12/31/2005

Book Review: States Of Grace by Chelsea Quinn Yarbro

The author who attempts to create a piece of historical fiction has challenges and choices not faced by writers in other genres. Aside from the obvious of having to research the era under observation, one has to then decide about the application of the knowledge. Is it the history or the story that is most important? Some authors choose to set a story in a different time as a means of exploring actual historical events; telling history through the eyes of a fictional character is an effective means of bringing to life important epochs in a manner that a textbook is never able to accomplish. For others the lure of history is the appeal of the exotic locale. They utilize the atmosphere of a particular period as a backdrop for the action they have envisioned for their heroes and heroines. These "costume dramas" have less concern with historical events and more for historical mood. In either case the major challenge of the author is the incorporation of their research into the novel without it being detrimental to the activity of storytelling. Do they get so wrapped up in displaying their knowledge that they fall short in other areas of the novel? No matter if they are giving an account of an actual battle or telling a story set in the 17th century they still need to create characters we care about and provide a storyline that interests us. Chelsea Quinn Yarbro's latest work falls more into the area of costume drama than recreation of actual events. (A sub genre of speculative/fantasy within historical fiction) States of Grace is set in Europe of the Counter Reformation when the Catholic Church is reacting to the establishment of Protestant sects. Where her work differs from a lot of historical fiction is that her protagonist, The Count Saint-Germain, happens to be thousands of years old and a vampire. At this point in his existence the Count has established himself as a successful merchant in Venice who also has publishing interests throughout the Lowlands. (This was the name given to roughly the territory we now know as Holland and Belgium. It was controlled primarily by Catholic Spain, but the local inhabitants were some of the first to convert to various strains of Protestantism. This area was a therefore a flashpoint for violence and abuses by both sides in the fight for souls.) As the Catholic Church fights to maintain its power base they attack anything that smacks of the least bit of heresy. Book publishers are especially suspect by the Spanish Inquisition in the Lowlands because of their power to disseminate information outside of Church control. As if this isn't enough for the Count to concern himself with, he is also the target of a plot in Venice to fleece him of his fortune by unscrupulous members of the ruling class. Of course there are also the constant worries that accompany his "condition" which living in Venice can only exasperate. Since both running water and sunlight are anathema to vampires he must take sizable precautions in order to carry out a semblance of a normal life. Of course being under increased scrutiny from the Church in the Lowlands and the spies of the ruling class in Venice also increases the chances of his true nature being discovered. Since the un dead are one of the few things that both Catholics and Protestants would agree on, it means he has to be highly circumspect and discreet. It's obvious that Chelsea Quinn Yarbro has done her research. The attention to detail of everything from style of dress to foods eaten and served in the different parts of Europe at the time alone is breathtaking. Combined with a deft hand at descriptive narrative and knowledge of the political temperament of the time, she gives her reader a glimpse into another time and place. Unfortunately it's the details that are the undoing of the story. While it is one thing to describe what someone is wearing, it's another all together itemize every single garment. Although the inclusion of a tailors' bill might be considered by some as a sign of verisimilitude on the part of the author, the constant interruptions of flow caused by such descriptive passages were more distracting than informative. Considering the time period, the locations, and the nature of the central character I had expectations of something a little more involving and engrossing. Intrigues in Venice, confrontations with the Spanish Inquisition and a vampire all in the same story had me hoping for something a little more compelling. Instead the author's detached language and adherence to a formalness of style reduces even the most interesting confrontations to almost bloodless debates. Even the more notorious aspects of a vampire's lifestyle are skipped over, with more emphasis placed on Count Saint – Germain as a romantic hero type figure. While there is nothing wrong with this, the blood sucking fiend is just as boring a stereotype, I found very little in his character to hold my interest. While some of the minor characters, especially some of the more conniving Italian villains had their nastiness to make them intriguing. Neither the count nor the two lead women characters had any real depth. The women especially were disappointing. For a musician and an author, both fields that require a measure of intellect and, considering the times, self-confidence, were far too prone to bashful glances, tears and trembling limbs. Although some of that behaviour can be put down to the uncertainty any women of the time would feel in dealing with a man of higher station, the actions of especially his mistress the musician seemed a little overblown. What made these characterizations so jarring was Ms. Yarbro's attention to historical detail. The juxtaposition of accuracy and stereotypes seriously detracted from the feelings of authenticity that were created in other parts of the book. What I found most disappointing about States Of Grace was that Chelsea Quinn Yarbro is a very skilled writer and obviously enthusiastic researcher. She is highly adept at the descriptive passages that create the pictures in a reader's head that set the stage for the action to be played out. Unfortunately this could not compensate for what I felt to be the emotional hollowness at the core of the action that left me not really caring what happened to the characters one way or another. It was almost like reading descriptions of a variety of still life paintings. Charming to look at but no real depth beyond the use of colour and texture. Finding the balance in a historical novel between accuracy and interest can be extremely difficult. While States Of Grace shows all the signs of being well researched I did not find that sufficient to compensate for its romance novel nature and the bloodlessness of the plot. It was a cup of tea that was far too sweet for my tastes.

12/30/2005

Goverment By Scapegoats

In the last fifteen years there has been a disturbing trend among politicians and pundits to behave in a punitive manner. Not just in dealing with criminals but in the over all attitude in policy. Like the worst high school teacher who punishes the whole class because one person misbehaves, systems are now geared towards treating everyone as if they are out to cheat the government. They make a great deal of noise about the few people who have abused social programs, while conveniently ignoring the many who don't. Programs that were designed to make life easier for life's unfortunates; welfare, government disability programs, employment insurance, and refugee status, have gone from taking each case on its particulars to assuming that everybody applying is trying to cheat the government. Whilst corporations rack up huge profits and pay little tax, and individual executives receive salary in tax-exempt stock options, politicians claim to be protecting the interests of taxpayers by vilifying those easiest to blame and least able to defend themselves. Welfare mothers, refugees, the disabled, and the unemployed are the ones who will rob you blind if you give them half a chance. Since aside from refugee claimants these people have all contributed to the tax pool and employment insurance programs (in Canada you can't apply for employment insurance unless you have worked a certain length of time and contributed a certain amount of money) shouldn't they be given the same consideration as those the government is trying to protect? Or does applying for any sort of assistance automatically make you suspect? Have you ever heard a politician worrying about taxpayers when corporations are applying for tax credits to establish a business? Five years latter when they move the plant to a country with out a labour code or environmental laws does anyone mention abuse of the system? Corporate Welfare Bums (the term was coined by Canadian politician David Lewis back in the seventies in reference to the ridiculously small amount of taxes paid by corporations and their executives) don't seem to incur the rancour of political parties in the same way that a single mother does. Well look at all the good corporations do. They provide jobs and stimulate the economy by producing goods that people will buy thus increasing our tax revenues. But if they are paying no taxes and in fact receiving government grants and credits for operating, and they are owned in a foreign country (which in Canada is more often than not) is there any real positive impact on our economy? The employees, unless it's an auto manufacturer, are usually non-union and making between $10 and $15 per hour without benefits which in today's world is just about subsistence level. Aside from the essentials like food and clothing, what big contribution to the economy does their salary offer? If the goods produced by the factory are destined for a foreign market, or if the profits are going into the coffers of a head office in Bonn, Huston, or Tokyo, how many tax dollars do you think our government will see from this venture. Of course that's not the case for all corporations, in fact I'm probably overstating the case. Sound familiar. It's exactly the same arguments that are proffered for cutting welfare and making it more difficult for applying to be a refugee or receiving a disability pension. Every so often there is someone who cheats the system by faking an illness or receiving a welfare check when they don't merit it. Or perhaps they really aren't in danger of their life if they are to be sent back to their country of origin, but those people are not even a significant minority let alone a majority of the people who are applying to use the systems in place to help the unfortunate. Just as most businesspeople aren't out to fleece taxpayers, neither are the poor. Yet in the past fifteen years the poor and the unfortunate have been blamed for everything from the recession to terrorism. When a person applies for assistance now it is assumed that they are out to try and take advantage of the government, not that they are in genuine need. Doctor's warn their patients when they apply for disability that the chances of their being approved in Ontario on their first go are slim (although in fairness this seems to have improved with a recent change in government) The irony is that this doesn't save the government any money. All applications are retroactive to when first received. So even if it takes three years for you to be approved you will be paid from the date of your initial application. The only purpose served is to make it as difficult as possible for people to apply. This is meant to cut down on fraudulent applications but in actuality ends up making the legitimate applicant suffer. How many disabled people are able to exert the effort to seek out the legal assistance required to file the appeals and gather the materials necessary for a tribunal hearing? For a person unable to work appealing a decision in Ontario is like having a full time job. I'm surprised they don't automatically turn down everybody who manages to make it to the appeals tribunal for that very reason. Of course this is nothing compared to what refugees have to go through. They have to show there is just cause for them to fear for their well being, or that they will suffer from persecution if returned to their country of origin. Have you ever noticed how hard it is to obtain copies of your arrest warrant when you're fleeing a country? Or torturers don't seem to hand out appointment cards that you can use to show that you're next on their list? But refugee boards are now demanding paper proof. That may be all right if a government is open and above board in it's habit's of persecution, but so many like to put on a good front that they make a point of not advertising their less savoury policies. Even harder to prove are political persecutions, especially if your government is being propped up by the country your trying to gain refugee status with. Of course today that's especially true if you are Arabic or Muslim. First, it's more than likely you're related to a terrorist or are one yourself. Even if they let you in as a refugee you stand a good chance of being sent back home again to be tortured at the request of the Canadian government because you were caught with a tourist's map of the city you just moved to. What's the best way for a government to make it look they are doing something? First they take a real issue and than they blow it right out of proportion. Next they impose draconian policies that only hurt the innocent, because the real criminals aren't going to be affected by anything they try and do anyway. Then they give it some pop psychology name like tough love and they look caring and compassionate, not like a bully, and everybody is happy except for those who try to use the system. I guess it's an old tradition for governments to create scapegoats for the problems of society. Blame all the country's woes on them and then set out to deal with the scapegoats instead of the woes. It gives the appearance of action without having to anything real. When the economy, which no government can affect no matter what they say, changes for the better again they can simply say our plan worked. If it worsens they can look for other scapegoats like healthcare and a humanities education. Both of which are sinkholes for money and provide no bang for the buck in return. Once upon a time governments actually did things for their populations to try and make their lives better. Now what they do is search out people they can blame society's problems on and enact legislation that supposedly curtails their activities and solves all out troubles. How convenient.

12/29/2005

Where Have All The Voices Gone

Once upon a time there was a writer name Gypsyman. In the merry month of November he set himself the task of writing 50,000 words and taking a big first step on what he thought was the road to novel hood. At the end of November he was delighted to find that not only had he achieved his goal but he had exceeded it by half as much again; ending up with 75,000 words. Oh he was very excited than. He started December with visions of book contracts dancing in his head. He would spend the next month finishing his first draft, and then January would be taken up with the edits. By February he would be ready to start sending out cover letters and chapters for publishers to read. All was going along swimmingly for the first week of December, the words kept coming and the writing was good. But then something happened and a day occurred when nothing was written. He told himself that it was all right because he needed a rest. But the next day it seemed harder to start writing again. Day after day he would sit down at his laptop and the magic was gone. The voice in his head that had been telling the story was all of a sudden quiet. He searched and he searched and couldn't find it again. The harder he listened the quieter that voice got and the louder everything else sounded. No longer could he just sit down and recount the adventures of the people who populated the world he had invented. It was as if they had ceased to exist for him. He felt like his best friends had abandoned him. He puzzled and puzzled, not knowing what to do. He'd sit and he'd stare at the blank little screen watching the curser blink. Oh boy did he curse her that mean little flirt, who taunted and teased with her promise of words, but never delivered. His anger and frustration grew and grew, until they were like a little black cloud that hung over his head. Lightening bolts and thunder rattled and roared, but it didn't help any, just rattled the floors and shook all the doors, until he grew tired and the laptop got bored. As the weeks of December crawled past like glue he started to fear the little grey machine on the table. Every morning he'd approach, turn it on and begin. He'd write about things that he could post on a blog, but once that was done he couldn't go on. He'd say I'm too tired; I'll shut down for a time. He told himself he would try again latter that day, but something came up, and it got put aside. On most days for the rest of the month things would come up that stopped him, until he began to think that he had given up. How many times before had he started a novel and gotten only so far before it expired. His despondency grew as he thought about it. Were these projects just the idle dreams of the person not willing to do the hard work of writing? Wasn't a writer supposed to chain themselves to their workstation even when the words weren't flowing like water? He tried to do that but it wouldn't make the words come any faster, in fact it seemed to make it harder to hear the voices of the characters if he tried to force them into existence. He had no expectations of some mystical muse whispering in his ear, but he at least wanted to be able to see and hear in his head what was going on before he wrote it down. Up to this point he had been able to know how his characters would react in any given circumstances and that allowed him to write about their adventures. His best tool for creation had been his ability to daydream about the characters and their situations. To just let his mind wander freely through their realm and their lives and come up with scenarios that would advance the plot organically and interestingly. In order to do this though it meant that his mind had to be clear enough for him to t drift around other thoughts and not let them be a disturbance. No sooner had he started to run into problems then this ability began to retreat. As his confidence ebbed and doubts started forming his brain started to fill with more and more noise. The cacophony became so bad that any number of thoughts could be vying for precedence at any one time preventing the clarity of thought needed for writing. Half of the noise was caused by the inability to write. Insecurity and desperation make such a din in the confined space of one's head that it's almost impossible to hear anything else. Or the things he used to try and shut them down were just as defeating for creativity, so he'd end up in the exact same situation. Compounding the problem was that as he would lose creative focus, he lost focus period. He could be trying to think of one thing, and all of a sudden he would find that he was thinking about something completely unrelated to his original thought. Stray idiotic thoughts careened around like bumper cars, barging in on private conversations causing confusion and consternation. Maybe some writers can thrive in circumstances like those but not Gypsyman and he spent December trying to write with little or no success. He didn't even understand what was going on for the longest time. Than one morning after writing his report for the blog he realized how far he had drifted from his original intent for writing. There was a story that he wanted to tell that was growing in his mind. Nothing else should matter except that. He was allowing ideas of publication and final drafts to clutter his head with unnecessary noise and confusion. He had forgotten that things couldn't happen overnight. To have expected himself to finish a first draft by the end of December was ridiculous and unfair. By setting unreasonable and almost unreachable goals for himself, Gypsyman had created the circumstances that led to his being unable to write. The sign of an inexperienced writer, or any type of artist for that matter, is they will unwittingly sabotage their own work by expecting miracles. Perhaps it's ego that makes them think that just because professionals who have been writing for years and years take upwards to a year to finish a project, it will only take them a couple of months. Their eagerness to write makes them their own worst enemy. Once upon a time in a land filled with wet snow their lives a writer named Gypsyman who is more then halfway through his first novel. He hopes that he can finish a first draft of his novel by the end of February, but knows that it won't be the end of the world if he can't. If he listens very carefully these days he's able to hear the sound of voices in his head that were silent for far too long. It's like the return of old friends. If he treats them with the respect they deserve, who knows they may even stay around for a while.

12/28/2005

Losing Ones Way, Losing Yourself

Do you ever get lost? I don't mean physically lost, but emotionally and mentally lost. One morning you wake up and find yourself wondering what the hell you did for the last month and a half and realize you have no idea. It's not that you've forgotten, but when you play back the tape of your memory what shows up doesn't look familiar, or seems completely out of character. "That's not me," you say to yourself. "I don't act like that, do I?" The next thing you know you're questioning everything you do and say and doubting the veracity and of your feelings and wondering at your judgement. You've gone from being a relatively self-confident individual to doubting your competence and capabilities in a flash. It seems to be something that happens to people who have a very intense focus in their lives and all of a sudden, for no apparent reason, that focus disappears. An artist who all of a sudden is unable to produce, an athlete who goes into a slump, or any person who's work requires them to maintain a certain level of intensity, are all probably subject to these circumstances. A writer who has been cruising along churning out several thousand words a day for an extended period of time, all of a sudden finds even the task of writing a single paragraph incredibly difficult. The hitter, with a .360 average, falls below the Mendoza line and can't get on base except when hit by a pitch, and the stock broker who all of sudden sees everything go south no matter what he does, have something in common. What they have been able to do without any real effort, what they have taken for granted as their due, has all of a sudden been withdrawn. That certain something that gave them distinct status, even if only in their own mind, has vanished. Initially they won't even notice, it will just be one of those days when things don't go exactly as planned. It's amazing how many of those days you can have when you don't want to admit something's wrong. After a while, and you're still having a bad day, you start running away. The last thing you want to think about is the actual problem; who really wants to contemplate the loss of what makes them special, so on both a conscious and unconscious level you look to ignore it. You may stop sleeping well at night and then find yourself too tired during the day to do the things you're normally capable of, providing a great excuse for not doing anything at all. Illnesses will crop up, that while not crippling are sufficient in their strength to excuse your poor performance and let you off the hook. You look for and cling to anything that will prevent you from having to actually deal with the circumstances that are causing the problem. Because you are not getting fulfilment from your normal source you start looking for substitutes. Booze, drugs, shopping, anything at all that gives you a momentary thrill to fill the void created by not being able to do what you are accustomed to doing. But none of them really quite do the job. All of a sudden you're displaying far too many symptoms of clinical depression and that's when you begin to face up to the fact that there might be something going on. But is the depression a cause of the problem, or are the symptoms appearing as a result of the problem. Even worse, could it be a little of both? The depression, which is sapping your will, which was caused by being unable to do anything, is now preventing you from doing anything. Thus making you even more depressed which in turn makes it harder to work and, well you get that picture. This is around the time that the irrationality sets in. Your mind starts playing tricks on you and bringing out any and all insecurities and fears that you may have accumulated in the span of your life. Your temper is only barely in check and you flare up at the slightest thing, real or imagined, and you find yourself snapping at other people. By now what has happened is that you've even begin to lose site of what the root cause of the problem is. You're feeling so disoriented and out of sorts that you have become so lost in the confusion that you don't notice what's happening to you. No matter how irrational, everything you do feels like it's supposed to at that moment. So what happens, how does this spiral ever end? Some people are better prepared than others to deal with this situation. When you hear a professional athlete, often a baseball player, talk about being in a slump, they talk about working through it. Day in day out they go out and try to hit the ball hoping and praying that their talent hasn't deserted them. No one ever just stops doing what it is they are supposed to be doing, and its that constant plugging away that ends up rescuing you. At the very least you retain a minute trace of what it is that made you feel complete. You may be lost in the deluge of emotions but you have a lifeline around your waist that keeps you from being completely swept away. It's the very fact that whatever you do is so important to you that it has the potential to drive you crazy when the ability deserts you that ends up being your salvation. No matter how far you drift it will still anchor you sufficiently that you very nearly always make it back to your safe harbour. A very common warning offered to patients by their therapists is not to let themselves be defined by their jobs. To have a life that exists outside their job description. Unfortunately any job that requires passion like the arts, years of development like athletics, or is high reward and high risk like that of a stockbroker, separation is tantamount to impossible. It is especially difficult for an athlete or an artist because their success depends on their abilities to produce at a certain level. They really are their job and you can't very well leave that at the office can you? It might be that very few of you have experienced what I've tried to explain, or maybe some of you have experienced it and not fully understood what was happening to you at the time. But the next time you are tempted to call the star player on your favourite team a "bum" because he may not be producing as well as you like. Or to think of him as an arrogant pig because he seems aloof; forget about the money and the glory, and think about the human struggling to achieve his heart's desire there in front of you on a daily basis. That's what artists and athletes do day in and day out. Whether you see them at work or not the process is ongoing. They are working to achieve their heart's desire to either enlighten or entertain anyone who cares to watch or listen. Some of them achieve glory but others just do it because they love to and they are driven to. When something, anything, interferes with that desire, their sense of self is jeopardized and they have to struggle to hang on to their identity. That's the real cost involved in producing a painting, writing a novel, or hitting over .300 for the season.

12/27/2005

Crossing The Line From Individuality To Selfishness

Here's a question for all you people pondering resolutions for the New Year to think on: when does a positive characteristic become a negative trait? Okay I'm sorry; it's December 27th and everyone's feeling hung over still from too much whatever on Christmas and Boxing Day to want to have to deal with heavy philosophical questions, but think about it for a moment when you've got a clearer head. Think about all the virtues we extol that can be turned on their heads to become character flaws when taken to excess. To be honest this isn't even that new an idea; it's actually one of the oldest concepts in Western thought. The classical Greeks were the first to come up with the idea that there could be too much of a good thing. They had a term for it, logos meaning balance. Placing too much emphasis on one characteristic or trait would cause an imbalance and lead to disaster. Our word logic, which if you think about it means balancing ones thoughts, derives from it, but logos is a concept that can be applied to all aspects of life, not just thought. In his Poetics Aristotle defined tragedy as a hero being defeated by his own tragic flaw, which was a characteristic taken to an extreme. Ambition is thought of as being a positive attribute, it encourages us to try and succeed in life. But in the play Macbeth too much ambition is the downfall of both the title character and his wife. They obsess with ambition to the extent that their lives are dominated by it until nothing else matters. They are out of balance. Our word moderation is probably the nearest equivalent we have in contemporary language to expressing the concept in one word. That and temper seem to be the words we use to reign people in when they appear to be going to excess in one way or another. What this is all leading up to, you knew it had to be going somewhere didn't you, is the concern that we are living in a society that has increasingly been out of balance. This is not in terms of who holds the reigns of power or who controls the money, but how positive traits that were the foundations of our society have become detriments to the over all health of our world. The greatest strength of the free market capitalist system has always been the power of the individual. Whether the entrepreneur who starts a business from scratch and turns it into a growing concern that provides jobs and boosts the economy, or the artist who creates a stunning work of art.Without them our society would not have succeeded. Unlike the so-called communist states like Soviet Russia and China, which have suppressed the individual for the good of the state, and in the process crushed original thinking, we have allowed it free reign. There is no denying that it has stood us in good stead and allowed for the creation of a lot that is great and wonderful. But there comes a time when the needs of the individual do need to be tempered by the needs of the society as a whole. That's what laws are for, to ensure the protection of one individual's rights from another. For the longest time there was what seemed to be an unspoken social contract as well that governed behaviour, which kept a balance between the needs of the individual and what was good for the world around them. But in the last twenty or so years that contract seems to have been gradually forgotten with individuality beginning to be confused with selfishness. Not just selfishness on the personal level of refusing to give to charity or something like that, but in the sense of an every person for themselves attitude becomming all pervasive through-out society. From the corporation that lies through it's teeth about dumping chemicals so it can scoop a few extra dollars into the pockets of it's board members to politicians cynically appealing to people's selfish nature to win votes. Sure that type of behaviour has been going on for decades, but that's the problem. We have reached the saturation level. There used to be some tempering of this behaviour on the part of individuals and organizations. But their influence is getting less and less as the years pass. How many Enron's are out there which we will never find out about? How many other bosses are lining their pockets at the expense of shareholders and workers and cooking the books to hide it? When did it become more important to make an extra million dollars than to keep three thousand jobs in North America? How much longer can it be pretended that the world is t an infinite resource supplier and that we won't run out of fresh water and fresh air? When did the rights of the individual become confused with I don't care what happens to everyone else as long as I get what I can out of the world? Is this just the inevitable outcome of capitalism run amok without checks or balances, or is something deeper and more ingrained? As it gets harder and harder to make ends meet, for an individual to hold onto a job, and for a business to compete does some primal survival instinct become triggered that blinds us to anything but our own well being? Both those play a part in it to be sure, but in some ways they are symptoms not the cause. While the importance to the individual cannot be denied the problem is that we place far too much stress on individual goals and achievement from an early age. There is very little balancing of it with how to use those personal achievements for the advancement of society or even the greater good. Maybe it's taught in the schools, but look around at the mass media today and the glamour magazines chock full of stories emphasising the wonders of being a star. All these reality shows are about becoming a star. Everybody should be striving for individual glory so they can wind up on the cover of "People" or "Us" or the equivalent. People now want to have fame just for the sake of fame, not for having done something spectacular. We can lay the blame at the feet of Andy Warhol if we like with his idea that everyone will be famous for fifteen minutes, but he was commenting on the situation not promoting it. If everyone one is the centre of the universe with everything revolving around them, there's not much room for anything else in the world is there? Hundreds of millions of little individual galaxies bumping into each other without ever really making contact doesn't make for much of a community. When does the line between individual fulfillment and selfishness get crossed? When does preoccupation with meeting ones own needs become a detriment rather than a positive? Pop psychology would have us believe that by taking care of ourselves we are taking care of the world, and there is some truth to that sentiment. The healthier we are the better we can contribute to the world around us. Unfortunately our preoccupation with self and individualism has reached a state of imbalance with our concern for the rest of the world. The increased polarization between nations, religions, and political thinking is a sign of how we are rapidly closing our minds to all but ourselves. My way or the highway is synonymous with the selfish mind. It is important for people to have their own individual goals and aspirations. That's the engine that drives creativity and development. Without individuality some of the world's greatest works of art and inventions would never have happened. However Western society has forgotten how to temper individual need with an understanding of the greater good of society. Too many decisions on a myriad of levels are made on the basis of what's in it for me instead of considering the wider implications. As a society we are living dangerously out of balance in seeking to satisfy our own desires at the expense of the world at large. The cost incurred for this self-indulgence grows on a daily basis. Unless we are careful we will soon find ourselves with a bill that we will not be able to pay.

12/26/2005

DVD Review: The Rocky Horror Picture Show

The biggest fear in revisiting your past is that you'll find the things you used to like have lost their ability to amuse. The novel you liked so much when you were twenty seems childish, the music vapid, and the movie boring. Memories are sometimes best left alone, and not revisited lest they become damaged beyond repair. So it was with some trepidation that I sat down on Christmas Eve with my wife and friends to watch The Rocky Horror Picture Show. The real big plus I figured was that I'd be able to finally actually watch the movie and hear the dialogue, something I was never able to do back in the seventies when you couldn't walk into a showing without running into a wall of fishnet stockings and black corsets. Released in 1975 The Rocky Horror Picture Show was adapted from Richard O'Brien's (who plays the role of Riff-Raff) musical. It became an almost instant cult classic and a staple of midnight showings at second run movie theatres. Audiences would show up for performances dressed as their favourite characters prepared to act out the whole feature in front of the screen as the show progressed. At various points in the movie the audience would respond to cues by throwing rice, the opening wedding scene; calling out responses to lines, and generally becoming a major part of the experience. dinner with FrankNFurter For those of you who missed out on it, the plot of the movie is a send up on every B horror and science fiction movie that you can think of. We start off with an innocent young couple Janet (Susan Sarandon) and Brad (Barry Bostwick) who get lost one dark and stormy night and are stranded by a flat tire. Fortunately they had just happened to pass an old castle on the road a ways back so they, obviously never having seen the right movies, head on over to use the phone. They find that they've walked in on a party in full swing. Their host turns out to be the mysterious cross-dressing, switch-hitting Dr. Frank – N – Furter (Tim Curry) who cordially invites them "to come up to the lab, and see what's on the slab". The movie then follows the path of least resistance and obligingly plays up every cliché in the books. The child like monster who runs away scared, the capture and threatening of the two helpless visitors, the last minute rescue, and the tragic death scene. It seems ironic to say this about one of the campest movies that's ever been made, but what makes the film work is the fact that the actors play their character's straight. From the straight laced Janet and Brad to the more exotic Riff-Raff, Magenta (Patricia Quinn) and Columbia (Little Nell), each character might be a stereotype, but they are played as real as possible. Of course they are all only set dressing for Tim Curry as the good doctor. I don't know if there are words to describe his performance except to say that camp doesn't even come close. He piles more sexual innuendo into words than Mae West, and dresses like a cheap hooker from a bad western. He goes so over the top that if goes beyond ham acting and scene stealing to becoming a virtuoso performance. Although he is chewing the scenery with every raised eyebrow and purse of the hips, he also allows us to see behind the mascara and pancake makeup on occasion. It's just enough to show that there's more to this creature than simple self-indulgence, and to make the character faintly sympathetic. As the lead he is also responsible for the predominate amount of singing. The Rocky Horror Picture Show may not be everyone's idea of a musical, and the dance numbers are definitely not from Hollywood's school of choreography, but the highlights are the songs. From the exuberance of "The Time Warp", to the idiocy and satire of "I Want To Feel Dirty" the songs are pop music at it's best. Infectious, fun and exhilarating the music propels this movie into the stratosphere. It allows the actors a chance to add more dimensions to their characters and have a great deal of fun. I'm sure there are quite a few people who would find the content and subject matter of this movie offensive; cross dressing and blatant bisexuality is not everyone's cup of tea. But that is also what keeps the movie from being dated. In fact if anything it’s become even more topical now then it was in the seventies. As an antidote to the repressive nature of our times, with the morality squads peaking in our windows trying to dictate behaviour and turn back the block to the middle ages, The Rocky Horror Picture Show is like a breath of fresh air. There's no ponderous storyline to make it self-important because of its groundbreaking nature. The characters are all just who they are with nobody making a big deal about it. For those of you who have not dared to watch this movie since seeing it in a theatre twenty to thirty years ago for fear of spoiling precious memories and to those of you who have never seen it I offer you the immortal words of Dr. Frank-N-Furter : "Be it. Don't dream it" (forgive me if I've got the quote wrong) It's a far better movie to see now then it was when you were surrounded by hoards of people shouting along with the script. The jokes are funnier, the music and songs are better, and you can actually here the dialogue. If you've never seen it because the whole "cult" thing has put you off, than all the more reason for watching it at home. Who knows, you may just find yourself standing in front of your television one night doing the "Time Warp" and breaking into song:
"It's just a step to the left/and a jump to the right/put your hands on your hips/bring your knees in tight/It's a pelvic thrust that will drive you insane/Let's do the "Time Warp" again/Let's do the "Time Warp" again." "Time Warp", words and music by Richard O'Brien, The Rocky Horror Picture Show 1975.

12/25/2005

Messages From On High?

'Tis the day of the message; the day of the greeting; the day when leaders from around the Western world get to show their compassionate side as they give us their Christmas cheer. No matter how venal or corrupt they've been for the previous year, any politician worth his stripe will be in front of a camera today dolling out tablespoons of Christmas syrup in the hopes of chasing away the bitterness of the previous year. With the advantage of Midnight Mass and the time difference the Pope is always able to get his in first. One thing you can say for him is at least he's not as dowdy as the Queen or as boringly dressed as the politicians who follow him latter in the day. The Catholic Church really knows how to put on a show. From the choirs to the rituals, from the architecture of St. Peter's Basilica to the camera shots of Vatican Square filled with the teeming masses come to hear the words of wisdom uttered by the leader of their religion. The music swells and the central players take their positions upon the stage awaiting the entry of the star. Once the business of the ritual is out of the way it's time for the homily, or message for today's service. Usually this a good indication of what the tenor of the year's going to be like under the current Pope. Since this was Benedict's first midnight mass it was interesting to see what he would talk about. Would he seek forgiveness for the sexual abuse of who knows how many children in the New England Diocese? Would he like other Popes use this as an opportunity to reach out to other communities with the hand of friendship? None of the above! After a token plea for peace in the Middle East, he made it perfectly clear that he is no more sympathetic to a woman's right to choose as any previous Pope. In fact by deliberately likening the unborn to the symbol of the baby Christ in the manger he used his airtime to push the anti-choice agenda. It strikes me that this tradition of giving airtime and press coverage to one religion's beliefs and practice has become somewhat archaic. We live in a highly pluralistic world made up of many beliefs and life choices. To give one sect of one religion special treatment has begun to smack of inequity. Certainly there are plenty of Catholics in the world, but so are there Muslims, Jews, Hindus, and Buddhists. When do they get airtime to celebrate their highest holidays and propagate their beliefs? Why do we allow someone who has no elected office outside the one voted on by his peers, make comments about social political conditions without being rebutted? This man has been quick to condemn homosexuality, same sex marriage and anything to do with birth control, yet we give him access to potential audiences in the millions and let his remarks stand as law. Certainly some people are willing to accept his word as being law, and that is their choice, but the rest of the world doesn't. But by showing him on television vested in his robes of pomp and power he is made to appear important out of proportion to reality. How is it that this man's words escape the editorializing that usually accompanies comments made by clergy of other faiths? How is it that only Muslim clerics are referred to in a derogatory manner when they say things that westerners might disagree with? There are just as many people who support choice for women and same sex unions as those who oppose them, some of them even Catholic, yet the Pope or other Catholic clergy who speak out against them are never called radical or reactionary. Why does the media cede this office power and give weight to the opinions of its occupant? He's only as important on the world stage as he's allowed to be outside the Catholic faith. Why should the majority of the world's population that isn't Catholic care about what he has to say, or made to feel that it has any import? This is an organization that has been active over the centuries in cultural genocide; the persecution of woman, Jews, and even Christians that have expressed differences of opinion. They worked to suppress knowledge if it ran counter to the their teachings as seen by their suppression of the works of Galileo in the 1600's and the continued existence of a list of proscribed works of literature. This is an organization that believes itself to be above the law of the land in which they have established sites of worship. They protect pedophiles from arrest by the simple expedient of moving them to other dioceses where they are free to re-offend and often do. They are more concerned with protecting the offenders than offering any compensation to the victims and in fact do their best to discredit those who would dare besmirch the church's good name. In spite of this history of power's misuse and venality, pronouncements from the Vatican and the occupant of St. Peter's throne are still treated by the media as sacrosanct. For a supposedly liberal press they seem to be easily overawed and intimidated by the trappings of power. When a Catholic Archbishop in Canada called on the federal government to use its powers to outlaw homosexuality not one critical word was published in any of the articles I read about him. His words of hatred were allowed direct access to people without any editorial comment. While some may say this is objective reporting, in the minds of many when a newspaper prints something verbatim without censorship it is tantamount to approval. We live in the twenty-first century where one of the corner stones in our system of government is a separation of church and state. Do you not think that means it is about time we outgrew our feudal fascination with pronouncements made by religious leaders? Why lend credibility to those who fondly remember when their word was The Word and all would tremble before them? Do not be fooled by the pretty clothes, the wondrous surroundings or the beautiful music. This is still the organization that would rather see people die in the streets of Calcutta from starvation than advocate birth control, have collaborated with oppressive regimes if it suits their purposes, and killed people for not believing the same things as them. The next time a report of some pronouncement or other of the Pope's comes across the airwaves or appears in newsprint, you might want to keep those things in mind. It takes a lot of the shine off the chalice.

12/24/2005

How Democratic Is Our Democracy?

The great buzzword of the West that's been used since World War Two to establish our moral authority over the rest of the world has been democracy. When we want to criticize or question the legitimacy of some other country's government all we do is raise doubts about how democratic their elections were. It's been used as an excuse for everything from imposing economic sanctions, to going to war. Unfortunately it's become such a buzzword that I seriously doubt that most people even think about what it means or question the nature of what a democracy should be. At best they would equate it with a people's ability to select their government. While it's true that is the core of the matter, and without that key element the rest would be irrelevant, there is far more to it than just the right to vote. Aside from having a voice in the election of your government, living in a democracy should also be a guarantee that the rules of your society are enforced and that you are able to live your life within those boundaries with as much freedom as possible. Democracies (from the Greek word demokratia meaning rule by the people) have been around since the 5th Century B.C., when all Athenian males were allowed to have a say in the running of their city state. But they didn't start gaining in popularity until the rise of a moneyed middle class that wanted some sort of say in what was happening in the world. These original democracies had little to do with what we consider democracy today. Rather they just expanded the power base from the hands of the aristocracy into the hands of the moneyed class. It wasn't until the nineteenth century that suffrage was based on citizenship rather than class. In a democracy every person is theoretically guaranteed certain freedoms and respect, while a social contract called law restricts our behaviour to what is deemed a norm. Over the years that norm has evolved and the laws have expanded to meet the changing needs of the people. Although the basic premise of a democracy is that the majority rules, a true democracy allows for the guarantee of minority rights. There is also a clear understanding that when it comes to an election, all parties will consider themselves bound by the results and accept the choice of the electorate. While those seem like very clear directions for making a democracy work, the difficulty does not apply to the model, but as to how the model is implemented. Can a society claim to be democratic when it allows one belief system to dictate the moral framework around which laws are structured? If minority rights are curtailed because of that model how democratic a society is it? How democratic is a society that has an inherent class of have-nots who have little or no chance of ever having any real influence on the decision making process? When this results in all real power residing in the hands of a small minority of the population; either by winning elections or by influence purchased through campaign contributions, I would say the spirit of democracy has been perverted. If you look closely at many of the world's democracies right now you will see that as a rule the people who "serve" their countries are usually drawn from the same pool over and over again. Whether they are in opposition or in power the names pretty much stay the same year after year. The election in Canada right now is raising some interesting questions. The country is being split along geographical lines. One party seems to be attracting all the votes of city dwellers; one all the rural populations; and another all of Quebec. The parties themselves are responsible for this division by demonising each other and grasping for whatever representation they can get. They are more intent on gaining power than actually representing the wishes of Canadians. Then there are countries that are split along ethnic lines. Look at the results from the election in Iraq. Shiite Muslims are the majority and received the most votes with the minority Sunni Muslims trailing and Kurdish nationalists receiving the balance. Protests over the results are already occurring with Sunni's concerned about their lack of representation. Since one of the tenets of a democracy is that the authority of the winner's right to rule is recognised by the opposition can this election be said to be democratic with the Sunni refusing to endorse the results? One can blame the people of Iraq and say they are bad losers, but I think we have to be wiser than that and realize our system is flawed and needs fixing. The major flaw in our system is that the reward for winning elections is power. People and parties compete to see who will have power over the rest of the population for a period of time. Corporations and groups than vie to see if they can influence that power so that it will favour their agendas. When people go to the polls now they are not choosing those who will represent their interests, they are selecting the individuals who they trust to have power over them for what ever period of office they may receive. It's a far cry from what was meant by democracy way back when in Athens Greece where every male citizen was allowed a voice in the governing of the city, literally. There were no people competing for votes in an effort to win the right to represent them, they represented themselves. It was one person one voice, not twenty-five thousand people, one voice that only represents a proportion of those voices. What motivates someone like George Bush or Paul Martin to seek the highest political office in his respective country? The desire to shape the country in their image and to have the power to enforce the image of the country they want to see on the rest of the population. Call it what you want but the truth of the matter is; to want to become leader of a country you've got to be pretty power hungry and ambitious, which pretty much means you re probably the worst person to be the leader of a country. How you can a fair and balanced view of what is best for a country in a specific situation when you are more concerned with holding on to your power than doing anything that will make a difference I don't know. According to reports out of Capital Hill in Washington, Senators feel like they are constantly campaigning and must continually be raising money to wage their next election battle. You tell me that they are going to be impartial when someone is handing them a check for a couple of hundred grand and whispering in their ear at the same time. When the lure of the office has become more important than what the office stands for, democracy leaves through the back door. We throw the word democracy around a lot, especially as a means to justify our actions or as means of trumpeting our superiority over other countries. But how democratic are we really when the motivating factor to "serve" your country is to promote your personal agenda and to gain power? How democratic are we when we can't elect governments that reflect the needs of our entire population? When an increasing number of people are feeling alienated from their governments and have little or no desire to participate in the system can we claim to be democratic? When the societal climate is such that dissent is classified as betrayal, and blind obedience is considered the epitome of good citizenship are we truly fostering a home for free and open debate? If decisions are made not through consensus and understanding, but through deceit, subterfuge, and power, where does that leave the spirit of democracy? We can complain all we want to about special interest groups and corrupt politicians, and while they are to blame, we need to look a little deeper. The system we currently follow, while an honourable attempt, needs to be changed. If we want to return to the spirit of the original one-man one voice concept of the Athenians we have a lot of work to do.

12/23/2005

Mommas Don't Let Your Babies Grow Up To Be Gay Cowboys.

I wonder if it's a reaction to the overabundance of manufactured sentimentality that comes with this time of year, or if I'm just naturally this jaded, but my cynicism seems to be nearer and nearer the surface. Perhaps it can't be helped when your country is in the midst of a federal election; it's an automatic defence mechanism that kicks in whenever a politician opens his or her mouth telling you they care. Or maybe it comes from reading the newspapers. Politicians trying to make a connection between exploiting wildlife preserve and providing financial relief to people devastated by Hurricane Katrina does nothing to improve my opinion of the human race. The President of the United States supporting illegal wiretapping of American residents on the grounds of national security without revealing who the subjects were (shades of Richard Nixon's enemies list) leaves you thinking about all the ways that can misused. (If I were Michael Moore I would make damn sure I have a really good accountant for the audits he'll be undergoing for the next ten years) Wherever it comes from it seems to be making me cast a jaundiced eye over just about everything that I see. Perhaps this goes a long way to explaining my reaction to all the hype surrounding Brokeback Mountain, or as I'm calling it in my head, Guys in Chaps. I know it's supposed to be this big breakthrough movie with two mainstream actors having gay love scenes and all that, but still something about it sticks in my craw. A lot of it could be a reaction to Hollywood and its inability to accept that something has to be grandiose to appeal to people. Instead of a tale of unrequited love between two gay accountants in the early sixties it has to be two rugged he-men cowboys for them. They seem to forget that even today it takes a certain amount of courage to go public in mainstream society about your love for a person of the same sex. Forget about all the hoopla surrounding celebrity unions like Sir Elton's and think for a second about life in the Midwestern United States or the Bible Belt. How many men and women live lives of quiet misery unable to ever admit their feelings for fear of shunning and potential injury to this very day? Perhaps that's what actually makes this movie so acceptable to a conservative world. Like Sir Elton these two cowboys occupy a world that is a waya ways removed from our typical day-to-day existence. They are not like us, so their behaviour can be different. In some ways this movie reminds me of the old Lenny Bruce routine about gays, when he talks about man being basically a carnal animal. At one point he says "put a guy in prison for any length of time and he'll shtup anything, even mud" Although their relationship grows beyond that stage, that rationale can be used to explain away their initial attraction. Of course they also have to suffer for their love. Marriages go to hell and they end up alone. How difficult is it to take that and turn it into an argument against homosexual love? Look at the damage they cause to nice decent women and children through their perverted desires. Look at how they are forced to suffer by God for giving in to those nasty urges. If only they had had the strength to resist that first time they would have gone on to be decent husbands and fathers. Yet I'm sure everyone associated with the movie and the press are all going on about what a brave picture this is, depicting homosexual love without any of the poufter stereotypes and making the gays the central characters. Have none of these idiots ever seen Kevin Smith's movie Chasing Amy? That movie accepts homosexuality as a fact of life, nothing special. There's a great scene where a lesbian and a straight man compare war injuries sustained while having oral sex. Now that scene is not going to play well in Pretoria. I remember somebody questioning Kevin Smith about that movie and him replying that he made it after his gay brother commented how tired he was of not seeing gay people up on screen just being people like other characters. Brokeback Mountain doesn't do anything to address that deficiency. There's nothing normal about this movie at all. If they wanted to be brave they'd do some stupid Hollywood movie about two divorced parents getting together with their children and trying to form one happy family, but having both parents gay. Or a nice romantic comedy a la Two Weeks Notice but instead of Sandra Bullock playing the radical lawyer who falls in love with the corporate honcho have that character be played by Heath Ledger. Make Hugh Grant's character a sleaze that sleeps with everything in trousers who's just waiting for the right guy to come along and save him from himself. Those would be radical movies; ones that would take a great deal of bravery to make. Movies like Brokeback Mountain do as much disservice to gays as any movie full of drag queens and limp wrested stereotypes. In fact a movie like Priscilla: Queen of The Desert where the drag queens are presented as human beings, has more integrity in one of its high heels than any earnest movie's attempt to talk about the issue of homosexuality. That's the problem right there in a nutshell. Gay love is still being treated as an issue not life. We don't need any more issue films about people's sexual orientation. Sure there are segments of the population who want to make an issue out of it, but the best response is not to play that game. Integration will only happen when sexual orientation is no longer an issue. As long as films like Brokeback Mountain continue to be made homosexuality will continue to be marginalized. I'm sure people will say I'm making a lot of fuss over just a movie, but it's not just the movie I'm reacting too. The fact that everyone seems to think that it's such a step forward in Hollywood's depiction of homosexuals is what I'm reacting to. Like I said earlier maybe I'm overly cynical, but I would not categorize any movie that continues to marginalize homosexuality as progressive. Sure it takes place in the near past with characters that are the antithesis of the gay stereotype, but those traits do nothing to hasten the acceptance of gays on screen for who and what they are. Like the middle of the road mainstream society Hollywood reflects, homosexuality still has a long way to go before it is openly accepted in the suburbs. For all the right wing's complaints about the lax morality and impiety of Hollywood, they are actually just as conservative as any Republican. They're just better actors.

12/22/2005

North/South Relations: The Rise of Nationalism in Latin America

It was back in the 1970's when the cold war was raging that the late Pierre Trudeau, then Prime Minister of Canada, began advocating what he called North/South thinking instead of East/West as a means of defining our foreign policy. In some ways this was his version of the Marshall Plan of the 1940's. Help the developing world become economically self-sufficient and you don't have to worry about them so much in the future. By focusing on their problems and offering assistance instead of turning them into battlefields we increased the chances of them not having to depend on foreign aid or becoming our enemies in the future. Not surprisingly he wasn't able to garner much interest from any of the major players in the world at the time. Nobody was willing to think too far into the future. As we draw to the end of the halfway point of the first decade of this millennium we see that the major economic powers of the world are still reluctant to commit themselves to this type of policy. The predominant attitude is still we will take what we need and to hell with your needs as a country. This colonial mindset had been in play since the 19th century and as the twentieth century pulled into it’s last twenty years looked to be still predominant. Sure the wealthier countries of the world were there to assuage their guilt when famines hit Ethiopia, shelling out millions of dollars in emergency aid. But once the photo opportunities were over and done with it was back to the same practices. In the past we have guaranteed our needs being met in countries by either propping up governments that have been supportive of our ends or conspiring to overthrow those that we deem as unsympathetic. Although there is no longer the overt involvement as there was twenty years ago in Nicaragua and El Salvador, or Chile in the seventies, South and Central America seem to be still considered the personal fiefdoms of any American administration. From the days when Remember The Maine rang out across America as an excuse to take Cuba from Spain up to the current embargo of Castro's Cuba and the demonizing of Venezuela President Hugo Chavez, governments in Washington have tried to keep a tight leash on any nationalistic aspirations by their neighbours to the south. From the sugar and fruit companies of the fifties and sixties to the Oil wells and natural gas lines of 2005 the difference is only in the commodity, Instead of cutting their losses and negotiating deals with Castro and working out a peaceful co-existence with his Cuba, they pushed him into the arms of the Russians by putting more import on the interests of a few American companies than that of the people of Cuba. Instead of quashing nationalist feelings in Latin America they have created a figurehead/martyr that all independence and reform movements can now rally around. Whether or not Castro deserves that standing is another question, but the fact of the matter is he remains a symbol of successfully standing up to the big bully. Rightly or wrongly the poor and downtrodden of the Southwest hemisphere see America as the enemy of freedom and the friend of the oppressor. Unfortunately administration after administration has done nothing to alleviate that impression. From the overthrow of Salvador Allende in Chile in 1973, the support of the military government in El Salvador, and the backing of the Contras in Nicaragua, they have fashioned an image of being the enemy of the little guy. When American backed forces machine gun your village from helicopters it becomes harder and harder to equate that with the actions of someone who has your best interests at heart. The lowest of the low in South America have always been the native tribes who are the remnants of the peoples who once ruled the continent. Pushed into abject poverty first by the their Spanish conquerors, and then seeing what little farm land they had be eaten up by the plantations of the corporate farms. It's only been recently that have begun to have a voice again in the political arenas. A precarious voice; as many of their leadership become targets for assassination by thugs from mining and lumber industries intent on denying them their land and rights. The past fifteen years have been marked by uprisings in various troubled regions, including Mexico's poorer provinces where the poverty and living conditions are truly horrible. Demands made on debt ridden countries like Argentina to cut their spending by the American controlled International Monetary Fund (I.M.F.) have caused massive civil unrest and resulted in a worsening of conditions for the poorest of peoples. Inflation and unemployment are rampant and hope is in short supply. Is it any wonder that leaders are being elected who are openly rejecting toeing the line for the United States? That the people turn to Castro for inspiration? How long do you think it's possible to ignore the massive numbers of people who live in abject poverty before they snap and say "no more"? Look at the recent election in Bolivia of Evo Moraless and the American reaction. They are already telling him he better be a good boy as witness Secretary of State Rice's comment that relationships between the two governments will be dictated by the 'behaviour' of the government in Bolivia. Since he has already vowed to halt U.S. backed Coca-eradication programs, turn over vacant and unproductive land to poor farmers, and aggressively nationalize Bolivia's natural gas reserves, he should be the latest villain in South America. I guess we will have to wait and see if he manages to obtain the status of Chavez and have Pat Robertson call for his assassination but he seems to be heading down that path. What do you expect from people who have spent decades watching a few people get rich off the backs of the many, and the majority of those people have been from another country. As the British found out in 1776 you can only push people so far before they snap. The people of the Southern Americas have been pushed as far as they can go. The reversal of years of neglect and exploitation was what Pierre Trudeau was trying to sell when he proposed a shift of focus from East/West to North/South. He knew there would come a time when we'd no longer be able to push people around and take what we needed from them without giving anything substantial in return. By putting profit in the moment ahead of investment in the future American Governments have created the situation they now find themselves in with their relations with the nations to the South of them. They are viewed either with mistrust or outright hostility by large majorities of peoples in those regions. It may already be too late to salvage some sort of relationship with the new leadership that's emerging in these countries, but if subsequent American administrations care to try their first task must be to recognise that people in those countries deserve the power of self-determination as much as Americans do. We have to start considering these countries as equal trading partners, not grocery stores, before anything can improve.

12/21/2005

CD Review: Africa Unite: The Singles Collection - Bob Marley and the Wailers

Many years ago when I was just starting out on an acting career I was studying with a movement coach. In one of our first classes she said that movement could be broken down into ten levels: zero was so relaxed that you couldn't move and ten was so tense that you couldn't move. She then when on to try and give us images to use to help us recreate the various stages in between the two extremes. The one that has always stuck in my head was how she described level three: "picture yourself walking down a beach on a beautiful warm sunny day next to a bright blue ocean, with a bright clear sky overhead, a breeze off the sea, and your listening to Bob Marley on headphones" I was reminded of this yesterday when I slipped Africa Unite: The Singles Collection by Bob Marley and the Wailers into my player yesterday afternoon. I live in the wrong Kingston for this time of year; Ontario not Jamaica, and there is about three feet of snow on the ground. We've had that type of raw cold that gets into your bones like cold water and makes your shoulders hunch up to your ears. Couple that with the usual seasonal stress and the ability to relax physically seems almost impossible. But against the power of Bob Marley and the rhythms of Reggae these seemingly insurmountable problems melted into nothing. As the first throbbing bass notes of "Soul Rebel" from 1970 came pulsing out of my speakers the music started to work its magic. Bob-Marley Africa Unite: The Singles Collection is exactly what it says it is, a collection of all Bob Marley and the Wailers' singles dating back to their pre Island record days of 1970. "Concrete Jungle" from their 1972 Island record debut Catch A Fire is the first single on this disc that would be familiar to a wider audience, and as the music progresses we enter into the more familiar territory of "Is This Love", "Jamming", and "Exodus". Of course it doesn't matter whether you're familiar with the song or not, the infectious back beat and scratch guitar can have you on your feet and moving in spite of yourself. Aside from perhaps Peter Tosh and Black Uhuru, there has never been another Reggae band or performer who has been able to match the intensity and drive of Marley. It shows in the power his songs have to lift you off your feet. In far too many Reggae bands I have found that the rhythm simply overwhelms, but in the case of Marley he is strong enough that his personality and his message shines through. Whether it is his songs of protest or pleas for universal love; they are strengthened by the form, not overwhelmed. Listening to the live version of "No Women No Cry" taken from the Live album released in 1975, is to be carried away on a tide of emotion; the crowd breaking into spontaneous song perfectly on cue, the music driving and Marley and the I-threes (Rita Marley, Judy Mowat, and Marcia Griffiths) singing their hearts out. Only a performer with massive amounts of charisma and talent can command that type of reaction from his band and audience and create that chemistry during a live show. It's moments like this that make me wonder what would have happened had he lived past 36 years. In 1981 when he died black music, especially Reggae, was not the cross over power it is now with hip-hop and rap dominating so much of the charts. He was finally obtaining more than just cult status among mainstream white audiences when he died. Maybe he never would have received massive commercial success; his song content was far too political for most mainstream airplay, and his advocacy of marijuana would not have gone over well with Nancy Regan's "Just Say No" America of the 1980's, but the potential for superstardom was written all over him. Single handily he had dragged Reggae into the eyes of the world, making it possible for people like his old band mate Peter Tosh to carve out successful solo careers. While the soundtrack to the movie The Harder They Come may have provided the initial impetus and introduction for Reggae, it was Marley who had the staying power to keep it in the spotlight. No other single artist or band has been more readily associated with a style of music than Bob Marley and Reggae. People who wouldn't know Burning Spear from Jimmy Cliff or Toots and the Maytells would know the name Bob Marley. It has nothing to do with the talents of the other, but he mystique that surrounded Marley. Listen to songs like "Waiting In Vain" or "Could You Be Loved" again after years of not hearing them. They still resonate with a power that could only come from a man who was more than just a short-term thing. His music went beyond the Rastafarian culture he espoused and spoke to simple universal truths that everyone could identify with. While some might have criticized Marley for selling out to commercial interests, they will have missed the point of the man. He was never the overtly political songwriter like Peter Tosh as far as lyrical content goes, but he didn't need to be. He was a political statement just by being Bob Marley. Kingston and Jamaica of the 1970's was violent and rife with bloodshed. A great deal of it was because of fighting between the two political parties who vied for public office. During one particularly violent campaign only Marley had the power to convince the two leaders to appear together in public and plead for calm. During a concert he hauled them up on stage and standing between them brought their hands together over his head. His calls for "Africa Unite" were pleas for the black people to stand together so they could overcome their position in the world. He knew that as a people they could accomplish nothing as long as they were continually warring amongst themselves and not presenting a unified front. That would have to come first before any revolution could happen. Africa Unite: The Singles Collection represents a good cross section of the music that made Bob Marley the force that he was musically. It also includes three pieces of music that are previously unreleased. "Slogans" was an incomplete song that Marley had laid down just before his death, which has been mastered and finished with musicians like Eric Clapton. will. i. am of the Black Eyed Peas offers up a provocative remix/dub of the Marley classic "Africa Unite" and rounding off the disc is "Stand Up Jamrock Ashley Beedle Remix" a re-visiting of "Get Up Stand Up" Both tracks are fitting elegies to Bob as they encapsulate his desire for social justice and speak the musical language of the people they are addressing. This is a great collection of some of the best that Bob Marley had to offer. Whether you have never heard his work before or were a long time fan looking to reacquaint yourself with his music this is as good a place as any to start. My only quibble is a minor one, the liner notes are sparse and there is not enough information about the musicians appearing on various tracks. But putting that aside, if you are looking for a cure to winter in North America and can't afford to travel to sunnier climes, put this disc into your music player, close your eyes and lay back on your favourite beach in your mind's eye. It will be paradise.

12/20/2005

Betrayed By Media Pundits

There's something that's always puzzled me about the existence of certain branches of the media; politically biased talk radio shows, talking head commentators and analysts from either side of the political spectrum. They obviously don't exist to convert anybody to their point of view, so there has to be some other reason for their existence. Of course the other part of that equation is their audience. What do people get out of listening to people like that? They don't listen to them to expand their intellectual horizon, that's for sure, or to hear opinions that might broaden their world vision, so why bother? I'm sure this type of political opinion expression has always existed; probably since the first newspaper was invented if not earlier. Since the days of the first democracies and even earlier, pamphleteering was an accepted means of reaching a broad audience. Probably the most famous American pamphleteer was Thomas Paine, whose publications prior to and during the Revolutionary War summed up the desires and aspirations of the colonists seeking independence. Unfortunately the drop off in intellectual reasoning from Thomas Paine to Tucker Carlson and his like that dominate today's press is equivalent to a fall from the top of Mount Everest. Instead of reasoned arguments we get undiluted hatred and vitriol directed at whomever is the target of the week. The left may try and pretend they are above such posturing but I'm sure they'd give their eyeteeth to have the opportunity to reach the audiences that Mr. Carlson and Mr. Limbaugh are able to draw to their programming. The best they can hope for is that people will pay any attention to the nattering of Jay Leno, David Letterman or some other supposed satirist of the day. But do any of these guys actually make a difference in public opinion? Or is their job more along the lines to let the converted know what the issues of the day are and how they should react? During the run up to the invasion of Iraq when France and other European countries were pushing for diplomatic solutions and opposing military intervention, who was it that whipped up the feeding frenzy of hatred against them. It was the talk radio hosts, television pundits and right wing newspaper columnists who stirred that cauldron of bile. Like a spoiled child who can't get there way all the time, they lashed out in fits of uncontrolled rage calling into question everything from France's capabilities as soldiers and their dedication to freedom. Not only was their behaviour rude, bordering on racist, their accusations ignored America's own history. The European country that's always been the most appreciative, and supportive of the United States over the years, has always been France. That statue in the New York City harbour was a present from the French on the American centennial. But trivial matters like accuracy don't seem to matter in the world these people occupy. They only seem to delight in whipping up hatreds and unreasoned emotions. Just ask Joseph Goebbels what an effective tool that is when it comes to directing public opinion. The dissemination of information should never be hampered by a dependence on facts; it will only confuse people. Obviously those commentators of a conservative bent will focus on subject matter dear to their hearts and the same would go for the ones on the left. How is it though that they can all decide to go after the same target on the same day? You'd think coming form competing media outlets they would choose different targets in order to try and attract a larger share of the market. Isn't that the way the media is supposed to work? They compete to see who can get an exclusive on a story and blow the competition out of the water by being the only one to carry an explosive revelation or the latest inside scoop. Not these guys though; it always seems as if they are conducting an orchestrated attack on the same target. What a strange coincidence that Monday morning producers, publishers, editors and writers across America wake up with the same idea on their minds. That's probably something of an exaggeration, but the attacks do seem to come in waves; one after another in an attempt to build a case against their target. The main focus of their attacks seems to be on anyone who openly challenges the Bush administration. They never say that, it's always couched in terms of being either unpatriotic if their target is an American, or anti-American if a foreign power is involved. Like a diva who is always critical of those around her, but lashes out in fury if anyone dares to offer her a critique, they would be objects of ridicule if they did not have so much influence. For citizens of the most powerful nation on earth to be so insecure that they can only lash out at criticism with disparaging comments is pathetic. What's truly unfortunate is that they seem to have an audience that wants to hear this type of rhetoric. Ask any psychologist and they will tell you the reason people put down others is to make up for feelings of inadequacy. Another result is to reduce the impact of their opinions and make your stance seem that much more secure. So when someone like Tucker Carlson refers to Canada as a "retarded nephew" like he did recently, or disparages French military prowess, he is not only bolstering his own opinions he is making his audience feel superior to other nationalities. The same would be true for those who refer to Tucker Carlson as an inbred, illiterate piece of white trash who doesn't know his ass from a hole in the ground. They would be making themselves feel superior to him, while at the same time reducing his opinions in stature. An audience hearing that, and who supported those sentiments, would lap it up as eagerly as Mr. Carlson's audience would his statements about Canada. Neither argument actually conveys anything except the speaker's personal opinion on subject matter they may or may not know anything about. They are basing their commentary on the accepted party line. No self-respecting person to the left of Mr. Carlson would ever admit that he might have something of value to say because it would be unacceptable to his audience and her ideology. I'm sure that radio and television stations, newspapers and magazines, and more recently web sites keep pundits like this around to drive up the ratings. What outrageous thing will they say next? As more of the audience comes to expect and demand this, the commentators are becoming are becoming less interested in their arguments, and more interested in the inventiveness of their invective. These types of "news casts" don't require any thought on the part of their audience. They are being told how to think and how to feel. They are designed in the same manner as a political sound bite; one thought and one emotion in one easy to digest heat and serve package. Playing on simplistic emotional responses, (us good them bad) they allow no room for doubt and elicit strong reactions. The continued refusal to allow for voices of dissent to be heard, and for contrasting opinions to be held, does not make for a healthy society. Instead you are constructing a powder keg with a fuse that is rapidly burning. Hatred and mistrust breed hatred and mistrust; through constant exposure they will eventually spread to all segments of society, not just foreign policy. Unless something is done soon to buck this trend I think we are all heading for a period of intense civil unrest. One needs look no further to the events in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina to see the potential for that powder keg to blow. The media of North America have a responsibility to their audience to provide balanced coverage of events that allow for decisions to be made based on reason. Their abysmal failure to do so threatens all of our well-being.

12/19/2005

Post NaNoWriMo Traumatic Stress Syndrome

The spotlight has been turned off, the glamour is over, but the hard work continues. Day after day, with no one taking notice and with no fanfare the endless battle between man and muse is fought out in front of the laptop in my kitchen. I'm alone now, no support groups or chatty emails, and now it's becomes work. I seem to be suffering from a malaise of the keyboard, and it's so much more of a struggle to write this month than last. I must be suffering from post National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo) traumatic stress syndrome. For those countless millions who don't know, I spent the month of November welded to my laptop churning out thousands of words a day in an attempt to write 50,000 before the month ended. I was able to breeze through and finish the month with a comfortable 75,000 words. Naturally I had visions of completing a first draft before Christmas. January would be spent merrily polishing and editing the first draft, carefully fine-tuning it for publication. In turn this would be followed by a February of mailing out letters to fortunate publishers who didn't know it, but were only awaiting the arrival of my manuscript to make 2006 their best year yet. The best laid plans of mice and men (can someone explain that to me, I've never figured out what one has to do with the other) and all that shit seems to be coming true for me. Since the end of November I have maybe written 15,000 words if I'm lucky. I sit down at the laptop with every intention of writing my ass off but invariably something happens that prevents it. After a couple of paragraphs I'm too tired that I have to stop because I can't get my eyes to focus on the keyboard. Or even worse I'll start thinking instead of just tapping into the story and letting it flow. All through the month of November I was able to just sit down and know what was going to happen, or what had just happened to the people in my story, and I would simply report on it. Part of the problem of course is that the excitement of the contest is over. That helped to drive me forward each day. It gave me the impetuous to write so even on those day when I would be tired I would try to put down a couple of hundred words in the morning. This is where the suffering from post NaNoWriMo traumatic stress syndrome comes into play. The thrill of the weigh in is gone, how many more words until I'm done? How many words over 50,000 can I get in a month? Watching the numbers pile up on a daily basis until they reached the required amount was like a fix to a junkie; a shot of instant adrenalin that could carry you through the next day's work. Sometimes the feeling of a job well done is just not enough as far as gratification goes. You end up wanting something a little more concrete. It's harder to make myself start writing, whether in the morning or the afternoon it doesn't matter. I still want to finish, and publish this story. I haven't lost my faith in its quality and I'm still enjoying writing it when I do. All of a sudden though, I feel like I'm writing in a vacuum, alone and unsupported. A writer's life is supposed to be like that I know. Long hours of solitary confinement with your implement of choice. Just you and the words on the page staring back at each other. There's no comfort to be derived from words that you've written yourself. They just stare back at you confirming what came out of your brain and nothing else Before NaNoWriMo I revelled in that atmosphere; me against the world has always been the way I've felt anyway, so the writing life has always seemed to suit me ideally. All of sudden though it doesn't seem quite enough anymore, up until now I had never experienced a group of like-minded people. Now that I have, I realize that you don't have to live a stereotype to be a writer. That doesn't mean you can carry on conversations while writing, but it is all right to chat to people about writing once you're no longer working. I used to abhor people who would sit around coffee shops all day long and talk about being artists. They never actually did anything except run down people who actually managed to produce stuff on occasion. Having been exposed to far too many of those types of people for far too long, I had stopped talking about what I did. It wasn't until I started writing at blogcritics.org that I began to realize there was a community of writers who could talk and work. NaNoWriMo drove that home even more because I got to know a few of the writers from blogcritics a little better outside of the site and in the context of being fiction writers. At first I thought when I started having difficulties writing at the beginning of December it was only natural for there to be a letdown after the intensity of the previous month. It was only as the month progressed and nothing seemed to be changing that I began to wonder if there wasn't maybe more to it than I thought. There are the usual things that one can't control that have intruded; and December with its accompanying holidays seem to have more real world problems than most months. So initially it was easy to lay the blame at the feet of those distractions. However I would find myself with plenty of time to write and be sitting at the computer actively trying to avoid actual writing again Ironically it wasn't until I was offered the opportunity to host my own forums on a web site that I realised what I had been missing. Ashok Banker, the author and blogcritic contributor as time allows, very flatteringly offered me a forum on his newly expanded Epic India portal. Even before I had given him an answer he set up "Gypsyman's World" at the forums page. Much to my surprise the first sub-forum I set up was something called "Artist's Colony" which has the express purpose of being a place for people to post and talk about their art. You can leave links to your work so people can read it and offer critiques, you can compare notes on what inspires you, and so on. Exactly the type of thing I used to despise and claim not to have any use for. But I do, we all do, art cannot exist in a vacuum. There have to be people who are going to read, listen to, or see what you've done or it's just self-indulgence. If that's the case, than how can you create if you have no contact with others on some level or another? Even if it's just to say to somebody else, "well done" or to hear somebody else say, "good for you", simple human contact is very important. It reminds us of who we are writing for, and lets us know that we are not the only ones going through this type of struggle. When we hear about how someone else is struggling with their muse, or is on fire with inspiration we recognise the feelings as being similar to the ones we experience our selves. Being a creative artist of any kind is a highly individual experience. So much of the work is done in our heads that if we're not careful we end up living there and getting stuck there. If we can air out our ideas in a supportive and understanding atmosphere the chances are that we will find ourselves able to work our way out of any blocks that have occurred. The best lesson I learned from NaNoWriMo was that even though I have to work alone when writing, it doesn't necessarily me that I have to be alone with my work. There're plenty of people out there in the same boat, when we all paddle together it goes a lot quicker and in a straighter line.

12/18/2005

The Bush File

Well it looks like your correspondent was in the right place at the right time again. This time while dumpster diving outside a seven-eleven in Kingston Ontario I came across a cardboard box stamped with the seal of the American President. Obviously my curiosity whetted, I abandoned my hunt for ends of submarine sandwiches and casually slipped the box under my toque. (Pronounced tuke to sound like nuke, a toque is a strange piece of Canadian headgear that becomes a permanent fixture on the top of Canadian heads every year between the months of November and May.) Once safely ensconced in my suite of rooms (bathroom, living room, and kitchenette) I peeled off the layer of hardened cheese and living bacteria, and opened the box. Nestled inside the first box was a second flat box stamped with the label "Top Secret: Property of The National Security Council. If found please turn in to the nearest American government office or mail to the following P.O. Box number. On no account should you read the files contained here in as that would be sneaky, unpatriotic, and could result in all sorts of unimaginably nasty things happening to your and your family. Never being one to have much of an imagination I decided to go ahead and read the document. What I read was so appalling and shocking that I decided that the entire world should know of its contents, thus relieving me of the burden of being the sole recipient of this knowledge. There is safety in numbers after all, and they won't be able to catch all of us or shut this site down before enough of us know of the nefarious plot at hand. I've done my best to cover my tracks but if you don't hear from me again you'll know that they've managed to track me down. But it's more important that the truth be heard Minutes from the meeting of the National Security Council on the twelfth day of January 05. All notes and minutes, including this record, should be destroyed after being signed by all parties involved in this meeting. This meeting never happened. Topic of Conversation: Reinstitution of the Monarchy. President Bush is approaching the final years of his rule, and is looking to circumvent the two-term restriction for all Presidents. He feels, and we agree, that it would only play into the hands of the forces arrayed against our country if a transfer of power were to occur. The state of the world being what it is, America must be on continuous guard against all possible threats to our sovereignty from enemies and supposed allies alike. Our boarders to the north and south are wide open to the threats of illegal immigration and infiltration by terrorists, our nearest enemy is only a small hop away from Florida, and there are those from within wishing to subvert our authority. Cuba is a continued threat to our peace and security. In spite of our attempts to grind it into dust through economic sanctions somehow Castro still manages to survive. The only way to ensure our safety is to keep the pressure on otherwise Cuban gunboats could be parked in Miami at any time. Denying them the chance to participate in the upcoming baseball World Championship are the types of actions they understand. Unlike the previous administration that let Ry Cooder go to Cuba to make a movie and play that decidedly un-American Latin music, we will not be made a mockery of by showing any softening of our position. The president is worried that our vision of fortress America will be subverted by any subsequent administration that actually considers the Bill of Rights a document that must be adhered to literally. It is vital that we be allowed to open mail, intercept phone calls, and monitor electronic communications of anyone we see fit to designate a potential threat. Those who would undermine our positions by presenting dissenting opinions must be considered as posing the biggest threat. This is too important a matter to be left in the hands of judges and those whose job it is to uphold the laws and the constitution. It is imperative that concepts like freedom of speech and the right to privacy be considered in the light of national security, and that is best left in the hands of those who know what is best for the country and the President. Our so-called allies to the north need to be reminded of who's really in charge of this continent. We pretty much have the Mexican's cowed, but the Canadians keep on trying to stand up to us. Worst of all is how some of their socialist ideas concerning health care and social programming are starting to seep across the border. This poses a threat almost on par with that of terrorist bombs. If we cannot nip it in the bud we could see the way of life we have fought for disappear with the dodo. The proposal to physically realize fortress America by building walls along our northern and southern borders will work to prevent not only physical crossings but also the insidious spread of ideas counter to the American ideals of freedom and liberty. In order for the country to stay the course that we have started on we need the leadership that has been provided by George Bush. This is why it is so essential to figure out ways to circumvent his being forced to surrender the reigns of power in two years time. Without his hand on the controls, we will never find another leader who will allow us to do the things we need to do to maintain the security of our country. The problem with invoking any temporary measures is jus that, they are temporary. Aside from which the American public will look on them with suspicion, rightly believing them to be simply methods of holding on to power. What is needed is something that captures the imagination of the population and will allow George to hang on to power indefinitely. What we are suggesting is an orchestrated campaign by the religious leaders of the country to raise up George as the exalted one anointed by the God to lead his people. Start off with a couple of the smaller guys claiming to have visions or what not, then gradually build it up to Gerry and Pat leading a popular movement to have George declared King. I'm sure if we say the right things, and pay out enough money, we can get the Pope to fall into line with us. Have him declare George a defender of the one true faith or something like that. He'll know the language appropriate to the occasion. We'll create a groundswell of support for the idea. Our job will be of course to ensure that no opposition is mounted against this operation. If we can rig a few events that will skew things in George's favour like another bombing or two as we near the deadline it will go a long way to ensuring public support. The people and the ministries clamour for him to be declared King and we circumvent the congress and the constitution. He already has the armed forces at his command, so if needs be we can just have the Senate and House closed down There's already a Royal family in place, the elder Buses will make ideal parents for the King, and brother Jeb can be named crown prince and heir to the throne. As king, George will no longer have to worry about being fettered by the laws that have been holding us back until now from completing our mission of securing and building fortress America. America is going to need strong leadership in the years to come, and we can't trust in the electorate or the political parties to offer us a leader who is going to be able to fulfill the promise of George. We need him to remain in office for as long as possible otherwise our country will begin the long slow slide back to what it was before George became President. King George the First of America has a nice ring to it and it will also serve notice that we aren't going to allow anyone else in the world to intimidate us. The past has proven to us that a sole autocratic leader is ideal for a country that is in need of quick and decisive action. Democracy and civil liberties are luxury items to be enjoyed only in times of peace, and only by those who have earned them. Good, law abiding, rule following, and patriotic Americans will have nothing to fear or worry about under the rule of George. Their lives will carry on in much the same manner as they did before. Remember any notes you have made are to be handed in for destruction and this meeting never occurred, if there are no questions then you are dismissed. We are working to a deadline here and have less than two years to achieve our goal of the institution of a genuine American Monarch: the person who will fulfill our Manifest Destiny.