Reveries of a Solitary Blogger

Since September, I have been enrolled in a graduate-level class in Liberal Studies (like Humanities, but even more broad). During this time, I have had the opportunity to read, and grapple with, and sometimes hate, a variety of canonical writers and texts, from Sophocles to Henrik Ibsen, from Euripides to Margaret Atwood, from Plato to Thomas Mann, from Freud to Henry James, from Genesis to Lucretius, and on and on and on. When it comes to by-gone thinkers (especially European males), my library is fairly well-stocked for a single semester of reading.

As a broad (albeit Western-heavy) foundation for further study, the ideas I’ve encountered this semester have been a lot to take in. Before we had an entire planet’s worth of knowledge (and also, let’s face it, baseless opinion) at our fingertips, people used to sit around reading books and THINKING about things, and proposing ideas for the way the world worked based on nothing more than observation and deduction. Long before microscopes, Lucretius (ancient Roman, author of massive didactic poem The Nature of Things) knew that matter was made of atoms, which could neither be created nor destroyed. He also thought that while your slept your “soul atoms” left your body and floated around in the ether until you woke up, but hey, he made some pretty interesting hypotheses based on what he could observe at the time, and some of them (like his ideas about genetics) were pretty on the money.

What’s significant to me is not whether these philosophers, psychoanalysts, poets, and/or scholars were right or wrong, but simply that they took the time to think deeply about the world and to try to answer big questions: what is the universe? What makes a human being? What is a person’s obligation to the State, and vice versa? If we’re becoming more “civilized”, why are people so unhappy? What is the nature of love? Of beauty? Of “truth”? Despite the almost total exclusion of women and working class men from the intellectual sphere at the times when most of these thinkers were writing, encountering these works, I almost long for the European “salons” of the late 18th-century, where educated people would meet to talk and argue about the big ideas, and a time when intellectual conviction about the way the world is and ought to be was enough to spark a revolution.

Reveries-RousseauWhich brings me to the subject of my penultimate class for this semester, and also (technically) of this post: the autobiographical Reveries of a Solitary Walker by 18th-century Swiss writer and composer Jean-Jacques Rousseau. Rousseau lived a rather sad and tumultuous life, eventually cut out of his Parisian intellectual community for being too religious and prevented from further publishing or public speaking by the French government for not being religious enough (he believed he did not need the Church to have a relationship with god), plagued by chronic health issues throughout his life and by his own paranoia and melancholy in his later years. These troubles, combined with deep convictions resulting from intense self-reflections, forced Rousseau to adopt a quiet life of contemplation and comparative solitude (though not quite as solitary as Rousseau would have you believe–it’s true that he was denounced in the circles where he wanted to be welcome, but he did have many visitors and a great deal of correspondence with fans and well-wishers, in addition to a very supportive wife).

ANYWAYS, Rousseau, in his now quiet and isolated life, sought to find comfort and satisfaction in himself, taking long walks in the countryside during which he would think many thoughts. The ten “walks” which comprise his Reveries are a collection of some of these thoughts. Though I must confess that I have neither completed all of Reveries of a Solitary Walker yet nor totally gotten on board with the way the Rousseau depicted in this text is (his pious brand of self-pity is a bit much, even though I know he had his reasons), there’s something I really really like about the fact that this book exists. Because Rousseau makes THINKING important. Not so you can win an argument, or look clever, or sell a bunch of books. But just so that you can know yourself, and your own moral compass, and how you want to be in the world. As Rousseau “walks” (or rather writes, though the reader is meant, I think, to assume that each section topic is something the author pondered as he rambled around the countryside), he discusses human conundrums like how he came to his unpopular religious beliefs (through “…the basic principles adopted by my reason, confirmed by my heart, and bearing the seal of my conscience uninfluenced by passion” he says in the Third Walk), whether or not it’s alright to tell lies if they don’t advantage you or hurt anyone else, and the uncomfortable moral state people find themselves in when good deeds done freely become obligations done resentfully.

I guess I like Rousseau because although I don’t go on too many long excursions, commuting via public transit has provided ample time for walking and thinking and I often do find myself parsing out moral conundrums like the implications of giving a donation to an organization like the United Way from the comfort of my own home but refusing spare change to a person on the street, or of owning a car even though I know how much damage the extraction, transport, and burning of fossil fuels is doing (or at least, I know that I don’t even know how bad it really is). And sometimes I just find myself thinking about anything, because I have a 20-minute walk from the station to my apartment, and nothing better to do with the time. Today, for example, I thought about how I would hypothetically describe what “seeing” is to a person who was born completely blind and has never experienced it themselves (I settled on saying “Sight is a way of knowing where objects are, and how big they are, and what shape they are, and whether they are moving, without having to touch them or hear them,” but I’m not totally done with that one yet).

What Rousseau does for me is bring home a little epiphany I’d had earlier in this course which is that philosophy doesn’t have to be some lofty process that requires a great deal of book-learning or a knowledge of Greek. It’s just a process of trying to reason out what’s going on within and outside of you, and I realized that when I was a kid, I USED TO PHILOSOPHIZE ALL THE TIME. I grew up in an agnostic household with a father who occasionally turned car rides into mini lectures about whatever (one where he tried to explain to five-year-old me why god wouldn’t be a boy OR a girl comes to mind) and whose answers to my questions about religion were non-dogmatic enough to leave me to make up my own mind about the spiritual realm (except for knowing that god, if god exists, is NOT a boy OR a girl). This meant that I had the freedom to float around in the bathtub while my impatient family members knocked on the door, wondering if I was maybe the only REAL person in the universe (because I couldn’t hear anyone else’s thoughts), or if the fact that I have now existed means that I am infinite (because now there will always be The Time Before Lauren and The Time After Lauren, regardless of how long my physical life is), or whether the weird gyprock spackles on the ceiling were actually a skeleton hoard coming down from the sky on horseback with spears and arrows (probably not but it looked that way from where I was) or whether I was really here at all or whether the whole entire universe is inside a single atom.

My commute notwithstanding, I’ve realized I don’t have as much time to just think about stuff anymore, and though in many ways it’s because I’m now more responsible, and I’m doing and learning lots of cool stuff instead of just being idle, I miss it.

Posted in Arts and Culture, Books | Tagged , , , , | Leave a comment

“Broken Sex Doll” is a Fun and Funny Ride

It is the year 2136. Humans are routinely implanted with sensory hardware that allows them to record and share their own experiences for download. These downloaded experiences are called “feelies”. A culture of vicarious (and often debaucherous) distraction is celebrated. Those who can record the most downloaded experiences are stars, their wealth and fame contributing to their wild popularity.

Sound sort of familiar? It should. The Virtual Stage’s Broken Sex Doll kicks our own voyeuristic pleasures and obsessions with distraction into overdrive. What would we do if we didn’t need even our tiny screens to see, hear, smell, and taste the lives of others? What lows would we sink to if all moral impediments to indulging our needs for distraction were removed?

Benjamin Elliott and Chelse Rose Tucker, singing the word "balls". Photo: Bettina Strauss

Benjamin Elliott and Chelse Rose Tucker, probably singing the word “balls”. Photo: Bettina Strauss

When watching a musical love story full of sex, robots, and, well, sex robots, it’s best to just go with it. Broken Sex Doll can feel a bit silly or exaggerated at times, but so is our tabloid culture. Like your favourite childhood sci-fi flick, the design concept has a fantastic 80s feel, the villains are wonderfully villainous and the heroes are heartwarmingly loveable. As a bonus, it’s pretty damn funny too–Experience the frustrations of running the set-up program on your brand new sex-bot! Find out why a wave of feelie-downloading females suddenly want penises! Get totally icked out by a mother-son soft shoe routine!

Supported by a tight ensemble cast, the Virtual Stage’s leads form a powerhouse theatrical quartet, each bringing their own unique talents to the York stage. From the affable Everyman quality of Benjamin Elliott, reprising his Jessie-nominated role as Daryl (his virtuosic physical work complemented by a charming emotional depth), to the sexy physical prowess of former Cirque du Soleil performer Neezar as The King; and from Greg Armstrong-Morris’ frankly frightening diva-esque machinations as The King’s Mom, to the sweet clear-as-bell singing voice of Chelsea Rose Tucker as the mysterious Ginger, the cast of Broken Sex Doll pull off a surprisingly multifaceted and nuanced performance, combining lighthearted gyrating with deeper questions on the nature of the human experience.

Considering recent innovations like tablet computing and Google Glass, director and playwright Andy Thompson’s script feels remarkably prescient. You can certainly attend Broken Sex Doll for the laughs alone, but you may find yourself considering the premise in a more intellectual way. Broken Sex Doll has enough dramatic meat to have been a more serious play. The fact that Thompson and composer Anton Lipovetsky joined forces to make a musical comedy instead is just the audience’s good luck.

Broken Sex Doll runs at the York Theatre (639 Commercial Dr.) until November 22. Tickets can be purchased online through The Cultch’s website. Minors are not permitted in the theatre during evening performances, and all performances, including matinees, will contain mature content and language.

Disclosure: I attended Thursday night’s performance of Broken Sex Doll courtesy of The Cultch.

Posted in Arts and Culture, Theatre | Tagged , , , , | Leave a comment

Yes We Can (Change Our Minds)

Q-program-image_1027091130544_16x9_620x350Like most Canadians (and perhaps some interested folk south of the border), I have been following reports of the allegations made against former CBC radio and television personality Jian Ghomeshi very closely.

There are many lessons to be learned here–lessons about what consent is, lessons about why victims of assault may choose not to report, lessons about our willingness to look the other way when it comes to a person who has star power, and lessons about how we perceive and treat victims of assault. Many of these lessons are disturbing, but necessary.

There is, however, one lesson I am actually glad to be reminded of as I watch this story unfold on social media and through conversations: we can change our minds.

When it was first announced that Ghomeshi had been fired, the CBC was not saying why, and the Toronto Star was keeping mum until its own story was ready. Several people I love and whose opinion I regard very highly are/were huge fans of Ghomeshi’s show Q, and were furious that one of their favourite media personalities had been dropped by the beleaguered public broadcaster whose continued relevance and popularity (such as it is) are due mostly to shows like his. When Ghomeshi published his version of events on Facebook (in an effort to “get ahead of the story”) these same beloved folks, along with many other die-hard fans, denounced the CBC as prude-ish and out of touch.

When the Toronto Star published the allegations they had collected, and as more women began adding their voices to these allegations (some anonymously, some publicly), Ghomeshi’s initial statement was put under the microscope. And then I got to see a beautiful thing: I got to see people examine the new evidence and change their minds. People that I know had been long-time fans of Q and its host were looking past all that and saying, “Something isn’t right here.”

This might not seem like such a big thing to you. You might say, “Well of COURSE they changed their minds! Who wouldn’t in the face of mounting evidence?”, but the fact is that changing your mind is not always that easy. One only needs to look at the case of Steubenville, Ohio, where irrefutable evidence of the 2012 sexual assault of an unconscious teenaged girl was recorded and shared by her high school football-playing assailants. There was no doubt the assault had occurred. And yet, many people of the community of Steubenville loved their high school football team, and could not change their minds about them. The victim received death threats, despite having nothing to do with either her assault or the fact that the evidence of it was willingly shared on the internet by her assailants. Had the rapist been a shady character the town had always hated, the victim may have been believed and supported, no questions asked. But Steubenville loved their football team, and could not change their minds, even after two of the perpetrators were found guilty in juvenile court.

[You’d have a point if you said that it’s harder to change your feelings about people you know personally and that is true. So I will also provide the example of Roman Polanski, celebrated film directer and convicted rapist, who plead guilty to drugging and raping a 13-year-old girl before fleeing the U.S. to avoid his sentence. He is still much loved by many, inside and outside of Hollywood.]

My point is that changing your mind about an issue, or about a person, can be unsettling, and difficult. But often it is the right thing to do. I understand the cynicism felt when certain Republicans (like Dick Cheney and Senator Rob Portman) become suddenly less homophobic upon discovering members of their own families are gay, but the important thing is that these people, who had held very firm views regarding homosexuality, can change their minds. They can think about the person they love and realize that they were mistaken.

When people change their mind in this way it gives me hope. Politicians are often celebrated for being “unshakeable” or “steadfast” in their positions, and sneered at if they are “flip-floppers”, but I’m not so sure that “steadfast” in many of these cases isn’t just another term for “stubbornly and pigheadedly holding to their view of things, regardless of evidence to the contrary”. Much bad policy has been enacted in Canada by governments who wanted to be “unshakeable” rather than adaptable, and “focused” rather than “open-minded”. It’s no secret that I have many problems with Canada’s current “Harper Government”, and much of the legislation I have issue with is a result of this kind of obstinance (scientific or statistical evidence doesn’t support your policy? Why not burn the scientific records, prevent scientists from talking to citizens, or get rid of the long-form census? That’s way better for the country than simply adapting your policies to reflect evidence-based realities!).

Changing your mind, especially if you’ve been very public about your position or beliefs in the past, is uncomfortable, sometimes embarrassing. You’d probably feel sheepish admitting you’d gotten it so wrong. And yet, a little change of mind is exactly what we need. Imagine how quickly labour disputes would be resolved if the parties could admit where they were wrong instead of waiting to break each other down. Imagine how much more respect you’d have for politicians if they said, “You know what? The policy we were pursuing no longer works. Upon examining the evidence more closely, it seems that we need to go in a different direction and we will be working towards that.” Imagine if a massive, multi-billion dollar oil company said, “The writing seems to be on the wall and fossil fuels are not the way of the future. We’ve got billions of dollars to spend and we’re going to spend it developing clean technologies.” Imagine the true progress we could make as a species if we could learn to change our ways and change our minds every now and again.

As the late John Lennon sang, “You may say I’m a dreamer, but I’m not the only one.” With each good decision, each humble change of heart, we are, I hope, inching a little closer towards grace.

Posted in Politics | Tagged , , , | Leave a comment

“Evil Dead: The Musical” is Bloody Outrageous

Five young college students park their car on a lonely road and venture deep into the woods to spend their vacation in an abandoned cabin. The boys are expecting a weekend of hanky-panky and the nerdy little sister has plans to read and bake. Their car is an unreliable piece of junk, they’re technically breaking into the cabin since they didn’t actually rent it, and they didn’t tell anyone where they were going. Surely nothing can possibly go wrong, except everything you might expect from an abandoned cabin in the middle of the woods (accessible only by a single, easily destroyed, footbridge) a creepy cellar full of creepy voices, and an ancient book written in blood.

So begins the camp and gore-fest that is Down Stage Right ProductionsEvil Dead: The Musical, a blood-squirting, chain-sawing song-and-dance extravaganza that has its tongue firmly in cheek and its demon-possessed sister locked in the basement.

Scott Walters and Meghan Anderssen('s head). Photo: Graham Ockley

Scott Walters and Meghan Anderssen(‘s head). Photo: Graham Ockley

For an exaggerated and ridiculous show like Evil Dead to be cheeky and entertaining rather than silly and embarrassing, two things need to happen. First, the cast needs to be strong enough to carry their audience through outrageous plot points and musical numbers like “What the F*ck Was That?” and “”All the Men in My Life Keep Getting Killed by Candarian Demons”. Second, everyone involved needs to completely understand what kind of show they’re in. Performers who aren’t talented or don’t try because it’s supposed to be “funny” rely on the jokes in the script without actually doing the work required to transmit those jokes to the audience. Alternatively, an actor (or director) taking themselves too seriously would deflate every scene and pull the audience down with them. Luckily, this production of Evil Dead has none of those problems. Every cast member is an excellent singer with impeccable comedic timing, and every cast member knows how to work with an audience to ensure we’re the ones having the most fun (not that the performers aren’t having fun as well).

Simply put, Evil Dead: The Musical is ridiculously fun. What began as a cult classic film series has moved onto the stage and gained a devoted fan-base (some of whom are willing to attend the show in costume and pay extra to sit in the “splatter zone”). The play involves several nudges and winks to the audience, and the audience itself is evolving some traditions that make watching the show similar in feel to cult productions like Rocky Horror Picture Show, however, unlike Rocky Horror, you don’t need to be in on the traditions to get the joke. Since Evil Dead pays homage to horror movie tropes familiar to anyone who spent their youth watching teen slasher flicks, and actually has a plot that makes (some) sense, I believe Evil Dead to be more enjoyable and less alienating to the average unfamiliar-with-the-show audience member. Young love, bad puns, dancing demons, shotguns–in a show that consistently makes fun of itself, what’s not to like?

Evil Dead: The Musical plays at the Norman Rothstein Theatre until November 1. Tickets can be purchased online through DSR Production’s website.

Disclosure: I attended Friday night’s performance of Evil Dead: The Musical courtesy of DSR Productions.

 

 

 

Posted in Arts and Culture, Theatre | Tagged , , , | Leave a comment

Fighting Chance presents “Carrie the musical”

Carrie the musical presented by Fighting Chance Productions at the Jericho Arts Centre, now until October 25.

Carrie PosterPNG

Poster: Elie Berkowitz

As the tragic consequences of high school bullying continue to dominate headlines in both Canada and the U.S., the story of Carrie, the protagonist of Stephen King’s 1974 novel of the same name, seems all too current. Abused at home by her fanatically religious mother, the peculiar Carrie White finds no compassion at school, only ridicule. This could be the story of many tortured young girls across the continent, with one exception: most teenagers can’t unleash one of pop culture’s most infamous prom scenes with their minds.

When it comes to musicals, especially those adapted from well-known films or books, it would be insulting to the audience to pretend they don’t know what will happen, and to rest on the strength of the plot alone. The challenge of any theatre company producing a show like Carrie the musical is to force us to see the story with fresh eyes, while still paying homage to the original. Though I haven’t read Carrie or seen the 1976 film adaptation, the images conjured up by Stephen King and film director Brian De Palma have become so iconic that I was familiar with the major plot points before I even walked into the Jericho on Friday. Audience members entering the playing space were immediately greeted by a floor-to-ceiling white set, blank except for the word “Carrie” scrawled over and over in black crayon, a nod, I felt, to the influence this name now has on our cultural imagination.

On the whole, Fighting Chance has mounted a success (this is also the first Canadian regional production of Carrie the musical). The production is sympathetic not only to the lonely Carrie but also to her classmates at school, who may take part in her bullying but are, in some ways, subject to many of the same pressures Carrie feels and are trying to protect themselves. There are even shreds of pity to be had for villainous Teen Bitch Chris Hargensen (architect of the pig’s blood plot) and oppressive, morbidly religious Margaret White. The chorus of Chamberlain High students is strong and the teenaged characters manage to evoke feelings of excitement and nostalgia for the last days of high school, even as we know the “night [they'll] never forget” will end in carnage.

By far the most powerful scenes in this production are those between Ranae Miller (Carrie White) and Sabrina Prada (Margaret White). Miller and White are incredibly strong performers and their duets reveal much about the warped complexities of their relationship, rife with abuse, fear, and yes, a terrible amount of love. It is in these mother-daughter scenes that much of the show’s later horror is established and maintained–their first duet, “And Eve Was Weak”, in which Mrs. White physically punishes Carrie for getting her period, is especially chilling. Carrie’s innocent desire to blossom into womanhood and her mother’s need for absolute moral control balance each scene on a knife’s edge and these roles could not have been better cast.

On the technical side, I appreciated Fighting Chance’s use of a live band (it just makes a show so much more cohesive and immediate) and director/set designer Ryan Mooney’s use of colour in the production. The white floor and walls, coupled with costuming details like Carrie’s mother’s bleached white night gown, provide a blank canvas energetically imbued with the blood we know is coming. And Carrie just wouldn’t be Carrie without the blood.

Performances of Carrie the musical will run at the Jericho Arts Centre until October 25. Tickets can be purchased online through Tickets Tonight.

Disclosure: My tickets to see Friday’s performance were provided by Fighting Chance Productions.

Posted in Arts and Culture, Theatre | Tagged , , | Leave a comment

I Don’t Like van Gogh’s Sunflowers (and other cultural confessions)

Vincent_Willem_van_Gogh_127I don’t like Vincent van Gogh’s Sunflowers. I don’t. I think they look puffy and pregnant and mildewy and sick–and all kinds of wrong, like furry alien appendages poking out of vases that couldn’t possibly be large enough to hold them upright. The paintings are a rotten-artichoke coloured assault on my eyeballs and I just don’t like them. So there.

I like to think I’m about as cultured as any other middle-class North American with a university education, who grew up with creative and left-leaning parents and an abundance of white privilege. As a child, I didn’t have “fine art” all over the walls and we weren’t at the philharmonic or the opera every week Vincent_Willem_van_Gogh_128but my young life did include some rare and exciting trips to the ballet, theatre, museums, galleries, etc. and the rest of the time I had access to a huge amount of recorded music (both in my parents’ collections and on CBC Radio), prints and posters, good films, music lessons, SO many books of course, and assistance in pursuing post-secondary study. All this is to say that I had more than enough opportunity to become familiar with and learn to appreciate the Western Canon of art and culture as well as important contemporary artistic, literary, and cultural figures and objects.

But sometimes, I just DON’T. Appreciate them, I mean. And sometimes, instead, I appreciate absolute total crap. I’m a traitor to my learned middle-class compatriots, perhaps, but that’s just how I feel about some things. For example:

DANTE’S INFERNO

I understand that Dante’s ideas of the punishments of hell really infiltrated the Western imagination (a lot of what people imagine hell to be like actually comes from Dante, not the Bible) but otherwise, come on! Most of Inferno rattles off the names of political and artistic figures that Dante was familiar with (often personally) and which he had the audacity, or the pettiness, to place in his fictional hell (some of the people he mentions weren’t even dead yet when he wrote about their divine punishments). There are some interesting things going on in this text but for the most part, I feel like there are more enjoyable books to be read.

Mona_LisaLEONARDO DA VINCI

A genius, certainly, but not always my cup of tea (with the notable exception of Lady with an Ermine and MAYBE The Last Supper). His depictions of the Christ child are creepy monstrosities, and most of his women look like clean-shaven men with dresses and no eyelashes. And the Mona Lisa? I’m pretty sure she’s smiling so mysteriously because she’s actually just Leonardo da Vinci in a wig. Given da Vinci’s incredible talent there’s really no excuse for not getting women right (and he could, as his drawing of a female head, “La Scapigliata” shows, so I’m not sure why he didn’t).

MICHELANGELO’S CREATION OF ADAM

La-Creazione-dellUomo-di-Michelangelo-Cappella-SistinaDon’t get me wrong–Michelangelo was another genius of the Italian Renaissance. His statue of David is absolutely breathtaking. But the famous “Bearded Man in the Sky touches finger of Naked Man Lounging on a Hillside”? No. Adam’s head looks tiny compared to his body. Nitpicking aside, I’m just not moved by the sight of all these corpulently-muscled naked males lounging around in pretentiously-affected poses. In a frozen scene, as in performance, the sight of what could be an energetic line broken by languor, weakness, or a simple inability to follow through and complete the image is absolutely maddening. God is reaching down and TOUCHING you, Adam! The least you can do is look excited about it and carry that through-line of energy into your hand and out that index finger that is touching GOD. Instead, Michelangelo’s Adam listlessly proffers his hand like a past-her-prime Elizabeth Taylor getting a manicure. Eugh. Could you look any less thrilled to be here, Adam? Is there something more important that you were doing before you were CALLED INTO BEING?

THOMAS MORE’S UTOPIA

Um…it’s not a nice place. Just read the book. It’s not a place most of us would ever want to live in and I’m not sure what More’s point was when he conceived it. Some things, like food and medicine for all, sound great. Other things, like a life sentence of enforced celibacy for having premarital sex, seem arbitrary and cruel and add little to the Utopian concept except to reveal More’s Catholic bias (a bias he seems to really try to set aside in other parts of the text but which certainly comes out here).

GERTRUDE STEIN

I know many people far more intelligent than me have confirmed her brilliance, so I’ll have to take their word for it, but I spent two semesters studying Stein’s work (and performing it) and I just couldn’t get there. Most of it (the exception being the Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas which is totally conceited and self-praising but still very good) just seems like nonsensical garbage to me. And whenever an academic or a poet or another smart kind of person tells me that they see something in the texts, that Stein had some kind of goal or purpose in her work, I think they’re lying. If she had wanted us to know what she was talking about her readers wouldn’t have had to hypothesize about it for a hundred years. The fact that no one has ever actually been able to tell me that they actually KNOW what any of her work was about (even in a general sense) is enough for me. Gertrude, you lived a very interesting life and your support of the artists around you was incredibly important but good god, woman. Did you have to write Four Saints in Three Acts? Did you? Because I had to READ it, and I can never have those hours of my life back.

J. D. SALINGER’S THE CATCHER IN THE RYE

I’ve already written a little bit about why I found both Catcher in the Rye and The Great Gatsby a bit irritating, but really, this book just made me sad and impatient. Get it together, rich boy! If I have to read Salinger, I’d rather read Franny and Zooey even though in many ways it is equally frustrating.

THE GRADUATE

What is there to like about this film? Were you all on drugs? See point above about being sad and impatient while watching directionless rich boys failing to get their poop in a pile.

LED ZEPPELIN

It’s not that I don’t like Led Zeppelin, I’m sure I actually do. But if you played me their most famous song, one I’ve probably definitely heard so many times, and said, “Whose song is this?” I wouldn’t be able to tell you. I’m sorry. I’d have no goddamn clue.

MAYA ANGELOU

This makes me feel like a monster because it’s MAYA ANGELOU for goodness sakes–a courageous, inspiring woman of colour whose incredible career in literature and the arts expressed the realities of an incredible, and not always easy, life. But whenever I read her poems (or her line of greeting cards), my response was always kind of, “M’h”. Which says more about me than about Angelou I think. What kind of cynical bum doesn’t like to be inspired? Me, apparently.

MARGARET ATWOOD’S PENELOPIAD

People apparently liked this book SO MUCH they turned it into a play (which I haven’t seen, because I was iffy on the book). I just felt like I could sense Atwood on every page, winking at the reader (or perhaps herself) and saying, “Tee hee. How clever I am!”. I don’t know. Maybe I should give this one another go.

THE ACADEMY AWARD-WINNING FILM THE ARTIST

I wanted to like this film. I really really did. Jean Dujardin is a charming actor and the film was full of old-school whimsy but like most of the feature-length films from the actual silent movie era, it was just too damn long. It wasn’t a very complicated story. It didn’t need to take quite that long to tell it. All the good will I had when I began the film evaporated pretty quickly watching the confused and despairing Dujardin emoting for the umpteenth time.

I know I’m not as talented as any of these artists or writers or musicians or filmmakers and that nothing I will ever make will be as important as even the least of their works. I know it’s easy to be a critic, and I know I shouldn’t indulge in trashing things I have not taken enough time to truly know anything about. But sometimes, I get tired of trying to be educated, and it is an immense pleasure to get some of the bitterness out of my system.

And it’s not that I automatically reject great work either. I love Vivaldi and Beethoven and Tchaikovsky ballets and Debussy’s “Clair de Lune”. I love Greek tragedies and Shakespeare (sometimes) and Alice Munro and the Beatles and Leonard Cohen and the paintings of Botticelli and also Marc Chagall. And I do try to learn to love, or at least like, the more difficult works for what they can teach me, and how they can inspire me. All is not lost for my liberal arts education. As for poor maligned van Gogh, while his sunflowers are gloomy to me, his Cafe Terrace on the Place du Forum most certainly is not. Has painted light ever looked so warm?

tumblr_lqu45inr9I1qgy9v6o1_400

Posted in Arts and Culture, Books, Music, Theatre | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , | 3 Comments

Happy Thanksgiving, and Good Riddance to Columbus Day!

1378159-colu5As much as I can’t believe it’s nearly mid-October, it cannot be denied that Canadian Thanksgiving is nearly upon is. For our neighbours south of the border, this means preparing to take Monday off work in celebration of Columbus Day.

Or not: yesterday I came across this little internet tidbit informing me that the city of Seattle, Washington, recently voted to do away with Columbus Day and start celebrating the second Monday in October as Indigenous Peoples’ Day instead.

I immediately thought three things:

  1. I didn’t know that cities could declare their own holidays, or re-designate existing ones.
  2. What a great idea!
  3. I wonder if we should do the same with a holiday in Canada?

Regarding Thought #1, I would love to be able to tell you whether it’s possible for Canadian cities to declare or re-designate holidays, but feel like the process of looking this up would be, frankly, too boring. So I won’t.

About Thought #2: I think it’s pretty obvious to most people by now that European explorers like Christopher Columbus did not “discover” anything. There had been people (i.e. full-on societies) living in both North and South America for thousands of years before these swashbuckling yahoos showed up and ruined their lives. Celebrating Christopher Columbus or any other European explorer for thinking they’ve “discovered” some place just because neither they nor anyone they knew personally had been there (despite being already populated) is almost as stupid as giving ME a holiday for “discovering” your house, robbing your family, and inviting my asshole friends to move in.

And let’s not mince words: Christopher Columbus was a TOTAL asshole. If you want to know why without having to do any boring research, enjoy this Columbus Day informational graphic courtesy of The Oatmeal.

In light of his self-righteous and greed-induced robbery, rape, mutilation, murder, and enslavement of Indigenous people in the Americas, it makes absolute and total sense NOT to celebrate this colossal shit and instead to turf Columbus Day in favour of a day that both acknowledges the historical (and ongoing) wrongs perpetrated against Indigenous people and celebrates their rich culture and heritage. So good for you for re-designating this holiday, Seattle. You rock.

And now for Canada (Thought #3, if you’re keeping count). Our upcoming secular holiday is Thanksgiving, a holiday that seems to be all about having the warm fuzzies and counting your blessings (and eating a lot of food) as autumn sets in. Sounds good to me. Remembrance Day is about the past and present sacrifices of the men and women serving in Canada’s military. All right. Family Day is about spending a day with your family. No problems with that. Generally speaking, our Christianity-based holidays are more traditional than religious, and our secular holidays are innocuous at worst and excellent times to recognize the best in ourselves and others at best.

indexExcept Victoria Day. What the heck is that about? A celebration of the birthday of Queen Victoria, a British monarch who already has two Canadian provincial capitals named after her (Regina and Victoria) and never set foot in this country. Compared to a murderous lout like Columbus she seems harmless enough, but the Victorian era was no walk in the park. Victorian society was incredibly sexually repressive, and the conditions under which Britain’s poor lived and worked were nothing short of appalling (not that this is all necessarily Victoria’s fault, but as the head of state it’s not NOT her fault either). From what I can gather, Queen Victoria seemed pretty intelligent, really loved her husband, had lots of kids, and lived a long time. And that’s great and all….but not really “get a national holiday named after you” great.

Besides,  it was during her reign that conditions in Western Canada continued to get worse for First Nations and Métis people. The Canadian Government (of which, remember, she was the head of state) was behaving like assholes. Land in the prairies (some of which was already being farmed by French Catholic and Métis farmers like Louis Riel) was being parceled out to English settlers and resistance to this (the most notable of which was the North West Rebellion) was violently stamped out. Promises to teach Cree tribes to farm in return for land and to protect them from hunger while they learned to change their way of life were ignored. In British Columbia (whose name, according to Wikipedia, was actually chosen by good ol’ Queen Vic), the Canadian government didn’t really bother with treaties at all and simply took control over the whole schmeer in 1871. Canadian history is really not my forte, but it seems that life for First Nations People in Canada didn’t seem to improve a whole lot after Confederation, despite the song and dance about how wonderful the establishment of the country was for everyone else.

Of course, I’m not saying all of this is Queen Victoria’s fault per se, but as major events that occurred in Canada during her reign, none of this is worth celebrating. What IS worth celebrating is the tenacity and courage of First Nations people throughout this oppressive history, and the unique cultures that have remained alive despite racist, violent, and systemic attempts to stamp themt out.

I know there have already been attempts to re-name and re-designate Victoria Day, but so far it doesn’t seem like much has happened. Why not? Why continue to celebrate a legacy of violence and repression? Why not celebrate the fact that we get to live in an amazing and beautiful country and didn’t even have to fight a war for the privilege? Makes sense to me. (By the way, the argument that “It’s always been called Victoria Day” holds absolutely NO water since most people my age call the holiday “May Long” or “May 2-4″ anyways.)

Anyways, things to think about on your hopefully happy Canadian Thanksgiving.

Posted in Canadiana, Politics | Tagged , , | Leave a comment

Butt Kapinski – collectively-created Film Noir at its finest, and most vulgar

I was recently complaining to a theatrical friend of mine that of all the arts events and shows that have claimed to be immersive and interactive with their audiences, very few that I have seen truly were. That is, until I met Butt Kapinski, private eye and film noir enthusiast (performed by creator Deanna Fleysher in the Cultch’s VanCity Culture Lab). Butt Kapinski wants to make a film noir, and Butt Kapinski wants us to help him.

Deanna Fleysher as the unflappable Butt Kapinski

Deanna Fleysher as the unflappable Butt Kapinski

Obtaining and enlisting our good humour from the get-go, Fleysher’s creation, the lisping but likeable private investigator Butt Kapinski, manages to charm, cajole, and occasionally chastise his audience into creating an entire 60-minute film noir world, with its grisly murders, seedy locales, dangerous characters, and atmospheric music. As befits an old-school private “dick”, Fleysher is dressed in slacks, with suspenders and a tie, and a long trench coat with her very own streetlamp/desk lamp rising out of the back of her collar to dangle over her head. I raised my eyebrows a little when Butt Kapinski first emerged from the shadows and I saw this odd contraption, but I soon realized that this lamp is genius, immediately creating mood and bringing our focus to whichever hapless audience members are needed for the next scene. Over the course of the evening, I played spurting blood, a filthy john, and Hobo John (who was a different kind of filthy John, I guess).

[Note: Much as I love being part of the action, I did not ask to be Hobo John. I was sitting in my seat enjoying the show when Fleysher shone her light on my section, telling us that Butt Kapinski was down by the railroad tracks, where all the hobos hang out (us). "And there," she said, climbing into to risers to stand over me, "we find the dirtiest, the most pathetic, the saddest old hobo of them all: Hobo John. What train are you waiting for, Hobo John?" I couldn't answer because I was laughing so hard. "Yeah, well that train's never gonna come," Fleysher/Kapinski said, "So cry, Hobo John. Cry your filthy tears." (at this point my face was in my hands and I was shaking), "You didn't always used to be this way, Hobo John," she said, and I shook my head no. "You used to be someone, didn't ya? You used to be something special. What did you used to be, Hobo John?" and I was so nervous under that lamp I said the first thing that popped into my head, which for some reason was, "A ballerina!". "A ballerina," Fleysher/Kapinski sneered contemptuously, "that's quite a change, from a ballerina to a big gross man." and with that my time was done, and Fleysher's light swung to a new victim/performer/audience member, and a new part of the story.]

Fleysher is a master at getting the audience on her side, and into her world. The ushers warned us as we walked in that there were no “safe seats”, and because of that’s true, I think no one was really put upon or singled out more than anyone else. However, this show is definitely not for everyone. If you do not want to play along with whatever strange, awkward, or potentially totally vulgar thing Fleysher/Kapinski is doing, this is not the show for you. Though Fleysher is an incredible improviser and can work with anything the audience members throw at her, Butt Kapinski himself really doesn’t put up with anyone being too cool or too shy or too offended to participate, so if you REALLY don’t like this sort of thing you might be better off giving this one a pass.

But if you did give it a pass, that would really be too bad. It’s been a long time since I have had so much fun at the theatre. Fleysher truly includes her audience in her work and this show genuinely cannot function without them. The Culture Lab is an intimate space and Fleysher has a unique gift for stealthily dissolving the divides of silence and civility that usually separate audience members from performers, and from each other. She is a artist who has clearly studied audiences. She knows how we react, she knows what makes us uncomfortable, and she knows how far she can go (or rather, how to get us in the palm of her hand early on so that she can go as far as she likes). The intensity and adaptability of Fleysher’s focus in the face of an ever-changing crowd of unique individuals is nothing short of miraculous (in an obscene, hilarious kind of way).

If I have one criticism of the show, it’s that I didn’t need the ending to be what it was. TC (who was with me) didn’t seem to mind it, so it might just be one of those intangible things where I see a particular part of a great show and think to myself, “Huh. Was that bit necessary?” and simply choose to write that bit off as Not For Me. Maybe it was how raunchy Fleysher got by the end; I’m not sure.

And my god, Butt Kapinski IS filthy. But small criticisms aside, it is so funny and so FUN and so unique in its ability to absorb its audience into the world it’s creating that I consider it a rare gem amongst my theatrical experiences.

Butt Kapinski runs until October 11 in the VanCity Culture Lab at the Cultch. Tickets can be purchased online from the the Cultch Vancouver.

Disclosure: TC and I were able to see the opening night performance of this show by invitation of the publicist for Butt Kapinski.

Posted in Arts and Culture, Theatre | Tagged , , , | Leave a comment

People’s Climate March Vancouver: I came, I marched, I blogged

IMG_1311

First we gathered at CBC Plaza

If you’ve at all been paying attention to the news lately you probably know that approximately 400 000 people marched through the streets of New York last Sunday to demand that the world and its leaders (125 of whom were meeting this week for a UN summit on climate change) to take meaningful action against climate change. What you may not have known was that this historical event (the largest climate march in history) partnered with marches in more than 130 cities all across the globe, including here in Vancouver. Though I’d received a phone call from the lovely people at leadnow.ca inviting me to take part in the upcoming march, I was feeling overwhelmed by various urgent and not-so-urgent obligations and wasn’t sure I was actually going to attend until I came across an opinion piece by Dr. Lynne Quarmby in the Vancouver Sun that morning (the piece was actually from the previous Friday; I just didn’t see it until Sunday morning). And that settled it. If you’ve ever read my blog, you’ll know that there are a lot of issues I care about. To name a few that I’ve written about at least once: I care about women’s rights and gender equality. I care about marriage equality and the rights of LGBT people. I care about the integrity of our democratic institutions. I care about the arts.

IMG_1318

After some speeches, we’re on the move!

Until recently, if you’d asked me if the environment was a top priority of mine I would have said no. Not because I didn’t care about the environment, but because defending it seemed impossible, especially in the face of my own complicity in the causes of climate change (I sure do love using electricity, driving cars, and buying cheap products about whose production I know nothing). I thought, “Why does this have to be my fight? Can’t it be David Suzuki’s fight? I mean, I recycle, don’t I?”. Even though I always knew I was against, for example, the proposed Northern Gateway crude oil pipeline, my reasons at first had more to do with not wanting diluted bitumen sloshing around in my backyard than about the planet as a whole.

IMG_1315

Gorgeous sign art by a talented marcher.

But then I realized that the crisis we are facing is so much bigger than my own backyard. It’s not just that we need to find a less controversial and more democratic way to review and approve energy projects, it’s that the oil actually needs to stay in the ground. It’s not just that Canadian ports have no business shipping the U.S.’s coal overseas (we don’t–we really shouldn’t be helping U.S. companies skirt around new American environmental regulations), it’s that the coal needs to stay in the ground. It’s not just the thousands of jobs in agriculture, aquaculture, and the tourism industry that will be lost if a pipeline leaks  or a tanker spills, it’s the thousands of human lives that have already been lost due to extreme weather events caused by climate change over the past few years. Our selfish actions, and our indifferent attitudes, are killing people.

And you know what else? We’re killing ourselves too. Do you think a drought, or a hurricane, or a flood, or an ice storm, gives a crap that you live in Canada, or work really hard at your job, or are rich, or are devout? Nope. Not at all. We’ve messed with a balance that is pretty important to our survival and now this imbalance is messing with us. We can stop it. But we need to act now. We need to stop being defeatist and thinking there’s nothing we can do. And we need to demand that our politicians stop selling the ground we stand on out from under us.

So that is why I marched. That’s why I chanted and cheered and, once or twice, cried a few tears because hope is so heartbreaking, especially hope in the face of such powerful and insidious forces.

There is no room for dismissing me or my fellow marchers around the world as radicals or foreign agents or whatever the hell Joe Oliver and Stephen Harper and Ezra Levant would have you believe. We are regular people from all walks of life who have read the writing on the wall and know that something needs to be done.

It’s not even about our children’s future anymore. It’s about ours. You don’t need to be an environmentalist or a leftist or a Democrat or a hippie to know that you can’t eat money, or drink investments, or live in a city that’s under water or buried in snow. Common sense (and the consensus of the scientific community) tells us that you can’t essentially burn down your house and still live in it.

There are a lot of things I want to achieve and fight for in my life, but none of that will matter if this fight is not won. I’m trying to save my own home. What’s so radical about that? As my favourite sign from Sunday’s march read, “There is no ‘Planet B’”.

Think about it.

P.S. Maclean’s did a great interview with Naomi Klein that is well worth a read.

Posted in Canadiana, Politics | Tagged , , , | Leave a comment

The Diamonds and the Jar

jelly-jar1Once upon a time there was a jar with clear sides and a lid. The jar was mostly full of air but at the bottom of the jar there was a tiny heap of earth sitting in a shallow pool of water. Living on the tiny heap of earth were tiny plants. When they were warmed by the light which shone through the glass the water in their leaves rose into the air and up under the lid of the jar. At night the jar was cool and the water fell as rain. As the tiny plants died they left their nutrients in the tiny heap of earth so that other tiny plants could grow. In this way, the jar, though small, was perfect.

Living amongst the tiny plants on the tiny heap of earth were tiny tiny people. They were so small that for them, the tiny heap of earth was a world and the tiny plants were a forest that stretched as far as they could see. They ate the fruits that grew on the tiny plants and lived in their boughs, and breathed in the air that the plants breathed out. When the tiny people died their bodies left nutrients in the tiny heap of earth so that other plants could grow, and other tiny people benefit. In this way, the people, though small, were perfect. This is not to say that there was no toil, or grief, but that there was balance.

It was quite by accident that someone found the diamonds. Most of them were buried deep within the heap of earth but some had made their way to the surface over time and lay glittering in the light, scattered here and there, small as berries. The tiny people who found these diamonds had never seen anything like them before but since everything else the earth gave up was good, like the plants, they believed the diamonds were good too. As they would with a new fruit, they touched one of the diamonds to see if it would sting their skin. It did not. They smelled the diamond, to see if it was rotting or acrid. It was not. They licked the black diamond, to see if their throats closed or their bellies revolted at the taste. They did not. One of the tiny people, the bravest or perhaps the most curious, put the diamond in their mouth, and swallowed it.

It was in this way that the people who lived in the jar discovered the wonders of the diamonds. When you had eaten one of these diamonds, you were stronger, and faster. Distances that would have taken days to walk were a very small matter for a person who had eaten a diamond. “Miraculous!” the people said, “the diamonds are gifts of energy from the earth!” And they were.

Life became easier for the people in the jar. The extra energy they received from the ground meant they could spend less time on toil, and more time in leisure. They could think about, and create, things that were beautiful, not only things that were necessary. They could visit family who had married into other tribes or moved into other villages because the trip was now a matter of hours, rather than a matter of days. Children who had grown up after the discovery of the diamonds did not know a world without them–they imagined this world would be a hard, inefficient, and ignorant place.

Of course, like anything that comes from the ground and is eaten, a single diamond could provide energy for an hour or two, no more. And when the miracle of the diamond had passed, a hunger for another would begin.

Not that the people needed to eat diamonds all the time. “Of course not,” they would say to each other, “that would be silly.” They ate the diamonds only to hasten their various labours, and when they needed to travel. Diamonds were not needed during times of leisure, only times of work. And yet there were those who occasionally ate them for fun, because they loved the speed of their movements, loved the freedom and strength and grace these diamonds seemed to give them. And of course, people often ate diamonds to travel even short trips, because it was faster that way, and would save time.

In fact, it seemed that once people began to save time by eating diamonds, they realized how precious time truly was. Their predecessors had plodded through life, taking for granted that another minute would follow this one, another day would follow that. “How backwards,” the people thought now, “how erroneous, to waste time as our grandparents did! Let us always give time its due, and value efficiency in ourselves and others.”

Efficiency meant diamonds were required, but that was alright, because they were so small, and scattered in so many low places on the heap of earth (now that the people knew what to look for), and there were so many of them. But even the sands in the desert are not innumerable if you begin removing them grain by grain. Eventually there were only a few places where diamonds could be found and the people, unable to imagine a life without their gifts, began to fight over them, and to panic.

Fortunately, or so it seemed, the most clever and enterprising of the tiny people realized that like the plants that grew from roots buried deep beneath the earth, the diamonds on the surface were just fragments of the treasure to be found by digging. And so the people dug. They cut down their tiny trees and built tiny machines to harvest the tiny piece of earth on which they lived. Many of the plants were cleared away to make room for holes, and left to rot in piles. Leisure was unheard of now–diamonds must be mined, diamonds to improve the lives of the people! What did they care that the pace and scale of the work required the consumption of even more diamonds? Efficiency demanded fast work, fast work required energy, and energy required diamonds. It made perfect sense, and yet–

There were some people in the jar, strange people, but maybe wise people, whose eyes could see farther than others’, and whose memories were longer. “We used to have more trees,” they said, “we used to have better air. Can’t you tell?” But the people busy digging ignored them. “Plants grow,” they said, “and air is all around us. There is no shortage.”

But the wise people were not so sure. Once they began looking they could not stop, and the more their eyes saw the more their eyes filled with tears. It wasn’t only that the trees and plants were being depleted–made into machinery or cleared away. There was something about the diamonds themselves, something that happened when the people ate them. The air they exhaled was different from other air, harsher, heavier. People were used to coughing after eating a diamond, and called the condition “diamond lung”, but considered it only an annoyance. The wise people were not so sure. The air in villages where many people lived became thicker, heavy with their crystalline exhalations, and the weakest of the people were often ill, and sent to spend time in the forest. Somehow the plants helped.

The wise people saw this, and were worried. Eating the diamonds dirtied the air, and plants cleaned it. But people were killing the plants to mine more diamonds, and eating what they mined so that they could continue mining diamonds. “You must stop,” said the wise people, “you must let go of the gift of the diamonds.”

But it was hard to let go. People wanted to see their loved ones in distant places. People wanted to work quickly, to have time for more beautiful, pleasurable, and elevated things. They knew, of course, that the diamonds were not like the plants–they did not grow and they were running out. And yet this only increased the people’s  hunger; finding diamonds beneath the earth became imperative. “If there aren’t many left,” the people reasoned, “then it is better that we have all of them so that we can be sure we will have all we need.”

The wise people shook their heads. “Stop,” they said, “the air is being poisoned! If we stop now, we may still have a chance. The plants could grow back, the air could clear.” And a few of the braver, wiser people said, “We live in a jar, with a very tight lid. When the clean air is gone, there will be no more.”

The people were incredulous. “A JAR?!” they cried, “I have never heard anything more ridiculous! The earth is huge! The sky is immense! How can any sensible person believe that we live in a jar? We are powerful! We are important! We master the earth, we don’t live in a jar.” The ones who had suggested this were called heretics, lunatics, dangers to the good of the people. They were shunned and went into the forests by themselves, as far away as one diamond could take them, then built simple little houses, and never ate diamonds again. “A jar!” sneered the people, watching the wise ones leave, “Unbelievable!”

Nevertheless, it was true. The people were so tiny that only those gifted few could see the glass that encased their whole world. They did not know that their sky was a lid shut tight. They ate the diamonds, and dug for them, and ate them, and dug for them, all the while poisoning the air and destroying the plants that could have cleared it. They did not stop. They did not stop for a long time. They did not stop until their children woke up blind, their eyes unable to see through the crystalline fog that surrounded them. They did not stop until breathing was so difficult that the even sleep was laborious. They did not stop until the air was so thick that light could not filter through, and the remaining plants shed their leaves, and dropped their fruits, and died.

It was then that the people discovered that you cannot eat efficiency, and time cannot be saved. The faster you chase it, the more it runs out, like air in a jar whose lid is closed tight. They renounced the diamonds, cursed them, cast them in a pit and buried them, but it was too late. The small amount of time they had left was just enough to eat the last of the fruits, and to breathe the last of the air. No one, not even the ones who had been wise, could save themselves, because their world was a jar whose lid was closed tight, and there was no other.

(Good gracious, people, can’t we please try to save our jar? We still have time, but not much.)

Posted in Politics, Writing | Tagged , , , | Leave a comment