Tuesday, 30 December 2008

2008 round up: the year in movies

So since I bought a house, I've probably watched more movies than at any other time in my life. Danijela and I have been watching about two a week, often more, alongside some newly discovered television shows. Maybe it's nesting; maybe we feel poor; maybe we are just being lazy after all the work we've done at the house! Could be. It's very cozy here; and now that winter is upon us, there are even better reasons to stay indoors. I've just finished the major part of my Christmas shopping; now if only I could develop some sort of remote shovelling system.

Anyway, I thought somebody out there on the internet might find it interesting to know what I watched in the past 12 months; so without further ado:

It's a Wonderful Life (1946) is a Frank Capra film, starring Jimmy Stewart, Donna Reed, and Lionel Barrymore. I'm not much of an older film connoisseur, but from what I have seen, I've found that the style, particularly the acting, is very different, and often difficult to appreciate. I think this film is actually remarkably modern, despite its hyper-sentimentality. The thing is, I just find the story to be so beautiful, and the performances to be so earnest, that the film creates a sort of nostalgic reality that feels right, regardless of its simple storytelling and black and white morality—it's got just enough dirt and meanness. It's a Wonderful Life is a Christmas story that doesn't need to be about Christmas—I'm not sure if the holiday is even mentioned—but it's definitely not about Santa Claus; and the spirit and reason for the season are front and centre in this one.

The Player (1993), a Robert Altman film, starring Tim Robbins and co-starring many others. Adapted from the novel by Michael Tolkin. It's an update of the noir style of film, but under the bright California sun. Altman uses incredibly long shots (the opening scene is over seven minutes long), and lots of tricks with light and shadow and close ups to create this Hollywood insiders thriller. It's full of satire, but not offensive enough to prevent half of Hollywood from doing cameos in the film. Very clever and entertaining; lots of talking makes it feel longer than its two hours; Entourage fans should enjoy.

The Sweet Hereafter (1997), written and directed by Atom Egoyan, and starring Ian Holm and Sarah Polley. Adapted from the novel by Russell Banks. This is a slow and ponderous film that has just enough weirdness about it to be clearly recognized as "Canadian". The thing mirrors The Pied Piper, with all but one of the children of a small town dying in a bus crash—but the question is "Who led them to their deaths?" There are a number of possible culprits of course, and none is clearly identified as the one, so the audience is left guessing. It's mostly well played; and Sarah Polley is excellent as the young teenager who survives the accident.

Mean Girls (2004), written by Tina Fey, directed by Mark Waters (whose brother wrote Heathers), and starring a very fresh-looking Lindsay Lohan at 18, alongside several Saturday Night Live alumni. While this movie clearly pays homage to Heathers, even directly copping some of the latter's scenes, it is definitely its own sort of beast. Mean Girls is far brighter and more optimistic—there are no murders, intentional or otherwise—and its satire is not so bleak. Still, it's very clever and well written, and it makes sense now in a different way than Heathers makes sense now. And Lindsay Lohan is very good, as is the rest of the cast.

Elf (2003), stars Will Ferrell as the title elf, and is directed by Jon Favreau. The movie also features Zooey Deschanel, James Caan, and Mary Steenburgen. This is certainly the best Christmas movie I've seen in years, which is not really fair, since I generally avoid them. Regardless, this one is fun and intelligent and somehow not at all sappy, which is the most important part of all. And the starring role—a wide-eyed fully grown man who grew up among Santa's elves but who travels to New York City to find his real father—is perfect for Will Ferrell's antics and gestures. I think the thing about Christmas movies now is that they're clearly pushing a secular version of the holiday, but the good ones at least also try to encourage some sort of Christmas spirit that is incredibly and increasingly hard to find among the consumption clatter. In other words, despite being very enjoyable, I'm not sure that Elf is a movie with any message at all, other than simply follow the Christmas spirit because that's what you're supposed to do, which cheapens the film to the level of something more crass like Bad Santa. Then again—and I'm afraid you'll have to see it to know what I'm talking about here—maybe the message is that we are looking for a Christmas spirit to believe in, and we don't really know where to look other than to that former-symbol-of-giving-now-symbol-of-consumerism, Santa Claus.

Basquiat (1996), was painter Julian Schnabel's first film. It stars Jeffrey Wright in the title role, as well as Benicio Del Toro, David Bowie, Dennis Hopper, Gary Oldman, and too many others to list. Schnabel is very talented at creating pieces of art out of movies; and over three films and 10 years (I haven't seen Berlin), he has clearly improved in his storytelling. Basquiat drops the viewer right in the middle of the story with next to no context, which works well given the subject and the time in the art world. There's a lot of neat stuff here, and regardless of how true it is, it seems to offer a realistic glimpse of the new-expressionist movement of the 80s in New York. But the film is worth seeing just for David Bowie playing Andy Warhol!

Pineapple Express (2008) was written by Seth Rogen, Evan Goldberg, and Judd Apatow, and stars Rogen and James Franco. The plot of this stoner buddy movie is simple, and it contains a lot of stumbling and bumbling around à la Superbad, which makes it easy to enjoy. But there's not a lot of depth, not that one should expect much from this type of movie. If you like these guys' work, you'll probably like this. It is funny, and occasionally surprising, but don't expect even the same sort of light social commentary that one can usually hope for from this crew.

Heathers (1988) was written by Daniel Waters (brother to Mark, who, as mentioned, directed Mean Girls), and, most importantly, stars Winona Ryder (at 17), Christian Slater (at 19), and Shannen Doherty (also 17). This film is in my mind probably the ultimate teen movie, and it is as relevant today as ever, particularly in the frightening new context of school killings. There's no doubt that it's a farce, but that doesn't make it feel any less real or powerful. In addition, it is clearly influential—I'm sure it influenced my young and impressionable mind when I saw it, probably on CityTV's late great movies—but a movie like this one can't help but be influential. It's incredibly written—smart, droll, bitter, funny, and satirical, all somehow without being over the top; and remarkably acted by such a young cast, none of whom, if I may say, went on to really fulfill her potential.

The Dark Knight (2008) was written and directed by Christopher Nolan, and stars Christian Bale, Heath Ledger, and too many others to mention. While I will certainly not buck the trend by saying that Heath Ledger's was not great, I will say that I didn't enjoy this sequel as much as Batman Begins. The sequel has all the great darkness, violence, and gadgetry of the previous film, and the cast is as good, if not better, but I think Nolan tried to force too much material into the project. Actually, I know that's what I didn't like about it: the entire Harvey Dent/Two Face story was rushed and badly developed, and I began to get the feeling that Batman could simply buy his way out of everything. It's a shame, because I really wanted to like it a lot, mostly due to Nolan writing and directing, but I guess you can't win 'em all. Still, I won't say you shouldn't rent it.

Batman Begins (2005) was directed and written by Christopher Nolan, and stars Christian Bale, Michael Cain, and Liam Neeson, among numerous others. This version is a fitting tribute to the Batman that I grew up reading. I was confused by the story at first, because I knew nothing about Ra's Al Ghul or Henri Ducard, nor had I ever read any version of Bruce Wayne's early training; but I caught on quickly. I'm a bit of a sucker for the type of story that involves lengthy training to avenge some sort of wrongdoing in the protagonist's early life. Kill Bill is a good recent example. Actually, I think I've got a thing for revenge movies in general. Anyway, it works here, against the backdrop of a crumbling Gotham faltering under the weight of bureaucracy and corruption and organized crime, desperately in need of a hero. Many of the comic book move tropes are used here: darkness pervades, steam comes from nowhere, people are afraid and paranoid, but somehow struggle through their daily lives. It's a very good effort, and better than the sequel. I hope Nolan keeps it simple for the next one.

Stand By Me (1986) is a Rob Reiner film, based on a Stephen King story, featuring several future stars, all 16 or younger: Wil Wheaton, River Phoenix, Jerry O'Connell, and Corey Feldman; and it's got Kiefer Sutherland, too! I saw this for the first time in 2008. I don't know how I went 22 years without seeing this film. I read the Mad magazine spoof when it came out, so I pretty much knew how the thing went; but it always had a certain mystique about it, which it pretty much lives up to. It's got most of the elements of a Great American Story: a gang of friends, a journey, nostalgia, friendly conflict, poor vs. rich, school smart vs. street smart. It really is great, with excellent performances from all involved—better than Feldman and Sutherland would give the next year in Lost Boys, but that's a different thing entirely.

Love in the Time of Cholera (2007) is an adaptation of the novel by Gabriel Garcia Marquez, starring Javier Bardem and Benjamin Bratt. I am not happy to admit that of Garcia Marquez's books, I've only read one, and it's not this one; it's One Hundred Years of Solitude. So I can't say how accurate the depiction here is, but with the little knowledge of the author's style that I have, I feel confident saying that the film misses the mark. I'm going to blame the directing here in the main, because the writing is okay, and acting is okay. But the story has no magic, and the characters share no chemistry. To the film's credit, the cast is almost entirely Spanish—even the leads—even though they speak in English. It bothers me when a film set in a non-English locale is full of English or American actors, made to look foreign and speak in awful accents.


In the unlikely event that you've made it this far, you might have guessed that this exercise is quintessentially new dilettantish. That may not be clear since nowhere have I bothered to explain what that means to me.

Well, it's one thing to post an online journal, simply as a vehicle for thoughts, opinions, and daily exploits, whether the author intends it for general consumption or personal; but it's another thing entirely when those thoughts and opinions presume to extend into the realm of criticism or journalism, without the benefit of a professional background or the hand of a skilled editor (preferably both). In the former case, you have probably the majority of bloggers—random posts on personal topics, and possibly some specific theme of personal interest—in the latter, you have "citizen journalists" (like myself)—probably mostly aspiring writers, artists, or general self-promoters, all of whom feel they have sufficient knowledge on some or many topics to write on them with credibility—most probably don't.

This is the Dilettante: the person who has not gone to the trouble to acquire proper training or education in a small range of activity or field (those would be professionals, specialists, or connoisseurs), who retains only superficial knowledge of anything, but can speak at length about many topics. The dilettante is a product of the bourgeois revolution—at least on the grand scale. There was no time for amateurs before then, among the masses.

And now we are experiencing a new middle-class revolution, which has blessed us with more leisure time than ever and more entertainments to fill it; and, apparently, a desperate need to express to others just how we are using that time, and several means to do so. There's nothing wrong with that. But it is the circumstance of the New Dilettante: adrift on a sea of unimportance, she uses her blog as a life preserver—a beacon in the vast blue. With luck—and much self-promotion—her words might shine out like a flare and draw attention her way.

Don't get me wrong: the name of my blog is not ironic. It's merely a statement of my situation and our time. For all the talk of "democratizing" journalism—which is great in some ways—blogs are generally soapboxes for people who may have informed opinions or may not, but regardless, they have opinions that they feel they must share with the world. Case in point: this rundown of the movies I watched in 2008, featuring short, utterly unprofessional, and uninformed reviews. I don't do scholarly research—the reviews are all based on my feeling looking back on the films. But is there a point to all this babble on the internet? Is there a discussion going on?

For me this is merely an exercise. I suppose I don't expect anybody to read this; but certainly I, along with the legions of other blogger journalists, hope people will. And, as a writer, I cannot help but hope they'll enjoy what they read; for I also have the dream of being discovered—preferably by some reputable and established magazine or newspaper—but really by anyone who will pay and spread my words. But please, read on!


27 Dresses (2008) stars Katherine Heigl as a traditionally romantic young professional woman, and James Marsden as her cynically modern young professional foil. In other words, she desperately wants to get married, and he desperately doesn't. The movie is light and fluffy, and has a happy ending—definitely a product of the time. And one might argue that it is (along with other recent movies like Juno and Knocked Up) pushing a traditional moral agenda in which the arguments of modern cynics will always come up short—could be. But I wonder about the writers of these fluffy, but cleverly written things. Has the supposed cynicism of Gen X turned to traditionalism? Was it always so? Anyway, there are a number of generational themes tied up here: for example, workaholism and over-ambition, and a new-ish take on finding true love on the other side of all the cynicism. And I think it's worth watching.

The Heartbreak Kid (2007) is a film from the Farrelly brothers, featuring Ben Stiller, Rob Corddry and Jerry Stiller as men who refuse to grow up. On a whim, Stiller's character decides to marry an even less mature woman whom he hardly knows, and queue the pissing jokes. I only watched this because I was in Cuba with cable, and Danijela and I were exhausted from too much fried food, but it wasn't bad. In short, it's a lighthearted comedy about love and fate and tough decisions, and Rob Corddry and Jerry Stiller are two hoots. I wouldn't have paid to see it though.

Knocked Up (2007) is a film from recently overexposed writer and director Judd Apatow, starring Katherine Heigl and Seth Rogan, along with much of Apatow's standard crew. None of that is bad. For the most part—that is, among the Apatow films that I've seen—he is a clever and funny writer, a combination of traits that seems to be missing from straight-up comedy these days (see The Heartbreak Kid above). Here the issue is unplanned pregnancy between unlikely strangers. The real unlikely factor is that they choose to try and continue their relationship and keep the baby, not knowing whether they actually like each other. Is it realistic? No. Is it protesting abortion? Maybe. Do either of these things take away from the writing and the performances? Definitely not. The premise of the film is that the woman gets knocked up; knowing that, we should probably expect before watching that she might go through with it.

Juno (2007) stars Ellen Page and Michael Cera, alongside a great supporting cast including Jennifer Garner and Jason Bateman. It was directed by Jason Reitman, son of Ivan, so it is basically a great big Canada love-fest. It's also a sort of companion film to Knocked Up, but in high school. A young girl gets pregnant by her best friend and decides to keep the baby, but give it up for adoption. I'm getting back to near the beginning of '08 here, so I don't remember Juno especially well, but the performances are very good, and I enjoyed it quite a bit. Despite its heavy subject matter, it has a light feel,

To come:

The Lost Boys
Weird Science
3:10 to Yuma
No Country for Old Men
Blades of Glory
Harold and Kumar Escape from Guantanamo
La Vie En Rose
The Golden Compass
There Will Be Blood
The Prestige
The Savages
Away From Her
Eagle vs. Shark
Read on..!

Monday, 1 December 2008

Beautiful songs: Under Pressure

Like many members of my general age group, I'm sure, my first exposure to "Under Pressure" was not via the original Queen and David Bowie version, but another artist: a white rapper called Vanilla Ice, which (correct me if I'm wrong) basically translates into "Whitey White" or perhaps "Whitey Cool". In his hit single of 1990, "Ice Ice Baby", Vanilla Ice used a modified version of the bass and finger snap line (lacking the piano) from "Under Pressure", after which I'm sure it must have been one of the most recognizable bits of music of the 90s. It was certainly an extremely popular song, being the first rap song to reach number one on the Billboard pop music chart, spending several months on that chart, selling upwards of 15 000 000 copies, and reaching gold or platinum in several countries.

To preteens, without broader knowledge and greater discernment of the quality and depth of music—especially rap music—the song was great: it has a fun tune and beat, it's lyrics are easy to sing along to, the video is cheesy in a way kids can appreciate, and so on. And who at that time could tell that Vanilla Ice was basically a fraud? At 12 I just didn't have a deep background in hip hop music to base my judgments on!

By an interesting coincidence, another hit rap song came out that same year that sampled another 1981 song. The artist was MC Hammer, the current song was "U Can't Touch This", and the sample was from "Superfreak" by Rick James. Only time will tell which, if either, of these artists history will be kind to.

The point is, when I first heard Queen and David Bowie's performance of "Under Pressure", I was completely shocked. I'm pretty sure that it was in fact my first real exposure to Queen, as Wayne's World was still in the future. It was such a moment that I remember the scene pretty clearly: I was sitting in the living room at my parents' house, with all of my family, I think. I was probably 13 at the time. The television was on—I can't recall whether this was before or after we had a TV with remote control—and the video came on, incredibly, since we didn't have cable. (I guess that it was channel 11 (CHCH from Hamilton, Ontario), because they used to show music videos between programs at random times during the day. I recall seeing INXS's "Guns in the Sky" a lot for some reason.)

The image I remember from that moment is of a building collapsing in black and white. That image has probably defined my perspective on the song since then, though no doubt at 13 I could hardly appreciate the message. It was the performance that touched me. I guess, if I wanted to get all McLuhan on everybody, I'd say that the performance is the medium and the medium is the message; or, at least, the message is implied through the performance. I've never studied McLuhan though, so I wouldn't want to embarrass myself by getting into that. Regardless, the song's message, I believe, is one of humanity—my very favourite theme.

"Under Pressure" is remarkable for many reasons: coming during what was a decadent transitional period for both parties—Bowie had recently come out of his "Berlin period" and kicked the heroin habit—maybe—and Queen had begun experimenting with synthesizers and dance music—the ultra-group created something graceful, deep, and simple, which resulted in a strikingly original and powerful performance. It is the kind of performance that only seasoned and experienced artists can produce, and despite their decadence—and the spontaneity of the recording session—all were clearly at their best.

So the performance itself is simply excellent (a facade of objectivity prevents me from saying brilliant). Freddy Mercury's falsetto and Bowie's baritone complement each other in a way that I'm not sure I can compare to any other performance, and their passion is evident. The two lower and lift their voices at a moment's notice, giving the song its urgency and compassion, as well as softness and humour. And Bowie does backup vocal duties, too, which is a role he always does incredibly well (though usually to his own lead). His soft and purposeful voice ascends behind the lead, quietly supporting it and elevating it.

The music is simply terrific, managing to be both isolating, meditative, and inspiring, creating a great rush of emotion before the chorus: "It's the terror of knowing...". But there's nothing to it really, beyond two notes on a bass, two on a piano, and some light guitar picking, and building to a crescendo at the bridge that crashes into great timeless guitar rock. It creates the mood of the song, and the template against which Mercury and Bowie sing (particularly the scatting bits), while at the same time staying out of the way of the vocals. But it is undoubtedly there in its softness and hardness and underlying power, and I wouldn't change a thing about it.

As with most songs, at any given time, I recall only a few lines of "Under Pressure". Sometimes, when I read the lyrics of a song and sing along to it a lot, I'll remember the whole thing, but usually not. So I've heard "Under Pressure" probably hundreds of times—and there are not a lot of lyrics to begin with—but in a number of places I didn't hear the lyrics quite correctly:
Pressure, pushing down on me, pushing down on you, no man has fault
Pressure, the kind that builds with time, splits a family in two, puts people on streets
Close, but not quite (see below). But the first bridge, oh dear! I always had that right on. It's clear as day:
It's the terror of knowing what this world is about
Watching some good friend scream: "Let me out"
Pray tomorrow gets me higher
Pressure on people, people on streets
I mean, wow. It may not show up in the lyrics alone, but to me, rarely have so few words expressed such a great amount of anguish; and Bowie's smooth and tainted voice seems to express the pain of the world—or at least the pain of the world as understood by a 13-year-old boy and a 30-year-old man.

And the scatting says nearly as much as the words, tempering the tough subject matter with its playfulness and mirroring of the bass and piano line. But it's the crashing climax that brings the message home:
'Cause love's such an old fashioned word
And love dares you to care for the people on the edge of the night
And loves dares you to change our way of caring about ourselves
This is our last dance; this is our last dance; this is ourselves
Broadly speaking, there are two sides to humanity: the fundamental "terror" that we experience in the face of life itself—the face we spend so much time trying to hide from—and the "love" we feel for others and ourselves in spite of it—the love that is so hard to feel when we are hiding. The terror makes us want to escape; the love makes us daring; and the eternal tension between them we call life. At the same time, "this is our last dance": this life is our chance to love and care and dare. "This is ourselves": this is who we are—human—and if we don't dare, this dance is our—humanity's—last. Or, it's always humanity's last dance: there is no other moment but this one, and why should we spend it in fear? And, then, what are we afraid of? This is us; why should we fear each other?

"Under Pressure" measures the musical modesty of Bowie's "Changes" and the breathtaking emotion of Queen's "Bohemian Rhapsody". And while it doesn't employ the humour of either of those songs, it does have their playfulness and optimism, and avoids any self-indulgence, criticism, and irony. To me, the performance and song come off as completely honest, devoid of pretense, existing for no other reason than to be a great song.

Pressure pushing down on me
Pressing down on you no man ask for
Under pressure: that tears a building down
Splits a family in two
Puts people on streets
It's the terror of knowing what this world is about
Watching some good friend scream: "Let me out"
Pray tomorrow gets me higher
Pressure on people: people on streets

Chippin' around: kick my brains around the floor
These are the days it never rains but it pours
People on streets
People on streets
It's the terror of knowing what this world is about
Watching some good friend scream "Let me out"
Pray tomorrow gets me higher high high
Pressure on people: people on streets

Turned away from it all like a blind man
Sat on a fence, but it don't work
Keep coming up with love, but it's so slashed and torn
Why, why, why?
Love love love love love
Insanity laughs under pressure we're cracking
Can't we give ourselves one more chance
Why can't we give love that one more chance
Why can't we give love give love give love give love
give love give love give love give love give love
'Cause love's such an old fashioned word
And love dares you to care for
The people on the edge of the night
And loves dares you to change our way of
Caring about ourselves
This is our last dance
This is our last dance
This is ourselves
Under pressure
Under pressure
Read on..!

Monday, 24 November 2008

A portrait of the artist as a young man, part 1

I've been looking at a lot of old stuff recently: early writing samples—I found online the back catalogue of Pro Tem, York U's bilingual magazine, which was edited by my sister Jane when I was in high school. I wrote music reviews for the paper during my senior years. Earlier writing samples—my mum has finally decided to show my junk the door and I've just gone through the bulk of high school notes that I decided were worth keeping for a dozen years. (Aside: apparently I wasn't as, er, diligent in my studies as I might have been.)

What else? Ancient songs—I've copied mine and Danijela's entire CD collection to my computer. The thing is, the last time I or Danijela regularly bought CDs was the mid-90s; so, needless to say, they're nostalgia trips when they come up via shuffle.

What more do I need?

Here's an example of what I thought my time in algebra was worth.

And a sample of fiction from an English OAC.

See my critical voice developing in this unabridged 1997 review of Teenage Fanclub's Songs from Northern Britain. Here's the text:

The latest release (I believe it's their fourth) from this Scottish foursome is probably the last thing you'd expect to come out of Britain in these days of generic britpop like Dodgy and Oasis. This album manages to sound more like (good) North American indie than Blur's latest album wanted to. There also seems to be plenty of Neil Young and more than a wee bit of Beach Boys influence underneath these pop ballads about love and well... Northern Britain. Harmonies, jangly guitars, and strange effects are what dominate this album and somehow amidst everything else out there they managed to become Oasis' favourite band of the moment (next to themselves, of course) so how about that?

Turns out it was their sixth album. Jane got me free sample CDs in exchange for the reviews, mostly the britpop stuff. I thought it was a pretty sweet deal at the time. I got to dabble in Wildean dilettantism (long before I read the man), pretending to have it figured out, which I loved so much; and I got something free for the pleasure. I think now that it might have been my older sister encouraging me to create—or just to do something worthwhile other than act like a teenager. Due to the aforementioned dilettantism (read: slacking), I only managed five reviews in my short but brilliant Pro Tem period. Nonetheless, eventually I returned to my magazine roots.

I haven't read too much of it yet, this old writing, but it seems good. It's clear at least, and pretty honest, bordering on earnest. I'm very interested in the fiction, but I'm sure the formal writing will be revealing of who I was and how I became me (if no one else wants to know).

The crowning achievement of my high school writing is probably a thirty-odd page manuscript of the first chapters of a science fiction novel in the style of Douglas Adams. It was my independent study for English OAC II — Writer's Craft. It remains one of the longest things I've written; it might top the list actually, which I suppose is a little embarrassing! It will be a while before I offer that one up for perusal though. My desk is adrift with papers to deal with first.

See this portrait of the artist as a much wiser, but equally messy, man! (And you should see what's under the pile—here's a hint: more junk.)
Read on..!

Saturday, 8 November 2008

Toronto has neighbourhoods!

Hey, for all of those people who compare Toronto to Montreal: Toronto's neighbourhoods do have names. It's just that hardly anybody uses them and even fewer people know them. (Have you heard of Treffan Court? I hadn't. It's north of Corktown and south of Cabbagetown.)

So for your edification, I present five Toronto neighbourhoods: the South Annex, the South Junction, Corktown, the Annex proper, and U of T.

The South Annex
This is Brunswick Avenue, between College and Ulster Streets. I never discovered the results of this clearly significant meeting.

The South Junction
Here is the intersection of Lansdowne and Wallace Avenues. Unfortunately, this sign was updated recently.

Here is where King Street starts in the East end and begins its longs parallel journey to the great Queen.

The Annex
This is Bloor Street, east of Bathurst. I think that might be the Midoco building on the right, but I can't recall. In any case, somebody really didn't want others to know that was on those posters.

University of Toronto/Yorkville
The Royal Ontario Museum, if you don't know, is at Bloor Street and Queen's Park. This is the Bloor side, featuring the new crystal, now complete and awesome.

Read on..!

Thursday, 23 October 2008

Five months of home-owning bliss!

Here is a post I wrote nearly two months ago, but which in true Adam style I neglected to publish.

Labour Day weekend has arrived, and the neighbourhood kids will soon be spending their days in class rather than hanging out on our neighbours' porch. And we haven't stopped working on the house. In fact, tomorrow and Monday, we'll be reorganizing all of the furniture—all of it—having lived with our original arrangement now for about three months. But it's all for the best, of course. And it works out that we haven't really decorated or put up shelves and so on—no holes to patch and paint colours to match!

Things now have gone by so quickly that I can't remember the order of events with any accuracy. Yesterday, we had our air ducts cleaned, which is a pleasure our house may never have experienced in the past. So when perhaps 90 years of accumulated dust (in the richest sense) was sucked from our furnace into that big hose, it looked like a shower that might never end, and I'm very happy that we did it, though there was no immediately noticeable difference. I'm pretty certain now that once we start using the furnace again, the heat might actually reach upstairs. Of course, we'll be replacing our 30-year-old furnace before winter, too, so that will probably help.

We've nearly gotten rid of our junk pile in the backyard. It's packed up and ready for pick up. We hope the garbage men will take it all before we receive our new city garbage bin. Anyway, we now have a lawn, of sorts; particularly since Danijela's parents came and hacked away our jungle of grasses and tall weeds (front and back). Amid those, there were hiding mint, Italian parsley and one poppy. And it appears that the 'coons didn't quite get all of our grapes. There are at least ten remaining, and they're actually edible! So we actually have a pretty comfortable backyard area now, where I will certainly barbeque tonight [Oct. 24—I didn't].

Most of the last month, we have spent cleaning our hallway and finishing the installation of two doors, which we bought from ReStore, which is an initiative of Habitat for Humanity. It's an amazing place to find housewares, mostly the big stuff like cabinets, windows, lights, doors, and so on. It's all used, reclaimed from renos, and mostly in great shape. The two doors we bought clearly came from the same house, and they fit the decor of our home perfectly. But fitting old doors to old door frames is finicky business and it took us quite a while to get it right. It involved some jigsawing (the top and bottom of one of the doors), a lot of planing (the edges of the doors and the pieces of wood that we had to use to shrink the frames), some general sawing and plastic wood (to fill the holes for the original vintage locks—which I later discovered we could have simply replaced, because Home Depot carries them, boo!), some chiselling (to fit the new hinges), some drilling (two two-inch holes in each door for the new hardware), and a small amount of cursing (general purpose).

I should have another update for you in the new year—wink, wink!
Read on..!

Thursday, 2 October 2008

The High Dials and The Disraelis at the El Mocambo, September 27, 2008

Unfortunately, at this point in my life, I attend few live shows, though I enjoy seeing bands perform immensely. Watching a good live performance is often cathartic and usually occasions in me deep feelings of regret that I am not on the stage with a group of like-minded musicians.

Music, particularly live, is primal and carries the power of the simple soul. I imagine the first singers must have shocked themselves and their audiences with their expression, regardless of their intention. I'm sure I feel some of that wonder when I see a great performance. I was certainly impressed on Saturday night.

The Disraelis are a strange beast. They are three talented musicians trying to do something old and somewhat obscure in a time when audiences seem always to demand new (even when that new is often regurgitated old). The band has been together for a few years now, but I hadn't had the pleasure of hearing their music until Saturday. They are all friends of mine for many years, but I have been away, even while at home. Actually, I wasn't expecting them to be good, since I had heard some negative things in their early days. Nonetheless, I wanted to see them—after talking to two of them the day before the show for the first time in a long time, I was excited to see them—and I couldn't go wrong with a bill featuring The High Dials at the El Mo.

For a bunch of current or former mods, you might expect a rehash of The Who or The Jam, but The Disraelis' influences are clearly more recent—if still not current. I suppose they show their ages, being approximately my age. Here is where I feel conflicted. I find music reviewers lazy when they write 100 or 1000 words simply comparing their subject to other bands. Music writing should be creative; most is just sad. But I, myself, have a hard time watching shows or listening to albums critically without making such comparisons. Maybe the creative act in music writing lies elsewhere. So, if you want the simple overview, here it is: The Disraelis sound like a band from the Manchester scene of the 80s transplanted into the present day, but without the firm guiding hand of a great producer. (I'm not sure Toronto is lucky enough to host a producer as talented as Stephen Street or Martin Hannett.) From the first notes, I heard New Order, and the impression stuck with me throughout. They clearly also show a reverence for The Stone Roses. And I suppose I might say that that says it all, but that would be lazy, wouldn't it?

It was simple post-disco drum beats—not quite the kind that all cool bands seem to offer—but played so earnestly and almost certainly with clear knowledge of their source; it was driving bass lines, mostly unpretentious and unselfconscious; it was straight-up vocals, in the vein of Bernard Sumner, that didn't try to overpower the music but willing and ready to burst out in the moment; and it was melodic, playful guitar, nonchalant and flowing, that brought the sound together. These guys know their influences and aren't afraid to show it.

What I find refreshing is that, while so many bands try to emulate "the 80s sound"—because electro-pop is so cool—The Disraelis live it because they lived it. Not only that, but they are recreating or revisiting or reinvesting a side of music that hasn't really been revived, and they don't seem to care if it has mass appeal. The 70 or so people at the club watching seemed to appreciate them, too, though you can be sure that many among the audience were friends. In any case, if you like poppy rock music, particularly that Manchester style, this is a Toronto band worth seeing.

The High Dials must be one of the hardest-working bands in Canada, and now that I've seen them, I think they must be the most under-appreciated. I followed these guys when Trevor Anderson headed the Datsons, but foolishly I haven't followed since they grew out of their mod phase. Now I know just how foolish I was. The Datsons were tight back in the day, and they put on an excellent high energy power pop show. Apparently, I missed a few years of kick-ass shows by not paying The High Dials much (er, any really) attention until now.

Adding to the excitement of the night, the band's bass player was involved in a car collision on his way to the club and had to visit the hospital to get checked out. So the crowd waited over an hour between bands and The High Dials finally went on after midnight. You may have guessed that I thought it worth the wait. Unfortunately, quite a few others didn't. By the time they came on, there were probably only 40 people in the audience.

Anyway, it didn't matter. I was under the rock'n'roll magic from the first moment. The sound in the club was exquisite—each note rang out, even in the half-empty room, and the band came together like I don't often see. These guys are good, and if you like rock music, I think you will have a hard time finding better.

I wonder what it is that keeps this band below the radar. Their music may not be the most innovative thing coming out these days, but that doesn't mean it's not exciting. Over the last few years I've noticed a thoughtfulness and even a sort of wisdom entering the music and words of new bands, especially in the words. It often takes the form of a simple, stripped-down, and rootsy rock music, unconcerned with the schizophrenia of contemporary rock and avant garde pop. Instead the music is a vehicle for an experience and the expression of this new ethic. The High Dials are such a band, and their music is exciting in spite of its familiarity, and heck, it's definitely danceable, in a cool way.

The Soundtrack of our Lives was the first band that really conjured in me this depraved notion of simple wisdom in rock music. But I recognize it now in The Brian Jonestown Massacre and a number of others, as well as in some more cutting edge stuff, like !!!. I saw it in the High Dials at the El Mo, as I stood impressed throughout the show—and the extra long two-song encore.

It wasn't a perfect show, but it was pretty easy to forgive the late start and forget about the off moments. On a few occasions I saw The Datsons rock a club full of people, and I'm certain that The High Dials can do better. So I recommend everyone see them. Luckily, Toronto will host them again, after they finish a brief U.S. tour. Check them out at the Horseshoe, November 11.
Read on..!

Wednesday, 1 October 2008

Entering the fray

I find myself in a strange position relative to the upcoming Canadian election. The choice seems so starkly clear: progress or regress, acting boldly or procrastinating weakly. But in Canadian politics no choice is clear. There are always so many factors at play: four or five parties to choose from, four of which are arguably on the progressive side, either socially, economically, or both; past behaviour, which in the short term almost invariably plays against the reigning party; the numerous cultural divides—East and West and Centre, French and English, Rural and Urban; the not-so-creeping advance of "American-style" attack and smear politics; and principles, those poor mistreated things.

It almost makes one admire the simplicity of our neighbour's two-party republic, and it certainly highlights the failings of the first-past-the-post electoral system in the present day, in Canada at least. Let me say this: Canada has a de facto two-party system. It has always been this way, and it will likely remain this way until we demand some form of proportional representation. What I mean by that is that there are two strong national political parties in Canada, which generally trade turns governing the country. They do this not by winning the most votes, but by winning the most ridings, effectively preventing any other party from gaining a significant hold on power. They win the most ridings by either dividing the activists from the moderates, or by playing on our fears and dividing and conquering.

There are other parties; indeed there have been quite a number in Canada's great history, spanning the political spectrum. The current Conservative party was actually formed from a coalition of two previous "right-wing" parties. These alternative parties commonly win large percentages of the popular vote (the NDP won 17.5 percent in 2006...), which rarely amount to a similar number of actual seats in Parliament (...but only 9.4 percent of the seats).

One thing is: our existing system favours the major parties; only partly because they are more centrist in scope. Certainly, the greater part of Canada's population falls in the centre of the political spectrum, but clearly, given the voting results, many people look to other parties, for many possible reasons.

Another thing is: political partisanship in itself simplifies politics and encourages simplistic views and opinions, particularly at this media-drenched time. It encourages our representatives to insult us during elections by attacking, dividing and lying. Moreover, for some reason, our system discourages multi-party coalition governments, though to me, this seems like an ideal solution, considering our several progressive parties. Instead, the system demands strategic voting in order to encourage a majority win for one party. Often—and currently—in order to prevent an undesirable party from gaining a majority, voters have to choose between voting for their preferred candidate or voting for the party most likely to win. This is usually an evil choice, offering no satisfaction for the undecided, and the incumbent party can easily take advantage of the situation.

And another: the media distort the messages of all the parties to support the one they believe in. They show ads that are offensive and often highly dubious; they irresponsibly base so much of their election reporting on polls, knowing that in our system these cannot represent the final numbers; they collude to exclude dissenting voices from the political debate.

Such is the state of our confederation. But I'm not pessimistic about the outcome. I believe in the Canadian spirit and Canadian intelligence. We are better and smarter than the current level of debate happening in the country right now and I think we won't be cowed by scare tactics and insults. It seems clear that many or most of us have been inspired by the dignity Barack Obama has shown in the U.S. election campaign, and I'm sure we dream that we could have a candidate of similar stature and oratory skill. Canada has not seen such a person since Pierre Trudeau.

But no candidate is perfect, and certainly no political party is perfect. Certainly, they must earn our trust and act responsibly, but we also must think clearly and vote responsibly. In our case, unfortunately, this means examining what you want Canada to look like in the coming years, and how you think your vote might best achieve that end. It's "strategic", and I hate it, but it's where we are and who we are, and it's our duty. Read on..!

Thursday, 14 August 2008

A new model for the music industry

In the beginning of Rock’n’Roll music there was the Guitar. It was pretty easy to learn, Chuck Berry and Elvis Presley played it, and it probably corrupted your youth. With the increasing complexity of guitar playing, particularly the Solo, came the Air Guitar. It’s an imaginary instrument—occasionally brought to life by a broom or tennis racquet—that anyone can play with the least amount of skill or coordination, and it has become so popular that somebody made a wide-release zany documentary about it. And now, in the age of entertainment, there is the Virtual Guitar, embodied in such video games as Guitar Hero, Rock Band, Gitaroo man, and Frets of Fire. Here everybody from air guitar wannabes to actual guitar players uses a miniature plastic guitar-shaped controller to play along to some classic and current rock tunes. Maybe you begin to see the possibilities already?

The appeal of these virtual guitar-playing games is very broad: you get to play (or feel like you’re playing) guitar along with some great and some awful songs (you might be surprised by what songs or bands you start to like), and without ever having to take a lesson. Inexperienced players should find that the easier levels are not at all difficult to learn and play, without being boring; it becomes challenging quite quickly for experienced players, and actual guitar-playing ability can be of little help; and at no matter what level, you get to listen to music and play a fun game at the same time—it has your undivided attention—you are taking part in creating the music. That may sound odd at first, but I think it’s entirely warranted and I’ll tell you why.

Here are some things to think about: The music industry is in a sort of crisis, unwilling to admit that the old industry model (much simplified: charging high prices for low quality, and trying to control who “owns” the product, be it a physical CD or a virtual MP3) is no longer viable. In part, mass internet usage and reality TV shows such as American Idol, Big Brother and others that promise instant fame (or at least your 15 minutes), have created widespread demand for a New Experience, not fully passive like television, but not quite physical or social. Both of these factors are exacerbated by growing competition in the entertainment arena, which has increased dramatically, particularly in recent years, with video games making up much of that competition. Also, content pirating is easy and rampant, and, worldwide, legislation on the issue is unclear. Music, which used to colour our lives, has become background music—wallpaper. It is boring, to the point that, for many people, it’s simply not worth the price. What has music done for me lately?

Enter Mediated Interactivity. All the entertainment, but with little of that awkward social-personal stuff, and all within precisely programmed, edited and strictly enforced boundaries. But that’s only a part of my point. Often we don’t realize just how broad the spectrum of entertainment media has become. And as a result, we fail to recognize that we are demanding more from those media. We are now so used to getting what we want when we want it that we find the slow pace at which the big guns in the music industry are changing very frustrating. More media—films, TV, video games, music, books (believe it or not), the internet is a big one with news, “social” networking, gambling, role-playing games, &c.—are competing for an expanding leisure market; but most of these things can only be effectively consumed independently of each other. I can’t listen to music properly while I’m watching TV or a movie. I can’t really surf the internet while playing a video game. Certainly, I can try, but I will naturally divide my attention. In some cases attempts have been made to combine entertainment media. Increasingly, for example, current bands are being featured in TV shows and movies—this is hardly new and it remains passive; and online games have become about as common as e-mail. But even when playing games that allow for some multitasking, I may be “on” the internet, but my attention must be either on the game or on some other website, not both. American Idol on the other hand, though not exactly based on a novel premise, has introduced a measure of interactivity to entertainment. You—lucky you!—get to help choose a pop star directly, without all of that silly intervening stuff like hearing about a cool new artist from an eager friend, waiting for them to come to your town, going to see the show with two other people and the bar staff, buying the shirt anyway because you love them right away, requesting their song on the radio, writing to them, and watching them develop into real talent over years. No! Too much work! Instant stars and disposable songs are what people want (of course I’m not so naïve to think that this is entirely a new development), and so far it has proven a powerful lure to capture the public’s attention: you watch the show (two hours a week, maybe more), then you make your phone calls or text messages, and then you buy (and presumably listen to) the music; though the buying variable is the more important part of that particular equation. Still, American Idol is rather more indicative of the malaise afflicting the music industry than a solution to it. All the show does is make explicit the emptiness of pop music and the root of the reasons many people are less willing to pay for it. Simply put, generic music is not worth it when you can pirate it (and better) for free, or when there is just so much of it and there are so many other things to occupy your time.

Thus Interactive Music, the early stages of which are characterized by Karaoke and Guitar Hero. Guess which one I consider more important? Karaoke on its own could never challenge the powerful music industry in North America, especially not at the time it initially became popular. Those pre-Napster years were good for Big Music. Karaoke is certainly seminal, at least with respect to what I’m talking about. But it seems to me that it was destined to be little more than a parlour game—in the West at least—in its current unchanged form. True Interactive Music, on the other hand, is characterized by the ability of the listener (a.k.a. the consumer, user, or player) to be the creator at the same time—to “make it” his or her own. In practice, you might argue, this can be said of any form of music, and certainly Karaoke: The listener can sing along, play along, rerecord and remix it, and then, in theory, release it publicly. Of course, this is the case, but none of that is sufficiently mediated.

Now, here’s the point: What I see with virtual guitar games like Guitar Hero and their Mediated Interactivity is a new model for the music industry. In this model, a band can release an album or a single song in an interactive format, playable on a video game console, a computer, or any compatible player (and of course you can copy the tunes to your iPod, too, or just play it the old-fashioned way on your stereo). The player can play along with the songs on levels from easy to difficult, and “unlock” different features as she goes: extra tracks, remixes, videos, &c.—this is the obvious stuff, initial but secondary incentives. The key for the listener is the opportunity to play the songs either as recorded, or to improvise them (or certain parts of them), and to be judged or rated on her performance. As always with the modern consumer, fun is the primary motivator and goal.

There are advantages for the bands and labels, too. This interactive model combines an entrenched medium—music—with an entertainment medium that is growing extremely quickly—video games. And there is plenty of potential to integrate other media, such as virtual social networking and chat. That is, with Interactive Music, users don’t need to choose between competing entertainments, because they have several in one. People can and will still choose to consume other forms of entertainment; but that’s not quite the issue. For labels, dominance in the market is part of the game, but nowadays perhaps a larger part is simple sustenance. Though among the media there is often conglomeration, there is rarely monopoly. In this model, there exists the possibility to further the American Idol ideal of instant stardom and disposable music. Songs can be modified, easily rerecorded and remixed, and they can easily be redistributed via the internet. They could then be voted on and downloaded for a cost or free—it doesn’t really matter; charts could be made based on player ratings and downloads, all at next-to-no cost for the labels. Most importantly, there would be a far greater incentive for consumers and fans to buy—to pay for—music: it would be interesting again.

It’s happening right now, in fact. Though not on an industry-transforming scale just yet, many of the features are basically in place. Users can buy and download new songs regularly from Microsoft’s Xbox Live service, and I hear that Sony’s Playstation 3 has some embedded features for social networking that are currently unused. But better than that, independent individuals are taking the initiative to develop the pieces of the puzzle for indie musicians and labels to take things into their own hands. There is a free, open-source Virtual Guitar game—Frets on Fire (fretsonfire.sourceforge.net)—that shows great promise for keeping indie music independent of the majors. CustomHero.net offers a service to convert regular songs into interactive songs, and ScoreHero.com provides an initial framework for scoring and judging. And with the speed at which technology and ideas are moving these days, the cross-platform spread of these games, and their broad appeal, I imagine a time in the near future when in homes across the world we will find families sitting together in front of the TV like they used to, but instead of staring dumbly at the screen, they will play and interact and give each other high fives. And all will be right with the world. Read on..!

Beautiful songs: Do I Love You (Indeed I Do)

I don't remember precisely when I first heard Frank Wilson's "Do I Love You (Indeed I Do)", but I can narrow it down to a brief two years, during which I lived at 607 Huron St. in Toronto, with my great friend Derek, to whom I owe much gratitude for invading his apartment and life, and often monopolizing his computer. If memory serves, that was May 2000 to May 2002. I'm not sure if that seems like a long time or not. Certainly a lot has happened in that time, and equally certainly eight years feels longer than six. If I could find the original CD onto which I burned the song, I could narrow down the period even further; but I'm sure that I've since copied and thrown away that scratched disc.

Those were my early Soul years and still the early years of mass illicit downloading. The two are connected since, through Napster and its descendants, I discovered a world of music, thousands of songs—of all genres, but particularly Soul and Funk—that added fuel to my flaming passion for music. I made a series of soul compilations—14 at last count—each containing between 20 and 25 songs; and those were only the ones I deemed worthy of repeat listening or spinning. I was a DJ then, too, and few activities gave me greater pleasure than serving some excellent new discovery in the club and watching the crowd eat it up. Discovering new hidden gems (and playing them for people, in clubs or in private) still gives me immense pleasure.

Ironically, though, "Do I Love You" is a song that I rarely played for the crowds. I'm not sure why exactly. It's almost too specific, too perfect, too sweet for the congregation I ministered to. I feel like it stands apart from other soul music, other music generally, so much that I would have had a hard time fitting it in, mixing it with any other song, as if anything else would seem vulgar in comparison, or bland. Or perhaps I was afraid that other songs would vulgarize "Do I Love You" and make it seem too simple.

The song is simple and sweet. It is devoid of the pretensions of rock and the sappy syrupyness of its Motown brethren. But it is lush and driving and powerful. And at two and a half minutes, it is desperately short, though perfectly indicative of its time. It is over before you realize it and practically demands that you listen to it again. I must admit, I never knew the lyrics before researching this story, because the song sends me into a reverie halfway into the first verse and the song changes to a feeling.
From early morning until late at night
You fill my heart with pure delight
Do I love you?
Now whenever I lay me down to sleep
I pray the Lord your soul to keep
And bring you home safe to me, forever darling
Do I love you?
Indeed I do
The vocal performances—both lead and backup—are urgent, approaching breathlessness, as if the words are coming at the moment they are sung, direct from the inspired heart, and occasionally Wilson bursts forth in a sort of raspy yell that suggests he can't contain himself.

Frank Wilson was a songwriter and producer for Motown from the mid-sixties to the late seventies, and he wrote or co-wrote numerous hits during that time. ("Stoned Love" is another great favourite of mine.) But for some reason, when he recorded this song—his own song—the label said no, even after pressing several hundred copies. The label ordered all copies destroyed and Frank Wilson's solo career was over before it began. But a year later, the song was resurrected by female Motown artist Chris Clark in a new vocal recording over either the original music track or a near identical rerecording. The two versions are very similar, but Chris Clark's vocal lacks the energy of the original, and the urgency—really, I think it suffers simply from its lack of originality.

At any rate, the legend says that two copies of the record survived, and in the seventies, one of them found its way into the hands of a Northern Soul DJ. The whole story is repeated in great and variable detail elsewhere, and if you're at all interested in music history, I recommend you take a look for it. Truly, the legend adds to the song's intrigue, but not to its greatness. The simple fact of its existence—its creation—is a miracle, a testament to momentary genius. That we have the original recording to enjoy today is testament to the unsuppressible nature of genius and creativity: art.

I find it interesting that my connection to this song isn't through some collection of important life events that are somehow wrapped up with it. Rather, my connection is somehow instantaneous, imperative. Despite all of the great great Soul music that exists and that I absolutely love—from both before and after "Do I Love You"—this particular song embodies Soul music: it is simple, it evokes God's connection to love, it contains a chorus-like call and answer, all characteristics that come from Gospel music, the essence of Soul.

It's in a space of sheer wonder that I experience "Do I Love You (Indeed I Do)". And in that space I am open to the pure love the song proclaims in its every aspect.

Here I am on bended knees
I lay my heart down at your feet
Now do I love you?
All you have to do is ask
I’ll give until there’s nothing left
Do I love you?
As long as there is life in me
Our happiness is guaranteed
I’ll fill your heart with ecstasy, forever darling
Do I love you?
Do I love you?
Do I love you?
Indeed I do
Indeed I do

The very thing that I want most
Is just to have and hold you close
Do I love you?
From early morning until late at night
You fill my heart with pure delight
Do I love you?
Now whenever I lay me down to sleep
I pray the Lord your soul to keep
And bring you home safe to me, forever darling
Do I love you?
Do I love you?
Do I love you?
Indeed I do, sweet darling,
Indeed I do

Now whenever I lay me down to sleep
I pray the Lord your soul to keep
And bring you home safe to me
Forever darling
Do I love you?
Do I love you?
Do I love you?
Indeed I do, little darling,
Indeed I do
Read on..!

Tuesday, 8 July 2008

Three months

So, I have been out of sight for a while to some, mostly nesting you might say, but not entirely in that young-couple-deep-in-love-who-want-to-spend-every-moment-together way. More literally (but not quite literally), Danijela and I have been building our nest, gathering twigs and mud, securing it against the elements... Still, there has been a lot of that other type, since we are new homeowners, and after several months of marriage, we are at last living alone together.

But I, as I have mentioned in a previous post, have also been working at a new job, which requires me to leave the nest most days and fly to Concord, near Dufferin St. and Steeles Ave. It's not as bad as it sounds. I have become skilled at flying and reading, and I recently finished Neil Gaiman's American Gods—a 600-page novel—in about a week, a feat I hadn't accomplished for some time. It is, by the way, a very good book, and I highly recommend it. I will almost certainly proceed to read the rest of his books in the near future.

Besides, I actually enjoy my new job immensely, more than any job I have ever previously held. In case I haven't mentioned, I am an assistant editor for a business-to-business publisher of human resources policy manuals, as well as a related website that collects and consolidates Canadian HR and employment law news. And in the past month, I have begun writing articles for the website, HRinfodesk.com, on such topics as pension plan reform and paid paternal leave.

Even better, at the moment, one of my articles is available for free! So, if you're interested in seeing how I've spent part of my creative energy over the last while, please take a look.

Health care plan review

Maybe there'll be more free stuff to come, but as it stands, if you want to talk about workplace wellness programs or the state of corporate social responsibility, just let me know! Read on..!

Thursday, 24 April 2008

A moving story, chapter 3: Big events

Here’s what next: more work, at home and the office! But not for long. I wasn’t even back at work for a whole week before I was fired, what! (That was April 10.) I am not lying. I basically faced one of the greatest shocks of my life, and, justifiably, I think, the following days are unclear. I had been ready to work at that job for several years to finance my new domestic lifestyle; but, admittedly, I was not challenged by the work, and it left me wanting creative activities. Anyway, I got two weeks severance and a kick in the pants to move on with things, and it meant that I could spend the next while at home working on the house, in between looking for jobs, of course. So you don’t worry too much, the day after I left Caliper, I followed a good lead, which led to an interview and a job offer a week later, and I will be starting work again next week. All told, three weeks off between jobs. I won’t even get the pleasure of collecting an EI cheque.

But back to the house. Hmm. Well, about a week after we moved in, our electricians came along to start work. I believe I mentioned something about having to rewire the entire deal. All but one room, that is, and even that room needed the ground wires connected. So for the following two weeks they roamed through the house drilling holes in the walls and leaving piles of rubble and dust in their wake. We occasionally cleaned up after them only to have them come back the next day and leave another mess. It has been difficult to say the least (for us and for them!) to live in the house as it is under renovation. And if I may offer some advice to new home buyers, it is this: if possible, try to get as much structural work done as you can before moving in. That should save you some pretty major headaches. The electricians have had to get into the attic and under the house to do their thing, and if we weren’t here to get in the way and live with the dust and debris, we would all be happier! Nonetheless, it’s almost done, and they have been very good and fast, and we didn’t really have the option of living elsewhere in the meantime.

The weekend before last was a really big one. The biggest yet I guess. Danijela’s parents came into town on Saturday to do some work and spend the night and prepare for a big work day on Sunday. Also on Saturday morning, my dad came over to rearrange the plumbing for the washer and basin sink in the basement. Of course, the electricians had shut off the power down there, so we worked by flashlight. Of course, the basement is really quite far from our minds at the moment with all the important stuff to do above ground. (But personally, I can’t wait to get building a studio there.) Also that day, I pulled out from the garden all of the metal poles and bits that previously supported a vegetable garden. A couple of days later, I would get down and dirty and remove all the cigarette butts from the soil (in one section at least). On Sunday, several of Danijela’s uncles came down along with her aunt and cousin for a housework blitz that transformed the house in hours. Most of the work was painting, and that day we almost completed the upstairs, but we also extended the heating into the back room office and installed laminate flooring in there, we tore out the basement “bedroom”, and added heating to the basement bathroom. That was all very very promising, though again, after we cleaned up, the electricians left their little piles. And aside from the weekends, progress is slow. But it goes on!

Tuesday, the 15th, my friends Jon and Graham and I began carting off the junk in Jon’s pick up. I hadn’t been inside a transfer station before, and boy was that a treat. Needless to say it stank, and we tried to get in and out of there as quickly as possible. At the same time, shovelling garbage from the back of a truck straight onto the ground did offer some satisfaction. Jon and I went again last Saturday morning only to find a line stretching down the street and around the corner, maybe 100 cars long. In the end we waited an hour and some just to get in, then another 40-odd minutes to get out! I guess the dump is a popular weekend hangout.

Danijela and I have now spent several mornings racing to IKEA to eat elevenses before they stopped serving their dollar breakfast. Well, technically, we went to shop for various bits--light fixtures, curtains, and a desk the first time; I’m not sure we bought anything the second time; and the third time, a cupboard, shelf set, and a bunch of organizing boxes--but a delicious second breakfast is certainly an incentive. And I’m sure we’ll come up with another excuse to go before I start working again. We’ve also been making numerous trips to the renovation plaza at Keele and St. Clair streets. That is, the massive plaza with a Rona, Home Depot, Canadian Tire, Dominion, Staples, a drive through ATM, and, believe me, much more. It’s handy, and I get to practice my driving. A couple of weeks ago, I went with Danijela’s dad, and we had to return in a very illegal fashion, with Mile sitting in the back on the folded-down seat with no seat belt, because there was too much stuff in the car. I only worry about this sort of thing because I’ve only got my G1 license, and the penalty is worse than just a fine I think. Whatever, right? It won’t be the last time I do something like that (sorry Mum!).

Now I can’t get our internet to work, so I have to hijack someone’s wireless. Thank goodness for those generous folk who don’t secure their connections! Read on..!

Friday, 18 April 2008

A moving story, chapter 2: Livin' the dream

Here's Danijela and Adam's house adventure after three weeks: things are a mess, but it's a mess in progress. (And I am a poet, and I don't know it.) For those who saw the house on our moving day, or soon after, you may remember a basically clean if very dated and colour-challenged house. Today there is dust everywhere, there are holes in the walls, bits of furniture everywhere, drop sheets hiding boxes, there is a TV on the floor, and one naked room awaiting insulation and drywall. But let me start where I left off.

In the first week, progress moved slowly. It took us that whole week just to get the kitchen in working order--that being the most important room for frugal people after a move. We took the highly varnished doors off of the numerous cupboards, scrubbed them with TSP, sanded down the bits of goo that wouldn't come off otherwise, then painted them all white, along with the cupboards themselves--inside and out. We soaked the hardware in TSP and found that they were actually brass, not sticky brown. (Only glazed meat products, generally found in Korean or Chinese restaurants, should ever be sticky brown.) Then we put the whole shebang back together and finally emptied our first boxes. Oh the excitement of that day! But remember that took most of a week, and that was only half of the kitchen. The other half still awaits attention.

I had begun preparing one of the upstairs rooms for painting--washing the smoke-stained walls. If you remember, they were brown from paint, but they were extra brown from various types of smoke. And I noticed something special the other day: I don't want to judge the people who previously lived here, but there are a few points that really annoy me. One in particular is that in each of the window screens on the second floor--where the daughter and son-in-law of the owner lived with two of their kids--there is a small hole cut to allow for easy cigarette ash and butt disposal. In fact, in the bathroom, they cut out half of the screen right to the edges of the frame. We found a nice pile of butts outside under that window, as well as on the front lawn and in the vegetable garden. No further comment. Anyway, Danijela and I decided to work together to get the kitchen done and to entertain each other. We actually listened to the radio for most of that week--mostly because we couldn't be bothered to dig out our CDs. Actually, we were better off then--our stereo is buried again now.

Then we were off to Montreal to surprise the young James Braithwaite and usher him into old age. I hope the attendants are treating you well at the retirement home my good friend. We had a great time there, though, as always, too short. And for the first weekend of April, there was so much snow still on the ground! I mean, there was still snow in Toronto--a lot for that time of year--but my goodness, Montreal, I hope you've recovered at last! I shouldn't talk though, Danijela and I have been past Yorkdale mall a few times recently on our way to Ikea North York (more on that later), and there are still piles of the brown stuff in the parking lots there. Anyway, the mood came down a bit on the drive home when we learned that someone had stolen our brand new barbeque from our garage. We discovered this because we had left our house key in there for Danijela's dad and uncle to come in and do some work. Some time after he found out, he called us, about four hours away, to let us know. The garage was unlocked because we had had trouble with the lock, so I suppose it was an easy target. But it is a pretty crap welcome to the neighbourhood. Still, we learned a valuable lesson--not "lock up your stuff, because your neighbours are all crooks", but "listen to your instincts": I had the idea on a couple of occasions to at least lock things up inside the garage if we couldn't lock the garage itself. So, while we will certainly warm the house this summer, I'm afraid that we will have to use a little $10 barbeque from Canadian Tire. I would still like to have a look around the neighbourhood pawn shops to see if I can find our lost beauty, but I haven't got around to it yet. The joys of home ownership!

At any rate, while we were away in la belle province, eating delicious salads and basking in the beautiful early spring weather, some big things were happening back home in the Junction. On Saturday, my dad came in to enlarge the opening between the two front rooms on our main floor. He raised the doorway about half a metre or so, and it looks great. It will look especially good once it's framed and finished. Right now, and for the past two weeks, the opening has been covered by a plastic sheet help up by duct tape. On Sunday, Danijela's dad and uncle came in and tore down the plaster and lath on the outer walls and ceiling of the main floor front room, exposing the frame of this beautiful house of ours. This created about fifteen massive bags of dust and bundles of wood, which weighed down our already sagging porch for several days. (Did I forget to mention that one corner of the porch appears to have sunk about 15-20 cm from the time it was built?)

Danijela soon heard from a friendly neighbour that we had best not catch the eye of the local building inspector, so with the help of a go-ped left behind (probably in the crawl space) we moved most of the bags around the side of the house and left them to be rained on for a couple of days. Not surprisingly, then, they got soggy. Surprisingly, though, only one of them actually broke.

What next, what next? Read on..!

Tuesday, 8 April 2008

Beautiful songs: Ceremony

Thanks to my big sister, Jane, I grew up listening to New Order and other great bands in the eighties. My early memories of NO come from the Substance singles compilation LP, in particular the songs "Bizarre Love Triangle" (of course), "True Faith", "Perfect Kiss", and "Blue Monday". But the very first song on this album is the one that today gives me chills from just thinking about it. One might find "Ceremony" unassuming at first. When it comes to NO singles, many will inevitably skip it in favour of the pure electro-pop joy of their other songs. New Order songs are (for the most part) danceable, uplifting, and upbeat, despite their often obscure and occasionally melancholy lyrics. But not this one.

The type of pop music that New Order creates is nostalgic. This is a pretty common trend since the seventies, when bands began to long for the blissful pop songs of the sixties. But that is not NO's nostalgia. Theirs is more the uncanny sort that makes you feel instantly comfortable (or uncomfortable), like you recognize the music, though you may not connect it with anything you've heard before. (Clearly I'm biased on this point, since, as I mentioned, I grew up listening to this music; but bear with me. I have felt this type of instant nostalgia with several bands since, both new and old, and I am certain that it points to a real phenomenon.) I think New Order reached the peak of this form with the song "Regret" from their 1993 album, Republic. In my opinion, that is one of the greatest pop songs of all time. But I digress.

"Ceremony" feels nostalgic, but it is hardly a pop song. It was written by Joy Division—meaning the members of New Order plus Ian Curtis, but minus Gillian Gilbert—but never properly recorded in studio by them. The only existing recordings of "Ceremony" by Joy Division are a demo and a live version from a show just two weeks before singer Ian Curtis's suicide. I was ecstatic when I discovered a couple of years ago that these recordings existed, and more so that I actually possessed one of them—the demo—on the Joy Division box set, Heart and Soul. It is beautiful and haunting, and it leaves me wanting a proper JD recording, not just the New Order version. Still, NO were faithful to Curtis's memory and voice, and I can't imagine that Joy Division would have created anything more beautiful than their successors did. As on their tribute to Curtis, "Blue Monday", New Order singer Bernard Sumner channels his predecessor and sings with his stirring monotone voice. That spirit would follow the latter band throughout their career. And today I discovered that there exist two versions of "Ceremony" by New Order also! It's like a strike to the heart. How could I not have known! How soon can I find and hear the other! Not soon enough.

Occasionally, this song makes me tear up, but they are not tears of sadness that "Ceremony" causes me, and the song does not make me feel nostalgic for any particular time or thing in my life. The shivers and tears are for the beauty of the object: the divine nature of music and the reality it exposes. Good, honest music bares the soul; and if we listen to it honestly, it frees us from our bodies and minds to connect with the soul of the creator—with life. And the nostalgia is the soul yearning for that connection: remembering a time when it knew no walls, when it was restricted by no mind or matter.

"Ceremony" flew low on my radar for most of my life. I was generally aware of it, but I hadn't connected with it the way I do now. I was one to skip past it to the "good stuff" on Substance, meaning the dancey party songs. I felt a more artificial nostalgia for the songs "Bizarre Love Triangle" (my childhood), "Temptation" (my mid-adolescence, caused by the film, Trainspotting), and "Regret" (adolescence generally); not that I don't think those are great songs. I'm just aware that my feelings towards those songs are very closely tied to times and events in my life. I was more connected to "1963", a rather odd and melancholy dance song about a man, Johnny, who only seems to be able to leave romantic relationships by killing his partner. Thinking about it now, it is a common theme among people who are unable to express themselves in relationships: one feels it is impossible for him to tell his partner that he wants to leave, so the only way out is murder. This is all over film, literature, and theatre. My point is that maybe the affinity I felt with this song was due to difficulties I have had communicating with people. Regardless, I now feel towards no New Order song like I do towards "Ceremony".

Now, perhaps I will contradict myself. I couldn't say precisely why I came to connect with "Ceremony". But it "started" like this: Several years ago, when I was still spinning records at Blow Up, the local indie-mod party, DJ Davy Love would occasionally play "Ceremony" later on in the night, often well after last call (2:00 in Toronto, for those who want to know). Unfortunately, my memory of this period is not entirely clear. I can't remember at which club this happened, though I'm fairly certain it was the El Mocambo, which places this event at least seven years ago. And I can't recall my relationship to the song at the time. I knew it and liked it very much, certainly, but let me go on. One night in particular, I remember catching the last bridge of the song, a rising three-note guitar riff repeating quickly over a beat driven by the hi-hat cymbal. I remember thinking, "I know this. What is it?"

Blow Up was the centre of the mod-britpop-indie universe in Toronto for several years around the turn of the millennium. It wasn't part of a scene; it was the scene, every Saturday for people from as far away as Hamilton, Buffalo, New York, and Detroit (not to speak of the boundless Toronto suburbs). In 2002, I went to our namesake mod party in London, England, and that was nowhere near as popular as our Blow Up in Toronto. Anyway, I attended as a partier, a fan, a young mod, nearly every week from the time I was 18 and a half (that's below legal age in Ontario, for the curious), and eventually I began DJing there, too, crystallizing my taste and feel for the unique and particular music that constitutes a scene like that. There is still an awful lot of music from that period that gives me strong feelings when I hear it, and if I were to compile a list of favourite albums, probably at least half of it would comprise things I fell in love with then. So clearly, I have a nostalgic interest here, and, if I examined more closely, I could probably find that "Ceremony" speaks to my state of mind and my feelings about the mod scene at the time the song struck me. Like, maybe the song is somehow the story of my life then.

It's sad to say that even at that point, in the middle of its tenure, the Blow Up/mod scene was dying in Toronto. (At least the scene as I had known it.) Or rather, it was having an identity crisis. This certainly mirrors my own experience at the time. If I remember correctly, this was soon before the El Mo closed (a sure and sad sign of trouble, though it has reopened since), and Blow Up moved to other, less felicitous venues. After it moved, my heart was no longer in it, and now I don't miss those times. I enjoyed myself, I made good friends, I honed my skill behind the 'tables; I dressed well, I danced hard, and I fell in love. But it's over now, and while very influential, I have no desire to return to that time or to relive it now. In other words, I'm not sad that that part of my life is over, and while "Ceremony" may be connected to an important time of my life, I don't believe that connection is nostalgic. In that "What is this?" moment, I heard the song afresh; it was new to me and out of place and time; it was a sign of things to come. I think that's what it was in the beginning and is still.

The ceremony is the act of recognition, acknowledgment, preparation, and, consequently, transformation. In the ceremony, we prepare to transform, to become new. Is that what this song is about? I don't know. Bernard Sumner himself had to put the early Joy Division recordings of "Ceremony" through graphic equalization to make out the lyrics. But a great song is more than the sum of its individual parts. This is a song written by a troubled man and a band in troubled times. It is a product of a certain time and space, though it persists across those dimensions. It is a credit to the remaining members of Joy Division that they moved on to form New Order and that they paid tribute to Ian Curtis with "Ceremony" (and its b-side "A Lonely Place", also written by JD). It seems to me that they understood the beauty of the song, and would not let death prevent them from giving it to the world. I am very glad that they did.

This is why events unnerve me,
They find it all, a different story,
Notice whom for wheels are turning,
Turn again and turn towards this time,
All she asks the strength to hold me,
Then again the same old story,
World will travel, oh so quickly,
Travel first and lean towards this time.

Oh, I'll break them down, no mercy shown,
Heaven knows, its got to be this time,
Watching her, these things she said,
The times she cried,
Too frail to wake this time.

Oh I'll break them down, no mercy shown
Heaven knows, its got to be this time,
Avenues all lined with trees,
Picture me and then you start watching,
Watching forever, forever,
Watching love grow, forever,
Letting me know, forever.
Read on..!

A moving story, chapter 1

So, as some of you know, Danijela and I bought a house in January of this year. That gave us about two months to stew in that broth of responsibility before the sale closed on March 27. There was lots to do, of course. We knew that we would be doing an awful lot of work on the house, and we were willing. The electrical was mostly original and had to be replaced so that we could be insured (if not only for our peace of mind and convenience). The roof shingles will have to be replaced this year, the furnace soon after. There is some awful fake brick plastered on the front of the house—over the original brick, which looks in fine shape, from the few spots where the overlay has broken. That will have to go, along with the porch; the latter we'll replace in some form or another. Also, the basement is basically unfinished, and will take a couple of months of destruction and construction to create my ultimate man cave. Those were the things we knew about or were fully aware of.

It was an exciting time, those two months, and stressful, too. I began packing early in February, which created havoc in our old apartment. Of course that was inevitable with three persons living in maybe 500 square feet, with our belongings overflowing into the hallway/fire escape path shared with our downstairs neighbour. We had to transfer our utilities accounts and change all of our registered addresses. Credit cards, drivers' licenses, everything. And then dealing with the financial stuff: the mortgage and insurance, getting quotes, getting details, finalizing things, signing things, and on and on. Thank God, Danijela is amazing with this stuff. Without her, the whole process would have been a disaster. She managed somehow to keep track of everything that we had to do and when, and it all got done and nothing got lost (that we know of). If anybody wants to know more details about this stuff, feel free to ask me or Danijela.

When we got the keys, we were excited. Danijela went to visit the house with her dad right away. It was a Thursday afternoon, so I was working, but afterwards, we returned to have another look. Finally, we were in! That two months had felt like ages to me, and now, here it was, empty, silent, ours, full of potential. I could see how I wanted it to look, though I could also see the current state of it. I wanted to start right away. I couldn't wait until the weekend, and I had booked off the following week from work.

Of course, then came the surprises. The entire interior of the house needs repainting. Most of it is brown, including the ceiling in the upstairs bathroom, and most of what isn't brown is dark (blue and red), which, besides washing, will require several coats of primer and paint. The room we are planning on using as our bedroom was covered in fake wood panelling, which, once removed, revealed the original plaster, cracking and damaged and hiding a near complete lack of insulation. Elsewhere, the lighting is bad: in the upstairs bathroom, there is only one light; it's on the wall—opposite the mirror so it is effectively useless. Other rooms have equally ineffective lights, mostly failing to light anything beyond a metre-radius. A raised addition at the back of the house hid a pile of junk including nasty old shoes, a squash racquet, a broken shovel and shears, wires, soil, general garbage, and a plastic swan, which is probably the most useful thing in the pile. That same addition also lacks heating (at least it has a ceiling light).

Lest I sound like I'm just complaining, I love this house—our house. It has "great bones" and it is in a terrific "up and coming" neighbourhood, the Junction. With Spring here and warm weather on the way, I can't wait to throw open the windows and relax in the yard and clean up the lawn and maybe plant a garden (eventually—probably not this year). There's an evergreen tree right in front of the house now that we'll probably replace with something deciduous that we can watch grow. Joy. Read on..!

Tuesday, 18 March 2008

I'm addicted to news, part 1

...so much so that I will go out of my way to read it to avoid doing other things, like writing. (Hence significant delays in my output here.)

I read The Toronto Star most days (probably about 1/3-1/2 of the online version), and when I've finished that, I move on to the front page of Digg.com. If somehow I manage to exhaust those sources during my day, the interweb is replete with alternatives. Apart from work, this is probably the largest chunk of my day. In my reading, I keep track of what is going on in the various worlds I inhabit--the geopolitical, the socio-cultural, the technological-scientific, the pictures of cute animals--ostensibly because I am interested in them, but, sadly, the truth is that I'm simply addicted. I can't stay away. I must know! And I haven't exactly made any moves to improve the situation. At least I'm not the only one, if the explosion of blogs and social news and networking are any sign.

Now, I am interested in what is happening in the worlds--I love to be informed about things--but I'm also interested in getting things done; and I have no shortage of personal projects to occupy my time. What I recognize about my addiction to news, and what I imagine might actually apply to any addiction that is more psychological than physiological, is that I indulge it to procrastinate. (In other words, maybe I'm not really addicted, but I am a compulsive procrastinator.) Something else I've noticed is that I no longer bother justifying it to myself, but I do feel guilty about it. Actually, I suppose I read news to rationalize my procrastination. Still, I guess there are worse addictions and compulsions.

The thing I feel guilty about is that I rarely synthesize the media I consume; I often don't even digest it. I mean, I look and I read and I remember somewhat, but I don't always engage. Or that's how it feels anyway. So now I'm doing something about it, and you will help me. Basically, you're looking at my addiction therapy. (And hopefully engaging it, too.) Wish me luck! Read on..!

Monday, 10 March 2008

To the people of Stanfield's Limited of Truro, Nova Scotia

My name is Adam Gorley. I am a young writer, editor, artist, and magazine publisher from Toronto. When it comes to underwear - briefs, trunks, boxers, and tees - I wear almost exclusively Stanfield's garments. A large part of the purpose of this letter is to thank you for making excellent products. They are comfortable, stylish, and competitively priced. And perhaps most importantly, they are made in Canada, by the hands of Canadians. Thank you Stanfield's!

It warms my heart and fills me with pride that a Canadian company chooses to maintain its local operations in the face of increasing competition from outsourced labour in other countries. That says to me that you respect your employees, your community, your customers, your country, and the world. It pleases me immensely to find a brand in stores that proudly displays a label: "Made in Canada" among the sadly more common labels of distant provenance. I try very hard to avoid products that are made in countries with suspicious labour and environmental practices, and where possible I buy Canadian goods. Indeed, I have actively boycotted companies who have removed their production from their traditional locales. Levi's, for example, who used to produce jeans in Canada and the U.S.A., now manufactures in Mexico for the North American market. (Except their premium labels, which are still made in the U.S. But I don't buy $200 jeans.)

This brings me to the second point of this letter. I offer some friendly unsolicited advice, completely without condition. It is borne from the pessimistic fear that some day, some factor might convince you to move your manufacturing to distant lands and cheap hands. (Though, your creed gives me hope that this would never happen.) I do not doubt that you have heard of a company called American Apparel, many of whose products compete with Stanfield's. They have expanded exponentially over the last several years based on two simple premises (as far as I can tell): moderately priced hip basics and fair wages and conditions for workers - in the U.S. That is, AA positions itself as hip, young, and socially conscious. I won't comment on the veracity of these claims or why it's so important that their Montréal-born owner chose to manufacture their products in southern California, but my point is, they promote themselves heavily as "Made in America", and it works. I shop there because I can feel comfortable that no worker was exploited to make the clothes that I buy. And the thing is, their products are of only average quality - much poorer than Stanfield's; and they're more expensive, too.

And so I wonder if there is not a great opportunity for Stanfield's to market itself similarly to the younger generations. Could Stanfield's products gain the coolness of American Apparel? And how might that happen? AA has retail outlets, and they do brisk wholesale business among artists and independent designers who want stylish and politically correct shirts to print on. Could Stanfield's open a flagship store outside Nova Scotia and staff it with hip young people decked out in your gear? Could you bring aboard a clothing designer to develop a line of youth-oriented basics to compete more directly against AA? Could “Made in Canada” be a label that consumers seek rather than consider a second thought?

I certainly don't claim to know that such a plan would be profitable, or if it is worthwhile at all. I am not really qualified to make such claims. Moreover, I'm certain that you have already a strong marketing and growth strategy, and frankly, I hope you don't find these comments presumptuous or, worse, offensive. The unchallenged dictum of our contemporary economy is surely, "Growth, Expansion, Ever-Increasing Profit, New Markets!", and while I am no fan of this oh-so-modern idea of unfettered growth, I understand that it is a powerful motive that has the capacity to drive innovation and job creation. If Stanfield’s was wondering where it might expand, I feel that the hip and savvy youth market is an area to consider.

In sum, thanks again, and I wish you and your company all the best in the future. I appreciate your time.


Adam Gorley Read on..!
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The New Dilettantes by Adam Gorley is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-Share Alike 2.5 Canada License.