Tuesday, September 30, 2008

Funny Things I've Noticed Since Arriving

First, I want to inform you that the blog is not dead. I meant it when I said that I would not update as often as I used to in my old location. After all, I have priorities called a doctoral thesis and a novel. However, I've been gathering material for my writing and slowly decorating my apartment. Its formerly bare walls now sport a somewhat generic and very classic greyscale-coloured Bob Dylan poster above my writing desk in the bedroom. Young Bob stands in front of an amp plucking at a bass guitar, lips pursed in concentration and irritation. I find this image inspiring during my blocked periods at the keyboard. Next to that is a small black and white Fleet Foxes poster that came with their album that I bought a few weeks ago.

Next to my kitchen hangs a Barack Obama poster, a reproduction of the Shepard Fairey image of Obama in red white and blue. The displayed word is my favourite of Obama's campaign – hope. If he wins the election, this image I think will become a classic piece of Americana. As for my even bleaker office on campus, I bought a giant Big Lebowski poster to go next to my desk there, though the stucco-like wall surfaces are not exactly friendly to tape. I'll have to get creative to stick this up.

And perhaps inspired by Lebowski, I might also buy a rug. It could really tie my living room together.
As for the material I've been gathering for my writing, I want to focus on some idiosyncratic details that I think would make funny observational points, or interesting character humour at some point. A quirk of downtown Hamilton geography is that Hess Village, the skank magnet every weekend night, is also the home of several respectable doctors' offices. And it's right next to the Freemasons' castle and lodge house. Yes, the Masons have a genuine castle here, and it's right behind my house. I pass it every day on the way to the bus stop.

There is no common space in bars here. Almost all the floor space, aside from a small area around the actual bar just big enough for people to stand in to order drinks, is taken up by tables and chairs. So when groups arrive at a bar, they sit at a table, likely are handled by a waiter, and do not interact with any other groups, because they are centred around different tables. So groups are very alienated from each other by the geography of bars in this city, with no common space where strangers can bump into each other, stand around, and interact. I've seen this in Toronto too, so it seems to be an Ontario thing. This is probably the only culture shock since I moved here – that the very geography of meeting places prevent people from meeting.

Some details related to public transit. The other day, I was waiting at the bus stop and a woman crossed the street to stand next to me. She was rather buxom, and wearing a jacket and tank top. She carried her iPod nestled in her cleavage. Describing this to my friends at the philosophy department led into a conversation about how women's clothes are made with no convenient pockets. I conclude this to be the implicit sexism of the garment industry (in addition to all the explicit sexism).

Also, there are indentations in the pavement in front of my usual bus stop caused by the constant pressure of bus after bus, tire-shaped dents in the solid asphalt road from the weight of so many buses.

Sunday, September 21, 2008

So Many Book Ideas, I'll Never Be Able to Write Them All

In the past week, I have had ideas for two novels, one of which is more developed than the other. But they are still two novels, both of which have the potential of not sucking, which is my major qualification for following up an idea. My current literary project, now titled Laughing Lovers, is on page 185 as of this writing. And I've been working on it for ten months. I estimate it'll probably take me another year to finish, since I'm working on a doctorate now. And when I finish it, I plan to try to get it published with a decent company as well, and do all this while completing my doctorate before my university funding runs out after four years in the program.

So the fact that I keep having other ideas that I simply don't have the time to work on is encouraging for the state of my creative faculties, but frustrating in that many of them will likely get no farther than one or two page outlines. In all fairness, I've managed to get more work done on LL since I moved to Hamilton than I thought I would. But for the next couple of years, my time is only going to be more squeezed, not less.

The most developed new idea I had this week was inspired by David Foster Wallace's death. He was the writer of Infinite Jest, a book I read when I was 17 years old and amazingly pretentious. It was over 1,000 pages long, and was hideously complex, but also beautiful and quite sorrowful in its hilarity. I suppose that its tone, if not its style has been quite influential on my own writing. Looking through the manuscript of LL as it stands now, humour seems to alternate with sorrow, and sometimes occur at the same time. I'm not near the skill of Wallace, but that's a goal and a model for me.

I was quite shocked when I discovered that he killed himself two Fridays ago. Reading the obituaries and salutes to him and his work have been enlightening and thought-provoking. The Guardian, I think, had the best such tribute. One thing I learned was that he had taught a creative writing class for the past few years at Pomona College in California. He died on September 12, so if the class hadn't started, then it was about to. And I wondered what his students would have thought, to have gotten only a glimpse of this man before he snatched himself away. Whether Wallace was even teaching this term didn't even matter. The point was this brief connection that was abruptly severed. That relationship is the centrepiece of the story.

The second idea I had this week was a random idea that jumped into my thoughts as I was talking about the mass cultural phenomenon of western humanities graduates to finish their B.A.s and, for want of a better salary in their homes, move to east Asia to teach English. I know several people who are currently or have been working in different cities in South Korea, and a couple of folks who work in China. One of my friends who teaches in China looks set to live there permanently.

I imagine that within a generation or so, most major cities in China and South Korea will have neighbourhoods called Little America with English signs and Western-style fast food restaurants, white and biracial neighbourhoods populated by North American English teachers, their families, and their descendants. Chinese and Korean people will feel like slumming it some nights, and take the bus down to Little America to eat hamburgers, Italian-style pasta, and food with forks.

Also, if any of you could leave a comment on the blog itself or on my facebook page about whether you think any of my prospective titles sound stupid, I'd really appreciate it. I just don't think I'm very good at coming up with titles. They all seem a bit too corny. So the following are up for your consideration: 1. Laughing Lovers; 2. Poor Yorick. The first is my university and politics in Newfoundland story, and the second is my salute to Wallace, which is currently just in outline form, and likely will be for some time.

Saturday, September 20, 2008

My Country's Democracy Has Failed

The major movement in conservative politics in Canada over the turn of the century was to unite the right, to unify the two right-wing parties, the Progressive Conservative and the Reform, into a single political party that could mount a successful challenge to the Liberal party hegemony. And they succeeded brilliantly. I disagree with virtually every Conservative party platform except the general idea of being very careful with government spending in hard economic times. But I have to congratulate them on accomplishing the considerably difficult task of bringing together two political parties who regarded each other with resentment, anger, and suspicion.

It was their unity as a party that enabled them to succeed in a federal system like Canada's. We simply do not have a political culture where parties can conceive of working together in a governing coalition. This means that any minority government is afflicted by petty squabbling, and an almost total lack of ability to govern. So any attempt at cooperation between the Reform and PC parties, like not running candidates against each other or appointing the other party to one's cabinet, was inconceivable. The united front of the new Conservative party had led them to election victory and the longest-lasting minority government in Canadian history.

And the Conservative party will probably get a majority in this election thanks to just the kind of deplorable petty squabbling on the left side of our parliamentary spectrum. All the possible leadership candidates after Paul Martin's retirement were going to shift the party leftwards, but Dion has emphatically done so. The Green Shift tax plan is a special mark of this, the centrepiece of his focus on environmental issues.

But the Liberals are being shouted down on the left by the New Democrats, with Jack Layton's campaign focussing on a request to the Canadian people to make him Canada's first New Democrat prime minister. His own program on childcare, healthcare, pacifism, and a carbon cap-and-trade system solidly anchors him on the left. And his higher presence than Dion's on television in central Canada makes him the more visible voice of opposition to Stephen Harper. Add to the mix the Green party's inclusion and left-leaning voters are torn in so many directions, their limbs are falling off. Of course, the Green's fiscal and social policies are quite conservative, reflecting their origin as an offshoot of the old Canadian rightist parties of people who simply differed in that they were environmentalists.

Two key conditions in Canada's current political climate are going to give the Conservatives an unfortunate majority this October. The main reason is the systemic problem I've just outlined: Anything But Conservative. I am just as opposed to the Conservative party plan for Canada as the majority of Canadians. But the sheer number of alternatives to Harper work against each other. The leftist and centrist vote in Canada is split practically evenly among Liberals, NDP, and Green. In an electoral environment like this, a Conservative candidate can capture his (and it will probably be His) riding with little more than thirty per cent of the vote. Quite likely, the majority of Conservative candidates will do so. The right has taken governmental power in Canada by uniting, and the left will lose it for the foreseeable future by dividing so terribly.

The most depressing of the two reasons is Dion's complete inability to control how Canada's populace perceives him and his message. From the beginning of his party leadership, the Conservatives have painted him as a nebbishy, weak-willed Woody Allen type unsuitable to lead a classroom, let alone a country. He has totally failed to communicate to the general public his intelligence, tenacity, assertiveness, and personal strength. New websites like ThisIsDion.ca are potentially effective, but they come too late to matter. Canadians have made their decision, and they have been bamboozled. His painful public relations failure will probably cost him the election, at least half the Liberal party seats, and probably his leadership of the party. He will be an unfortunate footnote in Canadian history: the first Liberal party leader never to become prime minister. Dion could have transformed Canada for the better. But he has already failed.

Saturday, September 13, 2008

Moments that Define an Entire Life

I was going to write a slightly more date-appropriate post about this on September 11, but I never had time on Thursday, so I'll be late. When those buildings actually fell down, my mind was quite literally blown. It was an inconceivable event happening right in front of me, and I was swept up in the moment. I wasn't swept up to the point where I believed what the Bush-Cheney Administration eventually said about Iraq. But there was a moment where everything I thought about politics, society, and possibly ethics changed completely.

I was watching on live television a few days after the attacks when George W was touring the rubble at Ground Zero, and he was giving a sort-of-impromptu speech through a megaphone, a series of fairly mundane platitudes that are barely memorable. A male voice shouts just loud enough for the microphones to pick it up, "We can't hear you!" George shouts back through the megaphone, "But I can hear you!" And the crowd goes wild, and I went wild. That answer was worth more all the next four years of speeches about security and safety. Those speeches showed the incredible hypocrisy of Republican policy regarding global security, and their outmoded, foolishly simplistic moral approach to the world, "Axis of Evil" concept included.

But for that one moment of connection, of calling and answering, George W Bush amazed me. For at least a few days in September 2001, I supported George W Bush because of the power of this moment. I was astounded that this idiot could understand the transformative power of this moment. That one exchange I think was the greatest point of George W's entire presidency. I don't consider it hyperbole to say that September 11 and the immediate aftermath in New York is a single event that defines me as a person more than any other.

I have since realized that George W Bush is still an idiot, still misguided as to the nature of the world, still insular, and still barely able to think. Yet he remains a fascinating character, probably the most fascinating person in American political history of at least the past hundred years. I think George W Bush the person will be the focus of mesmerized scholars, historians, students, politicians, truck drivers, bureaucrats, activists, ministers – pretty much everyone who bothers to look – for centuries. How did this drunken lout become the president of the United States of America? How did he feel being the public face of Dick Cheney's disguised dictatorship? Did he even know he was a patsy?

This is why I'm looking forward to Oliver Stone's new film, W, which seeks to tell the story. The trailer is mesmerizing, and the film looks like a genuine exploration of this man. Stone's politics veer left, and so do mine. But I don't think politics is really the driving force behind this film W. Instead, it's that question from the trailer – Why this man? Of all people?

Here is a moment of pure professional jealousy. Hanging out in a hotel room are various music industry people in 1965, including Donovan and Bob Dylan. They're talking and smoking and decide to trade songs. Donovan sings one he's working on, a nice enough little song. Then Bob Dylan sings "It's All Over Now Baby Blue." You will rarely see a face that seethes with more resentment than Donovan's listening to that song follow up his own.

A small update since my post last week about the St John's music scene. In an article on the AE Bridger band in the first Muse of the semester, they discuss exactly the same problem that the structure and geographical isolation of Newfoundland creates for a working musician.

Friday, September 5, 2008

The Smell of Laundry Detergent Makes the Mind Wander

Thursday night, I did my laundry. Don't worry – the post will become more interesting than this. You can skip down to the second section if you want. My apartment building has shared laundry services, which consists of two washing machines and two clothes dryers, both coin operated, sitting in the basement. I consider it pretty convenient, as I don't have to go outside to do my laundry. Most people just throw their clothes in a machine, set it going, then head back to their apartments and come back some time after the cycle ends.

I try to do it a little more efficiently. If I leave the basement, I'll make sure I come back before the cycle is over. And most of the time, I don't leave the basement at all. I'll just take a book down with me and read while I wait for the machines to do their business. There are a couple of abandoned chairs sitting in the far corner of the basement just under one of the ceiling lights, so it's the perfect place to relax with a book for eighty minutes, which is how long it takes for both machines to run through their cycles.

Anyway, on Thursday, I happened to come down at the same time as one of my neighbours was moving his clothes into the dryer. I threw mine in the washing machine, and we made small talk about the eccentricities of our laundry machines. He was amazed they still worked properly, even though they were so old. I responded with a joke, saying they should advertise the laundry services with "Arthur Meighen once used this washing machine." I don't think he knew what I was talking about. I am a huge nerd.

So I started the washing machine, he started the dryer, and we both left. He went to his apartment, and I went to the bank down the road, then the convenience store next door because I was almost out of orange juice. I came back down to the basement with the book I'm reading, Stendhal's Le Rouge et Le Noir to practice my French. I am also a bit pretentious. And after a few minutes, my washing cycle finished. I noticed my confused neighbour's dryer still had fifteen minutes left, and while the one next to it had finished, there was still a pile of clothes inside. Clearly, someone had been far from prompt getting their clothes back, but he had also taken his basket with him, so there was nowhere to put them.

I could think of only one course of action, as my neighbour who I had spoken to had left his laundry basket on top of the dryer. I waited until his dryer cycle was finished, took out his clothes, and put them in his basket. Then I put my clothes in the dryer and went back to my book at the far end of the basement. About fifteen minutes later, he came back in and saw his clothes in his basket on the table next to the laundry machines. He mumbled something that sounded pretty hostile, picked up his clothes, and left. I don't think he knew I was there, because he never even looked in my direction.
After that long, slightly strange story, which I think went nowhere, I sat down reading French literature in the basement waiting for my laundry to finish drying. And I thought of a great idea for a short story or a novella, depending on how much I wanted to focus on supporting characters. It takes place in an apartment building that isn't too large, but has a large enough number of tenants to keep a superintendent fairly busy. And while everybody likes the super, thinks he's really friendly, outgoing, and an all-around nice fellow; he's actually lonely, depressed, thinks he's ugly, and spends all his time watching mediocre television.

The actual plot of the story would involve him meeting a woman who likes him, but they eventually break up because of their mutual insecurities that corral them into a series of misunderstandings about their relationship and why they're there. I think that the question of why you're with someone is the most devastating thing partners could ask each other. Then you start giving reasons why you're there, and when you give reasons, it sounds like you're justifying the relationship, giving it a ground outside of itself, which leads to the formulation on both sides, "All you're here for is X." No relationship could survive that reduction.

The main things I'd have to fill in before writing this is figuring out how a superintendent who never leaves his building meets a woman. Once I have that taken care of, the whole thing can basically write itself. I'm not sure if it should end at their breakup, or when they get back together because they don't have anything else in their lives, and can't take being alone anymore.
Also, my alma mater, The Muse, published their first big issue of the new volume on the same day I did my laundry. I've linked it above, and you should most certainly go and read it, either physically or on the internet.

Tuesday, September 2, 2008

The Sad State of The Awesome Rock in My Hometown

So I discovered the other day though facebook that Stars are playing Club One in St John's this November. The venue is a spacious club that can fit several hundred people comfortably, and the show should be pretty awesome. Club One has become the main venue in St John's that hosts Canadian indie artists who are reasonably mainstream in Canada, but without the appeal in America outside the Pitchfork set to have really hit the big time, and without the appeal to people over 35 to play the larger concert arenas like the city's money-hemorrhaging white elephant, Mile One Stadium.

Two previous acts I saw at Mile One over the year before I left Newfoundland were Metric and Buck 65. None of the city's local rappers are really good enough to open for Buck. The closest the St John's rap scene has no genuine talent that could break beyond generic hip hop stereotypes other than the novelty act Gazeebow Unit.

Anyway, the local rock band opening up for Stars is the same one that opened for Metric: Hey Rosetta. They have quite a fan following in St John's, and probably an equal number of people who find their music treacly, saccharine, and derivative. You can probably tell that I'm in this latter group. Think Coldplay, only much whinier, and they have yet to write a song whose lyrics are not pathetically over-clichéd.

I got to thinking that this is perhaps all that Newfoundland bands will ever be able to accomplish: opening up for the bigger Canadian bands that play here. It's easy to survive as a working band making good quality music when you can play shows at dozens of popular venues within a hour's drive of your home base. Toronto, Montréal, and Halifax are all hubs of this kind. But St John's, despite the dreams of Danny Williams to make the island a global transportation hub, is just not conducive to musical success. The population of the island is small, and St John's is the only city within convenient driving distance of anything that has reasonable venues to play, even just considering bars with stages.

Assorted bits of Mark Bragg, playing the Ship, of course.

If a band stays in St John's, it won't take long before they just end up playing to the same fairly small group of people over and over again. This happens to Mark Bragg, who always plays to the same crowd of people at the Ship. It happens to the punk bands who always play to the same crowd of people at Distortion. The Satans and the other crust bands hardly ever leave Turner's Tavern anymore. And if they don't leave town, the Gramercy Riffs and their associated acts Texas Chainsaw and The Late Greats are always going to play to the same crowds of people at CBTGs and the Ship. This even though Gramercy is probably the best band in St John's I've heard since the Discounts in their prime in my entire ten years of living in St John's and going to shows there.

The bands in my hometown have the potential to become gigantic in Canada. I'd say Gramercy has the potential for success on the scale of Arcade Fire. When you live in Montréal, Toronto, or Halifax, it's easy to pile into a van and take a day trip to another city to play a show for people who have never heard you before. But when you live in St John's, going on tour on the mainland is a huge event and a huge investment. Most bands can't afford to do it more than once a year. The rest of the time, they work their terrible day jobs, and play to the same hundred or so people every week. Then they'll eventually get tired of this repetitive grind, and wonder why they aren't as successful as the bands they admire, even though they are just as good as these bands. So they'll split up, and play a reunion show in ten years when they're middle class and suburban with a pile of kids, that all their old fans will nostalgically love. And everyone will wonder why they weren't more successful when they were so good. And everyone will love Newfoundland so much that they will never say that it's because they never left Newfoundland, so no one ever heard them outside St John's.

Potatobug was a brilliant old rock band that gained a huge following in St John's in the early 1990s, who had a reunion show at the start of August. They played the type of music that actually could have brought them pretty far in the rock music scene of Canada. But they stayed in Newfoundland. So the best they ever got was a big following in the city and good turnout for their reunion show at Distortion. And bands that stay in Newfoundland as their home base are always going to have this as the apogee of their musical career. That other very awesome St John's band, the Discounts, had a reunion show this summer too that was the climax of their career.

Isolation kills ambition.
Now some awesome news! This link takes you to the first new song to be released from TV on the Radio's upcoming album Dear Science, called "Dancing Choose." Get over the fact that the song title is a really hideous pun, play it, and rock out. The first few comments on the song are fairly negative, and I am slightly hesitant about Tunde Adebimpe rapping instead of singing, as his singing voice is utterly astounding. But I think this song is alright, and bodes well for the album. Maybe not as good as Cookie Mountain, but certainly good quality, I hope.