the_diary_thing

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02.28.02
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"They are going to launch a large vessel called a clipper at noon today. Another one of these American Inventions to make people go faster and faster. When they have managed to get travellers comfortable seated inside a cannon so that they can be shot off like bullets in any given direction civilization will doubtless have taken a great step forward. We are making rapid strides towards that happy time when space will have been abolished; but they will never abolish boredom, especially when you consider the ever increasing need for some occupation to fill in our time, part of which, at least, used to be spent in travelling."

-Eugene Delacroix,
diary, Aug. 27, 1854

Amazing that Delacroix anticipated our addiction to speed; more so that he foresaw the persistence of boredom despite it.


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(started 08.11.02 | 06:15pm EST) ELEVEN MONTHS LATER, and the casualties keep coming in - today it was U.S. Airways, who filed Chapter 11 protection from bankruptcy. With assets of US$7.81 billion and liabilities of US$7.83 billion, they didn't have much choice, but the company has promised that it will return to profitability by early next year. Which is possible - if there are no other attacks on the U.S., or on Americans anywhere else in the world, or no war in Iraq to dampen enthusiasm for travel to Europe or Asia. For U.S. Airways' sake, I hope the planets line up for them, but I'd be amazed if they did. The signs aren't good.

What U.S. Airways can't count on is much in the way of sympathy, especially when there have been so many lives lost. Airline travel has become the necessary evil of the leisure economy, a joyless and often gruelling necessity that almost no one would call value for the money. As a Canadian, suffering under the virtual monopoly of a single national airline, I can only wish our neighbours to the south the continued blessing of real competition. In any case, U.S. Airways will go as unmourned as Pan Am, Midway, Eastern, Canadian, Sabena, and Swissair. It's hard to miss something like an airline that overcharged you for indifferent service - after all, who ever remembers the awful endurance test that bookends their vacation, except as a kind of vacation purgatory that must be suffered, coach class as the modern world's version of steerage. (finished 08:05pm EST | 08.11.02)

(started 08.16.02 | 08:30am EST) ELVIS WAS A HERO TO MOST, and he meant, actually, quite a lot to me. I still can't figure out just what Chuck D. and Public Enemy had against Elvis. He might not have been Franz Fanon or Edward Said, but I think "simple and plain" might have been overstating the case. And even if it were true - which it wasn't; I mean, we're talking about Elvis, right, who was anything but plain - what's wrong with that? As for the "straight-up racist" thing, I think it would be safe to say that Elvis was probably far less racist than most white Southerners his age, but I don't think these kind of considerations were on Chuck D. or Spike Lee's minds almost fifteen years ago, when racial provocation was somehow the kind of thing you did to prove that you weren't, well, racist. No, I still don't understand it, all these years later.

In any case, I think Chuck dissing Elvis in "Fight the Power" - and Mookie throwing the trashcan through the pizzeria window in Do The Right Thing, which had "Fight the Power" as its theme song; fight what power, Spike? Small business power? Pizza power? My we certainly knew how to pick our targets, didn't we? - finally gave me a chance to pull up short and wonder if the "right-on" pop culture I professed to love wasn't really just a load of self-righteous provocation, an extended college dorm argument that looks frankly silly - sillier, to my mind, than Harum Scarum, or Aloha Live From Hawaii, and that's pretty damn silly. The "culture wars" of the late 80s and early 90s finally seem to be over everywhere except on university campuses and in select journals, Elvis has a hit in the charts again, and Public Enemy are selling their new record online. There might be a lot of things wrong with the world, but at least this state of affairs seems to suggest justice and balance.

Elvis' death, twenty-five years ago today, was tragic only in a merciful way - at least the joke could finally end. We've never really had anyone to equal Elvis in his brief, golden youth, but there are plenty of candidates to replace the bloated, drugged-out living joke he turned into at the end - Michael Jackson currently leads the running. He might want to consider the death thing sometime soon. At least Elvis never gave press conferences to complain that his records weren't selling as well anymore, that he only made millions, not billions. But then, Elvis never needed his own private zoo or amusement park. A few Cadillacs, wall-to-wall shag carpeting, and a steady supply of TVs to shoot - now that's what I call living. (finished 08:37pm EST | 08.16.02)

Another late entry. U.S. Airways, Elvis and a few shots at our local media in the guise of remembering last month's Papal Visit and World Youth Day.

 
 
 
 
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CONSUME

Sebastian Faulkes, On Green Dolphin Street buy it

Todd Rundgren, Something/Anything? buy it


I was looking forward to the Faulkes book - one of two that I basically devoured on the fold-out couch in the sunroom at K.'s nana's cottage. Birdsong is probably one of the best war novels written in the last twenty years, and Charlotte Gray, while nowhere near as important, was a really great read. I was, alas, a bit disappointed. The milieu of the book is great - 50s America, on the fringes of the covert battles of the Cold War, researched by Faulkes down to the last sundress, bungalow and cocktail, and that's where the problems start. Unlike Birdsong, which evoked the awful world of the trenches without seeming effort, there are parts of On Green Dolphin Street that read like a catalogue, as if Faulkes had all this great material that he had to cram in - characters talk about Salinger and Irwin Shaw short stories, and spend endless hours in restaurants and bars, requiring a great, creaking mechanism of scene-setting to be constantly in motion.

Now, I'm the last person to complain about the work a writer might put into evoking a period - and it's interesting to me that the 50s have become a period that, for contemporary writers, needs to be as seriously researched as Victorian England or Revolutionary France, a world unlike ours, where a character's behaviour needs to be put in a context or the writer risks confusing the reader. But Faulkes leaves his research lying around the book in piles, obscuring the story and the characters with conspicuous bits of set dressing. It probably wouldn't be as irritating if the love story were a bit more sympathetic: a married woman embarks on an affair with a man she barely knows just because she likes his eyes; I wish it were a bit more complex - and Faulkes tries manfully to make it so - but I couldn't help but hold her in some faint contempt for doing something so obviously destructive with so little apparent reflection.

The Rundgren is an old favorite, but I've never owned a proper copy of it until recently. Something/Anything is an old rock crit's favorite, for not the least of reasons that one song - the puerile "Piss Aaron" - is supposedly written from the perspective of the rock critics that used to hang around Max's Kansas City. My old copy was a cassette tape, made from either Tim Powis or Howard Druckman's copy of the record over fifteen years ago, when I was a fledgling music writer. It's a big mess of a record, much of it played and produced entirely solo by Rundgren, the music geek's music geek. It also has two ravishing songs - "I Saw The Light" and "Hello It's Me" - that I'd probably want played at my funeral.

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(started 08.28.02 | 10:20am EST) THE POPE WAS IN TOWN LAST MONTH, and while I'm doubtless a bit tardy talking about it at this late date, our local media was still wringing the event dry up until I left for my vacation over a week ago. For my wife, it was a major event, and she took most of the week off work to walk the pilgrim's trail and write about it for one of our national papers. For my part, I stayed at home, and K. didn't mind - she knows how I feel about crowds, and rain, and sleeping rough in fields, all of which would have happened to me in a 24-hour period, and so I stayed at home and watched The Godfather, worrying about my wife as I watched the clouds empty the first serious downpour in over a month.

The Post, the paper my wife wrote for, fills the niche of the country's arch-conservative broadsheet, and they devoted daily pages to World Youth Day, almost all of it respectful, even reverent, saving the designated non-believer's rant for when the Pope left town and the pilgrims dragged their weary selves home. It was, sadly, typical of the kind of criticism you could read in any number of other papers, from the liberal giant local daily to the Post's venerable national competition (an Orangeman's paper for most of its first century of publication), to the city's two alternative weeklies.

The Post Naysayer allows himself to be gracious, generously admitting that "looking back, I can't quite bring myself to denouce it, or at least not too loudly." His major objection seemed to be that a religious festival such as WYD makes him feel marginalized: "To an atheist, the resulting feeling is that you don't belong." It's an amusing notion, that someone can live their life so hopefully, expecting inclusion in every activity they see, drifting off into a mope when easy access is denied, even when they made the decision to secede, as a self-professed atheist - or "secular fundamentalist", as the Naysayer describes himself - does from any expression of faith.

To be fair, the Naysayer doesn't complain about the great municipal expense of hosting all these young Catholics - the conventional line taken by most local critics, especially those from the arts community, who would see every spare dinar from the taxman's hoard spent on theatre festivals, until no week passed without a theatre festival filling every available stage and space. (At least they refrained from demanding the conversion of churches into playhouses, an idea that still has its adherents.) Instead, the Naysayer launches into a musing about alienation - "...there's something to be said for alienation..." - stating that great art is fed and fertilized by alienation, and complaining that, in today's society, "the least bit of alienation from anything is regarded as an injury to self-esteem." His inference, it seems, is that by denying young people access to alienation, the Church was somehow an enemy of art.

Horseshit. Alienation has been sold as a virtual birthright for longer as I've been alive, beginning with the avant-garde glorification of rebellion and deviance and industrial-age Marxist assumptions about the "alienation of labour" that's still an article of faith for the left. From Norman Mailer's "white nigger" to the marketing of rebellion in music and movies after Elvis, to second- and third-wave feminism and finally punk rock, my own generational landmark, alienation has been in the air I've breathed and the water I've drank for longer than I remember. It's gone from a psychological aberration to be isolated and cured to a percieved creative necessity, and it's probably the most awful thing to be flogged on the open market since patent medicine, thalidomide and doubleknit polyester.

What mass-market alienation produces is something like the Irreverent Youth, a columnist for the Star, our giant liberal daily. Every local paper has one, usually plucked from some alternative rag or a brief spell of glory at a journalism school paper. He or she is given a byline and maybe even a desk in the newsroom, a salary on the low end of the payscale and all the free books and records they can cart home to their apartment. He or she might, in time, graduate to a more responsible position in the paper, and the sort of wage on which you can raise a family. They have to, as another Irreverent Youth is inevitably waiting in the wings. Most of them don't, leaving the paper in a huff after a fight with some "clueless" senior editor, professing an ambition to write a book. They might even get a modest advance, perhaps even see it to print, but the next stop is usually the remainder bin and obscurity. Now that's what I call alienation.

In any case, the Star's designated Irreverent Youth weighed in with his own column on WYD after it was all over, commencing with a shrugged concession that "everyone's entitled to a pilgrimage, I guess." Clearly, graciousness is something they give out with writer's contracts at newspapers these days, along with a key to the storeroom where they keep the condescension: "There's something nobly quaint about all those wholesome kids roaming about the streets in red sashes (standard pilgrim issue red bike messenger's backpacks, actually, but let's assume the Irreverent Youth didn't want to get close enough to pick out the details), sporting beatific grins on their faces and plotting this weekend's big camp-out with the pope. Living downtown, one doesn't get a chance to observe religion in action as a motivating force very often..."

Downtown - where I also live - is apparently a religion-free zone, but don't tell the Cantonese and Mandarin-speaking prosletyzing Mormon pairs all over the buses and subways, the saffron-robed Buddhist monks or the Mother Theresa nuns who live in my neighbourhood, the folks at the mosque over by the park, the Carribbean ladies in their drop-dead Sunday hats at the storefront churches or the thousands of Italian, Portugese and Filipino Catholics who fill the churches every week. In any case, the Irreverent Youth takes sides, when he must, with the marginalized, like himself, who won't or can't share in the spectacle of WYD, and the media coverage it inspired: "I ... resent the Canadian media's collective assumption that we've all become Catholic for the duration of the World Youth Day festivities. That we're all Christian for that matter. Would an international gathering of the Church of Satan merit this much obsequious coverage?"

Whoa-hoa, dude. Say-TAN. Cooo-el. Rock and ROLL! Ozzeeeeee!

Of course, the Irreverent Youth is the sand in the vaseline, the ghost in the machine, you know - part of the collective Canadian media, but not of it, you know what I mean? - so he can happily add to those egregious column inches on the Pope and his zombie army instead of, say, just ignoring it all. As if that were ever an option - after all, columns are hard things to write, and why throw away a perfectly good opportunity to slouch self-righteously: "I like to think myself far more tolerant than your average organized religion, and I understand the need to believe in and feel a part of something..." Once again, can you just feel the generosity, people?

The two local alternative weeklies are the breeding ground and newsletter for Irreverent Youth, and more than a few Irreverent Oldies as well, since there's no obligation to the niceties of objective reporting or news sections that read as anything more than tracts, particularly at the leftier of the two, ironically the older and more profitable, run as it is on a very healthy back-pages base of sex trade and personal classified ads. Predictably, they were in full dudgeon for WYD, fomenting the kind of anti-Catholic editorials that might have been at home in the Venerable National Daily in its Orange heyday. It's competition stayed quiet for most of the Pope's visit, with the exception of a (hopefully ironic) handwringing editorial that despaired of the clean, cheerful, well-behaved youth all over the streets, singing Beatles songs on buses and subways at the drop of a hat. Why weren't they having messy sex, taking drugs, breaking things and comporting themselves with the sullen, dead-eyed resentment that previous generations of heroic misspent youth fought for so valiantly? Squandering their birthright of alienation, and for what? Some silly notions about love and forgiveness, and a world without sin?! They simply must be stopped.

It took the Alternative to the Alternative newsweekly a week or two, but one of its columnists managed to rise wrathfully to the occasion. There are two gay columnists at the Alternative to the Alternative, one for the younger, less-politicized crowd, the other for Boomer Gays, and it was the latter who waded into battle with the WYD crowds he dubbed "Shiny hateful people". With his boyfriend behind the camera, the Gay Elder dressed up as Jane, his drag alter ego, and went out to confront the youth: "We talked with over 50 pilgrims - young and old, black and white, priests and kids from Mississauga, and we found that most of them had one thing in common: hate."

Jane is not a pretty sight; the Gay Elder is a big man with a onetime athlete's build, and in a dress, heels, wig and makeup he's still scarcely feminine by anyone's definition, a self-consciously conceived freakshow meant to confront and shock. Which is fine, but isn't it a bit disingenuous to adopt a persona meant for confrontation and expect total, abject acceptance? Wouldn't that be rather beside the point, a bit of a let-down, even, if it happened? It's hard to believe that the Gay Elder expected anything less than the polite but unbowed response he got, basically endless restatements of the doctrinal trope "hate the sin, love the sinner", and the occasional use of the word "unnatural" to describe homosexuality, a red flag for this particular bull: "Jane would find herself nose to nose with a priest, reminding him that in the animal world homosexuality is rampant and quite natural. But nothing convinces those hard-headed Catholics."

Just as the Naysayer seemed almost disappointed that WYD hadn't "involved aggressive evangelization", the Gay Elder seemed let down that "no pilgrims actually condemned Jane to hell". On the contrary, "they did inform me that though they 'loved' me, I was a sinner like them, and that hell was, in fact, the proper place for those who sinned without repentance." Now, it might have taken more than a streetcorner confrontation with a man in a dress to explain the Catholic doctrine on hell, sin, and forgiveness. Frankly, there's a two thousand-year history of those concepts evolving in the Church, and I'd challenge you to discover a consensus, even among conservative Catholics. This Catholic, for instance, tends to imagine hell as life on earth, right here, right now. Other Catholics, like my wife perhaps, will tell you that there surely is a hell somewhere, a place as awful as it's been described, but that only a cruel, heartless monster would actually believe that there's anyone there. Theological niceties, alas, don't often find themselves flourishing in a nose-to-nose streetcorner debate.

In other words, the Gay Elder concieved of a theatrical confrontation and elicited the expected reaction from his unwitting fellow players. So why the angst, Jane? "No, smile as you may, you fascists can't fool me."

If there's anything positive to be found in the recent church scandals, it's the simple fact that there are gay people in church, but that most of them don't abuse their positions. If the percieved inactivity or foot-dragging on the part of church authorities indicates anything more hopeful than self-centred ass-covering, it's an attempt to protect those people, without whom the church might be a lesser place. I keep thinking of Fr. Mychal Judge, the NYFD chaplain who died on 9/11, an apparently celibate but openly gay priest who was accepted by the macho culture of the firefighter, and who was last seen in the lobby of one of the towers, praying to himself as bodies fell to the plaza outside. To someone like the Gay Elder, the church looks like an authoritarian, medieval institution; to someone like myself, who grew up in it, it's a vast and ungovernable place, doctrinally and personally heterodox by nature. At some point, the Alienated Naysayer, the Irreverent Youth, and the Gay Elder mistook Catholics for American Protestant fundamentalists, whose apparent wish for social orthodoxy is often more devoutly pursued than any spiritual end.

At some mid-point in the Pope's visit, I was standing around the newsroom with the intern who's helping redesign the paper, watching a TV news segment on the cramped accomadations - church basements, schoolrooms - where WYD pilgrims were bunking down. She grinned at the sight of all those girls and boys in such close quarters, and mused that there might be a few World Youth Babies in nine months or so. I was taken aback - clearly she'd mistaken us for Protestant fundamentalists as well. "Sure," I said. "There might be a few, but what do you expect? They're young kids! We're Catholics for God's sake! I mean, fecundity is our birthright, and bastards are as inevitable as brownies at a church bake sale. I'm a bastard! So what - we deal with it. We're Catholics. Shit happens, and if anything, two thousand years of history have taught us how to deal with shit!"

No, Jane, we're not trying to fool anyone. But stop trying to fool yourself, and look a bit harder the next time you're searching for enemies. (finished 01:05pm EST | 08.28.02)


Robert Ward, Virgin Trails buy it

IT'S FINALLY OUT! A couple of summers ago, I travelled with Robert "los Bob" Ward through north and central Spain, and I can say that, among the man's other virtues, he's an impeccable travel companion. His book will let you share the experience of travelling with "los Bob", along the pilgrimage routes of Europe. A really amazing read.

Dennis Bock, The Ash Garden buy it

Another book by a friend. A novel about the bomb, among other things. It's still there, hanging over everything, despite every attempt to pretend that, along with the wall, if just went away ten years ago.

Martin Parr, Boring Postcards USA buy it

Exactly what the title describes, and my favorite "art book" in a couple of years. A perfect coffee table book, for very small coffee tables.

Daniel Yergin & Joseph Stanislaw, The Commanding Heights buy it

A "big picture" book, about the last century of economic history. Told as a conflict of economic faiths - Keynes vs. Hayek, Galbraith vs. Friedman, "planning" vs. "market". The basis of a really excellent PBS series, and one of the most entertaining books of its type in years.

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