1/31/2006

Our Glamorous World

There's an old expression, probably from the British Isles, which used to describe somebody under the influence of a magic spell as being under "a glamour". This was used especially in instances of fairy, or the fae's, involvement. This type of bewitchment usually involved the victim becoming so enamoured of something or body that they would eventually waste away to nothing on the human plane. There was nothing here that could compete with what the glamour offered. Nowadays the word glamour is quite a bit more prosaic and is used as an adjective to describe a person's, thing's or lifestyle's affect on us. In some ways of course it still retains its connotations of casting a spell on the observer, as those who are glamorous affect their observers. What exactly does glamour mean? According to my handy-dandy- pocket Funk and Wagnalls Standard Dictionary glamour (from the Scottish gramarye meaning magic power) is a noun meaning alluring charm or fascination. By extension glamorous means you have those attributes. If one were to judge the word solely by those definitions it would be easy to consider it quite subjective. Like beauty, glamour should be in the eye of the beholder and individuals free to decide what holds sway over them. But like beauty, our terms of reference for glamour are dictated by the limitations imposed by societal pressures. In North America our ideals our defined on a daily basis by movies, television and advertisers; we have specific magazines dedicated to telling us who and what are glamorous and why we should want to be like them. For far too many people their notion of self-image revolves around the message that is delivered by these so – called repositories of the truth. Magazines like People, US, Vanity Fair, and Glamour are all dedicated to propagating the myth of the ideal lifestyle and physical image through their continual detailing of who and what define glamorous. Not only are their primary content dedicated to the "stars" but the pages are awash with advertisement after advertisement preying on people's desire of becoming just like those featured in the article's pages. It's in this fashion that the lifestyles of the "stars" are made to be important, but even worse, painted as the ideal. Their fancy cars, their opulent homes, and most of all, their appearances are depicted as being what any sane person should be striving to obtain. The message of you should want to be like them, is perhaps one of the most widely spread and harmful concepts being foisted on the public today. Not only does it establish unreasonable expectations in regards to measuring your life as a success or failure in the long term, but its impact on how people view their body image has an immediate effect. Young women trying desperately to be accepted with peer groups refuse to believe that the person who they are is worthy, so they look to these images of glamour for guidance. They see pictures of women who have obtained a certain body type through genetics, starvation and surgery and measure themselves against that standard and feel like failures. At a minimum it will cause them to become obsessed with their appearance enough to worry about the clothes they wear, their hair, and their manner of speech; hiding their own inherent beauty behind imitations of glamour. At worse, if they are already so susceptible, they could develop an eating disorder along the lines of anorexia or bulimia. Eating disorders are not simply caused by a person's desire to lose weight in order to emulate someone else's appearance; they are far more complex than that. However when combined with the feelings of inadequacy and guilt that are pre-existing in one disposed to being anorexic, it could be enough of a blow to their sense of self to initiate the onset of the disease. That these conditions exist in our society today is without doubt, one only need look at the success and pervasiveness of magazines and television programmes dedicated to the examination of so-called glamorous life-styles for proof of that. Why they thrive is another matter. How is it that so much of our life has come to revolve around people of so little value to our society as a whole? None of them are responsible for doing anything to improve our lot by making breakthroughs in science or medicine. Neither is the majority of their endeavours going to be intellectually challenging or artistically inspiring enough to influence future generations. In fact many of them have an influence that only lasts for the briefest of moments. What kind of "glamour" have they cast over us that holds so many in such a thrall that we fixate on even the least of their kind to the point of obsession? Is there that much dissatisfaction felt by that many people for the lives they lead that it translates into desperately wanting to be someone else? Perhaps that's it. Look around the world and see how many people have had their childhood dreams dashed. How many people feel like the world has let them down, and that in some manner or another their lives haven't turned out the way they planned it? Working at a job with no prospects for advancement and subject to the whims of people who are higher up on the ladder than you probably wasn't what you had in mind when you left school. The opportunity to escape, even momentarily, into some fantastical realm of perfectly beautiful people living the ideal of the American dream of making it big, is too tempting to resist. Even to give yourself whatever imitation of that dream you can afford is to allow for some fulfilment, no matter how minor. It is far easier to fantasize than to actually do something about changing your reality. At the risk of sounding paranoid it is also probably preferred that people remain content with their lots in life and not seek to change their situation. There is a need in society for people to do jobs that service others. There is very little in the way of incentive that can be offered to those people to do those jobs except escape through mindless fantasy. Pie in the sky rewards of eternal bliss in heaven is no longer sufficient bribery for our consumer driven populous. They need something in the here and now to keep them happy. Vague promises of you too can be a star, and living vicariously through those who are living in that stratosphere, are the inducements offered to satiate the need for instant gratification. To some of us it may not look like much of a carrot augmenting the whip, but to others the tantalization of fame's potential is too great to resist. Why else would people subject themselves to participating in "reality" television programming or appearing as the subject of a talk show if not for that fleeting chance at the brass ring of celebrity? In many ways glamour hasn't changed much from that old saying of being under a spell. The power of celebrity and stardom still hold numerous people in thrall. Clothing styles, manners of speech and concepts of physical attractiveness are dictated by those deemed glamorous. Glamour is something that we are supposed to want to obtain, because it will give us standing and prestige amongst our peers. The fact that it's based on arbitrary standards and superficial ideals is a sad commentary on the state of our society and the manner in which we measure accomplishment. We can only hope that there will come a day when intellect and integrity are held in the same esteem as physical beauty and material wealth. When that day arrives we will be able to say that we have obtained maturity as a society. Until then we must accept the fact that superficiality has cast a spell over a large proportion of our population and anyone who can, will utilize that to their advantage. Politicians, the entertainment industry and anybody else wishing to influence public opinion, already make as much use of these circumstances as possible. To some extent we are all under "a glamour" on a daily basis.

1/30/2006

Making Money Off Iraq

In the days of the Roman Empire people used to compete to be awarded positions of responsibility in her various outposts. From one far-flung corner to another plums like Tax Collector and Customs Officer were wildly sought after, even to the point of being passed down from father to son. Lest you think that the people of the ancient world were filled with a burning ambition to serve their emperor in whatever way possible, those were two of the positions where individuals saw the most potential for the lining of their own pockets with gold. Unlike those higher up in the chain of command these lower offices provided plenty of opportunities for wealth, while requiring little outlay in return. Unlike the governor, who received a cut from every office by the way, who had to host formal occasions and maintain a sizeable staff, these men were able to operate with a minimum of expenses and a maximum of potential for reward. As long as they weren't stupidly greedy and do anything that would draw attention to their activities that would force authorities to take action, they were set for life. I'm sure that it was taken to be accepted practice by the central powers, and a studiously blind eye was turned to all such activities. As long as the Empire was getting it's expected return they didn't much care what individuals did out in the field. How else were you going to convince someone to leave the comforts of Rome to go the damp and wilds of Britain if there wasn't the opportunity to come home far wealthier than when you left? Ten years or so after starting one of these positions a person who played their cards right could be set for life. There was little or no auditing of the books or whistle blowing back in those days. As everybody from the guard at the customs shed to the governor was getting their cut, it was in all their best interests to see that the system was maintained. So it should come as no surprise to people the recent revelation of the horrendous mismanagement of funds in occupied Iraq. A U. S. government audit has revealed that tens of millions of dollars supposed to be used for the rebuilding of Iraq has either been squandered or is simply unaccounted for. If one casts one mind back to the days when the American troops first entered Baghdad, while priceless artefacts were being looted from museums, they were standing guard over the offices responsible for the oil industry. This was where the money was going to come from to rebuild the beleaguered country. With the ouster of Saddam the embargo could be lifted against Iraqi oil. The taps could be turned back on and the money could flow into the country again. It looked to be a foolproof plan. Win the hearts and minds of Iraqis by rebuilding the country, while at the time not costing American taxpayers a cent. How could it go wrong? Well one way is that the American officials in Hillah responsible for overseeing the project being unable to account for $97 million of the $120 million in oil revenues earmarked for the reconstruction. No records seem to have been kept; tens of millions of dollars are reported to have gone in and out of the South Central region's vault with nobody having any idea of who, where, what, or why. What's actually sort of scary is this audit has only focused on the one region of the country, for one fiscal year, 2003-2004. Inexperienced American occupation officials, many of them people who had worked on George Bush's campaign, were responsible for organizing this "hearts and minds campaign" aimed at winning over the Iraqi people. Things are so bad that of the $23 million in oil revenues the project officials claim they can account for; there exists paper documentation for only $8 million. One must assume that the other $15 million has been accounted for orally as in "Joe took four of us for lunch, and it cost $50,000" or something similar. Than of course there are the records of how some of the money was spent, or was supposed to have been spent, and that's just as damming as the missing amounts:
  1. An American service man took as much as $60,000 and gambled it away in the Philippines.
  2. an agent keeping $700,000 in an unlocked footlocker.
  3. an elevator repaired at Hillah General Hospital for $662,800 that then crashed and killed three people.
  4. the pipes of the Olympic sized swimming pool "repaired" for over $100,000 and still pouring out brown sludge.
  5. only a quarter of the $23 million dollars entrusted to civilian and military project and contracting officers ever found its way into the hands of contractors.
  6. a contractor paid $14,000 four times for the same project.
  7. a contractor for a library only delivering 18 of 68 personal computers that they were paid for.
  8. of $7.3 million spent on a police academy, $1.3 million was spent on unneeded construction or materials never delivered and $2 million is missing.
  9. two field agents responsible for paying contractors left the country never accounting for nearly $700,000 each(they've never been identified and when the auditors confronted their manager he tried to give them fake paperwork)
  10. U.S led security transaction command spending $945,000 for seven armoured Mercedes-Benzes that were too lightly armoured for Iraq. Auditors have only been able to account for six of the cars.
South Central Iraq is the least contentious area of the country in that there has been little or no trouble. Audits for other more troublesome areas are still on going. The Special Inspector General for Iraq Reconstruction has been conducting the audits for the Pentagon and the State department. These preliminary results show that whatever the intentions of the people involved with the project, it's been an abject failure. People on the ground over there aren't stupid. How much of the continued insurgency is connected to the fact that conditions aren't improving for civilians as they had been promised? If in areas where there is little or no hostility and work is being done so shoddily that locals are actually dying what do you thing their reactions are going to be? The majority of the contractors are foreign. If not American operations, than other members of the coalition and their allies, and they are showing themselves to be more interested in carpet bagging than actually doing any work. In this sort of situation appearances are just as important as anything else, and according to these reports not only are there no visible results but it looks like nobody actually cares about rebuilding the country. To the people of an occupied country that can only lead to mistrust of the people who are claiming they are there to be helping them. How would you react to this situation if you were a local? If you saw money that was being made by your country's revenues being shared out amongst foreign profiteers who seemingly have no interest in using it for its intended purpose, wouldn't you be a little miffed? Unlike the Roman Empire of old the American government is a democracy and the people who work for it can be held accountable for their actions. Already the auditors have requested the American Ambassador to recover over $570,000 of misspent money and recommended that criminal charges be laid against certain individuals. But it appears that millions of dollars will never be recovered and some people are getting off Scott free. Will the actions of the Inspector General be enough to reassure the Iraqi people that this sort of behaviour will not be tolerated and overcome the mistrust that has generated? A lot depends on how much further the rot has spread. If this was an isolated series of incidences that has not been pervasive through out the country, than trust can be won back. But if it is widespread, it looks as if the American forces could be tied up in Iraq for a good long time. Without the trust of the people, anything connected to the occupying forces is automatically suspect, lending credence to the arguments of the insurgents. If George Bush wants to have Iraq wound down before he retires from office, a priority needs to be the salvaging of the reconstruction program. As long as it appears as a means for Americans to line their pockets at Iraqi expense the country will never be pacified.

1/29/2006

James Frey And An End To "Sharing"

Now that the dust is settling on the whole James Frey Million Little Pieces fiasco I'm beginning to think that we owe this guy a debt of gratitude. Maybe with the way this whole thing has blown up in the publishing industry's face we'll finally see an end to peoples' desire to tell us all about their misery. If there's one thing I've hated more and more in the past few years is the way the word "share" has been used. All somebody has to do is tell me they want to "share" something with me and I start looking for an exit. It used to be such a nice word you know, implying consideration and generosity. Somebody would offer to share their good fortune, their cookies, or some other treat; it was one of the virtues we were all taught about as children. Sharing stuff with your best friend meant you would give them a chunk of you candy, not dump on them. Now when someone offers to share something with you it's some sort of personal experience that they feel compelled to tell you about. Wasn't sharing supposed to be something you did which had no strings attached that showed your appreciation of the other person? It was about giving something away to make somebody else feel special. Instead they now pour forth some tale of woe, or courage, or perseverance and we're supposed to be uplifted and inspired by their fortitude and heroism. Of course they also just happen to become the centre of attention, but that's just incidental isn't it? Now who's making who feel like they're someone special? Have you ever watched one of these people being interviewed on any one of daytime talk shows? The cameras cut between the teary eyed guest on the couch talking to their confessor of the moment and a concerned face in the audience. The audience reactions have become Pavlovian to the point of ridiculous. They respond to their cues better than most actors gracing the small screen these days. What's even better is when the host of whichever show it is offers to share the story with their audience. Excuse me; you're going to share someone else's misery with us? My how generous of you. Who is it this week, a rape victim? Boy the milk of human kindness must just flow through your veins letting everybody out there in television land hear all about somebody's worst nightmare. The audience is there for the same reason people like to stop and look at accident scenes: they want to see blood and bodies. It's a chance to show how compassionate they are, by saying: "Oh isn't that horrible" but without having to do anything about it. It's like writing a check for a charity to feed the starving; it relieves your conscience without forcing you to have to do anything about the problem. For the people who are the subject of these shows there's the obvious attraction of being the centre of attention. But something I've noticed in people I've known who have been the victims of some sort of abuse, including myself, is that at some point early in their recovery, they have a bizarre compulsion to tell almost everybody they meet what's happened to them. This is just an extreme instance of the same need. I don't know whether it's searching for sympathy or testing people to see what their reactions will be. In some instances it's also a way of fighting back against the abuser who may have forced you to be silent for years. Any time you tell somebody it's another blow for freedom. But there's nothing selfless in the act of telling other people. I remember too well the faces of people I used to spring it on. The only sharing that's going on is of the horrors of the experience and that's not exactly what I'd call generous. "Oh wow what a treat, I got to hear all about how Sally was gang raped by her brothers when she was nine today" That's just not the same thing as being given half a chocolate bar at recess by your best friend. Sure if a friend feel safe and comfortable enough with me to be able to tell me of some horror from their past, I'm honoured that they have that confidence in me. Although that's still not the same thing as sharing as far as I'm concerned, it’s a whole lot better than these public confessionals that we're subjected too now in the form of memoirs and talk shows. This has been a huge industry that first started to see the light of day with the old "Donahue" show back in the seventies. But even at the height of his popularity I doubt he would have believed the influence these shows would eventually have on popular culture. Appearances on "Oprah", and to a lesser extent any of the other shows, lend an author instant credibility if not bestseller status. Through these shows focus on "human interest" type material a market was created for a genre of book that had not really existed before. The tell all, baring of the soul, memoir whose purported purpose is to provide an example of how to change one's life around. For quite a period of time these stories have been taken at face value and nobody has questioned their accuracy. Audiences and readers have lapped them up to the tune of millions of copies sold and publishers have been riding the wave to the bank. They’re not going to care one way or another if the author plays a little fast and loose with the truth, all that matters is it's place on the best seller list. But now it looks like they've killed, or at least severely wounded, their cash cow. First it was James Frey being exposed, now it's Nasdijj, a writer of supposed Navajo decent, come under fire. The publication LA Weekly has published an article offering proof that he is actually a white man named Timothy Barrus, a writer of gay and straight pornography. He's written three memoirs detailing a life of poverty and deprivation growing up as a poor half-breed Navajo whose mother died when he was seven. He claims to have suffered from foetal alcohol syndrome, adapted a son who suffers from the same problems, and recites a litany of woes, misdeeds, and hardships throughout his books. It's interesting to note that both his publisher and his literary agent severed their relationship with him in 2004, but will only say it wasn't because of issues to do with his background. As of yet "Nasdijj" has not issued any response to these allegations. But a film producer who was interested in adapting his first book has dropped the project after learning of inconsistencies in the story and the author's resistance to fact checking. The doctoring of memoirs has a long and distinguished history and it's always been for the same purpose: for the self-aggrandizement of the author. In the past it has taken the form of claiming to have witnessed historic events, or done heroic deeds but today's false historians go in the opposite direction. But thanks to Mr. Frey these types of stories might start taking a hit in their popularity. Publishers are going to be a little more circumspect and take longer looks at manuscripts according to Ashbel Green, a senior editor at Alfred A. Knoff: "I think for a while, this will make people careful" she's quoted as saying in the Globe and Mail. Lets hope that this carefulness will also begin to extend to the public, and that people's appetite for "shared" stories will begin to wane. Maybe then the bestseller lists will be able to list fiction as fiction and non-fiction as non-fiction and not have to worry about something that falls half way between the two. I'm hopeful that Mr. Frey's true legacy will be that he marked the beginning of the end of sharing oneself, and we can all go back to sharing chocolates and comics.

1/28/2006

Roseanne And Pop Culture

Do you remember those old high school exams where they would give you quotations from somebody or other in reference to something you had been studying? You'd get this quote and than underneath it would be one word: Discuss. Well I'm going to play that little game on myself today. There was a great quote in the Globe and Mail today about the state of pop culture from one of the stars of the past. Roseanne.
…It's boring and dull and so prescribed and handpicked. Everybody looks exactly alike. And acts exactly alike. There's no colour, no anything. Look in the magazines. Every girl looks like every other girl, they bore me to death. I'm barely interested in my own life, let alone other peoples'. Especially the young, they have nothing to say whatsoever. They're distractions. They do the job they're supposed to do: Keep everybody from noticing what's going on. It's the whole dumbing-down thing. Roseanne Barr Globe and MailSat. Jan. 28, 06
Before I get started on this process I should admit that I've always had a great deal of respect for Roseanne. True near the end of her career in the spotlight she started to become almost a parody of herself, and I don't think I could ever quite forgive her for foisting Tom Arnold on the world. But I prefer to remember the early years of her T.V. show before either she or John Goodman became famous. I don't think there has ever been a show quite like "Roseanne" for its willingness to fly in the face of pretty and generic. Long before Drew Carey and Cleveland, there was Roseanne and Milwaukee. Carey's show was much more conventional than Roseanne in its style of humour and the way it mocked people of that lifestyle. There was always the feeling that we were supposed to laugh at these working stiffs instead of empathise with them. "Roseanne" was different in that you laughed at things that happened on the show, but hardly ever were the characters held up for ridicule. Their problems were the problems faced by so many people in North America; unemployment, teenage marriages, the struggle to make ends meet, and all the other facets of life that had never shown up on television before. Roseanne herself was like a breath of fresh air (okay more like a typhoon) just by being who she was and not making fun of it. She had to be the first woman of size on television that was shown to be sexually active and the object of physical attraction for a partner. The best thing about that it was never made into a big deal. It was just the attraction between a husband and wife like on any other sit-com. Long before it became fashionable "Roseanne" opened the closet door on her show and had a Lesbian as a main character. The show dealt with issues that were hardly ever seen on television, and not just controversial ones, but real ones. Breast reduction surgery is not something that one sees talked about very often, but as with a lot of large women Roseanne's character was faced with having to undergo that procedure for her health. The whole episode was dealt with in the show's usual mix of humour and good taste, so as an audience we were able to appreciate what a woman faced with this procedure goes through emotionally and mentally. Roseanne and her television family were some of the realest people you were liable to see in prime time. There still hasn't been a live action family that has come close to capturing as truthful a depiction of life for lower middle class Americans as this show did. It may have helped people find humour in their daily lives, but there is no way this show could have been considered a distraction from everyday reality. Which brings us back to Roseanne's quote that started this whole post about pop culture just being a distraction from the real world. There's two ways that one could look at that statement. The first is to say, well yeah, isn't that the point of pop culture anyway, to provide light entertainment and not have any basis in reality. If you're of that mind, well the argument has nowhere to go, because you can just agree with her assessment and get on with watching television and blocking out the world. To be honest there's a lot of truth in that sentiment anyway. Many is the time I've made the conscious decision to watch a movie that is deliberately escapist so that I don't have to deal with mine or the world's reality. But where that argument falls down is when you consider how many people don't make that conscious choice, but simply park themselves in front of the television and stop thinking. It's not even the watching of the programming that is necessarily the distraction; it's the hype that surrounds the so-called celebrities that appear on all these shows. The media's obsession with the ins and outs of relationships, weight gain and loss, and all the other minutiae of these unimportant lives that is passed off as vital news. The fact that this artificial world of film, T.V., and music stars garners so much attention is how it acts as the distraction. People get far more caught up in the wedding of two people who appeared on a reality show then they do in the fact that people go to bed hungry at night. Roseanne never played by the rules when she was in the spotlight and was roundly criticized for some to the things she did. She now says that during that time she "went a little crazy" from being at the centre of things. She too came in for her share of tabloid press with her marriages and divorces, and sometimes-odd behaviour. In her quote she makes pop culture and the distractions it creates sound like a deliberate effort on the part of somebody somewhere to influence the way we think. The thing is Hollywood has always operated in this manner. Since the early days of silent film they have always tried to make sure that the stars are kept in the public eye one way or another. How else can they sell tickets to movies? The media, the studios, and the stars are all in on it together. It's a symbiotic relationship in that they depend on each other for survival. The media needs the stars to report on, the stars need the media to keep their names prominent in the public eye, and the studios need the stars kept prominent so they can sell tickets, DVDs and merchandising rights. It's in all of their best interests to make us think they are important. They sell us on how wonderful it is to be a star, and wouldn't you love to have their glamorous lifestyle. People watch and dream of being something other than what they are. The product is almost secondary; the real show is the lives of those involved in its making. Does that make popular culture the big villain when it comes to distracting the public from the reality the world faces on a daily basis? In so far as it being a deliberate "Bread and Circuses" ploy by anyone, I don't think so. For the simple reason that the whole system is beyond anyone's control. It's become such a firmly entrenched part of our social fabric that it exists in spite of the social climate not because of it. We could be living in an ideal world with no war, no illness, no crime etc, and we would still have The National Enquirer, starlets, and studio executives. I'm no big fan of the whole system or much of what gets telecast or played on the radio. I can understand Ms. Barr's complaints about the state of things in pop culture. But I don't see it as being a deliberate attempt on anybody's part to distract the public from the woes of society. The people involved in the industry are far too self-centred to be able to see beyond fulfilling their own needs to think about anything else. Unfortunately the whole pop culture industry is pretty much a monster of our own making. It would be nice to blame it on somebody else, a plot to make society dumber, but that's simply not the case. Pop culture exists to sell itself and nothing more, if nobody were buying it would change itself immediately.

1/27/2006

Disabled: The Invisible Minority

One of those great pop psychology sayings that's making the rounds a lot these days is that anger is actually grief in disguise. Maybe that's what meant by someone giving you grief when they piss you off? I don't know. But if there is any truth to that sentiment than I must be feeling one hell of a lot of sadness over the way people with disabilities are treated. Actually saying that I'm angry (or grieving, insert which ever you prefer, I'm going to stick with anger. What feeling like ripping someone a new one has to do with crying I haven't quite figured out yet) over the way disabled people are treated isn't quite accurate. It implies that people actually consider them when they make decisions. The truth of the matter seems to be that disabled people don't even merit any thought. Oh sure you'll see the occasional wheelchair ramp to get into a building, or handicapped parking (two spots out of three hundred and they are usually occupied by someone who's just stopped in for a second so didn't think it would matter that they used the handicap spot), and even Braille numbers in elevators. (If a blind person doesn't know they're there in the first place how are they going to "see" them to use them?) But quite frankly that's just like fancy wood veneer covering rotten wood. There's nothing of substance underneath that façade of caring. Somehow or other the disabled manage to slip off most people's radar screens when they talk of minorities. Maybe it's because disabilities don't limit themselves to any one group of people. They have the best affirmative action program going. There is no convenient label to stick on ability discrimination like there is for race, sex, and religion. Maybe I've just put my finger on the problem. With no label people are lost. How can there be systemic discrimination against people with disabilities if there is not catchy word for it? Hell they even have one now for discriminating against people due to their age. If you can't accuse somebody of something like abilityism than you may as well not even bother trying to point out the problem. Does that sound a little cynical and sarcastic? Well it's hard not to be sometimes in the face of what's encountered on a daily basis by people with disabilities that able-bodied people probably don't even have to think about. Here's one for you; what do you do with your cane when you go out for dinner? You can't leave it at the coat check (if there is one) because you're going to need it to get to the bathroom (up or down a flight of stairs). Which leaves what? Propping it against the table where it can fall down and trip waiters. Laying it on the floor under the table where it's not very accessible and easily stepped on? That may not seem like a big deal but it's just one more extra thing that disabled people have to concern themselves with. It's those little things that really add up and end up being the most frustrating. You've already had to adopt to so many new ways of doing things on a personal level, that finding out there's no recognition of the difficulties faced when you're in a supposedly public venue, it makes you feel like people would have been happier if you'd just stayed at home. Have you ever watched an elderly person trying to negotiate one of those so-called access ramps with a walker? Going up isn't so bad, even though the incline is a little severe. It's the coming down that always looks so precarious. I swear it looks like they're about to fall half the time because of how quick the ramp speed becomes. Some of them look like they've been designed by the same folk who make the ski jumps for the Olympics. I suppose you can't really blame the private sector for their attitudes, they take their cues from the government and the way they treat disabled people. As far as I can tell the disabled seem to be viewed by many levels of government as just another means for collecting revenue. A few years ago the government of Ontario enacted some new legislation for the benefit of disabled people. While there was some monies set aside for what they call programming (occupational therapy jobs like stuffing envelopes for minimum wage) the major focus of it was too increase fines for illegal use of handicapped facilities. There were no monies put into assisting with the day-to-day cost of surviving. In Ontario the income support program for disabled people (Ontario Disability Support Payments or O.D.S.P.) had been frozen since 1993 without an increase. In the winter of 2005 a 3% increase was finally approved. That may sound all right, but consider that landlords were allowed to increase rents by 2.9% that year and all of a sudden it's vanished. It's not even as if it were going to be a regular cost of living increase either; just a one time deal to make it look like the government was more compassionate than its predecessor. Of course a lot of people would probably have to use their left over .1% to pay for physiotherapy costs that were no longer going to be covered by provincial health insurance. Just to show that they're no slouches in ignoring the disabled either, the federal government got into the act. Just before the election was called all four parties got together to work out a deal so as to fast track legislation through the house to get people on fixed incomes a heating fuel rebate. These one time checks were to help offset the extraordinary heating fuel costs that had come about this winter due to Katrina and other circumstances. Somehow they seemed to forget that disabled people are on fixed incomes. They only designated seniors surviving on government pensions, and parents who were poor enough to receive a special child benefit check as being eligible for this assistance. Maybe they thought disabled people don't get as cold as other people? Like if the have nerve damage or something they can't feel their extremities anyway so what do they need heat for? Ah well if worse comes to worse we can always have a bonfire with our crutches and canes. I don't know would firewood be considered an aid for living like one of those bars in the bathtub you can use to climb in and out with? If so than we could apply to the government to pay for it through programming. What I find really puzzling about the whole situation of ignoring disabled people is how they can miss us. Most disabled people come with some sort of accompanying props: crutches, canes, walkers, and wheelchairs are the ones most commonly seen. You'd think that would make it easier to notice that disabled people exist. But it actually seems to work in reverse. It's amazing how few people notice either a wheelchair or the fact that somebody inhabits it. I've seen people literally lean against the back of a wheelchair, not even aware that they are pretty much sitting on somebody's back. Or wait patiently while a person struggles with pulling a door open because their hands are occupied with a cane and parcels, and not realize they could use some help. If I were to use this behaviour as a yardstick for people's awareness of the disabled in general, I guess it should be no surprise that governments seem to overlook our existence as well. At least the general public and the private sector make no claims to the contrary and I've seen enough individuals go out of there way in an attempt to help and assist people to compensate for those who ignore us. The hardest part of making the transition from being able bodied to disabled is learning to accept your limitations. Until you reach that point of acceptance you are in a state of perpetual frustration. Even then you are continually chafed by the restrictions imposed upon you by a body that's betraying you. This is not a state of mind conducive to an even temper and forgiveness on most days. When this is compounded by the attitudes displayed by all levels of government, and by a good chunk of society I think I do a remarkably good job of keeping my temper in check. Of course I notice they don't have handicap elevators or ramps leading up to bell towers…

1/26/2006

DVD Review: Other Voices, Other Rooms

There's something about certain depictions of the American South of the 1920's and 30's that reminds me of 19th century gothic/romance novels. I don't know if Brontesque is a word; as in reminding one of Wuthering Heights and Jane Eyre, but the air of mystery and gloom that seems to surround old decrepit plantations certainly can give the moors a run for their money. The South may lack the fogs and crags for people to get lost in or fall down, but it has its own share of dangers. Mysterious swamps filled with ghosts and spirits ready to steal your soul. Not to mention more down to earth dangers like rattle snakes whose bite can kill you or bogs that could swallow you whole. Heat and humidity are every bit as oppressive as cold rains and mists, and poor dissipated Southern gentry can have just as many secrets as their brooding English counterparts. Change the mysterious old faithful servants from white to black, and the brick manor house with drafts to a disintegrating pre civil war plantation house and the transition is complete. Other Voices, Other Rooms incorporates all those elements down to including an innocent to be the witness to the how far the mighty have fallen. The movie is based on Truman Capote's work of the same name; his first published novel, and was originally released back in 1995. While re-releasing it now may seem like a cynical attempt to cash in on the newly released feature Capote, it would have been a shame for this work to be lost. Although it's almost redundant to say, since most of his work can be classified as such, this first novel of Capote's was semi-autobiographical. It tells the story of a boy, Joel Sampson (played by David Speck) and the summer he is temporarily reunited with his father. Ten years before the movie takes place Joel's father had mysteriously abandoned him and his mother. As the movie starts Joel's mother has just died and he is living with his aunt and uncle. Out of the blue they receive a letter from Joel's dad asking that the boy be sent to live with him. Joel's father is living on an old plantation that looks like it hasn't seen any upkeep since before the civil war. When Joel arrives he is met by an old black man named Jesus Fever (Leonard Watkins), who delivers him from the bus to the Skully plantation in an old beat up horse and cart. The horse and cart are appropriate because we seem to have traveled backwards in time when we arrive at the plantation. No plumbing or electricity are used, and history weighs heavy on the buildings. Joel is met by the lady of the house, Amy Skully (Anna Levine) who along with her cousin Randolph (Lothaire Bluteau) are the last remnants of their family living on the estate. Aside from their servant Jesus they also have a young black woman Zoo (April Turner) working for them as cook and maid. Joel's demands to see his father are rebuffed by both Amy and Randolph, with the excuse that he is too sick, and instead Randolph strives to amuse and entertain the young boy. It's obvious that he has no idea of what to do with a child, or what interests them, but since Randolph is fascinated with Randolph, he figures everybody must be. When Joel finally does get to see his father he finds him to be bedridden and unable to move. He wants to know what's going on and why it was the Randolph wrote the letter pretending to be Joel's father. Randolph says that neither he nor Amy could bear the thought of their dear friend's son, now hopelessly ill, growing up an orphan. Randolph seems almost desperate to amuse and befriend Joel. He regales him with stories of fancy dress balls and the time Joel's father and him spent in Havana. Joel's father was a boxing promoter and they were touring with one of his prizefighters Pepe, and Randolph's girlfriend, Dolores. But complications arose one night after a fancy dress ball, when Dolores dressed Randolph as Marie Antoinette, and he spent the whole night dancing with Pepe. While Randolph was falling in love with Pepe; Dolores and Pepe were having an affair. Randolph is charming and irresponsible; melodramatic and flamboyant; and incredibly self-indulgent. But he is able to win Joel over as a friend and companion and gradually brings him into his world. They have fun together painting and reading and gradually Joel comes to accept Randolph as a sort of surrogate father/best friend. We know there is something rotten at the heart of all this charm. The run down plantation house with its chipped plaster and paint peeled walls is too indicative of something decaying for the place to be healthy. Overgrown with weeds the life is being choked out of the grounds, just as the people living there are slowly suffocating. Lothaire Bluteau's (best known for his starring role in Jesus of Montreal) depiction of Randolph is magnificent. He is easy to love and despise all in the same breath. He is like a child who has continuously been given his own way, and had every wish indulged when through no fault of his own, he all of sudden finds the carpet pulled out from under him. Amy is so brittle she looks like she could smash into a million pieces at any moment. She is resentful of being asked to do the things Randolph has her doing to preserve their secret, and jealous of the time he spends with Joel. In the end she is the one who spills the secret that they've been hiding, not because of any remorse, but because she's tired of not being the centre of attention. Anna Levine is not given much to work with Amy, it would be easy to play her as one long whine, but she manages to get beneath that surface and show the genuinely lost person under the petulance. When Randolph pays attention to her, she is suffused with happiness, and Ms. Levine is able to give us glimpses of what Amy could have been if she had not been deprived of her potential. David Speck as young Joel is very convincing. His reluctance to befriend Randolph wars with his love of the exotic and make believe. David is able to show the conflicts that Joel has with wanting to live this strange live with Randolph and Amy, while at the same time realizing there is something wrong. The contrast between Joel's almost adult nature and Randolph's irresponsibility in the scenes they share, show just dysfunctional the Skully clan are. When an eleven year old boy is the practical one offering advice to the adults, you know the world is inverted. This is well directed and well scripted adaptation of a straightforward story by Truman Capote. There's nothing really fancy; no big stars or special effects. Just that rarest of things these days; a nice well acted movie with a good story, and technically pleasing to the eye. That may not seem like much, but in these days of multibillion-dollar epics and overblown characters, (on and off the screen) it's nice to be reminded that there are still movies out there content to tell a story. Other Voices, Other Rooms is a pleasure to watch from start to finish for that very reason.

1/25/2006

Book Review: The Thousandfold Thought - R.Scott Bakker

What if every night you relived the destruction of the world as it happened two thousand years ago? What if you and those who shared those dreams were the only people who believed that those events had actually occurred? If it was your job, along with those few others, to track down every rumour that could potentially signify the return of the evil that would bring about a second apocalypse: could you do so in the face of the scorn and disbelief of the whole world? In the first two books of his trilogy The Prince of Nothing; The Darkness That Comes Before and The Warrior Prophet, R. Scott Bakker introduced readers to just such a man. Drusas Achamian is a sorcerer, or as they are known in the world of the Three Seas, a schoolman. Of the four schools of sorcery: The Mandate, The Scarlet Spires, The Imperial Saik, and The Mysunsai, only Drusas' Mandate fellows and himself retain the memory of the end of the world. We have walked with Drusas into the midst of a holy war; a crusade whose leader he has been ordered to investigate on suspicion that he is a harbinger of the second apocalypse. Although he is unable to gain access to Maithahet, the initial impetus behind the war, he finds signs of the return of the Mandate's great enemy amongst the combatants. thousandfold thought The Skin Spies can assume the shape of another person and live behind their assumed body's face. They have superhuman strength and are extreme perversions of humans. Even more alarming, if possible, is his discovery of a man named Anasurimbor Kellhus amongst those gathering to march in the crusade. It was an Anasurimbor who marched through the first apocalypse and Drusas must discover if this man from the forgotten Northlands where the ancient kingdoms lay is the one who will be the cause of the second cataclysm. By the beginning of The Thousandfold Thought, book three of the series, all signs are pointing towards Anasurimbor being along the same lines as his forbearer. He has been elevated by the lords and nobility of the crusade onto the rank of prophet and has won over complete control of their hearts and minds. He has even succeeded in wining Dusas's confidence sufficiently for him to teach him the sorceries of The Mandate School; by far the most powerful of all the schools. It is Kellhus' ability to discern the Skin Spies and destroy them that wins Drusas over to his side. Even though he is filled with misgivings about teaching him the songs of power, or Cants, he is unable to see another option. Almost against his will he has been forced to believe in the man's abilities and power. In the Thousandfold Thought R. Scott Bakker continues to spin his complex tale of magic, religion and philosophy. The world he has created offers a fun house mirror of our own history. Everything is suspiciously familiar but is distorted or exaggerated beyond the normal into an almost grotesque caricature of events that have occurred in our own world. Men of power had plotted and conspired to show they were best suited to serve the god by leading the armies. But they have all fallen by the wayside with the coming of Kellhus into his glory. He has supplanted all other leadership through the simple expedient of being able to see people's true motives, and speaking them aloud. It has been his plan all along of course to take over the crusade from back in The Darkness That Comes Before when he first heard of it. How else was he supposed to go deep into the territory of the heathen? But Bakker throws a twist into the works, and has us wondering, with those who follow him; could this guy be for real? When we see him through the eyes of Drusas we don't want to believe in him or worship him, but we do anyway. Through the eyes of Cnaiur the barbarian, he is a devious liar that will twist you inside out by knowing exactly what you will do before you do it. But even through the eyes that despise him there is no denying the power of Kellhus. Has Kellhus become that which everybody wants him to be? How does destiny work anyway is what Bakker seems to be asking. When Kellhus sets out from his people's retreat at the beginning of the trilogy to answer the summons of his father, what wheels were set in motion by that simple act? How come there was a crusade just waiting for him to lead that suited his purposes ideally? Even his monastic training in the understanding of the way in which men think based on what came before shows no precedence for his power and abilities unless he is the harbinger of the second apocalypse. For what else is there that came before that would allow for this future to happen? Kellhus manipulates those around him, but with such apparent innocence and lack of guile; he's doing it for their own good after all; that as the reader, you are susceptible to his powers as well. But the question remains, is he the Warrior Prophet because that is who he is, or by playing the role of the Warrior Prophet does he ascend to that position without meaning to? Bakker's characters are not simple constructs of good and evil. The pious are guided into unspeakable acts of evil in the name of their god. The demon skin spies are manifestations of perversion but are fighting a holy war of their own which is every bit as sacred to them as the one fought by the humans. Of them all Drusas seems to be the most honest and human in his emotions and ambitions. He is the everyman of the novel questioning, but wanting to believe. As a Mandate schoolman he has grown used to being singular in his beliefs and considered a pariah. But being alone wears on a person and he had fallen in love earlier in the series with a prostitute named Esmenet. She in turn had given up her profession and sworn devotion to Drusas. But when he was kidnapped and presumed dead, she sought comfort in Kellhus' arms and when Drusas returns he finds her elevated in status to Consort of the Prophet. Even then he resolves to teach Kellhus as he is the one who has finally proven the Mandate to have been right after all these years. Perhaps he will be the one who cleanses the world of their enemy since he can detect the Skin Spies where others cannot. As far as Drusas can tell Kellhus will either prevent the apocalypse or be it; he knows the risk he takes is unimaginable but he sees no other choice. As the Crusade and Kellhus move closer to their final confrontations with the heathen armies and his father Kellhus has learnt what he requires. For the final battle Bakker brings in everything that has come before into play. Under the sands of the final battleground are thousand year old catacombs that had housed the creatures of the first apocalypse. While the battle rages for the city above his head Kellhus confronts his father below. What is an apocalypse? Does the world have to physically be destroyed, or just redefined and rewritten? Is not every major shift in thought and civilization apocalyptic in that a world of thought and attitudes are always being supplanted by another? In The Prince Of Nothing R. Scot Bakker has created a fascinating study of how thoughts and beliefs are shaped and formed. But these are not books of philosophy they are stories of people, war and magic. The Thousandfold Thought, like its predecessors, is the work of a masterful storyteller. Bakker's characters have depth and dimension beyond what is usual for fantasy. It seems we have entered a new era of fantasy; where authors are taking care to create characters that can join the pantheon of fictional heroes that has been built by "serious novelists". With these three novels Bakker joins the ranks of Erickson, Banker, Scott and Barclay as part of a wave of fantasy authors who are breaking down the barriers between fiction and fantasy. Without pretension they set out to tell the their stories and in doing so create whole new possibilities for the genre. R. Scott Bakker has created a world which is both recognizable and alien simultaneously. His plots, while intricate are not convoluted; his characters are complex and not cartoons; and his writing is though provoking and challenging without being deliberately obtuse. The Thousandfold Thought is the masterful conclusion to a trilogy of the highest order. I can only hope that Mr. Bakker will soon create more worlds for us to discover.

1/24/2006

Canadian Election Results 2006: Conservative Minority/Paul Martin resigns

Well the results are in, and as expected the Conservative Party of Canada has won a minority government. It will take a few days for the dust to settle and the recounts to be over and done with until we know their exact margin of victory. As it stands now though the final tally of seats is: Conservatives 124, Liberals 103, Bloc Quebecois 51, New Democratic Party 29, and one Independent. The biggest news of the night may not be the results, but the fact that Liberal leader, and now former Prime Minister, Paul Martin has announced his resignation. Although there was speculation that he would not run again as leader if the Liberals lost, his resignation so soon after the results were finalized is surprising. Although the Conservatives picked up a few seats in the Metro Toronto Area, the numbers were not sufficient to make any serious inroads into the traditional Liberal power base. They did pick up an additional 12 seats, and the N.D.P. also picked up 5. The Conservatives held on to their rural Ontario seats, and took some from the Liberals, but it was the N.D.P. who benefited the most from the soft Liberal vote in Ontario Where the Conservatives picked up seats was Quebec. They managed to take eight seats away from the Bloc Quebecois and two from the Liberals. Whether this was simply a protest vote against the Liberals, or the beginnings of a trend towards supporting a federalist party that will guarantee more provincial rights remains to be seen. In the Maritimes the situation remained virtually unchanged with only two seats changing hands, from the Liberals to the Conservatives. On the Prairies nothing much changed from the last election, save for the Conservatives solidifying their hold on Western Canada. They completely swept Alberta, the home province of the former Alliance Party; won 13 of a possible 14 in Saskatchewan with one seat going to the Liberals; and in Manitoba the results look to be identical to last election at Conservatives 7, N.D.P. 4, and Liberals 3. British Columbia, where polls closed last in Canada, will decide what the final size of Harper's margin of victory will be. Although as of 12:40 am E.S.T. with all the polls closed for well over an hour now, things look to be close to final. At dissolution of the house the Liberals only had eight of the 36 seats, and the N.D.P. five so the only way the Conservatives had to go was up. This was the Conservative party's chance for a major breakthrough across Canada. The Liberals were beset by scandal and the public was ready to make a change. Liberal leader Paul Martin was widely seen as inept by the majority of the country, while Steven Harper of the Conservatives looked solid and dependable. Polls leading up to the election showed them with leads as large as twelve percent of the popular vote, which would have translated to a majority government. But in the end they could only muster 36% of the vote compared to the Liberal's 30% and the N.D.P.'s 17%. This can only be seen as something of a disappointment for a party that had hopes of forming a majority government at one point. In fact even the size of their minority is somewhat less than anticipated. In order for them to pass any legislation they will have to garner significant opposition support for their programming, which will limit their effectiveness as a government. The Conservatives will be hard pressed to find common ground with either the Liberals or the N.D.P. on much of their agenda unless they are willing to modify elements of it radically. Approaching the Bloc Quebecois at this point would be seen as an extremely cynical manoeuvre considering their rhetoric of the campaign about aligning with separatists. The question now is whether or not Steven Harper and his Conservative party will be able to do anything with their election win of any significance. Their best bet is to try and accomplish as much as possible as early as possible while the Liberals don't have a leader. They won't be in any hurry to have an election until their new leader, whoever it maybe, has a chance to settle into office. That should give the Conservatives about a year to show Canadians what they can do in government. Although I don't think that means they should be able to count on being able to force through anything contentious like anti-abortion legislation or massive spending cuts to health care and other social programming. The smartest thing they can do is enact some safe legislation that will make people comfortable enough with them that the scary Conservative label becomes hard to play in future elections. If they are able to do that, they give themselves a healthy chance at a majority next time around. The next year or so promises to be an interesting time in Canadian politics, with lots to watch and talk about. The big question being, who will the Liberals find to replace Paul Martin? But there's also the fun of whether Steven Harper will be able to keep some of the more extreme elements in his party quiet. It's one thing to keep them under wraps for an election, another all together when they're in power. Either one of those items could cause the pendulum of power to swing back again to the Liberals. If Alexander Trudeau is ready to take up the reigns of the Liberal party, picking up the mantle of his late father Pierre, or the Conservatives spend the next year shooting themselves in the foot, the Conservatives could see all the gains of this election vanish in the blink of an eye.

1/23/2006

War On Terror Comes To Canada

In the early hours of yesterday morning a strike force of combined air force jets and Tomahawk cruise missiles carried out an attack aimed at eliminating two suspected sleeper cells of Al Qaida terrorists, including a supposedly high ranking lieutenant of Osama Bin Laden. The two-pronged attack lasted only fifteen minutes and was reported a success in a preliminary press announcement released by the Pentagon. This statement, released shortly after the planes were returned safely to their bases, was sketchy in its details, but did provide the following information.
Early this morning elements of the 5th squadron of the Louisiana National Guard took off from their home base to meet up with naval vessels off the coast of upstate New York. From there they proceeded to their destination where, along with three Tomahawk cruise missiles they successfully carried out their preordained disposal of ordinance. Acting on information obtained from highly sensitive sources we had pinpointed the location of not just one but two sleeper cells of Al Qaida terrorists in downtown Toronto, Ontario, Canada. We had also received information that in all likelihood one of the chief lieutenants of the Al Qaida itself was in residence at one of the aforementioned sites. The three Tomahawk cruise missiles went in ahead of the bombers to minimize the chances of resistance, at which point elements of the 5th squadron dropped their payload of smart bombs and vacated the area in safety. None of our pilots or equipment sustained any damage other than normal wear and tear of flying an operation of this kind. Our first reports back indicate that we were successful in meeting our objectives and eliminated the targets in question. We won't know exactly what happened until we can analyse the data from the bombsight cameras but once we've done that we should have some nice video for you. As always in these raids there was the regrettable chance of civilian casualties, but, although its early days yet, it seems likely any collateral damage has been significantly minimal. As Canada is an ally and neighbour we obviously regret any significant loss of civilian life in this mission, but these types of missions always carry that risk. In a time of war we all must be prepared to make sacrifices. The President, the Pentagon, and the Joint Chiefs of Staff would like to take this time to extend their condolences to any and all Canadians whose families suffered a loss during this raid. Our prayers our with you.
When reached at his new residence at 24 Sussex drive in Ottawa, Canada (the traditional residence of all Canadian Prime Ministers) newly elected Prime Minister of Canada, Stephen Harper had this to say on the matter.
" I would like to thank the President of the United States for taking the time to phone me this morning to give me his personal assurance that all steps would be taken to ensure minimal loss of civilian life during this raid. Knowing that his concern for the well being of the citizens of this great country was equal to mine was truly heartening. It just shows you what good can come of having convivial relations with your neighbours. Unlike my predecessors who maintained a hostile attitude towards the American President, I'm sure this new spirit of accommodation on the part of my government will go a long way towards healing the rifts that may have developed between our two great nations. It was in that spirit that I approved this raid without hesitation. It is time that Canadians shouldered more of their share in the War on Terror, and proved their willingness to lay down their lives for freedom just as our neighbours to the south have done. I would like to take this moment to extend my condolences to those families who may have lost a loved one through any misfortunate accident that could have occurred during this raid. The technology available to the American fighting forces is second to none, but even it's unable to guarantee the sanctity of life for those living in the vicinity of a bombing raid. It is my intention to visit the site as soon as I've been advised that the area has been cleared of any potential hazards and is safe for civilians. I wouldn't want to interfere in the work of the military. Thank you very much"
Initial reports from the scene are sketchy because emergency crews have been unable to reach the site due to the intense heat of some of the fires burning. They do know that the three of four block radius that was struck was primarily residential, and made up of families. What strikes City of Toronto officials as especially odd is why member of Al Queada would have picked one of the predominantly Jewish neighbourhoods in Toronto for their sleeper cells. All they can assume was that the members were working as domestics in the various households, because all the buildings in the area were high-end, single-family dwellings. As the day progresses we hope to provide you with further details as they come available.

Torture, Soldiers, and The Geneva Convention

On the battle field death happens. That comes with the territory in a war zone. Soldiers who go into battle do so knowing full well they may not be alive at the end of the day. Under those circumstances it is to be expected that men and women will attempt many desperate measures to stay alive; measures that under normal circumstances would be frowned upon by society. War is hell is not just a neat phrase that sells movies for Hollywood. People get their arms and legs blown off, their internal organs lacerated with shards of hot metal, and their veins drained of blood. It's probably easy to lose track of ones humanity in the heat of battle and to forget you are trying to kill another human being who is trying to kill you. It is the very rare occasion where a soldier is held accountable for his or her actions during an engagement. If soldiers in the field had to start second guessing how much violence was allowed to them while trying to kill someone, not only would it be the ultimate in hypocrisy, it would impede upon their chances of staying alive. After a certain point soldiers in battle are going to have start relying on instincts in order to survive. There is no time to be thinking about the how and means for of killing the other person before they kill you. In fact the few instances where soldiers have ended up being held accountable have been those where there has been pre-meditation and thought beforehand. (The My Lai Massacre of 1968 is an example of such a situation where) It's only once the battles are over on the field that rules kick in. The Geneva Conventions on the treatment of prisoners of war of 1929, revised in 1949, lays out careful guidelines on how signatories are supposed to treat enemy soldiers under their care. No matter how hard you were trying to kill someone, or they were trying to kill you, an hour ago, once they lay down their arms all bets are off. You can no longer fold, mutilate or spindle them. You become responsible for their health and well being; including supplying them with adequate food, shelter, clothing, and medical treatment if required. (Remember we are talking about combatants from the battlefield, not potential terror threats or spies) It seems like some of the units, or soldiers at least, charged with interrogation of prisoners seems to have missed the memo on that treaty. A warrant officer has been found guilty of negligent homicide and negligent dereliction of duty for his role in the death of Iraqi Major General Abed Hamed Mowhoush. Chief Warrant Officer Lewis Welshofer Jr was accused of carelessly sitting on the prisoner's chest after covering the prisoner's head with a sleeping bag, and his mouth with his hand. All this was in an attempt to make the prisoner give him information. Whether the General would have been able to perform the miraculous and actually speak when his air and vocal abilities were being impeded to such an extent is something we will never know as he died. As punishment for neglecting to let his prisoner breath Chief Warrant Officer Welshofer faces a dishonourable discharge and up three years and three months in jail. The prosecution painted a picture of a man who was frustrated by the constraints placed upon him by regulations and The Convention. Who had to be brought to heel by superiors in order to curb his enthusiasm in the interrogation rooms. In response to a letter sent to superiors Welshoffer was told to take a deep breath and "remember who we are". The defence tried to make the case that given the circumstances of the time, the ongoing insurrection, and what they called a lack of clear guidance on the matter of conducting interrogations, relieved their client of culpabiltiy. Both of these arguments conveniently avoid acknowledging the existence of the Geneva Convention Relative to the Treatment of Prisoners of War. Major General Mowhoush was a prisoner of war. Guidelines for his treatment were readily available at all times, and no matter what the circumstances, there is no way any deviation from those guidelines should be acceptable. I have always thought of the negligent as an extreme form of the word careless. While the later implies some minor mistake the former is something serious with severe consequences. While you can say that the death of General Mowhoush was a severe consequence, can Welshoffer actions be dismissed as simply negligent? Was he negligent in that while attempting to suffocate General Mowhoush he succeeded? Or was he negligent in allowing others to see him do it? (Two soldiers who had also been originally charged with murder had their sentences dropped for agreeing to testify) Or did allowing his prisoner to die without coughing up any information count as negligence? Welshofer was using violence to try and frighten and intimidate his prisoner to tell him information he may or may not have had. It may be useless to try and attempt to read his mind about why he chose asphyxiation as his means to try and extract information, but there can be no question as to his intent. It was a deliberate and premeditated attempt to inflict harm. Obviously he was not intending for General Mowhoush to die, he's not going to say much dead, so this was not a premeditated murder. But to call it negligent is to deny the amount of responsibility that Welshofer bears for his death. The defence attorney tried to divert blame from his client by saying a pre existent heart condition was more a cause of death than his client's actions. But in my mind that increases, not decreases, his culpability. Welshofer would have been aware of the General's medical history, and still sat on his chest and impeded his oxygen intake. Neither action could be considered conducive to the well being of someone with a bad heart. In fact any sustained interrogation, let alone the physical abuse inflicted by the Warrant Officer, would have been dangerous. Under the term of the Geneva Convention a soldier surrendering to an enemy is guaranteed a certain standard of treatment. As a signatory to this treaty the United States Army, and all of its soldiers, are required to meet those standards. Finding Chief Warrant Officer Welshofer guilty of negligent homicide for the death of a man he was torturing is a singularly cynical disregarding of that treaty. It is not often the intent of a torturer to kill his victim; in fact usually the direct opposite is the desired result. According to the United States Army it seems that Welshofer was negligent in his duties as an interrogator, as he allowed the prisoner to die without extracting information from him, so he is guilty of negligent dereliction of duty. Therefore, since Major General Mowhowsh died due to Welshofer's negligence; Welshofer is guilty of negligent homicide. The sentence completely ignores the fact that all of the activities leading to the death of the Mowhowsh are strictly forbidden under the Geneva Convention. It implies that the only thing Welshofer did wrong was allowing the prisoner to die while he was being tortured and ignores the fact that torture of prisoners of war is illegal. Of course the American military is only following the lead of the Bush administration on this issue, as they have been pushing to allow the use of torture. But even they must realize that endorsing the use of torture against captured combatants on the field of battle places their own soldiers in the position of being subject to the same mistreatment. The American media and administration made quite the stink about the treatment of downed airmen in the first Gulf War when Saddam paraded them in front of the television cameras. But those actions seem trivial compared to the "negligent" death of a prisoner during torture. If the American government and military no longer wish to be considered signatories to the Geneva Convention that is their prerogative. But they could have the decency to warn their own citizens of the consequences for the American soldier. Perhaps the administration believes it doesn't matter what they do; that American soldiers will be mistreated in any event. Maybe they'd like to check with the families of those individuals who serve in the armed forces before they simply write them off in advance? Does everybody fully understand the implications of their ipso facto withdrawal from the Geneva Convention? Mr. Cheney and Mr. Bush, and all those others out there supporting torture seemed to have neglected to let anybody know about the other side of the coin. What can be done by them to others; can now be done to Americans with equal impunity. Not only that, but they will have surrendered the right to complain about the mistreatment of American soldiers at the hands of their captors. The American people need to realize that if they accept their governments use of torture on captured military, that they are condemning their own soldiers to the same treatment. Judging by the slap on the wrist the Chief Warrant Officer Welshofer has received, that's the path they're being led down now whether they know it or not.

1/22/2006

CD Review: Blues Reflex - Bob Brozman

I've finally run across one of those musicians where I can honestly say; what can I say about this guy? I could say he plays guitar and sings; but, that's like describing a beautiful, multi coloured flower, with an exquisite scent, as a plant. It's so damn inadequate. Faced with an artist who somehow meshes the musical styles of three continents (at least) into one song, it doesn't seem right to call him a blues guitarist, but that's the best place to start for Bob Brozman. It's not that he doesn't play the blues, because lord knows he plays them better than most anyone alive today; but again, it comes back to the plant thing: inadequate. Just look at the instruments he's credited with playing on Blues Reflex. The average song will feature at least three guitars; ranging from a National Tricone Baritone, a Kona Rocket Hawaiian Guitar, a regular National Tricone and others; a variety of other stringed instruments including a seven string Hawaiian and a ten string Bolivian Charango; and just for variety he does the percussion and sings as well. So, I hear you saying, there's lots of guys who do that. What's the big deal? The big deal is that with the exception of only a couple other guitarists that I can think of (Ry Cooder and Harry Manx) he's one of the few that immerses themselves in the guitar and its culture to learn how to incorporate it into what they are doing musically. It's not just cool, or a passing fad for him; it becomes part of his sound. Blues Reflex shows off that variety of sound in one package. In fact it's sort of like a mini world tour of Bob stylistically. Being this is the blues it makes sense the disc starts in church with "Dead Cat On The Line". It's introduced by a taped clip of a 1929 radio sermon from the Rev. J.M. Gates and then moves into the song. It's a message song about communications and how the wires don't sometimes connect because there's a dead cat on the line messing with transmission. It's a slow rolling song with two guitars, playing off each other, and Brozman's voice scratching and chopping out the lyrics. First impressions are what usually stick with me, and in the case of Bob, whether he actually sounds like him or not, he evoked in me thoughts of Louis Armstrong. Louis Armstrong with a Tom Waits attitude. It's on the third track, "One Steady Roll", that our world tour starts with a stop in Reunion Island for and infusion of African sega rhythms. Bob plays all the percussion on the two guitars used in the song, and moves Chicago blues to the Indian Ocean without missing a beat. From here on in our odyssey is in full swing. Whether it's an original song penned for this recording, "New Guinea Blues", or a reworking of a classic like "Death Come Creepin'" Bob's versatility and comfort with a variety of musical styles shines through. Although he has an obvious passion for the old resonator sound generated by a variety of National guitars, he knows enough not to limit himself to just one tone musically. To take some of the hard edge of the steel strings away, he will almost always use at least one softer strung guitar. What this allows him to do is create two distinct sounds (at least) so that the listener can easily discern the multiple textures of a song. Listen to "Poor Me", Bob's adaptation of a Charley Patton recording. He doesn't change the lyrics, plays it like the old time song it is (1920s blues) but the guitar sounds are something out of Bob's heart and mind. He starts with the sweeping sounds of the softer strung guitars, according to the credits two seven string Hawaiian guitars, and then part way through the song he adds the stronger sound of the National. Like the symphony orchestra properly utilized by a composer and a conductor, Bob uses the various sounds at his disposal to increase the impact of his pieces. He doesn't just cover classic blues songs and play them, he interprets them for his audience. His devotion to the genre is obvious from the love and care with which he treats the material. Not one song on this disc has the feeling of being "tossed" off. There is far too much attention paid to the details that go into making the songs work. "There's so much music out there…I guess I'll get some sleep in the next life" pretty much sums up the excitement one feels emanating from Bob's music. This is a man who is in love with his music and sinks himself heart and soul into every song he records. His devotion is such that it extends beyond the playing, to the instruments he utilizes. He has become an expert on the unique sounding National guitar, both as a player and as a historian. Not only has he accumulated a large collection of customized instruments, he also developed a close relationship with John Dopyera the inventor of the guitar. In 1993 Bob published The History And Artistry Of National Resonator Instruments as a repository for all the information he had accumulated about that unique guitar. Blues Reflex is only one of Bob's 26 discs available at this time. More then half of the remainder are musical collaborations with individuals from the variety of musical cultures he draws upon for the playing you hear on Blues Reflex. Bob Brozman is no dilettante playing at "world music". He is an aficionado of not just guitars, but the music that resonates from the hearts of peoples from the Mississippi Delta to Papua New Guinea. Blues Reflex offers us a glimpse into the world of Bob Brozman via his love of the blues. The only question remaining is: how many of the trails he blazed are you going to follow after listening to this one disc.

1/21/2006

Canadian Election 2006: Final Dirty Weekend

It's down to the final dirty weekend. After what feels like one of the longest election campaigns in recent history, Canadian politicians have two days left with which to sway voters. The big question of the election has switched from; would the Conservatives be able to convince enough Canadians that the Liberals are too corrupt to rule anymore? To, have the Liberals been able to frighten enough people away from the Conservatives to prevent them from winning a majority government? Polls at the beginning of this past week were showing support for the Conservatives inching into majority territory with their lead peaking at ten percent higher than the Liberals. As the week progressed that lead gradually began to erode again until it fell back into minority government land. The fact that all poles are only accurate within a plus or minus 3% range means that both results are still equally possible. But the impression one got from the way the polls were conducted and released is that the public looked at the possibility of a Conservative majority and started backing away. It's no coincidence that Paul Martin (Prime Minister and leader of the Liberal party) has spent the past week bashing away at the Conservative social agenda. Reminding people that the Conservatives are anti-choice, anti-gay marriage, and pretty much anti-anything else he can think of. Steven Harper hasn't helped himself in that one with his speculation about the courts and their influence on legislation. Seeing how it was the courts that paved the way for gay marriage, and freedom of choice for women he was supplying a little bit of fuel for that fire. It might explain why he's turned back to attacking the Liberal party's lack of integrity. This has been a campaign that has been mysteriously devoid of issues. Oh sure people will occasionally mention stuff like tax cuts, spending proposals or whatever, but it just doesn't seem like anyone really has their heart in it. Everybody knows that it’s going to come down to whether or not Canadians are going to be willing to entrust their country to Steven Harper and the Conservatives. Obviously the Conservatives have gotten that message loud and clear. Somebody has gone around with a role of duct tape and sealed everybody's mouth in the party except for Stephen Harper. The Conservatives have imposed on the national consciousness the idea that no one else aside from him is running for the party. They've been counting on two things. One that they will be able to paint the Liberals with the brush of scandal so successfully that people will ignore their social conservative nature; and two, everybody's short term memory problem. On the first part they got lucky with the Royal Canadian Mounted Police (R.C.M.P.) announcing they were starting an investigation into activities surrounding the Ministry of Finance and insider trading due to leaked budget information. Nothing like an announcement of yet more potential corruption to damage what little credibility the Liberal's may have had left. It also served to distract people from thinking about anything like social issues. If Paul Martin and the Liberals started harping on about them, it would just sound like scare tactics and desperate attempts to stave off defeat. That's the bind that the Liberal party has found themselves in for this election. Even when they speak the truth about Steven Harper and the Conservative party's social agenda, it sounds like the act of a desperate party. They needed somebody else to make those statements; somebody like the New Democratic Party. (N.D.P.) Ah yes the N.D.P., supposedly the social conscience of our country. The party that informs the public about the issues they should be caring about and than the public chooses which of the other two parties sound most like the N.D.P. on that issue and vote for them. If anybody had the moral authority to speak out against Steven Harper and the Conservatives it should have been Jack Layton as leader of the N.D.P. But where have they been in this election. There was a real opportunity for them to present themselves as a genuine third alternative this time round. At the very least they could have served notice that they could be counted on in a minority government situation to be a moral compass for the other two parties. But even the extreme right has been missing them. Long time conservative pundit John Crispo bemoaned their lack of participation in the election on economic issues. He wondered why the N.D.P., of all parties, wasn't making more of an issue that both Liberal and Conservative tax cuts were favouring the extremely rich. That while the poor kept getting poorer, and the middle class was sinking, the really rich kept getting richer and were being helped by their friends in either one of the established parties. I'm sure there would have been those who would have dismissed the N.D.P.'s criticism of Steven Harper as just so much left wing whining, but they would be those who would be voting Conservative already. If the N.D.P. could have been bothered to exert a little effort into attacking Harper and the Conservative's social agenda, it would have lent credibility to the Liberal attacks. If they figured that helping the Liberals would make them look bad, or if they were better off attacking the Liberals for the sake of their own political fortunes, than not only was that morally questionable, but politically stupid. The best chance the N.D.P. has of ever winning seats is if the Liberals and the Conservatives split the vote and they can sneak in around them. If too many people defect from the Liberals to the Conservatives, they lose. By not attacking the Conservatives on their social agenda they made them an even more attractive alternative to the corrupt Liberals. Before the election started everybody knew it would come down to fear versus corruption. Could the Liberals paint the Conservatives as American Christian right-wingers set to turn Canada into a Republican outpost and hold onto the reigns of power that way? Or would the Conservatives be able to convince enough Canadians that the time was right for a change and they should throw the corrupt bums out, to form their own minority government. No one had even considered the possibility of a Conservative majority. But now in the final weekend it looks like a foregone conclusion that the Conservatives will form the next federal government in Canada. What remains to be seen is if they've persuaded enough Canadians that they're not the scary boogiemen the Liberals depict them to be and they end up with enough seats to form a majority government.

1/20/2006

CD Review: Klezmer Travels The World - David Glukh International Ensemble

Klezmer? What's a Klezmer? Microsoft sure doesn't know because it keeps telling me I've misspelled it and doesn't offer me any alternatives. For starters Klezmer is not an object it's a subject. So the question should be; what is Klezmer? Simply put Klezmer is Jewish secular music. That of course tells you absolutely nothing at all about it, but it's a good start. The literal translation from the Yiddish is "vessel of song" The word was derived from a similar sounding Hebrew word, k'li zemer of the same meaning. Although the tradition of the klezmorim (non liturgical musicians) dates back to biblical times, it wasn't until the 15th century that klezmer music was developed. Taking its name from the word for the instruments played by klezmorim, the musical style is connected with the development and growth of Hassidic and Ashkenazic Judaism. As these peoples were primarily to be found in Eastern and Central Europe, klezmer music has many similarities to the folk music of those regions. Czradas from Hungary; polkas and mazurkas from Poland and Czechoslovakia; waltzes and tangos all found their way into the klezmer stew. Much like the Yiddish the songs were sung in, the music would reflect an ensemble's country of origin. Keeping true to its roots in Jewish liturgical music, while incorporating these elements allowed klezmer to develop the unique sound we associate with it today. The other factor was the instruments. Either by choice, or necessity, many of these performers needed to be mobile, so naturally they would be attracted to instruments that were easily transported. Banjos, piccolos, clarinets, violins and, latter, accordions have all been key elements of the klezmer sound. With the mass immigration to North America in the mid to late 19th century emptying the shtetls (Jewish peasant farming villages of Eastern Europe) klezmer music was exposed to even more influences. In turn it lent its colour to work being produced in North America. Clarinets were brought out of the bands and made into lead instruments by musicians like Benny Goodman, who would have grown up listening to kleamer. Even the sound of swing and jazz clarinet is comparable to the way it sounds in klezmer. But as it was being incorporated into other music, klezmer itself was falling by the wayside. It wasn't until the 1980's when interest in world music started to rise, that klezmer was "rediscovered". Since then there have been a steady increase in the number of klezmer bands available for audiences to listen to. Given the international flavour inherent in klezmer, it surprises me that until now, no one has attempted to do what the David Glukh International Ensemble has done in their latest album. Klezmer Travels The World sets out not only to celebrate the original roots of the genre, but to seek out styles of music not normally associated with klezmer. I know the myth of the wandering Jew claims he is to wander the earth until Christ is resurrected, but I somehow doubt that he takes a klezmer band with him on his travels. Therefore the music of China and points east has probably never shown up in a Klezmer tune before. "Klezmorim in China" supposes that some klezmer musician show up in China to attempt collaboration with Chinese instruments and performers. When David Glukh who, along with the rest of the ensemble is a classically trained musician, discovered that J. S. Bach liked klezmer, it was only natural for him to compose "Baroque Klezmer", a fusion of the two styles. The one thing I've had against a number of the bands involved in the klezmer revival is their inability to move beyond the strictures of how they believe the music should be played. The result is good music that begins to sound annoyingly similar after a while. They seem to have forgotten that the music originally evolved through its ability to absorb the sounds surrounding it without surrendering its identity. David Glukh's original compositions, like the two mentioned about and "Gypsy Craze", are perfect examples of how that is accomplished. You're still listening to the music of the shetls, but now some friends have dropped by to help out. David Glukh's instrument of choice for these recordings is the piccolo trumpet. I have to confess to my ignorance of never having heard of, let alone heard, a piccolo trumpet. It is usual for the leader of a klezmer troupe to play a clarinet, as the sound can both evoke sadness and express jubilation. If I hadn't known it wasn't a clarinet being played I don't know if I could have honestly told you I noticed a difference. Perhaps the notes were just that much cleaner, or the sound a little more pointed at times. But it conveyed exactly the same feelings as the more traditional woodwind. Throughout Klezemer Travels The World The David Glukh International Ensemble embraces the unique ethnic diversity of klezmer music, and on occasion expands on it without ever losing touch with its core essence. Although klezmer was the music at weddings and other celebrations, it does not stop it from communicating the experiences of its people. There are the wild, almost frenzied dances, that are defiant celebrations in the face of the real suffering Jews would have experienced in Europe during the period of the reformation, and through the years up to and including the Holocaust. Doleful instrumental ballads balance playful polkas much as the reality of dirt scrabble poverty and persecution weighs on any festive occasion. That the five players of the ensemble are gifted enough to not only play this music with all the passion and integrity required, but are also able to expand its horizons, speaks volumes about their abilities. I've been listening to klezmer music since the earlier days of its revival in the eighties, and these gentlemen have to be the best I've heard yet. If you have never listened to klezmer music before, or even if you have, Klezmer Travels The World will be a musical experience, and journey, you'll not regret. It's probably the most exotic cruise of the world you can take without leaving home.

1/19/2006

CD Review: Gospel Music

There are many mysteries in this universe that are probably best not explained. The answers would probably be just too weird for our poor little brains to cope with. One of the biggest and strangest mysteries out there is the fascination that skinny white Jewish guys like me have with Black gospel music. What is it about that stuff that makes it strong enough to go against over 5,000 years of biological and racial memory and that just hearing the opening notes from a choir makes me want to run out and find the nearest Southern Baptist Church and throw myself into the water. Luckily for my mother's heart I live in Canada; it's January, and nobody in their right mind is going to immerse them selves in a creek in this weather. Anyway the nearest Southern Baptist is who knows how many thousands of miles away from here. I remember the first time seeing and hearing one of the old time gospel groups. The Zion Harmonisers had come up from New Orleans and were playing at the Mariposa Folk Festival one Sunday morning, when it was still out on the Toronto Islands. They just blew me away. Any art that's inspired by belief seems to have something a little extra that draws you in. From the raw power of picto-glyphs daubed on a rock face; the orchestral might of Beethoven's Ninth Symphony, and the more inspired religious art of the renaissance. It's like the work transmits something of the divine. That's the feeling I get from really good gospel music. The people singing and playing are so devout that their feelings just shine right through. It's like they have no choice in the matter; they're so inspired that it pushes them to get up and sing. There used to be a stupid saying "You don't have to be Jewish to like…but it doesn't hurt" Well the same holds true for gospel; you don't have to be Christian to like it, and too be honest I can't see how anybody anywhere couldn't be moved by the pure energy and spirit demonstrated by these singers and performers. There's nothing quite like letting that elation wash over you. Sitting back in a chair (well if you can sit and listen) listening to music of that calibre is truly a religious experience, no matter what faith you profess or follow. Lee Friedlander and Joel Dorn have put together an eighteen track compilation on Hyena Records simply called Gospel Music. They have been very deliberate in their presentation of the material, and kept packaging, notes, and anything else they think that would distract from the music, to a minimum. You won't be tempted to pick up the CD case to check the booklet at any time while you're listening, because there is nothing to see. They want you to listen and get lost in the experience of the music. I have to say my initial reaction was "Where are the liner notes?" I wanted to know who these people singing were, where they were when they sang these songs if it was live, and what year it was recorded in. All the usual stuff we clutter our brains with when we're listening to music. The only liner note, is the note telling you there are no liner notes and why. From then on it's up to you to decide whether you can get out of your head long enough to let this music into your heart. If you can't than you should consider getting a chest X-ray to see if you're suffering from that problem the Grinch had with a heart two sizes too small. Even the names of some of the groups are enough for me sometimes: The Swan Silvertones, The Angelic Gospel Singers & The Dixie Hummingbirds, The Soul Stirrers, and The Consolers. In those last two you'll find all the description you're going to need about the nature of the music. There's consolation for those looking for affirmation of their belief, and for all of us, it’s the chance to have our souls stirred. Some of the greats are here: The Staple Singers and Mahalia Jackson have long been synonymous with great gospel music, and their performances are all you'd expect form them. But the real delights in discs like this one are groups you've never heard before. The Harmonizing Four's version of "Motherless Child" shows this group can live up to their name. I've always been a sucker for a great bass voice (I could listen to Paul Robeson all day) and with this song's bass lead it quickly became one of my favourite cuts. Back to back versions of the spiritual "This May Be The Last Time" (Mick and Keith sure knew where to grab some good lines and tunes) by The Staple Singers and The Original Five Blind Boys Of Alabama shows how a song changes from era to era and group to group. While the Staples play slow and soulful, The Blind Boys are all up-tempo revival style that pulls you out of your pew and gets you dancing. This isn't music to get intellectual about. It's not about anything rational or logical in either its appeal or its strength. Black gospel music is listened to with the heart and the soul. These people didn't perform for the labels or personal glory; they performed (and still perform) for the glory of what they believed in. You don't have to believe to be swept away by the maelstrom of emotion they generate. That's the beauty of genuine rapture; it comes through loud and clear no matter what the language, culture, religion or creed. Gospel Music is eighteen tracks of substantial arguments proving that point.