as Thoughts On South Africa And The World Cup on Blogcritics.)

April 19, 2010

Book Review: Just Kids by Patti Smith

It was a late fall night in 1981 and six of us were jammed into car cruising through Toronto's streets with Patti Smith's "Rock and Roll Nigger" blasting from the car's stereo. We all joined in as she tore into the chorus: "Outside of society. We were young and artists and the lyrics fuelled, along with whatever we had taken earlier in the evening, our excitement at being alive and ready to conquer the world. Patti understood what that meant - we could tell by the way she sang about being an outsider - and there was no one more special, or outside, than someone still in love with the idea of being an artist who hasn't really begun to experience the complete reality of what that entails. Hard lessons and rude awakenings still lay on our horizons, and we could abandon ourselves to the wild joy of knowing we were different and celebrate it.

We were at the stage where being an outsider was part of the romanticism of being an artist, so it was only natural that we'd latched onto the song's chorus as almost our battle cry that night. Look out world here we come - young middle class kids with dreams of doing something more than sitting in an office, of having something more to give to the world than just being another cipher or cog in the wheel. Maybe we weren't all that sure what that was, but we knew, oh yes we did. It sounds more than a little arrogant when said that baldly, but there's actually more innocence and naivety to it than anything else.

At the time I knew almost nothing about Patti Smith save for her music, and its only been in the past year or so that I've begun learn her story. It turns out that of all those who seemed to come out of New York City's 1970's punk scene centred around CBGB's, it makes the most sense that Patti Smith would be the one whose music celebrated being an artist. In the past couple months I've watched two movies, Dream Of Life and Black, White + Grey which have touched somewhat on her early years. However, as the former was more about the last eleven years and the latter only about her in terms of how her life had intersected with the famous American curator Sam Wagstaff, they didn't offer very complete pictures. Well, all that changed with the publication of her book Just Kids by Harper Collins Canada January 2010.
Cover Just Kids.jpg
Just Kids is not your typical autobiography. Sure it contains all the usual stuff like where she was born, Chicago; how her family moved to Philadelphia and then New Jersey when she was a child; and how in 1967, realizing there was little or no chance of even attempting to realize her dreams of becoming an artist while working in a factory, she left New Jersey for New York City. For its also the story of how her life intertwined with Robert Mapplethorpe's, the other kid of the plural in the title and one of America's best known contemporary photographers, until his AIDS related death in 1989. Almost the first person she meets upon her arrival in New York City, they began living together, as soon as they were able to afford a place and stayed together until the early 1970's.

Smith writes with a clarity and straightforwardness that is deceptive at first in its simplicity. When reading prose its easy to forget that the person writing is a poet, and has a poet's gift for words, so what on the surface might appear to be a simple recounting of an occurrence ends up being far more. You don't just read what she has written, you somehow end up living and experiencing it with her. We share the small comforts that make their days more bearable - the baker who slips them a couple of extra cookies because she feels sorry for the two waifs - and feel the pain of their hunger when they go days without food. Mainly though we share their excitement as they discover their talents and start to push and pull them into shape.

They are a team - us against the world - and together they are unbeatable as nothing, lack of money, lack of food, or even a lack of a place to live can conquer them. For a while they drift from dive to dive, until Robert almost dies when Patti takes an extended vacation with her sister and returns home to find him rotting in a junkie hotel. He's not sick from drugs, but he has trench mouth, lice, and gonorrhoea. She gathers up his belongings and together they move to what will be their final shared home - The Chelsea Hotel. In 1969 The Chelsea attracted artists like a magnet, and they meet everybody from Janis Joplin, Jimi Hendrix, Johnny Winter, and Bob Dylan to Gregory Corso and William S. Burroughs. Smith recounts a wonderful story of going to an automat to buy a sandwich and having Alan Ginsberg pay for her lunch when he mistakes her for a pretty boy. Years later he asks her how she would describe their first meeting and she says simply "You fed me".
Patti Smith & Robert Mapplethorpe by Kate Simon.jpg
Having been raised a very strict Catholic Mapplethorpe was carrying a lot of baggage when it came to his sexuality. In fact, he and Smith had to pretend they had been secretly married before he would even take her to meet his parents, or else face accusations of living in sin. Both of them are in fact so innocent, that neither really understand Mapplethorpe's homosexuality. While there are some obvious rough spots, including him being jealous of her relationships with other men, they are able to transcend them through the bond forged between them by their respective arts. Put baldly like that, it may sound cliched, but as you read the book, you see and feel how their connection is forged. We see how they struggled and supported each other through everything, encouraging and pushing the other along in they developed as both artists and human beings.

Obviously being in New York City in the late 1960's didn't hurt, as they not only had the benefit of being exposed to the great ones of an earlier generation for guidance but the example of those around them who were already succeeding for inspiration. They moved in what can only be called rarified circles as they were invited to hang out with The Band in Woodstock, the opening of Electric Ladyland Studios (where an equally shy Jimi Hendrix joined Patti in lurking on the fire escape and encouraged her to join the party), and the back room of Max's Kansas City with Andy Warhol's inner circle from The Factory. Although already minus Warhol by that time and almost reduced to a caricature of what it once was, this circle of intimates still provided the two young artists with introductions to people who would help their careers.

What's most amazing about Just Kids is how little it feels like an autobiography. Smith writes with such direct honesty and love that it's impossible not to be caught up in their story and find yourself wanting them to succeed. She captures the incredible mixture of fear and exhilaration that occurs when you give yourself over to something as completely as they did to their goals of becoming artists. What some might have tried to romanticize as bohemian, she brings to life with a sense of innocence and wonder that makes it sound like she still can't believe she could have been so blessed as to not only have the opportunity to do and be what she wanted, but actually have succeeded at it on her own terms.

Just Kids is a love story; of two people and their love for each other and their mutual love of art. Beautifully written, its both joyful and heartbreaking in equal measure. Smith doesn't shrink from describing both the harsh realities of the life she and Mapplethrope led together as well as the moments of celebration. However, even more importantly, she manages to convey what motivates a person to make the choice to be an "Outsider of society", and how its worth the price no matter how steep it might seem to an observer. Anyone who has ever wondered what it really is to be an artist and why anybody would go to all that trouble, reading this book will give you some idea as to the answer. Most of all though, no matter who you are or what you do, it will remind you that life is worth celebrating and to make the most of what you have while you're here.

November 10, 2009

Book Review: "Self-Surrender", Peace", "Compassion", & "The Mission Of The Goose": Poems And Prayers From South India by Appayya & Nila-kantha Dikshita and Vedanta Deshika

I can't think of a more difficult job for a translator than translating poetry. Unlike prose it's not just a simple matter of turning one language into another, you also have to worry about conveying whatever ideas are suggested but not spelt out in the poem. How many times have you read a poem where the poet has made use of a word's dual meanings, or the combining of words in a specific way, to suggest something other than the literal meaning of the words in question? There's almost no way you can do a literal translation in those circumstances. On top of that you also have to worry about staying true to the form of the original poem.

While that's definitely not an easy job, a sure fire way of compounding it is if the poetry in question happens to have been written in a language that's no longer in current usage and by writers whose culture has little or nothing in common with your own. For the last couple of weeks I've been working my way through a deceptively slim volume published by the New York University Press of four works written in Sanskrit from Southern India dating from between the fourteenth and sixteenth centuries, "Self Surrender", "Peace", "Compassion", & "The Mission Of The Grey Goose": Poems and Prayers From South India. Translators, and Sanskrit scholars, David Shulman and Yigal Bronner have not only taken on the task of translating four pieces from the classical Indian cannon, the items in question represent the work of three pre-eminent philosopher/poets, one from the Vaishnavas tradition of Hinduism, who worshipped Vishnu as the original and supreme being, and two whose worship was directed more towards the god Shiva.

Vedanta Deshika reportedly lived to be 101 (1268 - 1369) and has contributed two pieces to this collection, the story poem "The Mission of The Goose" and "Compassion" with its ironic sub-title "The Iron Shackles Of Mercy". Appayya Dikshita and his nephew (or grandson - there seems to be some dispute about this as a couple of sites refer to him as the latter) Nila-katha Dikshita lived close to two hundred years after Deshika, 1520 -1592 for the elder and 1580 - 1644 for the younger, and their contributions to the book are "Self Surrender" and "Peace" respectively. While the former reflects the author's devotion to Shiva, the younger poet's work is more along the lines of what we would consider satire as it details the lack of peace in his life due to his association with a ruler and his court.

Those familiar with the epic poem The Ramayana will recognize the circumstances and characters depicted in "The Mission Of The Goose". Rama, one of the avatars of Vishnu worshipped by those who follow the Vaishnavas tradition, is attempting to send a message to his wife Sita who has been kidnapped by the ten headed demon Ravana, and taken to his island kingdom of Lanka. While Rama is awaiting the construction of a bridge to carry him to Lanka and rescue his beloved he sends a message to her by goose. The poem details instruction he gives the goose to make the journey in safety and what he will find when arrives there.

Without the historical context the translators provide in the introduction to the book, the reader wouldn't understand some of its deeper complexities. For instance part of the directions Rama gives to the goose include visiting a temple that won't be built until the time of the poet - a temple that was built in honour of Rama. Throughout the poem the poet has depicted Rama as a man desperate to be reunited with his wife and embodied him with all the attributes of a lover and husband that we'd expect. With this reference he reminds us how he considers Rama the god on earth in human form and the importance of worshipping him. In fact the majority of the directions contain that sort of double reference to help guide people in their worship. Rama's warning to the goose to not let the beauty of what he sees in flight distract him from his purpose, is a reminder to not let material things distract from the worship of the divine.

Obviously not being either Hindu or an expert in Sanskrit, I'm not in the best of positions to judge as to the quality of the translations. However I couldn't help but be jarred by something I noticed in their translation of the second of Deshika's pieces, "Compassion". Time after time they refer to Vishnu using the pronoun God. To my mind, and I would think to most Western readers, the word god with a capital G has very specific connotations, that of a supreme deity in a monotheistic tradition. While its true that Deshika does practice a form of Hinduism that elevates Vishnu above the other gods, this usage still seems out of place in the context of the poem and the culture its referring too.

However the same usage also appears in both "Peace" and "Self-Surrender", neither of which are about Vishnu. The question for me became what are they trying to imply with the word God? In the minds of most people reading these translations it will conjure up images of a supreme deity who not only dictates how we are to behave, but sits in judgement on that behaviour. Even if there is a god above others in a pantheon that's not the role they play. Couldn't there have been a better way of referring to whomever it was they meant by that pronoun to ensure that those connotations were avoided?

Having read an adaptation of The Ramayana I enjoyed "The Mission Of The Goose" and was looking forward to reading the balance of the poems included in the book. Maybe it's being unreasonable on my part, or overly sensitive, but I found the use of the capital G god pronoun so questionable, I was too distracted to give myself over to simply enjoying the poetry and appreciating them for the works they were. Perhaps it's also a sign that I'm unable to overcome years of conditioning which tell me that God is the bearded guy in the clouds who smites us down if we misbehave. However, if I, who am not an adherent to any of the monotheistic religions can't overcome that - how could those who are?

It's the responsibility of translators when working in another culture to ensure they don't impose, whether on purpose or by accident, their own beliefs or ideas. Whether or not Bronner and Shulman intended to imply there was a similarity between the monotheistic traditions of the West and Hinduism, they did so by the use of one word. As a result, what had started off as an enjoyable adventure in trying to learn more about the poetry of an early and fascinating period of world history, turned into me questioning the veracity of what I was reading to the point of giving up in frustration. Perhaps we should leave the translation of works in other cultures to them and stick to our own in the future. That would sure save a lot of confusion.

October 3, 2009

Grief, Willy DeVille, Me, And Michael Jackson Too

The past year has seen the death of quite a number of public figures, with Michael Jackson's being the most prominent, but there have been others as well. However Jackson's was the death that prompted the worst excess of public grief. It seemed perfectly acceptable for people who had never met him to collapse into paroxysms of grief in public. Television cameras all over the world recorded scenes of people with tears pouring down their faces laying flowers at the impromptu shrines they had created for this person who they had never met. Nobody questioned their behaviour or wondered as to why they would have such a violent reaction to the death of someone who in recent years was better known for his suspicious activities than any artistic creations.

Earlier this year my wife's uncle passed away leaving behind his wife and two adopted children. They had been married for more then thirty years and in that time had grown inseparable - one never thought of one without mentioning the other. So it was perfectly understandable that she was devastated when he died. Yet, even at his funeral there were whispers of - why doesn't she control herself, who does she think she's trying to impress - in response to her grief. However, the real whispering didn't start until a couple months after his death and she was still liable to burst into tears at any time.

My wife and I were at a family dinner some months after her uncle died and the subject of her aunt came up. We hadn't been in contact with her since the funeral so we asked how she was doing. I was shocked by the vehemence of the disgust that was expressed over the fact that she was still crying over the loss of her husband. "She gets one glass of wine into her and she's off" was said with great scorn.

I couldn't believe it, the woman had lost the person who had been the biggest part of her world for close to thirty years and people were being impatient with her because she was still grieving. I couldn't help thinking how I'd feel if my wife was the one who had died and how I'd be reacting. How could they expect her to be able turn off the grief she was feeling from her loss as if it were something she had any control over? I would have been more concerned if she hadn't still been crying over her loss. Yet here were this group of so-called adults, supposedly her family and support, sitting around nodding wisely and saying it was time for her to get on with her life.

According to who I want to know? As I was trying to figure out what was so wrong with her crying about losing the man she'd loved only a few months ago I caught hold of a key phrase floating around amongst the conversation, "It's just so embarrassing". For a second I couldn't figure out what was so embarrassing, and then I realized they meant the fact that the poor woman was still crying about the the loss of the love of her life. Her grief was too real for them and they didn't know what to do about it. Why it didn't occur to them to comfort her I wondered instead of criticizing her for being upset?

When the conversation turned to Michael Jackson a short while latter and comments were made about how moving it was to see all the people crying for him, I was even more confused. In one breath they were criticizing a women for crying because her heart was breaking, and with the other they are exclaiming at how wonderful it was to see people crying over a total stranger. Why was the one so acceptable and the other wasn't? What made the one moving while the other was embarrassing? Why was it more acceptable for there to be a public outpouring of grief for a famous person than public grief from a private person?

I think people are scared of grief when it comes too close them and they don't know what to do about it. It's one thing to watch it on television, but another thing all together to sit and have it on display in your living room. There's no such thing as controlling your grief either - you either feel something or you don't - and if you do why should you be made to feel ashamed for feeling?

When Nina DeVille wrote to tell me that her husband Willy had been diagnosed as having stage four pancreatic cancer last May she said "we try to pretend everything is normal, but nothing will ever be normal again". A part of you has been ripped away for ever and you're expected to carry on as if everything was normal, or to get over it and get on with your life. How can anything ever be normal again? Is it even possible?

While I still don't pretend to understand the mass hysteria that surrounded Michael Jackson's death, Willy DeVille's death this past August has given me a little more appreciation for people's need to share their grief over the loss of a public figure with others. In June I started a petition to have Willy considered for induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. As the person who started the petition I had to make an e-mail address available and as a result I've been hearing from individuals from all over the world about how Willy's music affected them.

I have to admit I wondered why people would write a total stranger in order to tell them about their grief, but after a while I simply accepted the honour they were according me. Maybe they had read some of the things I had written about Willy and realized I too was moved by him personally as well as professionally. Maybe because I had interviewed him on occasion and was in contact with his wife Nina periodically they felt I was the closest they could get to telling Willy how they felt about him. I don't know, but I do know that I heard from people who had been close to Willy when they were young, people who had never known him, or people like me whose lives had intersected his briefly outside the music and were changed forever by the contact.

I then remembered back to 1980 when John Lennon had been killed, and how I had gone down to Nathan Philip's Square in Toronto Ontario to join thousands of others standing around in the cold to remember and celebrate John's life. Whatever it was that I was looking for there that night I didn't find. Whoever had organized it made sure to play the right music and there were speeches from people like Ronnie Hawkins who had known Lennon, but it didn't do anything for me. I realize now it was because we were all there as individuals and nothing was done to bring us together or make us feel we weren't alone in our grief. The person standing next to me could have been feeling the same things as me, but the event was so impersonal I never found out.

So when I received an e-mail from somebody wanting to know if I could help organize a memorial for DeVille in New York City, I was only too glad to have an excuse to pass - I live in Canada and can't travel to the States for a variety of reasons - because I couldn't envision it being of benefit to anyone. However I've recently had cause to change my mind as I've found out more about who the people are behind the event and why they are doing it. Three people, from different parts of North America, tied together by their appreciation of Willy DeVille's music have decided to meet in New York City on October 10th/09 in Tompkin's Square Park on the Avenue B side at three in the afternoon to remember Willy and have invited anyone who is interested in doing the same to join them. If you can't make it to the park, or if the weather sucks, they plan on meeting up at Bar On A, 170 Avenue A, where their will be white roses for everybody and Willy's music played through-out the night.

It doesn't sound like there will be any speeches, just a group of like minded people getting together to tell stories and talk about what Willy meant to them. Missing somebody is a very personal matter and we don't often have the opportunity to talk about why we loved somebody or why we miss them even with those who supposedly care about us. I think of my wife's aunt and how much she would appreciate the opportunity to sit around with a group of people one night listening to them talk about her late husband and what he meant to them. I think how it would be nice for her to have the chance to do the same with people who won't be judging her for feeling pain at her loss, and I can see how this memorial for Willy DeVille could be of benefit where others haven't been.

Grief is nothing to be afraid of but nor should it be the spectator sport that it seems to have become in our mass media world. When you lose somebody you care about nobody has the right to tell you how to feel or when you should "get over it", nor should you be made to feel guilty for your grief. Anybody who tells you otherwise doesn't have your best interest at heart no matter what they say. Only you know the size of the hole that was left in your heart, everybody else can only guess at it.

For those interested in attending the Willy DeVille Memorial in New York City on October 10th you may RSVP to WDcelebration@gmail.com, but feel free to show up whether you do or not

June 25, 2009

Forgiveness & Abuse

I've written rather extensively about things of a rather personal nature in the past in order to offer people an example of some of the processes available to those who have suffered from some sort of trauma. I'm no expert or psychologist, all I've been able to offer is a sample of the things I've experienced and the protocols that have been employed by my doctors to help me deal with how the past continued to impact on my present in order to give me a better future. Some of them had to do with finding more appropriate means of expressing my emotions, others dealing with behaviour that might have been appropriate for survival but that could now be discarded, and others helped me in assimilating the events of the past so they wouldn't live on in my mind and my emotions.

While it's been a long slow process to deal with the crap that had accumulated; there were times I had assumed I was done only to find more buried away which required excising; after being in therapy on and for fifteen years I can finally see that I'm getting to the point where I'm capable of coping on my own. The emotional scarring and wounding may never heal completely, but I have reached a point where I'm no longer controlled by events that occurred when I was a child. Ironically the length of time it's taken to get to this point is roughly equivalent to the length of time the abuse lasted in the first place.

Now in spite of what you might have seen and heard on various day time talk shows specializing in the dissecting of people's emotions for the enjoyment of their audiences, or that believe themselves capable of dispensing the wisdom to heal everybody of what ails them, there are no cut and dried happy endings to this type of thing. While time isn't going to be able to heal all wounds, it's only through time's passage that you're going to get relief from their pain. There's no magic formulae that will speed up the process of recovery, nor is there any one method that will solve all of your problems. Anyone who says that they have discovered a system that will "cure" you is deluded at best, or at worst a liar.

Sure there are all sorts of panaceas that can make you feel better about yourself for a moment or two, but there no better than any of the other things that people take to suppress their emotions so they don't feel any pain. There's no difference between what these hucksters are offering and the drugs and booze I used for years to mask my own pain. Reciting some silly mantra, calling upon a guardian angel, or reciting an affirmation about you being worthy of love won't stop flashbacks of the abuse from occurring or help you deal with any underlying behavioural problems caused by the abuse.

However there's something even more misguided and dangerous that occurs on some of these shows. How many times have you seen staged reunions and reconciliations between long estranged family members? Great weepy scenes where people fall into each other's arms forgiving each other for past misdeeds and vowing eternal love for each other. The implication being that if only you can forgive the person who caused you pain, if they would only apologize, everything would be better.

One of the hardest things for the child of abusive parents to deal with is the reality that the happy family society tells us is the norm, was so comprehensively denied them. Most of us spent years trying to figure out what was wrong with us that made our abuser break that promise, only later understanding that it was them, not us, who were the problem. After years of trying to figure out ways of making someone else happy so they would love us, or at least leave us alone; years of being told we were only getting what we deserved; or years of having the love between a parent and child perverted into something awful, the idea of family being a shelter and a haven from the world takes quite a beating.

It's probably difficult for you to imagine what seeing one of those scenes described above feels like to somebody who spent years forgiving their abuser in the hopes tomorrow would be better. Maybe, you would tell yourself, after they apologized for what seemed like the hundredth time, they really mean it this time. Maybe the tears they shed after forcing you to have sex with them are real and they really feel remorse for their actions? Even if as a child you weren't capable of comprehending what it was you were doing exactly, by trying to love them because they were your parent, you were practising a form of forgiveness.

Therefore, the idea that forgiving somebody years later for what they did to us as a child will make things better when they didn't respond to our gestures of forgiveness at the time can't help but seem unrealistic if not stupid. Sure it makes for great television and appeals to everybody's sentimental nature, but it fails to take into account that in order to forgive someone there needs to be some sort of reciprocity of feeling. How can you forgive someone who never showed any remorse for their actions or never took any steps to change their behaviour?

There have been things I've done in my life that I've had to apologize for and I know how hollow some of them were until I was able to change my behaviour sufficiently that my actions suited my words. While there is a school of thought that says unless we learn how to forgive those who have hurt us we will never fully recover from the damage inflicted upon us, it sounds far too much like the same behaviour we practised as children in the hopes of making things better. It still feels like we're not standing up for ourselves and giving the abuser power over us. People can say all they like that forgiveness doesn't mean you condone what somebody did, but quite frankly I'd rather just have the strength to tell them to fuck off out of my life and leave me alone.

As a child I didn't have the power to do that and was forced to do whatever necessary to survive. I no longer have to surrender anything of myself to my abuser and I no longer have to try and make them happy. Asking me, or anyone to forgive their abuser, no matter what shape that forgiveness comes in, would be like asking us to return to being a victim. That's not about to happen anytime soon.

November 28, 2008

The Vatican "Forgives" John Lennon

An article published in the official Vatican newspaper, "Osservatore Romano", officially "forgave" John Lennon for comments he made in 1966 about the Beatles being more popular than Jesus Christ with young people around the world. The editorial said that the remark was the boast of a young working class Englishman faced with the flush of unexpected success, implying it was made more in ignorance than with any blasphemous intent.

Well I'm sure that's a great load off the minds of all of Lennon's surviving family members knowing that he's been forgiven by the Vatican. They must have been frantic with worry. So what if it was more than a little condescending - it still wipes his slate clean with the Pope which means ... well actually it means dick all. Talk about a load of sanctimonious bullshit, as if anyone cares anymore what Lennon said forty-two years ago. It smacks of a cheap attempt by the folk in the Vatican to show that they are wise and benevolent without actually having to do anything.

Sure at the time it raised quite a stink when Lennon made his statement about the Beatles being more popular than Jesus among young people and got completely blown out of proportion. He never meant they were more important, which was how the idiots interpreted his comment, but more popular, and there's a good chance he was right. In 1966 if you asked the average teenager would you rather sit and read a parable by Jesus or listen to a cut from Help I bet the majority would have picked the latter. Heck, ask the average young person today if they would rather watch an episode of The Simpsons or Southpark or sit down with the New Testament and see what kind of reaction you get.
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Of course I always find it hugely ironic whenever the good folk in The Vatican try to stumble up to the moral high ground and make these sorts of groundless statements. After all this is the same church who funded a poster campaign in Tanzania claiming that condom use leads to death. Considering that one in ten adults in that country's capital city, Dar, are infected with the HIV/AIDS you'd figure it was the other way around, but maybe their logic is different.

Of course we shouldn't be so surprised when they come up with stuff like this as the Catholic Church's track record when it comes to moral issues has been, how shall we put it, spotty at best. It, along with the conservative Christian Protestant churches and hardline Muslim leaders have led the war against teaching people how to prevent the spread of HIV/AIDS throughout Africa and South-East Asia.

First of all it's sinful to have sex before marriage so you can't tell people how to safely have sex with someone who they aren't married to. Besides that, safe sex means using condoms, and using condoms prevents a woman from becoming pregnant which defeats the only purpose of sex - procreation. If you happen to have fun while attempting to have a baby that's forgivable (heck if they can forgive John Lennon they can forgive you that), but heaven help you if you decide you want to have sex just because you love the other person but don't want to have a baby.

Of course the institution has always made stellar contributions to the spread of disease, overpopulation, and famine. The people in Calcutta who really deserve beatification are the ones handing out condoms and teaching women that they don't have to baby machines, not the person encouraging them to make souls for God. Jesus taught that we should walk in another person's shoes and try to understand what they were experiencing in order that we might be more compassionate to their needs. I can't see how encouraging people who have to beg for a living to have babies is being compassionate.

How can an institution like the Catholic Church that has ordered people to be burnt alive for their beliefs, encouraged the faithful to kill those who didn't worship the same God, and been responsible for cultural and actual genocide among indigenous people the world over, without ever asking for forgiveness itself, presume to sit in judgement on others? Oh sure the Church admitted that "mistakes were made in the past", but it doesn't seem to have learned from them or be particularly troubled by them.

If the Vatican was genuine in its regret for past actions that saw millions of people persecuted would they send letters filled with veiled threats to countries passing legislation legalizing same sex marriages? Would they allow clergy to openly advocate the criminalization of homosexuality as the Bishop of Alberta, a province in Canada, did in the run up to Canada legalizing same sex marriage? Would they cover up child abuse by priests to protect the Church's "good name" as they did most recently in New England? That behaviour might not sound as heinous as The Inquisition to you, but ask the parents of any of the abused children how they feel and I'm betting they're not too happy with the church as an institution.

While Catholicism has the potential to be a beautiful religion, and there are people around the world who are Catholic who do their best to fulfill that potential, the institution itself has yet to live up that promise. Instead of issuing statements of forgiveness for matters nobody gives a damn about, maybe they should start figuring out ways of earning the forgiveness of all those they've caused damage to over the years.

When Jesus Christ said "Let he who is without sin cast the first stone", he was telling us don't be so quick to judge others because we've all got our dirty little secrets. The Catholic Church is no different from the rest of us and has no right to pass judgement on anyone or anything.

June 9, 2008

European Cup 2008: Football At It's Best

Every four years sixteen of Europe's top national football (soccer) sides compete in the European Cup. Held exactly half way between World Cups, the European Cup, is in some ways even more intense and passionate than its bigger cousin. Rivalries between nations in Europe, on and off the football pitch, extend back hundreds of years. Border skirmishes and other ancient grudges are now played out by twenty-two men in front of screaming thousands, instead of in the mud and across no-man's land.

As is the case in all major international competitions the country hosting the event automatically qualifies while the rest of the spots are decided in a series of run-off games. Under normal circumstances that would leave fifteen spots up for grabs, but this year's event is being jointly hosted by Switzerland and Austria, reducing the number of spots available. Unlike EuroCup/04 which was hosted by Portugal whose team would have qualified anyway, neither of this year's hosts were likely to have made it into the competition. I'm sure this has led to quite a bit of resentment on the part of teams like England, a perennial power, who failed to qualify.

Of course the security forces of Austria, Switzerland, and Germany, who are lending men and expertise to its smaller neighbours, are probably relieved that they won't have to worry about the notorious English fans and their potential for violence. They've enough to worry about organizing security in two countries and multiple venues, where total attendance is expected to be in the millions, without wondering whether or not inebriated Englishmen will decide to go on a rampage.

Even without the English in attendance things are tense enough as it is with some of the previously mentioned nationalist grudges starting to simmer over already. Hostilities broke out between Polish and German fans in the run-up to Sunday's, June 8th, match between the two countries resulting in the arrest of seven German men. Hopefully once the early elimination rounds are over, when half the teams have gone home and the crowds thinned out some, the chances of this sort of thing happening will be reduced.

The sixteen teams have been divided up into four groups by random draw and play one game each against the teams in their section. The top two finishers in each group advance to the next round where the team with the most points accumulated in the first round plays off against the team with the fewest. A team receives three points for a win and a point for a tie in the preliminary round. From then on the games are sudden death, and decided by penalty kick shoot-outs if tied at the end of regulation and two, twenty minute, overtime periods.

In a shoot-out each team initially starts with five players, selected from those who are currently playing, and take turns trying to score on the goalie from the penalty kick mark. The team that scores the most goals out of five wins the game. If the teams are still tied at the end of the first five penalty kicks they proceed on to sudden death penalty kicks, where the first side to gain the advantage wins. If the first side scores, the second is given an opportunity to tie, but if they fail, the game is over.

With the goalie not allowed to leave his goal line, or move, until the shooter does, the advantage would appear to reside with the kicker. After all he has a huge amount of net to shoot at, and the goalie can only guess where he thinks the ball will be shot. Yet many a star laden team has gone down to defeat at the hands of an underdog because a game has gone to penalty kicks and their sure-footed scorers aren't able to find the net.

In the last EuroCup, underdog Greece won the championship by playing a tight defensive game and winning games on penalty kicks when their more highly rated opponents succumbed to the pressure of the situation. Greece is back again this year and is once again going to be considered fortunate to make it out of the round robin segment of the tournament - of course that's what everybody predicted four years ago when they won it all in the final over host country Portugal.

As is the case with every international football event, there are certain teams which are always considered a threat to win, and this European Cup is no exception. Germany, Italy, France, and the Netherlands almost always seem to field a team that can threaten to go all the way. This year the advantage is clearly Germany's as through the luck of the draw the other three have all ended up in the same preliminary group which means one of them are going home early. Even without that bit of good luck (if you're a German supporter) the Germans have to be considered favoured as their star players are all in top health and at the peak of their careers. Their only weakness lies in goal, as their keeper has a history of giving up weak goals.

Still, with Italy losing her captain, Fabio Cannavaro to injury in their first practice, and both the French and Dutch sides having star players just back from injury, even without the fortuitous draw, the real threat to the first major German international championship since the 1996 Euros could come from another source. Portugal and Spain are Europe's most renowned under achievers. They always seem to be on the cusp of greatness, but never manage to win in the end.

The loss to Greece on their home turf must have devastating to the Portuguese, but it might give them the desperation required to finally win it all. Yesterday's 2 - 0 victory over a tough Turkish side indicated that they aren't about to go quietly, and any team that can call upon Cristiano Ronaldo - arguably the best player in the world right now - can't be discounted. He scored a remarkable forty-two goals this year for Manchester United and is the front runner for the Federation International Football Association's (FIFA) world player of the year trophy.

The great thing about the EuroCup is that you can't count anybody out, except maybe the two host teams this year. Russia, Croatia, Romania, Turkey, The Czech Republic, and Sweden, can always be counted on to field solid teams with enough talent to pull off an upset. All it takes is a couple of missed opportunities - a goal post here and a missed net there - and a favourite can find themselves sitting on the sidelines wondering what the hell happened. Germany only needs to look at its record of no victories, three draws, and three defeats in the last two EuroCups to be reminded of how dangerous a tournament this can be.

While the idea of a tournament exclusive to Europeans is somewhat chauvinistic, excluding as it does teams from South America and Africa where the game is every bit as popular as it is in Europe, there is no denying that the European Cup makes for nearly four weeks of great football action. Do yourself a favour and check out a match or two, but be careful, you might just find yourself getting addicted. In Canada the games are being broadcast on TSN (The Sports Network) and Sportsnet with each station's web site broadcasting taped highlights of all the games.

May 25, 2008

Just Say Yes - To Safe Injection Sites.

I'm an addict. I ran from my pain for twenty years - from thirteen to thirty-three I drank and ingested more substances than I care to think about. The only wonder is that I managed to stay alive long enough to stop. I was lucky. So I'm not about to tell you that drugs are romantic or that being a drunk or an addict anything special. There's nothing romantic about having to steal from those you love in order to fulfill an addiction; there's no excuse for a betrayal of trust of that magnitude.

Yet I don't think I was evil, or those who are addicted are criminals. Addictions can cause criminal behaviour because the need they create in the person has to be met, but the addiction itself is an illness that needs to be treated. That doesn't meant that an addict is not responsible for their criminal behaviour because they are, but there must be a distinction made between the illness and the criminal behaviour. I went to jail for my criminal behaviour which was right, but I was not punished for being sick which was also right.

Like I said before I was lucky. Of course it didn't hurt that by the time I was before the courts I had already begun to seek help on my own - but I was still fortunate that the judge who sentenced me was compassionate, and understood that I was already making an effort to get clear. He could have sentenced me to a year in jail, instead he sentenced me to seven weekends, four of which I served in a halfway house. That way I was able to continue going to therapy and receiving treatment for the root cause of my addictions.

In 2003 the city of Vancouver, in British Columbia, Canada, was given permission by the federal government to open Insite, a safe injection facility. Addicts are allowed to come there with their drugs and inject under the supervision of nurses, using clean needles, and without fear of arrest. It was originally given a three year exemption from the Federal Controlled Drugs and Substances Act, and has had two one year extensions granted while international research was reviewed and new research was conducted in order to gauge the facility's effectiveness.

The last extension expires June 30th, 2008 and the people who run the facility have been desperately trying to talk with either Prime Minister Steven Harper or his Health Minister Tony Clement, the men who will make the decision whether the site can continue to stay open. Unfortunately neither man seems to want to talk to anybody from the facility directly. Mark Townsend is the executive director of the organization that runs Insite, and has been trying for two and half years to arrange a meeting with either of the men to explain why it is a science and public health issue, and shouldn't be about ideology or politics.

Insite is about saving peoples lives; by getting intravenous drug users off the street and preventing the spread of disease through the use of shared needles, and through helping people get off drugs. They do not dispense any drugs, or offer treatment on site, but can and do refer people to detoxification programs when they ask about them. In an effort to save the facility, and convince the federal government that it should be considered part of the health care system in British Columbia, the staff of Insite have supplied extensive research that proves its success and that it enjoys widespread support across Canada for its efforts.

The problem is that it doesn't appear the government is listening to anything anybody says. Prime Minister Steven Harper's Conservative Party of Canada is notorious for its socially conservative positions. While the previous government was prepared to introduce legislation decriminalizing possession of small amounts of marijuana, the Conservatives are more in line with the "War On Drugs" policy advocated by the American administration. Although they have yet to make any formal announcement about Insite, their history, combined with recent actions and statements, don't bode well for its future.

When Steven Harper was campaigning in the last federal election he made a point of stopping in Vancouver to announce that his party would brook no leniency toward illicit drug users and that they were the only party willing to anything about "the drug crisis in Canada". When an international police organization, that includes former members of the Royal Canadian Mounted Police, Canada's federal police force, that advocates treatment over punishment for street drugs issued a statement in support of Insite, it was the Health Minister's staff who gave reporters the name of a police organization who held an opposing view.

Perhaps most telling though was the government's reaction to research they had commissioned that ended up supporting Insite. They said that science alone would not be the deciding factor. An interesting statement to make when you consider that the purpose for delaying a final decision these last two years has been so that proper research could be conducted into the effectiveness of the facility. Now that science has proven that safe injections sites at the very least do not encourage drug use, and in fact are responsible for a decline in both drug use and the spread of disease, the government is downplaying the importance of these findings. It's not hard to guess what their reaction would have been if the findings had shown that the facility had increased drug usage and encouraged people to stay addicted.

However, they didn't. The findings substantiated what has been proven over and over again in countries around the world where needle exchanges and safe injection sites are the norm. Fewer people die of overdoses, fewer people catch and spread diseases, and more people are encouraged to stop using drugs and seek help for their addiction problems.Yet, in spite of all the evidence that supporting it, Canada's government is apparently getting ready to shut Insite's doors.

Isn't it time to stop saying no, and start saying yes to safe injection sites? There's no crime in showing a little compassion once in a while.

May 7, 2008

Book Review: Binu And The Great Wall Su Tong

There have been many great construction projects through out the history of humanity. While the reasons behind their construction have ranged from vanity, the Pharaohs' construction of Pyramids to honour their own memory; devotion to God, the great Cathedrals raised during the middle ages; to defensive fortifications, The Great Wall of China; one thing they all have had in common is their cost in human lives. Millions of lives were spent in the building of these projects, and each life was somebody's son, brother, husband, or father.

It wasn't unusual for a ruler to conscript people from across his land to spend their lives on these projects without giving any thought as to the affect it would have on the people left behind. In China alone it is thought that as many as three million people have died over the course of constructing and restoring the The Great Wall. There has actually been more then one "Great Wall" as the first was constructed under the China's first Emperor Qin Shi Huang circa 200 BC. This first wall was built along the Northern border of China and very little of it remains today.
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As is its wont history recounts the fates of Empires without any mention of the individuals who might be caught up in the events described. What cares history for the plight of a silk worm farmer's wife whose husband is conscripted as slave labour to construct the Great Wall Of China? It's up to the story tellers to try and bring home to us how the sweep of history takes its toll on those caught up in its ebb and flow.

In Binu And The Great Wall, published by Random House Canada, author Su Tong has adapted a story that's been passed down from generation to generation for over two thousand years that tells the story of Binu, whose husband was taken away to work on the Great Wall. In his preface to the book, he tells us that the wonderful thing about myths are they take harsh realities and make them larger then life. This helps to cushion the impact of the experience while still allowing the author to impart its full meaning. (Binu And The Great Wall is one of a series of books retelling the myths of various cultures that have been commissioned from authors around the world by Random House)

In Mr. Tong's version of the story he has created a world that is larger than life where many fanciful things occur. Yet at the same time it is also firmly rooted in the reality of the time period and the situation of his main character Binu. It's his ability to skilfully interweave the mythical and the real that allows the character of Binu to become larger then life for the modern reader without turning her into a melodramatic cliché.

In Peach Village, where Binu was born, it is forbidden to cry and young women are trained from an early age how to avoid having tears appear on their faces. Some learn how to cry in through their ears, with the ears themselves providing an impressive reservoir within which to store their tears. Others are considered lucky because they can cry from their lips resulting in them having beautiful gleaming lips. But Binu never learned any of these means, as her mother died when she was still young. Although she had started to learn how to cry with her hair, she had no control over her tears and wept copiously.

As a result she was alienated from the rest of the village and nobody but the orphan Qiliang would have her in marriage. Yet they are happy together, so when he is torn from her side and taken away to work on the Great Wall on the other side of the Great Swallow Mountain she is devestated. If the people of Peach Village thought that Binu had cried before, they hadn't seen anything yet. It's when she has a vision of her beloved working without a shirt that she makes the fateful decision to set off to find him. She can't bear the thought of him facing winter without a proper coat and resolves that she will travel across the country to make certain he is warm.

Of course everyone thinks she is crazy. She sells everything they own in order to buy a coat and travel. 'You don't even know if he's alive' the other women of the village tell her. 'All of us have lost husbands, sons, or brothers and you don't see us selling everything we own to go off and make sure they have winter coats, do you?' But Binu won't be dissuaded, for without Qiliang she has no life, so what is the point of a life without him?

The world is determined to make her quest as difficult as possible though. When she goes to buy a horse or a donkey to ride to her destination she discovers that all the animals have been commandeered by the army for the war being fought. The only companion, man or beast, she can find for the journey is a blind frog who is the reincarnation of a blind woman who drowned searching for her son. So she sets out to travel the great distance nearly alone and almost immediately is beset with troubles.

Her precious bundle containing the winter coat for Qiliang and her few coins is stolen almost at once, she is sold into bondage to act the role of a thief's widow, and as she nears her destination she is arrested because she is suspected of being an assassin's accomplice. But in the end she does it make it to the Wall. According to the myth of Binu when she arrived at the wall and discovered her husband was dead her grief was so great and her tears so plentiful that the Great Wall broke and the dead awoke in honour of her sorrow.

Su Tong has written a wonderfully, magical and human story. In spite of the fact that Binu And The Great Wall is a tale replete with sorrow, it is an uplifting affirmation of the strength of the human spirit. There are times along the road where she decides to give up and to lay down and die, giving in to despair. Yet life won't let her give up that easily, and there is always something that keeps her going, even if it's only the desire to die with her husband and not alone.

We live in a world where millions of people are torn from their families on a regular basis by war, famine, disease, and economic realities. Refugee camps around the world are filled with families that have been ravaged by grief and the anguish of not knowing whether loved ones still live. Binu And The Great Wall may have first been told over two thousand years ago, but the story is still relevant today. With his retelling Su Tong gives us the means to try and begin to understand that reality. It is a beautiful and magical story cut with the sharp taste of reality; a perfect myth.

Readers in Canada can pick up a copy of Binu And The Great Wall either by ordering it directly from Random House Canada or an on line retailer like Amazon.ca

May 5, 2008

Music Review: Mickey Hart Planet Drum

Without any doubt the act of beating out a rhythm is the most universal form of music making among humans. Heck even some of our primate relatives who haven't come as far up the evolutionary chart as us make use of rhythmic patterns during dominance and courtship displays, either by beating a tattoo our on their chest or pounding the earth with a stick or their fists. Whether the chimpanzees and gorillas are deliberately creating a rhythmic accompaniment, or song, to go with their actions will likely never be known, but there's no doubt that they recognize how much it increases the impressiveness of their display.

Drums, or some sort of percussion, is and has been part of every culture's musical language. When Native North Americans gather to play the large communal drum that is now associated with Pow Wow celebrations, they refer to the sound it generates as the heartbeat of the Mother - the sound of the source of all life. Perhaps, on some level or another, that explains all of our fascination with the sound of the drum, as it reminds us on an unconscious level of the first thing we ever hear - the sound of our mother's heartbeat while we are still in the womb.

From such humble beginnings people around the world have developed not only a variety of means to help them express their relationship to that rhythm, but an astounding number of patterns has evolved from that one basic beat. It sometimes seems that from that heartbeat each culture has developed a pattern that expresses something that is unique to them, while maintaining sufficient elements of universality that they are able to find common ground with other peoples.
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In 1991, Mickey Hart, drummer from the Grateful Dead, fulfilled a dream by bringing together great drummers from around the world to create a record based entirely on percussion. The recording that resulted from this collaboration, Planet Drum, was so impressive that it was awarded the first ever Grammy in the World Music category. Seventeen years later, as part of their Mickey Hart collection, Shout Factory Records has re-issued Planet Drum so that a whole new generation of percussion enthusiasts can enjoy the fruits of their labour.

The recording was designed to be a companion for a book that Mr. Hart had written of the same name. The book, and the recording, were created with the intent of giving people an idea of the numerous ways that humans have devised to make rhythm, and the variety of sounds that are generated through those efforts. To that end he recruited musicians from a variety of cultures: Airto Moreira from Brazil brings the Latin beat of South America; Babatunde Olatunji and Sikiru Adepoju from Nigeria the distinctive sound of the West African drums; Zakir Hussain represented Northern India and T.H. 'Vikku' Vinayakram the sounds of Southern India.

These five, along with Mickey Hart and vocalist Flora Purim, went into the studio having no idea what they would come up with. After listening to the thirteen tracks that were the result of their sessions you'd never know that they had never played together before, and nobody had ever tried to bring together such a diverse mix of rhythmic backgrounds. Even more remarkable is the fact that instead of them first doing one song in one tradition, then the next in another, they drew upon a variety of inspirations to form the basis for each track.

The fourth song, "Dance Of The Hunter's Fire", is an example of building one culture on top of another, as its origins lie in Africa. While the two drummers from Africa play their interpretation of how that beat should sound, 'Vikku' from South India improvised around them in the style he would normally use for his music. The result was the creation of an interesting counterpoint for the central pattern, providing accents where there might not have been ones before, yet still sounding like they belong in exactly the places they are being played.

While they follow this pattern for some of the songs, starting with the sound of one culture and adding on to it, other songs are built around a means of creating sound. "Jewe" was created using the human body as the instrument. All five musicians created sounds by slapping on their own chest with cupped hands and singing at the same time. As each voice has a different pitch, and each person was "playing" themselves at a different speed, it was an interesting study in contrasts of sound, pitch, and rhythm.

On other songs the group took for their inspiration natural sounds to create the piece of music. The track "Mysterious Island" for instance had its origins in a recording of wave sounds that Mickey Hart made on the beaches of the island of Kona in Hawaii. On the other hand "Temple Caves" didn't use the actual sounds of caves, inspiration came from the knowledge that Paleolithic trance dancers used the naturally occurring sounds of the cave; the flapping of bat wings, dripping of water, and the echoes of their own foot steps, as the backdrop for their dances.

In both instances the musicians created a new "language" in order to try and recreate the sensations of the two different experiences. Instead of merely playing the rhythms and sounds of their own cultures they drew upon the ideas expressed by the other members of the ensemble and blended them with their own. As each musician did this, each of these songs became something unique in its own right.

Planet Drum is an amazing collaboration of cultures from around the world. Not only are there songs on the disc that feature distinct rhythmic traditions working in tandem to create wonderful mixtures of sounds and rhythms, there are songs where entirely new patterns are born. This disc is an amazing example of the wonders that can be created with sound and rhythm and is a joy to listen to.

April 5, 2008

Book Review: The Return Of The Sword Edited By Jason M Waltz

The first real Sword and Sorcery stories I ever read were ones featuring Robert E. Howard's Conan the Barbarian. To be honest about it I can't remember whether or not I read them in their book form first, or in the Marvel comic adaptations, but to be honest there wasn't much difference between the two when it came to literary merit. In fact Conan was probably the ideal comic book character.

Robert E. Howard had created him as so much larger than life, and involved him in such spectacular adventures, the stories were ideally suited to the comic book media. In fact the character was so much a figure of fantasy that it really didn't stand up to the scrutiny of live action and the movies were a great disappointment. They weren't even bad enough to be good. Even with Conan being played by the walking, talking cartoon character, Arnold, there was something about live action that robbed the character of his ability to be larger than life.

That's what makes the whole genre so much fun in the first place as far I'm concerned. Nobody reads Sword and Sorcery for it's intellectual qualities after all, they read it for the escapism offered by the adventures. You read them for the very qualities that make it impossible for them to be filmed; the ability to fight twenty-five opponents at once; take on a multi-headed, multi-armed, poisonous creature without breaking a sweat; and getting the scantily clad wench in the end.

The scantily clad wench was of course one of the primary drawing cards for Sword and Sorcery's original demographic; adolescent males. Thankfully it turned out that women liked a good sword fight as much as men, and the genre started to gain a level of enlightenment when it came to the objectification of women; especially when women started creating their own characters and writing the stories. With women stepping out of the harem and onto the battle field the whole complexion of the genre changed.

With the stories no longer being geared strictly for the guys who lived in their basements playing Dungeons & Dragons, the plots became more imaginative, and the characters more complex, while still retaining the all the exciting bits that made them so attractive in the first place. You don't need to look any further than Rogue Blades Entertainment newly published anthology, The Return Of The Sword, edited by Jason M. Waltz, for proof of just how far the genre's come since its comic book days.

Of course that's not to say there aren't stories in the collection that show a fond attachment for those roots, and feature lots of good old fashioned sword play and witchcraft. Let's face it, there's always going to be a market and a need for that type of story, but here they're balanced with stories that delve a little deeper into the psyche of the warrior, and look beneath the armour, behind the shield, and under the helm.

The very first story in the collection, "Alter Of The Moon" by Stacey Berg, is an example of the newer style. Now don't be put off by the title, it's not some New Age, pagan priestess propaganda posing as a fantasy story, rather it's about the price a warrior pays for being a hero, and the price paid for the gift of a magic sword.

Karen had saved her kingdom with the mysterious sword that sang to her and her alone. On the night of a new moon, with her homeland on the verge of destruction the sword called her to it, and gifted her with it's song that made her invincible in battle. Step by step, battle by battle Karen had fought until she had repelled the invading forces and her land was safe and at peace. Yet when the final battle was fought, and the last enemy fled, she was not at peace, as the sword still sang it's deadly song in her ear.

A dream takes her on a desperate journey; a dream of a path that may not exist. Yet if it does, it might just see her being rid of the sword and breaking free of the killing song in her head. While "Alter Of The Moon" is not your typical adventure story, Ms. Berg has included most of the elements that we have come to expect from Sword and Sorcery; magic, swordplay, and mystery. It was even irrelevant that the characters were women, they could just as easily have been men. What mattered was telling the story and Ms Berg did a great job of that which is what matters most of all.

Now if you wanted a story that was slightly more typical of the old style of Sword and Sorcery, Jeff Draper's "The Battle Of Raven Kill" fits the bill nicely. Oth chooses to stand and fight so his clan's people can escape those who would kill them all. While they flee in an attempt to find some safe haven he blocks the one narrow bridge the invaders have to cross to get at them. He knows they can only come at him two at a time and he is willing to buy his people time as long a there is life left in his body.

Draper does a great job of describing the action, and keeping it real. Movies will sometimes show a single man holding dozens at bay when they can only get at him one or two at a time, but somehow they don't seem to be able to capture the reality of the desperation that must grip the person making that stand. Oth knows that his chances of survival are slim, but he knows the longer he can survive the better. As the battle continues he takes wounds. At first they're minor, but as they continue to bleed and his reflexes slow from blood loss and fatigue, the wounds inflicted gain in severity.

"Why don't you just die" the opposing war chief keeps taunting Oth. Finding a reason for being put on the earth is something that plagues many people. For Oth, this moment on the bridge where he has chosen to make his stand to preserve his people, is that reason. "Let this be why I was created" he prays just before the enemy's war party shows up. Duty and self are one for him, and as long he holds onto that he will win. Doubt, not the swords and spears of his foe, is his biggest enemy.

Draper has done a masterful job of giving a very realistic description of close and horrible infighting. No matter what some Sword and Sorcery writers will have you believe, it is impossible for a mere human to fight under such circumstances without having damage inflicted upon them. But sometimes the human spirit is stronger than flesh, and Draper makes that come alive as well.

I could probably go on like this for all the stories in the book, because they all have something of value, but I would be remiss if I didn't mention one other piece in particular. It's not actually a story, rather its what the editor Jason wisely refers to as a distillation of knowledge. In the middle of the book is a wonderful article by Eric Knight called "Storytelling" where he takes you through the ins and outs of how to get the most out of the story that you want to tell. For anybody with any aspirations to storytelling, no matter what the genre, its an invaluable piece of writing.

The Return Of The Sword is a wonderful collection of Sword and Sorcery short fiction. Editor Jason M. Waltz has gathered together some of the finest examples of the genre that I've read in a long time. Sword and Sorcery has come a long way since the days of the "noble savage" wrecking havoc, but that hasn't stopped it from being a lot of fun and overflowing with action. If you're looking for a wonderful break from your daily grind, there is nothing better than this collection of mayhem to take your mind off things.

April 4, 2008

Book Review: Wolf Totem Jiang Rong

Throughout the history of so-called civilization zealousness and fanaticism has come in many forms, from the political to the religious. The word zealot is taken from the name of a group of fanatic Jews who fought against the rule of Rome during the reign of King Herod and the time of Christ in what is now present day Israel. That their name has stuck in our language to symbolize over the top devotion is not due to any success they had in the field of battle, but because of the mass suicide carried out by their members during the siege of the town of Masada.

Unfortunately the majority of the original zealots' successors didn't follow in their footsteps by limiting their deeds to self-harm. The worst atrocities throughout this planet's brush with human kind have been carried out in the name of God, nationalism, or political ideology as inflexible visions or beliefs won't stand for dissension or accept the possibility that another way could have validity. The Inquisition burnt heretics at the stake to save their souls; the Nazis used inferior races for medical experiments and slave labour before killing them; and today, countless men and women are convinced that killing others while blowing themselves to bits ensures their ascension to heaven.

One of the modern era's worst examples of fanatic excess also happens to be the one that we in the West know the least about. The Cultural Revolution held mainland China in the grip of terror for around a decade. It is assumed that Mao Zedung was the motivating force behind it's initial implementation in 1966 as he sought to consolidate his personal power. Academics, professionals, and artists, were deemed to have begun to put on airs and in need of re-education in order to properly appreciate the goals of the Revolution. Universities were closed and young people were formed into brigades of Red Guards with the purpose of using them to impose the new order.
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Part of the campaign saw Red Guard members and university students dispersed to the far corners of the country to help stamp out beliefs or behaviours that were considered contrary to the goals of the party. In 1967 Jiang Rong, (which is a pen name for Lu Jiamin) was one of those young people. When the schools were closed and his academic career halted, he volunteered to go to Inner Mongolia where he spent the next eleven years working and living with the nomadic people native to the area. Wolf Totem, published by Penguin Canada, is a fictionalized account of this period. It was first published in Chinese in 2004 and has now been translated into English by Howard Goldblatt.

Chen Zhen is one of a group of students who has been sent to live with the Mongolian Nomads who have inhabited the grasslands of Inner Mongolia since before the time of Genghis Khan. Like people throughout the world who depend on the land for their survival the Mongols have figured out how to live in harmony with their environment to ensure their continued existence. For hundreds of years they have raised sheep, goats, cattle, and horses in harmony with the needs of the wild creatures and the grasslands. In fact, so important is the continued existence of the prairie to them, they consider themselves the protectors of the grassland first and herdsmen second.

As Chen spends more time with an elder in the work brigade he is assigned to, the more he comes to understand just what the grasslands mean to the Mongol. It's from this same man, Bilgee, that Chen learns about a third key element upon which the lives of the nomads depend; the wolf. Although the wolf is the enemy of livestock and the Mongols are constantly at war with them, they also revere them as a source of knowledge and for the role they play in preserving the grasslands.

The Mongols understand the importance of a large predator in an environment where vegetation is limited and rodents multiply like, well like rabbits. Without the large predator not only would the pest population quickly get out of hand, but the gazelle population, native to the Mongolian plains, would soon deplete grazing land the nomads depend on if the wolves didn't keep their populations in check. This doesn't mean that the wolves are allowed to use their livestock as a buffet either; if a pack becomes a nuisance and preys too often on the nomad's herds they will be hunted down.

Chen soon learns that the wolves are not only a valued citizen of the grasslands, but also grows to respect their intelligence and battle planning. He hadn't really believed Bilgee's contention that Genghis Khan owed his military success to learning from the way the wolves hunted until he actually saw them exercise a brilliant flanking and encirclement manoeuvre while hunting down a herd of gazelle. Unfortunately while Chen, and maybe a couple of the other Chinese students are gaining an understanding and appreciation for the wolves and the way in which the nomadic Mongols have co-existed with them, the traditional way of life is considered counter-revolutionary because it is based on beliefs other than those sanctioned by the party.

For while the academics need to be re-educated through manual labour, it is also the job of the Red Guards to fight against what they see as the superstitious beliefs that are found among people like the nomads. With the fervour of missionaries the world over they have no tolerance for what they consider heresy. Some even accuse the old nomad Bilgee of helping wolves escape from a hunt he had organized because of his beliefs. It sounds ridiculous to our ears to hear someone call a wolf the enemy of the proletariat and calling for their eradication because they are a threat to livestock, but there's not much difference between that and some of the reasons given for killing wolves in the West.

It is the age old clash of the demands of civilization against the needs of the environment being played out on the pages of Wolf Totem. It doesn't take a soothsayer to know who is going to win and who is going to lose this battle. Chen is bearing witness to the cultural genocide of the Mongols; the great grasslands will be turned into pastures, the herds put into pens, and the wolves exterminated.

Jiang Rong has done a masterful job of depicting life among the nomads, from his descriptions of their everyday lives, to a terrifying ride through the night in a fierce snow storm with four horse herders desperately trying to defend their charges from an all out attack by a wolf pack. So vivid is his description that you feel like you are riding with the herders as they helplessly watch the wolves bring down horse after horse in a series of suicide attacks.

They leap onto the backs of the horses and dig their claws and teeth into them. The wolves' claws and teeth have been embedded so tightly that as the horse fights to throw the wolf off it ends up disembowelling itself as it is raked end to end by the wolf before it falls beneath the hooves. When you read that it was female wolves who recently had given birth conducting the attacks, Bilgee's assessment that the attack was in vengeance for men killing litter after litter of wolf cubs the previous week is enough to send shivers down your spine.

It's not often that we get the opportunity to read about life in China, and although the Cultural Revolution was officially denounced during the 1970's with the trial of the Gang Of Four, (the name given to the four leaders, including Mao's third wife Jiang Qing, in charge during the worst excesses of the period) it is rare for the Chinese government to allow anything this outspokenly critical of the Party and its policies to be made public.

Wolf Totem is a beautiful and heartbreaking story that everybody who cares about the state of the world should read. No amount of Earth Days, or Earth Hours will ever be able to replace the things we have lost through our own stupidity and fanaticism. The Red Guard's behaviour in Inner Mongolia in the 1960's and 1970's is no different from the destruction of natural habitats the world over in the face of progress.

There was another country, once long ago, where the original people considered themselves the preservers of the land and tried to live in harmony with the animals they shared it with. They too were considered the enemy of civilization and lost their way of life, and witnessed the desecration of the land and the decimation of the wild animal populations. Communist or Christian it doesn't seem to matter, greed wins out in the end.

Wolf Totem can be purchased either directly from Penguin Canada or through an on line retailer like Indigo Books

March 29, 2008

The Meaninglessness Of Earth Hour


Stop the presses: Tonight at 8:00 pm EST people, cities, and businesses around the world will be turning off their non-essential electricity for one hour. Earth Hour is the brain child of the World Wildlife Federation (WWF) who have co-opeted the idea from an event staged in Sydney Australia last year where 2 million people and 2,000 businesses shut off power for an hour. The idea was to show people easy and effective means that can be taken to save electrical power on a regular basis.

This year the WWF (no not the World Wrestling Federation - see above) have taken the idea global by encouraging people, cities, and businesses to sign an on-line to pledge to take part in a simultaneous world-wide hour of turning out the lights and shutting off the power. To date only about 230,000 people and twenty major cities have pledged to go along with the idea, which isn't even a tenth of the number who took part in last year's event in Sydney. In other words it's looking like this hasn't exactly caught too many people's imaginations.

Now I'm sure that there are going to be people who will say things like the television stations and advertisers aren't going to want lose that hour's worth of prime time audience on a Saturday night, so they're not going to go out of their way to promote it. It will be easy enough to point the finger of blame at some big media conglomerate who doesn't want to lose a penny, for why this event doesn't fly. It's far better to do that than to admit that the whole exercise is pointless and just another sap to people's consciences that won't accomplish dick all.

It's just another joke like Earth Day, and the corporate sponsored pick up a piece of garbage programs that take place every April 23rd. You know those events where everybody gets in their cars and drives to some spot with garbage bags and collects some of the crap that our society produces on a daily basis so that it can be added to overflowing landfill sites, burnt in incinerators, tossed in the town dump, or buried in abandoned mine shafts. Yep, then every one gathers round and has a barbecue consisting of hamburgers made from cattle that acres of rain forest were cut down to make room for. Very ecological.

I hate to break it to everyone but no amount of Earth Days, Earth Hours, Earth Minutes, or even Earth Seconds, is going to change the condition the world is in. If you want to do something constructive for the environment it is going take a commitment far in excess of anything that any of us, and I include myself in that us, are probably willing to take. One only has to consider the environmental impact we each have going grocery shopping each week to get an idea of what I'm talking about.

According to statistics reported by Barbara Kingsolver in her book Animal, Vegetable, Mineral if you were to remove the products made with corn, soy, and canola from the supermarket, close to 97% of what's on the shelves would vanish. Soy and corn are not just found in soy milk, tofu or your can of creamed corn from Green Giant these days. Check the ingredient list on the next box of frozen chicken breasts that you buy and you'll notice some interesting additions; soy protein and maybe even corn meal. Both are added to the "chicken breast" as filler to give it more weight. Yet that's only the surface, because a great deal of the packaging that your food comes in has used corn in the manufacturing process.

Now that might sound "ecological" until you start factoring in something else, how much of our agricultural land is now being used to grow what used to be know as feed corn - corn unfit for human consumption but you could feed it to your cattle - that can be processed for manufacturing purposes? In order to make that box your chicken product came in we've wasted land that could have been used to grow food in order to create packaging that has to be disposed of somehow or other.

Then there's the matter of how that packaging was manufactured. How much fresh water had to used for the paper to be pulped, for the inks to be manufactured? How much electrical power was needed for the various stages of the manufacturing process from the cutting down of the tree that supplied the wood that made the paper until the box ended up on the factory floor where the frozen chicken bits were stuffed into it? What happened to all the waste product from the manufacturing process all the way along the chain?

None of that even takes into account the chicken used to make the contents of the package. Skipping over the whole ethical thing about factory farms for now let's just consider chicken shit. That's the real problem with all these factory farms is the disposal of the animal waste product. You get thousands of chickens in one place you're talking about one hell of a lot of chicken shit that you have to get rid off somehow because you can't just have it piling up on the floor. So where does it all go?

All of that just from buying one box of frozen chicken breasts at the supermarket. If you were to take every product you purchase in the grocery store that came pre packaged and start tracing back through the manufacturing process for each part of it, you'd come up with a similar scenario. Even those so called "green" products we all buy are packaged and contribute somewhere along the way to the damage we're inflicting upon the planet.

So things like Earth Hour and Earth Day are meaningless jokes when compared to the damage we inflict upon the world we live in every second of every minute of every hour of every day of every year just by going about our daily business. No one off event once a year will change that. Sure turn your electric power off for an hour tonight if you want, but while your at it why not sit down and look at the real impact of your personal habits on the planet earth.

Oh and everybody, don't rush to turn on your electricity all at once; the power spike could black out North America for hours.

March 12, 2008

Graphic Novel Review: Rostam: Tales From The Shahnameh

I guess it's only fitting that as a guy who edits a site called Epic India Magazine that I'm fascinated by Epic Poems and stories. I can date it back to the first time I read a version of Beowulf when I was a kid, and I've been hooked on them ever since. After that it became a matter of simply discovering them in order to read them.

First of course was Homer and the Odyssey, and that was followed by reading Virgil's Aeniad (in Latin - not because of any great ambition but solely because I was taking Latin in high school as I had no other course options left if I wanted to collect enough credits to get into university without taking any math or science). Then there was Sir Gawain And The Green Knight, in translation, because Old English is pretty much indecipherable as far as I was concerned.

Of course there have been all the modern equivalents as well that started cropping up in the fantasy genre with The Lord Of The Rings and Narnia for openers and continues today with Steven Erikson's Malzan Books Of The Fallen and of course Harry Potter by J.K. Rowling. Just as I was starting to lose interest in the genre, there's only so many good versus evil Judeo/Christian based myths you can take, I stepped outside the shelter of Western culture to discover another world.
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In 2005 I began reading Ashok Banker's modern adaptation of Valmiki's three thousand year old epic poem The Ramayana that told the story of the great Indian hero Rama. Since then I've been keeping my ears open for word of other stories from other cultures that I could sink my teeth into. I've always been a firm believer in the theory that you can learn more about a people by reading their stories than through a history or other text book. So when the opportunity to read excerpts from the Persian epic The Shahnameh (The Epic Of Kings) by Hakim Abdol Qasem Ferdowsi Tousi (935 - 1020 CE) arose I was very interested.

Hyperwerks a newer graphic novel group, has just added to it's title's listing Rostam: Tales From The Shahnameh. Since I knew next to nothing about the The Shahnameh I decided that before reading the adaptations that Hyperwerks were offering it would probably be a good idea to read some of the original poem to get a feel for the style and to understand the context which these excerpts were being taken from. There are plenty of good translations of The Shanameh on line and I read the chapters that preceded Rostam's entrance into the story at the link above and also at the Iran Chamber Society's web site.

In the first four chapters the reader is introduced to Iran and how it's leadership evolved, and the countries in the surrounding area. Once the kingdom is settled and established the reader is told of the coming of the first hero of Iran Zal - who will marry Rodabeh and father Rostam.
The first tale of Rostam that the Hyperwerks recounts is actually one that takes place a little latter on in his history, but is also one of the most tragic; the story of Rostam and Sohrab
To tell you any of the details from that story would be to spoil it, and I'm not going to do that. What I will say is that the people of Hyerwerks have done their best to remain faithful to the original story in both issues of Rostam: Tales From The Shahnameh that have been published so far. It's not just in content that they have taken care, but in the graphics as well, for they have carefully reproduced not only the style of dress and armour that was used by at that period in Persian history, but all visual aspects including architectural and decorative arts.

They have also done a good job of telling the story with both illustrations and dialogue, in fact one of the things I liked most about the two issues I've read is their willingness to just use images to tell the story in places. There's no reason to say something like "his sword shattered on his opponents armour when you can just as readily show it happening. That's the whole idea behind graphic novels anyway, to be able to tell the story with the pictures and to find the right balance of dialogue and narration to include so you don't detract from the flow of the story telling.

At the beginning you many find the dialogue a little stilted and overly formal. Yet it's pretty much lifted word for word from the stories these comics have been based on. I don't know if that's the way people would have talked in the days the stories are set in, or just because Farsi and Arabic don't translate well into English. Yet, I found myself growing accustomed to the sound of the dialogue as I read it as my reading progressed, so I have a feeling it's more a case of this is the way the language was used in the original. It's definitely how the language sounds in the two translations I've read.

Rostam: Tales From The Shahnameh is a well illustrated and well written comic/graphic story that will serve as a good introduction to the The Shahnameh. The people at Hyperwerks have done a great job in making sure they have stayed as faithful as they possibly can both visually and in the narration of the stories. These are fine examples of the great things that can be done with he comic book genre.

February 21, 2008

Wild Burros Killed As "Wildlife Management"

“Congress finds and declares that wild free-roaming horses and burros are living symbols of the historic and pioneer spirit of the West; ... and that these horses and burros are fast disappearing from the American scene. It is the policy of Congress that wild free-roaming horses and burros shall be protected from capture, branding, harassment, or death; and to accomplish this they are to be considered in the area where presently found, as an integral part of the natural system of the public lands” The Wild-Free Roaming Horse and Burro Act of 1971

It looked liked the bleeding would finally be stopped. In 1971 an American Congress finally put the brakes on what had been an ongoing slaughter for one hundred years. The killing of America's wild horse and burro populations looked like it was finally coming to an end. It was quite a sea change from a hundred years earlier when American governments had advocated the extermination of the wild horse as a means of bringing the American Indian to heel.

Even more important than just stopping the killing was their recognition that these animals needed to have territory to live in. "They are to be considered in the area where presently found, as an integral part of the natural system of public lands" would seem to guarantee both the horse, and their far less glamourous cousin the burro, at least equal standing on public lands as all other creatures. But a law is only as strong as the will to enforce it, and there seems to be plenty of interest groups with money who have the ability to sap the will needed to enforce that law.

Cattle ranchers want the land the horses use because of how little they are charged to use public lands for grazing rights, and have been more than willing to supply the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) with erroneous statistics and misleading information in order to support their cause. The BLM have done their bit for agribusiness by actually ensuring the wild horse population has been reduced by over 50% since Congress passed the 1971 act that supposedly ensured their population would be stabilized.
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If the campaign carried out against the horses wasn't bad enough it pales in comparison to the one currently being waged against the humble burro. Not only have they seen the amount of their habitat space gradually eroded until now it stands at less than fifty per cent of what they had in 1971 but herd levels have been reduced to such an extent that most have fallen below numbers considered sufficient to maintain genetic integrity (150) and some herds are so small (50 or less) that inbreeding is a serious risk.

Somehow or other since 1971 the wild burro has gone from being "living symbols of the historic and pioneer spirit of the west" to a exotic feral animal that is interfering with the natural order. It's interesting how this wasn't considered a problem until a few years ago when a move was made by big game hunters in North America to reintroduce the Desert Big horn sheep into the same areas that burros were already grazing.

While it's despicable in the first place to re-introduce an animal into the wild just so you can hunt it, displacing another animal and calling it "Wild Life Management", is hypocrisy of the highest order. What's been happening is a smear campaign that would be worthy of any dis-information program run by the current administration. First start referring to the burros as feral and exotic instead of wild so it sounds like they were a recently introduced species instead of having been here longer then almost all breeds of domestic cattle.

Like the horse, the burro was re-introduced to North America in the 15th and 16th century with the arrival of the Spanish. The burro was especially adaptable to the climate of the Southern United States and Mexico as the breed that came with the Spanish had originated in North Africa. Not only does it require minimal amounts of water for survival, it also can obtain most of it's required water from the scrub brush that makes up the majority of it's diet.

Like the horse the burros were at various points in time released into the wild and vanished into wilderness that could support little other wild life. It's only been since another introduced creature, man, has wanted to make use of its habitat that the burro has become a "Wild Life Management" issue. Unlike horses they weren't even a concern for cattle ranchers, because they lived in territories that couldn't sustain cattle.

However, once State governments became aware of just how potentially lucrative the Big Horn Sheep hunt could be, (with licences fetching up to $100,000 each at auctions), burros became a nuisance creature that needed to be dealt with. All of a sudden we hear that they are a threat to water supplies, their populations are too high, and of course a threat to the precious Big Horn Sheep gold mine.

What's even more disquieting is the fact that many of the Big Horn Sheep are animals being introduced into areas where there was no prior sheep population. In fact the Arizona Desert Big Horn Sheep Society boasts on its web site that over 1000 animals have been introduced and have established viable populations in ten mountain ranges where they didn't previously exist.

Recently I was sent documents that were a record of an investigation into the discovery of burro carcasses in in Big Bend Ranch State Park in Texas. As these documents have not yet been made public my source has asked to remain anonymous for the moment. The documents in question are the transcripts of interviews conducted by an Internal Affairs officer who was following up on complaints of potential animal cruelty.
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Park rangers having discovered the bodies of burros rotting by the road in the park dutifully reported the crime to state authorities. The only problem was that the shootings had been carried out by Deputy Director of Texas State Parks Dan Sholly and States Parks Region 1 Director, Michael Hil, with the full support of the State Parks Director Walter D. Danby. When interviewed in early November the three men freely admitted that the killings had taken place, and had only just recently stopped.

According to Mr. Sholly's testimony they had started shooting the burros in April of 2007 until they were ordered to stop on October 23rd 2007 (although he did admit that a final burro was shot on Oct. 26th three days after the stop kill order was issued). According to him they had "kept a running total in our mind, and initially in our reports, the number we had shot was seventy-one burros". He also said that he had shot burros on five or six trips into the park, but not every time he went there - mainly because he didn't see them every time he went into the park.

In his testimony Mike Hill said that July of 2007 was the last record he has of burros being shot, and that Dan told him to keep killing burros and not to write anything down about it after that time. He said that Dan had told him that something had been said in Austin (State government offices for Texas are located in the city of Austin) about the burros being killed. It's interesting to note that in his testimony Dan Sholly claims that he never told any park employee to stop recording the number of burros being shot.

It's also interesting to note that in his initial interview with the investigating officer the dates Mike HIll said the shootings took place contradicted those given by Mr. Sholly, but two days later he claims to have reviewed "contemporaneous notes" to refresh his memory, and changed the dates to coincide to agree with those offered by Mr. Sholly. He had said in his first interview that the killing of burros had started in April of 2006, a full year earlier then the date he came back with of April 2007. Of course he might have simply confused the dates, but than again since Sholly denied telling him to stop recording his kills, I have to wonder.

Both Mr. Sholly and Mr. Hill testified that the killing was necessitated because they were wanting to reintroduce Big Horn Sheep to the park and that they had been told that wouldn't be possible with the burros in place. Mr. Sholly also claims they never went into the park to deliberately hunt for burros, but they were trying to impact on the population by taking targets of opportunity.

I thing the most damming piece of testimony came from State Park's Director Walter D. Dabney. After relaying that he told Mr. Hill and Mr. Sholly that they should kill any and all burros on site, he mentions that no other efforts have been made to control the populations in the park since he started. In other words, they haven't attempted to capture, or relocate the herd by any of the means normally followed with protected animals.

I'm not really sure how always carrying a gun and shooting any burro you see on site differs from hunting burros, but them I'm not a Director of State Parks in Texas so I wouldn't know about such distinctions. All I know is that the burro is protected animal in the wild and is not to be killed or have it's habitat displaced by any other animal. Yet in Texas the people who are running the parks system are guilty of both crimes.

The transcript of the inquiry that I received came complete with the investigating officer's findings and recommendations. The only fault he could find with the indiscriminate killing of a protected species was the fact that the people doing the killing hadn't bothered to notify the park's employees in advance that they would be shooting burros in the park. If they had known in advance that the shootings were taking place they wouldn't have been surprised to find the rotting burro carcasses beside the road, and worried that anything untoward was going on.

He recommended that in the future all park employees be better informed about the parks wildlife management programs and that proper arrangements should be made to deal with the disposal of the carcasses. Nowhere in his findings or in his recommendations does he mention that burros are a protected animal in the United States, or that perhaps they should investigate alternative means of wildlife management instead of killing them.

It took a twenty-five year fight by concerned citizens and wildlife conservationists to get the American Congress to pass the The Wild-Free Roaming Horse and Burro Act of 1971. Thirty-six years latter officers and directors of Public Parks in Texas are flagrantly disregarding the two major provisions of the act. Not only are they depriving them of habitat desperately needed to maintain the numbers of wild burros in America, they are killing them in order to facilitate their supplanting. Currently there are only five genetically viable burro herds remaining in the wild and if the current rate of attrition of both habitat and animals is allowed to continue it will result in the extinction of wild burro herds in the American West.

Is this how America preserves its cultural heritage?

Facts and figures concerning the relative sizes of burro herds and Big Horn Sheep populations and habitat, unless otherwise stated are taken from "Wild Burros of the American West: A Critical Analysis of the National Status of Wild Burros on Public Lands 2006 by C.R. MacDonald

February 20, 2008

Book Review The Age Of Shiva Manil Suri

When India was given her independence in 1948 it should have been a time of celebration. After decades of protest and a failed revolution in the 19th century, she was finally stepping out from under the heel of her colonial master Great Britain to be a unified country for the first time in centuries. Instead it was a time of horrible turmoil and sectarian violence, as in their last act of contempt for their former subjects the British arbitrarily split the country into Muslim and Hindu halves.

While in theory Muslims and Hindus could have stayed on in what were to become Pakistan and India, in practice people fled in both directions in fear of their lives. Families left homes that they had lived in for generations with nothing more than what they could carry on their backs. The British troops who were supposed to oversee the transit of people from one part of the country to another somehow or other never materialized and thousands of people died in riots.

Is it any wonder that India's first prime minister, Nerhu, dreamed of a secular state where what mattered was your nationality not your religion? Unfortunately bigotry is stronger than dreams, and it's easier to hold on to hatred than to learn tolerance. People are always going to need someone to blame their troubles on (heaven forbid they take responsibility for their own actions) and there's nothing like the convenience of a readily available scape-goat. So in spite of Nerhu's desires, and Gandhi's death at the hands of a fanatical Hindu must have given an inkling of the obstacles he would have to overcome, India in the years immediately following partition was a powder keg of resentments just looking for a fuse and match.
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Manil Suri's recently released novel, The Age Of Shiva begins in 1955, just prior to the festivities marking the 7th anniversary of India's independence. Meera Sawhney is seventeen when the story opens and according to her father, a firm believer in Nerhu's secular state, her generation is the one that will shake off the shackles of religion and the blinkers of tradition and lead India into the modern world. Yet if her father is the future of India her mother is the past. Deeply religious and illiterate she was married to Meera's father at the age of ten, and moved in with him four years after their marriage.

While Meera's father is extolling the virtues of a woman making her own way in the world to his three daughters, her mother fills their childhood with tales of Shiva, his wife Parvati, their son Ganesh, and the rest of the pantheon of Hindu Gods and Goddesses. In spite of their different views on the world the parents agree that Meera's life, as second daughter, should revolve around her elder sister Roopa. It seems her father's protestations of fairness and equality don't play out in practice as well as they do in theory, and it's this hypocrisy, combined with resentment at the bullying she receives at the hands of Roopa that end up dictating Meera's early life choices.

Roopa is enamoured of Dev, the younger son of a poor rail yard employee's family, who has the romantic appeal of being a gifted amateur singer. Meera's first glimpse of Dev is from a darkened balcony as he is crooning a sentimental ballad made popular in the movies on his way to winning a singing competition during the Independence Day festivities of 1955. Listening to a recording of Nerhu's speech from Independence Day, declaiming a future of opportunities, elicits thoughts in Meera of stealing Dev away from her sister and having him sing only for her.

With Roopa all of a sudden engaged to an appropriate suitor, Meera puts herself in Dev's way, with the result that she finds herself having to live her fantasy and marry him. Suddenly she is removed from her comfortable life of upper middle class ease to living in a two room house with her husband's family in the rail yards. She also receives her first introduction to the politics of Hindu nationalism and virulent anti-Muslim sentiments at the feet of her father-in -law.

In many ways Meera's life with Dev; the choices that she is faced with, and the decisions she reaches, are a reflection of the choices and decisions India as a country deals with. Yet while there is much of her life that is specific to India, plenty of what she experiences will be familiar to all women of that generation. I only have to think of women of my mother's generation, who who were encouraged to receive an education, but not allowed to do anything with it. Unlike their mothers they know there is more to life than being a servant to their husbands whims, and are not fulfilled by being a house wife.

With no real job opportunities aside from a menial one translating for a publishing house, and the reality of being married to Dev not coming anywhere near to living up to her fantasy, it's not until the birth of her son that Meera feels any sense of fulfillment. Unfortunately, as happened with so many women of that time with no other options, she pours everything into her son to the point of unhealthy obsession.
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The Age Of Shiva is a fascinating study of an individual's desperate search for identity and purpose. While Meera's elder sister Roopa is able to play the game of upper middle class matron, and her younger sister gains identity through scholarship, she is stuck somewhere in between. She can't find solace in religion like her mother or her husband's family, but than again nothing the secular world has to offer brings her any comfort either. The obsessive nature of her love for her son is of course dangerous in that she will be left with no identity of her own when he leaves home.

Of equal interest is tale of India that plays out in the background, a history that I was unfamiliar with before now. I had known about the attempts by Pakistan to invade the territory of Kashmir, and of an earlier war with China, but had not known that the United States had armed Pakistan for it's wars against India as far back as the 1960's. Facts like that go a long way to understanding the feelings of resentment and betrayal that the Muslim countries of that part of the world must feel at the way their former allies now treat them.

The Age Of Shiva is a well told narrative with fully realized characters, that provides insights into the struggles educated women of the post World War two generation faced in many societies. They could see what would it be like to have their own identity, but were not allowed to touch it.

February 12, 2008

Book Review: Long River Joseph Bruchac

I remember as a child having an illustrated history of Canada whose early pages were filled with images of Native Canadian life. One of the images that still stands out in my mind was a picture of a group of Asiatic looking people struggling against the elements as they made their way along a land bridge across the Bering Straight separating Asia from North America. It was the accepted theory in those days that the first people had only been fairly recent immigrants when the Europeans showed up, having only come here within the thousand years prior to first contact.

It has only been in the last twenty years or so that the migration from Asia theory has been seriously challenged, and is now starting to fall out of favour. Of course if anybody had bothered to listen to the stories told by the people living here when the Europeans arrived they might never have come up with it in the first place. There isn't one story among any of the nations corresponding with people crossing from Asia over into North America. Nearly all the creation stories have them starting life here, not somewhere else on earth and travelling here.

Of course listening to the first peoples was the last thing on the minds of the governments of North America, in fact they did their best to ensure those stories weren't heard by anyone. Generations of children were stolen from their parents in one of the worst examples of cultural genocide ever attempted. Cut off from family, friends, and community they were forbidden to speak the language of their parents and were prevented from learning anything to do with their own people.
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It's a blessing that governments are as inefficient as they are as enough people escaped their nets to prevent the complete obliteration of all the stories. Today there are men and women across North America who have taken on the huge responsibility of keeping those stories alive for future generations either by writing them down, telling them like their ancestors did in circles around a fire, bringing them to life in theatre, or using them as the basis for creating new stories.

Joseph Bruchac is one of those people who have made it his life's work to preserve the stories of his people. A member of the Abenaki nation, one of the Algonquin peoples whose numbers also include the Cree and Chippewa nations, Bruchac has published over twenty-five collections of stories that deal with every aspect of Alogonquin life from how to live a good life to the history of the people. He is also in high demand across North America as a story teller and lecturer, and tours schools and universities bringing the old tales to life.

In the early 1990s he began a series of books set in a North America that none of us would recognize; not only is the time period pre-contact, it is far enough back that the land still remembers the ice age. I read the first book, Dawn Land, when it first came out back in 1993 and was very impressed with the way Bruchac integrated traditional tales, and descriptions of what life would have been like at the time into an adventure story. At the time I had no idea he was intending to make a series of these books, and it wasn't until a short while ago that I discovered he had written a sequel called Long River. Published by Fulcrum Books. Long River picks up the adventures of the hero of the first book, Young Hunter, where the previous one left off.

In Dawn Land Young Hunter had headed out on a journey to defeat an evil race of stone giants - known as the Ancient Ones - who would have rained ruin upon his people if given the opportunity. On his journey he discovered many things about himself, not the least of which was that he had some talent for "far seeing",what we would call astral projection, or the ability to send you spirit travelling to check out the surroundings while your body stayed in one place.

In Long River Young Hunter has returned to his village and is settling into life in the community with his new wife Willow Woman. But he doesn't have much time to enjoy the peace of regular life before he discerns a new threat to his people. A pain maddened Wooly Mammoth, injured by a spear that is stuck in it's mouth, is seeking vengeance against any of the creatures who inflicted the damage on it by seeking out their villages and destroying them and all their inhabitants.

Young Hunter at first only perceives a nebulous sense of danger approaching his people, but with the assistance of his people's elders and wise people learns how to hone his abilities until he is able to use them to devise a means of defeating the menace that faces them. Eventually with the assistance of one of the little people, the Mikumwesu, he succeeds but it is a near thing. In fact if it weren't for the assistance of a former enemy - a lone surviving stone giant - the outcome would have been far worse.

While the adventure part of the story is fun, the true pleasure in reading this book is the way Bruchac brings the past to life. It's not just the myths and the tales of his people that he is recounting, it is everything about their way of life that he has recreated. From their means of creating fire, hunting and curing fish, preparing maple syrup, building shelters, to the rituals involved with naming a child. His attention to detail also includes the moral codes that dictate the way Young Hunter's people treat each other, and the world around them.

We're not just limited to Young Hunter's view of the world either as Bruchac switches between his central character, his wife, village elders, and even the enraged Wooly Mammoth, in order to give us as wide a view of the world as possible. While anthropomorphism isn't something we might be comfortable with, it fits into the native belief that all creatures, indeed all living things, possess a spirit and awareness. In Young Hunter's world, where they thank the fish for letting them eat them and the tree for the bark that makes their shelters, it makes sense for an animal to have a point of view on what's happening around him.

Each character's observations on the world around them, and the way they interact with it, all give us a deeper understanding of how people would have lived their lives in pre-contact days. Bruchac isn't just making this up off the top of his head either, as he substantiates almost everything with a story that explains where the belief governing an attitude came from. (Okay there's no story that offers an explanation for a rational Wooly Mammoth - but a little suspension of disbelief never hurt anyone) Something else to consider is the fact that a culture develops based on the needs of the people it serves. This was a culture that depended on the natural world for survival - and so they developed rituals and attitudes reflecting a need to live in accordance to the rules they saw around them.

If you want there to be fish tomorrow you leave some to breed, you don't kill the predator animals because they eat the sick and the infirm creatures among the prey animals ensuring that they stay healthy enough to reproduce in the future, and you never take so much bark from a tree that you kill it, or there won't be any trees left to provide you with bark in the future. The stories that Bruchac has his characters tell or remember in order to help them lead a good life, are all ones that adhere to those tenets.

Long River is a wonderful book because its a great story to read, with interesting characters and an exciting narrative. At the same time it provides an amazing glimpse into the way life was in North America before the coming of the Europeans. Joseph Bruchac doesn't preach or say that we should all go and live in houses made of bark, he just tells us what it was like when people used to. Although, after reading this book, I'm certain the world would be a lot better if we were to follow their examples a little more when it comes to the way we treat each other and the world around us

January 22, 2008

Music Review: Keefe Jackson Keefe Jackson Project Project: Just Like This

I have to admit to still being a little intimidated by Jazz music. It's like standing in front of an abstract painting where your eye doesn't even know where to start looking in order to form an impression. With art I've been able to train my eye not to look for an "entrance" into the work and try to let the whole speak at once in an attempt to assimilate the artist's message. In some ways you have to start on an instinctive level, and evolve into rational thought gradually.

While it's one thing to be able to do that with your eye, to do the same thing aurally feels much harder to me. Part of the reason is that my ear is not as sophisticated as my eye, I've had very little music training and while able to distinguish notes and tunes etc, I lack the ability to recreate what I hear. This makes me feel insecure when it comes to my abilities to appreciate the music to it's fullest. It feels like I'm living the adage those who can't play teach, and those who can't teach, critique.

But I've never interpreted that to be a literal reference to someone's ability, more of a state of mind. When I hear that saying I always get the image of some bitter, failed actor, musician, or author sitting behind a typewriter thinking of ways to take revenge on those who have been able to succeed where he or she failed. Since the people whose work I review in these instances usually leave me amazed at the scope of their imaginations and the breadth of their talent I know I don't fall into that category.

So when I hear a disc like the most recent one released by Keefe Jackson, Keefe Jackson's Project Project: Just Like This on Delmark Records I take a deep breath, and dive in without trying to think about it. I don't know enough technically about what he and his fellows are doing to analyse it from that perspective, but at least I can give an honest emotional opinion.
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Sometimes that means of course that my first impression of the music is going to be the strongest, and in this case what I felt was that the mind behind these compositions has a great sense of humour. The first track on Just Like This is called "Dragon Fly" and it begins with two sputtering trombones emulating the spasmodic motions of dragon fly wings. The song gradually opens up to include all twelve members of Project Project, as they create a wonderful homage to the flight of a dragonfly.

Aside from the obvious homage/joke to the orchestral piece "Flight Of The Bumblebee" by Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov, it felt like there was a thread of laughter floating woven into the whole piece. Think of a dragon fly darting across the surface of a pond on a hot summer's day; zipping back and forth, with speed and agility. Now think of what trombone sounds like when playing staccato notes at the bottom end of the scale.

There are the inevitable comparisons to flatulence that spring to mind, but aside from that there's the incongruity of the brassy notes and the airiness of the dragonfly's flight. In fact before I knew the title of the track, the opening bars of the song sounded for all the world like they were revving a car engine on a cold winter's day. It struck me as a humorous way of opening an disc of music - gentlemen start your engines - but now the humour seems even slyer.

Normally you'd associate a flute or a violin with the rapid flight of something like a dragonfly. But on a second listening I had a clear visual of the big lumbering dragonflies you see occasionally - ones that look so primordial that they could just as easily be buzzing a brontosaurus as you - bumbling through the bull rushes by a riverbank on a hot and humid July.

Of course not all the songs on the disc are designed to create such vivid visual imagery, these are sound pieces after all. But even on some of the more discordant and chaotic tracks, "Which Well" for example, it really feels to me like the mind behind this has an impish sense of humour. Maybe it's just me but for a while it sounds like the collage of instruments, we are talking about a twelve piece band after all, are trying to simulate the hollow sound that would be found inside a well.

That impression is only compounded for me because it is immediately followed by a wailing saxophone solo which sounds like somebody falling down a well. Does that sound frivolous?Would you rather I said something about how the discordant and abrupt sounds reflect the panic stricken, anxiety filled atmosphere that so many of us experience? Or perhaps how the contrast between the melodic clarinet solo that follows on the heels of the torrid saxophone is a commentary on the choices we face when it comes to how we approach the difficulties life throws at us?

Maybe though it's none of the above, and the pieces are all about experimenting with sound and discovering the modes of expression available to them. I don't know, and I can't without asking Keefe Jackson. He says that he writes music keeping in mind the people who will be playing it and the potential for sound that each of them brings to a performance. These are free-form improvisational players who he is building a frame work for. so he wants to allow them plenty of room for manoeuvring.

It would seem that no matter what layers of interpretation I, or anybody else for that matter, wants to impose on the music, it comes down to what each individual creates from what he is given to perform by Keefe. While this sounds like it could quickly become an exercise in chaotic discordance, the overall structure of the piece dictates that they stay in contact with their fellow performers at all times. The result is always exciting, occasionally confusing, but always interesting to listen to as you never are quite sure what to expect from either the composition or the performers.

Keefe Jackson's Project Project: Just Like This is a great example of how a composor and gifted instrumentalists come together to create unique pieces of music. On occasion some of the pieces lend them-self to interpretation, but in general they are the expression of people who take great joy in the playing and creation of music.

December 5, 2007

Book Review: Sovereign Bones: New Native American Writing Edited By Eric Gansworth

"Why do you insist on calling yourselves Indian?" asks a white woman in a nice hat..."Listen" I say. "The word belongs to us now. We are Indians. That has nothing to do with Indians from India. We are not American Indians. We are Indians, pronounced In-din. It belongs to us. We own it and we're not going to give it back"... So much has been taken from us that we hold on to the smallest things left with all the strength we have. Sherman Alexie, "The Unauthorised Biography Of Me" Sovereign Bones 2007
Why do you write? Me, I write because I don't feel whole unless I get my fix everyday. I'm sure the same goes for everybody who feels the urge to paint, sing, dance, yodel, build, photograph, chip stone, melt steel, carve wood, and recreate something they've heard, seen, imagined, visualized, conceptualized, or dreamed. Each day we get up and put fingers to keyboard, piano keys, guitar strings, paintbrushes, modeling clay, microphones, hammers, pencils, charcoal, and paint and take a stab at godhood by attempting creation.

A short story writer, you start to write but are brought up short when you realize you're writing in a foreign language. An Englishman or North American writes in English because that's the language of her people. French, Italian, Spanish, Chinese, Japanese, Celtic, Zulu, Swahili, Mongolian, and Russian alike can all write in the language that their ancestors have spoken a variation of for generations.
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Your grandparents had their names stolen from their tongues and your parents have the vocabulary of infants, while you are illiterate and mute in the language of your people. The voice you once thought so alive, now sounds dead in your ears as it tell your stories, the stories of your people, in words that have no bearing on the subject matter, and that don't believe in the same things you do.

Sovereign Bones published by Nation Books and distributed in Canada by Publisher Group Canada is a collection of writings by contemporary Native American artists about what it's like to be an artist when your culture hasn't been yours for more than a century. It can't be "Indian" if it doesn't have braids, feathers, and buckskins riding a horse with mournful dignity into the sunset because today is a good day to die.

Anyone who does any creative work at all knows just how difficult it can be without any additional demands being made upon your already taxed brain. Can you imagine what it would be like to put your heart and soul into a painting, and be told that there is no such thing as contemporary art from your people? Artistically you only exist in the past as artefacts picked over by those who know that modern Indians have nothing to say; nothing to say that matches everybody's conception of what an Indian is anyway. Why doesn't your stuff look like other great Indian artists, like you know, Edward Curtis?

Actor's, writers, poets, painters, sculptors, photographers, film makers, fashion designers, and musicians alike have run into the wall of 'it's not Indian enough to be Indian', no matter how Indian they are. Indian men are noble stoic warriors or drunks who talk in short clipped sentences that are filled with meaning. Indian women are meek, and docile who over the centuries have been exploited by their lazy husbands, or beautiful Princesses waiting for the just the right European they can fall in love with for a little bit of that starred crossed lover stuff that can end tragically for all parties involved leaving everybody older and wiser. (It's okay to have your bit of fun with the pretty Indian girl, but don't bring her home to mother is the moral of that story)
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Yet in spite of this, or maybe if they're contrary enough, (it's no coincidence that in many traditions the creator is also a trickster who works in opposition to what makes sense), because of this, it hasn't stopped people from all nations from doing just what they are meant to do. Creating works of art that are about them and their people in the world around them, just like the rest of the world's artists.

Perhaps like Wayne Eagleboy's painting "We The People" near the beginning of this review they will make social political commentary? Perhaps like Shelly Niro's installation at the Canadian Museum of Civilization, (pictured to the right), of "Skywoman", they will tell their traditional tales. But she hasn't used any feathers or buckskin, and what's with the turtle – where's the buffalo?

Buffalo never played any role in the life of the Haudenosaunee, people of the long house, or Iroquois Confederacy, in the woodlands north and south of the St. Lawrence River in what are now New York State, and the provinces of Ontario and Quebec in Canada. Nor did men wear the full headdress of feathers; at least not until the 1950's and they wanted people to pay attention to them as Indians.

No one is surprised when they find out that German and French people have a history of different styles of dress, music, art, literature, and architecture, even though they share a common border. Yet these same people refuse to understand two distinct nations that live over a thousand miles apart can be just as different. From the food eaten, to the clothes they wore, the only thing the Lakota, or any of the other people from what is now North and South Dakota, Montana, and Minnesota have in common with the Six Nations who are the Haudenosaunee, is they were conquered by Europeans.

Sovereign Bones is by turns heartbreaking, life affirming, inspiring, and most of all real. Each artist, no matter what their medium, relate what it is they are trying to do as artists, and what it's like to be an Indian artist today. The burden of recovering what is so close to be being lost forever has been placed squarely on their collective shoulders. To each of them falls the task of keeping alive the collective unconscence of their people in a world that doesn't recognize that differences between their people exist.

Maybe I can think of something that would be as difficult to cope with as an artist, but not right off the top of my head. It's hard enough as it is getting published without having to fight against other people's expectations of what my work should be like for it to be my work.

"Sherman," says the critic, "How does the oral tradition apply to your work?"..."Well", I say, as I hold my latest book close to me, "It doesn't apply at all because I typed this. And when I'm typing, I'm really, really quiet." Sherman Alexie "The Unauthorized Autobiography Of Me" Sovereign Bones 2007

December 3, 2007

Immigrants In Canada And The U.S.: Multiculturalism Vs. The Melting Pot. Pt. Two

This is part two of a look at the supposed differences between the United States and Canada when it comes to the integration of immigrants into our respective societies. Canada has long clung to the designation of a "Cultural Mosaic" while making disparaging comments about the United States being a melting pot. Is that a fair assessment on the part of Canadians, or do they need to watch out for their glasshouses if they're going to throw stones at the Americans. Part Two continues from where Part One left off.

In the year of her centennial, 1967, Canada hosted it's first major international event, The World's Fair –"Man And His World" was both its title and lofty theme. The event was held in Montreal, at the time Canada's largest and most cosmopolitan city. With pavilions from countries all over the world, it was the epitome of a Multicultural celebration, and Canada appeared to be the a leading light in a brave new, multicultural world.

However, Canada is first and foremost a bi-cultural nation – French and English – and in 1967 Quebec nationalism was beginning to crest. "The Quiet Revolution" of French speaking intellectuals and nationalists of the early sixties had divided into two camps. Those who followed the thinking of Pierre Trudeau that Quebec was part of Canada and her problems could be solved at the federal level of politics, and those who believed as Rene Leveque did that only a Quebec separate from the rest of Canada could guarantee the rights of French Canadians.

Bombs set off by the Front de Liberation Quebec (FLQ) had blown up the occasional mailbox in the streets of Quebec since the early 1960s, but had never really been considered a threat to the community. That all changed in the fall of 1970 when they kidnapped Quebec's Minister of Justice, Pierre Laporte, and the British High Commissioner to Quebed, James Cross. When Laporte's corpse was found in the trunk of a car conciliatory talk went out the window and Prime Minister Trudeau invoked the War Measures Act.

A little known clause in the old Canadian Constitution allowed the Prime Minister to suspend the civil liberties of all Canadians in times of dire emergencies and bring the army out into the streets to enforce order. While the authority wasn't abused on the federal level, in Montreal thousands of people were rounded up by the police and held without charges. That some of them were the incumbent mayor's, Jean Drapeau, political opponents in upcoming municipal elections only increased people's anger.

It becomes difficult to lay claim to being a multicultural society when the two largest cultural groups are unable to reconcile their differences. It becomes even more difficult when sudden influxes of visible minorities exposes latent racism lurking just below our civilized, multicultural, surface.

In the early to mid 1970's events in the wider world caused an influxe of visible minorities to enter Canada refugee claimants. In 1973 Idi Amin Dada, supreme ruler of Uganda, took it into his head to expel the entire South East Asian community in his country. Thousands of people were left suddenly bereft of homes and cast adrift into the world.

While the Canadian government opened the country's borders to them, her citizens were another story altogether. It got to the point that it wouldn't matter if you had been one of those misfortunate enough to be a refugee or not; as long you were a certain colour you were considered open season by the red necks and other scum.

People were accosted and beaten in Toronto Ontario's subway cars in full view of fellow passengers - who either were too stunned to help or didn't care enough. The "Paki" joke entered the lexicon of the racist and to this day some (half)-wit will crack up the room with one of those disgusting examples of ignorance – excusing themselves with the disclaimer "that it's only a bit of fun".

Bigots are bigots and there is nothing to be done about them but fighting back by making certain it is obvious, their behaviour is unacceptable. In the city of Toronto and its suburbs, where the majority of the attacks took place, credit has to be given to local politicians for taking practical steps to curtail the attacks. They followed that up by implementing zero tolerance policies to racist activities in the school boards under their control, ensuring that it wasn't going to on the unofficial curriculum of any school.

Even more heartening were the reactions from other minority communities, and faith groups throughout the city, who spoke out against the attacks and the attitude behind them. As it became clear that people were serious about zero tolerance – including not being afraid to press alarm strips installed in subway cars to alert the police an attack was happening, and doing what they could to stop attacks while they were occurring – the physical violence stopped.

Unfortunately there is nothing that can be done about what people think and feel, and the ingrained fears of the different and unknown that are the root cause of racism are still as prevalent today as they were thirty years ago. On the face of it, Canada appears to be a shining example of multicultural tolerance, but there too many worrying trends that give lie to that appearance.

If we were truly so multicultural why are conservative politicians able to score political points by playing on people's fears of the immigrant? Not only are all the old lies still being trotted out: "they steal our jobs", "they leach off our social systems", but new ones have been invented. Let there be one incident of strife within a minority community and you can count on a politician to start bleating about "bringing their wars to our streets" and innocent (read blonde blue-eyed, children) bystanders being caught in the crossfire. They don't bother to mention that 99% of people who come to Canada have done so because those wars have made them refugees, and they want their children to grow up in a place where they aren't potential innocent bystanders.

If it weren't so appalling, it would be amazing to hear how so called pundits are able to equate multiculturalism with nationalism. They play on people's fears by asking them if they want their neighbourhood to turn into another Rwanda or Bosnia, as if hundreds of years of history, and the political and social climate of those two countries, had nothing to do with the events that happened there. They take one grain of truth, ethnic violence happened in those places, and distort it to mean that anytime two or more ethnic groups are gathered in one place you are guaranteed a firestorm.

Therefore, immigration equals multiculturalism; multiculturalism equals nationalism; and the result is fire in the streets and dark skinned barbarians raping lily-white girls. The sad part is that though their words are lies – they succeed in fermenting an atmosphere of intolerance that leads to the death of a pluralistic society. Even sadder is the ease with which they are able to achieve this result.

It means that despite claims to the contrary, Canada is no more tolerant of immigrants and cultural differences then anybody else, including our neighbour to the south. Canada has hidden its intolerance behind a facade of happy ethnic groups performing happy ethnic dances one afternoon a year in the community hall. We've lied to ourselves, or let ourselves be lied to, and called that multiculturalism.

When Jacques Parizeau, the former leader of the Quebec separatist political party, the Parti Quebecois, blurted out that immigrants voting no in the last referendum on separation lost French Canada the chance to separate from Canada, he was pillared in the press. Nevertheless, his attitude was an accurate reflection of what appears to be two, very common, sentiments in Canada – immigrants are to blame and have no business in the business of "our" country.

In the United States, the current administration relied on generating fear of the unknown and the different in order to get the backing of the population for implementing their various policies – domestic and foreign. Anti-American Canadians have taken great joy in ridiculing these attitudes and the intolerance they have fostered. That's what happens, they say, when you try to assimilate everyone – intolerance and fear of the unknown dictate your behaviour.

It's time for Canadians to get off their high horses and wipe that smirk off their faces. For all our claims of tolerance because of preaching multiculturalism, we are no different. The same fears and intolerance exist in Canada as they do in the United States. We can blame it on the recent administration in Canada if we want, but that's as much a lie as any of the others we tell ourselves. If it didn't already exist, the current crop of politicians wouldn't have been able to exploit it so successfully.

We were able to pretend otherwise for a while, but when it has come to the test, our multiculturalism has proven no more effective in creating a pluralistic society than the melting pot of the United States. We are both countries that were built on the backs of immigrants, but the race of the original colonial masters still rule and seems intent on never letting go.

In spite of the differences in name that each country adapted toward its immigration policies – there has been no real difference in result. The prevailing attitude towards immigrants, or anybody different from "us" is that of fear and intolerance. Welcome to Fortress North America.

November 30, 2007

Immigrants In Canada And The United States: Multiculturalism & The Melting Pot Pt.1

What I thought was going to be simple comparison between the multicultural and melting pot immigrant society of Canada and the United States has turned into an overview of the social history of immigration in both countries. Not a topic to be covered in few hundred words, it has become a two part effort, with part two to follow tomorrow

In almost every history textbook that I had from grade school on, the writers would at some point take great pride in pointing out the difference between Canada and the United States of America when it came to its treatment of immigrants. The United States, we were told was a melting pot, where all newcomers were quickly absorbed and assimilated into the quest for The American Dream. Canada, on the other hand was a cultural mosaic, where all the cultures were distinct tiles, making up our big picture.

Aside from some confusion when I was younger, caused by an overactive imagination that had me visualizing the United States boiling immigrants in great big vats a la cannibals in B movies, I understood that this was some vital cultural difference between the two countries. What it was I couldn't exactly tell you: we had Italian Canadians living in neighbourhoods known as Little Italy, and America had Italian Americans living in neighbourhoods known as Little Italy. Not much of a difference is there?

Still every year it kept showing up in text book after text book: Canada is a multicultural mosaic that encourages people to retain their original cultural identity while the United States are an assimilating melting pot where everyone is encouraged to become part of a homogeneous mass. The one thing missing from those textbooks was any sort of explanation as to what the hell they were talking about.

Neither Canada nor the United States started out multicultural. (I'm talking about the socio-political entities that carry those names, not the geographical areas where thousands of thriving cultures existed before their new neighbours annihilated them.) It wasn't until wave after wave of immigrants started washing up on our shores in the later part of the 1800s that the term could have even been considered accurate. Certainly, Canada had its French population left over from the conquering of Quebec by the British, and in America, there were pockets of Creole and Spanish from thefts of land from Mexico and the purchase of Louisiana respectively. But aside from that, both countries were lily white. (I'm not forgetting the slaves; I just don't consider slavery a culture. African Americans have played a huge part in the development of popular culture, but that influence wasn't exerted until the end of slavery and after the great waves of immigration).

What I found especially odd about these great pronouncements in the textbooks was the fact it was never explained how and why each country developed their supposedly different outlooks towards immigrants. Was it even some great policy decision, or did it just end up happening because of circumstances? One explanation was that it was merely a phrase used to describe the overall effect of cramming so many people of different backgrounds into one area.

In the late 19th century, New York City and Chicago were already large population centres by anyone's standards. It's easy to see how somebody could use the term "melting pot" to describe the polyglot of peoples, languages, and cultures that were crammed into the poorer areas of those cities. The cities would have born a remarkable resemblance to cauldrons overflowing with people; melting pots where they all became just more, raw fodder to be fed into the maw of industry. Cultural distinctions would have been lost due to the simple fact of numbers.

There was also the fact that this was a time of growing labour unrest. Workers in all of the industries, from the coalfields out west to the garment factories of the east, began agitating for better working and living conditions. Attempting to discredit the labour movement, industry and government told America that the unrest was the work of foreign agitators intent on disrupting the status quo and bringing America to its knees. (Sound familiar)

"Foreignness", became the mark of somebody who represented a potential threat to the country, and an unwillingness to assimilate was depicted as Un-American. Since the majority of the labour force in the big cities were all recent immigrants – who else was there desperate enough to work the horrendous hours demanded for the little money offered – it was easy to depict union organizers and leaders in that light.

Creating an atmosphere where anybody who held on to their cultural identity – or foreignness- was treated with suspicion, an alternative image to the bomb toting anarchist, trouble making, and union organizing, immigrant was needed. Industry needed the labour force immigrants represented, so couldn't smear them all with the tar of Un-American activity. So they came up with the fully assimilated model, one that thought nothing of working long hours to provide a better life for his children.

The American Dream, that anybody could achieve success and happiness through hard work was born out of that period. Sacrifice your life and health so that your kids might be better off then you are. Working in tandem with the Salvation army preaching suffering will be rewarded in the hereafter, the image of the hardworking, assimilated immigrant, ideally suiting the needs of industry, was created.

As long as you played by those rules, and weren't some ungrateful foreigner who wanted special treatment, after being allowed to come live in the Land Of The Free And The Home Of The Brave, you were considered a good American and properly assimilated. It was a modified version of America's standard foreign policy precept; as long as you do what we want you're a good guy.

During this same period in history, when the Untied States was being flooded with immigrants at Ellis Island, Canada was only receiving a slow trickle of Eastern Europeans and immigrants from the British Isles. The country was in desperate need to populate it's newly formed Prairie Provinces to prevent them from being swallowed up by American expansion, and to pacify the native populations.

In the early days of nationhood, the country had already had to suppress two native and Metis (mixed blood) uprisings led by Louis Riel in first Saskatchewan and then Manitoba. The silver lining of those rebellions was they had hastened the building of the trans-continental railway. Riel and his followers had been able to win their fight in Saskatchewan because the government hadn't been able to get troops out their fast enough to combat them.

Not willing to let that happen again, Canada's first, and third, Prime Minister, Sir John A. MacDonald, made it his personal pledge that a railway would be built that connected the country. He won the first election because of that promise, lost the second because of the corruption involved in attempting to build it, and won the third when it became obvious he was the only one who was going to be able to force the thing to be built.

You can build a railway, but you can't force people to ride on it. Canada began to actively recruit immigrants by sending representatives to countries with similar environments as the Western provinces. Forty acres, a mule, a bag of seed, and free transport (something along those lines anyway) were wealth beyond reckoning for landless peasants in the Ukraine.

They would travel by boat to Montreal, Quebec, be given the deed to their land, vouchers for their goods, and packed onto the first train heading west. A week later, they were standing on their homestead somewhere in the middle of either Alberta, Saskatchewan, or Manitoba – a minimum of a hundred and one miles from the nearest rail line. (One of the deals that lost MacDonald the second election was giving the Canadian Pacific consortium one hundred miles of land on either side of the rail line as payment for building the railroad)

Although the cities did gradually fill up with immigrants, the level of labour unrest in Canada never approached what it did in the U.S. due to the lack of industry. What did ferment couldn't be easily blamed on immigrants (Yankee organizers on the other hand were a great scapegoat), as their numbers weren't sufficient to be a threat. Policies that restricted immigration heavily in favour of people from the British Isles, and a desperate need for population growth would have made it counter productive anyway.

Visible minorities were kept to a minimum because of draconian head tax laws that required Asians and Indians pay for each member of their family brought over so they never appeared to be a "problem". Therefore, Canada never really experienced the influx of immigration that the United States did, until after World War Two.

Even then, it was often a matter of the government actively searching to fill a void in our labour market. For the building of the St. Lawrence Seaway, the Toronto Subway System, and the rest of the construction boom of the 1950's, the country needed a fast influx of skilled labourers. Since Canada was doing the soliciting, and not the other way around, there was never going to be a question of demonizing the immigrant, and with worker's rights firmly entrenched, there wasn't any reason to.

Up through the 1960's it was easy to portray Canada as a happy, multicultural paradise without having to do anything but leave people alone. Slavery had been abolished in Canada long before it had in the United States meaning we never had the civil rights battles here that divided America. We had safely stowed our Natives on reservations that kept them out of site and mind, and bigotry was polite and British; it never showed on the surface – because it wasn't proper. All that would change in the seventies because of events in the outside world.

This is the end of part one of my look at Immigration and Multiculturalism in Canada and the United States

November 14, 2007

Book Review: In Search Of The Thunder Dragon Sophie and Romio Shrestha

Have you been in the children's section of your bookstore recently? I know I don't normally wander through it, as I don't have children in my life to buy stuff for. However, on occasion I've found my eye being caught by something spectacular and been reeled in like the proverbial fish on the line. Once entrapped I have a difficult time escaping without making a purchase, in fact I'm lucky to get out without burning holes in my credit card.

Children's books have really changed. Searching through my dusty memories of childhood, I've distinct memories of monochromatic pages occasionally alleviated by pastel washes of colour. Of course, the majority of books in those dark ages hailed from the British Isles and exotica were considered ancient Rudjard Kippling stories of "Inja". Elaborate and scary paintings of fear stricken "natives" cowering behind the stalwart British soldier, facing down tigers and cobras were standard adornment no matter what the story; I suppose they were considered to embody all the virtues of the Empire, but I usually hoped the tiger would rip the soldiers throat out.

You only have to walk down one aisle to see the difference time can make for the better. I'm now surrounded by smiling faces of children from lands that I didn't even know existed when I was a child. Even better is the fact that these children either don't have to have any white children around to justify their existence, or they are teaching the little blond haired girl on the cover about their world. When I see that I feel like the world might have a chance and can forget for a moment that the majority of people still want to kill what they don't understand.
In Search Of The Thunder Dragon.jpg
Thankfully, some adults don't think that way and are actively trying to teach the next generations to be like them. The adults who do that best draw upon their own traditions and tell the stories their people created for children. Most of the world's older cultures are replete with tales and adventures easily adapted into stories that can teach children about other people and places.

In Search Of The Thunder Dragon, written and illustrated by Sophie and Romio Shrestha, (published by Mandala Publishing and distributed in Canada by Publisher's Group Canada) is a beautiful example of this. The small Himalayan Kingdom of Bhutan, also known as the land of The Thunder Dragon, is the country being explored in this book.

When a young girl, Amber, travels to Bhutan with her father for the first time she learns about the Thunder Dragons, and together with her cousin sets out to find them. While the story is fun and exciting – who wouldn't want to ride on the back of a flying tiger and soar through the clouds with Thunder Dragons – the manner in which the authors have been able to work in facts about life in Bhutan is equally well done.

For instance, we learn that Bhutanese people live in extended families because Amber stays with her cousin Tashi, who lives with his parents and grandparents. We also learn that elders are considered repositories of knowledge, because the first person Amber and Tashi ask about the Thunder Dragons is their grandfather. Throughout the whole quest little things like that come out in the story – without being shoved down anyone's throat.

That was probably the most pleasant surprise of all about this book – it was just a story. It doesn't insult the intelligence of its readers by assuming that everything has to be spelled out for them just because they are young, and it doesn't ruin the story by preaching a "message". One of the worst reactions to the children's literature of my day was when writers forgot that the whole idea behind story telling was to stimulate the imagination not deliver a sermon. A good story should give a child the right tools to figure things out on their own, not hit them over the head with a hammer.
Romio Shrestha.jpg
The artwork in In Search Of The Thunder Dragon is spectacular, so it's not surprising to find out that co-author Romio Shrestha was born in Bhutan. as well as a world-renowned painter of traditional thankas; the sacred scrolls depicting scenes of wonder in the Buddhist faith. Samples of his work hang in museums around the world including The British Museum, The Victoria & Albert Museum in London, and the American Museum of Natural History. So not only is he eminently qualified to write about Bhutan, but you know that his illustrations are going to be culturally accurate.

This story was based on a trip Romio took to Bhutan with his eldest daughter Amber and the wonderful time she had there. This explains how the authors have been able to capture the child-eye's view their writing depicts so well. The sense of wonder that pervades the book reflects that viewpoint, and is a refreshing change from the cynical ways children are too often depicted in our media and culture. These aren't ten-year-old kids made to sound like miniature adults with the joy and wonder hammered out of them.

Perhaps that's not a very realistic view of our world, but who knows how children are in Bhutan. Anyway, this is a work of fiction and if the authors want to create a world where a child's eyes can still be opened wide in wonder, more power to them. The last thing children need in this world is more reality and they certainly could stand a little more enchantment.

If you're looking for a book to read to, and with your child, or even one that he or she could read on their own, In Search Of The Thunder Dragon would be perfect. It's beautifully illustrated with a straightforward narration that's understandable without being condescending. All in all, the perfect book for people who have just started reading, or for those of us who've been reading for a while.

It's a really good thing I don't have to buy books like this for children –I wouldn't be able to give them up.

November 13, 2007

Blissful Ignorance

Anybody who has ever experienced the loss of someone they loved dearly probably understands the feeling of wondering why the world didn't come to a screeching halt with the person's death. How can it be business as usual when he's dead? What does it matter what the latest gossip is about some Hollywood or Bollywood star when she's dead?

Well that's how I feel all the time. How can people be so complacent in the face of what we are putting the planet and her people through? In North America I'd hazard a guess and say the nine out of ten people are somehow actively hastening the destruction. Every time one person climbs behind the wheel of an SUV to just drive around the city by themselves they are increasing the demand for fuel and replacing oxygen in the air with carbon dioxide.

How about living in a world where we reached critical mass in population years ago, but millions of people still believe that practicing birth control of any kind is sinful. Isn't it a worse sin to have children come into a world where they are not wanted or there isn't enough food to feed them? How many children die of starvation each day? How many are neglected, emotionally, physically, or sexually abused because there's nobody who cares anymore?

In 2005 the world watched in horror as first New Orleans was devastated by Hurricane Katrina that forced thousands upon thousands of people to become refugees. Three months latter the Indian Ocean exploded with tsunami that destroyed villages and coastal towns forcing hundreds of thousands of people into temporary camps and shelters. Concert were given, speeches were made, and money was raised to try and help the people in both locations rebuilt their lives.

Instead of housing being rebuilt and lives resurrected the land where fishing villages have stood for generations is being sold to developers to make hotel /condominium complexes that cater to the rich tourist trade. This government sanctioned land theft (a government official in India called it a "golden opportunity") is echoed in New Orleans where the city is refusing to repair any flood damage until people come home.

But how can people come home if they have no homes, and no infrastructure to serve them. According to Naomi Klein in her book The Shock Doctrine if the government has their way the people will never come home and the whole area will be converted into private housing well out of the range of it's original inhabitants' pocketbooks.

Is anybody keeping track of all the countries where we are killing each other? Iraq and Afghanistan of course come to mind first because we in the West are involved in those ones so they "merit" our attention. Does anybody remember the reason that George had for invading Iraq – Weapons of Mass Destruction that nobody has yet to find a trace of.

Has anybody asked why George is so determined to keep spending the lives of his citizens on a daily basis in Iraq? It wouldn't be because they haven't finished stripping the country of all her assets could it. That they aren't going to leave until they've sold off every scrap of useful property and service to the people who bought him power has become increasingly obvious to everybody but the United States public.

Over the years, North Americas have perfected the ability to be completely self-absorbed and ignorant of the world around them. Until of course the minute it affects them. We hide behind our gadgets and our noise so that we can't see or hear anything around us until its far too late and somebody flies an airplane into our buildings.

It's our behaviour out in the rest of the world, or at least the behaviour of those whom people take to be our representatives that goes a long way towards creating resentment. When the multinationals come in and strip mine a country of its natural resources the locals don't think too fondly of them or the country they come from.

Since they were allowed into the country in the first place because the International Monetary Fund (IMF) made the government sell off nationally owned assets at a penny to the dollar there's bound to be a little local resentment. Especially since the IMF also makes governments stop spending money on infrastructure and social services like education and health.

Yet, I'm sure if you were to ask, the majority of people in North America would have no idea that the IMF policies worked to take money out of the countries they were supposed to be helping. If we don't become aware of what's being done by agencies in the control of our governments to other countries soon we won't understand why they are so upset with us half the time.

I don't believe I have any special powers, or am I super intelligent, but I try to keep myself up to date about what is happening in the world. Doing so makes me realize that while not on the verge of complete disaster, our situation is precarious. It also makes me want to walk down the street shaking people to let know that there is something beyond their iPods and iPhones that they need to start worrying about.

November 2, 2007

No More Conversations

Don't you just hate people who force themselves upon you when you want to be left alone? You're sitting somewhere reading a book or just taking some quiet time and they come tromping up and start yakking away at you without even asking if you want company. They assume because you are sitting by yourself that you need to be rescued from the misery of sitting alone.

Of course these are the same people who when asking, "How are you?" are really saying "I'm going to tell you about my life whether you like it or not". So not only do they interrupt your peace and solitude they then proceed to tell you in piteous tones about how horrible their life is. Once started nothing can dissuade them from their path either; you could get out your book and start reading it again and they would still assume that at least a part of you was paying attention to them.

When you finally surrender to the inevitable and get up to leave, they say with complete sincerity, "It was great talking with you". The fact that it should have been "talking at you" has of course completely escaped their notice. But then what did you expect; a conversation that ran two ways?

According to my friends at Funk & Wagnalls Standard Dictionary a conversation is an informal talk with another or others. The key word in that sentence is in my opinion "with". Nowhere does it say anything about "an informal talk to" others where one party simply holds forth while all others are supposed to listen. I don't about anybody else but where I come from that sort of thing is called a lecture, or if you're being generous a monologue.

How many supposed conversations have you taken part in recently where your sole job is to be the listener? In fact if dare to interject your own opinion on a subject you're treated with a look that could cause paint to bubble and peal. If that weren't bad enough, there's the opposite end of the spectrum where your "opponent" treats a conversation like a game of chess, and he or she keep trying to outmanoeuvre you so they can win by ensuring they have the last word on every subject.

Of course there is also the more common non-conversation –conversation where everyone seems in competition to see who can say as little as possible using as many words as possible? These chats usually start with the common inanities about weather and never get much deeper then that. You might get some in depth commentary on the state of ring tones, or which camera phone is best but if you're looking for anything of substance... your best off looking elsewhere

It wouldn't be so bad if most of these conversations weren't carried out by intelligent people who have a lot on the ball and could probably offer intelligent perspectives on most of today's issues if they cared to. What's truly unfortunate is that far too many people have begun to believe that to show you're smart or even informed is a bad thing.

It used to be only women felt like they had to dumb themselves down in order not to scare the men in their lives. While some men have gotten over that particular fear, society itself seems to have come over all nervous about people with intelligence. While being obviously smart has never made anyone very popular, it never used to make you quite the object of scorn and ridicule that you are now a days. In fact being smart has almost been made out as some thing abnormal and dangerous. Hey the bad guys in movies are always evil geniuses who end up being "out smarted" by the simple, but right thinking, good guy.

Now with everything being played to the lowest common denominator, from popular culture to political policy, showing yourself to have a brain has become even less desirable. Understandably people don't want to make public displays of intelligence among their peer groups when there is the very real possibility of being ostracized.

I find it ironic that in these days of high tech communication where we can transmit messages instantaneously across thousands of miles that something as simple as talking the person beside you has become increasingly difficult. Maybe it's because we don't have as much human contact as we once did, or maybe it's because we have so many more things to pass the time with that we simply don't bother to develop the skills that allow us to communicate verbally – or practice them enough so that they are refined for use.

Whatever the reason all I know is that it's becoming harder and harder to find people who you can talk with. Conversations have become a thing of the past with people either using them as excuses for monologues or as vehicles to exchange inanities.

October 31, 2007

No Excuse For Addictions

You don't know how much of an asshole you've been as an addict until after you're well into recovery. It's one of the more crushing of the revelations you have to deal with when the scales finally drop from your eyes and you see just what a self-centred, whining, little git you've been. If it wasn't about you it hadn't mattered, and didn't everyone know that the world revolved around you anyway?

Oh there are all sorts of excuses for becoming an addict, I should know having used most of them with varying degrees of justification over the years, but there aren't any excuses for the behaviour and other shit that you did while addicted to whatever it was you needed to make your existence seem meaningful. It's amazing the rationale you can come up with for stealing anything you need to feed your habit, and the lies you tell yourself to pretend that it's not stealing.

I mean to replace this, I really will replace this money as soon as I'm able, I'm owed this money so it's not really stealing, look at all I do, if there were any justice in the world this would be my money anyway. Nothing like the self-righteous resentment of an addict, it allows you to justify anything.

Then of course there is the unpredictable behaviour of addicts. Talk to anybody who grew up the child of a drunk and they'll say one of the most vivid memories they have of childhood is being told to be quiet and not do anything that might upset the drunk. There's always the potential for violence when you're dealing with some drunks, and the not knowing, walking around on tender hooks when you're around them, is almost worse than any violence they might perpetrate.

I don't normally wallow in those parts of my life that I'm not proud of; it doesn't serve any purpose that I can see. I've always thought people who spend their time talking about what drunks and drug addicts they were still haven't recovered because they still want the world to revolve around them. Oh poor them they were drunks and we should all feel sorry for them.

As far as I'm concerned, the only people anyone should feel sorry for are the people who suffered because of their actions as a drunk or a drug addict. Nobody can say they didn't know what they were doing when they took their first drink, stuck that first needle in their arm or whatever. It was their choice to live like that and if they had wanted to stop they would have.

What, you think they had no control, that they couldn't stop? Anybody who tells you that is a liar. How do you think they stopped when they finally did? They did so because they were able to and chose to, not because anybody forced them to. Unfortunately, the truth of the matter is that usually the only way an addict stops is because of the most selfish act of all – self-preservation.

If they had cared about the effects of their action on the people they supposedly loved they would never ever have started in the first place, or at least stopped when they first realized the pain they were causing. So there is nothing saintly about anybody making the choice to go clean, and if anybody even implies otherwise they're lying. But as it's the only way most of us have of getting clean, I guess we should be grateful that at least one of our negative characteristics can be responsible for helping us to at least start to heal.

Making the decision to go clean is of course only the first step; you still have to do it after all and that's where things get difficult. Not just because of your own desires, cravings, wants, or whatever you want to call them, but because we have to live in one of the most addicted societies in the world. In fact, most of our economy is built upon the premise that we are addicted to the products that are produced by our manufacturing sector.

Every media outlet we watch, read, or, listen to is filled with advertisements trying to convince us why we should spend money on their product not somebody else's. All the commercials we hear act as though it's not a question as to whether you are going to spend money, if you have it or not, but to convince you to spend it on their version of

Of course than there's the way we treat the rest of the world, as if we are the be all and end all and everything revolves around us. Between Canada and the United States, we account for the most fossil fuels and other non-renewable resources used per capita annually and we produce the most non-biodegradable waste per person. Most of us don't even have the decency to be embarrassed by these facts, preferring to point out how environmentally conscious we are because we participate in our communities recycling programs and on Earth Day we pick up garbage in our neighbourhoods.

Of course, the rest of the world also has to give us everything we need to ensure that we can continue to live like we do. If they don' we'll just come and take it. Remember what I said about not wanting to piss off the drunken family member because of the potential for violence? Well the majority of the world treats us like we're that belligerent bully, trying to keep us appeased so we don't get mad at them and get violent. All they have to do is look at what we've done to Afghanistan and Iraq recently, and other places around the world prior to that, to have a fair idea of what happens to anyone who defies us.

One of the things they tell you when you stop drinking and doing drugs is your going to have to change the people you hang out with. You're going to discover that you're not going to have very much in common with them anyway. What's even harder then that to cope with though, is how much you have to change the way you live period in order to rid yourself of addictive behaviour.

There are no half measures, you can't just stop drinking or doing drugs and not deal with the behaviour that are characteristic of the addict. It means changing yourself significantly at a personal level in terms of the way you treat people and the world in general. You can no longer assume the position of being the centre of the universe, or act without thinking about the consequences of your actions.

Simply going from one day to the next without having a drink or doing drugs is not stopping being an addict; it's stopping drinking and doing drugs, which although admirable, hasn't done anything to cure you of the problems that started you doing them in the first place. It will only be by figuring out the root causes of your addiction that you'll be able to start dealing with the behaviour that is the result of being an addict.

There's never an excuse for being an addict, but there's always an explanation.

October 30, 2007

Jay Gordon: A Different Type Of Hero

I just finished re-reading two of my favourite books, the first two parts of the Eldarn Trilogy by Robert Scott and Jay Gordon, The Hickory Staff and Lessek's Key, in anticipation of the publication of book three of the The Larion Senate. For some reason I happened to glance at the acknowledgement page in Lessek's Key and realized I must not have done so before. I'm sure I would have remembered seeing my name prominently displayed in the acknowledgments before.

After the initial thrill of seeing my name in print passed (hey you never know when and if it will ever happen again, so you clutch at some pretty paltry straws in the name of providing balm to a bleeding ego), I finished reading why my name along with three others were being offered separate distinction.

Last year (2005), while Jay and I were busy telling Steven Taylor's story, there were many people who took time to tell Jay's. His family and I are indebted to all of them by my sincerest appreciation goes to Heather Nicholson, Tali Israeli, Sam Altman, and Richard Marcus...I know Jay appreciated their efforts as well. Acknowledgment Lessek's Key Robert Scot and Jay Gordon

Jay M. Gordon was diagnosed with Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis (ALS) or Lou Gerig's Disease in 2002 and shortly after began work on the writing of the Eldarn Sequence with his son in law Robert Scott. When he died in November of 2005 The Hickory Staff had just been published, Lessek's Key had been handed in to the publishers, and the first draft of The Larion Senate had been finished. What had started as, "I've always wanted to do this and since I now have the time" project ended up becoming an Orion/Gollancz publisher's bestseller garnering praise from critics on both sides of the Atlantic. (Unfortunately Orion had not managed to secure American distribution rights at the time of Jay's death and as it stands I'm still not certain if you can purchase any of the series in his home country)

I've written about Jay before – hence the acknowledgement – but there had to have been a reason for me being so forcibly reminded of Jay again. Perhaps it's the time of the year, when the days are shortening, and what so many call the "Days Of The Dead" approaching; days that we set aside to remember and honour those who dispensed with the encumbrance of their physical form.

Of course, that could all just be a bunch of metaphysical horseshit, but I do know that ever since I read the acknowledgement a few days ago I've wanted to write about Jay again. With all the bullshit you read about people with guns killing other people being heroes, I thought it might be nice for people to be reminded what real heroism is. Although I'm sure Jay probably would have denied being any sort of hero, most people who perform acts of heroism on a daily basis usually aren't aware of it anyway, because to them it's called life.

I live with a body that can't do all I want it do because of a medical condition, and I know the frustrations that I experience. However, that pales in comparison when I try to imagine what Jay had to cope with for the last year or so of his life. ALS destroys your body but leaves your mind intact. Depending on how lucky you are the deterioration of your body will proceed quickly and include your vital organs so your death isn't lingering and your suffering is minimal.

Unfortunately, for a lot of people that's not the case and they will experience muscle failure sufficient to incapacitate them to the point where they can not even sit up on their own or talk for an extended period before the release offered by death. Think about what total muscle failure entails on top of that.

It's like being returned to being a newborn with none of the benefits. You can't support your own head to even sit, let alone turn it from side to side, if you're lucky you might be able to move your eyes so you can read a book. But of course you hands don't work so how are you going to turn the pages? Holding a conversation is difficult when your jaw can't open and close on it's own because the muscles don't work anymore. You'll be lucky if you don't just sit there with your mouth hanging open.

Communication is reduced to spelling out words on a tablet with a pointer held in the mouth when you still can hold things with your teeth, then what?. Losing all muscle control means losing all muscle control, and that of course includes bowel and bladder, which means you are forced to endure the indignity of wearing a diaper on top of everything else.

Its also more then likely that your lungs won't work on their own, so you will have one tube that will be constantly sucking fluid out of them, and another tube up your nose that will be continually forcing air into them. If your lungs don't work, there's a really good chance that your swallowing mechanism has failed and your oesophagus won't carry food into your stomach anymore. That means another tube up your nose that's carrying some sort of liquid puree to give you enough of whatever to keep you alive.

Maybe I've over exaggerated the symptoms, and by that time everything fails like that, you will be dead, but if that were the case, you wouldn't have people who asked to be put out of their misery through assisted suicide. They are so incompetent they can't put the pills in their mouth, let alone swallow them, than I would think that they are dealing with substantial system failure.

The other thing is that the whole time this is going on you are also in pain because your nervous system has been damaged. When you have any type of Sclerosis or Dystrophy, what happens is your system is still trying to send the messages to your body to do what it's supposed to do. When it gets no reaction, it thinks something is wrong.

Remember pain is the brain's means of letting you know there is something not working properly, or that something needs fixing. Therefore, when it realizes nothing is working it responds in the only way it knows how, by sending out pain signals. If the condition doesn't improve, it keeps trying to send out the message that there is a problem, and it keeps getting louder and louder, increasingly painful.

In spite of this, Jay kept working on the Eldarn sequence to almost the end. According to Robert, even when Jay couldn't write he was contributing by providing feedback on the chapters that Robert would write. That way Robert was able to stay on track with what information needed to be revealed and when. Jay's name is not listed as author as a courtesy; he was one half of a two person writing team that created one of the better fantasy trilogies I've read in a number of years.

I struggle everyday to find the words sufficient to write articles like this. I can't even begin to understand what Jay would have to overcome mentally, emotionally, and physically to do what he did everyday just by opening his eyes and dealing with his situation. The fact that he was able to help in the creation of anything is amazing, that it was good enough to be published it incredible, and that it is superior to so much of what on the market today is nothing short of miraculous.

So where ever you are right now Jay, I'm waiting as patiently as I can for part three of the Eldarn Sequence to be released and thank you for being a really bright spark of light in a world where there are far too many fake stars.

October 25, 2007

Book Review: "They Called Me Meyar July: Painted Memories Of A Jewish Childhood In Poland Before The Holocaust Mayer Kishenblatt and Barbara Kirshenblatt-Gimblett

In 1980, my mother and I moved into an apartment in the neighbourhood she had spent a large part of her childhood. Forty-seven years earlier when she'd been brought home from the hospital five blocks south of where she now lived just north of Spadina and College in Toronto Ontario. In 1933, Cecile Street and it's environs, The Kensington Market area of Toronto, was still primarily Jewish, and home to a good many immigrant families who had fled Europe one if not two generations ago.

Although some families had already gained a good enough measure of success by this time for Jewish enclaves to be established in slightly more affluent areas of the city, Kensington Market was still home to a large percentage of the city's Jewish population. By this time, many families had children like my mother who represented a second generation born in Canada but life remained hard for them. It was the middle of the depression and work was scarce, especially for minority immigrants.

When I used to walk through the neighbourhood in the early eighties when we moved back you, could still see traces of the old community. A sign on an old building advertising a kosher butcher, or a house on a back street that was still an active synagogue, reminders of an earlier time when a village had moved over together and people had done their best to create a familiar atmosphere in a foreign environment.

In the years from my mother's birth leading up to September 1939 when the German's invaded Poland, a thin trickle of new immigrants arrived with whispers of a new pogrom, far worse then any the Tsars had conducted, being carried out by the Nazis. It is to Canada's and the United States' eternal shame that they refused to lift their quota's on how many Jews were allowed entry at that time in spite of having impartial reports confirming the round up of Jewish people in Germany and the confiscating of all their property.
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Mayer Kershenblatt was one of the lucky ones who got out before the war started, and came to Canada from the village of Apt in Poland in 1934. When he had a family of his own he would regale them with tales of life in the Jewish community in the small city to the point that later in life his daughter, Barbara Kirshenblatt-Gimblett, encouraged him to try and bring the people and places to life through paintings.

It wasn't until one day when he was meeting some friends and realized that no matter what happened their conversation would turn to reliving their days in the concentration camps. It was as if no life existed before the war for any of them. In his introduction to,They Called Me Mayer July: Painted Memories Of A Jewish Childhood In Poland Before The Holocaust, Mayer recounts these conversations as being the motivation for finally surrendering to his daughter's wishes that he set brush to canvas in an attempt to preserve the memory of Jewish life before the war in Poland.

At seventy-three Mayer started to attend drawing and painting classes in order to create a visual record of the time. His method for a painting was simple he says, first he needed a subject, and then the subject had to have a story attached; either one he knew first hand, was told by fellow citizens of Apt, or that had been written down in the "Apt Chronicles" the memorial book of his town.

When people began to show significant interest in the paintings; an exhibition and offers to buy work surely count as interest, Mayer and Barbara began to piece together the stories of life in Apt he had been telling her since her childhood to work as complements to the paintings. They Called Me Mayer July: Painted Memories Of A Jewish Childhood In Poland Before The Holocaust, published by University Of California Press, is the end result of their joint efforts to ensure that the life of a vibrant community won't vanish from our memories like the smoke from a chimney dissipated in the wind.

The narrative and the paintings are all from the viewpoint of a child, but filtered through an adults understanding of how the world works. What could have easily turned into an exercise in sentimental nostalgia for something that never existed, is instead a steadfastly honest depiction filled with the excitement and wonder that a child bears for the world.

On the one hand, we experience the author's joy at adventuring out into the millpond in a small skiff with his friends and pretending to be pirates, much as children the world over create imaginary worlds for themselves. However, we also read of the tenements where families sleep five to a bed while sharing a room with two or three other families. This is no simplistic singing of praises to the good old days that suggests we would all be better off if we only lived like they did back then.

Things that we take for granted now, such as a ready and easy supply of water, aren't available to the people of Apt. Either they hire a porter to carry the water to them as required or they make the trip to one of the town's two wells. Mayer describes in detail all of those who congregate at the water, from the town prostitute, the soldiers from the local barracks, and of course the housewives who would also stay to exchange the latest gossip.
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At first glance, the illustrations appear to be simplistic; work that any grade school student might have done with his or her mother's fridge door the intended gallery. But on closer inspection you realize you are looking at work of a sophistication that belies it's appearance. The detail that is included in each of the works is astounding, from the wall murals that decorate the interior of the synagogue to the elaborate ritual of the Black Marriage staged in the Jewish cemetery.

Of my mother's family it was her father's Romanian people whose stories I was most familiar with. Her mother's Polish family was always something of a mystery. I never heard stories of what their life was like for them back in Poland in spite of the fact that all my grandmother's brothers and sisters were born there. But after reading, and experiencing They Called Me Mayer July: Painted Memories Of A Jewish Childhood In Poland Before The Holocaust I can image in my head the streets they may have walked down before they came to Canada.

In the past century there have been attempts to erase various peoples from the annals of world history. From the Armenians and Kurds in the Middle East, indigenous peoples throughout the world, to the Holocaust. As a result, we run the risk of losing the stories of these people's lives in specific places and times. Each people are a unique strand in the tapestry that make up who so many of us are today that to allow those stories to vanish would be to throw away a piece of our selves.

Mayer Kirshenblatt and Barbara Kirshenblatt –Gmblet have given the world the precious gift of bringing the town of Apt back to life. Leafing through the pages of They Called Me Mayer July you can almost hear the sound of the Klezmar band as they perform in accompaniment to the Purim Play "A Krakow Wedding". As Mayer is peeking through a window in his painting of this scene to try and catch a glimpse of the performance, we are peeking through the window of his eyes catching glimpses of what life was like in Poland for Jews before it was ended so horifically.

No on can bring the past back to life, or reverse the course of time and history, but we can strive to ensure that people are not forgotten and that their memories are cherished. As long as one copy of They Called Me Mayer July exists the people of Apt Poland will live on indefinitely. Now that's a blessing.

October 18, 2007

Change And Fear Of The New

Routines are something all of us depend on, if it wasn't for routine, I'm sure half of us wouldn't be able to get out the door and get to work everyday. You get up and you go through the same sequence of activities that you do every other weekday, from going to the bathroom at the same times each morning to eating your toast only after finishing reading last night's game results in the sports section.

Your routine is all about timing, without even knowing it probably, it's your routine that ensures your day runs like clockwork. Each little component just naturally fits into the one that follows it, in your mind at least – others may not appreciate the connection between the second cigarette and the trip to the bathroom – but for you they are all essential cogs in what makes you tick along.

God forbid anything should go wrong in the routine; you're screwed if it does. One day the paper isn't delivered and you go to eat your breakfast and you can't figure out when to eat your toast, drink your coffee, or have your cigarettes. You get so flustered that you lose track of time and you leave home late and miss the bus you usually take to work.

Because you missed that bus, you don't have time to have one more cigarette before you go into the office for the morning and that means you're distracted and in a rush. You go through security and forget that you have to sign in everyday, and they stop you and make a big deal of reminding you, even though it's the same two jerks who've seen you for seven years, five days a week.

So now you've been held up as a figure of ridicule and you're late for work, something you haven't been in all your years of working for this company. Of course today is the day that the CEO has decided to make an example of people who are habitually tardy, and you happen to burst into the office conspicuous in your lateness, just as he's half way through his speech to the assembled office staff on how much it costs the corporation in dollars and cents for every minute a person is late.

Fuck, right about then you wish the floor would just drop out from under you as you make your into the room with the eyes of all fixed upon you like lazar beams. The day of course gets progressively worse, because by now you're as jumpy as cokehead at a southern cop convention and when your boss comes up behind you to commiserate over what happened, he startles you so much that you throw your coffee at him.

As that went down such a treat, you decide to spend the rest of your day finding ways to screw up that defy believability. You have no logical explanation for why you were caught with your fly stuck in the fax machine's send button or one arm past the second bend inside the pop machine on the second floor. By the end of the day you're just grateful not to have been fired and to still be alive (the bit when you were about to board the elevator only to find when the doors opened the elevator had gone somewhere else will feature in nightmares for weeks you figure)

It really makes you wonder how much of history has hinged on somebody's routine being screwed with and them ending up having an awful day. Maybe Caesar's paper wasn't delivered on that fateful 15th of March when he ended up looking like a pincushion? Who knows, he might have had it a little more together and noticed the guys closing in on him with knives drawn if only he hadn't had his routine messed up?

Is it any wonder than with routine being so important that most of us are terrified of change? Routine represents order and control, a way of ensuring that we know exactly what will happen at almost any given moment of the day. If we change anything about our routine, it means we open ourselves up to the possibility of anything happening, or at least something that's never happened before.

But the real problem is that there is always a part of us that desires change; that is frustrated and bored with the day in and day out routine of our lives. It might not be something that we are even aware of, but periodically it will express itself either through depression or what we call a mid-life crisis. In the latter case, a person will let the pent up frustration act as a catalyst for making a drastic change in their circumstances. Its most common expression usually comes in the form of leaving a longstanding partner and establishing a new and supposedly different relationship.

The depression usually comes about due to our inability to make changes in our life. It's not unusual for this to coincide with the Fall, all around there are visible signs of the world changing, while you're staying the same. I know people usually link seasonal depression to the depletion of light as winter approaches, but the loss of light is just one indication of the overall changing of the season.

The majority of cultures still consider Fall the end of one year and the beginning of a new. It's the period in temperate climates when our year's growth is ready for harvest and the world is preparing to become dormant. It doesn't matter how far removed we are from the rhythm of the planet; Fall is one of the few changes we can't help but notice as everything around us appears to be dying.

What more tangible reminder could you want of how life is passing you by than seeing the world change while you stay stuck in the same routine that you've followed for years? All of a sudden, what seemed like comfort and safety becomes a trap from which there appears to be no escape. Is it any wonder that people become depressed?

Yet, we continue to fear and resist change as something dangerous and unwanted in spite of the evidence that change is good for us. Maybe if Julius Cesar had walked a different route to the Senate that day and come in an hour earlier or later then normal he wouldn't have been bumped off?

After that horrific day at the office where everything had gone wrong, because your routine had been screwed up, you decide you can never face those people again. You accept a severance package and take a year off work in which you finally write that book you've always meant to. You're happier then you ever were and you discover that you quickly establish a routine wherein your able to do a certain amount of writing each day and have plenty of time for yourself.

Of course, if anything happens to mess up that routine...

October 16, 2007

Willing And Disabled

When someone says they are disabled what does that make you think? Do you automatically get a vision of a person who is confined to a wheelchair? What do you think if you meet a person who has been described as suffering from a disability but they have nothing discernibly wrong with them?

Do you find yourself stealing glances at them when they're not looking to see if you can spot what's wrong with them? Like they might have an extra arm they've secreted around their person, or some other sort of deformity that you failed to notice at first glance? Do you talk to them slowly and in short sentences because maybe they suffer from a mental deficiency that has robbed them of some of their intellect? Or, do you worry that they are suffering from a mental illness and every time they laugh you check them for hysterics or other signs of an unstable mind?

When you suffer from a chronic condition that is disabling to the extent that you can't work, but that hasn't incapacitated you completely, you get used to a wide variety of reactions. I get the feeling that some folk are disappointed on meeting me when they discover that I look like a reasonable facsimile of normal. I'm not missing any limbs, nor am I in a wheelchair, foaming at the mouth, falling down in fits, or bursting into tears inconsolably for no reason what so ever.

If you meet me at home the only thing you'd notice out of the ordinary is that I don't seem to be able to sit for any length of time, or that I spend a lot of time stretched out in bed. Other than that, around the house I don't seem any less capable then the next person. Of course you don't know that I haven't been able to get into a shower for close to five years on my own, or any of the other things that happen behind the scenes that are the result of my symptoms.

To be fair I'm just as capable of forgetting myself as they are of misinterpreting my appearance. When you've established a routine that allows you to utilize what few resources you have to maximum efficiency it can be easy to forget that you suffer from limitations. It's only when you push the boundaries of your comfort level that you are forcibly reminded that you are disabled.

What's really upsetting is that no matter how many times this happens, each time is as unpleasant as it was the first time. Somehow or other I forget the previous experiences and suffer through the disappointment and frustration of the failure with the same intensity. It could be something as simple as not resting in the afternoon for a couple days in a row and forgetting what happens as a result, or the difference between writing while sitting up at a desk and lying in bed writing on my laptop that shoves my face in it.

It doesn't matter what the cause is, because the result is the same, and it takes a number of days to recover both physically and psychologically enough to get back on that even keel where I look "normal". While the body doesn't usually take any more time to heal from one occasion to another, the head is another story. The less it takes to remind me of my disability, the harder it is to overcome it's debilitating effects psychologically.

As I have a chronic pain condition caused by damage to the muscle wall of my pelvis, there is normally a direct correlation between the amount of physical activity I do and the amount of pain that I'm in. When I can logically tell myself that I'm feeling worse today then yesterday because of what I did I have no trouble accepting the consequences, and can usually believe I'll be better in a day or two.

But sometimes there is no logical reason that I can see for the pain to increase, and in those circumstances the feelings of frustration are such that it is difficult to believe myself capable of accomplishing the simplest of tasks. That is a dangerous place to find myself in, because those times are when it would be easiest to surrender to the condition and let it define my life completely.

Nobody expects a disabled person to do anything; you're given an allowance by the government and pretty much forgotten about after that, except when they decide to check and see if you're still incapacitated. (As a friend of mine who had lost the majority of one hand in an industrial accident put it – they want to make sure my hand hasn't grown back) So, if I were to retire to my bed for the rest of my life to take analgesics and gradually turn into a vegetable I'd merely be fulfilling everyone's expectations.

People talk of acceptance, as in accepting your limitations or accepting who you are and your situation in life. But what you have to decide is what you are willing to accept. Since I'm not willing to accept the definition of disabled as being unable, while at the same time I can't say that I'm fully able, I have had to develop my own standard of what is acceptable.

The hardest thing to accept, and I still don't do a very good job of this, is that there are times when there will be rationale explanation for how I'm feeling. It won't matter if I had done barely anything or walked two miles the day before, and I'll still barely be able to get out of bed and need to take my pain medication on a regular basis. On those days, I have to accept that I can't do very much and that it would be foolish to make the effort and waste the energy.

At the same time, I have to accept that it will require a little extra effort on my part even on the good days to do the things that I want to. If I want to write, I will have to exert myself to focus through the pain, but learn how to pace myself so that I don't overdo it one day and end up unable to accomplish anything the next day. Since some days it's impossible to tell how difficult it will be to accomplish anything, I have to be willing to accept the fact that I could have to stop what I'm doing, whether I want to or not, at a moment's notice.

What it comes down to in the end is having the ability to accept the fact that I can't predict from day to day how I'm going to be, and that I have to accept whatever it is each day gives me, whether I like it or not. It's either that or become what most people imagine a disabled person to be; and that's unacceptable.

October 9, 2007

Family Obligation

In Canada we start the family obligation - holiday season a lot earlier than our neighbours to the South. This weekend that just past was our version of the Thanksgiving holiday weekend, and while it doesn't start the official opening of the panic before Christmas, it does mark the beginning of the long descent into family hell.

Does that sound a wee bit bitter? Could be because it is. Now I'm not saying that there aren't families who genuinely enjoy each other's company, and look forward to the times they get together as a single unit. However, isn't it about time we acknowledge that there are an equal number who would as soon skinny dip with piranhas as spend "quality time" with their families.

Why is it that we consider the family unit so sacred in the first place? True there are other examples in the animal kingdom of families staying together; prides of lions, wolf packs, and troops of the great apes and monkeys are either made up of family groups or are a family unto themselves. But that's largely due to their need for either safety in numbers or for ease of hunting.

Humans on the other hand don't stay together as a physical unit after a certain age, but are expected to still recognise an obligation to those of the same bloodline. Somehow or other because somebody was responsible for bringing you into the world we're told our lives are irrevocably connected. Children may have left home ages ago, but still are at the beck and call of parents as if they still live at home.

Independence is primarily an illusion of space within the family unit as every decision taken by one member is second-guessed or analysed by the rest. If you're the parent the children will wonder if there is something wrong with you if act differently from the way they think a parent is supposed to act. A child can't make a career choice or pick a romantic partner without everybody within the family feeling justified in passing judgement.

Depending on the moral and religious code that a family follows the approval or disapproval of the family over a person's choices can be grounds for disagreement, or even worse control of a person's life completely. Supposed adults are still told whom they can marry, what they are allowed to wear, and what they should be doing with their lives.

All of this is supposedly being done with "your best interests at heart", but in reality whose best interests are being expressed? If a person within in a family unit decides she or he would like to go to university, but no one else in the family has graduated from high school, how is anybody going to be able to understand that person's ambition?

There is a really good chance that they won't be able to understand the desire to receive an education just for the sake of learning, and will see it only as a waste of time because they don't see a job at the end of the line. So their response to that person will be couched in those terms and little or no attempt will be made to appreciate their ambitions because it doesn't fit within their body of experience.

Families are like any society in that they are geared to the lowest common denominator so that those in charge don't feel like their authority is being tested or challenged. In fact, there are quite a number of ways in which the family is merely a microcosm of the society around them. Haven't you noticed how it is set up along the lines of the chain of command within most religious bodies?

A patriarch who makes all the final decisions; a matriarch who is supposed to nurture everybody as well as create life, and the kids who are supposed to grow up to reprise the roles of their parents. The problem is that nobody is screening people to see if they're qualified to fill those positions. Just because you're a man doesn't automatically give you any magic ability to be fair and impartial let alone wise enough to make decisions that will affect another person's life forever. And, believe it or not, there are actually women who are not suited to be mothers and who ought not be allowed within a hundred miles of anybody requiring a little unconditional love.

But none of that is important to those who hotly defend the concept of family that we are living with right now. For them it is about the ability to control people's behaviour. By making claims as spurious as "the family is the backbone of our nation", they give unwarranted power to the father, who then is able to exert control over the rest of the family and ensure they play by the rules set out by society. It's in their best interest after all, as it gives them their own personal fiefdom to rule over in much the same way as the divine right given to Kings in days gone by.

In these families when people talk of love they are really saying duty and obligation. When they talk of responsibility they are really talking about emotional blackmail and the power of guilt. How else would you describe a system where a person can say do this for me because of who I am in relation to you. There's no talk of earning respect, only that it's due, no matter how badly somebody behaves.

At holidays like the one that just passed in Canada, people are obligated to go and visit with people they may not want to have anything to do with. Is it any wonder that so many family events end up with people getting far too drunk and arguing? Resentment, booze, and unhappiness are a volatile mix, and it doesn't take much to spark that fire.

Both the holiday season and election season are upon us on both sides of the 49th parallel these days. That's a mixture guarantying that we're going to hear quite a lot of bullshit about families from advertising executives, politicians, and religious leaders. The next time you hear that sort of drivel coming from a sanctimonious mouth think about the families you know, even your own, and compare their reality with the myth that's being propagated.

It really makes you wonder what else they know nothing about, doesn't it?

October 8, 2007

Violence And Generosity

I had to replace my laptop a little while ago. The old one had put up a good fight, but after two years, a thousand articles, two drafts of a novel, and two books of compilations, she finally surrendered to the inevitable. For a hundred dollars I couldn't have asked any more from her, but it still meant that my wife and I would have to share our desktop.

Now she has often said that she thinks what I do is important, for a lot of reasons, and I appreciate that. However, that doesn't mean I'm not going to feel guilty about monopolizing the computer and preventing her from doing the things she enjoys doing. So it meant there was a certain amount of urgency to find me another computer.

Not so long ago a friend of ours had offered us an old tower to use as back up for music and graphic files. I figured if that offer was still available it would make a good stopgap until I could find another affordable laptop. I called our friend and she said no problem she'd have it ready in a day for me; she wanted to completely dump the machine's hard drive.

Ten minutes later she called me back and said: "Let me buy you a lap top, I've got some extra money and I can afford "x". To say I was taken aback and grateful has to be the understatement of the year. This is a person whose finances up until a year ago were so bad that she almost lost her house. But through some fortune and luck she found herself solvent and with money to spare.

As she put it, one of the great things about having extra money was that she was in a position to be able to do things like buying me a new used laptop without having to even think about it. What I find amazing is that a person whose existence has been fairly hand to mouth for years – a single mom raising three boys – is able to understand the concept of extra money while people who make thousands of dollars a week can't.

The money she spent on my laptop would have bought food for a month for her and the one son who still lives at home, or she could have just frittered it away on things. I wouldn't have begrudged her a penny of it, because she'd been so long without money to spend on herself. But she had bought everything she wanted and needed for her self, given each of her sons money to do with as they felt, and that was enough for her.

So this was all wonderful, I ordered a slightly newer model of what I had before, with a little more power and a slightly bigger hard drive. It also came with a DVD player, something I thought would be very useful for reviewing purposes as I can now watch movies anywhere I can plug in. But most important to me was the fact that it came with a dial up modem.

I know for most people that's not usually high on their list of priorities, but we haven't been able to afford the jump to high-speed yet (although that might be changing soon) so a dialup modem is an essential. Needless to say when the laptop showed up and I couldn't find any place which even looked like you could plug a phone line into it I was a wee bit perturbed. I double-checked the advertisement on the website, and the receipt they had sent with the laptop, and they both included a 56k modem as being part of the computer.

I immediately phoned the store and was told by the gentleman who answered, that there was a modem, and the inputs were on the right hand side. I said that unless they were making 56k modems without phone jacks anymore there wasn't one, and what did he plan on doing about it?

First he made the generous offer of allowing me to pay for shipping it back to him, which I declined. I suggested that he send me out a 56k modem for the removable card slot and I'd be happy with that. He agreed to that and said "by the end of the week". That was August 27th. For the next four weeks I phoned; I was polite, I threatened, and I begged and still received the same answer – we're waiting for a reply from our head office.

I finally had enough and phoned the credit card company whose card I had used to order the machine. They assured me that if worse came to worse they would go after them for the money needed for me to purchase the modem. The next time I phoned them I managed to find out where their head office was, and when they refused to do anything I sent a threatening email to the head office explaining the circumstances and what I would do if I hadn't heard back from them in two days.

Ten minutes later I received an email back saying they would express post the modem directly to me from Vancouver the next business day. "We had no idea you wanted the part so urgently" was their excuse. It took all my willpower not to write them back and ask them what they used their brains for, as it obviously wasn't customer service. Instead I simply said yes that would be fine.

They obviously had plenty of removable 56k modems in stock, and brand new ones at that, because when it arrived last Wednesday the box was still shrink wrapped and all the parts were brand spanking new. Why then did it take them nearly six weeks to send me one? Why did they only respond when I threatened them? Why couldn't they just have sent me out the part I needed as soon as they knew it was missing?

Maybe you'll think I'm over reacting, but to me this is indicative of so much that is wrong with our society. If you don't use violence, or an equivalent, no one pays any attention to you. That doesn't strike me as being the sign of a caring society, or at least any I'd recognize as such. Come to think of it, there's not much proof of us being that caring anywhere you look.

Would a caring society allow corporations to charges thousands of dollars to people for a drug that could keep them alive? Would it spend trillions of dollars on war and weaponry when people all over the world go to bed hungry or live in the squalor of refugee camps? Is it any wonder that people all around the world think the only way they can get our attention is through violence?

I'm not saying I agree with that tactic, but all they see is so much evidence of our ability to ignore the plight of other people. With that in mind, it becomes easier to at least understand how people can find themselves so frustrated with waiting for a peaceful resolution to their plight that they resort to violence as an answer.

I know it seems like I've take a huge leap from the business of buying a computer to terrorist attacks, but the one is just a milder instance of the same flaw in our society that causes the other. We have forgotten what generosity means, and I don't just mean being free with money. It's about being receptive to other people's plight and responding to it with positive action and not passing the buck.

Why is that so difficult for us to understand?

October 7, 2007

Care? Who Cares?

Do you ever wonder how much longer we're gong to be able to pretend that there's nothing wrong with the world? Let me be clear here, I'm not just pointing my finger at the West or American here; I'm talking all of us. From the politburo in China, to Whitehall in England, from The Hague, to the Black Sea, from The Amazon Basin to The Outback, and everywhere in between and all around.

We've got business interests making as much money as they possibly can this very minute every, and anywhere. They don't care if they use ten your old girls in their factories or if they're selling those same girls as whores to wealthy clients, it's all money. People like stone washed jeans so we will strip mine pumice from mountains, use sulphuric acid to separate out the impurities, and make lots of money from the jeans for the year they are fashionable.

The factory fishing boats pulled up to the Grand Banks off Newfoundland and filled up their holds with fish, canned them and started all over again. Who needs a catch limit – the fish won't run out. In Japan and Northern Ontario paper companies used the nice clean water of the rivers rushing by their factories to help clean out the giant presses and they did a great job of washing the mercury out of the equipment and into the water system. It's okay though because the water is moving so it will clean itself.

The International Monetary Fund decides to give one of the deserving countries in Africa a helping hand instead of a handout. All they have to do is be a little financially responsible and they will get their loan. Cutting all social spending is a good start – people who never had education or health care aren't going to miss it anyway are they? Oh and you can't block foreign companies from owning your national resources either - it's a global economy now don't you know?

Oh and not to worry if you think you're going to having problems making your interest payments on time – you'd be surprised how few things really are essential services. Who needs roads to all these isolated areas – no body goes there do they? With so few people, having indoor washroom facilities why do you need to build sewers anyway? It's just wasting the money you could be using to pay the interest on the loan. See it's easy if you just use common sense.

There're people dying by the thousands if not millions in Africa from the spread of HIV/AIDS but we can't corrupt their morals by offering them condoms to help stop the spread of disease. Giving prostitutes condoms to hand out to their clients for protection will encourage them to have sex out of wedlock instead of waiting for Mr. Right to come along like they should.

Anyway, it's Africa, and people are always dying of something there; this country has a civil war, that country has a famine, and despots rule the rest anyway. It's not as if they have contributed anything to the world except refugees and starving mouths to feed so it's no big loss. Between Europe and North America most of the oil, gold, and other valuable natural resources have been locked up for the next few decades already – without the slave trade there's not much else of value left.

The increases in severe weather systems don't need to be a cause for alarm, instead they should be thought of as opportunities for change. Look what happened after the tsunami in South East Asia; all those messy fishing shacks and villages were washed away and new fancy hotel and condominium complexes have come up in their place.

Instead of having to perform the back breaking labour of fishing and living without electricity and running water, the former fishermen and their families now have nice clean service industry jobs and live in apartment blocks with all the amenities in one room. Some of them had never even seen a television or lived above ground level before if you can believe that...?

There's only so long I can even write like that without feeling sick to my stomach. I hope to God that there aren't people out there who still think like that. I have a sick feeling that there are more of them then I want to know about, and that far too many have positions of power.

There aren't many days that something doesn't strike me about our outrageous hubris in thinking that just because we as human's do something it's the right thing to do. There're the idiots who call themselves environmentalists because they move into a desert environment and proceed to plant trees. The fact that they are messing with one of the most delicate ecosystems in the world by introducing something with the deep thirsty root system of a maple or other deciduous tree that disrupts the water table escapes them completely.

That sort of behaviour may not appear like much to some of you, but it's an indication of just how thoughtless we've become. If we care that little about where we live, how are we going to be able to care about someone else's life and where they live? If we can't get it together soon and stop pretending that everything's okay everything could start falling apart at the seams. Another couple of Katrina's or another tsunami or two and not only will the cracks start showing, but the walls will start coming down.

Then we're all going to have to get used to living without electricity or running water

October 4, 2007

October Second: International Day Of Non-Violence

I received an interesting Press Release through the email the other day from an Arts publicity organization in India. It was announcing a special performance of the score to the movie about the life of The Mahatma – Gandhi – in honour of the United Nations declaring October 2nd, his birthday, International Non-Violence Day.

I have to say that I'm having an extremely hard time with that proclamation: International Non – Violence Day. The only thing I can think of is that some bright spark at the U.N. figured they could kill two birds with one stone by honouring Gandhi's birthday and throwing a bone to India in recognition of their new status as rising economic power. Aside from that I can't think of any other reason for even considering such a meaningless gesture.

You don't have to look very far to see how empty the proclamation is. I'm not even referring to any of the wars that are currently ongoing around the globe right now, or the actions of oppressive governments everywhere to curtail the rights of their peoples. Sure they all reflect badly on our ability to live in peace or to be considered advocates for a non-violent life, but they are only symptoms of a deeper-seated malaise.

As a species, our predilection for violence amongst ourselves probably started the first time one group of early men thought that another's hunting territory was better. There was never any thought of seeing whether the two groups combing forces and sharing the territory in an effort to feed both tribes might not be to everybody's benefit. No it's always "us" or "them" with never any thought given to "we".

Of course when the empire builders started up, Phillip of Macedonia and his son Alexander, who were followed eventually by the first great Western Empire –Rome it meant whole new reasons for fighting. Most of them had less to do with the survival of the tribe and more to do with personal glory, although those who fought against Rome would have thought of their war as battles for survival more then anything else.

Once these guys had set the precedent of trying to make the world a better place by giving everyone the present of civilization whether they liked it or not, because we know what's good for you even if you don't, you ignorant, barbarian savages, everyone decided they wanted to take a stab at it.

The Mongol Hordes in the East, under the various Khans taught everyone the value of fierceness and swordplay from the back of a horse. The Islamic world got it's own back for the Crusades by invading and occupying great chunks of Europe and keeping the West out of the Middle East from 1200 until the end of World War One.. While in Europe itself first the Spanish, and then the French took turns in occupying most of Central and Western Europe. And when they fell back the Austro-Hungarian Empire took over until the end of World War One.

Of course that doesn't even begin to cover what was going on outside of Europe when they discovered there were other countries that needed the benefits of a good Christian/Muslim upbringing. From the Western Hemisphere to the Indian Ocean and China, colonial empires expanded and contracted with the passing of the years. There were also the Civil wars that tore countries apart because of differences in opinion on religion and economic issues that left thousands if not millions dead and deep scars in the social fabric that have yet to heal even to this day.

Of course every time there was some sort of minor disagreement between countries they would solve it by meeting on the battlefields of Europe and come to a civilized agreement by killing each other's peasants by the thousands. So people like George Bush and his cronies are simply carrying on the ages old tradition of getting your own way by any means necessary.

It's become such an ingrained part of our social fabric that the majority of us live our lives with the understanding that if we ever want to accomplish anything we're going to have to resort to violence of some sort. It doesn't have to be physical all the time either; emotional and psychological violence can be even more effective in a social setting.

How often have you had to resort to some sort of intimidating action to get what you've wanted from someone who hasn't been willing to follow through on a contract? From withholding payment to threatening court action you are still using coercion or threats instead of trying to seek a peaceful resolution to your problem.

What's truly unfortunate is how difficult it is to come to a compromise with people, and it's not until you offer to escalate matters that some people will listen to you. We've become so used to that sort of behaviour it seems the majority won't do anything unless forced to – it's like you won't be taken seriously until you put a gun to someone's head.

In some instances violence or other forms of non-passive behaviour can't be avoided and a person or a country is left with no recourse but to explore other means. But for far too many of this world's people, and especially our leaders, violence remains their first option and other means are discarded far too quickly.

For the United Nations to come out and say that from now on October Second will be now be considered a day for honouring Non-Violent behaviour as a mark of respect to Mahatma Gandhi is a bit ridiculous. Those who practice non-violent resistance in most societies these days are treated like outcasts and unpatriotic because they don't think what their government does in their name with violence is something to be proud of or to condone.

Oh sure it's alright when people do it other countries against governments we're told it's alright to disagree with, but when people at home do the same sort of thing that's different. Our governments would never deny us our rights or throw us in jail without trial like others do; we're a democracy after all. When we use violence it's all right and not something to be protested against.

When the United Nations was formed in 1945 it was with the purpose of creating a body where the world's nations would be able to resolve their differences without having to resort to warfare. The only problem is that most countries simply ignore the idea of a peaceful resolution, and then proceed to heap scorn of the U.N. for not accomplishing anything.

Until governments begin to practice the type of non-violence advocated by The Mahatma, October second will simply serve as a reminder of how far we as a species have to go before we can really be called civilized.

September 29, 2007

Confessions Of A Review-A-Holic

Somehow or other, without noticing, I've become something that I never even considered possible: a reviewer. When I first started out writing for Blogcritics.org back in July of 2005 it was for the opportunity it provided for my writing to be seen by a wider audience, and to hopefully generate some interest in my own site.

It took a while for me to get comfortable with doing things the way someone else wanted. I eventually clued in that there was probably a good reason for keeping spelling mistakes and typos to a minimum, and that you could have a distinctive voice without run on sentences. There might still be a sizable gap on occasion between understanding and implementation, but at least I started heading in the right direction.

When I began realizing there were only so many articles that you could write trying to change the world before the sound of your own voice starts to grate in your own ear –heaven only knows what it was doing to other ears – is when I knew it was time for a change. Due to a gag reflex problem I knew writing about celebrities or heart warming human-interest stories was out of the question, so I'd have to find something else.

As the universe does revolve around me, I knew that people would be only too fascinated to read about my efforts as a novelist. Who wouldn't be thrilled to read about what a first-time author had to say about the process of writing? Once I had got that piece of conceit out of my system – and it went on for an embarrassing long period of time, culminating in me even having the nerve to publish the collected articles at Lulu.com. I was back to square one again, looking for things to write about aside from my life and me.

I had been lucky enough to have some health issues able to provide decent fodder for a few articles without sounding overly self-serving or pitying, but unless I kept developing new and interesting symptoms that was a finite topic of conversation. Up until then I had taken only sporadic notice of the material companies sent into Blogcritics for review on its pages, so I decided to start checking those listings out on a regular basis to see if that offered what I was looking for.

I thought I had known what cutthroat was, but that was before I started competing with my fellow Blogcritic contributors for review material. I also quickly realized that being on dial-up and having an old slow computer meant that I was at a disadvantage. Unless I got blind lucky I would never be able to get my hands on any material that was in high demand.

I took to waiting until after the initial feeding frenzy was over when new material was put on offer and come in after to pick up any juicy looking leftovers. That ended up working out well for me as my tastes have never been inclined towards the popular and others' discards were my meat and potatoes.

I started out doing one or two reviews a week initially, but that soon began to prove insufficiently gratifying. I began exploring the possibilities of obtaining review material on my own from various publishers and music producers. My timing seemed to be awesome, as many book publishers were just starting to use the Internet as a means of publicity on a full time basis. Using the credibility of Blogcritics I was able to start establishing connections with book publishers all across North America, and specifically the Canadian versions of Random House and Penguin.

At the same time, I was also building a network of contacts among music distributors and publicists. From those innocent beginnings have grown a monster that I no longer control: CDs, books, and DVDs show up at my door on an almost daily basis. Some of them from people I've never heard of who have grabbed my name and contact information from somebody else, but the majority is stuff I've requested.

It is highly possible that I can have five or six books, seven or eight CDs, and a few DVDs in piles around my bed waiting for me to read, listen, or watch, and then write about. Unless something is abjectly horrible I will read, listen, or watch the whole thing because I can't conceive of being able to give it a half way decent critique otherwise. You just never know what someone might be saving for the last act anyway that might serve as redemption for the soul destroying shit they had served up until that point.

I love reading, listening to great music, and watching interesting movies and concert footage, and I never want to get to the point where I'm even tempted to start skimming material for the sake of posting a review. Maybe before it even gets to the point where I even consider doing that, I should start cutting back – not offering to review so many items from the Blogcritic list, or not going to publisher's web sites and selecting five or six titles from each of their upcoming releases list.

Except every time I say I'm going to do that everybody gangs up on me from my favourite authors to the most interesting musicians and exciting filmmakers. They all decide to release items simultaneously and I find my resolve weakening. I've tried limiting how many I take from each list, but one is never enough. There's always something I know I will regret not reading, listening to, or watching.

I have to face facts, I'm not the type of person who can review just one item and leave it at that, it's as many as possible or nothing at all. Nothing can match the thrill of a new book showing up at my door, or ripping the wrapping off a new DVD or CD that very few people have heard. (Now there're even personalized review copies from some record companies – I know it's to prevent you from uploading them and selling the tracks online but I still think it's cool to get a CD with my name on it)

They always say that the first step in dealing with a problem is admitting that you have one publicly, and I can't think of a better place to come clean than this. My name is Richard Marcus, I'm a review –a –holic, and it's been twelve hours since I last reviewed.

If you'll excuse me, I have a book that came in the mail today that I have to read...

August 27, 2007

Forgetting Your Inner Child

If there's one phrase guaranteed to set my teeth on edge it's "get in touch with your inner child". Maybe it's because I've heard it come out of the mouths of so many people who have no idea what they are talking about, or who say it as if it's the be all and end all to curing what's wrong with you.

You're unhappy with your sex life – get in touch with your inner child; you hate your job – get in touch with your inner child; or you think your shrink is full of shit because he keeps telling you to get in touch with your inner child – get in touch with your inner child. If I had a dime for every book by every New Age quack that I've seen that talked about getting in touch with your inner child – I'd have a lot more money then I have now.

What's especially galling is how few of these self-styled "healers" ever even tell you what they mean by that. It's as if saying the magic phrase is enough and if you're too stupid to know what they mean by that, well than, you obviously need to get in touch with your inner child. From what I have been able to understand them to mean by it, is if only you could go back to the carefree days of your childhood, where you were free to play and exercise your imagination, you'd be able to rid yourself of the stresses that plague your adult life.

Return to those days before you were crippled with the burdens of responsibility brought on by adulthood and having to deal with the real world. Return to the fun of the playground where you spent the days on swings or in the sandbox playing with your friends. Ah yes, those were the days when you were terrorised by the bullies, terrified that you'd commit some social faux pas that would see you ostracized by the rest of your classmates, and where any originality of expression or thought was punished ruthlessly as being fucking weird.

Thankfully, people have cottoned on that perhaps things weren't so hot shit back then and have begun to realize that childhood wasn't the nirvana that some people seem to think it was. To that end, quite a few therapists and psychiatrists have started coming up with methods to try and help people overcome the traumas that they experienced as children. The theory being as that stage was a key part in your development as a human being you've retained patterns of behaviour established based on conditions that you were living through at the time.

If you spent most of your childhood constantly being afraid that you would be rejected out of hand for no discernable reason, it stands to figure there is a good chance you still carry the same fears around with you. For the person who suffered any type of abuse, sexual, physical, or mental/emotional, the chances of there being a carry over in behaviour from childhood are even greater, especially if the abuser was a parent or other trusted figure.

The basis for most methodologies is something called Behaviour Modification, which pretty much means what it says. In the begging they used to just try and work on modifying the behaviour that a person was exhibiting, but that didn't do anything about addressing the core issue of what caused the problem. What was needed was a means of travelling back in time to deal with the trauma that caused the behaviour in the first place.

One of the things discovered is that a person's emotional or mental development was actually stuck in the moment the trauma occurred. Instead of being able to grow up believing they deserved to be loved, for example, they developed a corresponding negative belief that has stuck with them to adulthood.

That belief fostered patterns of behaviour that became ingrained as part of the patient's personality and the only way to truly modify that behaviour would be to return to the time period where the belief was fostered and offer evidence that it's not true. I know it sounds sort of weird; travelling back in time to change your own future by changing your past sounds like a cheap movie with Michael J. Fox, but try not to think of it like that.

Shirley Jean Schmidt, developer of The Development Needs Meeting Strategy, postulates that the neurons of our brain fire together to form neuron networks. States of mind, which can consist of emotions, body sensations, beliefs, and behaviours, can become engrained in a neural network when a positive or negative experience is repeated, or when the mind cannot make sense of a traumatic experience.

An engrained state of mind is a part of self with a point of view, or an opinion of who or what we are. A part of self formed by a positive event lives in the present, while ones formed by negative events are stuck in the moment of the experience. The negative parts of self residing in the past are the root source of the behaviour problems that the adult patient is experiencing. In order to excise them they have to be cut out at the root.

Jean Schmidt's solution is to have the adult self draw upon what she calls resources to meet the needs their memory believes were never met as a child. To this end they utilize experiences of them selves being protective towards another person, being nurturing for another person, and remembering a moment that made them feel particularly connected to the world around them, what she refers to as a spiritual core self.

It then becomes a process of convincing those "stuck" parts using those recourses, or positive images of your self, that the conditions that caused them to be stuck in the first place no longer exist, and they can let go of negative beliefs they have about their worth. The theory goes if you can convince your inner deprived child that his or her needs are now being met, you will be able to deal with the feelings of rejection or abandonment that have been stashed in your memory banks for years and years thus eliminating the need for the behaviour that causes you problems today.

I have long ago learned what the human memory is capable of doing, and what unresolved data stored in it can do to you. Chronic pain comes about because the memory overloads and won't forget the pain no matter what you do, and that any little thing can trigger a memory no matter how seemingly unrelated one to the other might appear. So if this procedure is able to clear up any of the loose ends of thought that continue to hinder me than I'm all for it.

Thankfully the only "inner child" that's involved with this is one who I want to be rid of, or at least teach how to be like me. That seems to make a lot more sense then living my life according to what he can teach me.

August 24, 2007

Take A Leap In The Dark

The name that I've used for my personal blog, "Leap In The Dark", was chosen for one reason, but as it happens, it's turned out to be much more relevant to my life than I ever could have known. When I chose the name it was because of the connotations for creativity, not being afraid to take risks and not letting fear of failure prevent me from doing something.

That was all very well and good, and has stood me in good stead for reminding me not to be complacent with my writing, to fear looking like a fool, or to worry about what other people thought, and most especially not to worry about change.

I don't know how many of you are familiar with the Tarot, but one of the cards depicts a man, usually dressed sort of like a beggar with a hobo's stick and bundle over one shoulder, his head in the air not looking at where going, and one foot is on the verge of going over a cliff. He's known as The Fool in the more traditional decks and I'm sure there are all sorts of interpretations that are attached to his appearance, but I've always been attracted to the card and taken it as a sort of personal talisman.

He might look like he doesn't know where he's going and to be heading for the proverbial fall, and I'm sure more then one person has looked at me with the same thoughts in mind, but to me he has always typified the ultimate in the living life in the moment and not fearing for the future. He's not afraid where his foot is going to land having supreme confidence that whatever he does will be the right thing to do.

That doesn't necessarily mean that what happens is going to be nice or particularly pleasant, but it is what needs to happen. In some ways there's a type of blind optimism that everything will work out for the best, I won't deny that element exists, and that can get a fool in trouble if he isn't careful. But the times they do happen are when he or she loses track of who they are and tries to be what other people what him or her to be.

You can't step blindly forward into your future when you are trying to fulfill somebody else's vision of who you are, because you don't really know what it is you're trying to be, and it's not who you really want to be in the first place. Of course, you don't need anybody else's help in getting confused about your direction; we're all capable of doing that well enough on our own.

Unfortunately, those are the truly terrifying times because you can wander lost for ages and not know it before it's almost too late. There are so many things that can distract you from your own goals that you could possibly live your whole life very unhappy without ever understanding why. In a lot of people, it comes out as what we love to call a middle age crisis, when a man or woman will seemingly lose his or her mind and try to regain their past in the arms of a younger person or a sports car.

If they were to stop and think about it, they'd realize that it wasn't their youth they were trying to regain, but the missed opportunities to do what they wanted, or be who they wanted to be. According to the rules we are all supposed to live by we must surrender ourselves to follow the path that's been laid out to keep the wheels turning over.

Otherwise known as growing up or accepting responsibility, you can be assured that for must of us it will involve giving up a part of ourselves. Any time you do that you lessen your chances of living live the way you would have chosen if you kept all your options open. The more that happens the more chance you of have of being one of those unhappy people who feel the need to blow up at mid life.

When you end up that lost and confused, you lash out in a desperate attempt to find your way back to where you started. Instead, by that time most of us have forgotten how to live and are lost without a map leading us back to where we should have been. It's only if you have the courage to stop completely and look at yourself dispassionately that you can find a way home.

Every time we consider making any change in our lives, no matter how small takes a degree of courage, because it always involves a step into the unknown. Deciding to change your life takes more then just a step; it's a leap – a leap into the unknown – A Leap In The Dark.

If you've ever seen a high wire act when the person walks along the a wire suspended hundreds of feet in the air, and watched them take the net away and felt that sensation in the pit of your stomach that's part fear and part excitement then you have a good idea what's it like to consciously change your life. Even if it's to change from being the victim of an abuser, to stop using drugs and alcohol, or any other change for the better there is fear involved because it is going where you've never been before.

No matter how horrible it is, the familiar is at least a known and there is a degree of comfort that can be drawn from that fact. It's why so many people don't leave their abuser, not for fear of retaliation, but for fear of the new. Not knowing what the future holds is scarier to most people then the fear they have in the present.

Living is a terrifying experience and it's very easy to give in to the fear and not live at all. It so much easier not to feel at all than risk being hurt, so much easier to do nothing than risk being a failure, and so much easier to continue on the safe path of the familiar and not change. So why change at all, why take that risky step off the cliff into the unknown?

Not being able to speak for anybody else, or feel like I have the right to tell anybody else what to do, all I can do is tell you what guided my choice. I needed to leave behind old habits and ways of being that were governed by what happened to me in the past. It meant surrendering all the coping mechanisms that had kept me safe from hurt and stopped me from feeling. It also meant having to deal with all the reasons why I had developed all those habits.

Once I made the choice I felt like I was free for the first time in my life. Of course there were moments of absolute fear, depression, and feeling completely lost. There are times when I'm still beset by doubts, but each time those moments last for shorter and shorter periods. But the thing is, all of these moments were mine and weren't governed by anyone else or their perceptions of how I should be. I was free of my past and free to choose my own path and I was, and am still willing, to risk a little pain as the price I need to pay.

Taking the first step off the cliff is always the hardest, after that gravity takes over and it becomes easier. It may sound like a joke and I guess it is somewhat, but in all seriousness there is a momentum that builds when you take the decision that works just like gravity and you aren't able to stop the process whether you want to or not.

Now when I look at the title of my blog, "Leap In The Dark", not only does it remind me to take risks creatively, but it also helps me to remember to keep moving forward no matter what I think I fear, or think will happen to me. I long ago reached the decision that I'd rather feel something uncomfortable than feel nothing at all, because what's life if you don't feel?

August 20, 2007

Disassociation Blues

All of us do plenty of things throughout the course of our day on automatic; where we just let our hands or whatever body part is involved get on with the job while we think about other things. Usually it's mindless jobs like washing the dishes, sweeping the floor, or anything else we can pretty much do by rote.

I'm sure that most of you are also familiar with the sensation of all of sudden becoming fully aware of what you're doing and how much of a shock that can be. If you're washing the dishes with a good chunk of your brain shut down and all of a sudden your hands slip and the dish you're washing makes a loud noise as it bangs against the side of the sink your reaction is unusually strong considering the circumstances.

Having been in an almost meditative state the abrupt return to reality is the most likely reason for your shock. The noise was the trigger that caused you to be returned but wasn't necessarily what you reacted too. Suddenly finding yourself standing at the kitchen sink with your arms up to their elbows in soapy water and a sink full of dishes after you had been daydreaming about who or whatever is bound to catch you more then a little off guard.

Now here's something else to try and get your head around, and it's sort of akin to the sensation I was just describing, but a little more extreme. First suppose that your whole life has been similar to the way you feel when washing dishes; that here but not here sensation. But, and this is where it gets tricky, you don't know you're in that state of mind.

Well, it's something like that anyway; you're not in a state of mind where you're blanking things out while doing something mindless, you're blanking things out that you don't even 'know" exist. Of course since you don't know that you're blanking things out, you can't be said to be blanking things out at all – or can you?

Damn this is harder than I thought it would be, all I've probably done is confuse the crap out of everybody. Maybe I should try a different tact…hmm how about this? Have you ever been in a situation where you've wished with all your might that you were somewhere else or that you can't believe what's going on is happening to you? All of a sudden everything begins to feel like it's taking place a long way away and you begin to feel disembodied? Its like your body and you have separated and you're able to watch the proceedings without being involved.

If that's something you've ever felt than you have experienced what it is like to disassociate at its most basic. Disassociating is a reaction among people who have suffered a severe trauma at some point in their lives and can be as short lived as the scenario described above, or can be as long lasting as being in a permanent state akin to the one you've achieved while washing the dishes.

Disassociating is also the name now used to describe what used to be known as Multiplicity, or Multiple Personality Disorder. In this worst case scenario a person, usually someone who was habitually sexually abused as a child for on ongoing and protracted basis by their nearest and dearest caregivers, would disassociate so completely as to cease to exist in that moment and another "person" would live through the horror. Dependant of the severity of the trauma a person could have from a minimum of two up to, well I know one woman who was diagnosed with at least forty personalities.

There has been a lot of bullshit written about Multiplicity or Disassociating to the point where people expect some sort of Jeckle and Hyde, or other obvious manifestation in a person suffering from this illness. The truth of the matter is that most of the time nobody would ever be able to tell the difference except if they were intimately familiar with the person or the person was triggered by circumstances that brought one of her abused selves to the surface. (My use of the feminine pronoun is deliberate because the majority of cases where sexual abuse has been severe enough for these circumstances to develop have been in women)

Some of what you've heard about the illness is true; in most cases the person has no recollection of what happens from one personality to the next, a person suffering from severe trauma can "switch" between personalities right in front of you, and a good many people who suffer from this disease do themselves physical harm. While there is no hard and fast rule as to why a person 'cuts' themselves one of the theories is that the personalities who suffered through the abuse lack the ability to communicate their anger and fear and are lashing out at the person they blame for abandoning them to their abuser, their core self.

Among women who were ritually abused, (their abusers used them as part of perverted religious ceremonies ranging from Satanic rites to Christian sin cleansing rites) there is a tendency to mutilate their sexual identity. The child personalities know it was something to do with their being a woman that made them a target so they try to remove signs of femininity, or damage themselves sufficiently to reduce their appeal.

Recovery is a long arduous process known as integration where the patient and counsellor work to try and get each personality to communicate with everybody else and the core person. In most cases this involves controlled switching so the therapist can find out what each personality requires to feel safe again. With these sessions being taped the client can familiarize herself with her other selves fears and begin to devise methods of offering assurance that their fears are no longer valid and the personality is no longer needed for protection.

Of course multiple personalities are an extreme form of disassociation. More commonly it will take the form of a person believing so strongly that an event isn't happening that they will enter into a state similar to shock in order to escape the experience and will also not remember it happening. Sometimes they are so successful that they forget that it ever happened at all.

All of us have disassociated on occasion, whether from boredom or shock, but for most of us the experience ends when the moment that caused it finishes. But for other less fortunate people it can haunt them for years to come and is a symptom of having suffered traumas too horrific for the human mind to cope with. Like all defence mechanisms it served a purpose in it's time, but will quickly outlive its usefulness and needs to be deactivated before it causes as much damage as that it was originally protecting against.

After all, it's not just the unpleasant things that you lose out on, you lose out on everything.

August 16, 2007

Interview: Singer, Songwriter, Author Aaron McMullan

Once in a even less then a blue moon a writer or musician will come along who is pretty damn special. If you're really lucky you might chance across one of those geniuses once or twice in your lifetime. In some ways it's a lot like getting hit by lighting; at least in the bolt out of nowhere way that lighting hits you and perhaps in the way your world is turned upside down leaving you gasping for air, or the reek of ozone sizzling in your nostrils as the air around is charged by their brilliance.

I first ran across Aaron McMullan on the pages of Blogcritics.org where he publishes missives and musings on life, music, and all other manner of strange and wonderful things. There aren't many who can carry off the style of narrative that Aaron uses without the stink of self-indulgence rearing its ugly and scabby head. Being subject to that curse myself I'm grown adroit at spotting it in others and was quickly made jealous by his ability for selfless creation.

An artist looks to replicate archetypical moments in life that all of us can relate to, or at least understand, at an emotional level. He can be talking about his job or his girlfriend for all it matters as long as he relates it in a way that allows the viewer, listener, or reader to have their moment of understanding the experience in their own heart. Aaron's writing is filled with those moments, so even when he writes about places and people unfamiliar to any but him we understand what he's going on about.

Therefore it was no surprise that His disc Yonder! Calliope? was replete with songs of a similar nature. The good people at Ex Libris records, who have produced this disc, sent me a review copy, and after I had listened and written to the best of my ability about it I wanted to hear what Aaron had to say about the disc and the whole question of inspiration that he had raised with the title. (Calliope being one of the muses – feckless, fickle creatures of creative energy who when the mood strikes them will fill an artists ear so full of an idea that they won't sleep until they have written, painted, carved, sung, or whatevered it out of themselves).

So I fired off the questions that are forthcoming via email and most generously he has responded with wit and intelligence in his own inimitable style. So read, enjoy, and get to know a little bit more about the man behind Yonder! Calliope?

Tell us a little about your relationship with Calliope- inspiration – the muse- what's your source – where does it come from.

Well, the thing about Calliope is that she’s a tricksy sort of article all round, and inspiration, or sources thereof, can be terribly fickle. I’m sure you’re aware from your own writing - what has the brain in raptures one day, inspiring no end of song and verse and prose, might scarcely inspire a 32 character TXT message the next. A cigarette raised to a mouth on the street outside a café, an old drunk fella crying on a bench at 4 in the afternoon in the middle of the street, the way some lass or lad has his or her hair done one morning, the reflection of the KFC on the river – these things, and the associations they bring with them, they maybe burn the backs of the eyes for days and there you are hunched over the guitar or the notebook or the keyboard or whatever, and then, by God, before you know where you are you’ve forgotten all about it. Now you can’t sleep a wink because of the track of a tramline in Dublin or the purple lights shining off some building or other, or what some lass said to you in queue in Tesco. It’s a terribly selfish thing, I suppose. You spy something, or something spies you, you wring from it what you can – be it a song or a painting or a story or whatever – and then it’s abandoned, or at least it shrinks back from the surface. But in saying that, there are constants, I think, that are simmering away back there all the while. Certain tenuous links things have to certain core obsessions that cause that snare to spring in the first place. For me, those core obsessions involve coming to terms with my past, for one thing, and also a fascination with the kindsa lives folks live when they find themselves in situations where nobody knows them and they have the freedom to either adopt some wonderful façade for a while or maybe dispose of the one they’ve been wearing aforehand. Turmoil is consistently inspiring, be it of personal nature, or of external nature, like maybe I hear of some poor bastard in Basra catching a bullet in his ribs. People usually associate inspiration with positives. “That flick were right inspiring.” But the negative can be just as much, maybe because of a desire to make sense of it, or maybe from anger at certain things, or frustration or disappointment or whatever. In fact, to be honest, the more horror I encounter the more inspired I feel. I’m at my most productive, I’ve noticed, when I’m feeling worst. When that old Black Dog, as Churchill had it, is gnawin’ away at my shoulder. And of course certain ladies provide constant inspiration. Isn’t that why anybody does anything, at the end of the day? To impress some lass or to make some other lass say “why the fuck did I leave him?” Sure we wouldn’t get out of our beds, bejeesus, if not for them.
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I took a stab at trying to interpret the title of your disc in my review – but it was coloured by my views on the subject – What was your intent with the title Yonder! Calliope?

Well, the title refers again to that uncertainty about where inspiration’s gonna come from next, if indeed it comes at all, and refers also to the years I spent chasing Calliope in and out of bars and police cells and nut-houses and temples and chapels and churches. A lot of the songs deal with the results of that prolonged hunt, from analysis of it all now that I’ve crawled out the far-side of it sober and reasonably stable of the head and with enough strength about me to turn a clinical eye on it. “Yonder! Calliope?” barks the twenty-year old me from a hospital window or wherever. At the time you never really know for sure, but looking back she suddenly appears in the midst of that car-park or hedgerow like a tiger’s face rising out a Magic Eye picture. I couldn’t see her then for I hadn’t the right eyes in the head. Jesus oh I sound the wild pretentious fuck here.

One more about the lady inspiration – was there any particular reason you chose Calliope instead of , Eros, or any other of the Muses?

Calliope’s the one I’m most keen on courting because she’s the one who’ll have you shittin’ epic poetry from now till doomsday if she takes the notion. But I wouldn’t kick Polyhymnia off my shoulder, either. The muse of sacred verse, amongst other lyrical arts. Sacred verse… That’s what everyone aims for, I think.

Switching tracks here some. William Golding once talked about living under threat and how that affects writing (he was referring to 1950's US and the threat of nuclear war). You grew up in Northern Ireland, which has known its share of volatility to say the least. Are you aware, or do you think that has affected your work, and if so how?

Well it’s hard to say one way or the other because Northern Ireland is all I’ve ever really known, volatility and all. It’d be much easier for me to gauge the effects of something half ways alien to me on my work. But being born and raised here shaped my politics and my worldview and what-not, and all of that bleeds into whatever you’re doing either consciously or otherwise, and especially so when what you’re doing is so explicitly based on personal history. But I will say that I’ve rarely went anywhere near any Across The Barricades type stuff. I’ve rarely mentioned The Troubles explicitly, although I suppose bits and pieces of sights and sounds that I was exposed to because of such are on evidence in some of the songs; bits of "Don’t Think I’ll Sleep Tonight" or "Blue From Black", for example.

Do you think there is such a thing as a distinct cultural voice in Ireland, I don't mean the new age Celtic nonsense or singing old rebel songs while drinking Guinness in some pub in Boston, more along the lines of Joyce and other crazy poets. Do you feel any connection to anything like that?

Well there’s a lyricism in the banter about these parts that you’ll find seeping out the pages of anything James Joyce or Brendan Behan or Flann O’ Brien ever etched, and certainly I’m inspired no end by those same rhythms, by the blathering I might maybe hear friends gettin’ on with at the bus-shelters or the bars or the taxi-stands of a Thursday eve or wherever. And I don’t think any Irish reader could swallow a page or two of, say, At Swim-Two-Birds or The Quare Fellow or, Heaven’s almighty, Ulysses, and not feel a connection to it in some way. But the thing is, for me, anyway, writing now, as much as those blessed Holy bastards are heroes one and all, I feel myself cursing them every time I go to pen a line. There’s a statue of Joyce off O’Connell Street in Dublin, and I dunno how anyone who’s ever tried to write anything on this island hasn’t been kept awake with the urge to run down there and batter the fucker senseless. You can’t read that Molly Bloom spiel at the fag-end of Ulysses and not be simultaneously set afire with the desire to write somethin’ yourself, song or story or whatever, and yet also knackered with the crippling realisation that really, all that needs to be said has been said, and certainly no Irish writer I would wager will ever come anywhere close to the lowliest syllables on those pages, so why bother? Well, lot o’ keyboards in the world. Someone has to click and clack.

Has it had any influence on your music or your writing?

Unconsciously, probably that Irish Voice, whatever it might be, it’s probably seeped in over the years. And the geography of the place, too, is also incredibly important. Lyrically, the record is almost a map of my hometown; those songs refer to incidents that took place on certain streets, people I’ve met in certain taverns and cafes, churches I’ve thrown up in… If I can detach myself long enough to not worry about how I should’ve written this verse different or how that line was fluffed a bit, I can wander right from the poultry factory at one end of the town to the show-grounds at the other. Even bits that deal with Dublin or wherever, which is a good 120 miles removed from my doorstep, they’re filtered through how I feel about those places whilst sat in this particular estate. Course, it’s doubtful anyone else, whether they live here or not, will get that from it, but for me it almost runs like a travelogue. It wasn’t intentional, mind, but that’s how it worked out.

Jumping around again now – Are you able to point to some time in your life that you knew you wanted to be doing whatever it is you're doing now?

I can’t remember ever wanting to do anything else, but at the same time, I can’t remember ever really thinking I could get off with it, either. I still don’t know if I can, but I feel a bit more confident. I was gonna join the marines at a time, mind, which probably wouldn’t have been the wisest career move what with me being the size of a streak of wet shite and about as much use in a fight as a willy in a convent, and also being a big pink pacifist lefty faggot or whatever it was John Wayne called me in a dream one time. I doubt I would’ve gone far. But the career advisor folks at school wanted something on that paper, and I very much enjoyed the music of the Doors at the time, and we all know you can’t walk three foot if you’re a marine without tripping over the top of a Doors song. I grew out of that, thankfully. The Doors, I mean.

On Yonder! Calliope? you're joined by a number of other fine musicians, were there parts of this disc that were collaborative efforts with some of them – the music I guess is what I'm getting at – or did you show up for the recording sessions and know what you wanted from everybody and just say here do this for me would you?

The record as a whole is a collaborative effort between myself and Andrew Gardiner, the producer. I brought the songs and he set about sneaking around the corners of the buggers with a torch, coaxing each and every one of those phantoms out the shadows, wrapping them up in no end of musicological wonderments. Had it been produced by me, it would’ve sounded very different.

Things I wouldn’t have done, Andrew knew instinctively HAD to be done, and he was right. And then, things HE would’ve done, I knew we shouldn’t, and we didn’t. I thank God for meetin’ the man, and thank God that he met Luke Page beforehand, the co-founder of Ex Libris Records. Luke Page, we all agree, is the very fellow who is most responsible for Yonder! Calliope? ever getting past the mixing stage. The trauma that fella has endured.

But yeah, it was very much a collaboration between us, and a collaboration carried out over the ocean a good chunk of the time, particularly during the actual mixing stages. Tracks in varying states of undress were cast back and forth from Newcastle, England to here in Northern Ireland a thousand times or more, Andrew pointing out some new addition or some new level fix or reverb-swathe or whatever, and me giving my thoughts on the matter and so on and so forth.
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The recording process itself was spread over both patches of green, too. Here, Andrew recorded myself and Mr Ryan H Fleming who I adore to the back of the guts and who plays most of the lead guitar parts on the record, and in Newcastle he then recorded the various other musicians who appear on there. Various Ex Libris artists and friends, some of whom are busy making their own records or have recently finished doing so. People like Rebecca Jones, for example, who is an amazing songwriter and has a voice the likes of which I imagine lines the streets in certain azure avenues in Paris, or Sarah Gill, the cellist, an incredibly talented classical musician and composer. Beautiful work they’ve done on this record, every one of them.

You recorded Yonder! Calliope? with Ex Libris in London. Why the move down there away from Ireland – or is it just a temporary thing for purposes of getting the recording done?

As I say, although a good deal of the recording was done in England, actually in Newcastle, I never had to record anything over there, I did my bits in a studio in Portrush, Northern Ireland. I did go over there for all sorts of promotional malarkey, mind you. But I will be moving to London within the next month, for reasons of A – the distributors, NDN, are workin’ out a grand London-based scheme and I’d really best be there, and B- whilst we’re maybe all living in each other’s digital back-pockets nowadays, still, if you’re physically positioned anywhere outside of a few key areas, it’s very hard to meet the right kindsa folks at the right times, i.e, when they’re very drunk and notably aroused and in dire need of opening some doors to a lad.

Back to the CD again – a lot of the songs are about personal type subject matter, relationships etc. Have you drawn upon your own experiences for subject matter directly at all, been influenced by things that have happened to you, or just made everything up off the top of your head?

Everything on there comes directly from personal experience. Sometimes two or nine personal experiences have been juxtaposed, mind you, for the sake of The Grand Narrative, but there’s very little fiction, for all of that; poetic licence taken, maybe. I’d forgotten just how much it felt like a diary, actually, till about two months ago. From the moment we started making the record till about a week after it was finished, any time I’d heard anything I’d been hearing it as a Work In Progress and directed my attentions accordingly to this or that fresh-added drum beat or trumpet line or whatever.

Then, one evening I sat down to listen as a Normal Listener and it hit me at a more, I dunno, holistic level maybe. The whole thing came tearin’ out the speakers at me and I remembered what had led me to write that particular line, what I’m talking about there and so on and so forth. It tore me in bits, is the truth of the case. There are songs on there – not all of them by any means, but a few – that deal with particularly unpleasant experiences, and to be confronted with all those phantoms all a sudden in that short space of time was a touch overwhelming.

But that’s all we have, isn’t it, is our experience. It’s all we have to draw from. There’s a brilliant line in Burroughs’ The Ticket That Exploded where he mentions “A million actors with the same corny part” or something like that. We’re all basically telling the same story. Vladimir Propp went to great lengths to show us all just how simple that story really is. So anything that I can talk about that might colour my stories that bit differently to the next fella or lass… I suppose it’s the only currency I have.

There’s more to it than that, obviously, mean – a good deal of why anyone writes with any detail about personal things, other than they’re incredibly self-obsessed, which I am, is to do with a certain cleansing; an exorcism, maybe. Certainly I’d prefer to have those things wavering about the grooves there as wavering about my head. I worry sometimes about the ethics of it all, mind you. Mean, other people are involved in most everything anyone might be experiencing in one way or another, and Bad Shit rarely hits anyone without staining the tweeds of the folks stood closest. The fella falling naked out the ambulance isn’t the only one who felt that tarmac on the face. The folks who were stood watching felt it too. So to then be wringing profit from those things, by which I don’t necessarily mean monetary gain – artistic gain – it troubles me at times. But certain things refuse to leave via anything but the fingertips or the yap, so what can you do?

What would you like people to take away with them after listening to this disc? What was your intent I guess you could say – or was it simply the need to create motivating you?

I never thought about how folks would react to it other than – I hope they like it and I hope I don’t sound a self-pitying bastard. Mean, I write a lot, I write a lot of songs, and these 12 happened to be the ones I liked most and the ones also that fitted best together. Any themes or lines that can be drawn between them are probably coincidental, in that they weren’t written to play into some larger picture, it’s just that those things are what I’m obsessed with and they show up in everything I do. But I hope folks can connect in some way to those things. I’d like that.

I was told by somebody I interviewed that I should ask what's next, it's the thing to do. Since then everyone I've asked has just said – whatever happens I'll go with it – but I'll ask you anyway – What's next for Aaron McMullan?

The move to London is the next thing. Gigs and promotion and what not, and hopefully making Ex Libris back the money they put into the record. And the songs are still comin’, so that’s nice. Aside from all of that, I’m working with a production company here in Northern Ireland with regards a screenplay and scribblin’ at a novel and pretty much getting as much done as I can before the inevitable screech of the factory at my doorstep and I’m off to tin beans for the rest of what I have to live listening to beautiful men and women either side of me telling me about the books THEY wrote one time, too. Maybe I’d read it some time? I’d love to, I’ll say.


Well I don't think Aaron McMullan needs to worry too much about ending up working a factory job and talking about the times when he was, because he will always be what he is now. This isn't the work of someone for whom creativity is a passing fancy that will fade as the blush of youth fades from his cheeks. He's in a long-term relationship with his muse whether he knows it or not now and nothing he or anybody else can do will part them asunder.

Thanks to Aaron for taking the time in his hectic schedule of promoting to sit down and pen such thoughtful answers to my questions. All that's left to do is everybody go out and buy Yonder! Calliope?. Go the website of those nice folk at Ex Libris records and say can you send me one and for a very reasonable amount of change you too can own one of the most exquisite CDs that it's been my privilege to review in a long time.

August 9, 2007

Post Truamatic Stress Disorder Blues

There have been times when I've wondered whether or not that the majority of our society's population are suffering from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). I can't come up with any other explanation for people's willingness to accept at face value all that's designed to distract them from reality.

Television, religion, drugs, money, the rat race, material goods, computer games, the Internet, and most aspects of our society are diversions that keep us from noticing what's really going on around us. Whose got time to worry about anything beyond paying the mortgage, will the kids stay off drugs, and whether that new guy at work is after the promotion that really should be ours.

The human brain is a remarkable thing and does some truly amazing feats of prestidigitation to help cushion us from the effects of trauma. It's been known to completely shut down during moments of extreme horror in order to protect itself from harm. For example if you were in a horrible car crash and suffered a variety of broken bones your mind would shut out the memory of the pain so you wouldn't remember how really excruciatingly bad it was. (Which probably explains why women are willing to go through childbirth more then once; they really don't remember how bad it was)

But that doesn't mean the pain didn't exist, because it did, it's merely locked away in some storage compartment of your brain beyond your awareness. As long as your brain is distracted enough and you never suffer from a similar trauma again you will continue on in blissful ignorance.

PTSD doesn't have to be caused by remembering some long forgotten abuse; it can be caused by any situation that causes a person a severe physical or psychological injury. You could have been injured in a card accident or you could have witnessed the same accident and suffered equal trauma. Watching somebody be thrown through a car window and ending up on the hood of their car can leave scars as bad as if you had gone through the window yourself.

When I was first diagnosed with PTSD I decided I wanted to find out more about it. Seeing how this was in the early nineties and I didn't own a computer let alone have access to the Internet, I went to the library. The term was first used to describe the condition of Viet Nam veterans who couldn't acclimatize to being back in civilian life. They would dive for cover when they heard a bang, reach for non-existent weapons at sudden movements, and basically act as if they felt their lives were still in constant danger.

The more severe cases would experience flashbacks of events that happened to them while in service. A flashback is a type of memory, but it is a memory that has not been processed by the brain. If something triggers, (anything that stimulates a flashback is called a trigger), the memory the person believes the event is happening right at that moment instead of in the past. They experience every single emotion and physical sensation that they had felt when they originally lived through it.

We're not just talking about seeing it in your mind's eye either; we're talking being back in the jungle with machine gun fire, bombs blowing up and people being killed in front of your eyes. The worst thing about flashbacks is that you are completely awake for them. People who were sexually abused are raped again as far as they are concerned, soldiers watch their best friend be killed again, or a factory worker watches his co-worker be crushed under a piece of machinery. Any traumatic experience that was never properly processed is a potential flashback awaiting a trigger.

Now just because they only invented the term Post Traumatic Stress Disorder in the past thirty of forty years doesn't mean the circumstances for creating the condition hadn't existed before then. Do you not think that maybe soldiers serving in the trenches during World War One could have suffered something similar? How about the people who survived the concentration camps in World War Two?

Think of all the wars, the ethnic cleansings, the terror attacks, the bombing raids, natural disasters, random violence, airplane crashes, car pile-ups, and any of the other things that happen on a regular basis? Why is it so easy for us to accept those traumas as commonplace?

Why are we so ready to believe the lie that an expression like collateral damage makes everything all right? Would it be all right if the police came over to your house and shot your wife and children and than apologized because it was accident? Why is it that when people are being killed by the tens and twenties on a daily basis in Iraq and Afghanistan we can shrug it off, but a whole nation is captivated by some stupid girl going to prison?

Yet in spite of this, the latest statistics show that something like 1 in 4 people admit to be taking some sort of anti-anxiety or anti-depression medication. Since a lot of people aren't going to own up to taking something like that it's probably safe to say the figure is close to 1 in 3 people.

Nobody is being treated for anxiety or depression. The drugs they are being given are so that they can be happy functioning members of society. What kind of civilization needs to drug between a quarter and one third of its population in order for them to function?

Let me ask another question, what do you think would happen if all of a sudden there were no distractions from reality? No Internet, no personal computers, no television, no nothing to provide us with peace of mind and prevent us from really thinking about what is going on around us? If people actually began to comprehend what it meant when they saw a family begging for money on a street corner, read about a little girl whose father raped her repeatedly, or heard about bombs falling on a neighbourhood and inflicting collateral damage, do you think they would be able to go about their daily business in the same way they do now?

I'm sure that some people would still be able to do what they were supposed to, people did work in concentration camps without having been forced to, remember? But I'd like to think that the majority would be too horror struck to cope. Post Traumatic Stress Disorder would actually be the healthiest reaction people could have.

I know I said at the beginning that I sometimes think our society suffers from PTSD, and I guess I should amend that statement. It isn't suffering from PTSD, it has made itself the single biggest cause of potential Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. By artificially creating the circumstances that our brains do to ensure that we survive a traumatic situation, our society has created millions of potential sufferers. Let's just hope they don't all succumb at once.

August 2, 2007

All The Unknown Soldiers

I met a soldier the other day. He was driving a cab so he was really a retired soldier. He had only recently retired, signing up when he was seventeen and staying in for twenty-eight years put him at around the same age as me. My wife and I had been out and became overtired so we decided to take a cab home. It just so happened to be his cab.

You know how it is with cab rides, sometimes you'd wish the cabbie would shut up about his opinions on the world, other times they just grunt no matter what you say. But sometimes you actually get talking and have a conversation, which is what happened this time.

Somehow it came up that he only drove cab as something to do so he wouldn't go crazy sitting around the house because he was retired. Since he looked around our age I was curious as to what he could be retired from that he didn't need to work. How he could have had a full pension so young.

I remember him glancing at me sideways, and making the slightest of hesitations before saying what it was he had retired from. Thinking about what he would have seen beside him in his passenger seat, a skinny guy with long hair, maybe even an Indian, he might have wondered how him being a soldier would have gone over.

When he said he had been in for twenty-eight years I laughed and said 'you must have joined up when you were eighteen- and he gave an embarrassed smile and said no seventeen. We laughed some more and I said he still looked too young, and he said that the plastic surgery probably helped with that.

He had been in Kosovo and stepped on a land mine and it had blown off half his face; nothing like a little random violence to take all the fun out of an afternoon. 'Shit' I think I must have said 'Is that why you're out, medical discharge' He shook his head, 'I did another tour after that'.

Being curious I asked him where else he had served aside from Kosavo; the list read like a who's who of some of the hell holes of the world. Rwanda in 1994 when aside from a few under-equipped Canadian soldiers the world ignored what was happening until all that was left was the hand wringing. He was in Somalia as part of the international peace keeping force that went in to try and clean up after the American invasion.

He was wounded in Somalia as well; an eight year old stabbed him in the face through his jaw. I didn't ask him if it was the same side of his face that he had rebuilt from when he had stepped on a landmine. He was also part of the mission to Afghanistan, the first wave of Canadian soldiers who went in when we were still there to try and help rebuild the country after the ouster of the Taliban.

When I first moved to this city it took me a while to get used to seeing people in uniforms on the street and the occasional convoy of military vehicles driving by. Kingston Ontario is home to one of the largest military bases in Canada and has quite a large permanent military presence, perhaps around 10,000 people including families. Canadian Forces Base (CFB) Kingston is also one of the largest training facilities in the country, and it's routine for troops from all over Canada to be sent here in preparation for missions overseas, or for individuals and units to come here for special training courses.

Troops from CFB Kingston are usually the ones sent over first to set up the command and control centres for U.N. troops, as they are communications and engineering specialists. But there are plenty of grunts as well, infantry troops who are the backbone of any army.

Our cab driver had been infantry; entering as a private and working his way up to being sergeant by the time he left the forces. All five of his daughters, he told us, were also infantry but two of them were officers and one was just on the verge of graduating from Royal Military College (RMC), which is also in Kingston. (Canada's officer training facility – if your marks are good enough you can get a free top-notch university education in return for doing a five-year hitch in the military as a junior officer.

We laughed about how it must feel to have two, and soon to be three, daughters out ranking you, but I could see he was really proud of them. He was especially pleased that all five had decided to go into the infantry and told me that one of them was a marksman. He corrected himself "I guess I should say marksperson" with a smile.

'What about just calling them snipers" I asked, and he quickly said we don't use that term, and I caught an undercurrent of something from that – almost distaste for the word and what it meant. I skirted around it by saying something about Canada using British terminology.

Something had struck me about that conversation, him talking about his daughter being a marksperson. It sounded like women were seeing active duty on the front lines along side men. He confirmed that, the infantry had been fully integrated since 1988 he told me and he had served with women in combat lots of times in places all over the world.

The military live apart from the civilian population in Kingston, even the students from RMC are sequestered. Only the officers or single enlisted people can afford housing off base and most families live in the semidetached living quarters available to married enlisted soldiers.

I wonder if there are any women soldiers who have non-military husbands? Do they join wives' support groups when their spouses are over seas? Do they hold regular jobs like other husbands, or because their wife is off in battle they stay at home and take care of the kids? I wonder how those marriages work out and how many end in divorse.

We know so little about the men and women who we send overseas. The only time they become people is when they are killed. Then we find out they had wives and children, mothers and fathers, and brothers and sisters just like the rest of us. Oh I know you'll see the occasional picture in the newspaper of a wife and young child kissing their husband/father good-bye before they board their transport plane.

But by then it's too late to get to know them and it's just another photo opportunity to make us feel some sort of false emotion that has nothing to do with the reality of the situation. We don't know what they are really feeling or anything about that family group at all. Maybe she wanted him to de mobilize after the baby was born – or at least apply for a non-combat role. They could have even fought about it, their last night together for who knows how long.

We only learn their names when they come back in their flag draped coffins and then they get to provide a sound bite for politicians. They've either paid "the supreme sacrifice" or had their lives thrown away for no reason; it all depends on whose doing the talking.

It's easy to blame the government because it's their policy that's getting the young men and women killed, but really we are responsible because we let them do it.. A politician only cares about getting re-elected and if you make that look seriously threatened you'd be amazed at how quickly they'd see the light.

We let our governments send these people overseas to be killed and it's far easier for all of us if we don't know their names or anything about them. If you knew they have four sisters who each serve in the military and a father who served for twenty-eight year despite two fairly serious wounds before they went off to serve how would you feel?

If you know they tease each other because some of them out rank the others, (but that's okay because everyone knows a lieutenant is only as good as her sergeant) and you know their grandfather's story, how can they still be strangers whose fate you don't care about?

I didn't find out what my taxi driver's name was, or the names of his five daughters, but I wish I did. If they are going to go over seas in my country's name, even if I don't agree with the reasons for it, the least I can do is know their names before they leave, not after they come back and it's too late.

Isn't it the least we all can do?

July 31, 2007

Nobody Listens To Coyote Anymore

It was one of those really fine afternoons where you can sit on the front porch and no matter which way you looked there wasn't much in the way of cloud or haze to stop your eye. Off to the West the line of the mountain was held in place by the sky at the top and the ground at the bottom.

To the East and North all you could see was flat prairie stretching away into the distance with the only interruption being the occasional scrub brush or the dips in the ground where a sinkhole had formed some time in the past. They'd filled in long ago, leaving just a slight crater scraped out of the surface. If He was in a good mood He'd call them acne scars. Catch Him in a bad mood and He'd start muttering about pox infested blankets that left scars even on Her face.

The good thing about living out here and being able to see as far as the mountains in one direction, or as far as your eyes let you in the two other directions He could come from, (there's no way you'd ever be catching Him coming along the South road), is that you get plenty of warning as to what His mood is going to be like.

If He was just trotting along with his tongue lolling out the way that it can, than you know things will go as well as can be hopped. But if there's any deviation from that than you can be sure there could be some trouble. If you weren't able to distract Him quickly enough you could wind up with anything from a bad trick being played on someone to war on your front porch.

So this afternoon when I spotted Old Coyote approaching out of the North, He was still some five miles away. But oh boy could you see that He was more then a little pissed about something. Fore warned is fore armed they say, so by the time Old Coyote arrived at my porch that looks out over the prairie in three directions, I had pulled up His favourite chair, made a pot of tea, and had His favourite cup filled with sweet tea. (Four lumps no milk)

"Hey" I said to that one" Sit and have some tea, sit and have some tea before it gets cold. Have some fry bread, I just made it, or one of those microwave pizzas – you want one of those – those microwave pizzas?"

But Coyote just continued to pace in front of my porch with His tail dragging in the dust behind Him. Boy He was one steamed Coyote. I'm wondering what I'm going to do about that, because there's nothing worse than steamed Coyote (although I've heard that Coyote pot roast is pretty bad too) and if He keeps pacing like that I'm going to have me a trench dug in my front yard.

"Hey" I said to that one again "You want to go inside and watch television on the Satellite dish –We can sit here at look at the T.V. Guide and find out we should be watching" I had put up the Satellite dish for Coyote because He wanted to watch Oprah and Jerry, and all the other funny shows they play during the daytime. He liked to talk to them and see if He could get them to talk back – sometimes He did and sometimes He didn't- get them to talk back that is.
But that one must be really steamed because He continues to pace back and forth –even the thought of back to back Jerry and Oprah doesn't seem to be penetrating His mood.. There being nothing else that I could think of suggesting to distract, I gave in and did what He wanted.

"Hey Coyote why don't you come over here and sit down; drink some tea, eat some special fry bread, and tell me what put the burr up your butt?"

You know what it's like to watch a friend get carried away sometimes and talk while they're drinking and eating? Well you haven't seen anything until you've seen Old Man Coyote try to drink tea, eat fry bread and talk all at the same time. He only slowed down after that first coughing fit almost made Him lose more than just what was in His mouth.

When He finally stopped spluttering and sneezing, and was no longer in any imminent danger of swallowing His tongue, He started again to try and tell me what had happened to make Him so upset on such a beautiful day.

"Nobody wants me" that one said "Okay, so I eat some sheep here and there, maybe the odd chicken or duck, but com'on you leave them lying around like that what do you expect from me I'm only Coyote? But it's not even the farmers and ranchers who've got me so angry and upset – they just playing their part. I try to trick them and they try to stop me from tricking them. That's good – I feel more alive on the days that I'm dodging shotgun pellets than I have in hundreds of years.'

He stopped talking this time to drink some tea, and eat some fry bread; He asked for and I got Him one of those microwave pizzas He like so much. "Don't burn your tongue on the cheese" I said. "Yeah, yeah, I never burn my tongue on cheese" He said.

After He had stopped moaning and crying about His poor burnt tongue for what seemed like forever but wasn't more then fifteen minutes, half-hour tops, I got Him to sit down again to try and tell me what was wrong. " Nobody wants me" He started off again, and I told Him he'd done that bit already, cause He can do the same bit over and over again and a story will go nowhere and you could sit there all week waiting for it to move.

"People used to tell stories about me, the tricky me, and all the smart things I'd do. How I made the world and all the great things everybody needs, and all the adventures that I had along the way. They learned how to be brave, honest, and true because of the things that I'd do. I was a great hero too many different people of many different faces all over the world"

Now wasn't the time to be telling Him, I'm thinking, that most of the stories most of us told about Coyote were as examples of what you shouldn't do. But He was right, in His contrary way, people did used to learn from Him how to be brave, honest and true – by doing the opposite of what He did in his stories. Coyote thinks something is a good idea, you'd usually be better off doing the complete opposite.

"But now people, they're just like sheep you know. They have people who tell them how they should think, what they should feel, and who they should believe. How they gonna' learn anything acting like that? Nobody wants to hear tricky tales of wise, brave Coyote when it reminds them of how they could be and not how they are.

They just want things easy now – give me this I deserve it they say. Nobody tries to figure out how they going to go out and get it and make it happen. If I had acted like that where would the world be today? There would be no world is where it would be today and how would they like that if they was just standing around on nothing with nothing to do? They wouldn't like it all I'm betting."

He stopped talking then, did Old Coyote. He picked up a piece of that microwave pizza and tested it with the tip of His tongue to see how hot it was. He remembered this time, and began to eat it all down.

Me I sat and stared at the sky as the light moved away to make room for the dark and thought about what He said. I thought about all the foolish things that Coyote had done in His time, all the trouble He had created for Himself and others, and all the tricks He used to try and get away with – how some worked and some didn't.

Whether my good friend Coyote knew it or not He was all of our worst characteristics rolled up into one four legged, drop tailed, long tongued, sneaky eyed, bundle of fur. He never learned from His mistakes, it was always someone else who was at fault when His tricks failed. He was always looking for the easy route and it nearly always backfired on Him.

If He figured out a way to make lots of kills at once it either ended spoiling before He could eat it, or Him not being able to get at it after it was dead. Everything was always about how to make Coyote's life better for Coyote. He never thought about anyone else. He was like a small, petulant, spoiled child who needed to always get His own way.

As we sat there the mountains disappeared off in the west as they turned the same colour as the sky andthe prairie stretching out flat in front of us gradually got smaller and smaller as the night sky came down to lay on top of it. Somewhere off in the distance one of Coyote's cousins started to sing his or her lonely song of love for the star who had stolen Old Coyote's heart all those years ago. He had been so foolish in love, and so beautiful. Sad and beautiful just like the song.

I could hear Coyote sitting in the dark breathing beside me, and we listened together to the night. I thought for a minute and then, "Do you want some more tea?" I asked the night beside me. I heard it sigh quietly and say with Coyote's voice, 'Thank-you"

More than ever the world needs Coyote, but we seem to be killing Him as fast as we can. Are we ever going to stop chasing our own tails and shooting ourselves in the foot?

July 27, 2007

It's All About Guilt

I was going to try and write something profound about the role guilt plays in helping keep our society ticking over. You know one of those think pieces that analyses trends in people's behaviour and shows how that everything they do can be put down to guilt. But for the life of me I couldn't think of an opening paragraph to introduce the topic.

I guess I could have started with the family unit and how large a role guilt plays within that dynamic. How so many people use a blood connection in lieu of decent behaviour as a means of having people pay attention to them. "Family matters most" and count on guilt to make you drop everything for them at a moments notice no matter how they've treated you up until that moment.

Of course I could have just a easily started off by citing how most of North America's spiritual life is based on guilt. First there's the whole idea that we're all born guilty because of Adam and Eve committing that original sin with the apple. Talk about holding the sins of the father against the children.

If that isn't bad enough, how about this scenario: God sends down his only son and sacrifices him for our sins! Talk about your guilt trips – look what I did for you, so you'd better behave. Just in case we didn't get the picture there are all sorts of things you can't do without having to pay some sort of price or doing some sort of penance.

Some folk take it so far that they equate all pleasure with sin and believe the only way to avoid it is to work constantly and live a life of abject misery. They must feel guilty for having being born and I'm sure that they only had sex because they felt guilty about not going forth and procreating. Heaven forbid they enjoy it though because that would have been a sin and there would be a price to pay.

Religion is an easy target though, so I maybe could have talked about how government only works because we're made to feel guilty. For instance if you dare to disagree with something that the government decrees your made to feel guilty for not loving your country enough. Or if you don't agree with the war the government sends troops off to fight in they imply you're guilty of wishing the soldiers harm because you won't support them.

Or on the domestic front when they want to cut taxes and slash and burn social programming they will either find someway of making the poor guilty of stealing from the rest of the population or make you feel guilty for stealing the money out of your children's pockets. If we spend money today what will be left for your children?

It's not just the government who uses guilt against us. So do far too many environmental groups, human rights organizations, foreign aid fundraisers and anyone else with a cause. Hell I'm probably a lot more of an environmental extremist, believer in human rights and social justice then most of them and they piss me off with their attempts to make people feel guilty in order to change their ways, give money, or whatever they want them to do.

What's the point of making some poor guy who needs to drive his barely working vehicle so he can go to work and feed his family feel guilty for polluting? How's that going to change the world or do anything to make it a better place for his kid or grandkids? It's not any one individual's fault that people in Africa are starving to death or dying of AIDS and whether or not they contribute ten dollars isn't going to make a bit of difference.

When they show you pictures of starving orphans living behind barbed wire in refugee camps and say you can make a difference they might as well be saying it's your fault if they continue having to live like this. Not only is that unfair, it is of course patently untrue. Hundreds of years of history lay behind the reasons for those children living in refugee camps and only a change in the so-called developed world's attitude towards the developing world will make a difference.

Now that I think about it some more I could also have talked about the reasons why we are made to feel guilty by all these different people. It's to cover up who the really guilty parties are. As that guy who worked for Clinton said, "It's the economy stupid", but probably not in the way you think.

Did you know that in the time since the great Depression there was only a very short period of real prosperity in the post world war boom in the 1950's? Since then there has been a gradual erosion of the middle class and more and more wealth and power has been accruing in the hands of fewer and fewer people. Governments can preach all they want about free trade and open markets making a better atmosphere for business which makes it better for all of us but they are only getting it half right.

While the workers are made to feel guilty for demanding basic needs like job security, environmental protection, and workplace safety businesses go where they want and rack up bigger and bigger profits everywhere around the world. They exploit natural resources, people, and environments until they have exhausted them and move on leaving worse poverty and political unrest in their wake.

Religions have long used guilt to control their people, and people in turn use it to control their families so that they will not run afoul of the church. In the twentieth century governments who are sponsored by businesses use it to ensure that their patrons have clear access to everything they need to make their profits.

Most of us really have nothing major to feel guilty about in terms of society, yet we are constantly inundated with messages from all sides insisting we are guilty of a multitude of sins. Listen to the way messages are delivered by politicians, preachers, and advocates and you can't help but hear the accusation in their voices.

Try telling yourself the next time that it's not your fault, or not the fault of whomever is being offered up as a scapegoat and see who that leaves you with to blame. It maybe that the Church is right and we are all sinners and guilty of something, but there are some who are guiltier than others.

July 10, 2007

NaNoWriMo Notes: More Fun With Publishing

In November 2005 I entered the National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo) contest just for the fun of it. The idea of the contest is to attempt to write 50,000 words within the month. Obviously 50,000 words isn't enough for a novel, but it's usually enough to tell you whether you have something that will turn into a novel eventually.

At the time I was also eager enough to write a companion journal, called "NaNoWriMo Notes" and published weekly instalments of it online at Blogcritics and my own site, before, during and after the contest. I kept publishing because instead of it just being a journal about the contest it had evolved into a record of my attempts to complete a novel.

You see by the time November had come to a close that year I had written somewhere between seventy and eighty thousand words and was too far-gone to stop. I've had plenty of fitful beginnings before, but none had ever cleared the thirty thousand-word mark, let along gone as far as this one had, so I was determined to finish. I couldn't let all those words languish in obscurity; I had a duty to them to see them published.

Since I was already in the habit of keeping a running commentary it wasn't that difficult to continue. In fact there were weeks when I managed to get more accomplished writing about what I didn't accomplish, then actually accomplishing anything. I have to admit that not only were those particularly frustrating weeks, they were also the ones where I know I came perilously close to self-pitying navel gazing.

Even when I had finally finished the manuscript, including re-writes, edits, and proofreading, I continued to monitor my progress in attempting to find a publisher via the "Notes". But there is only so much you can write about that without repeating yourself.
R's new front-3x5-72.jpg
Since I was still without a happy ending for "Notes", getting the book published, and I was contemplating self-publishing it through Lulu.com a print on demand company I decided for publication purposes that NaNoWriMo Notes: An Exercise In Creative Insanity would end with the completion of the novel so it at least had the illusion of a happy ending.

In April of 2006 I sent off my first submission of a chapter and synopsis of the novel to a publisher. Almost immediately I received a request for the next three chapters of the manuscript. To say I was excited was putting it mildly. They must have really liked it if they wanted more within a week of receiving the first chapter.

After three months of not hearing a word back from them since that request for more chapters my excitement began to ebb substantially. Friends who had been published many times over reassured me that it meant nothing – publishers can take up to year sometimes to respond to even a query letter. But when the rejection letter eventually showed up I wasn't surprised at all, it had become inevitable.

As I had decided only to apply to one publisher at a time it wasn't until October of 2006 that I sent off another submission. This time I called in a favour and asked a friend of mine if he would write a letter of support for me to his publisher. I hoped this would at least guarantee it being read. He had no problem with doing that and so I sent a full manuscript to the offices of Penguin India.

What with getting the manuscript copied – 300 plus pages would have been too much for my desk top printer to handle and the ink alone would have cost more then the commercial print job – and mailing, it cost me eighty dollars to send it off to the publisher. As recently as just a year prior to my submission Indian publishers had jumped at the chance to publish the work of foreign English language writers, so the money looked well spent as far as I was concerned.

Of course a lot can happen in a year, and Penguin India had recently changed management and policy. With burgeoning Indian nationalism the company's focus had switched so that now they only published a limited number of foreign nationals. I had already started picking up signals to that effect so wasn't overly surprised to find a lovely piece of stationary in my mail one day from Penguin India regretting they wouldn't be able to use my manuscript.

That was in December of 2006 and I've only now sent off another unsolicited manuscript. Oh I've been busy, true enough, but even to my own ear busy sounds like a feeble excuse. How long does it take to stick a chapter and two letters in an envelope and mail it? Even sorting out which publisher you want to send it off to next shouldn't take seven months but that's how long it took me.

One of the sticking points was trying to find the publisher most likely to publish the manuscript before submitting it. Now of course that's a sensible precaution within reason. You're not going to send a piece of fiction to a publisher that only puts out non-fiction obviously, but I was going a little further then that.

I would go to a publisher's web site and before I'd even check to see if they were accepting unsolicited submissions I would check out what type of books they sold. I'm not even sure what I was looking for, but I do know that if I didn't like the feel of their site, or their work struck me as being not the type I'd want to be associated with, I'd pass.

In other words I could always find an excuse not to send off my manuscript: too intellectual, not intellectual enough, wrong type of attitude towards publishing, too big, too small, and so on. If you try hard enough you can always find a reason not to do something.

I finally clued in that I had fallen into that trap, and from there it wasn't such a great leap to figure out that I didn't want to send my manuscript off again because I was scared of being rejected again. That might not sound like much of a revelation, but it actually took me by surprise that I felt that way.

After I recovered from the shock, and accepted that's what had been happening, it became surprisingly easy to send off a submission. I found out the name of a the contact I needed to write too, and sent a package off to one of the smaller presses who's books I've been reviewing. That may sound like an easy route, what with name recognition and all, but it will also make a rejection all the more bitter.

So why, if as I just said I'm so afraid of rejection, have I submitted to someone whose rejection would have an even more devastating effect on me than another publisher? For the simple reason that if I can work up the courage to submit to them I'll be able submit to anyone. Of course it could also be that I'm hoping, that because they know me and what I'm capable of, that they might be more likely then others to at least consider me.

If I'm being honest I have to say it's a split between the two. I guess you could almost call it a paradox – submitting to someone you know because you hope it helps your chances while at the same time being even more afraid of submitting to them because the rejection will feel that much worse. Of course the real problem is most likely that I think too much and should just get on with it (I heard you out there in the peanut gallery – don't think I didn't).

So here I am sitting waiting for an answer and not expecting much in the way of anything. It's been almost two years since I finished the book and although I've been pecking away at its sequel there's times when I read through it and it feels like someone else wrote it. Of course if they write back asking to read the full manuscript that will all change and you'll see how quickly I'll start to care.

But for now I'm going to at least hold on to the illusion of sang-froid and just continue on with my daily business as if my life didn't hang in the balance based on someone else's opinion. Which it doesn't, really it doesn't, I couldn't care less one way or another…And if you believe that I've got some great land in Florida I'll sell you sight unseen

July 8, 2007

Books And Music: Variety Would Spice Up Our Lives

I know it looks like I do a lot of reviews, mainly music and books, but the truth is I could probably be doing double the amount that I do now. If I were to review every CD, book, or DVD that was sent or offered to me I'd have to be posting twice a day just to keep up.

I sometimes wonder if I, basically an amateur who does this for fun, receive this many offers of review material, how many are the people who get paid receiving? Since some days I receive as many as ten such requests, either by the item showing up in the mail unsolicited or via an email offer, the potential boggles the mind.

It really makes wonder how the record companies and book publishers do business. What exactly is their idea of quality control? Do they work under the assumption that the more items released or published the more chance that they will luck into something people will want to buy? For all their talk about artistry and demographics there is more than a slight whiff of an infinite number of monkeys trying to produce Hamlet about their marketing methods.

Of course once they think they've stumbled on something that strikes a chord with people they immediately saturate the market with it and similar items in an effort to make as much money from it in as short a period of time as possible. When people begin to tire of the product almost as quickly as the market has been flooded (somebody should really explain to them the principle of diminishing returns – the more of the same that is produced the less profit you make) the monkeys are sent back to the typewriters.

Of course it's the public's fault the pundits tell us, everybody has such a short attention span these days that they won't stay interested in anything for more then a nanosecond. Have they ever stopped to think that the problem might be that it's only by offering people real choices that they pay attention to anything? If everything sounds the same what is there to listen to after a while?

If variety is the spice of life then corporate music needs someone to pass them at least the salt, if not some basil, and maybe even some cumin. Their idea of variety is… well to be honest I don't know if they even know what it means. Making sure that the flavour of the month has a different cup size from last month's or that their hair is peroxided a different shade of blonde doesn't quite make it in my book.

I mean there is only so long you can look at a pretty young thing before you realize how damned annoying her voice is. It doesn't matter how many topless or bottomless photos of them show up on the Internet – they all just start to blur into one bimbo who can't sing after a while and if people start to flip channels or it's equivalent who can blame them?

The book publishing industry is just as bad as music; they think they're onto something that the market loves. So they pay millions of dollars in advances for true confession, daytime talk show style books without bothering with something as simple as fact checking. When that crashes and burns, instead of thinking about chickens and baskets, they sink even more money into the next big thing.

I could almost understand the first part of the approach, the monkeys and Hamlet, if they weren't only focused on finding the one big thing to be ground into oblivion in a year or two. Would it be so bad if when they found somebody or some group that resonated with people that instead of spending a fortune trying to clone them, they invest only what's needed to allow the original to continue its development?

That would leave them more money to continue to tap into the typing pool of monkeys and work with more than one band or author ensuring the public has real choices. I know it’s a bit of a novel concept, but why not let people decide what they want to read or listen to instead of dictating their choices for them?

I bet that if people were given real choices instead of more of the same on every page and in every CD you would find that their attention spans would improve. They won't all pick the same thing to rave about, but I'm sure you would see fewer one hit wonders and more bands and authors with good sales records.

Instead of industries having to wonder where their next "big hit" is going to come from in order to survive, they would have sizeable numbers of consistent sellers that more than recoup their initial investment in publicity and development costs. Every body would turn a tidy profit and more writers and musicians would make decent livings. There doesn't appear to be any lack of people out there trying to produce something of quality so lack of material to choose from shouldn't be a problem.

You don't need an infinite amount of humans to produce a variety of interesting music and writing, that's been proven many times over. You do need producers and publishers who are willing to believe that there is more than one way to write Hamlet and people would like to choose which version they read. Is that asking too much?

July 5, 2007

The Childhood Sexual Abuse Hangover: Post Traumatic Stress Syndrome

I've written about issues pertaining to suffering from post traumatic stress disorder brought on by childhood sexual abuse in the past and in doing so have touched upon my own personal history. Each time I've emphasised that I'm not looking for sympathy from anyone, it's just that I happen to be a handy example to use for the topic at hand.

There's still not a great deal written about men who suffered from being abused as children, or men willing to talk about it publicly because of perceived stigma's attached to it. Being raped by a man as child has as much chance of "making you gay" or making you les of "a man" a falling down the stairs would. Being rapped, especially being rapped as a child has nothing to do with sexuality and everything to do with exerting control over someone else.

It's all about power and being able to exert it without any fear of repercussions. How many young children, no matter what their gender, are going to go running to somebody to say that their father was raping them? The rapist usually makes sure that it won't happen through a combination of threats –"If you tell anybody everybody will know that you are lying and you'll get in trouble" and the use of cajoling lies –"Don't you love me, this is how all good little boys (girls) show that they love their father"

The last statistics I read about this subject were something like one in four young boys are sexually abused by somebody they know as a child, while the figure is doubled for young girls. Of course these are only reported cases, and I'm sure the figure for men would spike significantly if we were to know the real numbers.

Although the event is horrid enough as it is, the individual who is abused really begins to pay his heaviest price in adulthood when they begin to discover how fucked up they are. It's like a time bomb had been planted in their mental/emotional systems during the events and was set to go off when they had to start dealing with adult emotional stimuli.

Survivors of childhood sexual abuse establish coping mechanisms based on what happened to them. Love, violence, sex, affection, caring, abandonment, and neglect have all become mixed together in their heads and they lack the ability to separate one from the other. They will either be continually waiting for the person they are involved with to either lash out at them or leave them.

This will lead to vastly different modes of behaviour; either they will be completely subservient in the hopes of making the other person happy enough that they will never hurt them or leave them, or they will find excuses to end relationships early in order to prevent themselves from getting hurt.

There is also the potential for a survivor to go the route of becoming an abuser and carrying on the work started by his tormentor on others. I'm eternally grateful that I have no personal experience in that matter so can't speak to it, although I can see how given the right circumstances it is highly possible.

Abandonment and neglect can leave behind such residual resentment that a person would feel that they were justified in doing anything they had to in order to get their own back. The world did this to me, it owes me, and so I'm going to do it back to the world. Don't get me wrong; I'm not excusing that behaviour just offering an explanation. I know from personal experience how resentment can twist your thinking and corrupt your heart.

Unfortunately I've not been able to avoid the other consequences of being a survivor and have had to deal with more then my fair share of shit over the past fourteen years. As it stands I'm still peeling back the layers like one would work to expose an onion's core. At times and element of frustration sets in, and I wonder if it will ever stop and if I will ever find something akin to peace.

Where I've been fortunate is that I have a very good doctor to work with and have been able to isolate the base elements that are the root cause of a lot of the emotional baggage that I'm carrying. So instead of being overwhelmed by a huge barrage of emotional symptoms, I have only a few things that I need to focus on that make me feel like there's progress.

This is so important for a person who is going through this type of experience, be they male or female, because it is so easy to become emotionally overwhelmed. A survivor is usually a series of raw nerve endings where almost anything is a potential trigger for an abuse memory. Reducing the amount of stimuli, or even learning to recognize what they are and what they do is the first step in being able to recover control over you're emotional stability.

From there it becomes a matter of understanding that your reactions are being controlled by events that happened in the past and aren't necessarily the ones you want to have in a situation today. If for example the person you love says "I love you" and your reaction is to wonder what they want from you, it isn't coming from you, it's coming from how you were treated when you were abused.

Realizing that is the major step in reclaiming you life and overcoming the effects of what happened to you. Gradually you learn how to have reactions based on present circumstances not on the past. It's a lot of work and it doesn't happen overnight; reactions you've had for thirty plus years are not going to disappear on demand. But at least now you know who you are capable of being and have the means to become that person.

This is not easy work, nor is it very enjoyable; who likes to realize that what they've thought of as normal behaviour for years has actually caused no end of grief. I sure as hell didn't. But ultimately the feeling you'll have is one of immense freedom and relief.

So if you're still at the stage where every little thing, no matter how trivial, can send you into orbit, fear not, there is a means of escape and I'm proof that its possible. Find someone you trust who you can work with and learn who your really are and what you really feel. You'll love yourself for it.

June 30, 2007

Epic India At Three Months Welcomes Author Vinod Joseph

It was pretty much six full months ago that my buddy Ashok asked me if I would consider turning his personal web site, Epic India into an online magazine, and just about three months since we opened the doors. I think, in spite of my great admiration and respect for my old friend, if I had know what it was going to be like I might have mentioned some fairly unmentionable ideas to him and hoped the next time I talked to him his head wouldn't be filled with such foolishness.

Well okay that's not true, I had a pretty good idea of what I was getting into just from observing what the editors at Blogcritics and Desicritics have to go through on a regular basis. On top of that I'd also be doing a lot of the page and site design (although Banwari La did all the real work and still continues to this day to be the man we all run crying to when we can't get the toys to do what we want them to do).

There was also all the administrative work involved setting things in motion as well, and you'd be amazed how many little things you don't think of crop up – where do the contributors sign in for the first time for instance. That might sound silly, but we had never had to sign into the live site, because we were always working on the test site. When it came time to send out permissions to people I could only pray that the system would automatically send them a link to somewhere they could sign in

All things considered though it went pretty smoothly with only minimal bugs and nothing too serious. We've even been able to solve our spam problem and turn our comments back on after having to close them for a couple of weeks because of a deluge we started to receive. (Yea Banwari) But we ran into a problem that I guess has sort of taken me by surprise and left me feeling blindsided.

The contributors didn't want to contribute. On opening day we had about twenty people registered as contributors. I thought, that wasn't so bad because if everyone chipped in an article a week, plus me on a daily basis, it worked out to three new posts a day. A bit thin, but we were a new site with zero budget to advertise and no one with the time to do much about publicity.

But you know the old saying of you can lead a horse to water but you can't make it drink – while it seems to apply to a lot of writers out there too.Not only couldn't I get a number of my original writers to contribute at all, I'd get people writing all excited and asking me please could they be a writer at Epic India, and nothing, not a word, nada.

After a month of this I sent out a letter en masse with words of encouragement. After two months I sent out a letter saying those who had not published at all and didn't within two days would have their permissions yanked.

At least that time people made the effort to respond to my email and postings increased sporadically, and the number of writers decreased by the number who had never contributed. Even Ashok sponsoring a contest for the best stories about Indian Culture did nothing to increase contributions.

Then last week one of those things you dream of happening when you run an arts and culture site happened. Vinod Joseph, author of the novel Hitchhiker wrote me out of the blue and asked if I would consider publishing his new series of ten short stories for him at the site.

Let me see, would I consider publishing the work of an author whose name I could at least trumpet up and down the breadth of India, if not to the Indian population abroad as well, as being a contributor at the site? Oh heck, why not, I was sure we could squeeze him in somewhere once a week for ten weeks.

With Vinod's help I've been able to, hopefully, generate more interest in the site over the past week then in our previous three months. Not only did he offer his work, he gave me a huge list of email addresses for online and print press to properly publicize his participation.

Of course it also means we will be coming under a bit of a microscope for the next little while so I'm going to have be extra careful with my proof reading and editing skills. (Stop laughing out there, I'm getting better) I also hope that this will encourage some of my more reticent contributors to start writing more frequently, mainly because I know they can all do good work and they have a great opportunity now for a larger audience to take notice of them.

Of course I'm hopeful of a spin off effect from this and that we will attract more writers to the site who want to either contribute short stories or non-fiction articles of their own on a regular basis. But I'm also realistic enough to know that it will still take more then just one very special event to stabilize us. But it's a start and I can't ask for more then that.

Starting Saturday July 7th /07 Vinod Joseph, author of the novel Hitchhiker will be serializing his new collection of short fiction, A Taste Of Kerala – Stories From Simhapara at Epic India.com on a weekly basis for ten weeks.

Set in the fictional village of Simhapara the stories are slices of life far removed from the hustle and bustle of the big centres of Delhi and Mumbai. A Taste Of Kerala will offer readers a view of life that is a few steps removed from sacred "Economic Miracle" so beloved of the press and political leaders.

In his novel Hitchhiker Vinod Joseph proved he had the ability to depict the lives of people in rural communities without sentimentalizing or belittling them. Once more he will offer readers an opportunity to see a different view of India than often offered. Ordinary people getting on with the business of living their lives as best they can in a world that is changing faster then they might be able to handle.

Join Epic India as we welcome Vinod Joseph and his latest work A Taste Of Kerala – Stories From Simhapara to our pages. You won't be disappointed.

June 19, 2007

L'Art Pour L'Art (The Art For The Art)

When you've worked in around the arts for most of your adult life you get used to the occasional odd glance from people when you tell them what you do for a living. There's still a great deal of suspicion on the part of the general public as to the legitimacy of the arts. Not just as a career choice either, the whole idea of creative expression unsettles a good many people.

Now I can't really blame them, especially here in North America where we don't have the cultural traditions of Europe. Sure we have art galleries that display some of the finest work in the world, and North America has produced and continues to produce artists of the highest calibre in all media. But those people, for the most part, have succeeded in spite of their environment, instead of because of it.

Our antipathy to the arts is deep-seated; it's not something that just sprang up over night. It is an ingrained aspect of North American society; deeply rooted and firmly embedded since the first Puritan set foot upon our shores.

The story we're told is they came here seeking freedom from religious persecution. What's probably closer to the truth is not that many people were thrilled with their brand of austere Christianity. Puritans were probably the originators of every cliché you'd want to hear about the merits of hard work from sun up to sun down until you died (except on Sundays of course) and went to heaven to receive your eternal reward.

Life on earth was not meant for pleasure or for fun. We're here to repent for the sin of Adam and Eve so we could pass muster to get into heaven. The idea of doing something for purely aesthetic reasons wouldn't even have occurred to the Puritan and they would have thought anyone who did so misguided at best, an evil sinner at worst. People who genuinely believed that "idle hands were the devil's playground" the idea of taking the time needed to think about writing a poem or contemplating the play of light and shadow in preparation for a drawing would have been as foreign as cannibalism is to you and me.

This belief system is core of North American society to this day. Why else would people work themselves into early graves by slaving long hours at jobs they hate or don't really care about? Sure now they don't have to wait until going to heaven for some of their reward and there are all sorts of material gains they can accumulate. So doing something just for the sake of doing it, with no guarantee of a tangible pay off, is just as strange and alien to them as their Puritan forefathers.

Of course suspicion of the arts has gone beyond that by now and has become so deep seated that most people don't even have a rational explanation for their not being interested. "Only fags do that shit", "It's stupid", "What's the point", and "It's boring" are more likely to be the response these days. Which, although far preferable to being burned at the stake for being a witch, means that the arts still have a way to go before they get a measure of general acceptance.

L'art pour l'art, the art for the art; or as we have transliterated it, art for art's sake is a motto that even a good many artists have trouble accepting in our society. They still feel they have to justify the fact that they are creating something unique by applying a symbolic meaning to it for people to hold on to. Even if it is something ridiculous and inane: "The white on white is indicative of the stark realities and choices we face in everyday life – look at the texture of the brush strokes – their agitation reflects the anxiety we feel…" well you get the idea.

Certainly artists create pieces of work to evoke an emotional or intellectual reaction from the reader, the listener, or the observer. But no one can predict how different people will react to the same object. Everyone will have a different reaction based on their own life experiences and backgrounds. That's the beauty of art – it's innate ability to evoke spontaneous, nearly instinctive, reactions from people.

It's also what people fear the most about art, its ability to speak directly with anybody and everybody who comes in contact with it. Whether it's an entire audience being moved by a stirring anthem like Beethoven's Ninth Sympathy, or a single person reading a line of poetry that moves him or her, their understanding of humanity's potential will grow.

Art makes a lie out of the expression the sky is the limit. It has the capability to expand and extend our horizons to the furthest limits of our imaginations and beyond even that. Is it any wonder that in totalitarian states artists are tightly controlled if not forbidden to produce work? Books are burned and paintings banned because they are said to be a corrupting influence on the minds of the populace, as if people can't decide for themselves what they like.

Art needs to be a communal experience, with the artist offering up his or her vision to the audience for them to appreciate and interpret on their terms. Together they define not just a particular piece, but the premise of artistic creation. Because for each of us the experience will be different, the totality of the community is maintained. Removing our right to reach our own decision on what a piece of art means takes away one of the key elements of the experience, trivializes the process, and ends the life of art.

"The art for the art" is already an alien enough concept as it is in North America. If we remove the area that involves the observer from the process it becomes just another static form of entertainment that does nothing for us aside from providing a distraction.

For an environment that has not been the kindest to the arts, North America has produced some brilliantly talented geniuses in all media. By simply allowing them to be and continue what they've started, by allowing the nascent community of art to continue to take root within our cultural soil, we will ensure, at the least, that we always have artists, art, and people wanting to view it.

Any moves that curtail any aspect of it will surely cut it off at the roots or worse. We've already got enough to answer for as it is, lets not also have the death of art laid at our door.

June 18, 2007

Three Little Words - "I Love You"

I love you. Isn't it amazing how three little words can have such an impact? What other words in the English language do you know that can bring a conversation to a complete standstill in quite the way those three single syllable words can? I hate you delivered in just the right tone comes close, but even they don't have the bone jarring, hitting the brakes hard effect of I love you.

A couple, for arguments sake let us say a man and a woman, have been seeing each other for some time. They've discovered they have a lot in common and really enjoy each other's company. They've gone to bed a couple of times and the sex has been good. All in all things are, as the books say, developing.

Yet the first time one says I love you to the other – and no matter what guys like to think it's as likely to be the man as the woman – almost inevitably it will be followed by a long pause. Of course a lot depends on the timing, there's a big difference in saying I love you in the heat of passion from blurting it out while doing dishes.

While you can sort of gloss over it in the former circumstances as being caught up in the moment, in the latter there's no escaping the consequences of truly meaning what you are saying. Saying I love in the middle of doing something as prosaic as the dishes has infinite more depth of meaning than when in the midst of sex. It's a definitive declaration of devotion not coloured by passion or lust.

Which is of course what brings about the aforementioned sudden stoppage in conversation. Sometimes it will end quickly and be followed by hugs and joyful tears. Other times it will be followed by a pause that you can drive a truck through, stop and unload it, refill the gas tank, and climb back into the cabin before a vocalized reaction is forthcoming. That's not necessarily a bad thing, but it sure is unnerving to sit through before the other party bursts into a big grin or at least says "I love you" in return.

Of course if the silence stretches just that little bit too long, and then continues for a little more after that, it's usually a sign that the other party isn't as ready to make that declaration with the same amount of feeling. An "I love you too" might eventually be forthcoming but it there is a conditional quality to it that is inescapable.

There's more than semantics involved in the differences between being in love with someone and loving someone. The general consensus seems to be that to be in love implies a singularity of devotion while loving implies nothing more than a general affection. Friends can love friends, but that doesn't mean they are in love with each other anymore than a sister and brother are in love.

It all sounds pretty darn confusing doesn't it for such a simple little phrase like I love you but that's just the beginning. It's absolutely astounding the many uses that simple phrase can be put to. While it may sound like a simple avowal of affection it seems to get utilized for other, less savoury purposes, quite often.

The use of "I love you" in emotional blackmail is one of the more common occurrences of this phenomenon. Not to be confused with guilt, emotional blackmail is used by nasty, manipulative people in order to ensure that world revolves around them continually. In order to successfully utilize emotional blackmail one must be completely without scruples and selfish beyond belief.

A petulant "I love you" that implies there is no possible way the other person can actually care for you as deeply as you do for them is a wonderful tool to use for emotional blackmail. It infers that if the other person really meant their "I love you" they would hasten to oblige you with whatever you wanted as proof of their devotion.

Not quite as subtle as emotional blackmail the ever-popular guilt trip is nearly as insidious. What it lacks in nastiness is more then compensated for by its pervasiveness. Used in situations where you need to get the emotional upper hand on the other person. Your use of "I love you" should imply a "but" preceding the phrase in order to create the proper "how could you do this to me" effect required to induce or accentuate guilt.

We human beings are complicated creatures, creating ties that bind us together. While ostensibly claiming they are based on love, a great many are based on expectations and obligations. These in turn create roles for us to play and duties to be fulfilled in order to be able to say, "I love you". The dutiful wife who shows love by preparing supper for husband who shows love by bringing home money are two obvious examples of this.

Even though those two roles have fallen pretty much out of favour there are many others that still exist. It's these constructs that create the means for three simple words to be used as weapons. We all have some preconceived notions of what "love" is supposed to be and what is supposed to happen when we are in love. The majority of those ideas have been formed by observing what's around us.

Failure to deliver on that promise of ideal romantic bliss, or whatever it is we are looking for, will result in resentment and jealousy. In turn that will result in the games I've described above as people try to make their roles work. Somehow we have construed love to mean that a person owes you something in return for you loving them. Do this for me because I love you is emotional blackmail and a direct result of that belief..

Instead of acting as though loving somebody entitles you to demand things of them shouldn't it be the exact opposite. If you truly love somebody you are grateful to them for being in your life and demand of yourself what you can do for them. In turn they will do the same for you. A loving relationship shouldn't be about coercion, it should be a reciprocal arrangement with equal amounts of give and take flowing both ways.

I love you are three of the most potent word in the English language. It's only unfortunate that too often it is for the wrong reasons. Isn't it about time that we leave behind the idea that saying I love entitles you to something in return? I thought only prostitutes were paid for love.

June 16, 2007

Gifts Are Given Not Stolen

Four hundred years ago you welcomed some strangers into your homes. You showed them how to survive, where to find food, how to build shelter, and what plants were good for fighting off sickness. At first they seemed pretty grateful and appreciated the help. But when their extended families began to show up and instead of being polite and asking for help they began demanding you give them what they wanted.

At first you went along with it but eventually you said enough is enough, you guys are your own. Unfortunately by that time they were pretty well established and were able to start pushing you around. They forced you to leave your homes so they could use the land they were built on for themselves.

Well that was okay you had cousins on the other side of the mountains you could go and live with. But it seemed they're were a lot more of those strangers than you first thought and they had lots of friends and family who wanted places to live as well. Eventually there were just too many of them and they took all the land for themselves leaving little pieces for you to try and scratch out a living on.

If that wasn't bad enough they decided that what you believed in and the language you spoke wasn't what they wanted you to teach your children so they took them away from you too. When and if they came home they didn't know who they were anymore. The strangers didn't want them and they didn't know how to live with you.

Finally, and only in the past little while, your people have begun to figure out who they are again and to try and reconcile that with the world as it is today. Some of you have started learning the ways of the new people and using that knowledge to help your people get back some of what they had lost.

Children are learning the language of their grandfathers, and singing the old songs again. The stories that you used to tell each other to help you understand the world and teach you how to live a good life are being told again and the dances and songs that celebrated your way of life are being sung at gatherings of the people. Some tongues have been stilled forever and some stories will never be told again, but a lot has been saved.

When you consider that history, and the many attempts that have been made to eradicate you and your way of being from the face of the earth, recent events are even more disquieting. There has always been the occasional one of them who has appreciated your way of life and emulated it. Some of them have even been stupid enough to pretend to be one of you like that English guy who called himself Grey Owl.

But now things are getting really out of hand. First of all the same people who had tried so hard to summarily obliterate all that you stood for have taken to setting you up on pedestals as the epitome of harmony with nature. You have become a bizarre mixture of Rousseau's Noble Savage, St. Francis of Assisi, and pagan environmentalist.

Your women are being treated like they are some sort of Earth Mother/Goddess creatures who know all the secrets of creation. Your men are all depicted as deep thinkers and brave warrior types who are stoical in the face of any danger or pain. Being merely human and alive don't seem like sufficient justification for your existence.

If your grandparents had wondered about Grey Owl's sanity in choosing to portray himself as one of you, what would they think of the crop of folk who are either passing themselves off as being descended from your blood or as having been taught your "secrets" to a better life by people unnamed.

What makes all this especially nauseating is that these people are doing this all in the name of their twin Gods Money and Ego. They write books and teach and turn a quick buck and make themselves out to be something special. Who knows what kind of misleading ideas they are filling people's heads with about you and your people while raking in the dough and looking great in tailored deerskins.

Some of the things you read are so incredible that if you hadn't read them you wouldn't believe then. That anybody would make claims such as they are direct conduits for people who lived hundred's of years ago is astounding. They call it "channelling" but you can think of quite a few words that are far more descriptive than that to describe what you think of it.

The irony of the situation hasn't been lost on you. All that you've struggled so hard to reclaim from the times that nobody approved of you is now being stolen from you again. A culture that evolved over thousands of years has been reduced to being packaged as Enlightenment: It's Yours In Twelve Easy Steps or variations on that theme.

Those doing the selling all have impressive sounding names that mean nothing to anyone but themselves and their publishers. But they can call themselves "Where The Sun Don't Shine" and still not come close to understanding anything about who you are and what your experiences have been.

Isn't it bad enough that they tried to destroy your culture by tearing it out of the hearts and minds of your children for three generations? But now they want to claim it for their own selfish uses and diminish you and it in the process. Some people say that imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, and that maybe so in terms of some things. But when you imitate a people's belief system it's nothing but disrespect and theft.

They can talk about being "gifted" with special abilities all they want, but under normal circumstances gifts are given not stolen. That's not something any of them seemed to have grasped yet.

Not much has changed in the past five hundred some years of them taking from you and giving nothing in return has it?

June 15, 2007

The Age Of Avoidance

Through out history Western civilization has looked back upon itself and named certain eras. There was the Hellenistic Period, (which has nothing to do with Helen of Troy but a lot to do with Alexander the Great who was a Macedonian) followed of course by the Roman Empire. We went down hill for a while after that with the Dark Ages and the Middle Ages, but started to perk up with the Renaissance.

Almost every major European power had a "Golden Age" somewhere between the 1500's and the 1700's, although never simultaneously. There was the Age of Reason, which by our standards probably wasn't very reasonable, but relatively speaking it was the best the West had achieved to that point. After that things got a little confusing as we started going in quite a few directions at once so it was hard to give a title that would encompass everybody at once.

There was the age of Nationalism which began with Napoleon and pretty much has been ongoing since, but really peaked at the end of the 19th century when Germany united for the first time and Italy threw off the rule of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. After World War one of course we had a lot of the small countries of Eastern Europe and the Balkans being carved out of various former Empires: Latvia, Estonia, Poland, what was then Czechoslovakia, and Yugoslavia.

Of course the 19th century also marked the beginning of the end of us being a mainly rural, agrarian based society with the onset of the Industrial Revolution and the need for a large labour force to work in the factories. Although never recognized with the honorific of an age, nothing has had more influence on making us in the West what we are today, for better and worse, than the Industrial Revolution.

It allowed for the rise of a merchant class, Capitalism, Socialism, Communism, the stock market, free markets, and any of the other isms we all love to label things with. But there has been a dearth of Ages in that time. The only one that caught on at all was the so-called Age of Aquarius that was being preached about in the 1960's by folk who had serious hallucinogen habits.

But I think that we here in North America have finally done what no others have been able to accomplish in almost a century; establish a way of life that is so ubiquities as to deserve the title of Age. Ladies and Gentleman I would like to welcome you to the Age of Avoidance.

No age before us has proven so adept at turning a blind eye to the realities of life as we have. No matter how glaringly obvious an issue is we have perfected the ability to not see what is right in front of our faces. From our governments on down to individuals we have devised more and more ingenious methods of not dealing with our own shit.

Can you think of anything else that would explain the proliferation of New Age religions? What better thing to offer people if their lives are going down a sewer than a guarantee of peace and harmony? Come to the light and avoid the reality of what is causing you to have nervous breakdowns and to chew anti depressants like Smarties.

You can buy books on how to get your own personal Guardian Angel who will watch your back as you go through life. There are ones that will bring you abundance, and others who will help you get lucky; in fact there is probably a Guardian Angel for every aspect of your life that you're willing to dish out money to protect.

This way you can avoid dealing with any nasty personal issues you may have. Who needs to confront their demons when they have a Guardian Angel? They take care of everything for you and you can on with your blissful existence and just wait for the abundance to roll in.

Of course we all have avoidance techniques; anyone who lives in a big city has long ago learned how to not notice the folk that line the streets with their hands stuck out for spare change. If it gets too bad you can be sure that city council will create a bylaw outlawing homelessness so that anybody without a permanent address will be either thrown in jail or shipped out of town. Homeless problem, what homeless problem?

Of course there are some problems that can't be avoided like how much its costing you to fill your forty gallon gas tank on your all terrain pick up truck that you use to drive to work every day. You sit and fume about it every morning in the traffic jam on the way to work and watch the sky turn brown as the sun comes up. Two cents more a gallon today, what's a person going to do.

Oh well American Idol is on tonight and the competition has been intense this time. At least there aren't any scandals about judges sleeping with contestants. Boy that Simon Callow really gets you steamed though, he's such a prick. But the music is surprisingly good for amateurs. You used to sing back in high school with a band and were pretty good…better then that guy who won last week anyway. Shit maybe you should enter next time.

Television is full of reality shows about unreal situations because no one wants to deal with reality. Hell the government doesn't want to deal with reality why should the population? Everything is great they say, the economy is booming. Then why are less people earning more and more people earning less money then ten years ago? What's so great about that?

As a continent we don't deal well with reality and when the real world comes knocking it finds us woefully unprepared. We have technology that allows us to do miraculous things but we use it primarily for mindless entertainment that keeps us from thinking about the world beyond our living room. If reality ever shows up on our 52" high definition television screen with surround sound all we have to do is find the right button on our remote to change our perception

Tim Leary suggested society should "Turn On, Tune In, and Drop Out". Somehow or other what we've done instead is to simply Tune Out. Welcome to the Age of Avoidance, where the credo is no longer it's who you know that matters, but, what you don't know can't hurt you.

June 11, 2007

An End To Learning

It was a long time before I realized how fortunate I was in my upbringing. I don't mean my family life, because my father was an abusive prick, but the attitudes that were instilled in by the society of the day. Growing up it was always taken for granted by those I went to school with and myself that we would be continuing on to University after we had finished high school.

Not all of us had career plans, in fact probably most of us didn't, but it was only natural to go on to University to continue our education just for the sake of continuing our education. Most people I knew were aware of what was going on in the world around them, read widely, took an interest in the arts, and wanted to learn more about what the world had to offer and University was the place to do that.

As this was still the end of the 1970's and at the beginning of the 1980's Canadian society was still set up for people like us. University tuition was ridiculously cheap compared to what people paid in the United States, and each province in the country had generous loan and grant programs available for people whose financial situation wasn't the greatest.

It didn't matter whether you wanted to take a four year B.A. in the Humanities or in Computer Science, everyone was treated the same and all departments had budgets equal to their needs for ensuring quality education for their students. Learning for the sake of learning was considered enough of a reason for supporting continuing education.

So it came as quite a shock to me to discover how few people in the world think that way and that even worse how more and more people were being discouraged from perusing the quest of knowledge for the sake of knowledge. It's probably not a coincidence that I became aware of the first around the time I started to understand the second.

In 1995 the province in Canada where I live, Ontario, elected its first socially and fiscally conservative government. In policy, attitudes and outlook it was much closer to conservative American policies than any other Canadian government had ever been. The party elected turned out in fact to have hired many of the people who had worked with a governor of New Jersey helping implement the same types of policy.

What they called a "Common Sense Revolution" was a very simple and simplistic idea. Cut funding to all social programs to lower taxes and make a better climate for business. Everything should be run like a business from hospitals to local school boards in that their motivation wasn't to be service to their end users, but to meet some randomly devised bottom line that the government came up with.

For the health care system that meant gutting it of staff and facilities with half the hospitals in the province being closed and nursing staff seeing wages cut or jobs being declared redundant. For schools, from primary to undergraduate University level, that meant funding for fundamentals only. Or in illiterate speak the three "R's": reading, riting, & rithmatic.

In order for an University to continue to receive the level of funding they were used to they had to make their courses compliant with what the government dictated as priorities; degree programs that would result directly in jobs or careers. Instead of being places of higher education and learning they were being turned into sophisticated vocational schools.

As this government was only hitching its bandwagon to an idea that had playing out in the United States for a much longer time, and the rest of Canada has gradually followed suit, government policy in two of the three North American countries has actively discouraged people from learning for the sake of learning.

I remember being appalled that this was happening, but even more perplexed because so few people seemed to care. It wasn't until I met my wife's extended family that I understood how the government was able to get away with destroying the education system.

Going to school was of no value to them unless it resulted in a job at the end. The idea that someone would want to get an education for the sake of learning about new ideas and different peoples was as ridiculous to them as if it was suggested they live on bottom of the ocean or the moon. Heck they would have probably been more open to the latter than the former.

Of course once I became aware that the attitude existed I began to see it everywhere. The worst culprit has always been movies and television where smart people are depicted on the whole as social misfits, geeks, and nerds. Ever notice how many derogatory words there are for smart people and how few there are for just regular folk.

My mother has said on many an occasion that her father always said that the thing he was proudest about was that a poor guy like him from St. Urbain St. in Montreal Quebec (The old immigrant Jewish district) had been able to give all three of his daughters a University education. Not that they got jobs from their degrees or went on to have careers as lawyers or married well, but the fact that they were able to have the opportunity to learn and acquire knowledge.

My mother graduated from University the first time in 1955 and attitudes like my grandfather's were common. Now fifty years later a four-year honours B.A. is almost considered a waste of time by most of the world and intelligence is made fun of at almost every turn.

I'm sure that people could come with a million reasons for that happening, including theories like governments deliberately wanting populations to be less aware so they can pull the wool over their eyes with greater ease, but I think the result is more important. Fewer people are experiencing the joy of learning for the sake of learning and how the acquisition of knowledge is in itself a reward.

Obviously some people would never be interested in education for the sake of education, and there's nothing wrong with that either. What's wrong is far fewer people are being given a choice in the matter anymore. Thousands if not millions have been cut off from knowledge that has been accumulated by the human race over the last few thousand years and have little or no understanding of the world that exists beyond what they see on television or in the movies.

Not only is that potentially dangerous, it's also incredibly sad. It's even sadder when you realize that most people don't even know what they're missing.

June 1, 2007

In Praise Of The Small Press

To say that I do a fair number of book reviews is probably something of an understatement. The main reason for this is that I love reading; no matter how many books I've read I just can't get jaded. There's always something new and exciting if you know where to look.

Of course I've my preferences in genre and style, who doesn't, but on occasion I like to challenge myself in order to keep intellectually sharp. The brain is like any other muscle I figure, if you don't exercise it, it will grow flabby. I have to admit that I will always prefer a well written story over anything else though, no matter if it's an intellectual challenge or not.

Which explains why J.K Rowling is equally comfortable on my bookshelves as Thomas Pynchon and James Joyce. But if there is anything or anyone I have a soft spot for when it comes to books it's the smaller independent presses. I suppose you could put it down to a type of romanticism; the small press that puts out books because they love it rather than being in pursuit of the next bestseller of the moment like bigger presses are forced to be.

Of course that's not the truth in either situation, but larger imprints do have much more put on the line than the small ones and have to worry more about the bottom line. The small press with only a limited run of far fewer titles can afford to take a few more risks with the style and content of its releases. Whether it is true or not, in my mind's eye I will always associate small presses with work that is more concerned with artistic merits than commercial viability.

I know that is an awful generalization and that there are probably numerous instances of just the opposite, but how often do you find the work of a contemporary Cuban photographer in one of those luxurious coffee table books the large house's produce periodically? How many would risk publishing translations of detective novels by a former officer in the Algerian army?

Trance published by Perceval Press and the early works of Yasmina Khadra published by Toby Press are respectively the two small presses referred to in the paragraph above. Over the past few months I've come to appreciate both of them for the wonderful content they have to offer.

Perceval Press was founded by Viggo Mortensen and is primarily concerned with publishing books of artistic expression that would probably have very little chance of seeing the light of day otherwise. A good percentage of the work is Mr. Mortensen's wonderfully cerebral and emotional poetry and photographs. But this is much more than just the vanity press of a wealthy individual, as they also publish selected works by a variety of other artists.

The majority of their focus is on art for arts sake, but they do publish other work as well. There are the highly strange and brilliant musical collaborations of Mr Mortensen and the mysterious Buckethead (so named for the empty Kentucky Fried Chicken bucket he wears on his head while performing and his penchant for appearing masked at all times) available on CD. There are also a good variety of other photographs and visual arts on sale as well.

In a lot of ways Perceval Press epitomises the nature of the small press in that they publish a very specific type of book. The books they produce are not going to appeal to a mass audience, but they weren't designed to. The books they offer challenge us to see the world in different ways and not all of them are comfortable or pleasant. But than again there is a lot about our world that is not comfortable or pleasant.

Toby Press is a lot more like your traditional publisher in that they offer a variety of fiction and non-fiction work. Where they differ from their more mainstream contemporaries is the nature of their content. Aside from the aforementioned Khadre, they lean heavily towards authors from the Middle East.

Probably Toby press is one of the few places in the world where Jew and Arab are equally at home as they rub shoulders quite happily together in their catalogue. Whether it's an Iranian describing the days just before the overthrow of the Shah or an elderly Orthodox Jew who is devoted to his faith and his live in the city of Jerusalem the gulf that exists between them in our world is bridged in Toby's catalogue.

It is truly an international publisher as stories travel from eastern Africa to the Georgia Steppes, to the Golan Heights, and the street of Damascus and Algiers. Although on some pages the characters speak the polemic of the times, the authors are not endorsing those sentiments just ensuring that we know the reality in which they exist.

Like Perceval Press, Toby Press brings us the voices we don't normally get to hear. While now it seems like almost every publisher has at least one Muslim writer in their stable, to go with their Hindu, the only distinction that seems to have mattered at Toby has been the quality of the writing.

Over the next few days I'll be reviewing some more items from the Perceval Press catalogue, including more work by Mr. Mortensen, some from the forbidden island of Cuba (forbidden at least if you live in the U.S.), and surprisingly a couple of books for young adults. Until June 17th you can buy pretty much any title from their catalogue for half price – including all CDs, books of poetry, and visual art books as long as you purchase directly form the site.

There are numerous other small presses out there who do much the same thing that either one of these two do and you'd be doing yourself a favour if you checked them out. Who knows you might discover a gem of your own.

May 31, 2007

Three Little Words

There's always been heated debate over what is the most dishonest expression in the English language. A lot of people opt for "The cheque is in the mail" and others favour "I'll respect you in the morning". Of course there's a third, but less polite phrase that's not for this public a medium that no woman will believe after she's heard it once.

But to my mind they all pale next to three words, " How are you?" Usually delivered in a chipper tone of voice by the questioner with a heavy perky upswing on the "you" and a complete lack of sincerity. Anywhere you go from the "Gap" to an Emergency Room Triage someone is asking you some variation of "How are you?" with equal amounts of concern.

It can even be made patronising with the simple addition of a pronoun. Why anyone has to ask about your state of health by referring to you as "We" is beyond me. The next person that asks me "How are we doing today"? will probably find out what I'd like them to be feeling, never mind how I'm holding out.

I wonder if it ever had any meaning; did the ancient civilizations have their version of this platitude? Did Neanderthal man have to put up with some perky idiot at the watering hole chirping a cheerful "How are you?" as they waited to see if any game was going to show up?

Is that what pushed Moses over the edge finally? He showed up at the Pharaoh's palace one day to be greeted with a cheerful "How's it going Moses?' only to finally lose it? He then proceeded to tell Pharaoh in no uncertain terms how he and his people were doing. When he was finally done itemizing his list of grievances he went back among his people and told them to get packing.

Maybe if they had waited for the bread to leaven and rise he might have regained his temper and calmed down enough to rethink his position. But everyone just made matzo and they were ready to roll. Hey I can't blame the guy for getting pissed, I'd have indulged in some pretty heavy pharaoh bashing if I had been in his shoes.

I think it's time to call for a moratorium on using the expression "How are you" or any of its variants, until such time that it regains meaning. The trouble is of course figuring out a way of riding our conversation of the beast. Well after much consideration and some trial runs I believe that I may have found an answer to at least limit if not eliminate the scourge.

Answer with the truth. The next time someone, anyone or anywhere, asks the dreaded question don't just answer with fine, tell them what they asked for. Don't worry about the glazed expression that will soon appear on their faces; it's just their natural reaction to something beyond their control and to anything approximating a genuine conversation.

Of course this will not be a simple or quick process; who knows how many times it will take to overcome one automation's programming, let alone the thousands if not million who use the phrase around the world on daily basis. But with a concentrated effort we can make a difference. By each of us taking responsibility for our own neighbourhoods and cleansing them we can make a difference. Think of it as the ultimate in thinking globally and acting locally.

With careful dedication and application we shall have people cringing with embarrassment in no time as we tell them with all honesty and sincerity how we are doing at that moment in time. Sooner or later they won't want to risk hearing about someone's haemorrhoids or bowl problems and they will stop asking everybody "How are you?" unless they truly mean it.

The world will be a much better place for it.

May 28, 2007

A Dearth Of Coversations

I don't talk very much. That might come as a surprise to those of you who read what I write considering how verbose I tend to be, but I really don't contribute very much to conversations. There's probably a whole bunch of reasons a shrink could come up with for this oddity in my character, but I have found my own list of reasons.

Most conversations I hear are people talking about things that just seem pointless and a waste of oxygen. I can't think of the number of times I've wanted to say something like haven't you heard of global warming; pleas stop contributing to the CO2 supply. But of course I'm usually far too polite for that and if you put me in a social situation I can pretty much be guaranteed to be sitting by myself in a corner within half an hour.

Four magic words usually preclude me from 75% of most conversations: "I don't watch television". It's not that I don't have a television, because I do, in fact I even have 5.1 surround sound hooked up to it. It's just I don't have cable, a satellite dish, or even an antennae attached to the thing. My wife and I have a DVD player and a V.C.R. and bring in exactly one channel, sort of, that we never watch.

Part of the reason is expense; we just have never been able to justify paying for something that neither of us is really that concerned about. Anyway there always seems like there's something I'd rather be doing then watching television or even watching movies these days.

I don't know if you've ever noticed how much conversation revolves around what people watch on television – maybe you only notice when you don't watch it and you don't have a clue what people are talking about. Sometimes it will even take me a while to figure out that the people under discussion in a conversation aren't real, but are characters from a television show.

The way they talk about their lives they sound like they know and care about them more than their own children. Sometimes it's a real effort not to say something: "Hey they're fictional fucking characters people" But I know they'd think I'm the strange one so I just drift off into a corner and sit and drink coffee, smoke cigarettes, and them make my excuses and go home early.

I suppose I could try and change the topic of conversation, but what do you do: "So how about third world debt relief?" Yeah right that would go over real well – you try it sometime and see what happens and let me know all right? I frankly don't have the energy anymore to try and hold an intelligent conversation under those circumstances.

But then there's the other end of the spectrum, the half-baked intellectual complainers. By half-baked I'm referring to their intellectual development not their level of intoxication in case you wondered. These are the people that can find a million other things to blame other than themselves for their screw-ups.

They've been misunderstood because of their being so special by everyone from their kindergarten teacher to the last woman who dumped their sorry asses. Unfortunately these usually are men, although I've noticed a disturbing trend among women recently to start holding conversations in the same manner. .

If society would only give them a chance they would be doing so great, but they can't understand what this emphasise on doing anything is all about. Can't everybody see that we should all be grateful just to be allowed to bask in their wonderfulness? Quite frankly give me an in depth analysis of Gilligan's Island any day of the week over trying to hold a conversation with that type of person.

But even they pale in comparison to the intellectual/philosophical/spiritual/artistic conversations that mean absolutely nothing. I don't mean the innocent conversations that most young academics engage in when they've discovered the joy of hanging out with people of like mind for the first time in their life and so spend the night solving the world's problems

No I'm talking about people who don't let trivial things like facts get in the way of an argument, or who talk about the deep artistic meaning of Meatloaf's lyrics, or somehow or other make the war in Afghanistan the soldier's fault. They usually speak in sweeping generalities about topics they know nothing about and manage to make reference to chaos theory, existentialism, and any number of other intellectual sounding academic pursuits in every sentence whether its pertinent or not.

They are the painters who never picked up a paint brush, the writers who've never written a page of prose or a line of verse, and the actors and dancers who've yet to stand in front of an audience. But that doesn't prevent them from being experts in those fields or stop them from pontificating about what is lacking in them.

I don't talk about my spiritual beliefs because; they're really no one's business but my own and I don't think anyone else would be really that interested. But neither of those considerations seems to have crossed a lot of people's minds. I've actually heard conversations being turned into boasting contests about who is more spiritual.

Invariably these are the conversations, or slight variations on, that I encounter the majority of time when I'm away from home. Finding someone, anybody even to have a decent conversation with has become nigh on impossible. And people wonder why I'm so content to hang out at home and read, or write.

I don't think of myself as a snob or an elitist, but if I am I don't apologise for it. I enjoy reading and thinking, and think consideration of another person's feelings is usually a good thing. But somehow these characteristics seem to be a draw back in most polite society today.

Is it too much too ask to be able to find someone to chat with about a book I've just read or to have an informed discussion about a topic in the news. I'd welcome someone who disagreed with me intelligently with open arms right about now over anybody else. It's getting quite depressing the lack of people to talk to anymore.

Think about it; when was the last time you had a real conversation?

May 25, 2007

Book Review: Steve Goodman Facing The Music Clay Eals

I'm pretty sure that in years to come if you were to look up the word exhaustive in an English language dictionary that all they will need do is put a picture of Clay Eals beside the word and everyone will understand the meaning instantaneously. I guess other adjectives describing how completely he covers his subject in his biography of Steve Goodman, Facing The Music are also appropriate, but when a book is 800 pages long and over a thousand people have been interviewed in its making you can't go wrong starting with exhaustive.

If you've never heard of Steve Goodman, and I'm sure there are a sizable number of people who haven't, you're probably going to be wondering why so much effort has gone into writing a book about this guy. That's probably a fair question and can be best answered a couple of ways.

First of all there are the people who were interviewed for this book; starting with Arlo Guthrie who wrote the forward and Studs Terkel who wrote the preface and then proceeding down the line to Steve Martin (Yes the Steve Martin) Kris Kristofferson, Bonnie Rait, Jackson Brown, Randy Newman, Lily Tomlin, Carl Reiner, Martin Mull, Marty Stuart, and some woman named Hillary Rodham Clinton. Of course there were like a thousand more then that but those are just some of the highlights.
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This guy obviously had something in him that he could touch such a disparate group of people across generations and that's what Clay has taken great pains to study and understand. Who was this meteoric ball of fire that passed through the music world and left it long before his trajectory should have ended.

You see Steve's career was always going to be finite – he was diagnosed with leukemia when he was twenty but somehow held off the inevitable until 1984 – and played every song not knowing if it would the last time he got to play it. He was so successful at disguising what was going on with his body that it wasn't even until two or so years before he died and he had a major relapse that he even went public about his impending doom.

You might think you've never heard a Steve Goodman song, but if you've ever heard what Johnny Cash called the best damn train song ever written, "City of New Orleans" you've heard a Steve Goodman song. It was Arlo Guthrie who made the song famous and also kept Steve solvent. That song alone must have assured Steve and his family financial viability, especially considering his medical bills must have been substantial.
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It would have been easy for Clay to write one of those valiant tales of the little guy who fought against great odds to fulfill his dreams and turn it into something sentimental and smarmy. But that's not the picture he draws of Steve, because obviously no one can be that kind of saint.

This is a warts and all portrait, with friends recounting that Steve was victim to a temper that could lay waste to a city block. Getting into fights with hosts at restaurants for not letting him in for being in violation of the dress code, or running down behind home plate at Wrigley Field and getting into a ferocious argument with the home plate umpire. (When the umpire proved he was right and Steve was wrong he was able to laugh at himself, but he was still mad)

It's Clay's insistence on accuracy that actually makes Steve Goodman seem that much more amazing an individual. While the accolades tell us what we already gathered from the fact that book was written, that Steve was a remarkable, it's the warts that keep him human and someone who it is that much easier to identify with.

Of course some of the anecdotes about Steve and famous people are a lot of fun; Johnny Cash walking on stage and taking his boots off when Steve said all he need was Johnny's boots and he'd look just like him, or Kris Kirstofferson and Steve Martin both saying the biggest mistake they ever made in their lives was having Steve Goodman opening for him as he would do such an amazing forty minute set that they couldn't compete with him.

In 1972 Steve and his wife Nancy adopted their first child Jessie. They had been warned that the possibility of Steve passing the disease along to a next generation was a real enough risk that they should consider not having children. According to people Clay interviewed once they began to raise children (three in total) Steve's obsession became to leave them a legacy.

"City Of New Orleans" ensured that the family of Steve Goodman will probably never want for much. It also seems that in the minds and hearts of thousands of people, all those interviewed for this book at least, that Steve created an indelible impression on people that will also be his legacy.

Clay Eals has created something unique in the biographic genre and it took me a bit to pin down what the difference was in this book from others of the type. Every single source is first hand. All the stories that you read, all the anecdotes that are retold, are told by the people who were there to see them. He didn't go to a library and read books about Steve, but he has written the book that people will seek out in the future.

Piece by piece Clay has built a picture of this remarkable singer whose music and person touched countless people. A proud man who never used his illness to generate sympathy for himself but lived with the fact that he only had a limited amount of to accomplish all that he wanted. There is information in this book and stories that offer insight into some of the fear that Steve must have lived with, and the courage that it must have taken him to get up every morning and to keep going.

Some might make a lot out of the fact that almost none of Steve's immediate family agreed to participate in the making of this book, only his dauter Jessie agreed to be interviewed, but I don't look on that as a slight against the book or the author rather a way of the family respecting Steve's desire never to put himself before his music and never to spotlight his illness.

For those of us who knew and appreciated the wonderful music of Steve Goodman when he was alive, and continue to do so long after he's left, Facing The Music is a treasure trove that you will continually want to delve into. If you were unfamiliar with Steve before reading this book, by the time you work your way through he will be forever engraved into your memory.

It seems that as the years have passed Steve Goodman's legacy continues to grow. The past year has seen the release of concert footage packaged into a DVD and the restoration of a club date he did at his favourite bar in Chicago, The Earl Of Old Town. It was at this bar that he told one of Chicago' most notorious mob bosses off to his face in song and … well read the book and you'll find out what happened.

Included in with each book is a copy of a CD of music recorded by folk musicians whose lives were touched by Steve Goodman's, either through song or personal contact. You might not have heard of any of these people, but that just shows how far and wide Steve's net was cast. The songs are originals written in his memory and honour.

Facing The Music by Clay Eals is a fitting tribute to an extraordinary man, and will hopefully help keep the name of Steve Goodman alive for many years to come.

May 21, 2007

Book Review: Theft Peter Carey

The first book I read by Peter Carey was Illywhacker and I liked it enough to read Oscar and Lucinda. But since then I haven't picked up one of his books. If you had asked me why I wouldn't have been able to give you a real reason, save there were other books I was more interested in reading, or that he wasn't on my watch list for new releases.

It wasn't that either of the books were badly written or anything, or even that they weren't readable and likeable, its just I wasn't particularly moved by either one of them. The real problem was that I had no real memories of either book save that both started to feel like a chore to wade through in order to get to the finish.

But it's been a number of years since, and with the release by Vintage Canada of his latest book Theft I decided to take the plunge again. Once more Mr. Carey takes us to that strange land of Australia so that he can show off the local fauna in its natural habitat.
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On this occasion we are dealing with the sub-species of Australian known as a visual artist, or painter if you will, and the misadventures that befall him as he attempts to win back his place in the pantheon of "importance". It seems that our erstwhile protagonist's, Michael Boone by name, star had been on the rise back in the seventies with his work making sizable chunks of change among the artistic set.

But it all went bad, his marriage ended, his wife took possession of his paintings, and for breaching a restraining order he ended up in jail. Unlike death it seems that jail does not appreciate a modern artist's work either in terms of cash or in terms of recognition and he is quickly relegated to the scrape heap where of the passé.

While he may be forlorn and forgotten, Michael is not forsaken. Upon his release from jail he is set up in country retreat by his patron/former neighbour so he can paint and be kept away from his ex wife and child. Any work he produces now will be outside of the "martial possessions" so he will be able to keep whatever monies he earns.

Michael has another burden to bear aside from that of being a modern artist with no selling power any more, his brother Hugh. Adult in body, Hugh's mental health has been stunted and he is unable to live on his own. As long as he take his meds, and allowed his routine he's reasonably contented and manageable, but he's large and can be dangerous both to himself and others.

For a while it looks like they will be able to set up a routine and things might work out for the Boone brothers. But out of a storm torn night there comes the shape that will make their lives anything but routine for a good deal of time to come. In spite of the fact that she's "a gammon " according to Hugh, a tiny bit of a thing, Marlene manages to take them down a path that will nigh on ruin them both.
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Judging by the title of the book one could be forgiven for thinking that once we meet Marlene that the story will be one of Art theft. But in the world of international art, theft appears to be a minor transgression. Compared to some of the other "activities" described in Theft there is something nice and straightforward, almost honest, in a good old-fashioned robbery.

The back stabbing, lying, cheating, fakery, lust, envy, and even gluttony that goes on behind the closed doors of the auction houses, galleries and dealer's doors would be enough to make the devil blush. After all he only managed to come up with seven deadly sins, while these folk seem to delight in inventing new one on a daily basis.

I have to hand it to Peter Carey on this one; he has done a wonderful job in a number of areas. First his depiction of the world of international art is a delight in its inventive larceny. With the amount of money that is now at stake when a work of art is on the market, all it takes is a whisper of doubt in the right ear from the right lips to shake foundations worse than an earthquake.

To tell his story of the Boone Brothers Carey covers the same territory twice, once through the eye of older brother Michael and once through the eyes of Hugh. We learn just how fragile Hugh is from his own narrative and how much he really does depend on his brother. But he also inadvertently give us insight into both his and his brother's characters and how they were formed through his relating of their childhood.

Michael was an outsider to the world of art and when the novel opens till retains vestiges of his naiveté. Only as Maureen exposes him to the seamier side of the art world does it finally begin to dawn on him that it will never matter how brilliant he is unless he is willing to play the game. Whole nobody does anything out of pure altruism, he does find out what people, including himself, will do in the name of love

Theft was a far more memorable book than either of the other two I mentioned, as Carey has honed his wit to razor sharpness. Instead of wielding it like a blunt instrument as he formally did he's inserting it deftly and making careful cuts to deflate oversized egos and whittle things down to a proper perspective.

Art should be about how much it moves the spirit, not how much it will move for. But the reality is unfortunately the latter more often then the former. Dangle dollar sings in front of people and some of them will contemplate anything for the opportunity. At some point though a line will be reached that if you cross it turning back will no longer be an option.

Theft is full of such lines that people cross, justifying it in the name of art. But greed and selfishness are still greed and selfishness no matter how you colour them. It's not a pretty picture that Carey sometimes paints in this book, but it is a valuable one.

Canadians who wish to buy Theft can purchase it either directly from the Random House Canada or other reputable on line retailers like Amazon.ca



May 13, 2007

Canadian Politics: Child Poverty - Our Shame

Well my goodness, reason to celebrate everybody, Canada' childhood poverty rate, the percentage of children living in poverty as has dropped back down to 11.7% according to Statistics Canada's latest figures. I guess all of us negative folk who haven't believed in Stephen Harper are just going to have to east some crow.

The economy is pushing ahead at full steam and child poverty levels have dropped back down to where they were in 1989. Yep that's right 1989; that was the same year that Canadian politicians were so appalled at how high the number of children living in poverty was that they swore to eliminate child poverty by the year 2000.

Well it's 2007 and we finally got the number back down to the 1989 level again which means something somewhere has gone wrong with the plan. In 1989 Canada had just started to recover from the worst recession that we had experienced since the Depression (You notice we only have recessions now never Depressions – how recessed does a hole have to be before it is considered a depression?) Yet now when our economy is supposedly in the best shape it has been in years we still have the exact same number of children living in poverty.

Canada's economy has doubled in the last twenty-five years until now we have the 9th largest in the world. Unemployment is at a thirty year low, which means more Canadians are working now then ever before yet three quarters of a million children live below the poverty line. What's even scarier is that a third of those children have at least one of their parents working yet they still live in poverty.

One of the problems lies in the fact that in spite of the red-hot economy the majority of the people in this country aren't seeing any benefits from it. In fact Canada's poorest families are actually earning less in real terms then they did a generation ago. On the other hand the wealthiest Canadians are enjoying a thirty per-cent increase in their incomes. In one generation the gap between our richest wage earners and our poorest has grown to from being 31 times the income to 82.

Another annoying detail is that our poorest families our poorer now then they ever have been. The typical low-income family with two parents are now living an average of $9,000 below the poverty line. That's in spite of there being a so-called social safety net of welfare and employment insurance that is supposed to protect people in times of trouble.

The government of Canada has been merrily cutting spending so as to make the economy work better for all the people of Canada to benefit. They've even generated a surplus of 35 billion dollars to spend, none of which has been earmarked for helping to alleviate poverty. They obviously can live with the fact that three quarters of a million children across Canada could be going to sleep without being fed properly every night.

It seems like a couple of the provinces don't think that's such a good thing, both Quebec and Newfoundland, and the latter doesn't has never been a wealthy province with money to spare, are investing in family income support programs, day care, training and education, and affordable housing. The things that are needed to help people break a cycle of poverty and improve their lot in life.

Other countries, countries whose economies aren't doing as well as ours, have implemented programs like these to help fight poverty with success. Canadians have told pollsters that these are the steps they'd like to see our government take to help reduce poverty and decrease the size of income disparity, but Stephen Harper and his government don't seem to be getting the message.

Right now Canada is in a position to take steps to implement programs like these on a national level. But instead we have the government doing things like scrapping a national day care deal that would have helped the working poor and replacing it with a system that benefits people with incomes that are substantial enough that they need tax write offs. What good do tax credits do you if you don't have the money in the first place to pay for day care, or it there aren't enough day care spaces?

Conservative politicians love to talk about the trickle down effect that occurs when wealthy make more money and are encouraged to invest it and thus create more jobs. What they don't talk about is the trickle down effect that depriving people of things like day care, after school programs, and school lunches has on the working poor. They all add up to reduce their standards of living making it harder and harder for them to make ends meet.

We live in one of the wealthiest countries in the world; there is no reason that any child in Canada should be going to bed hungry at night or without a roof over their head. For 750,000 of them that is a very real potential. That is unacceptable.

Critic And Reviewer: A Difference In Intent

Over the years the definition of what is a critic and what is a reviewer have come to be identical. Even the majority of modern English language usage dictionaries reflect that opinion by using one to define the other: a critic is someone who write reviews, and a review is something written by a critic.

While it's true that more and more often there is little distinction to be made between the two in the way they are applied in most instances; newspapers, online blogs, magazines, television, and other venues of pop media, it does not mean there is no distinction. It's only because of the need to supply the users of the dominant popular culture with easily comprehensive opinions: good/not good; pretty/not pretty; or even evil/not evil, that the concept of what we call a review has even come about.

Historian Douglas Harper has written in the Chicago Manual Style's Online Etymology Dictionary histories of the words, critic and review that offer some interesting distinctions. Critic has only been in use since 1583 and was derived from the Greek word 'kritikos" meaning "able to make judgements" and a second Greek word "krinein" meaning "to separate, decide" Critical in the sense of "finding fault with something" didn't come into use for another seven years

Review according to Mr. Harper at the same source has been around for quite a bit longer, since 1441. It was derived from the middle French (as opposed to Old French or modern) word "reveue" meaning: " a reviewing, review" and the combination of two Latin words "re" meaning "again" and "videre" "to see" forming the French "reveeir" meaning "to see again".

If we look at some of the ways we still use the word review; reviewing the troops, to take matters under review, or to review the facts in a case, we can see the connection to its origins. However in terms of reviewing a book, play, film, or whatever, all it means is to go over again what happened. Unlike critic there is no implication of making a judgement on the item under review or reaching a decision.

Let's return to the modern day and if we were to look at a typical review what we are usually offered is primarily a revisiting of the events with a judgement based on those events. How well have the actors performed their roles, or how well has the author created his plot and other information pertinent to the item's presentation are reviewed and judged in terms of a standard based on contemporary expectations and demands.

The critical element of the process is reserved solely for saying how well an item has lived up to a pre agreed upon standard the reviewer uses as a benchmark against which to measure performance. This standard is of course subject to change dependant on the whim of fashion and the savvy of marketing departments, rendering it almost completely arbitrary and limited as a basis for judgement.

A critic on the other hand will spend less time reviewing content and more in placing the item in context with works of a similar nature so there is a basis of comparison for judgement. There is no point in judging a detective novel by the same standards that you would judge a book of poetry, or a Country music CD by those you'd use for an opera. Each of them have their own set of criteria that have been established by precedent over the years and it is the critics job to be able to understand enough about a genre to "judge" how well an individual piece fits within it.

That's even more important when dealing with pieces that are experimental in nature. A critic has to be able to understand not only what is being attempted, but how well the attempt succeeds based on the norm that is being broken with. A critic has to be able to inform his or her audience about any information that is pertinent to the item being critiqued.

With the development of a popular culture and a corresponding popular press to report on it, a means of validating the work through some system of assessment was required. Since there was no body of work to use as a history for basis of comparison, and fashions in pop culture change too quickly for that ever to be feasible for more than a small percentage of its output, the current system was developed.

Although pop culture has now been around a sufficient time for some forms, Jazz and Blues for instance, to evolve to the point where there is now plenty of history to draw upon, it hasn't changed the majority approach. The occasional specialist magazine or web site will have a critic who will take the time to inform their audience, but they are the exception not the rule.

While there is no doubt the review format is by far the more popular of the two currently, if one genuinely wishes to inform a reader of more then just your personal opinion, being a critic is the way to go. Although the distinction between the two formats is hardly ever made any more the difference is obvious.

May 6, 2007

Book Review: Istanbul Orhan Pamuk

I have to admit that the one genre of writing that I've never had much liking for has always been the autobiography. There are just so many ways a person can be self-serving when they write about themselves, either by talking about the amazing things they've done (according to them), or detailing the incredible sacrifices they had to make on their road to fame thus ensuring we know just what martyrs they've been.

Worst of all is the playing down of their accomplishments in alluring displays of false modesty. That way, it is hoped I assume, we readers will be quicker in anointing them with a seal of approval that ensures them their "rightful" place in the annals of history. How many times have you heard it said of a politician that they are attempting to ensure his or her place in history? I can't think of anything scarier to be honest.

It's bad enough the damage they inflict just through their day-to-day interference with our world without them attempting to leave their mark so that they will be remembered and have a reason for writing their memoirs. In some cases you have to wonder, which came first, the need to write the memoir or the need to do something to be able to write a memoir.

That's not to say there aren't worthwhile memoirs where the author has used situations in his or her life as an example of how to overcome a difficulty. In those instances they aren't technically writing a memoir as they are not the subject matter and are only relevant because of what their presence adds to the topic.

After reading all that it probably won't come as any surprise to you me saying that if I had known that the Random House Canada publication Istanbul by Orhan Pamuk was a memoir I wouldn't have been so hot to read it. Maybe it was the comparison to Joyce' Ulysses that confused me into somehow thinking it was a novel, I'm not sure, but I do know that it wasn't until I had the book in my hands that I realized it wasn't fiction.
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Thankfully Mr. Pamuk is not the type of writer who feels the need for self-aggrandisement and has merely included himself in the proceedings as a reporter on events and an example. He isn't writing about himself, he is merely participating in the telling of Istanbul's secrets.

As he describes the city, he acknowledges her past and the spell she exerted upon Westerners. The jewel of the Orient, The Mysterious East, and all the other stereotypes that were perpetuated by 19th century romantics are examined and found to be inaccurate even at the time of the their conception. By the mid to late 1800s the Ottoman Empire was already shrinking back to the borders of Istanbul, and she was starting to reflect the decline.

By the time of the author's birth in the 1950's, in the brave new world of the Republic of Turkey, empire and royalty are fading into memory as quickly as former palaces become apartment blocks and rooming houses. Even those remnants, which were mainly along the Bosphorus River that bisects Istanbul, had been built by bureaucrats of the Empire in a bid to escape from the crowding of Istanbul's core by waves of immigrants. (It 's apparent the concept of moving to the suburbs to escape the poor huddled masses is not a modern or solely Western concept)

Mr.Pamuk describes the yahs, the Turkish word for these waterside mansions as mere shadows of a destroyed culture. In other words they weren't even a pale imitation of the architecture of the Empire at its heyday that inspired the Romantic urges of 19th century Europe. So when a painter would come to Istanbul to record the mysterious east with all of its splendour he would find himself forced into "orientalizing" his work to make it "authentic"

The Bosphorus is obviously central to Istanbul as she repeatedly pops up in the book. She exerts a magnetic pull upon the author that keeps him returning to her banks at various stages in his life. That the word Bosphorus in Turkish means throat, and that the river delves deep into the middle of the city, gives the impression that if you were to follow the river to its furthest extent you would be able to delve deeply into the heart of Istanbul's secrets.

The river has its own mythology, stories of bodies disposed of in her murky depths that are quickly pulled out to sea by the fierce currents. But in spite of her fierceness she is also the site of many a family outing as parents and children head to her banks for a weekend afternoon outing. Of course there is also the known curative powers of the sea air, which doctors would prescribe patients in the final stages of their recuperation as a tonic, to spend time upon her waters in one of the many fishing boats that were for hire.
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But that too is in the past, from the author's youth of the 1950's and 60's, although he does say that to this day he will always associate the Bosphorus with good health. But even those thoughts cannot dispel the overlying air of melancholy that is described as the constant state of being for the people of Istanbul.

Hûzûn is the Turkish word for melancholy, but according to Mr. Pamuk it has little in common with the word as we know it. In Istanbul especially it takes on a meaning that goes beyond sadness or individual grief. It is a shared sense of loss that is felt by all her inhabitants. In every neighbourhood no matter how poor or how wealthy one can find ruins of the empire.

The constant reminder of what once was and can never be again imbues the soul and spirit of the "Istanbullus". According to the author one can attempt to pretend it doesn't exist for a time, but then when it does hit you, another building collapses into ruins revealing some little piece of princely past, it hits you even harder.

Istanbul is a voyage into the heart of a city as seen through the eye of memories, history, and a person who has lived his entire life on her streets. Orhan Pamuk is so sentimentally attached to his city and its past that he resides again in the apartment of his childhood as if he's trying to regain the lost empire of the city of fifty years ago. Would the Istanbul of his childhood tried to have jailed him for writing "Anti- Turkish" thoughts? Or is that part of what he sees as part of the decline.

The irony of course is that the Ottoman Empire was seen by those under its rule as cruel and despotic, something to be thrown off like shackles. Here in Istanbul it appears that while they may not long for the actual Empire, they are preoccupied with the loss of its trappings and ostentatious displays of wealth. But to think that would only to see the veneer of feeling that affects life within this city that's older then most of the post Roman Empire western world.

Orhan Pamuk has written an amazing story of a city and how it's people relate to it. Using himself and his family as examples he manages to convey how Istanbul and her people are irrevocably interconnected. Istanbul is more than a memoir, and much more than a travel guide. It's not only a voyage into the heart of a city, but also an anatomy of the soul of a people


May 1, 2007

Rama,Writing, And Me

Sometimes two events become so irrevocably linked that it's hard to remember which came first and what the connection was in the first place. That is the case for me when I started to blog. I've recently celebrated the third anniversary of writing an article a day for my home space, which made me start thinking about what it was that got me started, or gave me the idea in the first place.

I don’t believe in coincidences, everything that happens does so for a reason, even the fact that I'm writing this article on May 1st, the turning of the year, a time for new beginnings in some of the older traditions, is not without portent. It's also no coincidence that I happened to receive in the mail about five weeks ago a complete set of the Indian edition of Ashok Banker's Ramayana, or that I've been reading it almost non-top since.
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Three years ago I was wandering through a book store when I came across book one of Ashok's modern version of The Ramayana. I knew nothing about him or the poem but the name Valmiki was familiar to me. A friend of some friends of mine had opened a teahouse in the city where I live for a short while called Valmiki's. I knew that the friends were Hindu, so I knew Valmiki was important.

Seeing a series of books based on a tale he had originally told, told over three thousand years ago by the way, piqued my interest. At that time books one through three, Prince of Ayodhya, Siege of Mithila, and Demons of Chitrakut were published, so I immediately scooped up all three of them and read them back to back.

To say I was inspired would be an understatement; I thought they were some of the most amazing books I had read in a long time and wanted to tell the world about them. I had been writing in sort of a desultory fashion at the time; pecking away at a story that was rapidly stalling, writing a couple of articles, and some poetry. I was selling them at Lulu.com in the hopes that people would find them and buy the.

But I had nowhere to post things on a regular basis. I discovered Ashok's web site at that time and went and read through it and learned more about the man who wrote these books and what Rama meant to India. I was fascinated. When I discovered he had an area for readers to write him and to mail in reviews, I quickly wrote him a long letter about the whole Valmiki thing and sent him a review I wrote of all three books. (I had previously published it at MouthShut.com, ironically enough an Indian based review site being the only one I had been able to find easily)
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When Armies of Hanuman came out in Canada in 2005 I immediately wrote a review of it and sent it off to Ashok's web site along with a letter reminding him of the story I had related about the teahouse named Valmiki's. I had assumed he had not, for some reason, read the first one. When he wrote back and asked it I knew myself because somebody had already written him about a teahouse in Kingston called Valmiki's I had to laugh. (When I told him to check the return addresses of the two emails he must have found it funny as well, judging by the humour of his reply)

By this time Ashok had opened his first blog through Google's Blogspot network. There was a link on his site, as there are on all Blogspot blogs, inviting you to get your own blog. Well I followed that link and started my own blog and the rest as they say is history.

Would I have discovered Blogspot without Ashok? Probably yes, but who knows how long it would have taken. Picking up that original Orbit copy of Prince of Ayodhya was the first step in me being exactly where I am today in terms of my writing. It was because of my love for Ashok's books that I began to write reviews; he was the first person I interviewed because I liked his books so much, and now three years later I'm editing his website/literary magazine.
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I feel in some ways that Rama and his story have a lot to do with me being here where I am today. It was important for me to find his story as told by Ashok aside for more reasons then the ones I've already given. In the final book of the series, King Of Ayodhya Rama is referred to as Maryada Pushottam – He Who Fulfils His Vow by his followers. At one point his brother Lakshman adds to that title the words…Against All Odds.

In spite of many obstacles and temptations thrown in his path Rama lives his life according to the simple precept of doing exactly what he says he will do and what is expected of him according to who he is. He is a son, a King in waiting, a husband, the disciple of a guru, a brother, and eventually the leader of an army. He is also gifted with various celestial weapons and powers that he can draw on under certain conditions, and only those certain conditions.

Each role he plays has it's own conditions that must be followed. If at anytime there appears to be a conflict between fulfilling his duty as a son and as a King, he has to figure out how he can resolve the conflict and do what is the right thing. But in spite of that he is always able to do the right thing even if it turns out to be the most difficult and the most fraught with danger.
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It was in this manner that The Ramayana as told by Ashok Banker introduced me to the concept of dharma. I had of course heard the word many times before but had never really understood the concept. Simply put dharma is the fulfillment of your duty to yourself in spite of whatever obstacles you might face.

At the time when I read the story of Rama I was just beginning to start writing in earnest. But I also suffer from a chronic, acute, pain condition, which means I'm in constant agony. That was my obstacle to overcome; it is what could prevent me from being one who fulfills his vows as a writer, a husband, a son, and a brother.
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Sometimes I have failed, given into self-pity, resentment, and all the other traps that we set for ourselves so that we won't succeed. I have a perfectly legitimate excuse for failure and inexcusable behaviour at my fingertips. But every time I hear myself, even in my own head, using it, I'm ashamed and it sounds like an excuse. There are people in the world with far worse problems that get out of bed every day and are simply grateful for being given that gift.

So for three year I've done pretty well, but life can play tricks on you. It rewards you for being diligent and hard working by giving you recognition, in my case editing Epic India, and you use that responsibility along with what ever other excuses you may have at hand, to stop doing what you're supposed to be doing.

Oh I still produce an article or two a day for the various sites I write at, whether a review of a book or a CD, or and opinion piece on some aspect of the world today. But they feel like excuses for not working on what I'm supposed to be working on. My novel sits abandoned and neglected. Not only haven't I done the revisions I want to do on book one but I have not done any work on book two in almost a year.

It doesn't matter what other things I'm achieving, what praise that I'm winning, or anything else. What matters is that I don't feel like I'm doing what I should be doing, or all that I should be doing. It's very easy to make excuses, but they still ring false in my ears so I've got to make a change and stop the excuses. It's not even like I have too much work otherwise, I'm usually finished with the blogs by ten o'clock in the morning at the latest.
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Today is May 1st the turning of the year and I have just finished reading all six books of Ashok Banker's Ramayana again, and this time in their original Indian editions, as the author intended them to be read. It is never too late to start fulfilling your dharma or to do what you are supposed to do.

Jai Shri Rama.

April 29, 2007

Book Review: Three Dreams On Mount Meru Francois Devenne

Africa. The Dark Continent. The realm mystery and romance for European writers from the time of "Dr. Livingston I presume" to the African Queen and Raiders Of The Lost Arc and home to the Great White Hunter and the loyal black porters. A land of mysterious impenetrable jungles and wide expanses of hostile plains filled with man eating beast lurking under every tree waiting to devour the innocent blond maiden and missionaries tied to a stake for the cannibal stew pot.

These and other images have been the backdrops for plots ranging from searching for lost gold to stories of a human raise by the great apes. Our view of Africa and her people has long been coloured by purple prose and the white man's burden with "Bawana" always having to play father to his childlike native servants who just can't keep a stiff upper lip and fall apart during a crises.

Either that or our heads are filled with the images of recent history. The post colonial tribal hatreds, the famines, the tin pot dictators that come and go, and of course the pandemic of AIDS. Surely there has to be more to the people and the continent than this rather limited and pejorative view. The trouble is trying to find any writings about Africa that aren't written about either politics or, to steal from the Irish, "troubles".
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Well one such antidote has been supplied by French writer Francois Devenne. Although born in France and a European he exhibited a fascination for Africa from an early age and wrote his student thesis on the geography and agriculture of the Kilimanjaro region of Tanzania. He moved to Kenya where he worked the French Institute of African Studies. It was during his time working in Kenya that he wrote his first novel; a novel about an Africa that few of us know anything about.

Three Dreams On Mount Meru is the story of the path we all travel to adulthood, but told within the framework of two cultures that are just staring to merge. Bayu, the youngest male in a clan renowned for their abilities as carvers and craftsmen in wood, is both African and Muslim. So while the message of the prophet is still law and sacred to him, the belief in magic and respect for the spirit world of dreams is still strong in his people.
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For wasn't it a dream which made their families fortunes when his ancestor from eight generations back obeyed a dream he had as a child in his efforts to rebuild a mosque. If we were talking about Native American's we would be talking about animal guides and vision quests in reference to the dream in question, for the ancestor was led to his revelation by a leopard and even in Bayu's day the leopard remains a figure of mystique and power.

It was Bayu's ancestor, who instituted the tradition that the young men of the clan intent on following in his footsteps travel to Mount Meru and dream three dreams to complete their passage into manhood. But it's not until the women he is supposed to marry challenges him to return from Mount Meru with a flower that he's given birth to, that he is given his first clue as to the true importance of the both the tradition and the leopard.

With his fiancées' last words of "…the leopard is the creative breath of the clan" still loud in his ears he begins his quest to find his three dreams. When he returns they will marry, but first he must survive the ordeal – something not everybody who sets out on the journey have done. For not only does he face the perils of crossing the Savannah on his own where he will be easy pray for any hungry predator, he has to survive his encounters with other tribesman.

Needless to say the ordeal is not what he expects. How will he know when he has had the dreams that he's supposed to have. Even if he does, what is he supposed to do about them? Will they tell him things that he must do, or will they give him glimpses of events that will force him to make choices that will dictate what his future will be.

Devenne has done something truly remarkable with this book. Not only has he created a marvellous coming of age story and exploration of a person becoming aware of their own abilities and potential, he has done it in such a manner that we also learn a great deal about the people of that time.

His descriptions of the environments that Bayu has to pass through on his way to the Mountain and once there are breathtaking in their ability to not only capture the beauty and the harshness of the land, but to depict a country with a multitude of landscapes. Even the Savannah, which we've seen depicted as undulating, endless prairie lands, has a diversity that come as a shock.

But none of it prepares us, or Bayu for the Mountain. Devenne somehow manages to convey both its beauty and foreboding nature simultaneously, making them a target both desirable and intimidating. But Bayu is not deterred by any obstructions and it is his strength of character, determination, and willingness to risk that help him succeed. For it's not only a transition into manhood he must undergo, but a transformation into an artist and as his fiancée so rightly says to him before he sets out, creativity always has the risk of failure attached to it.

Francois Devenne has taken a risk with the telling of this story. It's very hard, if not impossible to venture into the territory of another person's culture and be able to tell their story. But Devenne's love and appreciation for his subject matter, his obvious understanding and love for the environment, and the depth of his historical knowledge mean that he is ideally suited to the task and is able to succeed where others might have failed.

Not once in the telling does it ever feel like he is doing more than telling a story. He makes no claims to be some gifted shaman or wise man that the people of Africa have imparted mystical secrets to. He is simply a man telling a coming of age story utilizing knowledge that he has learnt through his studies and his own experiences from residing in Africa. This is a book that is truly a story in that if you dropped the narrative voice of Bayu from the text it could be told aloud around the fire at night when the flames are kissing the sky and the stars have been caught in their conflagration.

In Three Dreams On Mount Meru Francois Devenne brings to life an Africa that few of us are ever privileged enough to see. Take advantage of this opportunity, who knows when it will come around again.


April 28, 2007

Whose Terrorising Who?

Almost everyday the newspapers are filled with accounts of violent activity in Iraq. A car bomb here, a suicide bomb there, gunfire at a checkpoint, even an outbreak of outright hostilities on occasion. We know that the victims of these attacks are usually either Iraqi or American personnel serving in either the armed forces or security services.

The newspapers say that it is the work of faceless creatures called insurgents or even worse radical fundamentalist Muslims. They never offer any explanation as to possible reasons for these people to be fighting against the American forces that occupy their country except to say that they are insurgents or fundamentalist Muslims, or even scarier both.

In other words the only reason that they pick up weapons against the Americans is because of who they are, not because of anything that's been done to them. It wouldn't have anything to do with the fact that for the ten years prior to the invasion the country got steadily poorer as the embargo and the Oil for food programs steadily stripped the country of any means of generating income to pay for infrastructure, health care, education, and other things we take for granted.

It doesn't have anything to do with hospitals being bombed, museums being looted, Iraq's natural resources (mainly oil) being sold into private American hands and the money from the sales mysteriously disappearing. The theory had been sell off Iraq's assets at bargain prices to American interests and use that money to rebuild the country.

If there had been any sign of hope, or progress towards rebuilding things might be different. But what are people supposed to believe when they read reports of hundreds of millions of dollars just going missing that was earmarked for rebuilding? An initial audit from one city showed just that happening and who knows how wide spread it's become in the interim.

What would you think if the people who were behind the violence weren't doing it out of some fanatical Muslim belief? What would you think if they were people who were reacting to their treatment at the hands of people they believed didn't give a damn for them or their lives?

Put yourself in the shoes of the average twenty something Iraqi for a few moments in the above circumstances. Now add into the fact that you're treated with absolute disdain in your own country. People who can't speak your language, who don’t understand or respect your traditions, constantly yell at you in a language you don't speak; telling you what to do and how to behave.

In your eyes they desecrate your places of religion, they act like your culture that has existed for thousands of years is insignificant, and in their eyes you are less than a person. It seems to you that for no reason at all they invade your house and kill your friends, if not your family, whenever the mood strikes them.

Doesn't anybody find it odd that a person whose father was put to death by Saddam Hussein has become one of the biggest opponents of the American opposition? Wasn't the point to liberate people like him from the tyranny of Saddam? If that's the case why have they, over the course of the occupation, taken up arms against the Americans?

Could it be because they are tired of the way they are being ignored in their own country? Could it be that although they are grateful for the release from Saddam Hussein, they would like to have some say in how their country is put back together? Maybe they don’t want all their natural resources sold off to the highest bidder so that when they do have self-rule their economy is in foreign ownership?

We like to say that the reason behind all the violence is outside forces like Iran stirring up trouble, or people who've been promised paradise if they die on the battlefield. Our politicians and the "Muslim Experts" will recite this information by rote if you push the right button. They hate we say, in shocked disbelief, as we shake our heads at the wonder that anybody could hate the glorious West with our sacred cows of material wealth and self indulgence.

Sometimes I wonder how so many people can have their heads that far up their asses and still be breathing? What reason have we ever given the Arab world, especially Iraqis to like us? Try putting the situation on the ground for the people living in Iraq for the past sixteen years together with the insurgent activity? Can you see any connection between the two? If not I'd say that Western myopia has gone beyond pathetic to dangerous.

Look you kick someone in the ass long enough and make them feel like shit, they're bound to snap sooner or latter. They don't need to be fanatical this or that, they just need to be ordinary human beings who have been pushed too far and live with violence everyday. You grow up in a world where everything revolves around bombs and machine guns you might start thinking that is the only means of problem resolution.

I'm the last person in the world to condone violence. But there are times I can understand where it comes from. The mistake the West keeps on making is that we are constantly pouring gasoline on a fire. We have to stop responding to violence with increased violence and begin owning up to our share of the responsibility for creating the situation and circumstances that led to the violence.

We in the West have to stop thinking that our way is the only way and learning to meet people half way. We need to start making an effort to understand other peoples instead of lumping them all together as "different". We are the new kid on the block in terms of civilizations and yet we act as if any other ways of being are at best inferior to ours, if not wrong.

Where do we get off judging anybody else and their ways of being? Even amongst ourselves we can't reach any conclusions about how best to live our lives, so how dare we try to impose anything on others. What gives us the right to do that anyway?

I don't support the activities of terrorists of any stripe; whether they have homemade bombs they blow up in cars that wipe out anybody who happens to be in the vicinity or they drop bombs from airplanes thousands of feet above surface of the earth that wipe out whole city blocks indiscriminately. But we need to stop thinking of the people who are called terrorists by our press as faceless beings to be dismissed as "fundamentalists" or "insurgents".

There are humans behind those labels and the quicker we start putting faces to them, the quicker we will be able to bring the violence to a halt. I may not approve of either form of terrorism, but I can understand one better than the other. If my country were invaded by a foreign power I might fight back in anyway, or with any means at my disposal too.

April 25, 2007

Real Sustainable Development

You know, if the world's problems could be solved through catch phrases and impressive sounding slogans we'd be living in a veritable paradise. In some instances you'd swear that the folk behind a "concept", and maybe even a "framework", come up with a catchy phrase or title before they've even know what they're going to do.

In fact when it comes to describing what it is they are actually attempting to accomplish they string together a slew of modifying phrases that don't actually say anything. They take impressive sounding words like "cultural integrity", "a framework of networks", "community base initiatives", or "sustainable development" but don't ever say exactly what it is that they plan on doing.

It's enough to make George Orwell spin in his grave and language manipulators like former Press Secretary to Richard Nixon, Ron Ziegler, smile in appreciation. It's like the people behind the new age religions or pop psychologies that make a lot of noise without saying anything but sound impressive.

But once in a while you come across an organization that actually takes the time to not only spell out the issues they think need addressing to make the world a better place, but also define the programs they think will help. If they use any catch phrases it's within the proper context and they explain what them mean in terms of their programs.

By the sheerest of chances I came across a program yesterday on the Internet that not only meets the above criteria, but goes so far beyond it as to set a target for others to shoot at. Best Practices and Local Leadership Programme (BLP). I entered their site through a database listing a selection of projects from the around 2000 implemented through out the world.

BLP is one of the programmes run by the United Nations (UN) –Habitat, the UN's Human Settlement Programme. Its mandate is to promote socially and environmentally sustainable cities and towns, with the ultimate goal of providing adequate shelter for everyone. The BLP is only one of at least eight programmes operating on a global scope.

How global is global? Well the BLP has programmes operating form Bangladesh to Los Angles dealing with everything from issues of woman's safety, housing policy and practices, environmental planning and management, and children and youth are just of the few areas they cover around the world. Unlike so many other organizations of this nature they help communities develop programmes based on the needs and cultural requirements of the people involved. What might work in Southern India will not work in the Canadian artic after all.

Within a community various levels of government, business and non-governmental agencies learn how to work together in order to benefit both the populations and the partners doing the developing. By giving everyone a stake in the final result is one way of ensuring a project. final success.

As an example of the types of project they encourage, the one that appealed to me most is one that the transit system of the city of Bangkok in Thailand. Women were reluctant to ride on the city buses because of harassment my male customers and genuine threats of violence as well. To circumvent this problem they came up with idea of "The Lady's Bus".

On the 30th, 31st, and 1st of each month, the normal paydays in Bangkok, between the hours of 4:00pm and 9:00pm every third bus on the ten buses in the shopping district is reserved for women only, except for the crew who are there to protect them. If the program is successful it will be expanded on.

This is just one of the many simple but elegant projects that are listed in the database that the link in this article leads to. The Database is also a key element to the program as it allows other communities to search for ideas on how to deal with their specific problem. You'll notice that the database is also supported by the City of Dubai, The United Kingdom, The Together Foundation, as well as the UN-Habitat group.

In fact Dubai and the Un-Habitat have taken the unique step of running a contest every two years for the most unique sustainable development idea in each of the categories every two years. The Dubai awards received 713 submissions from around the world in 2006 showing how well this programme is working.

The fact that this programme is not just geared towards one segment of the world's population, but understands that there are problems with urban living throughout the world, is enough to make it unique. Combined with the fact that it encourages the development of ideas from within the community, allowing them to create something that fits their needs not what someone in another country thinks are their needs makes this one of the smartest tools I've ever seen for assisting people in need.

A lot of people seem to always be able to find disparaging things to say about the United Nations, but I've yet to see any other group who can coordinate such a vast array of projects that genuinely helps people. The next time you hear someone spewing off a bunch of nonsense about sustainable development and you start feeling angry and depressed – a trip to UN-Habitat Best Practices and Local Leadership Programmes will make you feel a whole lot better.

April 20, 2007

Worlds Apart

It's always very humbling to find out how much you still lack in awareness when it comes to being respectful of others in the world around you. You think of yourself as being fairly aware and try to take into account various beliefs and ways of living yet you still take things for granted and make assumptions that are wrong.

A prime example of that happened to me just the other day. I've set up a writer's group for the people who are contributing to the Epic India web site. It's for the usual thing; a place where people can post announcements and where I can list any items that people want reviewed. I don't know if other groups have this option, but Google groups allow you to restrict access to those eighteen year of age or older.

In a semi-serious, semi joking manner I labelled the group adult only. I was trying to pass on the message to my people that I didn't want any childish behaviour on the board. But there was something I hadn't taken into consideration. Some countries block sites labelled adult only routinely in attempt to maintain their strict moral codes.

Which is exactly what happened too one of my writers. He's living in one of the Gulf of Arabia states that are particularly strict about enforcing a Muslim lifestyle and as long as the adult designation remained on the site he wasn't going to be able to take part in the group's discussions.

When he wrote to tell me about it he was very apologetic, which of course there was no need for him to be. In fact when I wrote him back to tell him that I was changing the designation, I apologized to him for not having realized that the possibility of that existed. Here I had been going on about a multicultural international magazine and I do something without considering the full implications of my actions in other cultures.

Well, you say, how were you to know that the country this guy lives in was going to do something like that? To me that is the wrong question, I should be asking why didn't I know or consider the possibility that someone in the group would find themselves in that situation?

No I don't think I'm being too hard on myself either. Think of what we expect people to know about us. The least I can do is remember that Muslim societies aren't as open in some ways as ours and act accordingly. It's called understanding and respect for the way others live, something noticeably thin on the ground in our age of intolerance and unreason.

It doesn't matter what it is, groups with an adult designation, a house rule that demands all heads be uncovered all the time, or making everybody recite the same prayer in school, it all comes down to the same thing. Make allowances for other people's differences and they will respond in kind. It's amazing how just a little respect goes a long way.

April 19, 2007

The Fight Against Aids: One Step Forward - Three Steps Back

In what seems to be a part of the pattern when it comes to progress in fighting AIDS world wide, specifically in Africa, the little glimmer of hope offered by some good news is offset by the reality of what's still needed to be done. For although the cost of much needed first line drugs has dropped and countries are coming up with innovative means of reaching their people, the number of people not receiving care still out numbers those receiving care by as much as 90%.

Pregnant Women and children are still horribly at risk; with only 15% of all children and 11% of all pregnant women world wide receiving care it's hard to get exxcited by stories of the small advancements being made. Even more depressing is the fact that the region hardest hit, Africa, is still the region where care is the least adequate.

Ninety per-cent of children who have AIDS live in Africa right now as do the majority of the two million pregnant women who suffer from the disease. Each of these women is of course a threat to pass the illness onto their children in the womb if they don't receive pre-natal care.

One of the major reasons for the short fall in treatment currently is because most countries in Africa simply lack the facilities to properly care for their people. In order for a pregnant woman to be treated she of course has to be diagnosed, which means having access to a proper health care facility with a lab for processing test results. Even that isn't adequate on it's own, there still has to be continual care until the woman comes to term or she could still be infectious.

A similar situation exists for children in Africa. Half the babies born with AIDS die by the time they are two, but during those years their symptoms are impossible to distinguish from other diseases without testing. Unfortunately the test for someone under eighteen months in complicated and expensive, which means most infants die untested let alone treated. (As to why these countries lack health care facilities, they depend on the International Monetary Fund for loans to keep their countries afloat, and one of the conditions of being a loan recipient is that countries cut spending on social programs like health care)

So even though the number of people who are receiving medication has risen thirteen fold since 2003 (100,000 to 1.3million) its' really only a drop in the bucket. Especially when you consider the fact that these figures are based only on reported cases of AIDS. Fear of being diagnosed, ignorance of the facts, and the social stigma surrounding the disease keeps large numbers of people from even being tested and the disease continues to spread close to unchecked.

The availability of less expensive first-line retro viral drugs has probably been responsible for the majority of the gains made in the fight against HIV/AIDS in places like Africa. But problems still abound with ensuring people have access to the drugs they will need. The second-line drugs which people on long-term treatment need are still priced out of reach for most African health care systems to afford.

In Canada, in spite of the fact that a previous government tried to create a law which would allow a country access to the drugs they need at generic prices, very little of the drug actually leaves the country to go where needed. In fact not one pill has left Canada at all.

The problem is red tape and the incredible pressure put on governments around the world by the powerful brand-name pharmaceutical industry that is firmly against generic products. The way the system works is that a company that produces a generic version, or even adaptation of the patented drug, must receive permission from the owner of the patent to sell it. As if that were going to happen.

So when the company with the generic version is turned down it's up to individual countries to apply for a special two-year permit to buy the generic brand. But according to Richard Elliot, deputy director of HIV/AIDS Legal Network, this becomes a problem because a country will have to identify itself in the application.

Mr. Elliot continues by saying that every time in the last decade a country has tried to force the issue they have been swarmed by the pharmaceutical industry and their buddy the American Government. Mr. Elliot claims that the American government simply threatens to cut off trade with any country that tries to make use of the compulsory licence, effectively rendering the program and generic drugs useless.

The truly depressing thing in all this is the fact that there is proof when the drugs are made available, and the systems are in place to administer them, they make a big difference in a short space of time. But because a few men have decided that the money they make from controlling the drug is more important than the lives of millions of women and children people will continue to die in huge numbers.

The current Canadian government's health minister had the nerve to say that the program wasn't working because countries weren't making requests to have patents waived. Of course it was a previous Conservative government that extended pharmaceutical patents to twenty-five years, but that wouldn't have anything do with that comment would it?

Until governments around the world are prepared to stand up to the pharmaceutical companies, and demand the International Monetary Fund stop insisting on decimating social programming in debtor nations we will continue to fight a losing battle against the spread of HIV/AIDS in Africa and other parts of the world. It's not a war we can afford to lose – it's not a war we should be losing, but we are being betrayed by our own side

April 17, 2007

Virginia Tech And Iraq: Symptoms Of The Same Illness

On the same day that a lone gunman killed thirty-two people at an American University, Virginia Tech the country's President, George Bush, stood in the White House pleading with American politicians to give him more money for troops in Iraq. You know that Mr. Bush is bound to release a statement soon deploring the violence and death that took place at the school. But will he make any connection between his war in Iraq and the deaths in West Virginia? Will anybody?

In fact I doubt most people in North America would think of linking a seemingly random act of violence with an elected official seeking the means to escalate his country's participation in a war. Sixty years ago, maybe even only forty, they might have been right and the circumstances would have no bearing on each other. Unfortunately this is no longer the case.

We are living in a society that has become more and more willing to believe that the only way to resolve conflict is through violence. There has always been that mentality to some extent; the let them fight like men to resolve their differences attitude that's been popularized through movies, popular fiction and attitudes. Somehow two people beating the crap out of each other was considered an adult means of solving disputes.

Well I guess it does make for a more action-packed story to have the protagonists have to fight someone instead of sitting down and working out their differences and coming up with a compromise solution. But that's always been the "American Way", to solve disputes outside, either with six guns on main street in the old west or in today's parking lots with fists, feet, knives, and whatever else you can lay your hands on.

Now obviously when you're attacked you want to be able to defend yourself against further attacks, but there is a difference between self-defence and seeking to resolve the problem through war. Even calling something a "War On" implies that the only way you can resolve an issue is through violence.

We've seen a "War On Drugs", a "War On Poverty, and a "War On Terror", but not only has there been little evidence of success in any area, we're a might too quick to turn everything into a military action without even implying there can be a peaceful way of accomplishing matters.

You may in a case of fighting terrorism have to use violence as part of your means to combat it, but why does it have to be the only angle of approach? Why not while seeing if you can find them to fight the terrorists do something practical and cancel debts to the countries that house the terrorists, support the domestic development of industry, and genuinely help them with their natural resources. Eliminate economic uncertainty and give people hope of a future and I bet they will be a lot less willing to strap dynamite to their chests as a walking bomb.

All right, you say, what does that have to do with some nut job running amok with a gun and killing a lot of people. Well it seems quite a lot actually. According to experts in the field of mass murders on the scale observed yesterday, that while the occasional rampage will occur in Europe, these events are primarily a North American phenomenon.

A study by Princeton University sociologist Katherine Newman of twenty-five such events between 1974 and 2002 showed some interesting findings. First of all they are never something spontaneous – I think I'll go on a killing spree today-, but have all been the result of careful planning on the part of the perpetrator.

In the published version of her research, Rampage: The Social Roots Of School Shootings she sets out five conditions for a rampage. The first two deal with the killer and his state of mind, and the last three deal with societal issues. It's pretty obvious that the person who does this is going to have suffered some sever psychological stress, and considers himself to be different (and is more likely to be male).

She continues on with her list of five conditions by starting to indict society for not having the systems in place to identify young men before they do this stuff, for creating a cultural that supports the view that firearms (and by extension violence) are a viable means of solving problems, and for making sure that guns are readily available.

It's of course not just George Bush and his cronies calling everything a "War" that creates that culture where violence is a reasonable solution to our problems. In fact I would suggest he just cynically takes advantage of it to pursue his own goals. Like I said earlier it goes back into the history of our continent, and "Might Makes Right" has been an American foreign policy philosophy since the beginning and it's bound to have an effect on us.

As long as we continue to accept without question the need for violence to solve our problems these types of mass murders will continue to occur. We need to grow up as a culture and learn how to communicate in a way that violence will no longer be necessary to resolve our differences with other people.

Once we are able to do that trick, we can hopefully teach our own people how to talk to each other. That way we may just end up saving a few more lives then we do now.

April 16, 2007

Don Ismus: Race Problem? What Race Problem?

It looks like the dust is starting to settle after the week of unrest caused by Don Ismus' stupidity on the radio. It was fascinating, to watch the amount of headline space this incident managed to grab in the media across the board.

From Meet The Press to blog sites across the Internet this one story dominated the news for a week almost to the exclusion of everything else. No one's daily coverage was complete if they didn't give you the latest update on the situation and get reactions from their panel of experts as well.

But why was this story so newsworthy? A radio host made a comment that was obviously insulting to the women of a University basketball team by calling them a bunch of whores. That he couched it in Black street/rap slang and added in the comment that they were nappy headed as well to give it credibility as slang only served to add insult to injury in many peoples eyes and making the comment racist.

So Don Ismus is either a misogynist racist creep; an insensitive lout; or a congenital idiot. In either event he was going to be sent down the river for it either by his employer or the FCC. So what was the big deal? Why was so much time spent on this one damn matter? (Truth be told if I were a women I'd want to know why no one was very upset about the women of the team being referred to as whores – somehow everyone seems to have focused on the race thing but not the gender issue)

You'd have thought it was the most important story that occurred all week. Well I guess it was a slow week in Iraq, there must have been some suicide bombs but I couldn't tell you how many. There was a tsunami in The Solomon Islands, but heck only 900 people were killed and there aren't that many people living there to begin with. Not even enough to have a decent telethon over.

Oh and wasn't there something about Iran and them claiming to have succeeded in being able to produce the right type of plutonium to make bombs? It's funny you know it's almost as if they want the U.S. to invade them, well I'm sure Dick and George would be willing to oblige them if they could find any more soldiers.

They just extended tours of duty to fifteen months from twelve months for soldiers heading over to Iraq – that was announced this week too by the way in case you missed it – so it looks like they're starting to scrape the bottom of the barrel in terms of what they've got to send over there. I guess it will just have to be the ones who've done their tour in Iraq – they can now do a tour of Iran.

But stories like that don't sell newspapers, who's going to believe them for one thing – I don't do you? It's depressing as hell anyway and people want to be cheerful – that's why they watch stuff like 24 Hours and CSI New York. Shows with nice upbeat stories about pleasant subjects like the end of the world and serial killers

So when a nice human-interest story like a child falling down a mineshaft isn't available to milk for all its worth, what could be better than a celebrity deathwatch? Lets watch Don Ismus' career going down the toilet on prime time news shows with commentary. I bet that got great ratings – far better then any story about the possibility of Israel bombing Iran and what the repercussions of that would be.

There is only one other reason I can think of that made it possible for this story to have stuck around so long. I know this is going to sound far –fetched but could it be that America still has a race problem? You know Black versus White – White versus Black that sort of thing?

I know that's hard to believe, America having a race problem, but why else would people be making such a big deal over it? If society didn't have any problems, if there were no questions about what is right and what is wrong, would this have gone on for a week?

If the country can get so caught up in something like this to the exclusion of almost anything else, you'd have to think there might be some unresolved issues along those lines. If there weren't a problem would this have been such a problem? Like I said in an aside earlier it seemed like the comments were more offensive to women then to Black people and nobody has made an issue out of that in the same way they've made it a Black and White issue.

To me it means Black and White is still an issue in the United States no matter what anybody wants to say. Don Ismus was the story of the week, when he was only another in a series of foul-mouthed shock jocks who went too far. There shouldn't have been any debate – he was foul mouthed and insulting to women and should have been fired on the spot.

Instead it degenerated into a debate about Black and White, "Ghetto Culture" and Rap music. To me that says this runs a lot deeper then just an "incident". Too people on both sides are too eager to close the door on something that still exists. I know why White people don't want to think about there being a race problem, I even think I understand why Black people don't want to know about it either.

Maybe they feel guilty for having left so many of their own people behind while they mix it up in the White world. Or maybe they feel if they say too much and rock the boat they'll find themselves on a slide back down the rungs of the ladder they struggled to climb.

When you see no one rushing to rebuild the poor, predominately Black neighbourhoods in New Orleans after Katrina (the mayor said if they came back the areas would be rebuilt – but what do they do while they wait for that to happen – go back and live in the Super Dome?). When the prisons are still full of predominately poor Black people, and the inner cities still home toBlack people and poverty, and you hear White upper middle class people saying things like "it's a great neighbourhood only 1% Black", you can understand a little of why Black people who are doing okay today are afraid.

They still feel like their positions are precarious, that if they step out of line just a little too much they can be replaced by any number of eager White executives, or Black ones who "don't get so uppity". The race problem in America is a difficult one now because it's no longer overt. It was easier when you knew who the enemy was and could take definite action like voter registration drives and lunch counter sit-ins.

A generation later the worries are different. Today's Black people are discovering what yesterday's Jews went through. They're wondering what they say about us behind closed doors; why are there doors still closed to us; and the feeling that it can all be taken away again at any minute.

White people still aren't comfortable with seeing Black people in the board rooms sitting across the table from them instead of like in their father's time serving the coffee and shining shoes. It's not that they don't want them there it's just that they don't know how to act with them in the same room as equals.

America is still trying to come to terms with the first generation of equality under the law for Black and White men. The problem is that no one wants to admit that everybody is uncomfortable and doesn't know how to act around each other. They are like a bunch of adolescents at their first dance and nobody wants to be the first to say anything for fear of embarrassment. Somebody needs to ask somebody else for a dance soon so you can move on.

April 15, 2007

Intelligence: A Double Edged Sword

Happiness in intelligent people is the rarest thing I know. - Ernest Hemingway

Now why would Ernest Hemingway say something like that? Was it based on his observations of human behaviour, or was it something that was pulled out of his own deeply unhappy psyche. I wonder if he even meant intelligent and maybe was thinking of something more along the lines of aware?

I don't know, and obviously can't know now, so I'm not going to waste energy on conjecture, just stay with what's given. We know that Hemingway took his own lifein 1961 by putting a shotgun in his mouth and blowing the roof of his head off. That's not the action of a person awash in happiness now is it?

You can't really blame him though, the last years of his life were damned miserable. He had been severely injured in a small plane crash in the fifties that left him near dead. (In fact some papers actually published his obituary at the time of the accident thinking he had died) He developed depression and was treated with electroshock treatments that he claimed stole his memory.

His depression increased, and this resulted in more shock treatments, which led to … well you get the picture. It doesn't help that his family seems predisposed to committing suicide. His father, brother, and sister all took their own lives prior to him. Some claim that there is an illness in his family line that lends a predisposition to deep depression, and when you consider his granddaughter also took her own life you do have to wonder.

So was Hemingway simply looking in a mirror when he said, "Happiness in intelligent people is the rarest thing I know" or is there more to it then that? Remember that during his life Hemingway was surrounded for a great deal of the time by some of the most brilliant artistic and intellectual minds of the twentieth century. He counted among his friends James Joyce, Ezra Pound, Sherwood Anderson, Gertrude Stein, and Morley Callahan to name just a few.

He lived in Paris during the 1920's period of artistic and intellectual upheaval when ideas and creativity were on the menu of every outdoor café and bar in the city. He would have seen some of the finest minds of his generation in the throes of addiction, the high of creative exultation, and the depths of despair produced by the inability to create.

As a novelist he would have had to be able to attune himself to the workings of other people's minds so that he could create characters and portray emotions with accuracy. Even if it only meant that in his imagination he was able to create an image for himself of what was going on beneath the surface of the people around him it still helped him gain an insight into the way the mind works. So he could have come to the conclusion that led to that sentence based on his observation alone easily enough.

As I think about the quote I realize that it me of two sayings: the one about being your own worst enemy and the other about gifts being a double-edged sword. I think the two sayings may be connected somehow. Intelligence is a gift allowing us to see with clarity and understanding, enabling the ability to solve problems quickly. The other side of that blade is knowing all the potential resolutions to a problem including the negative ones It's being able to see the negative and realize the potential for failure that allows us to become our own worst enemies.

If you are in the middle of an artistic block, unable to create at that moment for whatever reason, how easy would it be for the intelligent person to marshal unassailable arguments that prove he or she will never create again? Of course it goes without saying that these circumstances aren't limited to artistic people. Thinkers of any kind can run afoul of the same problems.

In fact people who use their intellect simply on a day-to-day basis and think about the implications of the headlines in the newspapers or their own knowledge of how the world operates can easily begin to imagine the worse. A diplomatic spat will become the war that destroys humanity; reported unrest among farmers is only the first step in the complete breakdown of society; or reports of a corrupt police officer is a signal that a police state is imminent.

These are the people who conservative politicians and pundits the world over accuse of being negative. By not agreeing that everything is just dandy and pointing out the flaw in the government's policies they are accused of un patriotic and troublemakers. It's hard to be content let alone happy when you see people of like mind as you being vilified in the press and intelligence being indirectly ridiculed as something unmanly and ridiculous.

That leads to another reason why happiness among the intelligent is so rare. The truth of the matter is that the more intelligent you are the fewer people there are in the world who you can talk to as equals. The majority of a people are of a certain intellect that allows them to be content with the world around them, unquestioning and accepting of who and what they are, and why they are here.

The minority who are blessed and cursed with intelligence see a potential beyond simply getting up in the morning, going to work, raising a family, etc. But they also wonder why they can't be happy and content with what makes everybody else happy and content. Everybody else chatters happily about television shows and what they are going to do over the holidays but to him or her it all sounds like meaningless noise.

Can't they see that the stuff is being used to distract them from the fact that 80% of the food they eat is made of plastic, that the vehicles they drive are killing their grandchildren's future, and the tax rebate check the government sends them is why they don't have the services they had ten years ago?

Why is it, the intelligent person wonders, nobody even blinks when a government changes it's reasons for starting a war four times during the lead up to and the end of it? How can they so easily forget that a year ago a politician was saying one thing and this year he says the complete opposite? To the intelligent person all of this is as obvious as the clouds in the sky and what makes them unhappy is not just the fact these things happen, it is the fact that nobody seems to care.

I think there is a lot of truth in Hemingway's quote that started off this train of thought on my part, but I also believe that happiness among intelligent people is not quite as rare as he would have us think. I would qualify his statement by saying that intelligent people are more prone to depressions and unhappiness than other people, but they are also capable of deep happiness.

Ernest Hemingway was a keen observer of human life as befits a novelist but he was also and exceptionally troubled man. He had four unsuccessful marriages and seemed to be constantly running away from some inner demons. By the end of his life he had descended into being a caricature of one of his own characters. His pessimistic outlook really needs no other explanation.

April 14, 2007

Canada Releases Alledged Terrorists From Jail

The results of the Supreme Court of Canada's overturning the use of security certificates to hold refugee applicants in permanent detention without trial if there was any suspicion of terrorist activity are now being seen. Two men who had been held under the law for years were both released from federal penitentiaries in the past two days.

Mohamed Zeki Mahjoub was released on this past Thursday after being held in Kingston Penitentiary for the last seven years because he had run a farming operation in the Sudan for Osama bin Laden. He has been released under conditions tantamount to him being under twenty- four-hour surveillance.

The terms of his house arrest includes being monitored by The Canadian Border Authority via a GPS bracelet permanently attached to his ankle, video cameras in his house, taps on his phone, and being followed by agents on the rare occasions he is allowed to leave his house. His family are also being held responsible for him adhering to all of his bail conditions.

Mr. Mahjoub has been the Canadian suspect with closest ties to Osman bin Laden, but he claims his association was innocent. The farming concerns he ran for the leader of al-Qaeda were during the time before bin Laden even lived in Afghanistan, and he claims to have just been another employee and eventually left the job over money disputes with bin Laden.

Mr. Mahjoub has never been accused of any terror activity, but the Canadian Security Intelligence Service (CSIS) claims that he was part of an Egyptian extremist group called the Vanguards of Conquest and knew al-Qaeda operatives including a person alleged to be a Canadian financer of the group and an Iraqi who the American 9/11 commission calls al-Qaeda's principal procurement agent for weapons of mass destruction. ( It may be just me, but any American announcement containing the words Iraq and Weapons of Mass Destruction just doesn't seem to have much credibility)

The second man was released on Friday from a detention centre in Kingston Ontario Canada as well. Mahmoud Jaballah has been in detention since 2001, although the government has been after him since 1999. When they attempted to have him deported in 1999 they lost their case held under normal circumstances, but when the opportunity arose with the security laws in place he was immediately rearrested.

Attempts by the government to have him deported back to his native Egypt have been constantly denied by the courts because of the very real threat of torture he would face if returned. Although the current government continues to insist upon Mr. Jaballah's guilt (In a statement released by Stockwell Day, Minister of Public Safety, in response to Mr. Jaballah's release Day implied he was the murderer of women and children.) the judge said that although the initial evidence against Mr. Jaballah did at one time warrant the security certificate, now that he has spent six years in detention and no additional evidence has come to light she had to defer to the Supreme Court's ruling that the longer a person spends incarcerated the less likelihood there is of them being a security risk.

Based on those grounds the federal court judge changed Mr. Jaballah's sentence to that of house arrest, similar to the conditions imposed upon Mr. Mahjoub. The judge asserted, but offered no proof to back her words, that the conditions were imperative in Mr. Jaballah's case because she had no doubt that if not monitored he would get in touch with terrorists.

Mr. Jaballah first came under suspicion because of a series of over a hundred phone calls he placed to the United Kingdom, Azerbaijan, and Yemen to an alleged al Qaeda front. When those are added to the twenty calls he made to those destination and Pakistan in a subsequent two-day period and the fact that when asked to explain he either was evasive or didn't answer the questions it served to confirm his guilt in the eyes of the courts.

Given the atmosphere in North America in the days following 9/11 you can understand why he was placed under suspicion. The bombings he was accused of co-ordinating were embassy bombings in Kenya and Tanzania in 1998. But now nine years later and no further evidence has come forth, and, according to his lawyer, when the United States released a list of suspects, he wasn't even named as an un indicted co-conspirator.

The government of Canada's reaction to these events has been highly predictable. Aside from his insinuations about Mr. Jaballah being responsible for killing women and children and just awaiting his opportunity to go on another bloodthirsty rampage, he also has stated that the government would prefer that all these people remain locked up.

In another tidy bit of fear mongering he also said he hoped that the house arrest rules would be enough to keep Canadians safe from them. He then added that the court agreed that Mr. Mahjoub had clearly worked for Osama bin Laden and received a salary for that work. Well who wouldn't want to be paid for working, and since when has it become a crime to work for someone when there is no proof that your activities were criminal.

I mean if we're going to start rounding up people who've had business associations with Osama they better be picking up Dick Cheney and almost everybody on the Halliburton Board of Directors. At one point they had owned around 30% of bin Landen's company. Not just his families business – but his company. Doesn't anyone find it at all odd that on the day after 9/11 when all the planes in and out of the United States were grounded, that all the members of the bin Laden family living in the United States were able to fly home?

Who arranged that for them, and why was it allowed to happen? If Dick Cheney and George Bush, both of who would have to okay something like this, come to Canada will they be picked up on a security certificate? They've had some pretty suspicious contact with bin Laden and his whole family immediately after 9/11.

What does that sound ridiculous? Why is it anymore ridiculous than wanting to keep a man in jail because he ran a farm for bin Laden long before he even went to Afghanistan? What proof do they even have that either man had of any involvement in any terror activity? Well, none, actually. One guy made a lot of phone calls to the countries where he could have family just as easily as he could have terror contacts. Why so many calls in two days? Hell if my mom has to contact her family about an event like a death she could make twenty calls in an afternoon no sweat.

Mr. Mahjoub worked for someone who turns out to be one of the bad guys, but how was he supposed to know that back whenever it was he worked for him. In fact the government hasn't said when he worked for him, only that it was before bin Laden was in Afghanistan, which means before 9/11/01. In fact he even says he quit working for him over a dispute with money. No one has given us any reason not to believe him.

Mahmoud Jaballah and Mohamed Zeki Mahjoub were both held in Canadian prisons with no trial, not knowing what exactly they had done to end up there, and knowing if they were to lose they'd be deported to torture and death in their former homes. Perhaps it was understandable seven years ago to keep an eye on people like them, or even detain them temporarily. But now it 's just cruel and unjust.

If you're having any doubts about which side to err on in Canada, freedom or so called safety, think about Mahar Arar and his time in an Egyptian jail being tortured. It was our security service that put him there with their inaccuracies and incompetence. Do you trust them with any more lives?

April 5, 2007

Real Life

Occasionally small miracles happen that helps to remind me of the trivialness of human existence and worries. We've built these cities made of concrete and steel that give us the impression of permanence and a place in the world, but sometimes something will occur that lets us know how impermanent we are.

This is especially true in North America where none of the major cities have been around long enough to even match the age of most European city's sewer systems. When you start taking into consideration the civilizations of the Middle East, India, China, and the Sub Sahara that flourished while Europeans were still squatting in the bushes you really begin to realize how young this continent is.

But even the oldest city on the banks of the Euphrates pales in contrast to the history of the world itself. Various creation myths would have us believe that the world was created for our pleasure, but only those whose brains are oxygen deprived from sniffing the glue that holds their holy books together are actually going to believe that anymore.

Human existence is but a mere blink of the eye in relationship to how long life has existed on the planet. We haven't even come close to matching the longevity of the dinosaurs yet. Human history is only considered in terms of ten of thousands of years, while judging by fossil records the big lizards could have been around for tens of millions before they died out.

None of this prevents us from thinking highly of ourselves though, and to give credit where credit is due we've certainly accomplished a lot in a short period of time. We've driven thousands of life forms to the edge of, if not to extinction, without even being aware of their existence in a lot of cases.

In only the relatively short period of time that we've existed we've managed to destroy or deplete the majority of fresh water in the world, turn fertile land into desert, rid the world of pesky forests that have stood long before human's existed thus making the world safe from the icky pollution of fallen leaves, and made it easier for everyone to get a tan by eliminating the pesky Ozone layer.

Oh of course there have been major advances in other areas too. We've been able to find cures for some of the diseases our behaviour has caused, we've perfected ways in which we can exterminate huge amounts of us at once, and created belief systems that guarantee we will want to use the means to do so. What do you think will happen when everyone believes a variation of I'm right and you're wrong? Peace and tranquility?

If that weren't bad enough, there is actually a good chunk of the human race who feel they are doing the rest of it a favour by imposing their way of thinking on them. You can't really be happy unless you think just like me, so I'll do you the favour of either forcing you to, or putting you out of your misery.

The worse thing that can happen is getting wrapped up in the events of the world to the point where they become all that matters. Where you lose track of the things beyond our own limited perspective and imagine it to be important in the scheme of things.

Yesterday I experienced something that took me beyond the concrete and metal, and the noise and bustle, and out of my own head. I was downtown with my wife and we ran into a couple that we don't see all that often. We were talking and I happened to look beyond the buildings and notice a couple of large birds almost directly overhead.

I recognised them almost immediately as Turkey Vultures by the way in which they were able to soar effortlessly on what seems like only minute traces of wind. As I was turning my head to tell my wife and our friends about them, I noticed out of the corner of my eye about six more of the huge birds flying behind them.

It was hard to tell how many of them there were because at any given moment one would soar out sight behind building and another would turn in a large lazy circle. They looked to be riding in invisible elevators, but one's that allowed for sudden veering at forty-five degrees or stalls that allowed for moments of suspension in midair. One was almost tempted to look for the strings that were holding them up.

The four of us stood on the sidewalk staring up in amazement as we watched the birds parade by. People hurrying by didn't even bother to see what it was we were staring at, all that mattered was we weren't in their way. The turkey vultures eventually drifted off and we resumed our conversation, but I kept my eye turned towards the sky to see if any of them would come back.

At first all I saw was some indistinct movement in the sky, and then as it came into focus I realized it was another flight of birds. This time there had to be about twenty of them stretched across the sky swooping and swirling. Following a path that they had followed long before the city below them had existed they travelled where thousands of their ancestors had plied the sky for their trip northward in the spring.

Again the four of us stood in slack jawed wonder. If we had thought watching the previous group had been impressive, to watch a flock of twenty Turkey Vultures was almost beyond description. There wasn't any of the military precision of the massive flocks of geese that had been overhead for the last few weeks where each animal had a specific place in a formation.

But there was something about this loose grouping of twenty birds that was every bit as stirring, if not more, as the sight of hundreds of geese stretched out across the sky. Maybe it was because of the fact that none of has had ever experienced seeing that many large birds of prey in the sky together before. The most you might see is a family group of four or five near the end of the summer when the youngsters are being trained for the flight to the wintering grounds in the South.

Perhaps it is the total indifference to us down on the ground that helps make these moments so spectacular. As long as they are alive it won't matter what we do or how we behave, they will continue to fly that route as they have for probably longer then humans have been in North America.

They were flying South to North and North to South with the changing of the seasons long before there were men living on this land mass. Some consider birds only a few jumps along the evolutionary ladder from dinosaurs, and if you've ever seen a Turkey Vulture up close with their naked face and plucked necks it's a hard argument to refute, and if that's the case who knows how many centuries, if not millennium they have been taking this route.

These minor miracles always remind me of how insignificant humans really are when it comes to the planet. We are but a brief wink of the eye in terms of life on this planet, and when you start to consider just our own solar system we become even more trivial. In context of the Universe itself we don't even register. I think the more often we are reminded of this point the better it is for us.

If there is any species on the face of the planet right now that needs a lesson in humility it would be humans. Although I'm very much afraid that it will take us coming close to destroying ourselves before we learn that lesson.

April 3, 2007

Not So Saintly John Paul The 2nd

So they want to speed up the process of canonization for John Paul the 2nd . They've already waived the rule of waiting until five years after someone's death before beginning the process, and now their pushing for skipping the proof of miracles stage. "His very presence among us was a miracle" is what his former principle secretary is saying.

What I want to know is why the rush? He's not going anywhere, he will still be as dead two years from now as he is today. Could it be because they want to capitalize on the emotion surrounding his death and not let the cold light of facts come into play?

Perhaps they don't want people thinking what the effect of his policies on the world have been like. The fact that he has been so outspoken against the use of condoms as birth control has probably resulted in the deaths of millions of Africans from AIDS is not something the church will want people thinking about just now.

Or maybe they don't want people considering the fact that he was one of the biggest misogynists the world has seen in a leadership position in modern times. He did more to set back women's struggle for control over their own bodies than any right wing fundamentalist in the United States could dream of doing. Not only was he stridently against birth control and abortion but his views on a women's place in the world were medieval.

Or maybe they don't want people questioning how that during his reign alter boys were being raped up and down the east coast of the United States with the full knowledge of the church. Not only did church not turn the priests over to the authorities for prosecution when they found out what was going on – they hid them in other parishes where they could have access to more children to abuse.

I don't about anywhere else but that's called aiding and abetting after the fact and complicity where I come from. He was head of the Catholic Church and so he was responsible for dictating policy on how to deal with sexual offenders within church. No Bishop or Cardinal is going to make those kinds of decisions without clearance from the top.

Of course there were also his attempts to deny people their civil rights by urging governments not to allow homosexuals to have all the same rights as heterosexuals. He would go so far as to interfere in the internal politics of a nation by writing threatening letters to the leaders of countries who were considering same sex marriages as law.

Of course there were also his refusal to admit that the Church has ever done anything wrong. Including the Spanish Inquisition, their support of Franco in Spain, and their propping up of various dictators through out the world who happen to be good Catholics.

During his tenure as pope he also came down heavily against the clergy in South America who worked tirelessly on the sides of the peasant farmers or helping refugees escape the oppressive regimes he was supporting. His only concern was the status of the Church in the world and to ensure that it held on to the position of power that he was managing to carve out for it.

Everybody loved his little Pope-Mobile and his huge open air masses. Nobody dared to mention their similarities to the Nuremberg Rallies of the 1930's even though the comparisons were there for everyone to see. How else would your refer to large numbers of people blindly accepting one person's word as law without question or thought? Under other circumstances it would have been called mass hypnosis, a cult of personality, or at the very least dangerous.

It's not an original thought, but he turned himself into the Catholic Church and in order to prove you were a true believer you had to believe in him. People were no longer worshipping their God; they worshipped John Paul the 2nd (the only John and Paul worth worshipping in the twentieth century were Lennon and McCartney as far as I'm concerned) and followed his dictates instead of the teachings of Christ.

Am I the only person who remembers him giving his blessing for building a convent on the site of Auschwitz, insulting the memory of those non-Catholics who lost their lives in that camp and whose ashes scarred the sky? Am I the only person who thinks about all the people he sent out into the world telling people not to practice family planning or use condoms in a time when overpopulation is one of the biggest crises the world faces?

In countries where the infant mortality rate is astronomical because of a lack of clean drinking water and food encouraging people to have children has to rank pretty high on the insensitive charts. But as long as the kid is baptized before he starves to death who cares about the trauma the mother had to go through giving birth, or the grief she has to deal with after it's death – it's one more soul for Jesus and that's all that matters.

Pope John Paul the 2nd was a manipulative and dangerous individual who made the world a lot worse off then it was before he took power. All the talk these days surrounds how a nun who suffered from Parkinson's disease miraculously recovered a couple of months after the Pope died. It's quite scary knowing there are people in the world who genuinely think that's sufficient grounds to make this guy a saint.

I'm sure the Catholic Church is going to go ahead and make him a saint within the nest five years or so if for no other reason than it will justify their continued swing towards the right and their reactionary attitudes towards women, homosexuals, birth control and the use of condoms to help stop the spread of disease. But it doesn't have to mean anything at all unless we let it.

Like aristocracy and petty dictators the world over the Vatican will do anything to justify it's existence and the need for draconian policies of control and hatred. The easiest way to do to that is make a hero out of a person who exemplified all those qualities. John Paul the 2nd was a xenophobic, misogynistic, homophobic, dictator. If he were what they consider a saint, I'd hate to meet their idea of a sinner.

March 31, 2007

Book Review: Christopher Moore Island Of The Sequined Love Nun

If you were Tucker Case you'd be surprised too if someone offered you a job flying a private Lear jet. It's not too often you can crash a plane with an initiate into the mile high club sitting in your lap as you attempt to land, destroy the plane, cause bodily harm to the one straddling you, while your blood alcohol level is somewhere in the stratosphere and still be considered a viable choice for flying a few million dollars of private plane.

So Tucker is to be forgiven if he's a little suspicious of the offer, but at the same time he knows that short of hijacking a flight he won't be seeing the inside of a cockpit anywhere the Federal Aviation Authority (FAA) have anything to say about the matter. With no other alternatives lining up, and a sudden need to leave the country (in the form of a civil suit filled by a certain young lady who most recently filled his lap and his plane's windshield)

That's how things go for Tucker Case; things happen to him without him taking much initiative. He had drifted into being a pilot through happening to meet someone. It was the same for getting the job flying the pink jet of The Mary Jean Cosmetic Company. That it was said jet he left in pieces on a runway made it all the more imperative that he leave the country. If hell hath no fury like a woman scorned, hell's never met a pissed off corporate, Southern Belle Christian, make up executive who carries a Smith & Wesson in her handbag..

So Tucker doesn't even wonder that much about why a couple of Methodist missionaries need him to fly one a top of the line Lear jet from a mysteriously well financed compound on an isolated island in Micronesia. Of course in his travels to get to the island Tucker has run into a fruit bat named Renaldo who wears aviator shades and speaks Filipino, his cross dressing owner Kimi, Victor the ghost of a bomber pilot from World War Two who is worshipped as a God by the Shark people of the small atoll Alualu, caught in a typhoon in a small boat, almost eaten by sharks, and then almost eaten by the one Shark person who still thinks they should practice cannibalism, (Human's taste sort of like Spam) so he's got a little bit more on his mind when he first arrives then to wonder about his new bosses.

Some of you might have picked up a few clues by now, but for those who are like Tucker and content to just play along and hope things turn out okay, I'll let you in on the secret. This is just the opening salvo in the full side barrage of strangeness that Christopher Moore has in store for you in his 1997 novel Island Of The Sequined Love Nun.

Christopher Moore has specialized in writing bizarre stories where instead of having heroic characters that look danger in the eye and laugh at death, death is usually having a good laugh at his characters but has the decency to invite them to join in. Danger is something you would avoid if you could but the story wouldn't be half as good if there wasn’t any so the characters will just have to suck it up and cope as best as they can.

Yes I know that sounds like a strange thing to say about a novel and its writer, but what else can you say about an author who creates a story where islanders worship the pilot of a World War Two B-26 and the half naked woman painted on her nose cone as his representative on earth is The Sky Priestess.

Periodically The Sky Priestess will bring messages to the Shark people and bring them gifts of cargo from Victor. Of course occasionally she will have to punish them for some deviation from the true path and cut off their supply of People Magazineor take away their coffee supplies for a week or so. In exchange for this bounty periodically one of the Shark people are chosen, only to return ten days later with a mysterious scar running across their backs.

Of course we might think the islanders and Tucker are the biggest schmucks around for not cluing in as to what's going on, but than again neither do we until we learn all the facts. We may know that his employers are running some sort of scam on the natives, but we can't be sure what until Tucker finds the last clue.

Christopher Moore is probably one of the most optimistic writers I've ever read, but he's not blind to what the world is like. There are plenty of sick and twisted greed heads out there who have no problems with harvesting organs from the poorest and least educated people in the world. Well it's the only thing left that we haven't stolen from them yet so it really shouldn't come as a surprise.

Yet in spite of knowing that these types of people exist he also believes that if properly motivated others will do amazing things to help their fellow beings. So it seems perfectly logical that Tucker steals a 747 jet to rescue the islanders from the clutches of the good missionary and his wife and their plans to harvest all their internal organs.

People seem to get the impression that Christopher Moore is cynical and jaded. Look they'll say he is making fun of people's beliefs by having the Shark people treating People magazine like sacred texts. The truth of the matter is that while he may be saying that blind faith is silly and that you need to believe in more than material goods.

Kimi, the afore mentioned cross dresser and the ancient cannibal discover that they were both being trained in the art of being a Navigator. The ability to read the stars, call thunder and build the traditional outriggers canoes of the islands were all part of the duties and knowledge that the Navigator held. Moore presents these facts in the beautiful matter of fact manner that I've come to recognize as his hallmark of sneaking things into our hearts via our funny bone.

Island of the Sequined Love Num is outrageous, hilarious, bawdy, crude and a wonderful book about the need to have faith and to believe in something, even if it is only your own ability to do the right thing. Christopher Moore is a the master of writing a story that's as far from being a message book as you can get, and planting a message firmly in the reader's brain at the same time.


March 30, 2007

Let's Put On A Web Page

Do you remember the old "Andy Hardy" movies with Mickey Rooney and Judy Garland? They used to show reruns of them when I was a kid, and what distinguishes them in my mind was that in every one of them they always "put on a show" to raise money for something or other. Somebody's dad always had a barn or the equivalent that they could stage their remarkably professional productions in.

It always looked so easy. Sets and lighting equipment would mysteriously appear as if out of thin air and the orphanage would be saved. Of course anybody who ever had anything to do with trying to "put on a show" knew that not only were the chances of making money from the venture limited, but it usually took a hell of a lot more work then was ever seen in those movies.

Now being an and old hand at putting on shows you'd think I'd know all this; that I would be prepared for the amount of work it would take for doing its modern equivalent – building a web site. But back in January when my friend Ashok Banker approached me with the idea of taking over his Epic India web site and turning it into an Arts and Culture magazine I immediately forgot every thing I knew about how difficult any project could be.

I mean what would I have to do? We had a technical whiz kid at our disposal named Banwari who knows more about HTML code than I even realize exists who would handle all the tech side of things, and Ashok's name as the author of the modern Ramayana would at least guarantee an audience; nothing for me to do until it was up and running.

I think I held onto that illusion for about a week, or until Banwari had installed the new system we were going to be using for publishing. Textpattern works pretty much the same as any of the other blog and multiple blog publishing systems. That meant we had to build templates for each page of the magazine with HTML code.

In order for that to happen I had to be able to articulate what I wanted the site to look like to somebody in writing. Which meant of course that I had to decide what I wanted it to look like. That turned out to be a lot more difficult than it sounds, at least for me it did. (It didn't make matters any easier for me that both Banwari and Ashok are in India and if I wanted to talk to them and get a response I had to be awake in the middle of the night which made coherent thought even more difficult).

Oh and then you have to worry about content on top of that too. Articles are easy enough; I've got close to 800 from almost three years of daily writing that I can use to fill up space with for now, and there are some other folk out there who I know are interested because I sent them out passwords and usernames on Monday. (Last time I had checked I'm still the only author who has anything on line – maybe someone will have put something into pending by the time I finish this – but I won't hold my breath)

(ASIDE: If you want to write at Epic India head over to the site and you'll find an email address that you can use to get in touch with me – check the Blogcritics Yahoo group as well. We want a very specific kind of work, so we might not be for you, check it out first.)

Like I said that's not the type of content I was concerned with anyway – it was what the pages were going to have on them aside from the articles that concerned me. For now we've limited page size to seven article headlines on each section page, and a headline box and article headlines on the home page. So I had to figure out what to do with the header, the sidebars, and the footer.

It's been a long time since I've done any design work whatsoever, but I was able to come up with a logo/title for each section page and start seeing the page in terms of it's components instead of the actual content. So I've got a rectangle across the top, a long skinny rectangle down each side, and another one like the top along the bottom.

We had some necessary text of course that filled up some of the space in the sidebars, links and such (always make sure you use the site's final address for the links; they don't work if they still have the test page addresses assigned to them when you go live) but that still leaves lots of room to play with. I'm still looking to add some colour in the form of some more pictures similar to the ones seen in the right hand side bar. I'm open to suggestion if anyone knows of any that can be used on a semi-permanent basis.

At one point we had thought we would be ready to go live on March 1st 2007, well we were 90% ready on Monday March 26th/07 and both Banwari and I were still madly tying up loose ends up until today. The problem with an international site of course is there is no real down time when you can do upkeep and be sure the site is empty of visitors. When one side of the International Date Line is asleep the other is up and about. It makes it kind of hard to do any edits when nobody's looking.

Of course there is the plus side to all this. The amazing feeling of accomplishment I felt when it went live on the Internet and I saw that it worked and looked like I had envisioned last January when Ashok asked me if I were interested in doing this. You don't get that when you put a show on in your Dad's barn withr little or no effort.

Now if only there were other writer's names on the pages and not just mine – that would be ideal.

March 28, 2007

Canadian Politics: No Apology For Residential Schools

As is the case with most gifts, the technology that is bringing the world's peoples closer together is a double-edged sword. The more it breaks down the barriers between us for greater mutual understanding, the more it also weakens our cultural distinctiveness.

Just like an eco-system, a culture is a delicate balance of elements that individually may not appear significant, but taken as a whole form something unique and precious. Change or remove one element in that system and you've got something completely different. In the natural world it's usually the introduction of a foreign species of plant or animal life, or the removal of the same that changes it irrevocably for the worse.

In cultural matters it sometimes is only a matter of contact between two peoples for it to happen. Usually it will be that one is technically more sophisticated than the other, and simply over whelms and absorbs the other. Many countries have tried to take steps to preserve their culture by encouraging its growth while erecting barriers to foreign content.

But there is also another scenario, one that was first put into affect by the British Empire at home and abroad, and has been emulated by other countries through out the world. The deliberate attempt to eliminate a people's culture as a means of subduing them and forcibly assimilating them to be like their conquerors. In Ireland and India the Empire enacted official policies forbidding the native languages in the hopes of cutting people off from their heritage.

But the most insidious practice was carried out in North America by postcolonial governments, with the assistance of the Catholic and Anglican Churches, in Canada. Residential Schools were established to forcibly turn Indian children against their parents and their heritage.

Each child who entered the system was forbidden to speak the language of their nation and was told that all they had been taught up until that point was evil and a lie. They were given haircuts and forced to take new names. Anybody caught speaking their language or using their old name was severely punished.

This wasn't even an attempt to teach the children how to get ahead in society. Half their days were spent learning unskilled trades preparing them for a life of service to their "betters". The boys were taught janitorial skills and yard work, while they young girls were taught how to be either scullery maids or other forms of household drudges.

But while it was bad enough that they ripped away from their families and emotionally, mentally, and physically abused by the staff of these institutions during the day, what went on at night in the dormitories is the stuff of nightmares. Many of the students, male and female, were sexually abused on a continual basis for their entire stay in theses prisons.

The end result of these schools was the creation of a generation of people who were almost completely cut off from their own culture and not capable of existing in the one they were supposedly "trained" to take part in. A lost generation of scared, hurt, and, lonely people, damaged far beyond anything most of us can understand.

By the year 2005 the federal government of Canada under the Liberal party had agreed to certain measures to redress the issue. Various financial packages were offered, and it was promised as part of the deal that the government would offer an official apology for the policy.

But now the current administration, the Conservative Party of Canada has reneged on that promise of an apology. In fact from comments made by the Indian Affairs Minister, Jim Prentice, lead one to belief that the government is trying to white wash what exactly the schools did.

The most he will say is that the residential schools were a difficult time in our history, but- and this is the real killer, "the underlying objective had been to provide aboriginal children with an education". Which means that Jim Prentice is either a professional liar or an ignorant fool who doesn't even read history books.

But then again the Conservative party already knows that Native Canadians aren't going to vote for them, and neither are people who are sympathetic to their plight. They're playing to their constituents, the people who believe that Native people are welfare drunks who lost the war and are lucky we give them anything.

To say that Native leaders are appalled is to put it mildly. To go from a government who recognised the damage caused by the Residential School System, to one that wants to gloss over the nasty bits of our history and make out that the policy had its heart in the right place is worse than insulting, it's obscene. I would like to ask Jim Prentice a question, seeing how he thinks this policy was so benign.

How would he like his children taken away from him and made to change the names he had given them, learn a language that prevented him from talking to them, and be told that all he believed was a lie and evil? Wouldn't he want someone to apologise to him for treating his children like that?

The effects of the Residential Schools are still being felt on reserves today as the children of the people who attended them are now a second generation of lost people. They live out in the middle of nowhere with no running water or electricity a lot of the times, and with little or no connection to their nation's past, or any connection to the land.

While many countries face a difficult battle these days in trying to preserve their cultural identities in the face of an onslaught of homogenisation, the First Nation people of Canada are dealing with trying to teach two generations of people what was stolen from them by government policy. It's just too bad that our current government doesn't view cultural genocide as something you have to apologise for.

March 19, 2007

Spoken Word CD: Viggo Mortensen and Buckethead This That And The Other

When I read poetry I'll occasionally try to listen for the voice of the poet in my head. Trying to visualize, or what ever the equivalent for hearing something that you can't hear is, someone's voice is a fun proposition but in the end your no closer to knowing what the person sounds like then you were when you opened the book.

Hearing the inflections and the nuances that an author gives a piece sometimes makes the world of difference in how you interpret a person's work, or maybe it will help you understand a little of how he or she sees the world. The closest analogy I can come to is it's like watching a play versus reading a script off the page. You might think you've got the meaning of the words, but then you hear the actors speaking the lines and not only do you gain a whole new understanding but you get depths of perception that heretofore you had missed.

Now there are some poems and poets where the meaning isn't that far below the surface. It doesn't take a post doctorate in English literature to figure out the meaning of a Hallmark card or the equivalent that passes for emotional truths in most of today's world. But there are still writers and work out there where hearing a reading does add another layer of meaning.

It's recently been my good fortune to receive a number of books from Perceval Press of the work of poet/painter/photographer/actor Viggo Mortensen. Leaving aside his work as an actor, although a case could be made for that as well, Mr. Mortensen's work is that of an observer of those things that most of us would walk by and not give a second thought to.
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Specifically in his photographs and poetry the impression that comes across is that the scene under observation, or the object on view through his lens, was simply waiting for him to wander by with pen and paper or camera. What it is that attracts his eye or his ear is what he is attempting to communicate to us through his work.

Dennis Hopper says in his introduction to Viggo's book Recent Forgeries that art in the twentieth century has hopefully reached the point where we are beyond fascination with technique and are content with allowing it to inspire reflection. In other words we should be able to sit, listen, look, hear, and be able to feel without having to particularly understand what the artist has done to achieve an affect.

Now that's all very well and good of course for the visual arts but for poetry and writing of any kind concessions have to made for intelligibility. If no one can understand a word of what you've written you might as well have not wasted paper and ink. So the object for the poet is to be able to express the emotions he or she wants to convey through the putting together of words that may or may not have anything to do with the end result individually but together generate a feeling, much like an artist's materials may not "say" anything in particular but when utilized they express an emotion.

Of course what I've written could also be a load of crap posing as an intellectual dissertation on the nature of art, or it could actually stem from an effort to communicate an idea to you. I don't know – how did it make you feel – did it piss you off – did it make you feel like I was a jerk off? Or did it strike a chord of recognition?

You don't know if I'm sitting here typing this with a self satisfied smirk on my face thinking doesn't that sound great, aren't I brilliant and nobody is going to understand a word of this so I'll sound even smarter. Or maybe I'm sincerely trying to communicate an idea that I find really important. Wouldn't it be nice if you could hear me saying the words so you had an idea of whether or not I'm sincere?

Which is the point I'm trying to make about Viggo Mortensen and his work and listening to him read his poetry as opposed to just reading them off the page in a book. If we go by the thesis I've proposed above of the reader or the viewer just reacting then you can argue both for and against hearing him read as opposed to reading it yourself.

There are people who would make the argument that after an artist finishes with a creation they surrender it to the interpretation of others and they should have no say in the matter let alone offer renditions to cloud the observer's own ability to make an impression. I personally think the argument that listening to the writer read his work is erecting a barrier of interpretation between the audience and the work, is a load of crap.
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This That And The Other is a compilation of tracks assembled from four amazing discs that Viggo and Buckethead (the musical genius with the KFC head gear and mask preserving his secret identity and the mind behind Bucketheadland) have produced over the years combining Viggo reading his poetry and music compositions that their two minds, plus some friends, have come up with. Listening to Mr. Mortensen read his work as far as I'm concerned brings words that were dormant to life.

So what if it his opinion on how they should sound that affects my emotional reaction to the words – he was the one who wrote them in the first place and dictated what I would feel when I read them. What I get from hearing him speak the words is a deepening of appreciation for what he has to offer as an artist.

Mr. Mortensen's poetry is not your typical verse and rhyming couplet type thing, or even the more acceptable modern version of free verse. He creates something more along the lines of prose pictures, imagery forged in words that seek to define, in the words of Joyce that he quotes so appropriately in one of his books, the conciseness of his race.

That could encompass everything from an observation on relationships, love lost, and our reactions to those incidences. How we react to the day to day of existence says more about who we are as a people then any grand statement by politicians making patriotic proclamations of pride and prejudice. Listening to the words of Viggo Mortensen one might be tempted to dismiss them as mundane or convoluted, but if listened to closely they have more to say to the heart then is comfortable for most people to want to hear.

It is easy, as I've shown in this article, to get caught up in intellectualizing art and what it should and shouldn't do. Listening to Viggo Mortensen and Buckethead's renditions of Viggo's works on This That And The Other is to be brought back to the direct immediacy of art and to be given the opportunity to experience a creation first hand from its creator.
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(Image to right is a thumbnail click with mouse to see full size – "Contemplating Viggo": Original photo R. Marcus, Digital treatments and graphic design, E. Marcus)
In my opinion there can be no finer gift that an artist can offer his audience. No matter what your opinions of art and its role or how best to appreciate it if you can't accept that simple truth when listening to This That And The Other then I think you've missed point of art altogether. So, sit back, put the disc in the machine, put on your headphones, crank the volume, and go for a trip with Viggo and Buckethead that you won't regret or want to have missed.

It's just like giving the finger to academics that dissect the crap out of everything.

March 9, 2007

I Was A Twenty-Something Security Risk

I have a confession to make. Those of you who have a passing acquaintance with my opinions etc, might not be too surprised by what I'm about to tell you, but to others this may come as a bit of shock and I apologise for that. I just felt that given the tenor of the times that I owed it to everybody to make a clean breast of things.

I'm a security risk. Yes that's right mild mannered, beady eye Canadian with my head full of lies I may be, but I'm also a dyed in the wool security risk. This is no new thing either, brought about by any of the many disparaging comments I may have recently made about various political figures on both sides of the border, or any relationship I may or may not have with foreigners of a different colour.

No, I'm ashamed to admit that my days of being a security risk predate either George junior or senior's presidential stints and date from a series of incidents that took place between 1980 and 1983. Not that it matters I guess, as Maher Arar has learned it doesn't matter when an incident took place, or whether you were innocent or not, once labelled a threat, always a threat.

I found out about my status in the summer of 1988. I was "between engagements". (That's what actors call being out of work it sounds a lot better) and it just so happened that my period of forced idleness coincided with Toronto Canada, where I lived at the time, playing host to the annual meeting of the Group of Eight Industrial nations (G 8)

To handle that influx of media that was sure to accompany the leaders they needed to hire a large number of media clerks; people who had experience with files, organizing information, and dealing with requests for copies of documents. Two or three local temporary employment agencies had been hired to tackle the job of recruiting individuals to fill these positions.

Since I had had plenty of experience doing office work from when I had helped manage a theatre company, I decided to apply for one of the positions to earn some needed money to tide me over. My credentials were fine, I was actually overqualified but that didn’t matter, and I was told the job was mine as long as I cleared a security check.

As I wasn't going to be having any contact with any of the dignitaries, it was considered a forgone conclusion that I would pass. I'm not sure who was more surprised, me or the woman from the employment agency who had to phone and tell me that my application for security clearance had been rejected. According to her, no one else who had applied had been turned down, only me.

It took me a bit, but I figured out what it was about eventually. It was one of two things, or maybe the two combined and they both involved events that took place between 1981 and 1982.

At the beginning of the 1980's the American government was looking for places they could test one of their newest weapons, The Cruise Missile. Northern Alberta, in Canada was ideal for their needs as the topography was varied and there were miles upon miles of unpopulated land. They could launch the missiles from planes and guide them to their final destinations secure in the knowledge that no humans would be disturbed.

That it happened to the traditional hunting grounds of neighbouring Native Canadians didn't concern them overly much, nor did the fact that it was the migration route for huge herds of caribou. It's not as if the missiles had nuclear warheads on them for gosh sakes. Anyway the Canadian government at the time gave the American's permission to go ahead and test the missiles and even offered to build the guidance system on Canadian soil.

In 1981 I was one of about twenty people in front of the American Consulate in down town Toronto protesting the testing. As we marched on the sidewalk in front of the front doors, two gentlemen, who might as well have been wearing signs saying "SPY" were taking our pictures from a meridian in the road. In the course of the next two years the demonstrations grew larger and larger until in the fall of 1982 about 100,000 people turned out to march through the streets of Toronto against the Cruise missile tests.

It was probably the biggest demonstration of it's kind in Toronto, maybe even Canada. Shortly after that somebody left a van filled with explosives parked up against the factory in Rexdale, Ontario, a suburb of Toronto, where the guidance system for the missiles was being constructed. It didn't too that much physical damage, but some poor security guard was killed.

I remember hearing about at work and coming home and asking my roommate if we knew the people who did it. He gave an odd look and said, "we know people who know them. Watch what you say on the phone for a while." I wasn't thrilled that we had even a tenuous connection to anybody that could be responsible for killing somebody else (They called themselves Direct Action and had actually been responsible for a couple of attacks across Canada. They had blown up a couple of adult video stores in British Columbia and some power lines as well. Ironically when I moved to Kingston Ontario in 1990, they were already here having been sentenced to serve their time in the jails here) but I did think he was being a little paranoid about the phones until my father asked me why the hell my phone was tapped.

At one time or another in his career as a lawyer my father had prosecuted drug offences for the Canadian government, so one thing he was familiar with was the sounds indicating the beginning and end of a tapped conversation. After about a couple of months of being careful on the phone, of not even talking in the same room as the phone in case of a location bug, we gradually slipped back into our normal behaviour.

Eventually I just simply forgot about the whole thing, getting fully involved in my career in theatre and frustrated with the infighting among the political types, I became less and less involved with activist politics. If I hadn't had to apply for security clearance for the G8 event in Toronto I may never even have known.

Now nine years later I wonder if they consider me a threat? Probably not, because I've the feeling if they did consider me so I would have been talked to a while ago. Maybe I'm on some sort of watch, but its not one where they consider me a major threat or anything.

But still, I don't try and cross the boarder into the United States because I've the feeling they would be pushing my luck, and they might decide to detain for an indefinite period just to be on the safe side.

Well there you go, confessions of a twenty something security threat. I hope it hasn't shocked any of you too much knowing that for these past however many months your writings have shared web space with someone like me. I figured I owed it to all of you to own up to my less then perfect past and warn you that associating with me could cause you problems.

March 7, 2007

Food Suplements: What Are They Good For?

The last time I was in seeing my pain specialist we discussed the idea that I should consider taking a supplement called Malic Acid. According to the one trial conducted using doses of Malic Acid with Magnesium there is some indication that it might assist people with Fibromyalgia, although it is unclear how the way the body metabolises Malic Acid has anything to do with it. Because I suffer from a type of chronic pain similar to Fibromyalgia he hoped there might be a chance that this could also play a role in treating my condition.

The results of the one clinical study done on the combination of Malic Acid and Magnesium as a means of alleviating the symptoms of Fibromyalgia, was inconclusive. A double blind study using placebos at low doses for four weeks (200 mgs Malic Acid and 50 mgs Magnesium three times a day) was followed by and open label test (subjects knew what they were taking) for six months where the dosage was increased to six tablets a day.

While the initial double blind test showed little beneficial results, when the dosage was doubled and the patients knew what they were taking, more noticeable relief was indicated. As of yet there is no means of finding out what if any contradictions there might be from taking high levels of Malic Acid for any length of time as it has never been done before.

According to proponents of Malic Acid it works to help the body detoxify itself of high levels of Aluminium and Phosphorous absorbed from other foods and plays an essential role in the production of energy. It's the latter effect that is supposed to have the pain relieving attribute for those of us suffering from various chronic pain conditions; although no one is willing to go out on a limb say just how it increases energy, or why that increase in energy would alleviate my pain.

Now I think it's wonderful that I have a doctor who is ready and willing to look into alternative ways he can use to treat his patients. I wish more doctors were like him, and open to a more holistic approach to medicine. (Don't panic, holistic just means treating the whole body not just the symptoms and makes sense when you're dealing with long-term acute conditions) But neither of us really knew anything about Malic Acid and he doesn't have time to do research, so he knew that by planting the idea in my ear I'd check it out.

Does the expression, "An apple a day keeps the doctor away" sound familiar to anyone? Well guess what, Malic Acid is the acid freely available in apples and all fruit. In fact it's referred to as the fruit acid by a lot of the literature. When you check the ingredient list on the side of a bottle of Malic Acid it says: Apples, plus a list of non-medicinal items.

Apples, you know they are round, come in colours ranging form bright red to yellow to green, and are found on the shelves of most grocery stores? So why are they being sold in a pill form and being advertised as the latest, and greatest medical breakthrough? To me it just sounds like the latest in a long series of supplements for inadequate diets.

It seems like vitamins have been around forever. As a kid in the 1960's I remember my mom making me take one a day plus iron because I didn't eat meat and the doctors scared her into believing I was anaemic and suffering from a deficiency of iron. But that's about as far as it went with food supplements in those days.

Our diets were either better in those days, less processed foods on the market and more whole foods, or nobody had figured out yet how bad all this processed and packaged stuff was. The convenience of being able to thaw supper rather than having to cook it from scratch was still too much of a novelty to question what was being left out of the equation aside from labour.

Considering that it was the 1960s and 70s that saw a proliferation of frozen and processed foods I would say that the world was too busy being excited by progress to worry about any bill that might come due further on down the line. (You can apply that theory to probably most things, not just diet. It really wasn't until the late eighties that some people became aware of the costs involved from the post World War Two industrial boom)

Today, not only do drug stores stock shelves full of vitamins and supplements for the diet, (who had ever heard of Omega Acids thirty years ago) there are specialty stores catering to just those items. Health Food stores that sell nothing but organic, whole grain, fair trade, non-dairy, gluten free and meatless products now also carry every sort of pill and powdered concoction possible as compensation for deficient diets.

For those not satisfied with those facilities there are stores dedicated solely to the sales of oxidants, minerals, molecules and electrons (at least that’s how it looks) that will tone and buff your cellular makeup. Why bother going to the gym and beautifully sculpting your muscles and the spa to revitalize your appearance, it you don't have the energy to stand up because you haven't bothered to leave time to eat properly?

But that's okay because now you can buy work out regimes for your molecular structure. If you don't eat enough green vegetables there is a program you can follow for a couple of hundred dollars. Anything you're missing can be replaced.

As I mentioned earlier the idea behind a holistic approach to medicine is to treat the whole body and not just the symptoms. When a holistic doctor notices that a patient is deficient in iron for instance, the doctor will recommend the patient take a supplement temporarily until a balance is achieved again. The doctor will also treat the various other ailments that are causing the client's illness and give suggestions for a change in diet that might prevent underlying conditions from recurring, like the iron deficiency for instance, that may have contributed to the problem.

Supplements are not used as replacements for anything that can be readily obtained through eating properly. Some individuals can have temporary deficiencies, or in chronic cases long term ones, where it would be impractical to correct them using diet so the use of a supplement makes sense.

But far too often now these items are being used instead of people eating properly. We don't know enough about the molecular structure and how some of these supplements work on the system to know what sort of long term affects large doses will have. We've already seen the disasters that can happen when people abuse herbal remedies thinking they are harmless because they come from plants.

Ephedra is an asthma medicine that people were taking for weight loss and who knows what else. It is only to be used in very specific conditions; otherwise it can be harmful and potentially fatal. Well too many people found that out about Ephedra by dying of strokes because it was misused and sold under false pretences.

There should be no need for people who are not suffering from some illness or chronic condition to be taking food supplements. But as our foods have become more and more refined and processed the parts that are of value to us in them have been eliminated. For the majority of us supplements can be avoided through the simple expedient of eating a properly balanced diet of proteins, carbohydrates, grains, fruit, and vegetables.

It's not rocket science, it just takes a little pre planning and exerting a little effort in taking care of yourself. Maybe instead of one of your trips to the gym why not do some meal planning? Instead of paying a couple of hundred dollars on a substitute for green leafy vegetables, buy a head of lettuce and make a small salad with your meal. Think of the money you'll save.

I'm going to report back to my doctor what I've found out about Malick Acid. I know that I don't eat enough fruit; my wife is allergic to the majority of fruit – something about the sugars they produce – so we don't normally have it in the house. So I'm going to try eating an apple a day, or its equivalent in apple sauce, and see if that helps any.

Maybe it will help keep my doctor away!

March 6, 2007

Canadian Politics: Nine Year Old Canadian Detained In Texas.

Sometimes there are stories you read in the paper that let you know just how far the world has drifted down the path of insanity. Right now as I write this article over 170 children are being kept in a former maximum-security prison in Texas. The euphemistically titled T. Don Hutto Family Detention Centre serves as a holding tank for people that don't have proper documentation to enter the United States.

Among those 170 children is a nine-year-old Canadian citizen named Kevin, the child of two Iranians who were so desperate to get back to the country their child was born in they had hired human smugglers to sneak them back. Majid and Masomeh (they don't use their last name) had originally come to Canada in 1995 seeking political asylum due to fear of persecution back in Iran. In 1997 Kevin was born in Canada and was automatically a citizen. This did not stop the Canadian government from deporting his parents in 2005 –ten years after they had applied for refugee status- because they did not meet the requirements to qualify as political refugees.

During the ten years they had lived here Kevin had reached grade three in school and Majid had managed to gain full time employment sufficient to support the family, and be productive members of society. Notwithstanding all of this they were sent off to a country which was completely alien to Kevin, and that his parents had done their best to forget.

What kind of government lets a family live in its country for ten years before deciding to deport them? If these people have lived here this long already and proven themselves to be productive members of society what point was the government making by sending them back? That they are unfeeling creeps who don’t give a shit about individuals but only about appearances?

Is it so important to them that they look like they are being tough on Muslims that they ignore individuals? Are they all only "rag heads" to those charming folk at immigration?

You know that in Canada in order to successfully apply as a refugee seeking political asylum because you are in fear of physical violence against your self and your family you have to have proof. How many people are going to think to go to the local police station and ask for the documents that show their arrest order, or the piece of paper signed saying they are to be tortured?

I know that's awfully negligent on their part and they probably should make more of an effort, but what can you do they're not like us are they? That's the problem with refugees, they're just so different from the rest of us and they don't know how to behave. Why I'm sure any decent person would have made sure to have all their relevant paper work in order – you would have, wouldn't you?

When Kevin and his family's plane landed in Tehran Majid was immediately arrested and hauled off to jail where he was tortured and beaten for three months. After being released friends and family began to make arrangements for getting the family out of the country again. They contacted a human smuggler who got them to Turkey for $20,000 and for another $20,000would get them to Canada.

They took a flight to Guyana, where they were booked on a direct flight to Toronto from Georgetown the capital city of the South American city. Because they were travelling on Greek passports they had no need of entry visas for getting into Canada, so they weren't questioned getting on the plane.

Unfortunately a fellow passenger had a heart attack and died and the plane was forced to land in Puerto Rico so emergency crews could remove the body. During the hold over they were forced to got through immigration, where they were detained because travelling under Greek passports they needed visas to enter the United States. They were held in Puerto Rico for five days before being shipped to the confines of Texas.

This was in spite of the fact that not only was their plane never supposed to have landed in the United States, their tickets were for Toronto with no stopovers in between, and they repeatedly insisted they didn't want to go to America. Maybe American immigration officials thought they had deliberately killed the fellow passenger so they could sneak into the States or that they were planning to parachute from the plane before it reached Toronto. You never can tell with these types – they may even have been planning on hijacking the plane and using it as a weapon.

Better safe then sorry when dealing with Iranians, especially ones who have no desire to come to the United States. That only shows there is something wrong with them. They'd rather go to Canada then the U.S. Yes it is true they were travelling under false documents, but they would have never come into contact with American immigration officials if not for a freak accident, and American demands that they go through customs for no reason. This should have been a problem for Canadian authorities to sort out, especially considering the status of the child, and been none of the American's business.

But now they sit and rot in an American jail, and Canadian authorities are doing squat for them. If the Canadian government wants to help one of its young citizens it will have to let his parents in to look after him. Parents who have already proven themselves to be responsible citizens, and people whose refugee claim should have been taken seriously in the first place.

According to Audrey Macklin, a professor of immigration at the University of Toronto, a case exists for a pre-risk removal assessment based on what happened to Majid when he was returned to Iran the last time. The assessment will determine the level of risk he faces if removed again from Canada and sent back to Iran and the level of risk he is to the Canadian public. So far the best the Canadian government has been able to come up with is some halfhearted comments about maybe being able to help Kevin but being able to do nothing for his parents.

How nice, remove a child from his parents after all he's been through to this time. Just the capper he needs for an already blighted childhood. Yanked out of his grade three class to be deported to a country he knows nothing about; his father taken away and tortured for three months; being smuggled out of a country where if they're caught they could very well have been killed; and now being held in a jail in Texas where if his father tries to visit him after nine thirty at night he won't be allowed to see him again.

They don't coddle families in Texas you see; (the only good nit is a dead nit was first said by an American general in reference to Native Americans; obviously not much has changed for some people, just who the nits are) everyone has to get up at 5:30am for showers, they have fifteen minutes to eat meals, everyone must go to bed at 9:30pm with laser-triggered alarms activated if anyone strays, and they are locked down three times a day for an hour for a head count.

And this is what they refer to as a residential, non-secure setting. Damn I'd hate to see what they call a secure facility. Hutto sounds like most maximum-security prisons in Canada not a detention centre for families who are awaiting decisions on their fate as refugee applicants or whether or not they are going to be allowed to continue their journeys before they were so rudely interrupted.

Nine-year-old Kevin has become so desperate that he has written a letter to Prime Minister Steven Harper of Canada, begging him for help. (The image is a thumbnail; drag your mouse over it for a larger "pop-up" view of the letter) He might get lucky, because Canadians are facing an election and depending how the public react to his plight, Kevin might find himself the beneficiary of Prime Ministerial intervention.

If Harper senses he can make political hay out of this at the Liberal party's expense he will charter a plane to take him to Texas so he can bring little Kevin and his family to Toronto personally. But if it looks like most people don't really care one way or another, you can bet he will issue a statement expressing sympathy and his belief that the system will work our right in the end. The Prime Minister can't be seen showing favouritism if it's not going to win him significant points with the voters.

It's reading about these types of situations that remind me of where true evil resides in the world. It lies in the inherent lack of compassion that we imbue all our systems with. We encourage those carrying out the orders not to get emotionally involved, and to treat each case the same with no deviations. Situations and people are never unique so all you have to do is process forms not worry about whether or not you have just sentenced someone to months of torture and possible death because they don't quite qualify as a refugee.

Better luck next time. Hope you live! Next! I'm only sticking to the rules, is not that far from I was only following orders. Kevin and his family should never have been deported in the first place, but there are rules about these things and they have to be obeyed. God knows what would have happened if they'd been allowed to stay: Kevin would be in Grade five and his dad might have had a promotion at work.

The end of civilization as we know it.

February 17, 2007

Interview: Yasmina Kahdra

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At the beginning of January 2007 I was introduced to a writer whose work I had not only never read by never heard of before. I just naturally assumed that Yasmina Kahdra was a woman until I received the first books from his publisher in North America for me to review. Yasmina Kahdra is the pen name of Mohammed Moulessehoul, and Algerian now living in France.

I have to confess that Yasmina was the first writer I had ever read from the Arab world, and even though the 1988 Nobel Prize for literature went to an Arab I have made little or no effort to educate myself. But since reading five of his books and conducting this interview, my interest has been piqued.

This was a bit of an awkward interview to conduct, because Med Kahdra only reads and writes in French and Arabic, while I can only handle those duties in English. I must say that Google translation performed admirably well with only one question causing confusion. I utilized three separate translation programs, to bring his answers back into to English to try and capture the word and the spirit of his answer.
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Med Kahdra is a fascinating man who provides us in the West with a different perspective to life in Arab countries to the one being presented in our media on an almost daily basis.

I would like to thank him for taking the time out of his day to participate in this interview and I hope you are as fascinated with his responses as I was.

1) Tell us a little about yourself, where you were born and other biographical details.

I was born, 52 years ago, in the Algerian Sahara. My father was a male nurse and my mother a settled nomad. My tribe has occupied Kenadsa (the village where I was born) for 8 centuries. She is known for her poetry and her wisdom. She has always welcomed, without regard to race or religion, all the travellers who knocked on her door: the writer and explorer Isabelle Eberhardt, the Minister Charles de Foucauld, as well as the missionaries who crossed the desert in the direction of Tombouctou and Africa.

I was born in a tribe of poets and warriors. This is why I never felt out of place in the army as a novelist. It is my tribe which taught me how to me to share myself between the two.

2) Your father had been a soldier, and you became a soldier. Where did the desire to write come from? Most people don't think of soldiers becoming writers.

My father had been a male nurse. Then, there was the war for the Independence of Algeria, which had been colonized by France, and my father joined the National Liberation Army. After 6 years of war (1962, was the birth of the Algerian republic), he came home as an officer and chose to embrace a military career in the young Algerian army. In 1964, when I was 9 years old, my father placed me in Cadets School, the military institution concerned with officer training.

I thus spent 11 years at this military boarding school before moving on to the Academy to begin my career as an officer that lasted 25 years. But I was always writing. From the time I was 11 years old, I tired my hand at fables tales. My first published work, (Houria), I wrote when I was seventeen years old. When I became an officer, I continued to write. I published 6 novels under my real name, Mohammed Moulessehoul before seeing any reaction from the hierarchy in 1988.

Seeing that I had begun being recognised in the media in Algeria the High command imposed a committee of censorship to supervise me. I refused to subject myself to them.

This is how my first pseudonym came about, from that decision in 1989. It was Police Chief Llob's name that appeared on two small novels The Nutcase With The Lancet (1990) and The Fair (1993) In 1997, my Parisian editor wanted a name which sounded less like a profession for the publication of Morituri I chose my wife's first two names,: Yasmina Khadra. Since then I have kept this pen name, which has now had work translated in twenty-seven countries.

3) What did your family, your mother and father, think of you writing?

My family have always respected my choices. They know that I am a healthy in body and of spirit and do not look to debate my career choices. My father is proud of the direction I've taken while my mother, who is illiterate, knows that it is a good thing, but is not quite sure why. She had always wanted me to quite the army so that makes her happy. My brothers and sisters encourage me to go from the word one

4) Were there any writers who inspired you when you first started to write? Your Superindent Llob books reminded me a little of the books by George Simenon and Nicolas Freeling

I did not read Simenon, at the time. Our bookshops were disaster victims and our old books managed to do little more then make us dream. We lived in a country with a horror for writers and artists. However, I really liked the American Blacks literature: Chester Himes, Richard Wright, and James Baldwin.

By creating the Superintendent Llob character, I wanted to have a typically Algerian character. Moreover, in my noir novels, Algiers is also a central character. I did not seek to imitate my preferred authors. I wrote in French, but with my sensitivity Bedouin, my Algerian glance, my anger and my Algerian hopes.

Anyway, we also have our own artists, as beautiful and rich as Western literature. I far prefer Taha Hossein (Egypt), François Mauriac, Abou El Kassam Ech-Chabbi (Tunisia), or Pablo Neruda, Naguib Mahfouz, Malek Haddad (Algeria) etc, to European flashes in the pan.

It's a pity that you do not have access to our culture. The Arab world is not just a postcard with dunes and caravans, nor is it only terrorist attacks. The Arab world is more generous and more inspired than yours. Do you know that El Moutannabi is the Humanity's greatest poet since the dawn of time? … It's a pity that you do not know anything of it. I was initially inspired by mine. I have had the chance to get maximum benefit from a double culture, Western and Eastern without ever losing sight of where I come from.

5)Where did the idea of Superintendent Llob come from? What made you decide to write about that subject?

I created Superintendent Llob as a diversion for the Algerian reader. I have already told you, in Algeria, we did not have a large selection in our bookshops there, and the publications revolved around the political demagogy, nationalist chauvinism and the romantic mediocrity praising the Algerian Revolution in Stalinist speeches. I dreamed of writing station books, books funny and without claim that you could read while waiting for the train or the bus, or while gilding yourself with the sun at the seaside. I dreamed to reconcile the Algerian reader with his literature. I had never thought that Superintendent Llob was going to exceed the borders of the country and appeal to readers in Europe, and America.

6) In your books "Wolf Dreams" and "In The Name Of God" you switched to writing from the point of view of the police to that of the terrorists. Why did you make that choice?

What police, and which choice? These two novels give a truthful account of real social and identity mutations that drove the emergence of fundamentalism, then terrorism in my country. They are used as references in universities today.

7) Why do you write about terrorism?

For 2 reasons. Initially because it is a planetary danger, that I know of from the inside and that I can describe with clearness and intelligence. Also, because Westerners understand nothing, and never say anything important on the subject. My books consist of explanations to clarify the consciences and alleviate the spirits traumatized by the political handling of media misinformation.

That being said, I make a point of recalling that my novels are not testimony. They concern fiction and assert their literary values. I am sorry to see people throw themselves on the topic and to neglect the manner of treating this topic. I basically make literary work. I have a language, a style.

8) In your early books you talk about the corruption in Algeria and had characters say that the terrorists were being used to allow certain interests to seize power. Is the situation in Algeria still as bad as it was, or have there been improvements since the time of writing those books?

Nothing has changed in my country, when it comes to this topic. The corruption prevails more and more; predation and opportunism has became the favourite sport of the nation. Most of our elite was forced into exile, and the people are without guidance, delivered to the robbers and to the charlatans, and have come to believe things will always be the same.

9) In your more recent books "Attack" and "Swallows of Kabul" you've started writing about life outside Algeria. Why?

Why not? The real question is to know if I succeeded or not. I think that I am well positioned to speak about what occurs on our planet. My double culture makes me believe that I am capable of doing this. It is grannd time, for you, to hear the bell ring somewhere else.

10) Reading your books I could tell that you really loved Algeria. It must be hard to be in exile. Do you want to go back to Algeria? What would have to change there for you to want to return?

I like my country very much. I try to support it with my modest means, to give courage and confidence again to the young Algerian who reads me. But I am not exiled I am an emigrant. I am living in France to work, and not to take refuge. I return in my country when I want, and nobody, neither the President nor the emirs can prohibit me to go back there. Algeria is my country, and I do not have any other. I do not want to have any other.

11) What has been the reaction to your books inAlgeria and other Muslim countries? Or does the fact that you live in France answer that question?

The Algerian reader likes me a lot. They read me in French because I am not translated into Arabic. I am translated into Indonesian, Japanese, Malayalam, in the majority of the languages, except in Arabic. But that has nothing to do with the Arab peoples. It is the leaders who seek, as always, to dissociate the people from the elites so they can continue to reign and cultivate clanism and mediocrity.

12) The Sirens of Baghdad is your new novel. Does it explore the same themes as your earlier books?

(This question got slightly skewed in the translation - instead of themes as we would interpret it, it translated as subject matter – hence the answer)

I never explore the same topic in my books. Each novel deals with a different phenomenon. It is you who do not manage to separate the different subjects I treat. You are constantly in a state of confusion. The Swallows of Kabul speaks about the dictatorship of the Talibans and the condition of the Afghan woman. The Attack speaks about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. The Sirens of Baghdad speaks about the 2nd war of Iraq. Radically different topics, but everywhere you retain only terrorism, terrorism, terrorism. My novels do not speak about terrorism; they talk of human brittleness, anger, humiliation, the fears, sometimes the hopes; and of this burning and fatuous actuality which spoils our life.

13) What are your plans for the future?

I live from day to day. It is more prudent. I do not make plans; I prefer to take the things as they come.

February 15, 2007

Spoken Word Recording: Viggo Mortensen, Hank Mortensen, & Scott Wannberg 3 Fools 4 April CD/DVD

There is something about poetry readings that I've always found slightly off-putting. It's not the poets or the poems; I can usually be counted on to be quite civil to most of them. No what usually gets to me are the audiences.

Oh I'm sure that most people at a reading have come to listen to the poetry and I have no problem with that. No it's the ones who have come for the "event" that usually get up my nose. The two types that I find the most aggravating are the ones who feel that everyone has really come to see them so they have to be part of the show, and the ones who act like they're doing everyone a huge favour by showing up for the reading.

The former sit up close to wherever the poets are set up and have to make noises of some sort before, during or after the poem and sometimes if you're really unlucky all three. There's the murmur of agreement that shows they approve of the choice of poem or the subject matter, which is a close cousin to the exclamation of disbelief, and finally the strident laugh at something only they find funny.

The latter has either accompanied the first type or is sitting in close enough proximity that they can work in counter point to each other. When the first is silent the second can make small harrumphs of disquiet to show how much of a waste of their time this truly is, complain about the quality of the coffee being served, and whisper to whoever is unfortunate enough to be sitting beside them all about the really wonderful reading they went to the last time they were in San Francesco.

So I don't get to hear or see much poetry being, which is a shame, because good poetry can really be brought to life by being read by the person who wrote it. When you hear the writer's inflection, or see the expression on his or her face, and listen to the tone of their voice, so much that never makes it onto the page is revealed.

Which is why I sent inquiries about a review copy to the Perceval Press about a new release they are currently offering. 3 Fools 4 April is a CD/DVD set of a poetry reading given by Scott Wannberg, Hank Mortensen, and Viggo Mortensen in support of the Beyond Baroque Foundation in Venice California. I would be able to see and hear three poets performing their work and not have to deal with the usual drawbacks.
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Of the three the only one who's poetry I'm familiar with is Viggo Mortensen's having reviewed an earlier work of his quite a number of years ago, Coincidence Of Memory, and been very impressed by both his poetry and his photography. He's also a fair hand at acting, so I was interested to see what he'd do with his poetry.

As the DVD, with a few alterations, pretty much duplicates the CD I decided to listen first, then watch and listen. I also hoped that by listening I would be able to obtain a level of impartiality toward the three men by creating the illusion of anonymity and be able to
judge their presentation on what they did not who they are.

One thing I appreciated right off the bat with both the CD and the DVD was the format that the three men decided to follow of informally following one after the other with no fanfare or build up. Each poet would introduce what he was going to read, offer a preamble if required, and start reading.

Listening to forty-one poems is a rather overwhelming prospect even when some are no longer then twenty-five to thirty seconds. If it had only been one poet reading that many pieces it could never have worked. But having three distinct voices to listen too meant there was sufficient variety in tone and style to keep you interested.

Scott Wannberg reads like a roller coaster ride, climbing and descending hills and valleys of emotion with us hanging on for dear life. Either you're laughing hysterically, screaming enthusiastically, or shivering silently dependant on what peaks he's had us scale and how deep he has plummeted us in the descent.

There are two of his poems that stick out in my memory from both the CD and the DVD. First was the short poem "Hunter's Anonymous" which is a beautiful joke at the expense of Dick Cheney's hunting skills, or lack there of. As this was only the second piece I had heard from Scott, and his second comedic piece of the disc, I wondered how his bruising delivery would sound with a more emotional work.

The answer came when he read a piece about making a mad dash across the state to be at the bedside of his mother before she died. It was only then that I heard the emotion that hid behind what some might call bluster, but is truly an over abundance of feeling that just can't be held within the confines of a normal sized voice, and that has to be let out in some form or another.

In contrast to Scott, Viggo's son Hank offers a nice respite from turbulence. His poems are intelligent and show signs of what must be a lighting quick humour. His first poem "Freedom Fighter" is a brilliant piece that makes use of the words freedom and fighter to create a meaning contrary to our normal interpretation and expectations.

The second piece of his that caught my attention was "second chance, give or take a few". It was a very witty and intelligent take on a typical utopian political conversation "let's get rid of all the borders and live in peace and harmony". His reading showed a fine ear for timing, and his handling of the subject matter showed intelligence and perception plus something I consider essential for a successful poet; an ability to laugh at himself.

While both Scott and Hank are gifted presenters and writers, it became quickly obvious when Viggo Mortensen read that he was in a league of his own. Not necessarily for anything spectacular he does with the readings of his poems, in fact he almost delivers them in a monotone, but in his ability to let the poem shine through him like a beacon.

He acts as a conduit for his poems so that we are free to make our own interpretations of his work, rather then him feeling it necessary to impose an emotional reaction on us.

Viggo's poems about relationships leave one guessing as to who is to blame for its end, or for its success. Even when they are highly personal, or have the appearance of being about himself, he won't take sides and play the broken hearted lover or the jilting asshole. Like a pathologist he offers up a full dissection and autopsy, but instead of vital organs it's emotions that are being laid out on the table as we inspectors of life probe them for clues about the human condition.

He can be funny too, and although it was only included on the CD, "Everything Is Really Water", shows that Hank came by his sense of humour honestly. Of course I wonder if he ever has trouble explaining to people that his dad wrote a poem extolling the virtues of peeing in sinks. Actually it's more about the joys of peeing all around, but it's just that sinks get special mention; proper etiquette and cleaning requirements are very important.

One thing that worried me before I put the DVD in was that I had noticed there was quite a bit of audience noise bleeding through on the CD, including a female version of, I'm the show not those guys on stage. Thankfully she didn't make the cut on the DVD or it would have ruined it.

What was nice about the DVD was that you were able to clarify some things that you weren't certain about on the CD. Scott really did break down into tears in the middle of reading the poem about his mom dying. Or you get to see Viggo giving his son encouragement, or looking at him with pride.

While the CD probably has slightly better sound quality then the DVD, I return to what I said at the beginning of the review about seeing a poet live, and what the advantages of that are. All the little clues that you normally get from watching a person come through on a DVD. Whether body language or eye movement it all helps to us to interoperate the poem all the better.

3 Fools 4 April is a wonderful opportunity to see and hear three great poets and support a fine arts centre in Los Angeles. 3 Fools 4 April is available for sale through Perceval Press and is well worth every penny of the twenty dollar asking price.

February 11, 2007

Family History: Facts And Hopes

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Family histories are strange things some times. Just when you think you have a handle on where your people have come from, a spanner gets thrown in the works. In my family we've always known about my father's family to as far back as 16th century Portugal for his mother's family, and the days of Wallace and his gory bed for his father's family in Scotland.

But my mother's family has always been a little more mysterious in that although we know where in Europe they were living when they came to Canada, we don't know what path had taken them to that final destination but one. As Jews they had been on the move for generations. Always being afraid to settle in deep enough to put down roots of belonging because who knew when the winds of change would whisper in the ear of the King/Prince of the city telling him it's time for the Jews to leave.

My mother's maternal line had settled in Poland just outside the city of Crakow. In the late 19th and early 20th centuries Poland and Russia were in continual conflict over a piece of land that lay on the Eastern edge of Poland. That the Pale, which was the name of the area, also happened to the only place in Russia that Jews wee allowed to live meant that their poor Fiddler On The Roof type villages were right smack dab in the middle of a battle field.

I know my mother's maternal grandfather came to here to avoid being canon fodder for one side or the other for a fourth time. ("Enlistment" parties would ride through the Jewish settlements rounding up any male that could walk and conscript them for whichever army happened to hold control over the village at the time) In 1911 he brought over his wife and four kids to settle in Toronto.

Like most of their fellow immigrants they had lived in Eastern Europe for centuries prior to finally having had enough of the persecution and poverty and making good their escape. At the time it was an occasion for sorrow, of course twenty odd years later they would consider themselves fortunate to have got out when they did before the doors of the camps were thrown open.

On her father's side of the family is where the mystery begins about my mother's family tree. Although we know they were living in Romania prior to coming to Canada they were far more educated than would be normal for poor Jews (they spoke French on top of Yiddish, Biblical Hebrew, and Romanian) which has long made us wonder about where they had lived prior to landing in Romania.

My mother has long suspected that her father's family are descendants of the Jews who had thrived as part of the Ottoman Empire and even Christian Iberia (Spain and Portugal) up until Queen Isabella and King Ferdinand. The year 1492 not only marks the beginning of the end for the native peoples of North and South America; it was also the year that Jews were given the choice of leaving the Iberian Peninsula or converting to Christianity.

Jews who had seen the writing on the wall had retreated in front of the Christian armies as they had taken the land back from the Moorish empire that was based out of modern Turkey. After having enjoyed status as equals in parts of that empire they weren't interested in all of a sudden being subjected to limitations on their life and culture. As the retreat continued back through the Balkans and Eastern Europe people like the King of Romania would assure the Jews that they were welcome to stay in his country.

Unlike their cousins who spoke Yiddish, a hybrid language made up of German, Slavic, and Hebrew, they used Ladino as their common tongue. Ladino incorporated many elements of the Romance languages (Ones descended from Rome – Latin- like French, Italian, Spanish and Romanian) so it would not have been hard for them to acclimatize to Romania..

Most monarchs were always glad to welcome Jews into their countries because they were a source of money and they were the only people allowed by church law to lend out money. While their ability to be users would have made them popular among the wealthy and the aristocratic the common man would have easily resented their wealth and ability. This was one of the major reasons that the church was able of whip up hatred against the Jews so easily,

Without any accounts of how my mother's father's family got to Romania we can't know for sure whether they were part of the Sephardic people's (Jews who are from Spain and the Middle East, while the European Jews are the Ashkenazi) migration back through eastern Europe with the Ottoman Empire. Both my mother and I have done some cursory research on the matter, with few conclusive results.

The last name of Marcus is listed as a Sephardic name in the genealogy sites, but it also shows up in the Ashkenazi lists as well. For all we know it could just be a romantic notion on our part with nothing concrete to back it up. It even sometimes feels like an extension of typical Romanian Jew feelings of superiority over the peasant farmers from Poland, Russia, and the other Eastern Balkan states.

One of the stories in our family is that when my grandfather went to marry my grandmother, one of his family, (it's never been said who) took him aside and said, "Remember to hold your head high, you are a Romanian and they are only Polacks". My grandfather used to take great delight in repeating this story in front of my grandmother. As long as none of her family were around she didn't mind, even joining in by saying, "The only thing worse than a Polack was a Litvak (Lithuanian)"

So perhaps thinking our family is descended from a long line of intellectual mystics, who under the rule of the Moors in Spain were elevated to positions of authority so great that one even was senior advisor to the ruler of Cordova, is just another sign of our snobbishness. Who wouldn't prefer claiming them as ancestors to saying we've just been scrabbling around for the last two thousand years trying to survive wherever they will let us live?

But although there is no proof, I keep stumbling across little things that revive my belief in the theory. I was sent a couple books by the Israeli author Haim Sabato to review, and he is a Sephardic Jew. His family had lived in Syria for two thousand years until they moved to Egypt and then Israel. On the cover of the one book Aleppo Tales (Aleppo being the area where the Jews came from in Syria) is a picture of a family gathering. Staring up at me from the page are the faces of young women who are identical to my mother when she was their ages. I do mean ages, from toddler to it looks early twenties all the young women look identical to what my mother looked like at those times in her life.

Just to make sure it wasn't me making something out of nothing, I handed the book to my wife to see her reaction. Her first words were –"they look just like that picture of your mom as a young child, and also that one of her as a teenager".

So, it's not really proof about anything, but it did make my heart beat a little faster for a few moments and revive my hopes that maybe we are indeed descendants of the wise and the gifted on one side of the family. It's a nice fantasy family history that every so often looks very real.

February 8, 2007

Caring For The Caring: Who Cares

Of all the words in the English language that have come in for a beating in the last decade or so only sharing has been more misused or abused than caring. It has gotten so bad that in some circles for it to be known that you care is considered an insult. What could have happened that such a decent word developed so many different ways of being construed and come to be looked on with something akin to scorn

Okay sure you've got all sorts of strange new age people and talk show hosts who have given the word a bad name. I'm just as ready as the next person with a cynical comment about upper middle class people crying over starving people in Africa while living in gated communities that proudly boast a less then 1% black population as a selling point.

But does that mean we have to give up on an idea or a concept just because some people have given it a bad name? That's one of the worst instances of cutting our noses off to spite our faces. We have to learn how to reclaim the concepts and words that were taken away from decency and made into the empty gestures of selfish people. Show that not everyone who uses the word care is trying to justify the cost of their house easily feeding the average refugee camp for a year.

It's hard though, not to feel cynical when you see the conspicuousness of consumption and waste in our society. Being on the lower end of the earning scale might make it sound like I'm spewing sour grapes and envy because I live in a poor neighbourhood and a rundown apartment. But maybe that's the point too.

If someone like me who enjoys so many of the benefits of this society, like free medical care and inexpensive prescription drugs because of being disabled is cynical about the motivations of the wealthier individuals in North America; what must be the reaction of people living in refugee camps?

How many people make comments about the ungratefulness of those who we send foreign aid to? Do the words, "We send them food and medical supplies only to have them come back and kill our boys overseas" sound familiar to you?

Let me ask you this; how would you feel if somebody sitting down to a seven course banquet saw you standing hungry on the sidewalk and offered you a crust of bread? They then go back inside their air conditioned/heated house where their cook has prepared them an elaborate supper while you stand out side broiling in the heat or freezing in the cold.

You'll chew that crust of bread down and it will choke you because of the shame you feel for wanting more, and the anger you feel towards that person who made you feel so ashamed of who you are and your situation. How can they care about you really if they can so easily dismiss you from their conscience by handing out a crust of bread?

Of course our affluence isn't as great as parts of the rest of the world perceive it to be. It's a case of us being hoisted on our petard; having claimed to be the best society in the world for long enough now that people believe it and can easily be swayed into making us the focal point of resentment and anger.

We have so much and they have so little is how they see it no matter that large portions of our population are in actual fact not much better off than they are. Our refugee camps just happen to be housing projects in inner cities or reservations in the north woods or the bad lands of the Dakotas.

Perhaps if we spent more energy on telling the truth about how big a failure our system is and how few people really enjoy the standard of living they seem to assume that most of us do, we wouldn't be as universally despised by poor people around the globe. They might be more willing to believe we are sharing as much as we can and not feel like they are being bought off with token after thoughts.

Caring is a relative thing, the less you have and yet still be willing to share the more it is appreciated. How often do we read about the kid who has raised money from events she's organized for victims of something or other? What makes the story remarkable is that it was a kid without any resources who managed to do that, not just another movie star with a smile and grafted on sincerity donating a tax right off.

Care seems to be these days as much about who is doing the caring as the cause that is being cared about. When George Bush says he cares, there are many people who question his motivations and what he cares about no matter what the cause is and no matter how much money he's prepared to ask Congress to throw at it.

But if a Inuit tribe from up North sell off a collection of sculptures to raise money for those hit by famine as happened during the first Ethiopia crises back in the 1980's, everyone rushes to be the first to say how amazing it is. Why?

Both George and the Inuit have used what resources they have to help out, to express their caring for someone else, but one is looked upon as heroic and the other with cynicism. Mainly it's because given Bush's track record no one can believe that he will do anything without there being something in it for him in return. On the other hand the Inuit give the appearance of dong what they did it with no expectations of anything in return.

Unlike George of course they also have very little to begin with, so anything that they do is even more greatly appreciated. When you swagger into town and throw dollar bills to the natives and hand out trinkets and beads as trade goods acting like you not only own the place, but are also better then the people who live there, there is bound to be a little cynicism around you telling them how much you care.

Care should not be about motives or reciprocity. It's about caring. If you look closely enough at care, you can see how easily it could become caress; an act of love. Did I just make you uncomfortable? But there it is when you care you do so with love for another not for love of yourself, your reputation, or your taxes at the end of the year.

For too long now people have been claiming or acting like they care through their appearances on talk shows either as guests or emotional audiences, or by throwing money at something. But how can you be considered caring when your life is selfish by definition like most North Americans.

Let's say a couple buy a five-bedroom house for themselves. Aside from depriving a family that might actually need the space, they are also having to needlessly heat or cool hundreds if not thousands of square feet selfishly using energy. Over a year who knows how much they'll have wasted heating and cooling empty space just because they "own" it.

It's hard to believe that anybody who lives like that, and there are plenty of them still out there, care about anything at all beyond their own personal comfort and pleasure. These are the people who care though, who send in donations, and watch the telethons and get all weepy over the images of starving babies in Africa being broadcast on their fifty-two inch surround sound home theatre systems.

If we truly cared about each other, I hate to tell you, nobody would be living like that, nobody would be driving an SUV, nobody would be planting trees in a desert, or building artificial environments anywhere. If we truly cared about each other oil companies like Exxon wouldn't be allowed to make a cent of profit while their mess is still being cleaned up in Alaska (Exxon just posted a 40 million dollar profit and they are still cleaning up after the Exxon Valdez in Alaska) If we truly cared …if I keep going I'll just get depressed and you either get the picture or you think I'm full of it so it doesn't matter anyway.

Let's face it, none of us really care except for those people who are aid workers on the spot spoon feeding broth into a starving child's mouth, if we did would the world be in the shape it's in now? I really don’t think so, do you?

February 4, 2007

The Vanishing Rights Of Women

Is it just me or do we seem to be going backwards on the evolutionary ladder? Maybe not as a species but as a society; we sure seem to be sliding back to the primordial pool. If we use the way women are being treated today as opposed to about fifteen years ago as a bellwether you can see how what I'm talking about.

I'm sure you're wondering where I can possibly get off saying things like that. Especially living as I do in Canada where we have social programs that a lot people only dream about and a standard of living better then half the world. .

But it's all relative you know. Since the 1970's women had been gradually gaining rights that had been denied them by law since men started treating them like chattel and trade goods thousands of years ago. They managed to begin being treated like equal partners in a marriage instead of the property of the husband; they managed to gain legal control over what happened with their bodies; and they started to make advances in the work force through the availability of accessible daycare.

All this coincided with Western governments willingness to invest in the social safety net starting in the 1960's. In Canada we followed the Western European example of the Welfare State and sewed up a pretty tight safety net. It wasn't until 1980 that Brain Mulroney became Prime Minister that things began to unravel slightly but even he wasn't much for tampering with it. It was the Liberal government of Jean Chretian that began the dismantling of programming by cutting funding to all the social programs in search of the all mighty balanced budget.

The mantra of business, "balanced budget, balanced budget", was the death knell of social spending. Funding for dare care, hospitals, job training, life skills, and provincial disability and welfare programs was either frozen or cut. While this may seem not to directly affect women in all cases, single women with children are still the people most likely to draw upon the system for help.

If there is no day care, and a woman doesn't have parents she can leave her children with, how does she hold down a job? So she has to be on welfare, and try to raise her child with some dignity. Unfortunately just when the Liberals started to try and make up for their cruelty they lost the next election in Canada.

I've written extensively on how the Conservative Party of Canada under Prime Minister Stephen Harper has in a year turned back the clock on social programs in other places so I'll just cite and example.. A new day care program that works based on tax credits – so it's only helpful to those who have a taxable income and doesn't create any new spaces. In other words people who can afford to pay for day care out of their income are getting reimbursed , while those who can't afford it in the first place are out of luck..

But it's not just money that's the problem; it's the general increase in conservative attitudes towards women around the world that is the most frightening. From the Vatican to the Muslim world to the White House and back again steps are being take to revoke what few gains women have made in their struggle for recognition as equals in the eyes of society..

Women who are raped are still being threatened with death by their own families; women who refuse caesarean surgeries are being jailed in the United States; after a brief respite more and more men's magazines are appearing on the markets that treat women as objects not sexual beings; and even worse are the attitudes being expressed by even mainstream magazines.
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A recent cover of the Canadian news magazine Maclean's used the word "Skanks" to describe a mode of dress employed by young girls. On the cover you can see a young woman wearing a tank top and mini-skirt. Why does the way someone dresses imply anything about their character? How could any supposed responsible magazine even even imply that no matter what the context?

Than of course there is the great catch phrase "Traditional Family Values". This has to be the biggest obstacle facing women today. Anybody who says the words traditional family values has visions of wife staying at home barefoot and pregnant making supper for Dad and being totally dependant on the man for everything.

What do you think they see in their narrow little brains when they say that expression? Two people working together in an equal, loving and sharing, partnership, or a husband dominant with a meek little wife staying at home with the kids and slowly going crazy?

That a show about every ten-year-old boy's fantasy concerning suburban housewives was a top show on network television in North America tells you something about where people expect to find the woman of the house. At home; the show wasn't called desperate corporate executives was it? Or even desperate garage mechanics would have been fine.

Of course for a woman to want to have sex with anyone she has to be desperate unlike a man who is just enjoying himself. If a woman displays any sort of normal sexual urges she is considered some sort of deviant. She's only supposed to be willing and compliant no have desires of her own in order to be normal.

How often do we have to hear somebody say that a woman "asked for it" walking around dressed like that as a response to her being raped? No she didn't – nobody asks to be raped and people are free to dress however they like. There is no excuse for rape – it's a crime remember.

When are people going to remember that the woman is not the one on trial in those situations? The man either attacked and raped the woman or he didn't. It doesn't matter if she was wearing a bikini or traditional Muslim garb and saying any different is saying it's okay to rape women in certain circumstances.

Sometimes I feel some hope, when I look around and see some young women who have it together and haven't bought into some sort of stereotype about roles in society. But then I see all the others who are starving themselves to death because they don't like who they are. Isn't that the biggest indication that there is something wrong with the way we treat women in our society? So many of them don't like who they are. Where did they get the idea from that there was anything wrong with them?

Sure sometimes it can be blamed on the parents for being emotionally or physically abusive, but a lot of the time it comes from whatever impression the young person has formed about what a women should be based on what she hears and sees in the media and from her peers. Augmented models with perfect waists, breasts, and buttocks who have no relationship to reality or gravity are not role models guaranteed to help someone establish their own self esteem.

Did you know that 1976 had been the United Nations International Year of the Women? Do you know or remember what the motto for that year was? It was a simple question Why Not? I'm afraid it needs to be amended to When? the way things are going these days.

Instead of things getting better for women the world over, they are getting worse in country after country. It doesn't matter whether it's the so-called developed or undeveloped world women are still second or, lower, class citizens.

January 31, 2007

Reading About The Us In Them

I've been wandering in quite a few different worlds recently. I've been to Algeria through the pen of Yasmina Khadra, Jerusalem and other parts of Israel via a trio of different jewish viewpoints. On top of that I've been given a tour of ancient Byzantium and modern day Georgia, and not once did I have to leave the comfort of my home or even use a time machine.

Like a tourist I've come back from each trip and reported to everyone on how successful the tour was, or whether it was one you may want to avoid taking in the future. Obviously I would have preferred going to these various places on my own, wandering the streets of the Old City of Jerusalem, hiking through caverns in the Caucasus or examining the casbah of Algiers. But since that's not possible I've been seeing them through the eyes of some great writers.

For the past two years I've been reviewing numerous books and have had the good fortune to interview some of the authors who have created them. But on reviewing the lists of books that I've written about I noticed that with very few exceptions I haven't looked beyond my own culture's writers.

Aside from the books of Ashok Banker and a couple of Native American authors, the biggest cultural gap I've crossed is on occasion trying to understand the Glasgow dialect of Christopher Brookmyre's characters. Even that hasn't been too much of a leap for me as I've some Scottish ancestry.

So when the opportunity presented itself, via a rather circuitous route (the woman who arranged my interview with Guy Kay, Deborah Meghnagi, is also a senior editor at Toby Press who have been generously supplying me with the majority of my review copies this month) to explore works by authors from other cultural backgrounds I hesitated only briefly. The only thing I don't understand is why hadn't I done this ages ago?

The opportunity has always been there from any one of the various publishers I have contacts with to request works by people from outside North America and England but I've never been willing to make the effort. There's all sort of excuses I can make, but even to my own ears they sound pretty lame. To be honest I'm still not even sure if I can articulate it beyond saying they made me nervous.

In particular I'm referring to books by authors from the Middle East, Jewish and Muslim alike. I didn't think I could be comfortable if either side's strident nationalism were a direct characteristic of the books. I'm so used to the rhetoric that's published in our press that it made me think literature from that part of the world couldn't help be a reflection of those headlines.

Now obviously I can't speak for the books that I've not read, and I'm only familiar with the work of five writers, one Muslim and four Jews, from that region, but none of them makes use of their stories to do anything but write about their own people. Any rhetoric was reserved for characters in specific instances where it made sense, and wasn't the purpose for the books.

Instead, I read books that were just like books I would read by any other author, but they dealt with the realities of different peoples in places I knew nothing about. I learned enough about Algeria and her people to make you wonder what the rest of the world has been doing while this country has been hanging on by its finger nails for decades.

I learned that there is no definitive version of the Torah and that not all Jewish people are happy living in Israel for reasons that would have never even occurred to me. I learned more about what it means to have been a survivor of the Holocaust and how deeply it affects the generations that live with that heritage.

I learned universal truths about faith and about human nature. I read about the depths of human depravity and the heights of kindness and respect. In short I read books that contained themes that could be read in any book by any author but told from the perspective of a different faith and a different culture.

Like those great lines in Shakespeare's play The Merchant Of Venice where Shylock says "If you cut him does not a Jew bleed" speaks to the fact that underneath everything we are all affected by the same things, so too have the books that I've been reading. We all mourn when a loved one dies; we all celebrate when something wonderful happens, and we are all made pensive by things beyond our comprehension.

There is no denying that the rhetoric we read in the newspapers exists, one only needs to read about the latest suicide bomb reports or the air strikes in retaliation to know that. But it is important to know that the other side exists, the human side. The side where people go about their live shopping for food, going to work and living their lives in much the same manner as people do the world over.

I'm not going to pretend that you will come away from reading any book by an author from another culture understanding that world completely – can you say that about reading any book set in our society? But what it will do is remind you that there are individuals there who are as different from each other as the individuals here in our world.

Books make it obvious that the world cannot be easily divided up into us and them, too many of them are like us and too many of us are like them. Reading won't bridge all the gaps between the cultures, but it will make it obvious the gap is lot less of a gulf than any of us or them thought.

January 27, 2007

Book Review: The Wind Of The Khazars Marek Halter

Would it surprise you if I were to tell you that Israel was not the first Jewish state to exist since the time of Christ? That in the deepest, darkest days of the dark ages when European Jews were as welcome most places as the Plague that was blamed on them, for one brief moment a spark of hope was kindled that there was a haven for them in the area we would now know as Georgia by the Black Sea.

One of the tartar races, the Khazars, around 800 AD converted to Judaism and established a Jewish state on the borders of both the Eastern Christian empire of Byzantium and the new Islamic empire. While legends talk of visitations by angels convincing the King of the Khazars to convert, in all likelihood it was more real politic than religion that brought about the change.

With his kingdom pressured by both sides to convert, he shocked them both by choosing the third option, which appeased both sides temporarily. At least he hadn't become a Christian/Muslim the hated enemy of either one of his neighbours, and he could deal with them from a place of neutrality.

But according to the history provided in Marek Halter's novel The Wind Of The Khazars the conversion, at least among the rulers and the nobility was in the end sincere. They became strict adherents of the teachings of the Torah and received instruction from rabbinical scholars of the Eastern world.
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Monsieur Halter has used as the basis for his novel correspondence that has survived down the ages between a Rabbi from Cordoba, in Muslim occupied Spain, and Joseph King of the Khazars.

His main character is a contemporary novelist, Marc Sofer, who becomes captivated by a mysterious beauty at a discussion/lecture on his work. She throws down a gauntlet of challenge to him – find a cause worth writing about. She leaves before the end of the lecture so he is unable to pursue the matter further with her.

But it makes no difference, because she has ensured that he will be hooked like a fish and reeled in. All it takes is a mysterious stranger to accost him after the session and present him with a silver coin stamped with the symbols of the Khazar Empire for him to be snared. The same man also spins him a tale of mysterious caverns in the Caucasus Mountains on the border of Georgia and Chechnya containing a synagogue hundreds if not thousands of years old.

Sofer the novelist and the romantic is hooked. First he investigates and tracks down the copies of the correspondence between the Rabbi and Joseph of the Khazars. At that point both he and our author, Marek Halter, recreate the story of Isaac the young man entrusted to carry the original letter from Spain to the Khazars. As Isaac struggles to cross a hostile Europe, Marc Sofer is making his own parallel journey to the Khazars' legendary redoubt in the Caucasus.

While in the present are the familiar obstacles of multinational corporations and terrorist groups, the past is filled with deceptive Greeks and duplicitous Russians both looking to conquer and subdue the Khazars. When Isaac falls in love with Joseph's beautiful green eyed and red haired sister, Sofer finally catches up to his own mysterious green eyed and red haired beauty from the conference.

It turns out that the synagogue in the mountain caverns does exist and she is part of a group of scholars trying to preserve them from the oil companies looking to suck the oil out of the ground in the same area. But it's not just a synagogue that is preserved under the mountains, but absolute proof of the Khazars' existence and that the myth of their conversion was not just an idle tale.

A library with thousands of books, a mikvah (the traditional cleansing bath for Jewish women before marriage) with ancient statuary, and countless other relics including chest upon chest of the mysterious silver coin he had been given. But to the oil companies it is nothing, and they will destroy the final remnants of the Khazars Empire without a qualm.

It all sounds fascinating and to an extent it is. The history and Monsieur Halter's imagining of the events of the past are interesting enough, as is the modern part of the story. But for something that had the potential to be so stunning, a kingdom of Jews that existed in 900ad by the Caspian and Black Seas, the parts just didn't seem to be equal to the idea.

While everything is well written, the characters are interesting enough, if a little too stereotyped romantic figures and lacking slightly in depth, and the story is well paced and interesting. The problem for me is that it doesn't reflect any of the excitement I felt when I heard about the kingdom of the Khazars.

Perhaps that's unfair, but I expected more about the Khazars and less about a love story between a princess and a messenger in the 10th century and their equivalent in the 21st century. I wanted to walk the streets of the fortress towns and smell the markets and meet the people who had become Jews in the middle of a world that was still trying to rid itself of them. Who were these mysterious warriors that had fought supposedly with the Khans of the Mongol hoards, or might have been descended from the Sythians.

I would have liked the author to have stretched his imagination in that direction, instead of just giving us brief glimpses. I guess I was looking for a different wind to have blown through this book than the one chosen by Marek Halter and I was disappointed by his direction. It's a good book, just not the one I was hoping for.

Atmospheric Creations: A World In A Book

Have you ever noticed that some books that you read are able to create such a feeling of time and place that you only have to think about the book to for an image of a person or locale to form? The author has managed to create such a vivid world that you continually want to be part of it, and you re-read the book endlessly for that reason.

Sometimes the feelings generated that way are so strong that the story itself is an irrelevancy, in fact the only reason you're reading it is so that you can be part of that world again. However the author has managed it, she or he has created a world that seems to exist as an entity on to itself separate from the story, even though it only exists because of the story being written.

That to me is what separates the truly wonderful from the okay books. If when I read a book the first that happens is I want to re read it right away, or I find myself wishing it would continue on and on, that is a good indication the author has been successful in generating that atmosphere. It's funny to read a story for those reasons, because I find myself disappointed that the people are still doing the same things they were the last time I was in their world. (I'd hazard a guess and say this is probably what motivates so much of fan fiction – people trying to recreate a world they've come to appreciate, not very often with much success)

Now the conundrum becomes for me the author, instead of me the reader, is how the hell do you write a book like that. I've be re reading my manuscript with an eye towards wondering if I've been able to generate that feeling of time and place. If I'm honest with myself, I have to say while I think I've been able to capture the physical representations fairly well, it seems rather flat.

I've been reading quite a few pieces lately that rely far more on, for lack of a better phrase and bear with me if it sound pretentious, historical texture, for generating atmosphere then other works that I've read in the past. You can almost feel the weight of history in the characters and the settings.

I should clarify what I'm talking about when I say history. I don't mean a series of dates and things that happened in the past, although they can be important to the plot, but the fact that the culture has existed for thousands of years.

The people have their own legends, their stories that explain who they are and where they come from. They've developed a body of thought as per their analysis of their religion and a variety of philosophies to help cope with the exigencies of life. But the authors of these books haven't had to spell any of out; one way or another we know it's there.

It underlies all the action, it's in the way the characters talk, and it appears to shape the way they think. It's more then a simple history, it's a cultural identity that is never talked about directly but is always present. Everything from the way the characters walk to the food they cook has to be consistent with this identity for the atmosphere to be successfully rendered.

Now unless you plan on copying an already existing culture, which would still involve incredible amounts of research so you don't make any slips or show inconsistencies with what others may recognise, this means having to create a history for the people, or peoples, who populate your work.

It doesn't even have to be information that is used in the book, although I've been thinking of adding a preface to my manuscript as a means to introduce some of the most important themes. It has to be there for you the author to draw upon, as much as your characters need to be able draw upon it in their daily living.

I've started to think that when writing I need to create two outlines – one for the plot and all its intricacies and one for the cultural history of who ever it is you are going to write about. Obviously if you are writing about contemporary life you don't need to do too much except make sure you don't deviate from what the people of the class you're writing about would normally do in the circumstances you are describing.

But if you are creating whole cultures you need to know everything from the names they give the constellations of the stars to their preference in pickling processes on the off chance that the topic might come up in conversation amongst your characters. Does that sound like a ridiculous amount of work? Perhaps so, but I don't believe that you can create a believable atmosphere without it.

January 26, 2007

Where Have The Lions Of Literature Gone?

When Hunter S. Thompson died a couple of years back it felt like the end of era just because of what he represented as an icon of the anti-establishment movement of the America in the 1960's. But in the years since his death I've also come to the realization of what else his passing has meant to the world of literature.

He represented one of the last of the larger than life literary figures who seemed so abundant in the twentieth century, but who now have gone the way of the dinosaur. When you add the death of Irving Layton last year to the Grim Reaper's harvest of writers it becomes even harder to think of any great characters left in the field of letters.

These were men and women, but primarily men the world being what it was in those days, who through dint of personality as well as talent were able to capture people's imaginations in ways today's best sellers couldn't hope to accomplish. John Grisham may sell millions of books but do you truly think he could inspire anybody to become a writer?

I'm not saying they're aren't great writers out there right now, because there are some truly amazing authors whose writings are not just illuminating but luminescent as well. But where are the personalities to capture our imaginations; where are the characters who added mystique to the writer's art?

Perhaps Paris in post World War one and Morocco in post World War two, and all the writes associated with those movements (whether they were ever there or not) are unique in the history of the written word. There have been very few other occasions when such diverse groups of talent were gathered together in a single place.

Of course there were other pockets, The Bloomsbury group of artists headed up Virginia Wolfe and her husband Leonard made their abode London and it's surrounding environs. Greenwich Village in New York City and parts of San Francesco came later, and were more part of the Beat movement out of Morocco then anything else.

Paris in between the wars was a favoured destination for writers, painters, dancers, and all the hangers on that go with an artistic scene, from all over the world. Ernest Hemmingway, James Joyce, Gertrude Stein, Morley Callahan, F. Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald, Hart Crane, Henry Miller, and Anis Nin were all to be found among the tables and chairs of Paris' cafes in the day, and her salons and bars at night.

Perhaps it was the whole circumstance that lent itself to creating the Romantic image of the writer that came out of that period. But the absence of any one of the above mentioned figures would have surely diminished the impact. Paris in the twenties without Hemmingway or Joyce doesn't even seem conceivable as they represent the two poles of personality and expression, boisterous emotion and cool intellect respectively.

For it was not only content that these wonderful writers wrangled with, but form as well. Joyce, and Wolfe in England, experimenting with writing as the mind worked. Leaping from thought to thought and letting a "story" develop from those thoughts. Similarly poets like Crane and e. e. cummings were taking apart the formal structures and producing new sounding poetry

At the other end of the spectrum was Hemingway with his big and bold emotional stories about war and life, and his big and bold emotional approach to his own life. The boxing match with Callahan, which he lost, was the only blemish on an otherwise spotless record for coming out a winner for most of this life. It was only when he started to lose his creative powers the depression that killed him set in, but even that only adds to his mystique.

Even in death they were figures of romance to emulate for the young writers who were to follow them, in the post World War two Beat movement. The Beats were probably the first almost uniquely American literary movement, in that not only were it's members predominately American, they also represented the best and worst aspects of the triumph of the individual.

From the selfishness of addictions to the brilliance of independent thought and free spirited action they epitomized individuality. The Beats and their contemporaries shattered conventions about morality, sexuality, and the other symbols of the staid and stable middle class to ignite a flame of passionate creativity.

William S. Burroughs, Jack Kerouac, and Allan Ginsberg were at the centre of the movement that opened the way for people like Ken Keasy , Charles Bukowski, Richard Farina, and Thomas Pynchom. They also became the touchstone for whatever rebellion against convention that occurred in North America in the 1960s.

But who has there been since able to inspire or excite people in that way about literature? Yes there are individuals who people want to read and whose books provide pleasure to millions which is a great thing in of it's own. But there is no one, or group of people, out there who seem to have caught the public's imagination like any of those other authors did during their heyday.

Maybe they still have the ability to inspire new generations of authors years after their passing; I know they provided me with the desire to create, but how long can the force of their personalities endure? Where will the next great group of literary lions come from to inspire creativity and genius? Is it even possible for these types of people to achieve the acclaim they did in years gone by?

Will our formulaic and conservative publishing industry even allow for such original and creative individuals to flourish? Or has the environment changed so radically we will never see those days again? Perhaps I'm overly romanticizing days gone by because of my own personal biases, so take the thoughts expressed here with as many grains of salt as you wish.

But without an infusion of some sort of energy soon the contemporary North American novel seems destined to continue to obtain the heights of mediocrity at best.

January 25, 2007

Searching For Searches

Does anyone really know how search engines work? I know in theory they are supposed to scour the web in response to commands given by the person using the service and respond with the addresses of web sites that have the information pertinent to what was requested. But the practice seems to be something else altogether.

Take for example the other night. Just out of idle curiosity my wife wanted to find out the history of the word pretty. As her search command she had asked for "history of the word pretty" (without the quotation marks). What she got in return was anything but pretty.

Not one site in the top forty offered had anything vaguely to do with the history of the word. Instead the majority of them were simply sites where the word pretty was being used and no mind being paid to the original request. After trying a number of variations using history and pretty returned pretty much the same results; which in turn resulted in various comments being made on the parentage and history of Google other search engines were consulted.

When it became obvious that this was not a Goggle specific problem, and that all search engines seemed to be particularly obtuse when it came to try and finding out "something as fu*king simple as the history of a goddamned stupid, word for fu*ks sake" she gave up the search. I didn't blame her, because although sometimes Google can be your best friend, on other occasions search engines are only as good as what they are capable of doing.

The first thing we always have to remember when using anything to do with computers is they can't think outside of the parameters that have been defined for them. Search engines are designed to pick out keywords from something published on the Internet and match them to the search query. They have very few ways of knowing the actual context of the words in question; so will simply return the addresses of sites where they find the words requested.

At least this is what I've come to believe, and to be honest I can't come up with any other reasonable solution. I've been looking at how many people are directed to my site based on the fact that a word in the title or body of the text has matched their search request. That the post in question has absolutely nothing to do with the subject of their search is irrelevant to the search engine.

Of course to further confuse the poor person doing a search is the fact that some web sites are given more weight in a search then others. This doesn't mean it will show up if it doesn't contain the required keywords, but a site with a high ranking will be receive priority so long as it contains key words, even at the expense of one more relevant.

Google, and I'm sure other search engines do the same thing, have created their own arcane system for the ranking of sites, but I've yet to meet anyone who really understands how they do it. Perhaps it's based on the number of times the site in question has had a high number of keywords show up, the number and turnover of material, or heaven forefend, maybe even the quality of the material comes into play.

What is obvious is that no one seems to be keeping track of how pertinent the posts are to people's search requests. Of course that may be an impossible task to perform; just as it's impossible to teach the search engine the difference between pretty awful and pretty good.

I've heard of people who will spend hours coming up with keyword listings for a post to optimize their search engine results, as the ads put it, but I can's see why they bother. There doesn't seem to be anyway to influence how search engines are going to decide what to choose beyond a word in a post matching a search request. Now that's scientific.

January 24, 2007

Change For The Better

Just slightly under two years ago, March 29th 2005 at 11:30am. EST. to be exact, I wrote the following: "A leap in the dark is an act of blind faith, trusting your judgment and instincts that whatever it is you're about to do is right and that your not going to end up, up to your ankles in dung."

I referred to it as the explanation for the title of my blog, "Leap In The Dark", but it could also be said to be my own personal mission statement. At the time the blog was just what I said it was; a step into the unknown as I was going public with my writing for the first time.

Ever since my early days of working in theatre I've believed it important as part of being creative to continually take risks – to take leaps in the dark – or stagnation would set in. When I started blogging it was with the intention of writing as much as possible in a public setting and risk my opinions and abilities in front of an audience.

It was with that goal in mind that I approached the people at Blogcritics about three months after starting "Leap In The Dark". It was one thing to write in the virtual anonymity of my own site, and another thing altogether to write for a publication that was already a recognised presence on the Internet and had a built in audience.

Now over seven hundred articles of various length, quality, and subject matter produced on a daily basis later I'm about to take another leap into relatively unknown territory. Sometimes you have to take life by the throat and shake it to effect change, and other times opportunities are just dropped in your lap. On really special occasions not only are opportunities offered you but life also makes damn sure you're paying attention by hitting you over the head with its equivalent of a cast iron frying pan.

Now I may not be too swift sometimes, but even I'll get the message when I'm offered two almost identical opportunities within a week of each other that taking advantage of one of them would be in my best interest. The problem is recognising what's in your own best interest.

There are a lot of things that can get in the way of that, but the biggest obstacle is fear. Fear of change and fear of the unknown have probably prevented many a person from discovering their full potential. It's far easier to stay doing the same thing, and doing it well, than risk doing something new where the results are uncertain.

Worry about a new job is probably something a lot of people have in common, so I'm sure most of you can understand that trepidation. But I also have to throw into the mix the consideration of whether or not I'll be able to manage whatever that position entails, and being able to maintain my daily output of writing. With neither of the opportunities requiring anything close to a major time commitment it wouldn't normally be a concern, but it's been a number of years since things have been normal for me.

For reasons that are too tedious to bear repeating, I've only limited energy in any given day. Some days I've more then others, but it's usually pretty consistent. The major problem is that I can work pretty steady for a couple of hours. But then have to stop and have a nap. Occasionally work means things like taking care of life away from the computer (yes it does exist believe it or not) but the results the same. My day is broken up into chunks of working time and chunks of naptime.

So when Aaman Laamba of Desicritics emailed me and asked if I would consider joining his team of editors I was a little hesitant but willing to give it a shot; but when Ashok Banker emailed me two days later to ask me to take over editing his Epic India web site with the goal of making it less Ashok Banker and more literary, I stalled.

For the past week while I have continued to write my daily posts, and helped out with editing chores at Desicritics I mulled over Ashok's offer. It was easy to come up with reasons not to take him up on the offer, but after a couple of days the reasons began to sound like excuses. The problem wasn't even so much that they were excuses it was the fact that I was making the excuses to me not to anybody else.

After a week of this I figured out that my real problem wasn't any of the excuses I had prepared about not having time to write, or not knowing what the hell it was I was doing, but that I was scared of making any changes in my life. The irony of that is of course change is exactly what I need after close to two years of doing pretty much the same thing day in and day out.

What made me clue into that fact was for the first time in two months, instead of only being able to write for the web and then feeling too drained to do any other writing for the rest of the day, I've been inspired to work on my novel. Since I heard first from Aaman and then from Ashok, I've had more creative energy then the last three months combined.

A friend of mine who taught Yoga once told me something very interesting about the concept of transition. In Yoga muscles are never at rest and so are always in transition from one position to another. We normally tend to think of transition as the time in between doing one thing and then another, a period of stasis where nothing happens.

Of course that's impossible because we are always in motion whether we know it or not, moving from one place in our lives to the next. It's just, that unlike in Yoga where you see the muscles move, we're not always aware of the fact that we are in motion. That's what causes us to become frustrated and to stagnate.

The closer we get to the point where we become aware of our need for change, the more frustrated, stagnated, and less productive we get. The resistance to the necessary change comes from the fact that we haven't been accomplishing near what we know we're capable of, so we don't have much confidence in our own abilities. Not exactly the most ideal of mental conditions to be in when contemplating a change is it?

Hence the self doubts that plague most people just before they do make any sort of change in their lives. The human mind can be such a treat some times can't it? Anyway I finally figured out what was going on and decided to take my own advice and take the leap.

I have no idea what's going to happen or even if I'm going to like editing, but I'm not going to know unless I try. So as of today as well being a writer I'm now editor of the web site Epic India. Whatever else happens, at least I know I won't be bored for the next little while, and that's always a positive.

January 23, 2007

Myths: Our Stories, Our Hope

I've been thinking about the word myth a lot lately. Maybe its because of some of the books I've been reading have talked about some of the ancient stories of our culture and others have had reference to stories from outside my range of experience.

I think about how some people use the word myth now as the equivalent of the word lie. They protest their innocence by claiming the accusations against them are a complete fabrication, a myth. Who told them that a myth was a lie, or make believe? Somewhere, somehow that impression has been developed and generally accepted by people if its use in sound bites by politicians on a regular basis is anything to go by.

A word that used to have such rich and varied connotations: the Gods and Goddesses of Olympus; King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table; Beowulf; The Norse Gods of Asgard; Rama, Sita, and Ravana; the heroes of Ireland; Coyote and who knows how many other heroes and heroines. Myths were the stories that glorified us, helped us rise above our day-to-day mundane existence. They also offered us explanations of who we are and where we came from.

I know there are plenty of people who made a career out of explaining and analyzing the place of myth in our lives, mixing it in with stuff about archetypes to form some sort of intellectual stew. For some reason I've never really been able to make myself interested in the academic/intellectual aspect of myth; my reactions have always been on a more visceral level.

I read a story and it either means something to me or it doesn't, analysis doesn't enter into it that much. Perhaps that's more indicative of laziness on my part more then anything else, I don't know, but I do know that no matter how much I may find the accademic approach a little to over the top for me, at least they recognise that myth is more than just another word for lie.

According to my handy Funk & Wagnalls Standard Dictionary the word myth is derived from the Greek word mythos, which literally means, word, speech, and story. The primary definition they give is " A traditional story usually focusing on the deeds of Gods or heroes, or in explanation of some natural phenomenon." The secondary meaning supplied is the one about "An imaginary or fictitious, person, thing, or story."

What bothers me is that the latter meaning has been able to take root so easily as acceptable usage of the word myth. Why did they have to steal such a wonderful word that has the potential for such poetry and turn it into something ugly? I hate it when I hear someone being accused of myth making as if it were a bad thing.

How can the act of creating a story be bad? The contents themselves may be evil or a lie, but that would be like saying cake making is bad because one person bakes poison into a cake. But the way they go on about myths being misrepresentations of facts, or outright lies it leaves a strong negative impression.

Where does that leave today's storytellers? Where does it leave yesterday's stories?

To me it feels like they are in a kind of limbo with the great stories of the world's cultures being confined to the narrow pages of the fantasy novel. Or even worse showing up as recycled and watered down pabulum for the New Age cultural appropriators. Without a care as to the nature of the real story they take bits and pieces from everything and add them to a patchwork quilt of beliefs that they can cover themselves with and call enlightenment.

Is that to be the fate of our original heroes that they end up as Tarot decks and wall ornaments for those looking for easy solutions to the problems of life? Or to lie between the covers of a book that diminish them as fantasy equivalent to the latest instalment of Star Wars?

What about today's story teller, what stories are there for him or her to tell? Is there even a need for stories that offer up explanations or pose questions about whom we are and our place in the world. Maybe I shouldn't say need, but willingness to listen to those types of stories.

After all aren't we at the pinnacle of our development as civilizations? What could simple stories have that would improve our lot? Especially ones that aren't even real. What can you write for a world that would rather be reading about the true-life recovery of a drug addict then a story about their ancestors?

Maybe something will happen to change that attitude. It can't be all pervasive anyway, not yet at least, because books are still being sold, and some of those are fiction. Perhaps there have been other times in our history which has seen a falling out between myth and society; I'm sure the Spanish Inquisition was as equally unimpressed in their time as so many of us are today with the beauty of myths and their place in our lives.

With all that's going on in the world I can't think of a time when listening to the old stories is as needed. For all our sakes lets hope things change soon.

January 19, 2007

The Age Of The Individual: The Loss Of The Tribe

I've written quite a number of pieces that have been, to put it mildly, scathing when it comes to the so-called "New Age" movement. I think I've referred to it as everything from cultural appropriation to inane. But unlike other critics of the people who comment on the issue I've shied away from the whole question of spirituality.

Many people insist that the rise in interest in all things "New Age" is due to the failure of the conventional religions to fill the spiritual needs of their traditional congregations. According to proponents of that theory, mainly those involved in the selling of "New Age" products, the baggage that accompanies Catholicism, Protestantism, and Judaism, is what pushes people away from them.

Whatever excuse they want to use doesn't really matter all that much, the implication is that people are turning to alternatives for their spiritual comfort, and that is what's offered by the "New Age" folk. The thing is though if you walk into a "New Age" emporium you won't find anything that is specifically a "New Age" bible. You'll find books on Celtic, Native American, Tibetan, Hindu, Jewish, Ancient Egyptian, and every other kind of spirituality you can think of with Guardian Angels and Faeries thrown in for good measure.

But are the people haunting those stores really looking for spiritual enlightenment or is it something else they're searching for; maybe even something they can't identify. They have the feeling that there is something missing in their lives but aren't quite sure what the void is. They label the emptiness spiritual because it feels like their spirit is being deprived of something, but I think it's something a little more concrete

In North America we celebrate the cult of the individual; we all strive to get ahead for our own purposes and create ourselves to fulfill the goals that we have established for ourselves. Even if we join with someone and bear children together you are only creating an extension of yourself.

Not to long ago, relatively speaking in terms of the planet's history, man existed in tribal groups. We lived to together in small communities in the Mohawk Valley in New York State, the convergence of Tigress and the Euphrates, the mountains of the Himalayas, and the steppes of Russia. As a member of a tribe you belonged somewhere, and played some vital role ensuring the continual existence of your people.

As today's world gets more and more impersonal; communication done through third party instruments like portable phones or email programs, perhaps we are increasingly made aware of our lack of real community? Even if we don't articulate it as such the need for a sense of identity and the feeling of belonging somewhere provided by community appears to be growing in the face of the world's uncertainty.

A church's congregation is supposed to be a meeting place of people of like minds; people who share the same sense of purpose and belief. While it could be easy to say they once were places that tied people together through those commonalities, I wonder if the unifying factor was more circumstances then anything else.

Church, or whatever you want to label it, used to be the only social activity for the vast majority of people. If you were no longer in school, the only time you ever met up with everybody in the neighbourhood was at the church, or at a church sponsored event. I know there are some small rural communities around where I live where that is still the case.

But as alternatives to the church became available as a social focus, these communities dissolved in the face of competition, weakening their claims at being a unifying force. Perhaps some people still belong to churches but their numbers are far less then they used to be.

In the mid to late seventies when Cults were in full swing, organizations like the Moonies would seek out people who looked like they were lost and would promise them a home and a sense of belonging. Much the same motivation is now used to recruit the young men and women into terrorist organizations around the world. They become members of a tribe that works together – they belong and have a real purpose in life that nothing else has been able to offer them.

I recently had a conversation with my mother about her relationship to Judaism. She was raised in a family that were the epitome of secular Jews, in that they never set foot in synagogue except for the usual triad of Weddings, Funerals, and Bar Mitzvahs. At one point in her life she became a member of a Reform synagogue, but that only lasted for a year.

But she said what Judaism does give her is a place in history, a sense of where she's come from as part of something greater than herself and her family. Even though she doesn't participate in the religious life, or even hang out with very many Jewish people, she can still say I'm a Jew and feel like she belongs somewhere.

This wasn't something she picked up in a book from a bookstore; this was something she inherited from her parents, who in turn, well you get the picture. For my mother it's an unbroken line stretching back through more then five thousand years of tribal history that she is a continuation of. It's the place in the world where she belongs that has nothing to do with geography, politics, or religion.

Human beings need to have the sense that they belong to something bigger then themselves. Some find a kind of comfort in patriotism, while others find it in fighting for a cause, and others in religion. Still others are left searching for something external in the hopes of finding their place in the world.

But in reality, with a few exceptions, the trade off for our civilization and our lifestyle has been the loss of our connections to others and the past. We truly live in the age of the individual and we all feel just a little bit lost and lonely because of it.

January 18, 2007

When Camp Became "The Camps"

Camps Award.jpg

Do you remember as a child when you would get words that had two meanings confused? The adults around you would be talking about something and you'd hear a familiar word but in a context that made no sense to you. I'm sure it's happened to most of us so I'll just assume you know what I'm talking about. Things are going to get complicated enough as it is without me having to worry about that part of the story.

First off I need to explain my mother's extended family to you a little for this to make any sense at all. Her mother's family were Polish Jews who settled in Toronto in the early 1900s. They had been your typical Fiddler On The Roof type farming/peasant people who managed somehow to get the heck out of Poland with what they could carry on their backs and made their way to Canada.

On the other hand her father's family were Romanian Jews; well-educated city dwellers that probably never got their hands dirty in their lives. According to my grand father they came to Canada because his father had an altercation with a Cossack – he knifed him – and the family was forced to flee forthwith. They settled in Montreal because they were fluent in French but spoke very little English at the time.

Even during the times our family lived in Toronto we always seemed to end up seeing more of our Montreal relatives than our Toronto ones. Part of it was that my Grandfather wasn't that thrilled with what he called "the dumb Polacks", (even among the downtrodden there is a hierarchy: with European Jews the only thing lower on the scale than a dumb Polack, was a Litvack – Lithuanian) and my mother was closer to her cousins on that side of the family than on her mother's side.

So we usually ended up in Montreal at least once a year, more if by chance we happened to be living in Ottawa at the time. (My father worked for the Canadian government in the Justice department, so he'd be transferred between Toronto and Ottawa every three to four years until he quit) Ottawa was only about an hour's drive from Montreal so it was easy to even just go up for a day visit if we wanted.

For some reason I remember a period of a few years when we seemed to end up in Montreal every year for Passover. I don't know if this was accidental, but I do know that they always would invite my grandfather and grandmother to come from Toronto, and I think it was a good excuse for all of us to get together when we were living in Ottawa. My grandfather was the last of his generation alive for the Montreal family, he had been the youngest child, born in 1900, and all of his brothers and sisters had died young.

It was during one of those Seders, traditional Passover meals where the story of the Exodus is retold. (Not the movie starring Paul Newman – the original one featuring Moses and a cast of thousands) Before the actual stuffing of the faces could begin there were certain ritual foods that had to be consumed with the readings of passages from the story, but eventually we were all able to settle in and begin eating.

For most of the family this meant a lot of talking and very little eating. The seating was worked out so that the older the generation the closer to the head of the table you sat, and us young folk were usually seated at card tables that were attached like an extended kite tail to the main dinner table.

There is one year in particular that stands out for me, because of word confusion and its nature. That year it seemed we younger folk were even further away from the head of the table, in fact we had to watch people in the middle of the table to know what to do because we couldn't hear anything the reader was saying that year. It wasn't until we all began the regular eating of the meal that we found out the reason for our being even further away from the centre of things.

The first words that trickled down the table to us exiles were that there were some very special guests in town. They were first cousins of our mom's cousin's wife. Of course she wasn't really part of our family, so these first cousins weren't related to us except by marriage and if was rumoured they might actually be Litvaks.

"Mary's family," the voice's drifting down into our outer provinces, "God Bless them, are sweet people…" No words: I don't know, maybe it's because Hebrew has no vowels that Jews are so good at saying so much without using words. An eyebrow, a tilt of the head or a lifting of one hand says plenty for those who can read.

Even I, who was almost illiterate in that strange language of gestures and silences, could read something about cousin Mary's family wasn't what it should be…I craned my neck to try and see these cousins who weren’t cousins…who might not be all they should be.

They were sitting near the very top of the table, almost in the place of honour where my grandfather was ensconced, but for two chairs that contained his eldest niece and her husband they would have been seated beside him. From where I sat they didn't look much different than those folk across from them except they weren't nearly so fleshy. Aside from my grandmother who had something wrong with her thyroid, they were the only two who didn't have the sleek look of the well fed.

If forced to guess I would have said that maybe they would have been a few years older them my mom, but I couldn't be sure; something about their faces could have taken it either way. They looked both like young children and aged wizened elders. There was a quality about them that made you feel protective and wanting to keep them from harm. Just like any other orphans.

While I was looking up the table something was making it's way down; its passage was marked by a head turning to one side to present a good ear to the mouth beside it, a lifting of shoulders and splaying of hands, or even the slightest of nods. You just knew that everyone was watching, awaiting their turn to be passed whatever morsel was making the rounds, so they to could chew it over and add it to their hoard of information that they could hand out over the coming year.

When the words "the camps" finally made it down to me, and obviously in reference to the two who weren't anyone's family really, I didn't know what to do with it. The only thing the word camp meant to me was the place I was subjected to for two to four weeks each summer.

They didn't look like the type of people who ran a place where kids slept together in log cabins, and had pretend Indian stories and rituals foisted on them. They had none of the heartiness or pretend friend to every child attitude of all those camp directors whose hands my parents entrusted me too each summer. I couldn't see either of them, for one thing, getting up and leading everyone in rousing choruses of "Johnny Appleseed" before each meal as thanks for mass-produced slop.

I looked around to try and get some clue from my younger cousins on what it could mean and saw they had looks of awe, and something close to fear on their faces as they talked together, in little whispers. Not for the first nor last time did I htink about the unfairness of having a gentile father. If not for him perhaps I would understand more about these mysteries that my cousins all seemed to be understand without trouble.

It was while I was thinking these confused thoughts, feeling even more being a guest at a party where you were the only person who didn't wear the right clothes, I caught an inadvertently thrown lifeline: Auschwitz. I knew that word – the camps – must mean concentration camps. So those cousins who weren't cousins except by marriage had been in a concentration camp – surviving things far worse than having to sing "Johnny Appleseed" before each meal.

The rest of the meal, as I remember, was spent trying to grab surreptitious glances up the table as if we hoped, or at least I hoped, to gain some insight into what they had experienced by merely staring at them. They did exist in a space of their own up there near the head of the table. It was as if they had extra room for the memories that were part of their permanent state of being.

Something had changed about them since the information had been passed around. They'd gone from being possible Litvaks to almost celebrity status. Most of us had never seen survivors before; all of our families had been in Canada long before World War One to have to worry about being caught up in the fires of the Holocaust. Our parents and grandparents had lived out the war in school and the war factories, so this was the closest any of us had ever come to tangible contact with anybody who had been through those horrors.

We all wanted them to be special, and might have each been a little disappointed in how ordinary they were. Two very quiet people in normal clothes that didn't quite fit properly who were quieter then the adults we were used to. I don't know what we expected for our first survivors, but being raised on images of fighters, two little mice like creatures that leaned into each other for protection, were a slight disappointment.

We were driving home that evening after the meal, with no staying around afterwards to talk with anyone so I was left alone with my confusion. Why did we use the same word for where I went to spend weeks during the summer, as was used to describe those places where millions – a number far too big for anybody really to understand – of people died.

Obviously not all of them who entered the camps had died, some of them had walked away, somehow or other, and I saw two of them that night. Two very ordinary people who unless you saw them in the company of others really were no different to look at, which made it even harder to understand what had happened to them.

The lights of the oncoming cars as we travelled down the highway back to Ottawa that night could have been the search lights in a camp, or the flashlights of campers out on a walk at night in the woods. Sometimes it was so hard to tell things apart.

January 10, 2007

Book Review: Yasmina Khadra Wolf Dreams

How do you go from being a young man who dreams of being an actor to being a cold blooded fundamentalist terrorist who thinks nothing of killing women and children without a seconds thought. To our minds it must seem unconscionable, but in the world created by Yasmina Khadra and in the head of Nafa Walid his protagonist in Wolf Dreams it's simply the path of least resistance.

Since winning it's independence from France in 1962 Algeria has been a secular state, but in the mid to late eighties fundamentalists are beginning to take over mosques in areas where they know they will be able to recruit. Initially keeping a low profile in the community at large, they gradually began to expand out from their power base in the mosque.

In the Casbah of Algiers where Nafa Walid lives the changes are only gradually noticeable. But when he loses a job yet again, this time after refusing to be party to covering up the murder of a young woman by his employer, he turns to the mosque for comfort of the familiar and to try and deal with his shame for having been involved in he believes is his complicity in the girl's death.

In his disillusioned and despondent state he is ripe for the picking by the fundamentalists. Like any cult, they find those who have been alienated and then move in to fill the void. They offer a ready-made purpose, a sense of belonging, and best of all they've reduced everything to a black and white equation. Something is either right or wrong and there is no room for debate or you are wrong.

But it's not until after the food riots of 1988, (Algeria was short of everything demonstrations turned to riots so bad that the army was sent in. Not trained in crowd control somebody panicked and they began firing at a crowd and nearly five hundred people eventually were killed with thousands more arrested) that the fundamentalists hit their stride in Algeria. Contending that they were the supporters of the poor and downtrodden, they said follow us and we will change the way things are run.

In their brave new world it would be the righteous being taken care of, while those who had been sucking the country dry would be gotten rid of. They offered a banner that people could flock behind and feel like they were on the right side. Those who would openly speak against them became fewer and fewer as it became less and less healthy to do so.

But it wasn't until the election of 1991 when the fundamentalist party were leading after the first round of voting, looking set to form the next government and the army declared the elections null and void and took power for themselves that the terror campaign began. Car bombs, ambushes, and any other means at their disposal, and always the same targets; the police, the army, the intellectuals, the scientists, women who wouldn't wear the wear the hijah (veil), and the artists. If you were not one of them you were the enemy and didn't deserve to live.

Nafa stays on the fringes, telling himself that he doesn't want to kill anyone. So instead he works for them. He takes on the job of ferrying packages through roadblocks. He drives a taxi and doesn't look identifiably like a terrorist so, even though his cab might have its secret panels filled with weapons or money, he's not given much trouble at the roadblocks. He learns the trick of not letting himself be provoked by the police and lets them do as they will even to the point of taking a beating on occasion.

All around him is terror and mayhem but he continues on thinking that he is staying out of it; he has become used to the sight of corpses, just like the children of the Casbah who have gotten use to the rows of heads left each morning on the spikes of railings. Informants, police officers, anyone who is considered a non-believer or has been fingered for saying anything that sounds heretical are all equally guilty in the eyes of the Front Islamique du Salut (FIS – Islamic Salvation Front).

Nafa is happy, for the first time in his life, he tells himself he is doing something useful for the community. The taxi he drives was once the property of an arrested freedom fighter, and the money he earns goes towards feeding the family of the jailed person. The salary he draws is sufficient that he is able to bring food into the house for his family, and finally prove to his father that he is not the wastrel he always took him for.

Of course it can't last forever and the police come for him one night when he's out. He comes home to find his family's apartment surrounded and only a hastily whispered warning tells him to leave. He is taken into hiding, until it can figured out what to do with him. On the second day he receives a visit from a comrade who tells him that the police killed his father when they came looking for him.

From then on he becomes a killer because he believes he must revenge the death of his father in any way that he can. The first time is hard, it's true, but it's not his fault. Why did the magistrate have to be the way he was so that he Nafa had to kill him? Why did the revolver keep shooting the man long after he was dead? There was no reason for it to do that.

The leader of his group says not to worry, after the third one it gets easier, and Nafa is relieved to find out that is true. Why he can even be present at the murder of someone he knows and watch him have his throat slit in front of his family calling out Nafa's name. Of course he did have a little problem sleeping that night, but it passed.

He is living the life he always wanted with his group. They are to pretend they are the children of upper class families and they live according to that lifestyle, with dispensation to frequent dens on iniquity in order to ferret out targets. Nafa even has his own room with a large screen television.

But even among the most paranoid of organizations betrayal can happen, and in one fell swoop the police manage to arrest the whole national leadership. After the dust has settled and all the infighting is done Nafa finds he has been transferred out of the city into the countryside. Someone who he had pissed off at some point in time is now in charge.

He has an hour to go and say goodbye to his mother and she barely lets him in the house. She accuses him of abandoning her and his sisters. He won't stand for that and gets indignant and exclaims I've been revenging the death of my father at the hands of the police.

She laughs in his face – "You killed your father. When he demanded of the police what they wanted of his good son who provided for his family they showed him proof you were one of the terrorists. He was so upset he dropped dead of a heart attack on the spot…"

In the countryside they are the kings. They are like armies of feudal lords who collect tithes from the surrounding villages through threats and intimidation instead of having to work. They hide out in their mountain redoubts kidnapping, murdering, and looting keeping the people in the surrounding villages "loyal" to the cause and safe from any retaliatory strike the local militias can mount.

Nafa works hard to prove himself, although his pride is injured that they won't let him kill people and only be a goat herder. It's not fair he says quietly to himself, knowing that any word of disquiet can have you killed as non-believer, hadn't he proven that he knew how to kill. He begins to sulk and feel hard done by again.

The inevitable happens and even though Nafa gets to prove himself time and time again when the army uses artillery and helicopter gun ships they haven't a chance. Hoping for something he and a couple other survivors head back to Algiers hoping to hide out in the Casbah; surely somebody will want to shelter heroes of the revolution? The answer is no and they are destroyed.

Terrorists aren't fanatical believers to start with, they are empty shells of people lying scattered on the ground waiting for something to come along and fill them with hope. If not hope than purpose will do, and if that fails anger. Nafa with his head full of unrealistic dreams which are constantly dashed, Nafa with no real hope of doing anything beyond menial work for people who despise him and don't even recognise him as being of the same species, is the perfect terrorist.

Like In The Name Of God before, what is so chilling about Wolf Dreams is how the author shows how easy it is to become something that has no sense of right or wrong anymore. No matter how much they bleat about God or the good of the people, for the average terrorist none of that really means anything.

If on the same day that they had taken the first steps towards becoming a terrorist somebody had been able to convince them of the virtues of male prostitution they would have done that instead. A terrorist is a person who takes the path of least resistance when it comes to living, whatever looks easiest and with the highest reward is for them.

Maybe that's why they call them resistance fighters?

January 6, 2007

Music Review: Vishwa Mohan Bhatt Classics For Pleasure

I think this review can be added to the list of definitions for the Yiddish word "chutzpah" Considering the fact that this review will not just be posted at Blogcritics and my home site, but will also be posted at a site catering to the on line South East Asian community, Desicritics, you could say I have nerve. How many other idiot westerners do you know that would dare review a disc of Classical Indian Music on a site like Desicritics; especially when they know nothing whatsoever about the music in question.

I only came to this realization after my first listen to Vishwa Mohan Bhatt's forthcoming release Classics For Pleasure on the Sagarika label. Like other North Americans I became familiar with Vishwa Mohan Bhatt after his Grammy winning collaboration with Ry Cooder back in the 1990's. I'd also run across him in the context of being the teacher of Canadian musician Harry Manx who had lived and studied for ten years with Prandit Bhatt.

He's not just known in the West for his associations with the famous, but also for the instrument he created; a specially adapted Hawaiian guitar called the Mohan Veena. He broadened the fret board so that it could include twelve sympathetic strings, (ones that resound in response to those being strummed instead of being strummed themselves), three melody strings, and four drone stings to recreate the sound of Indian Classical instruments.

Before he could do that he had to master the primary stringed instruments utilized in Hindustani (the name given to Northern Indian classical music) music: the Sitar, Sarod, and Veena. This he accomplished by spending years studying with the arguably the most internationally renowned Indian musician, Ravi Shankar.
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With his years of training he is accomplished enough with those techniques that he can bring them all into play when he utilizes his Mohan Veena to perform his interpretations of Hindustani music. Playing it like a laptop guitar, flat in his lap in other words instead of parallel to his body and held in his arms, his picking and slide work have astounded audiences the world over with their virtuosity.

Of course none of this gets me any further ahead in my attempts to understand Hindustani music. So I figured if it was good enough for Prandit Bhat it's good enough for me, and I went to Ravi Shankar's web site. Specifically I went to the page where he tries to explain the basics of Indian Classical music in terms that the Western mind can understand. Almost from the moment I started reading I realized I was kidding myself if I expected to be able to learn enough to properly appreciate the music that was being played on Vishwa Bahan Bhatt's disc Classics For Pleasure.

I can only hope what I was able to latch onto will let me talk about the music without embarrassing myself. It's rather ridiculous to even think that I can do justice to this music with only the briefest amount of study. After all I've only ever scratched the surface of Western Classical music even after years of listening and having and understanding of the basic precepts behind its construction.
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I don't think any Western born person who hasn't dedicated years of study to the art of Hindustani has a hope of being able to pick up CD and do more then make general comments on whether they like it or not. Otherwise being able to tell whether a performer is doing justice to a particular piece is simply beyond our comprehension.

So for what it's worth to anyone, my opinion of Prandit Vishwa Mahan Bhatt's disc Classics For Pleasure is that it is simply astounding. Technically speaking the sounds that he is able to generate with his Mohan Veena are absolutely incredible. Having heard Harry Manx incorporate the instrument into his music I thought I had experienced examples of the instruments power and vitality.

But I don't think anything could have prepared me for Mahan Bhatt's abilities to coax not only sound from the instrument, but to evoke changes in my emotions while listening to his performance. While I did say that all I could do was respond on a basic level to the music, something caught my eye in titles and descriptions of the three ragas performed on this CD. (I've noticed that spellings of terms vary dramatically from place to place. I've chosen to use the spellings, for the most part, on the CD's packaging)

It would appear that Mohan Bhatt has deviated from the traditional structure of the Aalaap, followed by the Jod, and evolving into the Gat on all but the first Raga of the CD. But I don't know if that was a decision made by the producing company to just present extracts or whether these were deliberate choices on the part of Prandit Bhatt.

Anyway only on the first Raga are all three elements listed as occurring in the song's credits. This Raga is listed as being called Gaoti and I did find that listening to the progression of sound, until finally the tabla's joined in for the Gat, was a more complete experience than only hearing the Gat segments of the second and third Ragas, Kirwani and Des respectively. I found it especially noticeable after hearing the first Raga and being aware of the role the build up to the Gat plays.

Needless to say these are just minor quibbles and they didn't detract from my over all wonder at the skill on display. It did make me wonder if this were a common practice for Classical recordings these days, just as Western labels will only have parts of a concerto on a single album. I never find those quite as fulfilling as I do complete recordings, so I don't think I was just reading things into the performance based on newly acquired knowledge.

According to the Ravi Shankar's site one of the most important aspects of playing Classical Indian music is the emotional and spiritual bond that the musician develops with the piece. If he or she is cutting out elements that are integral to the piece wouldn’t that reduce the chances of being able to develop the rapport needed with the music to complete that bonding?

It appears to me that the first two elements, the Aalaap and the Jod, are the ones which help the artist get "the feel" of a piece, before they cut loose in the Gat to fully explore the themes they've developed. You can't really expect a performer to start in the middle of anything and be completely in tune with what's going on in any media.

Like the man who pleads for mercy after he kills his parents because he is now an orphan, the idea of me reviewing a CD of Hindustani music when I barely know the difference between a Gat and a Jod may seem ludicrous to some. Perhaps it is at that, but I've never let a fear of looking foolish stand in my way before, so I don't see why I should start now.

Vishwa Mohan Bhatt is an incredible performer, and Classics For Pleasure does nothing to detract from that reputation. Whether it's a perfect example of Hindustani music is not something I'm capable of judging, but I understand enough now to wonder how it would sound to those whose knowledge is more extensive then mine. I'd be interested in knowing if the questions I raised are valid or not. Please feel free to make use of the comments section to let me know.

Book Review: Yasmina Khadra Double Blank

At the end of Yasmina Khadra's first Superintendent Llob novel Morituri we had left him contemplating the depths that some business people would go to in Algeria to make their personal empires grow. From bribery to faked terrorist campaigns against intellectuals and entertainers (Faked only in the sense that fundamentalist Islamic were not behind them, the killings were real enough) it didn't seem as if there was anything they wouldn't consider.

As readers we had been introduced to a world that was completely beyond our comprehension. A country that is at war with itself, a war that escalates on a daily basis with bombings and killings by any number of either terror groups or factions of the elites involved in their endless power struggles.

Caught horribly in the middle, with almost no power to touch anyone above them on the social ladder even if they catch them with blood on their hands, the police fight back with what ever weapons they have at their disposal. It's not police or detective work like we are used to with the deductive reasoning of little grey cells, or the careful compilation of evidence to be used in court.

Sometimes it's a matter of following the trail of corpses and seeing whose doorstep it leads you to. Other times it's a matter of pushing harder then you are being pushed and hoping the other guy snaps before you do. Llob manages to get results using both methods, but little pieces of him are dying every day.

But sometimes when it is a matter of either little pieces or you dying literally your choices are limited. But Llob does his best and manages to be able to look at himself in the mirror still. He ruffles as many feathers as he possibly can in order to keep their owners as honest as possible, but when most of those consider themselves, for good reason, untouchable enough to have police bodily removed from their premises as a nuisance, you know at best you're fighting a holding action.

In Double Blank Khadra's (Yasmina Khadra is the pen name of Mohammed Moulessehoul, a former high ranking officer in the Algerian army turned novelist) second Superintendent Llob mystery, it's Llob's reputation for being a good cop, and a writer that find him in the presence of one of the elites of Algerian life. What Ben Ouda, former diplomat, and one time hero to a younger Llob, wants with him now remains just as unclear and nebulous after a requested meeting, as before.

But somebody must have understood what it was all about, and what was so important about the computer diskette that Ben Ouda claimed would have all the information Llob needed to write a truly historical novel. For only hours after Llob's meeting with Ouda not only has he been separated from the computer diskette but his head seems to have ended up in the bidet without the rest of his body.

Once more Llob has to walk the path of least resistance among captains of industry, petty thieves, and potential fundamentalist terrorists. The irony of how both the fundamentalists and the wealthy both claim all they do is for the good of Algeria is not lost on Llob. Nor is it lost that in both instances neither seems to mind if there has to be some violence and death along the way. One justifies it as the will of God, and the other calls it the forces of the marketplace or a necessary adjustment.

Even though there is an obvious connection between the murder and a known terrorist cell, Llob begins to suspect some hand even further behind the scenes manipulating events. Each time he closes in on one of the terrorists it's only to find him dead before he gets there.

When the last of them forces one of Llobs men to kill him, to prevent him from triggering his booby trapped body and wiping out a neighbourhood in the city, it looks as if the case will be without a satisfying resolution. Somebody else had wanted to be rid of the assassins even more urgently than the police, and unless they found out who or what, the real reason for Ben Ouda's death would always remain a mystery.

What was on that mysterious diskette that made so many lives expendable? That is the question that plagues Llob as he continues to try and find the missing pieces that will complete the puzzle. Both the wealthy in their enclaves and the fundamentalists with their black and white view of the world scare and disgust him in equal parts but the answer lies somewhere in one of those worlds

In Double Blank we learn a little more about the past of our hero, and begin to understand how he came to being a policeman. He started his life under colonial rule only to see it replaced by a dictator. Hope was born when the dictator was toppled, but it was short lived as the bottom feeders quickly rose to the surface to begin feeding off the bones of the picked over country to get the last pieces of flesh for themselves.

They might have called it revitalizing the economy, but Llob looking around at how they live compared to everyone else has some pretty strong doubts about their altruism and heroism. The hope that was born with the fall of the dictator has been chewed away by the vultures picking at the bones as he sees the resulting anger and fatalism in the people around him.

Once more Kahadra paints a picture of a city on the verge of combustion and a country on the edge of self-immolation. The people of Algeria may not be able to survive the efforts of those intent on saving either their souls or their economy and the best they can do is try and hold on and weather the storm.

Double Blank is not only a great mystery story, it is also a vivid portrait of a country struggling to stay away from the madness that has affected so many other nations in their part of the world. Read Yasmina Khadra's books for the story, but read them as well for the glimpses they offer of life in a world we know so little about.

January 5, 2007

Book Review: Morituri by Yasmina Khadra

Sometimes you just have to take an author's word for something. Whether it's a subject you know nothing about or a setting you're completely unfamiliar with you put yourself at the mercy of the mind behind the pen and hope he or she is being as accurate as fiction allows.

It becomes especially tricky when you start dealing with a culture that you have no real personal knowledge of, but that everybody in the world seems to have an opinion on. You can't open a paper, a journal, or go online these days without someone, somewhere providing an analysis of the Muslim mind whether they are qualified to or not.

It's hard not to develop a certain amount of prejudice under those circumstances, or at least to develop a picture that is coloured by news reports of suicide bombings and terrorist attacks. How then does one approach novels written about life set in the world which is known to us only through the eyes of reporters and politicians?

What type of glasses will we need to don that will allow us gaze past the web of our preconceived ideas. No matter what our personal sympathies maybe they aren't based on living the life the author has experienced, or the circumstances that characters in his or her book will endure.

Nothing we believe to be true will most likely have any bearing on reality, so the best that we can hope from ourselves is that we are brave enough to surrender to our guide, and to trust that our critical faculties that allow us to hear false notes can cross cultural borders. In other words try not to think of the Pink Elephant that is the cultural difference and read the book for what it is, not what it isn't.

In the case of expatriate Algerian writer Yasmina Khadra's police detective novel Morituri that is both easily accomplished and almost impossible at the same time. First of all Yasmina Khadra is a the pen name for an ex high ranking officer in the Algerian army named Mohammed Moulessehoul who was forced to assume an alias to prevent censorship while living in Algeria.
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The fact that in Morituri his chief character is Superintendent Llob of the Algiers's police force is also an author involved in the fight against terrorism does give one pause for thought at Khadra's bias. But that is soon forgotten amidst the depths of the story, and the way in which he is able to entangle you so quickly into Llob's life.

It's open season on Police officers in Algiers as the story begins; the fundamentalists have been picking them off in ones and twos with car bombs and shootings outside of houses. Occasionally there will even be a set up where a tip is called into a station and a group of officers will be ambushed as they arrive to pick up a suspect.

Llob and every other officer have becoming almost terrified of their own shadows. But they aren't the only targets of the latest mullah to command some troops. Somebody is also taking out intellectuals, writers and entertainers. But is it fundamentalists behind these latest attacks, or just someone hiding behind their reputation for attacking those who may be accused of diluting the holy faith.

Superintendent Llob finds himself caught up in a web of intrigue involving the power brokers behind the scenes of Algeria in chaos. Men who think nothing of buying and selling government officials as they need them, are not above using violence if they need it to get the results they want. What can a lowly police officer do in the face of such power?

What they do the world over; investigate and follow leads no matter where they lead. From the homes of nabobs to whorehouses and slums Superintendent Llob follows the trail to the answers. He doesn't care whose toes he steps on as long as he can look at himself in the mirror in the morning, as long as he's alive to look in the mirror of course.

Khandra draws a picture of a country where fundamentalist fanaticism doesn't just apply to the ultra religious, but to all those who strive for power and a larger piece of the action. A small percentage of the people live in high opulence; splendour on par with Kublah Khan, while the rest of the populace huddles at their feet hoping that the scraps left over will be sufficient to live off.

Is it any wonder that the residents of these streets and alleys are susceptible to the promise of something better then what they have, even if it's only in the afterlife? How much different are those promises of paradise from the lead a good life and you'll receive you're reward in heaven promise offered on the other side of the world? Manipulation through religion is the same the world over, we just have to be willing to see the similarities in order to recognise that fact.

Morituri is a detective story, with all the characteristics you'd expect in place. Prisoners are interrogated; witnesses are interviewed, and clues are traced to dead ends or unexpected results just like they are in mysteries the world over. But played out against the backdrop of continual violence there is an undercurrent of constant threat that doesn't

In Superindendent Llob, Khadra gives us a character who on one hand is the scared man who checks his car for booby traps and every day spends fifteen minutes looking out his apartment window before risking the walk to where he's parked his car. But once he is on the case he finds within himself the resources to walk into potential ambushes.

Middle aged, with almost adult children, he has seen too much of the world, and suffered along with the rest of Algeria the disappointments of postcolonial rule. But in spite of it all he continues, much as his country men and women do, in the face of adversity to do his job in the hopes it will make a difference, if to no one else at least to himself.

I'm in no position to judge the accuracy of Khadra's description of life in Algeria, but have no reason to doubt the veracity of his information. What I do know for a fact is that this is a well-written and exciting novel I can easily recommend to those who like a lot of grit in their mysteries. And in spite of any cultural differences that's all that really matters anyway.

January 3, 2007

Interview: Author Guy Gavriel Kay

For those of you who have somehow not noticed his presence on the shelves of your local bookstore, Guy Gavriel Kay is the creator of some of the most innovative and challenging Fantasy works of the past decade and a half. He has created both high fantasy with his trilogy The Fionavar Sequence (consisting of The Summer Tree, The Wandering Fire, and The Darkest Road) and recreated periods of our own history in books that cross the ages from Byzantium to Medieval France.

His most recent book, Ysabel, sees him working in the same geographical area of France, Provence as a previous book, A Song For Arbonne, but on this occasion he has sat the action in the present and has the past come to us. After reading Ysabel I was reminded of how much I appreciated the works of Mr. Kay and set out to see if I could interview him.

Fortunately I was able to catch him before he was sent out on the road for his publicity tour for Ysabel and he very kindly agreed to answer the following series of questions about his work via email. The only edits I've done on his answers have been to insert any required HTML code, but aside from that these are his words completely unadulterated.

We decided to make the focus of the interview primarily his work, but if you are interested in finding our more about him, including the fact that he helped Christopher Tolkien edit his father's papers and spent a year working on The Silmarillion, I recommend you check out the biography page at the Brightweavings.com web site. There you will find more then enough information to satisfy your deepest curiosity about his personal life.

That's enough of that now, and without further ado I turn you over to Mr. Guy Gavriel Kay.

1) I'd like to ask about some of your earlier work to start with, beginning with the three books of that make up The Fionavar Sequence, The Summer Tree, The Wandering Fire, and The Darkest Road.
There are some obvious cultural influences that show up in the books, Celtic, as well as Moorish, and even some Native American, but what possessed you, or I guess to be polite, what was your inspiration, to attempt such a mammoth undertaking? Did it one day just pop into your head: "Oi this sounds like a good idea, think I'll give it a go"? Or was there a little more to it than that?

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I was actually intimidated and anxious about the scale of what I wanted to do. It is harder today, when multi-multi-volume fantasies are so ‘normal’, to go back to a time when a young writer insisting that he receive a three book contract was … alarmingly uppity.

But even back then I had a dismal sense that too much of the market (writers and readers, both) had reduced Tolkien and high fantasy to lowest-common-denominator elements. D&D had played a role in this, so did the emergence of commercial viability in the field. It is worse today, but twenty years ago the signal to noise ratio was already badly skewed. I wanted to consciously use as many of the tropes and elements of the field, as it was being defined then, but see if I could preserve a measure of complexity in character motivation and themes. I wanted to ‘play’ with the implications of a first, mythic world, to nod towards Freud and Jung, both, if I was going to cast as wide a net as I did in myth and legend (as you note in the question). I wanted to let sexuality and less-than-heroic reasons for actions play their parts. And to give rather more scope to women than tended to be the case. My inward metaphor was opera, in fact.

2)Why the switch to a more historical fiction/fantasy approach in the next three novels? Tigana is loosely based on, early Renaissance Italy while The Lions Of Al-Rassan is the reconquista of Spain, and A Song For Arbonne the troubadours and the Albigensian Crusade in southern France. Were those periods of time or places that had a particular fascination for you, or was it the subject matters they provided more important?

Intelligently or otherwise, I’ve always had some fear of cloning myself. Fionavar achieved a measure of success and there was some pressure to ‘consolidate’ that and keep going. My sound bite at the time was, ‘I don’t believe in four volume trilogies.’ We were living in Tuscany when I began to research and think about Tigana, and that was the year the Berlin Wall fell … leading me to a variety of reflections on the ‘tools’ of tyranny. These dovetailed with an idea I’d had for a while that fantasy was being limited (in the English-language world) in terms of what it was being allowed to do or be. Tigana came alive around the metaphor of magic as a way of erasing the memory of a people or culture. I was anxious again, being aware from the outset that it was not prudent to be departing so greatly, both from I’d done before, and from what genre expectations had become.

But Tigana did extremely well worldwide, and gave me more confidence to continue using the fantastic as a way of examining different periods of the past and different themes and styles arising from those periods. Some of these were indeed periods I’d had a longstanding interest in, others were discoveries, revelations.

3) Of those three books, Tigana is the only one with an overt use of magic, while in the other two it is non-existent save for a minor talent among the priestesses in Song For Arbonne to 'see'. Was this a conscience choice against using magic, or was it simply because it was not needed for the plot?

The latter, absolutely. Some readers and academics began to postulate a through line in my work, that ‘conscious’ downgrading of the fantastical. It was never so, for me. I treat magic and the supernatural as elements of a story, and the scale of that element needs to be assessed in terms of the requirements of the story. Last Light of the Sun, for example, which followed Tigana, Arbonne, and Lions, had much more of a supernatural element (so does Ysabel) because the settings and narratives I was shaping seemed to demand it.

4) The Sarantine Mosaic: Sailing to Sarantium and Lord of Emperors finds you moving to the middle east and back in time to the time of the Western and Eastern Roman Empires and Byzantium. What is there about this era that attracted you to it?

Funny, true story (really true, not ‘truthy’!). I never know what a next book will be when I finish one. Lions had just come out, and I received a sheaf of international reviews from my publishers. The first three I pulled out all made reference to my ‘Byzantine plotting’ or ‘Byzantine intrigues’ or ‘Byzantine levels of character development’ … and I laughed and did a ‘note to self’ that it was time to learn more about Byzantium. Went online, ordered a dozen books, and started reading when they came. I was hooked. What elements? The interplay of artist and state. Religious tension and transition. East vs west. Urban vs. rural, the role of walls (personal and literal), of forest and field, how these have changed in meaning from place to place and time to time. The ways in which women have, historically, needed to operate to shape their worlds. The idea of permanence and transitoriness in art. The power of the historian/writer to shape later understanding of even the leaders of a given time. The way in which the deeds of the ‘great’ can feel trivial to those going about their lives, faced with their own calamities and joys. Chariot racing. Dolphins. Yeats.

Longer answer than you wanted, probably.

5) In the earlier three books there are/ is a dominant religion, but in the Mosaic your characters while protesting their belief in "Jad" are also keenly aware of the existence of other powers no matter how hard the Church would like to deny their presence. The wooden birds with the captured souls, and the wood Bison god, are they based on actual tribal beliefs and gods from the time or are you using them for the sake of the analogy? Why did it feel important to include them – historical accuracy concerning people's beliefs or to make clear the idea that other forces exist outside of what we are supposed to believe in?

The birds are an homage to Yeats, in fact. The bison figure I adapted and made use of after reading Simon Schama’s wonderful Landscape and Memory. It seemed to me that what little people (including me!) knew, or thought they knew, about Byzantine history incorporated a strong element of the mystical or spiritual (along with violence, Imperial mothers blinding sons, and so forth). Certainly the ‘pagan’ fertility rituals are drawn from readings and not invented wholesale … though, equally certainly, every author’s responsible for the use he or she makes of these things. I did want to create a tension between what we are taught, what we are told to ‘think’ and intuitive, instinctive truths - and how art can sometimes emerge from this tension, or great suffering. I took this even further in the next book, Last Light of the Sun.

6) One of the elements I've always been particularly fond of when it comes to your work, has been the almost opulence of your language. It lends a splendour to events, but it also seems to elevate everything above the mundane. Even in contemporary times you have a way of making the words splendid. Was this style inspired by anyone in particular, is it even something you're aware of doing?

Tricky question. Certainly not a linguistic attempt to echo anyone else. In Fionavar I did (as I said before) think in terms of operatic rhythms, the tale rising to and moving away from major arias, duets … and I used mythic, Biblical cadences to try to achieve that (lacking, obviously, music!) in such scenes. The language in the later books has varied as I try to fit it to the setting. The language in Last Light, for example, is harder, terser, less lyric than the books before (and some reviewers and scholars have commented on this).
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7) This was my not so subtle way of trying to lead into your latest release -Ysabel which is just out in Canada and due out for release in the U.S. in Feb right?

As I type, some stores have jumped the gun and it is already on sale in Canada. It’ll be in the US by early February, in the UK by March. There are a plethora of early reviews online already, off the advance review copies … the book business has changed greatly in this regard, influenced by the Internet, shifting more towards a model like the film world, with teasers and trailers and rumours going on for months and months before actual release.

8) Ysabel is your first book set entirely in the contemporary world, and it also features as its protagonist a fifteen year old (Ned). Why, and why to the first two, and was it a coincidence that your first entirely contemporary book would have a teenaged hero?

The broad answer you can guess from what I’ve said above: I keep wanting to test myself as a writer, try something different, see what emerges. One reason for a younger protagonist is that when I was writing Last Light I was conscious of working with very young and much older central figures, and my readings in history made clear that those very young people could play major roles in a society. In ours, we keep teenagers (and twenty-somethings, too, I suppose) remarkably youthful, unfledged. I wanted to do some inner dialogue in the book around that point. I’ve always enjoyed a bildungsroman, a coming of age book, have been irked (slightly) by the emerging assumption that any such book is YA … it simply isn’t so, from Goethe to Dickens to Twain to How Green Was My Valley.

One sharp early reader noted that this is the first time I’ve been able to write about history, instead of in an historical period. And that struck me - I hadn’t thought about it before in those words - as perceptive, because that is central to what Ysabel is trying to do. A contemporary setting lets me comment and explore motifs of the past in a different way, and a younger protagonist offers an effective ‘window’ for the reader to grow into the book.

9) I thought that you did a very good job of getting into the head of an adolescent, some might complain that he's a little sophisticated but I look at his parents, at teenagers in general these days, your style in general and as you have a character point out, when did fifteen become young – used to be war leaders who were fifteen, (maybe its only because we live so long that we've made teenagers into something less responsible than they are capable of being), it was very apt. Did you find you had to adapt your way of looking at the world when working on his character in order to give it that authenticity, and if so how?

We’ve both made the same point here, it seems. I’m really pleased by the early response to Ned’s ‘voice’ and I’m also pretty adamant about something else: just as adults run a wide range of maturity, anger, patience, curiosity so - obviously - do people on the cusp of adulthood. I’ve often been ‘accused’ of having overly intelligent or perceptive characters … but to be honest, as a reader I get bored if I feel too much ahead of, quicker than, the protagonists of books.

10) Provence seems to have a special appeal to you, first Arbonne and now Ysabel What is it about the area that attracts you in particular?

What’s not to like? More seriously (though that’s actually not unserious!) it is such a gorgeous part of the world and for someone with any interest in history, it is such a crossroads of cultures (because of that beauty, in fact, which is a theme of Ysabel). I can get very depressed when I think about the state of France today, but can also be deeply and powerfully moved by what I see when we’re there. Years ago, I remember asking our French landlord at the time where he and his wife were going for their spring holiday. He looked at me with surprise. ‘I’m in Provence,’ he said, ‘spring is coming. Why would I go anywhere?’

11) The story of Ysabel, you have a character mention an original Greek trader who was picked as husband by a Celtic Princess, is there a story like that which you then extrapolated the history of the area onto, or is the love triangle a complete invention?

I always worry about spoilers, and you’ll know I’ve deleted and dodged a few questions to avoid them in this exchange, but I suppose this one feels all right. I didn’t invent it, I was inspired and engaged by reading the founding myth of Marseille (Massilia) from Greek times, which sets out this legend. I even saw, at an outdoor antique sale, a 19th century wooden carving of the figures (really should have bought it!).

12) I've been having a discussion with a couple of other authors I know about what we strive to do with our writing and what we look for in our reading material, and I've been going on about infusing reality with magic and how much that appeals to me. Ashok Banker, who has recently adapted The Ramayana and is making it his life's work to do the same with all the great Indian Epics, says, (loosely) he's looking to imbue myth with reality. How would you describe your approach to your work within that framework, especially Ysabel? Or is it even appropriate?

I’m currently most engaged by examining how the past doesn’t leave us (whether personal or cultural, small or large-scaled). Myth and legend, religious transition, folklore and propaganda … all of these play roles in this. We live in a startlingly a-historical era with far too little knowledge of even the recent past, the mistakes made, the truths learned once and forgotten. Assumptions that the ‘way things are’ has always been so, an arrogance about ‘today’ (the flipside is a western self-flagellation element, and this, too, turns on a lack of historical awareness). I think fantasy is a superlative tool, when used properly, to induce readers to shed prejudices about a given period (and their intimidation by it) and to look at a tale set in a fantasy analogue of a given time as being more not less connected to them … in the same way that when we read in a fairy tale that ‘the only daughter of a fisherman walked down to the strand…’ we are all linked to that only daughter (or the third son of a woodcutter!). This is what folktales were (and are) about … erasing the distance between reader/listener and story.

13) I've been very careful to try and not throw a labels at your work, fantasy, historical fiction, or whatever, and I don't mean this to be flattery, but it seems that would be an unfair limitation to place on your work. I know your books are categorized usually as fantasy, but that just seems to be the catch all these days for authors who write outside the little boxes. Do you feel comfortable with any label – do you have one that use personally?

From my days in university, long before I was a novelist, I had a dislike of over-categorizing. My first award-winning paper as an undergrad was on ‘The Classification of Troilus and Cressida’ (Shakespeare’s)… I found it slotted in some books on his problem comedies and in others on his problem tragedies and was genuinely taken aback at the ferocity of the rhetoric academics were unleashing on each other in pursuit of one label or the other. (I know, I know … ferocious academic battles, taken aback by them … how naïve!) I wrote an ‘A plague on both your houses’ paper, arguing that what matters was assessing quality, intent, success or otherwise … not slot or label.

It is probably a colossal irony (or maybe a quixotic acting-out of my dislike of these label-things) that I seem to have faced the same issues for years. We are a categorizing species, I suppose. We find what we like and want more of it, and look for labels to tell us where to find that ‘more’. There’s nothing very wrong with this, by the way. My friend, the novelist Charles de Lint, has talked at times of wanting bookstores to just shelve everything alphabetically … problem there is what if you don’t know what you are walking in to buy? What if you like mysteries or historical fiction or science fiction … there are an awful lot of books! Intelligent retail suggests we find ways (and online stores have taken this further) to guide readers to where they might be happiest. It does tend to narrow us, reduce risk-taking in art, and … to come back to the question … it can create some problems for those of us who blur or erode borders or categories. Me? I say I write novels.

14) One last question, I've read on the Bright Weavings web site that two of your novels rights are owned by studios, Lions of Al-Rassan and Last Light Of The Sun. Would those be your first choices to be made into movies?

I’ve been asked a lot of questions about the two film projects but never that query! What would I have picked first, or expected to see first? I always thought Fionavar and the Mosaic pair were too big to be starting points for Hollywood. Tigana may lend itself more to a limited series format, also being very long. So the two in development probably do make a great deal of sense. I can see Arbonne being picked up by a strong female producer/director because the underlying motif there has to do with the way in which the culture of the troubadours, the ‘Court of Love’ represented a major possible turning point in western history as to the status of women … and there are such wonderful roles for half a dozen actresses ranging from 17 or 18 years old to 60 or 70.

To be specific about the current projects. Lions is being developed by Cathy Schulman (“Crash”) and Lorenzo di Bonaventura for Warner Brothers, with Edward Zwick to direct (and his Bedford Falls company are also producers). They are at second draft stage of the script. Much will turn on that second draft. Last Light is being developed by Robert Chartoff (“Raging Bull” and the “Rocky” films) and Ted Ravinett’s production companies and I’m currently working on that screenplay myself (which answers, I suppose, the question you didn’t ask: what are you doing next?).

Thanks for some challenging queries, I enjoyed doing this one.

There are some interviews you do, and sometimes you have a hard time coming up with questions for the interviewee. That was not the case in this situation and in fact just the opposite for a change. I've been fascinated by Guy Gavriel Kay's work since I first read the Fionavar Tapastry and almost without exception have continued to this day. He is one of the few authors whose work I read over and over again with as much enjoyment, if not more, as the first time.

I hope that those of you who didn't know the man before this interview will be inspired to go out and buy any one of his books so that you too can discover the pleasure he has brought me and countless others. To those of you who know his work, I hope this interview provided you with some new insights into Mr. Kay's work.

Thanks once again to Guy Gavriel Kay for agreeing to this interview and also thanks to Deborah at Brightweavings.com for supplying the introduction so that it could happen.

January 2, 2007

No Need For Anger

I had a startling revelation the other day. It may not seem like such a big deal to some of you, but it made me understand another little piece of the puzzle that's me. I've been picking up a variety of differently shaped segments for the past twelve years and slotting them into what seems like the appropriate places.

I've tried not to resort to using the "if it doesn't fit use a bigger hammer" technique, and in general I've had some success in building a fairly accurate and honest picture of myself. Some of the time I haven't been necessarily thrilled with what I've seen, but at least that way I know what I need to fix to make the picture a little more pleasant to look at.

Yesterday I sent a really angry email to somebody who is supposedly a friend of my wife and myself. Last winter my wife had worked with him on a recording project and after the CD was finished had offered to help with some of the mailing out of review copies. Her job was to label envelopes and stuff them with a CD and promotional material.

This meant boxes of CDs, mailing envelops, promotional material, and bubble wrap for protecting the discs in their envelopes were dropped off at our apartment. She was told it was very important that stuff be ready to mail as soon as possible. The first wave went out in June and that was fine, but we were still left with a significant number of boxes and material cluttering up our apartment.

The second wave was to go out in mid August and the labels were delivered to my wife so that she could prepare eighty more pieces to go out in the mail. As some of you may know from reading some of my other articles, my wife is not in the best of health, suffering from a sever anxiety disorder and benign positional vertigo.

Unfortunately it seems that the heat of the summer exasperated both of her conditions, so by mid August she was not doing very well at all. But she takes her responsibilities seriously, and had promised to take care of this mailing for our friend. She spent two nights prior to the labels being delivered folding the promotional material, wrapping CDs in bubble wrap, and stuffing them in envelopes.

That way when the labels came all she would have to do was affix them and the mailing would be ready. Our friend came by with the labels and stressed how important it was to have them ready to be mailed as quickly as possible. They are still sitting in our living room along with sufficient material for another God knows how many more mailings.

She tried phoning for a week and leaving messages to say they were ready to the person who was supposed to come pick them up. When that elicited no response she started emailing our friend. He didn't even email back a reply. Occasionally we have received an email from him that was part of a mass mailing either complaining that no one was helping him with the work involved with promoting the CD or telling us how many visits the CD's Myspace site had received that week.

Yesterday I walked out into the living room and saw the boxes still sitting there and got really pissed off. We've been forced to rearrange our living space to accommodate them and they take up room that we can't spare. I snapped and wrote him an email saying that our apartment was not a storage space and I didn't like being taken advantage of.

If he couldn't be bothered to even reply to emails from my wife about what she was supposed to do about the mailing she had prepared for last August, I didn't see why I should bother storing the stuff for him. I was also nasty enough to say that I knew he was busy, but if he had the time to do all the other things he was doing, he surely could have spared a few seconds to email my wife in answer to her question.

I told him that he had to January 16th of this year to get them out of here or I would start disposing of them in any way that I could: implying the garbage.

I started thinking about it later in the day and realized I was upset by something else aside from the situation. I was upset that I had been forced into the position of being an asshole and getting angry with him in an effort to get him to pay attention. It was such a pointless thing to be angry about. But he seemed willing to take us for granted for as long as he could ignore my wife's emails.

However, in spite of the circumstances, I still felt disappointed because I've responded in the manner I have. It felt like I was failing somehow or other because I had to resort to threats and anger in order to be treated with respect. What really bothered me was that the other person involved is one of those people who talk about community and co-operation all the time yet they couldn't be bothered to answer an e-mail.

When I look for something that could be positive from the experience I can't find much, but there are these two things. No matter how much I'm upset with myself fro using anger I've had the good sense to place the blame where it belongs and not at my own feet. Secondly is the fact that it did bother me that I had to write the e-mail in the first place.

I figure that I'm on the right track if even doing that little bit form anger upsets me. Maybe someday I'll figure out how to handle the circumstances in such a way that anger won't be necessary. But for now I'll settle for being pissed off about made to get pissed off.

December 31, 2006

Reality, Pop Culture, And Art.

Mankind can not bear too much reality T. S. Elliot

Old T. S. knew what he was talking about when he wrote those words. Too much reality can be a crippling experience. But at the same time we can't spend all our energies running away from the truth. So the key is to find a balance, deal with what you need to and let other stuff slide.

One of the reason that popular culture has always been so, well popular for lack of a better world, is that it usually offers us just the escape we seem to require; a temporary reprieve form our day-to-day pressures. Television seems to have perfected that function by composing material requiring minimal mental energy that neither challenges the viewer mentally or emotionally beyond simplistic sentimentality.

Obviously that's a pejorative statement and some television will be a cut above others, but it's not necessarily the content of television that is escapist but it's the overall intent behind the media. Walk into any room where a television is playing and it can feel like you've walked into a wall of noise, especially if a commercial is playing.

It's not just the sound, there's the visual stimulation as well. You don't really notice it if you're watching the set, but sit in another room, or look into a room where the television is on from outside the house, and watch the continual flickering of light. Each time a camera angle on the screen changes the picture moves and jumps; even just a stationary shot will, with background action, cause the screen to flash.

It's the constant barrage of light and sound that causes the feeling of sleepiness that television inspires. Think of how tired your eyes can become simply staring at the monitor of your computer with its mainly inert images. Think of how when you see a monitor's reflection in a mirror or a window it is continually moving even when open on a word document.

So unfortunately you're experiencing more than just a period of relaxing entertainment, you're also having your senses deadened. Of course the same goes for a good deal of popular music today, with it's incessant beat and repetitive lyrics. Guitar player Bob Brozman refers to it as the dumbing effect that stops audiences from thinking.

It's one thing to want to forget about your troubles for a while, to escape reality. But it's another thing altogether to lose your ability to be aware of reality. It's the difference between the person who has a drink after work maybe once or twice a week to help them unwind, and the alcoholic who drinks to forget everything.

The former is not running away from anything, is only looking for the means to relax somewhat to make it easier to deal with reality. The latter doesn't want to deal with reality for whatever reason and strives to block out all his or her thoughts and ability to feel.

Rid yourself of the feeling that art has nothing to do with reality and is not sturdy enough to face it on it's own Erwin Piscator

What old Erwin was talking about when he said that back in the 1920's was specifically the theatre, but it can be applied to art in general. He and Bertol Brecht were working together on something they called Epic theatre with the purpose of mixing reality into the world of theatre. This involved using rear projection screens and other devices that could bring elements of the real world onto stage with the actors.

Most theatre at the time was highly stylized melodrama that had nothing to do with the circumstances of the world during the 1920's in Germany. Brecht and Piscator attempted to bring to life things like the unrest and poverty in the Weimar Republic at the time and contest the notion that theatre was only for escapism.

Art does not have to be political to be real; it doesn't even have to be realistic in style. But what it needs to do is recreate elements of the human condition with accuracy. Emotional honesty makes an abstract piece of art just a real as a figurative drawing. The most fantastic of stories only work because the author keeps elements of emotional or intellectual reality in them that we can identify with.

Television and the majority of pop culture (I know generalizing again) are by their very nature unable to depict the mundane because it won't sell. They need to create a world that is beyond reality; that will completely obliterate thought through action, laughter, fright, or any one strong emotion.

Like booze or drugs when too much of that is imbibed it numbs us to the point where we have no need to think. It no longer becomes a simple matter of escapism for the moment but a permanent condition of running away from reality and ourselves. Art on the other hand will hold up a mirror of sorts to some part of the human condition, thus giving it a means to connect with us the world at the same time.

We all need to have breaks from whatever our personal reality is, without them our minds could snap like a cheap rubber band. But at the same time completely running away from life won't make us feel any better in the long run, as we eventually will have to deal with what we've been avoiding.

In my mind this is the advantage that art has over pop culture. It allows us to be carried away from reality without having to surrender our grasp on it at any time.

December 29, 2006

Book Review: Christopher Moore Bloodsucking Fiends

Have you ever felt like your life should have come with a manual? Jody does, or a least something that would help her deal with what's she's gone through in the past couple of days. She's broken up with her boy friend, which has also left her homeless, lost her job, leaving her without a source of income, and had her car impounded.

To top it all off she woke up and found herself lying underneath a dumpster with her hand burnt to a crisp. The plus side is she is somehow able to lift the dumpster off her, and whoever put it on top of her has also stuffed her blouse with about $100,000. The last thing she remembers is being attacked by some guy who not only bit her neck but also made her drink blood from his arm.

Oh! Maybe there's an explanation as to how she was able lift the dumpster off so easily, and why the burn on her hand is healing so fast. The hand that was sticking out from under the dumpster all day as she lay with two tons of garbage and metal on top of her. The hand that was burnt because it was exposed to daylight: bite in the neck, blood sucking, and burning in daylight.

Isn't that just a great way to top off a shit week, she's now officially undead, a vampire, or as the title of Christopher Moore's book from 1995 would put it. Jody has joined the ranks of the Bloodsucking Fiends. It wouldn't be so bad if it weren't for all the unexpected drawbacks.

The problem is the movies; they make it look so glamorous, fancy dress, beautiful people, sex, and blood sucking. They don't say anything about how you're supposed to get your car out of impound when they're only open during daylight hours and you have a tendency to combust in the sun.

And how are you supposed to find a place to live when they only show places in the day? It's all very dayist. You'd think San Francisco of all places would be a little more accommodating to alternative lifestyles, but even that most modern of cities still seems to be out of touch with the needs of the night stalkers. But then again that's why innocent dupes from places like Incontinence Indiana were invented weren't they? To become minions for the beautiful undead and do all their shit work. (The fact that Laundromats are open twenty-four hours is a real piss off especially if your minion figures it out, muttering something about bloodstains not being his fault)

C. Thomas Flood (Tommy to his friends, the C. is his pen name for when he is a famous author) has only been in San Francisco a week and has already received five marriage proposals, obtained a job, and had a beautiful red head throw herself at him. The fact that the five proposals have come from illegal male Chinese immigrants who have heard that men marry men in San Francisco and are hoping Tommy will make them legal takes the shine off the proposals.

But the job is good even if it is working the night shift with a bunch of deranged lunatics who suck nitrous oxide from Reddi Wip and bowl frozen turkeys in the notions section of the grocery store where they work restocking shelves and repairing the damage they cause. The beautiful red head is a little confusing in her habits and her intentions until Jody tells him about her predilections.

Instead of being terrified as she worried, Tommy is enthralled. When he finds out she knows next to nothing about being a vampire he enlists the aid of the world's authors and devices a series of tests to figure out what is a true characteristic and what is false.

While the two young lovers are working out the intricacies of their new relationship (should you or should you not store the TV Dinners in the freezer with the corpse or why sucking the blood from live snapping turtles just doesn't cut it) the vampire who got Jody is still out there and terrorizing the city. Corpses with their necks broken, the blood drained from their bodies, and no discernable wounds have been showing up with increasing frequency.

With each murder more and more clues are point at Tommy as the culprit. Why, Jody, wonders is the other vampire trying to get Tommy arrested, or even worse come after him as a victim. What did her minion ever do to him anyway? Besides she started to grow accustomed to him, and strange as she finds the whole idea, and is starting to fall in love with him.

With the cops closing in from one direction and the vampire from the other direction, Tommy has to rally the troops; the boys from the store, and a homeless man known as The Emperor of San Francisco who along with his canine companions has been fighting the good fight against evil since first catching sight of the vampire. Tommy and his motley gang first must track down the enemy and when they do figure out what the hell they're going to do about it.

Christopher Moore writes the funniest horror stories on record, from The Lust Lizard Of Melancholy Cove to Practical Demonkeeping he has exposed the world to the lighter side of everything from demonic possession to the humour of monstrous man eating creatures. Now he gives us the silly side of bloodsucking with his usual aplomb.

But what sets Moore apart from the usual run of the mill humour writer is he also has the remarkable ability to pull back from his humour and open the door to reality. In San Francisco of the mid nineties reality meant AIDS was still cresting and the wave was carrying people with it indiscriminate of sexual orientation and gender.

Jody has qualms about killing, it just doesn't come natural to her yet, until she meets the first person that wants to die because of the pain he has experienced and is in. She realizes she doesn't have to be a horrible bloodsucking fiend. She can ease the pain of others while keeping herself alive and well.

The amazing thing about Christopher Moore is not only his ability to tell a side splitting funny story, but that he can bring genuine tears to your eyes without resorting to sentimentality. Letting a situation develop at its own steam and not trying to manipulate an audience is a delicate task. Humour and Tragedy are the two faces of the human condition, and Christopher Moore is one of the few writers today who can wear either one with equal equanimity.

Read Bloodsucking Fiends for the sidesplitting, milk spiting through the nose laughs, but also be prepared to think and not escape from reality. Maybe that's why vampires are so funny, because reality can bite.

December 27, 2006

Compassion: The Forgotten Word

Do you ever stop and wonder how our species has lasted this long? How is it that we've made it after who knows how many millennia of busting each others heads, stealing each others' food, and doing whatever we can to ensure our survival in the face of competition.

Don't let anybody fool you into believing that one race of man were better than another, no matter who we were we'd stomp your ass if we could get away with it and it served some advantage. Long before the Europeans even existed we were forcing each other to fight for our lives in Africa and North America.

The great peace tree Hiawatha planted was only among the five nations who made up the Iroquois Confederacy. They had no problems burying their hatchets in Huron heads or other non-Iroquois nations.

Of course the Europeans were the professionals, starting from before Christ's time with the Macedonians under first Philip then his son Alexander carving a swath through central Europe and Asia just for the sake of Empire building. The Romans were no slouches in that manner either stomping the barbarians from Turkey out to Hadrian's Wall on what's now the Scottish border

Since then we've been at it pretty much non-stop; country against country, religion against religion and faith against faith. For all that both Muslims and Christians lay claim to compassion and peace-loving being integral parts of their belief systems, neither one has had any difficulty in recognising the business end of a weapon.

So what is this compassion that the big two of religions hold fast to as a means of establishing their passive credentials, or at least a pretence of concern for their fellow species members. Well according to the Online Dictionary, compassion is a deep awareness of the suffering of another coupled with the wish to relieve it.

Well that doesn't leave very much room to equivocate does it? I personally don't see anything in that definition stating that you need to be the one who has inflicted the suffering upon the other before you feel the desire to relieve it. But judging by the way most of the world seems to function these days that seems to be the modern definition.

First we're going to bomb the crap out of you, then we're going to shake our heads at your pitiful state and maybe decide to have a benefit concert for you. If we don't do that we'll at least send our troops in and impose our way of life upon you. Then you get to experience all the benefits of either being a devout Muslim living under a totalitarian religious government, or enjoy becoming a slave labour force for Nike and The Gap. Either way it will be such an improvement and it will make us feel better about ourselves.

All sarcasm aside where has our compassion gone? I'm not just talking about foreign aid either; I mean day in and day out we just don't seem to feel it any more. Sure if there is some major disaster like Katrina or the tsunami of a few years back we can open our hearts and check books readily enough.

But unless we're hit over the head with something we've become so self-absorbed our heads are so far up inside ourselves we're naval gazing from the inside out. How else could we let the two of the wealthiest countries, Canada and the United States, in the world degenerate to the state they are in now?

The means for a person to support their family in dignity have been stripped from countless people as their jobs have been shipped to other countries. What is a person whose spent the last twenty five years of their life building cars supposed to do when the plant closes due to management inefficiency and union greed? Retrain to be a call centre operator? That might work as long as those jobs haven't been shipped out overseas as well.

Over a million children in Canada live below the poverty level, meaning that they aren't getting adequate food, shelter, and more often or not want for parental affection and attention as well. Even if we just went by relative population size, with the United States have roughly ten times the population of Canada, it means around ten million children in the U.S. are affected similarly.

How can we call ourselves a caring people if just one of those scenarios exists? Why aren't we more appalled to know that as we sit in the comfort of our home, or are heading to a job that people in our countries are going to bed hungry at night, with little or no chance of a proper meal the next day as well?

What kind of caring society allows people who are our parent's age to live on subsistent pensions that barely gets them a room in a hovel or a welfare hotel? What kind of dignity is that for a person to live out their supposed golden years sitting and watching paint peel in a room with mouldy carpet and a broken spring bed.

Instead of feeling pity when we see homeless people we stand in judgement wondering how they could have let themselves get in such a position. Or if a person is dying of AIDS instead of sorrow and compassion we judge them on what might have been their lifestyle when what should matter is why there is no cure for it after all these years.

What has happened to turn our hearts into unfeeling slabs of stone? So many of us when we are out in the world just plough straight through people on the sidewalk, knocking over people in walkers and complaining about them being in the way.

I have a hard time dealing with going out anymore, because it either gets me so angry to be around people that I might start hitting them with my cane, or it makes me so sad at how far we've fallen that I could cry.

I guess it shouldn't surprise me that people on the street have so little compassion. They take their lead from the attitudes that are prevalent in society. Our leaders are more concerned with passing judgement then with caring, and that's what is reported in the papers every day as the state of the world.

Compassion has somehow become an antiquated ideal very few people feel or understand. Until we can remember what it was it like to care about another person, and how our actions might affect them, the world will continue along on its present path.

I don't know how much longer we can keep it up, we've been lucky so far, but luck can change for the worse at any time and anywhere.

December 23, 2006

Moments Of Magic

I think I've always wanted there to be magic in the world. I'm sure that as a child I would have dreamed that there was something that could be called upon to change my life. If I could only discover it or find the right clue that would lead me to the place where it existed then everything would be perfect.

But the type of magic I was looking for and the type of magic that exists in the world have very little to do with each other. It wasn't until I was much older that I faced up to the fact that there are no magic wands we can wave to whisk us away when we wish.

Bad things happen to children, adults have to deal with their problems, and each of us is forced to bear the burden of our responsibilities. The avoidance techniques that we do have are far less wholesome than broomsticks and only delay the inevitable. But in spite of these reality checks I've managed to keep a tenacious hold on my belief in magic.

Maybe it was because of the fact that I worked in theatre for a period of time and in some ways we created magic each time we gave a performance. There's always been something about the theatre that is somewhat magical, perhaps because of it's previous association with travelling shows during the renaissance, or it's even earlier associations with the god Dionysus. Anyway what else would you call it when a person becomes someone else before your very eyes if not magic?

No matter what the reasons I am as certain of magic's existence as I am of the fact that I'm dependant on oxygen for survival. Does that make you uncomfortable to hear a supposedly rational man admit that he believes in magic? Well I can't say that I blame you, I have a fairly good idea how ridiculous that sounds. Like some new age psychobabble I 'm sure leading up to some stupid talk about guardian angles or something equally nauseating.

Fear not, it's nothing to do with guardian angles, whether you consider it new age psychobabble is another thing I guess, but that is something we'll all have to live with. Those of you who wince with embarrassment when you read this, will consider yourselves the most martyred I'm sure, but I think I've given fair warning and you've had plenty of time to turn aside so you've only yourself to blame.

However I don't think anyone really needs to worry that much because the magic I'm going to talk about is readily available to anyone with eyes and ears willing to use those senses and keep their mouth shut for a short period of time. In other words using your powers of observation not the ones for making observations.

Walk down almost any block in a residential neighbourhood and you'll see at least one or two front lawns adorned with some sort of ornamental hedge or shrubbery. As you approach from down the street, if you are paying attention, you may notice a fair amount of activity going on within and around the piece of topiary. The air is full of the small, feathered bodies of sparrows and the sound of their excited voices.

As soon as you get to within two feet of the bush it's as if something has pulled a plug. All the bird sound stops and nothing is moving. If you were to only give a causal glance, as you walked by you'd wonder where they all could have dispersed to? There's only one or two visible now.

But if you look closely you can see them all perched on the branches that shouldn't support even their weight. They are stock-still and not a sound can be heard save the occasional "peep" which is quickly hushed. Yet continue on only for a few feet and the air is once again filled with sound; a quick glance over your shoulder reveals that the action you had interrupted has continued as if it had never been interrupted.

If you were to continue to walk and head out onto a main street, you'll be grateful to see that because there are few buildings taller than four stories high that the sky is laid out for you like an expanse of ocean. Except of course no sea on this planet could be that colour blue or contain clouds that tower in quite that manner.

For just a second you see why the Hopi of the South West say the Kachina spirits live in a mountain range in the sky. It appears to be running on a diagonal over your head, magnificent piles of solid white flecked with grey. Streaming off to the side are the insubstantial veils that the sun is using to partially shield his face with today.

The unexpected sound of bus engine engaging almost pulls you back to the earth but out of the corner of your eye you see a ballet group of pigeons take flight in their tight spiral formation. Twenty, thirty, maybe even forty of them are attempting to scale the heights of the sky momentarily. But as if they are attached to a string, or are bound not to climb further, they invert the motion that took them aloft and settle back onto the roof they had been roosting on a moment before.

All the way down the street as far as you can see the same pattern is repeated as group after group respond to the flight of the one prior in line. Wave after wave crests against the lower breakwater of the sky before returning to their point of origin until all you see are black specks at the far end of your vision.

Continuing to walk you veer back away from the traffic onto another residential street and from nowhere appears a flock of starlings to settle in a tree some twenty feet from you. There is no way of knowing how many of them there in front of you, only that they blacken the tree and the sounds of their voices are a cacophony that mysteriously attracts no one else's attention.

At some unseen signal they lift off as one unit and if the pigeons were a dance troupe the starlings are a brigade on parade ground formation, so sharp and tight are their turns, and precise in their intent. This is no mere reaction flight; it is a deliberate manoeuvre that lifts the whole flock to their next feeding location or roost.

Ask yourself how can the sparrows know when to turn on and off; how do the pigeons take off into those spirals every time; and most especially how does a flock of starlings obey such precise movement commands?

In our pre rational days when we didn't look to science for every explanation, when we were dependant on the generosity of the planet's bounty for survival, we believed in the spirits of the game we hunted and that the earth beneath our feet was a living breathing entity. But in spite of our new ability to offer reasonable solutions to puzzles like those I've posed above, I can't help but wonder if we might not have been on the right track all along in our "primitive" times.

You can offer me any number of words of scientific explanation, but they won't quiet the feeling inside of me that when I watch these occurrences, I'm witnessing a type of magic that goes beyond anything a human being could hope to create. It may not be exactly what I hoped for as a child, but it does the trick now every time.

December 22, 2006

Book Review: Ysabel Guy Gavriel Kay

Provence France is the sun kissed paradise of the south of France. Cookbook and travelogue writers have made a killing from writing about it, or even better getting their own television show set in it's environs. Its charms haven't been lost on some of the great painters either as both Van Gogh and Cézanne created some their best known masterpieces in the region.

Maybe it shouldn't be surprising to discover that it also saw some of the ancient world's bloodiest wars and clashes. Dating back to pre-empire Rome's earliest settlements outside of Italy, the conflicts between so-called barbaric Celts and civilized Romans, left the earth soaked in blood, and memories.

In the years since those earliest times other battles and other peoples have come and gone, raised monuments to their faiths and finally established permanent residency here among the olive groves of the Romans. The only invaders they need worry about now are the tourists who come to view the ruins and relics of people whose lives have all but vanished into the mists of time.

Ned Marriner is not a regular tourist on a two-week tour. He's accompanying his father, a world-renowned photographer, on his latest coffee table book shoot. At fifteen he's more grateful for the fact that he's been pulled out of school a month or so early in order to make the trip then anything else, but the of cool remoteness he strives for is sorely tested almost immediately upon arrival.

His father's first day of shooting is at the Cathedral in Aix en Provence and Ned wanders off into the interior of the chapel while his father and his crew set up. While resting in a nave he is surprised by Kate Wenger a girl of his own age studying in France on a student exchange program. Their conversation is interrupted by the sound of a metal grill being clanged into place, and investigating the sound is how they enter into a story older then the Cathedral they have met in.

The innocuous, everyday occurrence, of two awkwardly cool teenagers of the opposite sex meeting for the first time is the unlikely herald for subsequent events, but in the world of Guy Gavriel Kay's newest novel Ysabel nothing can be considered as normal anymore. Ned and Kate's world of I-Pod shuffles, mobile phones, and "Google is my midnight lover" is on a collision course with a love triangle that predates Christ.
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The bald man with the knife that the two surprise leaving the underground passage of the church not only turns out not to be your average run of the mill tomb raider, their meeting triggers within Ned an awareness that begins to dissolve the barriers between him and another plane of existence.

At first it only manifests itself as an unexplained ability to know when the bald man is nearby, and to have access to information there is no way he should know. But gradually he becomes more and more in tune with the other two parts of the triangle and the endless sorrow that has been theirs to play for millennia.

For those of you familiar with Kay's earlier work, you'll notice some big differences between this book and pretty much anything that he's written before. First there's the fact that it is set primarily in our world. Only once before had our world ever entered into his books, and then only to set the stage for what was to come.

He's never, that I recall, given one character's viewpoint this much focus before. There have been central characters that we've followed around, but there have also been other perspectives of events aside from theirs that have coloured the narrative. Not only does he not do that in Ysabel he's also made the world so that is seen through the eyes of a fifteen year old male.

This is a decidedly risky thing to do, because it would be very easy to take a wrong step and jar the reader's ear sufficiently to make them lose interest in the proceedings. But Kay knows what he's doing and doesn't slip once in his creation of the character.Ned's reactions to circumstances are spot on and Kay has captured that bizarre mixture of bravado and fear that characterizes so many teenage males.

What makes this odd choice for a lead character work so well in this book is the contrast Kay is able to construct using a young person from today who takes things like text messaging computers and digital cameras for granted. To have him be forced to deal with the spirit world, particularly the spirit world that our lovers comes from, both increases the tension caused by such circumstances and makes the confusion felt by the character become more then just that of trying to sort out two worlds.

There's a point in the book when one of the spirit characters comments that a fifteen year old would have been considered a man in his time, that he could have been married and have children or even be a war leader for his tribe. In our world the same person spends the majority of his or her time rejecting responsibility while wondering why nobody takes them seriously.

As the story progresses and Ned gets drawn further and further into events the level of his responsibility increases to the point where he is the only one who is able to accomplish what needs to be done. Being cool becomes far less important as the stakes rise in until they include the fight for the survival of one of his dad's assistants. You learn a lot about yourself and your inner resources when a person's survival is dependant on your abilities.

In spite of Ned and Kate's ages this is not a book that would only interest young men and women. Neds character and the story line are developed so well that it should appeal to most people. Remember this is a fantasy story, so suspension of disbelief forms a good part of the requirement for reading it anyway, so no matter what your own beliefs are about "teenager novels" they shouldn't be relevant in these circumstances.

As is usual for Guy Gavriel Kay novel the research in this story is impeccable and the details of the history of the area are fascinating. The circumstance that he has created allows him to not only give us a history of that part of the world, but to do so without us noticing it happening. Each piece of history is like a piece of the jigsaw puzzle of the mystery the characters are trying to figure out.

That Kay has front loaded the answers to the character's questions in the book make it all the more interesting. I was too immersed in the story to bother with searching for the clues in the history that would solve the riddle, but if you wanted to you could take part in trying to solve the mystery.

Best of all as far as I'm concerned is Kay's unselfconsciousness when it comes to writing about love and what people can be driven to do by and for it. He displays his characteristic ability in those situations to make what could be potentially sentimental tripe moments of resplendent beauty.

Combined with his matter of fact attitude towards the spirit world while writing – it exists to be written about doesn't it? –and obvious love of the subject matter, this makes Ysabel one of his best works yet. It's as if like his character Ned, Kay has stepped over an invisible line and taken full responsibility for the emotions and feelings of his characters.

He exerts a tighter control then usual for him on the development of his characters so that none of the types who have appeared in the past show up again. By coming back to the world that he lives in, instead of writing about the past, Kay seems to have found a balance for previous extravagances. His work is far better, and more believable for it.

December 21, 2006

The Magic Of Winter Light

Forty-five minutes ago the clock rolled over and it became officially December 21st, the winter solstice. Although my calendar says that December 20th was the first day of winter, I can't help but always think of the 21st as being the longest night of the year.

I realize given the inaccuracies inherent in our system of measuring the passage of time that dates jump around a bit. When your year is 365 days and a quarter long there are bound to be some variables that even a leap year can't correct. But since the difference in the length of the day on the 20th or 21st is so minimal I don't feel too badly for adhering to the date I've always associated with the event.

Now don't get me wrong, it's not that I'm about to go out and enact some archaic ritual to commemorate the event, I'll leave that to those who feel the need to do those things. It's just that I've always found this time of year to be extremely magical in a way that has nothing to do with the Christmas season.

One of the things I appreciate about living in a small city is the fact that there are very few small building to cut off my view of the sky and the ability to see large swaths of it at once. Because of this I get to experience one of the great pleasures of living in an area where there is a noticeable shift in the earth's position in terms of the sun and the quality of light.

Near the end of August is when I usually first begin to notice that the days have started to run out of steam, and the sun has started to set earlier. By the time the end of October roles around and we set the clocks back an hour, by six o'clock in the evening the sun has pretty much set.

But it's not until near the end of November that the real magic begins. As the earth has spun on it axis and taken the part of the world I live in further below the sun's line of sight the quality of our light has started to change. Not only do we receive less of it over the course of a twenty-four hour period, what we do receive comes to us on an angle such that it seems to cut across the path of the planet instead of shining right on to us.

I'm sure that people who are equal distance south of the equator to our position to the north will experience something similar. But I also think that there's something about the quality of the light in the Northern parts of the world that isn't replicated anywhere. Perhaps it's the cold air creating a thinning of the atmosphere, I don't know. All I do know is that it's one of the reason's I'd never move to a place where there's no winter.

It's the shadows that are the first indication of the change. With the sun tracking lower in the sky every day shadows are exaggerated in their elongation until they become as much part of the scenery as the object that cast them. Walk along beside a stand of trees and you are walking through them as well beside them. Or you are seeing their shadows prostrate, while your second self steps from one to the next, merging and separating, merging and separating, until you lose track of which is moving and which is stationary.

You often hear people complain about the brightness of the winter sun, what they are talking about is the sun shining off snow that has accumulated over a period of time, and been subjected to a deep freeze. These are the glass like conditions when combined with the angle of the sun that make the need for sunglasses or eye protection paramount. If you are around vast fields of snow then snow blindness can be a potential hazard. In fact winter is usually the only time that I find I'll need, or want to wear sunglasses for just that reason. Well maybe not snow blindness but the harshness of the glare at any rate.

But it's in the days leading up to the twenty first of December before too much snow has fallen and the temperature has had a chance to really dip below the freezing point too far that I'm talking about. It's those days when the sun has risen only so that he can begin to set, when it feels like it's permanent twilight, then the feeling you've entered into another world becomes really strong.

If somehow you are able to get away from the elements that distinguish the twenty-first century, traffic, buildings, and noise, to walk amidst the quiet of some trees or by the water, it feels like you've stepped out of anyone particular time. The light has been watered down enough on these days that shadows gather at the edges of everything, smoothing sharp edges into soft curves so that distinctiveness is blurred and objects seen at a distance become almost indistinguishable from their backgrounds.

I can see why earlier societies could believe this time was the end of the year as everything faded from view gradually each day earlier and earlier. The date that marked the reversal of that process, the longest night of the year when you could almost swear that the sun wasn't going to return, would be the day you celebrate the end of one year and the start of a new one.

To them it was if a new sun was being born on the midwinter day and the light would gradually start to return. It's an experience that we can still share today if we take the time to look around what is happening to the world beyond the rush of the artificial season we have created.

I personally find it much more satisfying to watch the year end in the physical world then on the calendar. In particular I enjoy the time leading up to the solstice because it's one of the moments of magic that bridge the span of years between us and those who lived on earth thousands of years earlier who watched the world do much the same things it does today

December 20, 2006

Book Review: Dream Angus Alexander McCall Smith

Myths are the tales that existed long before the stories of once upon a time took place. They are the stories that explained the unexplainable and gave us the means to comprehend the world around us in terms that we're relevant to our awareness. As Christianity, Islam, Judea, Hinduism, Shinto, and Buddhism all explain the world to us today, Zeus, Odin, Thor, Isis, Ra, The Dagda, Anansi, Sky Woman, Coyote, and Bran explained, and still do for some people, the world in eons gone by.

Now they only exist as pleasant stories; quaint reminders of ancient civilizations and a means of separating our modern monotheistic culture from the primitive times of the past. But there is something about them, their means of explaining things that our religions don't dwell on, or perhaps their magical quality, that can still inspire flights of fancy.

The Myths series of books was created to celebrate that fact with authors from all over the world writing about a mythological being of their choice. The stories created are either tales associated with the god/goddess or the influence of their attributes in contemporary life. In Dream Angus author Alexander McCall Smith has taken the Celtic god of dreams and love and interwoven his story with modern tales of dreams, love, and dreams touched by love.
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Dreams are the places where our hidden secrets come to life. They can be dark and fearful experiences that shake up our world leaving us agitated and afraid. The dreams that Angus leaves us with may not be the most frightening, but dealing with love as they do can make them as unsettling as any nightmare. But instead of turning this into an exercise in the macabre or some sort of psychological study, he creates a tone that carries the same bittersweet wonder and joy of the myth.

Angus is the illegitimate son of the head of the Celtic gods, The Dagda. (Referred to in this story as just plain Dagda) Like Zeus Dagda has a wandering eye for women and the river spirit Boann catches his eye one day and he proceeds to set up a successful seduction. From the moment Angus is born it is obvious that he is a gentle spirit and will be universally loved. Songbirds circle his head to serenade him to sleep as he rocks in his cradle, and the wildest hunting dog calms when in his presence.
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Dagda steals Angus away from his mother when he is still an infant. Shortly after Angus comes to live with him he dreams of a day when his son will supplant him on the throne and cast him away. The following day Angus is sent to live with one of his stepbrothers as Dagda hopes that this will prevent his dream from coming to pass (We all know what happens in those instances don't we, how the thing we do to prevent something actually causes our worst fears to be realized).

Such is the gentle nature of Angus that all who meet him find they are filled with dreams of love. A good deal of the time they are dreams of love for Angus because of his nature, but he never returns their affections. But one day when he is older Angus is ensnared by a dream he has of a beautiful woman. For the longest time he wastes away, uninterested in food or drink for love of this woman.

Finally she is found, but as fate would have it she must spend alternate years as a swan. So strong is Angus' love for Caer that he himself transforms into a swan so that they can be together.

While McCall Smith is telling us these details, he is interspersing them with short stories of humans set in modern times. One of the stories details a boy whose life has a parallel path to Angus' in childhood. When his father sent Angus away, he went to live with his stepbrother who had a son a few years older then him.

The two boys became inseparable and in less you knew different, you weren't able to tell they weren’t really brothers. One night Angus had a dream, and he dreamt that his brother wasn't there any more, and it was so real that when he woke up he was nigh on inconsolable.

The story "My Brother" in set in rural Scotland in the depression of the 1930's when people were barely able to survive. Jamie idealized his older brother Davie and went everywhere with him if possible. He believed in all his heart that they would be together for the rest of their lives; he even imagined a time after their parents had died and they would share the house they grew up in.

So he is devastated when his brother receives an invitation to go to Canada to live with a cousin in Nova Scotia. The night after he finds out that his brother will be leaving he tries to convince Davie to let him come too. Instead of agreeing Davie tells Jamie to ask "Dream Angus" to bring him dreams of him in Canada. That night Jamie dreams of dark trees and white snow and knows it's Canada.

Dream Angus can help Jamie because he knows about the love between brothers and how much it hurts to lose that bond. In that first night he sends him a promise in the shape of a dream that he will keep them connected, even if only through their dreams. In the dream world we can have just as powerful feelings as we have in the waking world and Jamie can love his brother with as much intensity as he wants asleep and never have to worry about losing him.

The stories that run in our world's time have both literal and fantastical connections to the life of Angus. McCall Smith has woven elements of the nature of the god into the stories in a way that they reflect the spirit of gentleness and love that are the embodiment of Angus. When the young lady in "Is There A Place For Pigs There?" dreams about loving the simple young man who tends the pigs in the science lab where she works she is at first surprised at herself. But she also knows for certain that he is the one for her.

The way in which the scene is depicted is simple enough to be honest and unsentimental, but it's that very simplicity that makes it so magical. She doesn't tear her hair in fits of passion or analysis her dream of love to pieces. It is just a fact, like the colour of her eyes is a fact, making it all the more wondrous.

Each of the stories in this book tells the myth of Angus whether it's set in ancient Ireland and Scotland or in contemporary times. By imbuing the stories of our time with the gentleness of tone that he uses for the telling of the myth, and by being as factual in the world of the myth as he is in our time Alexander McCall Smith bridges the two worlds beautifully.

A story like this could have easily crossed the line over into sentimentality, but instead Smith has managed to create a world where the bittersweet of dreams is what guides our reality. Dreams of love are both a comfort and a pain, but if they are listened to carefully and believed, the voice of Angus can be heard whispering in our ear.

Alexander McCall Smith's Dream Angus is published by Knoff Canada a division of Random House Canada and you can pick up a copy at their web site, other online retailers or your local bookstore. It's a lovely way to spend a dreamy evening or afternoon when reality is just a little too much to bear.

December 14, 2006

The Rich Get Richer And The Poor Get Poorer

Maybe it's the same sort of morbid fascination that causes people to slow their cars down as they drive by an accident scene. I don't know, but that's as good as guess as any to explain my interest whenever Statistics Canada releases their latest figures on the distribution of wealth in Canada.

These aren't annual reports, and in fact they don't seem to be released with any regard to patterns or regularity, they are more along the lines of a mechanic giving a car a 10,000 mile kick of the tires then a regular tune up. They don't usually enter the world of predicting how the motor will turn over in the future, but they sure give you a good idea of what your present circumstances are and how that compares to past performance.

I know before I even read one of these things my place in the bottom quarter of the chart isn't going to have changed from decade to decade. I never was in what would be called a high income profession before going off work, and now that I'm on a fixed income there's no way I'm going to be climbing the ladder to a higher rung.

What these reports are good for is too giving an overview of how evenly distributed our so-called economic boom is spread across the population at large, and what changes if any have taken place over the years. The study, "Revisiting Wealth Inequity" that was released yesterday, was part of an overall report, Perspectives On Labour And Income published in the Statistics Canada publication The Daily.

Now usually I content myself with just reading the highlights of these reports as they are reported in the press, but this year I was curious enough about it to check out the link above. I was happy to find that the authors of the report René Morissette and Xuelin Zhang didn't subscribe to the theory that unintelligibility equates to proof of intelligence and had written the report in clear and straightforward language.

While the purpose was to compare the dispersal of wealth among Canadians, and analyse how it broke down along various criteria over the past three decades, it also provided other interesting information that I hadn't considered. For example, how do you define wealth? We all have an idea of what it means in our heads, visions of splendid houses and fancy this and fancy that.

But for a report like this you need something a little more concrete; a formula that allows you to come up with an absolute figure. In this case it's a simple matter of deducting one's total debts from one's total assets and the resulting figure equals a person's true wealth. Items that are excluded from the assets side of the ledger because of either their depreciative qualities or the fact that they had been excluded from one year's survey were personal contents of a residence and income from private employee pension plans.

While I can see that the latter could play a significant role if it were factored into somebody's assets, because that information hadn't been collected in 1984, the first year used in the study for comparison purposes, it had to be omitted from the other two years for the sake of balance.

From personal experience the only way I could see private pension plans changing the results would be to further increase the gap between the lowest and the highest brackets. Usually the higher your income the greater the chance of having a high return private pension plan.

The first thing the report tells us (all figures have been adjusted for inflation) is that from 1984 to 2005 the median wealth of Canadians rose by 26%. Now that sounds promising until you read the but, which says that for the top 20% of families the median rose from $336,000 in 1984 to 551,000 in 2005, but for the bottom 20% the median which had been zero in 1984 had fallen to (-$1,000) by 2005.

Unfortunately these figures are borne out by the even more depressing details of how the distribution of wealth has changed in the same time period. In 1984 the top 10% of families owned 52% of the wealth in Canada, while the lower 50% controlled only 5%. (This table provides a complete breakdown of the distribution of wealth over the periods in question) By 2005 the upper 10% had increased their share to 58% while the lower 90% either remained the same or dropped.

So although the average wealth had increased over the course of time it was simply a matter of the rich getting richer. Unfortunately it was also a matter of more people becoming poorer. The percentage of people with zero or negative wealth increased from 18% in 1984 having zero wealth to 24% in 2005 and 11% being in the negative to 14% in the same period.

The report also breaks down the results even further by age and gender. These statistics substantiate quite a few commonly held beliefs: young people aged 24 to 35 saw their median wealth drop by 50% in the period covered by the study. Those in the next age bracket, 35 –54, who had a university degree saw their income rise by 39%. (By thirty-five most former university graduates would have paid off their student loans, which until that time would have obviously affected their total wealth)

Those without a degree were in the same boat as the people in the lower age bracket. If that isn't proof of the difference a degree can have on your earning power and your ability to generate sufficient income to accumulate real assets I don't know what is. It's also a pretty strong argument in favour of ensuring universal access to higher education through grants and loans.

If we limit higher education to those who already have sufficient wealth to pay for their children's education than we are ensuring that this financial disparity will continue, and only increase with time. As fewer people are able to attend post-secondary school, the fewer people who accumulate sufficient wealth to send their children to school, and so on. It's pretty hard to argue with numbers that show an almost 90% disparity in wealth between university and non university graduates in the same age range when discussing the merits of ensuring everybody capable and wanting it receive a post secondary education. It may not guarantee a better standing of living but it sure doesn't hurt.

This study also offers proof, for those who still need it, of the difficulties faced by a single woman. A woman, even if not a single mother, on her own is the most financially vulnerable individual in society. Over 40% of them are low income and have insufficient wealth to remove themselves from those circumstances. In other words they have no disposable assets that would allow them to change their situation.

With so many single women falling into the low-income category is it any wonder that there are still so many concerns about women not receiving equal pay as men? It also substantiates the claims that more day care spaces are needed to help single women with families get meaningful employment. Offering them $100 a moth towards paying for day care as the Conservative Party has done with their Day Care program is as insulting as it is useless. This is especially true as it comes in the form of a non-refundable tax credit that is only of use if you have a high enough taxable income to warrant using it and don't really need it.

In the opening preamble to the study the authors state that wealth allows us access to economic resources in times of need. It also allows the possessor the freedom to make choices on how they are going to live their lives. With sufficient wealth you can take early retirement, start your own business, and generally buy your freedom.

But for about 85% of the population few of those opportunities exist, and for almost 40% the idea is so far from reality they can barely even dream about it. While we are fed the myth as young people that anybody can grow up to be successful and wealthy, the statistics of the last twenty-one years dispute that idea. Since 1984 until present the top ten percent of the population have increased their grip on their share of the wealth from 52% to 58%. That may not sound like much, but remember that factors in inflation and population growth, so it is significantly larger then it appears at first glance.

I have no problem with people accumulating personal wealth, there has to be some reward for giving up the best years of your life. What I do have a problem with is the fact that more and more of the wealth is ending up in the hands of fewer and fewer people. There is something decidedly unfair about the fact that too many people at the end of the day are going to end up with nothing to show for their labour.

We need to ensure that there are sufficient safe guards in place to guarantee everyone's peace of mind that even without financial means they will not be denied opportunities for education, assistance with day care, and other essential services that only money can buy. Then maybe the gap between the wealthiest and the poorest won't matter as much.

Until that time don't let anyone tell you we live in an equal opportunity society – one only needs to look at the numbers to see how wrong that is. Like the old Woody Guthrie song says "If you ain't got the Do Re Me boy, if you ain't got the Do Re Me, It doesn't matter who you are, you won't get very far, if you ain't got the Do Re Me".

December 7, 2006

The Young Woman Who Wanted Something To Eat After Midnight

Once upon a time there was a young woman. The young women went for a walk one night just because she liked to go for walks. As she was walking she decided that she would like to get something to eat.

She discovered that she didn't have very much money so she thought she should go to the bank just in case, because as she very wisely said to herself you just never know. Now she knew the bank wouldn't be open because it was too late, but that was okay because she had a bank card and could use the machine.

When she got to the bank there was a sign on the door that said bank machines were only available to the public when the bank was open. At all other times customers were welcome to use the drive – by banking equipment provided for their convenience around the other side of the bank.

The young woman looked at her feet and wondered if she could still use the drive through window. She walked around to the side of the bank where the road went beside it to go and use the drive through bank machine. There was a big sign just in front of the driveway that said "Access Restricted To Vehicular Traffic". Underneath was another sign that said, in case you had missed the point the first time, "No Pedestrians"

Carefully she looked around and saw no cars coming so she walked down to see if she could use the bank machine without being in a car. Thankfully the machine could not tell that she wasn't in a vehicle and so it was very happy to give her the money she wanted. Well she thought, as she put her money away, that wasn't too bad.

All of a sudden she was pinned to the wall by a blinding spotlight. The next thing she knew a pick up truck was screeching to a halt just in front of her with its horn blaring loudly. Trying to see beyond the blaze of high beams she staggered away while from behind her she heard a belligerent voice swearing and yelling at her.

When she could see and hear again, and was able to get her bearings, she remembered that she was hungry. It being just after midnight she knew that only the fast food places in her neighbourhood would be open. She has read the sign on the door of the one across the street earlier and had declared themselves open late to serve you better. That meant tonight it was open to one in the morning so she could go there with plenty of time to spare.

A chicken sandwich, she thought would be just the thing to make her fell better about life, the universe and everything. After she crossed the large empty parking lot full of cold wind and paper that liked her ankles so much that all of it wrapped around her feet, she was even hungrier and quite a bit colder.

The first door she came to was locked, but as it was at the side of the building that was okay and she wasn't too worried. When the second door was locked as well she began to get puzzled and a little nervous – she was very hungry and cold after all. But when the third door was locked; the one with the sign on it saying they were open late to serve you better; until one in the morning tonight in fact, attached to the glass, she got angry.

It wasn't the angry of wanting to yell at people, it was the frustrated and near tears type of anger that happens when you don't understand what is going on. She decided to keep walking around the building, just because there was nothing else she could think of doing.

All of a sudden she saw a window that stuck out from the wall that looked out over a driveway that ran down along the fourth side of the restaurant. There was a very welcoming looking light shining out of the window. Not the type that said we've left the light on after we've all gone home, but one that said "hi we're still open". Well, she thought, a take out window is better than nothing, she could take her food home with her, or maybe find somewhere sheltered to sit outside and eat it.

She had only just begun to walk towards the window when she saw the sign: DRIVE THROUGH WINDOW: NO PEDESTRIAN TRAFFIC. She came to a complete stop in the middle of the driveway just like she had run into a brick wall. She thought she was going to cry. It was so unfair; they said they were open to one in the morning, not open only for cars.

She didn't own a car; she didn't even know how to drive. Wasn't it bad enough that the sidewalks stopped for no apparent reason, that everywhere you went there were massive parking lots but nowhere for people to walk? Now, not only couldn't you get money out of banks after dark if you didn't drive a car, you also weren't allowed to buy food late at night.

She didn't know what she was going to do and she began pacing up and down in front of the window not realizing there was actually someone sitting behind the glass. It wasn't until she looked up in mid pace to see a young man's face looking out at her that she realized she wasn't alone.

She walked up to the window and he reached out and rolled it open. When she got there she looked up at him. "I know this isn't your fault, and I'm not mad at you or blaming you, but what the fuck is going on that I can't buy food here if I don't have a car? It says your open to one in the morning on your door but I can't buy anything because I don't know how to drive.

Don't you think that people who don't own cars might get hungry after dark? Is it so strange for people to go out for a walk that no one is prepared to feed or do anything for you if you don’t have a car?" She stopped talking then, because she did not want to start crying in front of the young man.

She had said earlier to him she didn't want to blame him and she had meant that. He was only working there; he didn't make company policy and didn't deserve to have some crazy woman burst into angry tears in front of him.

He looked over at her and said, "What would you like?"

Then she did start to cry, but quietly and not so anyone could notice when she talked. "A chicken sandwich please."

"You'll have to go to the next window to get it and pay for it," he said. He closed the window and they both walked along, him on the inside she in the driveway, until they got to the next window. He opened the window and took her money and started to give her back change.

As he was doing that she heard a voice from inside the restaurant start saying loudly, "What are you doing?" The young man was obviously ignoring it because he just reached out and handed her the chicken sandwich. "Have a good night" he said.

"Thank you" she said, and meant it. As she walked away to look for somewhere to eat her sandwich she hoped he wouldn't get into trouble for selling her a sandwich in the drive through. She found a spot under a Willow tree that was sheltered from the wind by a building and sat down to eat her sandwich.

All this trouble to get some money and a sandwich after dark because she didn't drive a car, and she wondered when had the world changed into being so unfriendly to people?
When had it become a world where you didn't exist if you didn't own a car? She really hoped the young man didn't lose his job.

December 5, 2006

Emotions: What Are We So Afraid Of?

When did emotion become a dirty word? Okay I know with our uptight society people, especially men, have always been encouraged to suppress their emotions, but now a-days it seems to be bordering on the ridiculous.

While doctors have always had that old stand by valium to hand out to women with "nerves" they now have a plethora of anti-depressants, anti-anxiety, and a cornucopia of other mood altering drugs. In the old days if you wanted that variety of ways to alter your perceptions you'd have to hope to know a good chemist, now all you need is a doctor and a prescription pad.

Of course there are differences now; nasty occurrences while taking the medications are no longer called bummers or bad trips, but are given the lovely euphemism of side effects. No matter what you call them, cramps, headaches, bathroom troubles, and the risk of nightmares seem to be a heavy price to pay just to control your emotions.

Before I go any further let me say that there are times when these types of medications are a necessity. For the person who just can't cope with whatever their own personal demons are they can provide the needed respite that will allow them to work with a therapist. Anti-anxiety medications are especially beneficial in those instances as they allow the patient and doctor to work at finding the underlying cause without increasing the symptoms.

Of course there are also those people whose only chance at normalcy comes from taking medications. Those who have been correctly diagnosed with schizophrenia and bi-polar disorders must rely on drugs or find themselves institutionalized, where the drugs are guaranteed to steal more then they give back.

But there comes a time when we have to deal with emotions, and not suppress them or we loss a part of our humanity. Compassion grows out of empathy and empathy can only exist if we experience emotions. How can you empathise with someone's tears if you have never felt sadness, or their joy if you've never felt happiness?

When you're walking down the street and you see a child in tears your first instinct is usually find out if its hurt, lost, or anything else that could be bothering it. Why is it so different when we see an adult in the same circumstance? How many of us can honestly say they don't feel a little twinge of fear if they see an adult they don't know, or even one they do know in some sort of extremity of emotion?

Or if not fear how about embarrassment; doesn't some part of you wish they just wouldn't make a scene in public? Conversely why is it if a person laughing is fit to burst, laughing until tears are running out of their eyes, people will ask him or her if they are alright? Or if they are with the person, look on with a bemused, almost tolerant expression on their face that comes as close to denying acquaintance as you can get without actually running away.

I hate to sound trendy, but maybe the blame for it lies with Freud, or at least as far as women are concerned. He was the one who decided there was such an illness as hysteria, most often found in women of course because they were weaker and has less control over their base emotions. But of course he was just writing about his society and the ways people were "abnormal", what the causes were and how to integrate them back into being useful members of society.

Early twentieth century middle class/upper middle class society in most of Europe and North America was hideously repressed and it was considered bad form to show any extreme of emotion. This in spite of the world just having been through the biggest trauma ever jointly experienced by most of humanity: World War 1. Very few countries escaped that conflict without some scarring, yet everyone was insisting that showing emotions was wrong, or a sign that you were ill.

After an event like that would you think that a few tears, or even constant sobbing, would actually be a healthy reaction? Don't you think that some anger would be justified on the part of those who had lost their children or their husbands for reasons no one could really adequately explain? Then there were the tens of thousands who lost family members due to the outbreak of the flu that followed right after the war.

But it was in this atmosphere that Freud and others of the new psychoanalysis profession came up with their theories of hysteria and what is normal and abnormal emotional behaviour. Even though a lot of his work and theories have been discredited Freud's legacy lives on with doctors today in their motivations. Their job still remains trying to make you as an individual become a comfortable, functional cog in the wheel.

You can go to a zillion encounter groups that teach you to get in touch with your feelings and it won't change the fact that someone else's display of emotion will make you feel uncomfortable. Once you've gotten in touch with your feelings it's supposed to ensure that you know where they come from so that you can control them.

Control is the name of the game these days, with public displays of emotion only allowed for reasons of patriotism and in other large sanctioned gatherings. But one person crying their eyes out on the street, because some grief or other overcomes them, is seen as a pariah. One person laughing uproariously at some joke or thought that tickles their funny bone is considered either unwell or perhaps drunk.

Was it Freud who decided it wasn't proper for people to be demonstrative in their displays of emotion? Or was he just searching for the means to explain why were emotional and what could be done to control it? How is it that after two world wars, countless genocides, famines, and other horrors that the world has witnessed in the past hundred years that instead of becoming more empathetic to other people's emotional reactions we have made emotions more and more of a abnormality?

What are we so afraid of, that we may actually see there is something about our lives that isn't perfect? That there is a very good reason to cry almost every day of the week but we don't? How much longer can we continue to cover everything under the rug of medication and pretend there's nothing wrong with the world, but something wrong with the person honest enough to cry? How much longer are we going to continue to be afraid?

December 2, 2006

Humanity: Just Doing What Comes Unnaturally

I sometimes wonder where we humans ever come up with our ideas. How we can look at a set of circumstances, or a reality and then posit something completely opposite to what the facts suggest is one of our biggest deficiencies as a species. It's not even as if conclusions our reached out of ignorance, which could at least be an excuse, for all the evidence is usually right there for any and all to see.

In some ways it's a rather extreme form of denial; a wilful blindness that allows people to ignore reality in order that their vision of the world remains intact. One of the worst examples of this that I have come across is the manner so many new age folk have taken to viewing the natural world. In spite of all evidence to the contrary they have created some Pollyanna world where everything is bright and beautiful and all live in harmony in bucolic splendour.

They have their books to tell them how to go about finding their animal totem to act as their guide. They will learn how the animal's attributes and characteristic behaviour will be their clues to leading a better life. A person who has a beaver for a totem, for instance, is industrious but needs to watch that they don't create bottlenecks of their emotions by damming them up.

Since they are an aquatic mammal that can stay submerged for great lengths of time there is some sort of lesson to be learned from that, just like there is from the big flat tail and the ability to chew through wood. Of course the fact that they wouldn't recognize a beaver in the wild state if it walked up and shook their hand is far less relevant than the fact that going in and out of the beaver lodge is similar to travelling the birth canal repeatedly.

Of course they need to learn how to invoke the "teachings" of the beaver in order to fully integrate its important attributes. Don't worry if you are at a loss as to how to go about doing this, the book will explain all about creating a ritual to fully realize the potential of the beaver within you.

Now, aside from the cultural appropriation of vision questing from the Native Americans, without the bother of actually questing, it's all pretty much harmless. The real problems start to arise when they start thinking of nature as something beautiful and idyllic. Images of happy nature spirits frolicking in fields of wildflowers surrounded by happy birch maidens and gentle beech men.

The problem with that image is how far removed from even the reality of the old stories they think they are worshiping as to be ridiculous. The old nature gods were untamed and fierce as befits things that are far beyond our control. Ask anyone whose ever lived through a hurricane or even a tropical storm how sweet and gentle nature can be.

That is the tip of the iceberg as far as their misconceptions and silliness goes. They don't see why animals like the Coyote, lynx, and wolf have to hunt and kill that lovely wide-eyed faun or eat the bird that was just talking to them. They've sentimentalized nature to the point where it's nothing but a Walt Disney animation.

While that may not sound like such a bad thing, the problem is that they have developed expectations about how the natural world should be that are no different from the way those who believe that nature is man's to exploit. For all their supposed spiritual connection to the natural world they are no more connected to the way things really are then anyone else.

Of all the species in the world the only one whose extinction would have no affect on the natural order of things is man. We do not exist inside any of the food chains or do anything but take from the planet for our own personal gain without giving back. As it stands now if man were to cease to exist at this very moment it would take probably a few thousand years for the world to completely heal from our occupation.

Now while that may sound like quite a length of time, in relation to how the long the earth has existed it's a mere blink of the eye. In spite of everything we are still of really no importance in the bigger scheme of things. The only ways in which we make impressions on the planet is the extent of the damage we inflict, and thankfully as soon as we're gone it will begin to recover.

All through the history of man we have done nothing but try and bend nature to our will, with generally little or no success. Look down at the sidewalk you walk along in your city and you can usually see grasses or small plants growing up between the cracks. It would take very little time for nature to reclaim everything that we've built.

We do things like try and change the flow of the Mississippi river and build farmland in the areas that we've supposedly drained. But the river remembers where it ran for years and years before men showed up and periodically attempts to follow its old path. The ensuing flooding is called a tragedy and human's rail against nature and her cruelty.

But there's nothing cruel about her. She only does what she would do whether we were here or not. Any time that we have ever pitted ourselves against her or tried to coerce her into doing something that serves our purposes we end up suffering for it in the long run. The fault lies not with nature in those instances but with us for thinking that we are able to work against her or even control her.

Anybody who believes that nature is here to serve us in someway, or that the natural world gives us any consideration is at best misguided. You can have as many totem animals as you want but you are no more harnessing the power of the natural world for your benefit then anybody else.

We can only lose when we come into conflict with nature. If we do end up somehow subduing her the cost is so great that the area we have exerted our "dominion" over will become uninhabitable by any life form within a very short period of time. In all other cases the chances are what we have built will either be swallowed, washed away, or somehow or other destroyed.

November 28, 2006

The Music Maker Relief Foundation: Helping Restore The Blues

Throughout the month of November myself and other Blogcritics writers have been reviewing and talking about Blues music. Something that's become clear from writing some of these articles, and from reading them, is the universal appeal of the Blues. Guitar players from Finland and record labels in Germany only confirms the fact, everybody does indeed get the Blues.

But no matter how far flung the Blues has become, there's no doubt in anybody's mind where its roots lie. When Thomas Ruf of Ruf records in Germany wanted to give some of his young European Blues musicians a deeper understanding of the music they played he took them to Mississippi and Memphis to record.

They hung out and played for hours a day with the people who have lived and breathed the music and the life circumstances that created it. Ruf understood that it's one thing for these young people to play the music on a daily basis, but another altogether to experience it. In Europe they lacked the resource that would enable this, the people who've been living, breathing, performing, and creating the Blues for the past few generations.

The roots of Blues music run deep in the Southern United States, and are closely intermingled with the social history of that region. To play the Blues without an awareness of the people and the places it came from is to rob it of the very vitality that has kept it vibrant and alive long after its originators have passed on.
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When Thomas Ruf took his musicians to record Pilgrimage: Mississippi To Memphis they were only seeing the tip of the iceberg. Beneath the surface is floating hundreds if not thousands of musicians who contributed in one way or another a little piece of the story of the Blues.

These men and women, who ought to be at least recognised for their contributions to the creation and development of American culture, have been living their lives in obscurity and, in most cases, poverty for many years. Unfortunately many still are, but because of the l efforts of one couple a very exiting change has taken place over the last fifteen years.

The way Tim Duffy tells the story of the Music Maker Relief Foundation it sounds like such an obvious thing to do you wonder why no one thought of it earlier. In 1990 he had met Guitar Gabriel, and they began playing together. Through Gabriel Tim began to get to know other older musicians and learned about the harsh realities of their lives.

Initially he tried to organize gigs and recording deals for these musicians in order to help them keep body and soul together. After three years of this he realized that without help he wasn't going to get anywhere. He had made some rough field recordings of many of the performers and in the end they were what started the ball rolling.
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Tim had sent out a general plea for help to people who had been friends of his late father, and one of the first to respond was Mark Levinson a pioneer in the world of commercial stereo equipment. He was the one who got the ball rolling for the Music Maker Foundation by promoting an initial compilation disc through his showroom.

A chance meeting between Mark and Eric Clapton resulted in Eric's interest in the project and the initial bump that the project needed to get publicity and a small distribution deal with Tower Records. They were now able to start generating some funds and booking shows for the artists. It was only the beginning.

Now seventeen years since his fateful meeting with Guitar Gabriel (who ironically died just as the foundation began to bear fruit) The Music Maker Relief Foundation has come quite a distance. With an Advisory board that includes Bonnie Raitt, Jackson Brown, Sue Foley, and B.B. King, and Taj Mahal serving on the Board of Directors public awareness is growing which assures the continued growth and expansion of the programming offered by the organization.
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Not only are they now able to provide grants for individuals in need of financial assistance, they are able to produce records, arrange gigs for individual artists, and promote international tours under the Music Maker banner. Slowly but surely they are not only bringing the people who made the music out of obscurity, but generating interest in some of the lesser known styles of the music as well.

There is always the danger that when some performers die that a style or type of music could vanish with them forever. Producing groups like the Carolina Chocolate Drops, three young Black musicians who play the Country Blues of the Carolinas, ensures that music is prevented from becoming either only a memory or a dusty museum piece.

The Music Maker Relief Foundation is not just about recognising the achievements of those who came before, or even just preserving their music like fossils in amber. Now that they have successfully started their grant program to artists in need, their next step is to ensure the music's continued vitality and bring it to new audiences everywhere.

The Chocolate drops are one step in that direction, but Tim Duffy envisions a day when the foundation has its own facilities for recording, performing, and celebrating the people who create the music. He's well aware of how fickle fad and fashion can be, so he knows it will take a permanent effort beyond what he and his wife Denise are capable of as individuals to maintain what has been started.

Not only is the music that the foundation strives to preserve important, the work of the foundation itself must be preserved beyond this one generation for it to be successful. Initially it may have been founded with the humanitarian goal of caring for those who pioneered the Blues, but it has outgrown that impulse. Now it is fast becoming a means of preserving an important aspect of the United States' cultural heritage.

With the permanent location of Tim's realized it will be possible for the music and the people who perform it to have the means to always be a part of the nation's awareness. Nevermore will they become out of sight and out of mind and risk being relegated to the scrap heap of the forgotten.

If you have even the barest of interest in the Blues and the people who were responsible for keeping it alive over the years in all its glorious shapes and sizes than you may want to consider a way in which you can support the efforts of the Music Maker Relief Foundation. They are one of the best and brightest hopes for keeping the Blues alive today.

November 26, 2006

Ruf Records: Keeping The Blues Alive

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Back in the early 1960's something peculiar happened in the world of popular music. The seemingly impregnable wall that had divided two worlds separated by the barrier of race began to develop cracks and fissures. Punching those holes was the music of poor Black sharecroppers from the Mississippi Delta and the electric sound of urban poverty from Chicago.

A small group of country musicians from the southern United States had begun to incorporate Black music into their compositions in the 1950's gaining popularity and notoriety. Sun Records of Memphis Tennessee was the nexus for this hybrid, and with its stable of artists including Elvis Presley, Johnny Cash, and Jerry Lee Lewis began to integrate Blues music into the mainstream.

But it took a collection of young musicians from Great Britain to really bring the Blues to the forefront of popular music. The Rolling Stones, The Animals, The Yardbirds, The Who, and the bands th