Monday, October 31, 2016

Quick trip -- Minneapolis & Chicago

I believe I mentioned that I was going to fly out to Minneapolis and thence to Chicago.  (I was one of very few people not there to take in some of the World Series atmosphere, since my trip had been booked several weeks back.  Anyway, it is just as well, since 1) I had already booked my hotel rooms and didn't get blindsided by a big increase in the going rate and 2) I didn't leave Chicago as heart-broken as most fans.  It would have been nice had they won at least one game while I was in Chicago, but I don't feel all choked up over it.)  Given how much I did in just a few days, I think I will write a quick overview in this post, then I will have separate posts for the Minneapolis Institute of Art, the Walker Art Center, the Norman Lewis exhibit at the Chicago Cultural Center, and perhaps a bit of a review of two plays I saw while in Chicago.  That's a lot of posts, but I'll see how quickly I can get them in.

I left Thurs. right after work.  I normally try to fly out of Billy Bishop Airport, but Porter doesn't serve Minneapolis.  Hopefully it will some day, especially if they get pre-clearance at Billy Bishop.  So I caught the UP Express.  It is a nice ride, though it is now taking 25 minutes, not 20.  Also, a lot of people have started taking this service as part of their regular commute.  The train was standing room only until the Weston stop at which point the train pretty much emptied out.  That was a big surprise to me, though with Presto, the ride from Union to Weston only costs $5.00, so that is something we will probably investigate a bit in the future.

Anyway, the trip to Minneapolis was fairly routine.  I stayed out at a hotel near the Mall of America, and indeed the flight crew on my flight all stayed at the same hotel and we took the shuttle over.  I heard them discussing some of their flights to Afghanistan and Pakistan.  While it is fairly common for pilots to have direct or indirect military experience, it seems more rare (in my view) for a flight attendant to also have made those flights to Afghanistan.

I had been reading Muriel Spark's Symposium on the flight and finished it up that evening.  I didn't like it at all.  I believe I mentioned already that I am just not on the same wavelength as her.  I was not particularly enamoured of The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie, and I didn't like A Far Cry from Kensington, since I felt the main character was snobbish and quite judgemental.  There are three more books by Spark that I probably "ought" to read (Memento Mori, The Girls of Slender Means and The Mandelbaum Gate) and a few others that I would probably read if I actually liked her writing, including The Public Image and Loitering with Intent.  At this point, it is unlikely that I will read anything more by her, but I do retain the right to change my mind.  Anyway, I left the book at the breakfast buffet at the hotel.

I managed to get to the Mall of America transit center just before 9, and I got an all-day transit pass for $4.  Not a bad deal.  Anyway, I would never have been able to figure out my itinerary without Google maps, which allows you to make these odd transit connections that most natives wouldn't know about.  I made it to the Minneapolis Institute of Art just before 10, which was when it opened.  I was reading The Federalist Papers and finding them fairly hard going, and this raised some interest at the front desk (Hamilton is on most people's minds this year due to the Broadway show).  I should manage to get through the book by the election, however, and I'll probably put at least some of my thoughts down at that time. 

I'll go into much more detail about the MIA in a separate post, but I was sort of intrigued by this large Chihuly piece they had hanging over the entrance.  It's looking like I will take the kids to the Chihuly exhibit at the ROM this weekend, though things are still a bit up in the air (sort of like this piece, ha ha).

I wandered through the collection for just under 3 hours, and I believe I managed to get to all the individual galleries.  I will note here that I did manage to see the Beckmann triptych Blindman's Bluff, so I can verify that I have now seen 8 of 9 in person, and I'll just have to get to Munich one of these days to complete the set...

I just managed to catch the bus to my next destination, the Walker Art Center.  Or rather the bus took me halfway there -- to Nicollet and 15th St.  I ended up eating at the Nicollet Grill, which was quite good.  I would go again if I was in the neighborhood.  I then walked along 15th St. through a park and finally crossed a bridge to get to the Walker Art Center.  

I knew that it was under construction, but this was way more torn up then I expected and the sculpture garden was completely closed off.  I think the last time I was here (I believe 1997!) there was some construction going on in the sculpture garden, but this was a whole new level of disruption.


I enjoyed the visit to the Walker, though I wish they had more older material on display as part of their 75 Years retrospective, but I'll write more on that soon.

I managed to catch a bus downtown and still had a bit over an hour to look around.  I actually had to stop at the library for a while to recharge my phone, since it had been completely run down, due to all the photos I took.  I managed to get a few more decent shots of the downtown and the near-deserted Nicollet Mall, then I caught the Blue Line out to the airport.  Even though I know unemployment is relatively low in Minneapolis, the downtown felt a bit more forlorn (or perhaps just poorer) than on my last visit, but maybe I was also a bit put out at how much my routes were disrupted by construction.  I was reasonably impressed with the Blue Line and thought that the ridership seemed fairly healthy.

I got to the airport in plenty of time, but the flights to Chicago were all messed up because a plane had caught fire on one of the runways at O'Hare and NTSB was still investigating!  I guess we finally got airborne around 10 pm, which wasn't so much later than my scheduled flight, but it still felt I was at the airport for far too long around far too many cranky people. 

Fortunately, I was staying at the O'Hare Hilton so I didn't have to go anywhere once we finally arrived.  I was even able to sleep in a bit.

Saturday, I hit the Cultural Center first.  I enjoyed the Norman Lewis exhibit, though to be honest, I don't think I'd recommend traveling much more than 150 miles to see it.  It makes more sense just to pick up the catalog.  I then headed up to the Water Tower on the Mag Mile and had just about 45 minutes at the MCA before Life Sucks started at Lookingglass Theatre.  I liked this a lot, to the point where I might even catch it if it plays Toronto.  Anyway, I would recommend it to people who love theatre and have at least a passing familiarity with Chekhov's Uncle Vanya.  I think it runs two more weeks, and I'll write more about it soon.  I still had some time to kill, and I stopped by LUMA (the Loyola Art Museum) but the exhibit (on Spanish colonial art) didn't do anything for me, so I didn't go in.

So I went north to check out Rogers Park.  Actually I just managed to squeeze on the train, which was full of soon-to-be-disappointed Cubs fans.  Mercifully, the train was almost empty after Addison.

It was kind of interesting checking out how the neighborhood had changed.  Generally, I am kind of depressed when I am in downtown Chicago, but Rogers Park looked better than it did when I lived there.  If it weren't for the fact that the Red Line has slowed down to the point that it takes an hour or so to go from Howard to the Loop, Rogers Park seems like a fairly convivial neighborhood now.  I didn't remember this bookstore near Sheridan and Pratt, though it might actually have been located on Clark back when I lived in Chicago.  Anyway, I took a look around and restrained myself to only buy one book (my backpack was already quite full).

I had dinner and still had some time to kill, so I went into the Heartland Cafe and drank some tea (maybe the single most impressive thing about the weekend is that I didn't slip up and order any soda at restaurants or even on the plane).  At 7, I wandered over to the theatre to see Shinn's Dying City.  I think the actors really did a fine job, but I do have a few issues with the play.  It was still worth seeing, and I felt a bit glad that I helped fill out the audience just a bit, since their box office has been suffering with the Cubs in the World Series.  (I recall one play years and years ago was cancelled when the Bulls were in the Finals and no one was doing anything aside from watching them.)  This was the final weekend, but they said that the previous week they had done reasonable business.

I then turned around and took the El all the way to Midway and then took a hotel shuttle. I managed to get there around 11.  Fortunately, the flight back was fairly uneventful (and wasn't delayed at all).  I still had time to get to the library and buy the groceries and still help out a bit with the kids' homework.  Now I just need to get some rest, since Toronto does Halloween on the actual night and not on the nearest weekend.  Fortunately, the forecast is for a dry evening tomorrow.

Thursday, October 27, 2016

10th Canadian Challenge - 8th Review - Kay's Lucky Coin Variety

It was about a month that I stopped by the Word on the Street Festival to hear Ann Choi reading from Kay's Lucky Coin Variety.  She was one of 5 finalists for the Toronto Book Award, though in the end she wasn't the winner.  Still, very impressive for a first novel to be given so much attention!

In a way, her story is quite inspirational (she had been living with the idea for this novel for something close to 20 years and then finally took a writing course where she managed to finish it and find an interested editor, which is almost a fairy tale story in itself) but in other ways it makes me a bit jealous that I haven't pushed through as much, and that a few of the gambits I have used just haven't worked out (the writing group didn't pan out, I am having trouble getting my work staged, etc.).  In different ways, I am jealous of the author of Floating City.  Given that there is a bit of deviance in both books, I thought about writing a gigantic review combining the two, but there will be enough asides if I just focus on Choi's novel, so I'll just do that.

In her comments before the reading, Choi said it was great to be part of a movement where Asian-Canadians got more recognition, and she was thrilled that Kim's Convenience had gone from a successful play to a network sitcom.  (I've generally heard good things about this show, and probably I'll check it out some day (whenever I actually start watching TV again).)

One thing that the sitcom and the novel have to do is spend a bit of extra time explaining Koreans to white people, so there is usually a bit about why Koreans, or at least older Koreans, hate the Japanese.  (To be fair, I have a fairly similar moment in Corporate Codes, though it is a young Chinese woman voicing the same thoughts.)  In particular, Choi needs to discuss why Koreans are so concerned about face and not sharing troubles with outsiders, since quite a few plot points in the novel don't quite make sense if only people talked to each other.  In some ways, the main character Mary (Yu-Rhee) is a bit unstable in the sense that most of the time she is quite passive, but then at other times she is quite assertive when the plot calls for it.  It is quite hard to believe she would have been quite so forthright (or even rude) to Joon-Ho's mother.  If she was so strong in this case, then why wouldn't she have been tougher with her own parents to stop putting Joon-Ho on a kind of pedestal?  I mean, some of this can be explained by a fairly immature girl caught between two cultures and not quite knowing how to fit in.  Even so, Mary made a few quite bad choices, like calling her stalker up after her brother went looking for him.

I think my biggest issue with the novel was that it basically was a bit too melodramatic.  There are about 6 major traumatic events in this book when 2 or at most 3 would have been a bit more realistic.  I do feel less is more in a novel that is already trying to do a lot in terms of showing how Koreans fit into Toronto.  

As a lesser complaint, I was kind of disappointed in the portrayal of Will Allen, who was her English teacher.  After she graduated high school, she more or less seduced him and they have a short fling.  I wasn't quite as horrified over that as some people.  (I grew up in the 70s and early 80s when a few teachers (and particularly college professors) married former students.  While there are power imbalances to be sure, they didn't seem any worse than in most marriages.  Of course, today's morality police view things in black and white terms and don't recognize the complexity of people's desires.  But that's definitely a discussion I don't want to get into today.)

In a way, it is kind of a neat twist that she lands the blue-eyed guy of her fantasies, and then finds out he is really not quite what she wanted after all.  I didn't mind that, but I felt Choi made him such a small, weak character when all his frailties were revealed.  I would have liked a slightly more nuanced (or perhaps more generous) view of Mr. Allen.  It is a bit hard to believe he could have been such an inspirational teacher and yet was so moody at home and so blind to his own shortcomings as a writer.

The other thing that was sort of interesting, but perhaps a bit disappointing, was how telescoped her college years are.  Her entire college career is covered off in 5 pages or so.  I think there were mostly there to make a point that she has succeeded in Canada, even though it was her parents’ dream not hers to come to a new country.  Ann Choi herself seems far less ambivalent about trade-offs about growing up in a different culture.  She was glad to be a Canadian and very glad that her mother, in particular, had given up a career as a school teacher, to come to Canada for a chance for a better life for her children, including Ann.

On the whole this was an engaging read, and I did read it in only a few short bursts.  While the novel is a tad too melodramatic, the interactions between the family members, particularly Mary and her brother Josh rang true.  I particularly liked the way the novel "triggered" me into recalling Toronto in the early 90s; even though the novel is largely set in the mid 80s, many aspects of Toronto hadn't changed that much by the time I rolled into town.  I guess more than anything else, Kay's Lucky Coin Variety (and the portrayal of sad-sack Mr. Allen) ought to serve as a big kick up my backside to get working on my novel.  Maybe one day I can read to a crowd from my published book and be as excited as Ann Choi was at Word on the Street.

Monday, October 24, 2016

Lo and Behold (Herzog)

I've been holding off writing this review of Werner Herzog's Lo and Behold for a couple of months now.  How appropriate that I have been struggling so much with my internet connection for months as well.  It is sometimes the Wi-Fi adapter and sometimes the router that has to be reset, but it is very rare that I go 48 hours without having major connection problems that drive me so batty that I have to go off and read a book to cool down.  Not that spending some time off-line is a bad thing, but I want it to be on my own terms.  These are my local problems, nothing to do with wider internet outages.

Of course, most people are aware that there was a huge cyber-attack that compromised the web for several hours on Friday (Oct 21).  The wikileaks people tried to claim their supporters had did it, but that seems fairly unlikely.  The more probable claim is by a group called New World Hackers, who say that this is only a dry run for an even bigger attack in the near future.  Oh joy.  Due to the nature of the attack, perhaps the only good to come out of this is that it will slow down the "internet-of-things" where all kinds of things are connected to the internet for no good reason.  For instance, this man spending 11 hours trying to get a kettle hooked up to the internet so that he could start it boiling on his way home from work.  However, I also realize that some of these "improvements" that seem so silly to us now will be seen as essential and basically inescapable in the future.

The real problem is that after a certain tipping point, you can't go back.  It is too hard to be the lone hold-out when everyone else has migrated some particular business line to the internet.  This actually happened to me a few weeks back when I went to get my bike from a bike shop.  The merchant had no internet access and couldn't figure out a way to take payments without an internet hook-up.  I somewhat pointedly asked about the machines that took a credit card impression, and he said you couldn't buy them anymore.  I strongly doubt that, but rather he just didn't want to be bothered.  At any rate, I wasn't willing to walk four or five blocks to an ATM and he seemed pretty hopeless without the computer telling him what to do.  (He couldn't even calculate the tax.)  While this may have been a particularly inept manager, it does speak to what happens when we move too many functions to the digital realm and let computers (or other machines) do all our work for us.  (Emerson warned about this as far back as 1841 in Self-reliance, but then also Forster's The Machine Stops (1909) and Pixar's Wall-E (2008) portrayed the danger of getting hooked on mechanical aids.)

In any case, it happens that the internet of things and over-reliance on the internet are two of the ten "chapters" in Herzog's documentary about the internet.  It appears that you can already stream the documentary on Amazon, and in about a month it will be coming out on DVD/Blu-ray.  However, those of us in Canada are screwed yet again with no apparent release date.  However, we did have the chance to see the film, at least in Toronto.  Apparently, this Friday the documentary final will be screening in the UK.  I'm sure the DVD will eventually make it across the border, and of course if not there are always the torrent sites...

It's sort of interesting checking out a couple of reviews (here and here).  I would not really agree with the Guardian review that this is an overall upbeat assessment of the internet; I thought it was considerably more pessimistic about the negative aspects of the internet, not least of which it is so hard to escape it.  Actually, this Wired article about the documentary gives you a much better sense of the documentary, including the fascinating tidbit that the whole documentary was actually paid for by an internet security company called NetScout!  (Herzog retained final cut.)

I liked the documentary a lot, though I felt there were several areas where Herzog had gone in for a symbolic story and I wanted a broader grappling with the issue.  I'll come back to that shortly, but I want to digress and engage in some internet nostalgia.

Herzog manages to track down the original computer that sent the original email message.  It was supposed to type "login" but hung at "lo."  This leads to some elevated banter about "lo and behold," which of course became the title.  Another computer programmer involved from the very beginning hauls out a phone directory of everyone who was on the internet at that time.

University of Michigan was among the first universities outside California to be part of a computer network: a Michigan only network in 1971 and then they were linked into the T-1 backbone by 1988.  I can't quite recall when I first got email but I know that I was able to write the equivalent of email messages to other UM students by 1989.  Actually I had played text-based games off of a computer mainframe before that, probably by the mid-80s, but it that case you had to be seated at a terminal and log into the system.  You couldn't dial in from just anywhere.

The other thing that is a bit hard to remember is that it wasn't particularly easy to just get an email account, even if you had a dial-up modem.  AOL was just starting to take off.  I don't think I ever signed up with them, however.  And there really wasn't all that much content on-line, though it was still easy to waste lots of time.

I still remember going from a super primitive browser (probably Gopher) to Lynx, which allowed hyperlinking between articles.  This was probably 1993 when I switched over.  But within the year, everyone moved to Mosaic, since it had graphic capabilities.  Nonetheless, the internet still was fairly text-heavy in the beginning.  From my perspective, 1993-1998 or so was a great time for emails, and I still have some long back and forth missives saved.  This was a time when I was the most connected to a lot of people whom I no longer saw face to face.  It was sort of a perfect embodiment of Simmel's Web of Group-Affiliations (the part where he talks about long-distance associations of like minded people).  But the trend has definitely been away from writing emails (and long-form blogs) and towards shorter, pithier messages as well as pictures, including pictures of what one is eating.  To me, these developments have been quite a disappointment, and, in that sense, the internet has not lived up to its potential, but mostly through human laziness.  Still, it was neat to be around to see it all happen.  (However, I am particularly glad not to have lived in an era where everything ended up on the web.  The 80s are basically a black hole as far as the internet is concerned.)  My children will have no understanding of growing up in a less-wired era and they will also always have to be aware that almost everything they do will end up on line (and they will almost certainly be cyber-bullied at some point or other).

That's enough with the digressions.  I thought the documentary was quite good on robots, driverless cars, computer security (basically an impossibility as long as there are people in the loop) and the total collapse of Western civilization that will arrive once hackers (or a solar flare) can take down the internet for a week or more (essentially, we have eliminated so much redundancy in the system that there are no non-internet back-ups as that bike shop owner claimed).  Where I thought he needed to go deeper was on internet (and particularly internet gaming) addiction.  He brought up the case of the Korean parents who let their child die because they were playing an on-line game (about raising an internet baby).  And a treatment center in the U.S. for internet gaming addicts.  However, I would have liked some discussion of whether this is really any worse than the video game addicts of my day.  What proportion of internet users or even gamers are truly addicted to the internet, and is this substantially larger than other types of addicts?  I suspect that a certain percentage of the population has an addiction profile (whether truly genetic or not), so if it wasn't the internet it would be something else.  On the other hand, the way that the internet feeds the need for "the new" might make it a truly new and more challenging source of addiction.  I definitely wish the documentary had delved a bit deeper here.

I was going to write something about trolling and cyber-bullying, but this is a huge topic (only illustrated by one horrifying case in the documentary), but this review has already gone on too long, so I'll hive that off into a separate post.  It should be clear that I found this a really rewarding documentary that just was a little thin in a few places.  The Wired article hints that Herzog has a lot left in the can (including material on bitcoin) and that he is shopping it around to become a mini-series of sorts.  I definitely hope that happens, but if it does, he has to make sure that Canadians have the right to watch it too!

Sunday, October 23, 2016

Childhood cliques

I have really tried to restrain myself from writing much about the children, but I think I can say that I was quite saddened to find out that one of them is always the center of attention and one is left out at birthday parties. To some extent, this is age-related sorting, and there isn't much to be done about that. (I don't think in this case there is any intentional cruelty going on.)  It will get somewhat better as they get older, but it would be unwise to claim that the patterns laid down in childhood will be completely effaced in adulthood.

At any rate, I will pivot to write more about my childhood, which is safer territory. I think it must have been different for many of us growing up as Gen Xers that there were certainly kids around but most neighborhoods weren't bursting at the seams with them, like it was for the Boomers. There weren't any kids my age or my brother's age on our block, and there were a few kids closer to my brother's age one block away.   My friends were further, and I did spend a fair bit of time with them, but I had to travel a fair bit.  Fortunately, we lived in an era where even 2nd and 3rd graders could go by bike many blocks away.

We moved into a different neighborhood just before 4th grade, and the kids next door were my brother's age or younger. I still had to travel several blocks to see friends from school. This held all through high school. I was also in the Boy Scouts, so I wasn't quite as isolated in childhood as it may sound at first. As I got older, I was able to go pretty far afield to see my friends, and by high school I was actually able to drive halfway across town to hang out with various friends. My brother and I were both latchkey kids and were raised basically free-range, though I had a later curfew than he did, since I was more trusted and a bit older.   In one way, I am sorry that my kids won't have the same essentially guilt-free freedom to drive all over town (Kimmy Beach's In Cars really captures this era well). Not only is there too much congestion now, but you have to do all this moral calculus whether the journey justifies the emissions. On the flip side, they are living in a city where transit will take them almost anywhere they want to go.

I do have some fond memories of times I spent with schoolmates, including hanging out with Neil, who lived on a small lake on the south edge of town. I got to go on their sailboat a few times and tried water-skiing, though I was not good at that at all. I also hung out late at his place and we played some of the very early games for Mac and watched movies like Brazil and The Quiet Earth. Occasionally I got invited to Tim's house for pool parties. On a couple of occasions Brian and Ryan invited me to go sledding. But I wasn't particularly popular, and often I was invited as kind of an afterthought, and sometimes I only found out later that some people had been hanging out. There were quite a few Fridays I spent staring at the phone before giving up and playing Atari in the basement...

I think there are a lot of reasons for this, including I can be seen as a bit of a wet blanket and in particular I didn't want to be around people who were drinking. (It's interesting and sad how this reputation somehow stuck in college (and even grad school!), and the parties that I threw were inevitably huge flops (even though I had bought alcohol). Curiously, the only year I was ever completely part of the in crowd was during my Master's program at UToronto.)

Being always somewhat on the periphery means that you become far more independent and self-reliant and yet lonely. You tend to be less swayed by popular opinion, since you have to justify to yourself that you are following the right path (and of course there is a huge danger in coming across as too judgemental or self-righteous). In my case, I think of friendship as fleeting and somewhat contingent. It doesn't surprise me that I have to do most of the work in maintaining friendships and when I stop working at it, then we drift apart. But there are advantages in not having strong ties, namely that you are more open to changing careers and, in my case, moving to different cities and even countries. And perhaps I should say that I usually end up having interesting discussions with work colleagues that stand-in for the talks I would have with friends, but you do have to be more guarded in talking with colleagues and they tend to only last for a few years, at least given how often I change jobs. For me the trade-off has been worth it to prioritize openness to new opportunities over stronger place and personal ties, but barely so.

I'm getting closer and closer to taking up The Study Group again. What I would like to capture is a bit of this insider/outsider perspective. Even among the smarter kids there were kids who ended up kind of loners and some that were more popular. I suppose I was relatively lucky in that, in my high school, the academically talented kids weren't completely shunned and some were quite popular indeed. There were some weird tricks that we played on each other (notes in Latin in lockers and such). Probably we were completely insufferable to everyone else, but as I said I don't think it was quite as extreme as what you saw in the TV shows Square Pegs or Geeks and Freaks. In my high school, you didn't have to be ashamed of being smart, but there were still other somewhat painful dynamics involved. I'll just see if I can represent it adequately, and then I'll see if anyone else is interested in this particular story. So stay tuned.

Saturday, October 22, 2016

Double Bill at Buddies

I mentioned briefly that there are two shows playing at Buddies at Bad Times.  These are actually a production of Nightwood Theatre, though at this point they may be a bit of a co-production with Buddies given they are so prominently displayed on the Buddies' calendar.  I wouldn't say I go to Buddies all that often (probably once a year), though I do try to check out their calendar from time to time.  What is even a bit stranger is that at this point, probably 2/3rds of the shows I've seen there have no appreciable queer content -- that includes last night's shows (Quiver and Mouthpiece), Lorca' Blood Wedding (being reprised this season) and Anthony and Cleopatra.

It looks like this season they are doing an experimental version of Thorton Wilder's Our Town (though it may still not incorporate that much gender-bending).  I'm thinking of going to see Sky Gilbert's It's All Tru, which is much closer to the shows Buddies is best known for putting on.

Both Quiver and Mouthpiece are somewhat experimental.  The actual story in Mouthpiece is extremely thin -- a youngish woman is trying to deal with the death of her mother, which happened the previous day.  She has a number of tasks -- picking a coffin, getting flowers, choosing the dress for her mother to be buried in, and then writing the eulogy.  It's been almost exactly 20 years since my mother died, but I still remember how there is a sort of an assembly line of things to do when death occurs, and people that sort of need to prompt you to keep going through the numbness of it all.  In my case, I didn't have to deal with the eulogy, but I think I was somewhat involved in lining up speakers to read various inspirational writings (mostly from the Bible, but also e.e. cummings and a few other things).  I didn't feel quite as alone or as overwhelmed as this woman.  It does seem to be the pressure to say something meaningful in the eulogy that is the final straw for her, and she teeters between a bit of a feminist-inspired harangue and the nice, proper eulogy that her mother would have expected (just confirming that in many ways the mother was a "doormat" (in her daughter's eyes)).  The same dualism creeps in when she decides how to respond to some random catcalling on the street as she is coming back from the florist.

So the actual story is fairly thin, but what makes it special is that there are two performers representing the chaos in this woman's mind.  About 80% of the time they speak the same lines in essentially the same voice, which is already tricky, but then they also parrot back different voices on the telephone (an aunt, a couple of self-involved friends and perhaps an ex-boyfriend).  When they do different voices in tandem, the effect is quite stunning.  I can't imagine quite how much time they put into rehearsing, but it must have been a lot.  From a purely performative perspective, this is worth checking out.

However, if you are more interested in plot, and can only see one show, then Quiver is a bit meatier.  What makes this stand-out is that it is one performer playing all the roles in a show, using a voice processor.  The video here gives a fairly good idea of what the show is like.  It is basically the story of a single mother and her two teenaged daughters with the main focus on the younger daughter, Maddie.  In a way, it reminds me a bit of the family in Freedman's Sister Cities, though if we were watching the mother when she was still in her salad days and was kind of running through men.  It's certainly a bit tragic how Maddie has to grow up so early and become the responsible one in the family, but you do have a sense that she will emerge from the wreckage of her childhood as a fairly strong person.  I just thought of another connection -- Tremblay's Yours Forever, Marie-Lou -- where there is one conservative sister and one fairly wild sister.  In this case, Tremblay somewhat reverses expectations and our sympathy basically lies with the wilder one who ultimately has a healthier attitude towards society and relationships, while the conservative one is just too closed off from the world and a bit priggish to boot.  In Quiver, we aren't supposed to dislike the older sister (she's self-centered but not really a bad seed), but the balance of our sympathy is with the younger one.  Anyway, it was worth taking a gamble on it.

Edit (11/1): It's sort of interesting that most reviewers seem to favor Mouthpiece a bit over Quiver.  I don't mind that so much, but I found this review troubling, since it in some ways just reinforces the idea that women tear down other women, almost as much as they tear themselves down. The quote is "we’re left wondering why describing a woman’s strength means using terms invoking women who operated in traditionally male roles and music that operates in a traditionally male sphere."  This to me just reeks of the dead end that many branches of academic feminism have found themselves in.  Is it not up to women to decide how they want to find their own voice?  Wouldn't the reviewer be carping about how stereotypical it would be if the artists used weaving or macrame or something along those lines instead of singing?  I think the reviewer is being somewhat perverse in claiming that women can't find an authentic voice in a male-dominated profession, i.e. music, when by that token she shouldn't find her voice in writing for newspapers, where the ownership and control is at least as male dominated as the music industry.  I've had a number of issues with this reviewer, and I think at this point, I will just stop reading her reviews.  I would still encourage interested parties to check out the double bill at Buddies and not to worry so much about the fact there is singing involved...

Thursday, October 20, 2016

Tarragon - The Circle

I'm just back from The Circle by Geoffrey Brown at Tarragon.  This was preview week, so it is possible they will get even more amped up throughout the run, but this was pretty intense.  It's somewhat interesting that while I sometimes don't mind reading about delinquents (juvenile or otherwise) -- and characters from Madison Smartt Bell's first few novels definitely come to mind -- I am a lot less willing to see them up close and personal as with theatre.  I just remember in high school actively avoiding the kinds of people that populate this play, so it wasn't all that fun getting dragged into their lives now.  And beyond just being delinquents, these characters are truly trouble magnets.  I'd say there were echoes of Bogosian's subUrbia, but this was even a bit darker.

The set was pretty cool -- all set in a garage in suburban Calgary.  I still had a bit of trouble believing that the parent who let her daughter's boyfriend live in the garage (mostly because he paid rent) wouldn't draw the line at his bong collection.  (One big blue bong was named Trudeau!)  Rock and grunge music played in the background for much of the show, since the play was about a get-together that became a sort of party.

Overall this wasn't quite my cup of tea but I liked three things about the play.  First, I knew something bad would happen, but what it was truly caught me off guard, though in retrospect it was adequately foreshadowed.  So props...  Second, I liked how the rest of the play explained the opening scene, but Brown didn't feel compelled to repeat the opening scene, as if to say "remember this?"  The audience had to make the connection on their own.  If this was a movie or especially a TV movie, the edit would almost certainly have repeated the opening scene, at best from a different angle.  Third, though this is a bit of inside baseball, there is an inconvenient in-coming cell phone call that impacts the plot.  One of the more amusing moments in David Henry Hwang's Chinglish is when a cell phone goes off in the main character's pants.  Here the sound effect is similar, though the outcome is quite different.  I'd be very surprised if Brown had seen Chinglish, since it hasn't even been produced in Canada as far as I know, and its Broadway run was quite short.  It's more of the spirit of the times.  Maybe the single strangest thing about this production is that the Millennial characters (actually shading into Gen Z) aren't always texting other people on their phones (and one of the characters is studiously ignoring calls coming on his phone), but that may simply be yet another marker of how much they are all outsiders.

In some ways, I was pretty sure I wouldn't be completely sold on this production, since this is focused on such a narrow slice of today's youth.  Even in the piece I wrote about teens hanging out outside the 7-11 (and I really ought to dust that off and submit to Toronto Cold Reads) they weren't quite such no-hopers.  But I was interested in seeing the dramatic possibilities of a bunch of kids in one room (here the garage).  I think I will push on and write about a bunch of academically talented kids with a very different set of problems all gathered in one kid's basement.  But I'll have to make sure that there really is enough dramatic interest in this set-up.  It might just be too flat, which is definitely an issue with a number of my plays.  I don't like having completely improbable things happen, and I definitely don't like terrible things happening to my characters, which can be seen as too limiting, at least to some theatre-goers.  Anyway, food for thought...

Wednesday, October 19, 2016

NYC books

This is one of those posts that could completely spiral out of control.  It happens that I've read 3 books on New York City in a relatively short space of time (Tim Murphy's Christodora, Madison Smartt Bell's Waiting for the End of the World and then the non-fictional Floating City by Sudhir Venkatesh).  Also, I recently learned that Ben Katchor's Cheap Novelties is being reprinted (and supposedly with some old strips not previously published in book form*).  Katchor's vision of New York/Brooklyn definitely a special case of deep nostalgia for things that may never quite have existed.  Anyway, all this reading has inspired me to think a bit more about all the other books I've read about NYC, and there are certainly many.  While I can't go into great detail (there are dozens of dissertations written on these topics), there are huge differences in the books that were written in each era -- the pre-Giuliani era and those written after 9/11, for example.

To prevent this post from getting too out of hand, I will first link to two long lists of books about NYC.  One is from Wikipedia and includes a handful of non-fiction works, while the other is a list of 100 novels.

This post will then restrict itself to doing two things: highlight the books off each list that I can recommend and pull together a list of books that I will try to read in the (indeterminate) future.  I may move a book from the TBR pile to the recommended pile, but I don't feel overly compelled to do so.

The lists will be ordered by year of publication.  There are a few on my list to read that I probably should have gotten to by this point, but, as I've learned, you just can't read everything...

Recommended NYC books:
The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald (1925)
Miss Lonelyhearts by Nathanael West (1933)
Call It Sleep by Henry Roth (1934)
The Unpossessed by Tess Slesinger (1934)
Invisible Man by Ralph Ellison (1947)
Seize the Day by Saul Bellow (1956)
Last Exit to Brooklyn by Hubert Selby Jr. (1964)
The Bag by Sol Yurick (1968)
Mr. Sammler's Planet by Saul Bellow (1970)
The Tenants by Bernard Malamud (1971) (The Bag through The Tenants all are grounded in a New York City rife with racial tension and a near complete breakdown of social services -- interesting but dark)
Bright Lights, Big City by Jay McInerney (1984)
Waiting for the End of the World by Madison Smartt Bell (1985)
The New York Trilogy by Paul Auster (1985-86)
The Mambo Kings Play Songs of Love by Oscar Hijuelos (1990)
Marisol by José Rivera (1992)
Angels in America by Tony Kushner (1992-94)
Motherless Brooklyn by Jonathan Lethem (1999)
Jeremy Thrane by Kate Christensen (2001)
The Zero by Jess Walter (2006) (One of the few post 9/11 novels that actually worked for me)
The Empanada Brotherhood by John Nichols (2007) (kind of a minor piece exploring Nichols' life before he became a hit author)
Chronic City by Jonathan Lethem (2009) (One of few books to delve into Bloomberg's New York)
Open City by Teju Cole (2012) (I enjoyed Open City, but somehow it doesn't feel that specific to NYC)
Christodora by Tim Murphy (2016) (seemed a bit too focused on artists and/or drug dealers, but had some interesting moments)

NYC books still to read:
Washington Square by Henry James (1880)
A Hazard of New Fortunes by William Dean Howells (1889)
The House of Mirth by Edith Wharton (1905)
The Rise of David Levinsky by Abraham Cahan (1917)
The Age of Innocence by Edith Wharton (1920)
The Beautiful and Damned by F. Scott Fitzgerald (1922)
Manhattan Transfer by John Dos Passos (1925)
Jews Without Money by Michael Gold (1930)
A Time to Be Born by Dawn Powell (1942)
The Locusts Have No King by Dawn Powell (1948)
Go Tell It on the Mountain by James Baldwin  (1953)
The Assistant by Bernard Malamud (1957)
Breakfast at Tiffany’s by Truman Capote (1958)
Another Country by James Baldwin (1962)
Up in the Old Hotel by Joseph Mitchell (1938-64)
Enemies by Isaac Bashevis Singer (1972)
Great Jones Street by Don DeLillo (1973)
The Bonfire of the Vanities by Tom Wolfe (1987)
A Home at the End of the World by Michael Cunningham (1990)
Moon Palace by Paul Auster (1990)
How the García Girls Lost Their Accents by Julia Alvarez (1991)
The Hours by Michael Cunningham (1998)
Of Kings and Planets by Ethan Canin (1998)
The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay by Michael Chabon (2000)
The Good People of New York by Thisbe Nissen (2001)
The Fortress Of Solitude by Jonathan Lethem (2003)
Cosmopolis by Don DeLillo (2003)
The Island of Bicycle Dancers by Jiro Adachi (2004)
Netherland by Joseph O’Neill (2008)
Let the Great World Spin by Colum McCann (2009)
Brooklyn by Colm Tóibín (2009)
The Interestings by Meg Wolitzer (2013)

* If you do not have a copy of Cheap Novelties, then by all means buy one of these reprinted ones, but the actual new material consists of only a few more fake ads interspersed at the end of the book.  I feel  ripped off (by the Drawn & Quarterly publicists) to be perfectly honest.

Tuesday, October 18, 2016

Shanley Season

While he is reasonably prolific, I really haven't been that familiar with John Patrick Shanley's work.  It was almost at random that last year I went and saw A Woman is a Secret with the masterclass with Shanley himself afterwards (it really was more of an extended Q & A session).  At any rate, I found he was a bit of a rare breed -- a craftsman at writing plays, which to me seems fairly rare these days.

I've known for a while that the Toronto Irish Players are putting on Outside Mullingar this season.  I have to say doesn't sound all that compelling to me (basically a version of Moonstruck in rural Ireland), but I'll probably go.  It runs from Oct 20 (opening this week in fact) to Nov. 5.  Tickets can be booked here.

What is a bit more exciting to me is that Wolf Manor has decided to put on Danny and the Deep Blue Sea from Dec. 1 to Dec. 18.  I imagine this is a fairly tough play to watch, but I definitely intend to go.*

I vaguely remember that I had the chance to see The Dreamer Examines His Pillow but passed (this must have been in Chicago).  I might still make the same decision today.

I cannot remember if I had the chance to see Savage in Limbo, but I don't think so.  Now that I know a bit more about Shanley, I'll try to catch this one of these days.  In my mind it is somewhat linked up with Lanford Wilson's Balm in Gilead (both being kind of focused on down and out types in seedy bars), but the difference is I still don't want to see Balm in Gilead (and I've passed on it a couple of times) but Savage in Limbo seems a bit more compelling.

* Update: this performance has been moved to Jan. 2017.

Monday, October 17, 2016

Master Harold and some Double Acts

I made it up to North York for Athol Fugard's Master Harold and the Boys.  I found it very powerful production, though knowing the ending I had more trouble laughing during the various amusing set scenes early on in the play.  It is also quite difficult hearing how Willie really has no problem beating his dance partner, though he does promise at the end to not do that any more.  I think Fugard is sort of lulling the audience into a bit of false complacency with the humor, though Harold is a bit snippy throughout and certainly the phone calls from his Mum signal that there is trouble ahead.  Generally the audience isn't very happy with plays that start out one way and end another.  (David Henry Hwang's Family Devotions is another one that sort of confounds expectations.)  I think in this case, the fact that the play is relatively compact (about 80 minutes) and that there is some signalling of the emotional turmoil in Harold's heart has generally led audiences to accept these shifts.

A bigger question is whether the play is still relevant over 20 years since the end of apartheid.  In a general sense, there is still a huge amount of privilege floating about in the world (more economic than racial, though the racial elements have not withered away completely).  I think the play does help people think about how power/privilege is perpetuated and in that way it is still relevant.  I'm not sure there have been that many plays about it, but there are certainly writers (particularly Faulkner and Eudora Welty) that looked at how Southern men could grow up loving their Black nannies more than their own mothers but who still would fight to maintain slavery.  So it isn't really a surprise that Harold, steeped in white privilege, has no problem ordering around Willie and Sam and, when the chips are down, doesn't see them as equals.  Fugard is making a point that racism hurts whites as well as Blacks, and makes it effectively, but there are certainly quite a few people that feel sympathy for Harold is misguided.  He is ultimately the beneficiary of the system, and, while it is somewhat possible that he will think hard about his position and come around to treating Sam as an equal (maybe as early as the next clear day), that seems unlikely.  Sam is, to my mind, just a bit too much like a stand-in for Jesus, always turning the other cheek and trying too hard to save the "soul" of a fairly callow school boy.

Of course, in our relentlessly shallow world, there is a hashtag devoted to #nowhitetears (referenced by this review), which to me trivializes the question of whether this kind of art makes a positive difference by forcing those with privilege to own up to it, or whether it would be better just to focus on the Black South African experience.  (I believe I already mentioned that Sizwe Banzi is Dead is a far more satisfying production, since it doesn't dwell on the damage that racists have done to themselves and is mostly about how Blacks could survive within a racist system.)  I happen to think there is space for both types of plays, and that this kind of art that does feature whites behaving badly is going to be more effective (as far as it goes) than glib hashtags about checking one's privilege, not that either by themselves would have brought down the apartheid system.  As an aside, I was sitting right in front of two people who knew nothing about the play and thought they were in for a comedy!  I did try to warn them, though they were chuckling heavily throughout the early going.  As I was leaving, I saw that the young man had been crying heavily by the end of the show.  One cannot read what is another's heart, but I would guess the fraught relationship Harold has with his father might have been more moving than reflecting on the insidiousness of racism.  I had a good relationship with my parents, and thus this aspect of the play has always been far more academic to me.

Anyway, I would still recommend seeing the play (as does the Slotkin Letter), but just realize that it isn't really the best play to take a date...  I believe there is one week left in the run.

Next weekend will be a bit of an experiment.  At the Theatre Centre, there is a two-act mime show where you book the tickets for free and then decide on the way out what you want to pay.  I wasn't entirely sure I was going to go, and then I found out that the first act is about the composer Dmitri Shostakovich waiting to find out if Stalin was going to have him arrested or worse.  As an extra bonus, Shostakovich's music plays during the scene.  This review suggests that both acts are fairly interesting, so I suppose I should make sure to bring a reasonable amount of dosh to leave in the tip jar.

I haven't entirely decided on the next double act, which is Quiver and Mouthpiece by Nightwood.  This was a bit off my radar, but I just saw a subway ad for the show(s) and decided to follow up.  The two shows are actually playing at Buddies in Bad Times for three weeks or so (details here).  It's very hard to describe in a few words, but Mouthpiece seems to be two actors representing the different voices in one woman's head after her mother's death.  Quiver is one woman playing 3 characters using a vocal processor and a laptop.  I am torn between going during the preview (though this might be a case where the first show or two features technical difficulties) and the last week of the run.

Saturday, October 15, 2016

Dylan the poet?

I know I should just let this go, but I am still very annoyed at the ludicrousness of giving the Nobel Prize in Literature to Bob Dylan.  Not sure there is a poll on it or not, but of the people that seem to actually care (or even know about award winners), it seems to be breaking 75% in favor of Dylan with a small disgruntled group left out in the cold.  I am strongly in this rump group, which basically means I am an unremitting snob to those (mostly Boomers) who are falling over themselves to justify the award.  I don't care what Rushdie thinks or others argue, I will never agree that the balladry of song lyrics puts them in the same category as poetry.  And even if they did count as "literature," I am just not convinced that Dylan's lyrics are actually better than Joni Mitchell's or Leonard Cohen's, and in terms of storytelling, I generally find Paul Simon to be superior to Dylan.

I would have still been upset had Leonard Cohen gotten the award, but I could probably have accepted it eventually, considering the breadth of his writing.  I think more than anything, I do feel that the Nobel is supposed to go to writers (not musicians of any stripe) -- and generally to somewhat under-recognized writers* (though this in itself is contentious and certainly Alfred Nobel didn't set that out in his instructions).  Nonetheless, I think giving the award to Dylan, who has been awarded prodigiously throughout his career, is taking it away from a far more deserving novelist, poet or playwright.  Cohen himself has a somewhat different take, that Dylan is so far above us and so hard to categorize that it is "like pinning a medal on Mount Everest for being the highest mountain."  Pithy, though I don't really agree that in the end that Dylan is so great that he actually honors the awards committee.  (A lot of times I just don't understand all this Dylan worship.)

After the announcement, I went back and listened to a whole slew of Dylan, and honestly I found myself liking the material less and less.  I clearly am so bothered by the injustice of the award that I am taking it out on Dylan (again, not that one dog peeing on a mountain will really matter to the mountain).  So I am going to take a long break from Dylan until all this fuss dies down, since at this particular moment I don't like his music at all.

* Given that I do think the Nobel prize ought to celebrate semi-obscure writers (again not an actual requirement), I would probably give it almost exclusively to poet and playwrights.  It's too late to give it to Adrienne Rich, but Marge Piercy would be an excellent choice, who wrote a number of solid novels in addition to a long career in poetry.  (I like Sharon Olds's work, but feel she is a bit one-dimensional for the Nobel.  On the other hand, Patrick Modiano (a very poor man's Proust) got one for a series of books all about the fragmentary nature of memory.  After reading a bit of his work, I frankly think Modiano was another poor choice on the part of the committee.)  I also think Charles Simic should be in the running for the award.  In terms of playwrights, both Tom Stoppard and Tony Kushner are legitimate contenders, though it's not like either is particularly obscure. For an obscure playwright, who nonetheless has a solid body of work, you would probably have to turn to George F. Walker, who actually would not be a bad choice, though I'd personally still give the nod to Stoppard.

Edit (10/22): It is just too funny that Dylan won't even return the calls of the Nobel committee, and one of the judges is now calling him arrogant.  I think it just speaks to the fact that at least some of the members of the committee were a bit starstruck and thought this would be a great way to get the great Dylan to show up to their party.  Suckers.  I don't feel at all sorry for them, since they really did demean the awards this year.  Interestingly enough, it turns out that Leonard Cohen rejected the Governor General award in 1968 for his collection of poetry.  Cohen put forward a number of various explanations, including he was basically a separatist at that time and, a bit more snottily, that there was no one in Canada who could judge his poetry.  He mellowed out later and accepted a number of awards, including the Glenn Gould Prize in 2012 (presumably since he agreed that being linked to Gould was not a step down in any way).  At any rate, I would say Cohen has matured into quite a revered elder statesman, and I wouldn't say the same about Dylan.  I put a hold on Cohen's latest (and perhaps final) CD at the library, and I do hope he tours in support of it (Toronto and Montreal at least), and I will try to go if he does so.

McMichael in the Fall

I have to admit, the trip to the McMichael was more exhausting and stressful than I expected or remembered.  Also, it really started to go downhill on the return trip, so it sort of spoiled the day.  I am getting closer and closer to just not going and doing anything that I have to drive to (which probably precludes going to the zoo, though that at least might have an express bus that goes there).  However, I don't want the post to be a downer, so I'll talk in general terms about the return trip but then end with some of the beautiful fall foliage we saw on the way and then a bit about what is at the McMichael at the moment.

Probably the best that can be said for the trip back was that no one got car sick.  I had planned to go into Kleinberg after visiting the McMichael, but it actually isn't marked as well on the way out and the turn-off just didn't look correct, so we shot past it.  Then trying to approach Kleinberg from the other end, I got quite hopelessly lost.  Eventually I ended up on Highway 50, which is pretty far west of Kleinberg.  I pulled over and got some directions, though they weren't terribly helpful, since the cross-streets were labelled with signs that you just could not see in time to make the move to get into the left-turn lane.  I decided to bail on Kleinberg (much to the chagrin of the children, who had been promised old fashioned ice cream).  I eventually made it to the 427 and at least knew where I was.  It was a tough call to try the 401 or go all the way down to the Gardiner.  In hindsight, maybe I should have taken the 401.  In any case, we were making slow progress on the Gardiner (after we finally got there) but at least traffic wasn't completely stalled.  At that point, one of the children had to make an emergency rest stop, but there were so few options (and in this particular stretch of the Gardiner there are few off-ramps).  We made it to Exhibition Place only to find that basically all the buildings have been shut up and even the bathrooms near one of the playgrounds have been locked.  So ridiculous.  Fortunately, one of the staff at Medieval Times took pity on us and let us use the bathroom.  Then I was stuck on Lakeshore and it really was stop and go traffic, and the clock was ticking.  In the end, I dropped the car off with 2 minutes to spare, and was so frazzled that I didn't even make it over to the mall before it closed.  So I'll have to deal with a few things over there tomorrow once it opens.

So that was the bad side to the trip.  I'll focus more on the positives, which is how I do hope to remember the trip in another day or so.  The trip north on the Don Valley Parkway was pretty, and we started seeing a fair number of trees turning colour by the time we hit Eglinton.


Traffic was heavy until just after the 401 junction.  As usual, the east-west traffic was even worse than the north-south traffic.  We did make a stop at a Spirit in Richmond Hill to get some Halloween costumes and then kept going.

The McMichael was all aglow in its fall colours, and we ran into 3 or even 4 wedding parties shooting pictures on the grounds.

I'm not sure when the McMichael changed its photo policy, but now you can take photos on a gallery by galley basis.  Most of the photos I took (that turned out at any rate) are of Lawren Harris paintings, and I've gone a little Harris-crazy over the past few months, so I'll just post two that I thought were particularly nice (and were appropriately autumnal).

Lawren Harris, Northern Lake, ca. 1923

Lawren Harris,  Early Houses, ca. 1913

Here are two other paintings from the permanent collection that I thought were quite nice.

J.E.H. MacDonald, Northern Lights, 1915-16

David Milne, Black, 1914

I was a little surprised that they had given up two galleries usually reserved for the permanent collection for a second exhibition on Colleen Heslin.  (Jack Bush was actually the main exhibition, and I have to admit, that he generally does not do all that much for me.  I had come fairly close to travelling up to Ottawa for a Bush exhibit at the National Gallery, but I'm glad that I didn't go in the end.)  I was a bit disappointed that the Varley ferry painting was not on view (I discuss it a bit in this post), but I have seen it a couple of times before.

The Heslin exhibit was interesting in the sense that she doesn't seem to actually paint, but pieces together dyed linen.  Here are a couple of examples.

Colleen Heslin, Monochrome, 2016

Colleen Heslin, Latchkey, 2016

So the gallery was nice, though we really did not spend a lot of time there, considering the time we spent travelling there and back.  I'm guessing at this point I am going to go less often to the McMichael, and it will have to be a particularly impressive exhibit to bring me back (unless they decide to start running a shuttle bus from downtown Toronto -- then I'd certainly go with more frequency).

A Modest Proposal for Realignment

While it is looking more and more likely that Hillary will romp over Trump (though it is far too early to get complacent -- I have done my part by getting my ballot dropped off at the embassy already).  Still, it is increasingly clear that the polarization is reaching fairly extreme levels.  Now most urban areas pull for Democrats regardless of how blue or red their state is, but increasingly I think the U.S. would be better off if split into smaller units so that we didn't have to live with each other.  I just personally feel that two parties and their adherents are now at a point where they are basically a broken marriage where they are staying together "for the sake of the kids," but in reality everyone would be better off if they divorced.

I drew up a couple of possible maps of my recommendations for the split.  The U.S. would actually become three countries, since the whole two countries split with another country between them just hasn't worked out that well (see Pakistan and Bangladesh, for a classic example).  At one point, I had thought it would be best to go state by state, and in some ways that would be simpler, but really quite a few states ought to be split -- both Illinois and Indiana need to be split, and Morgantown, WV ought to be appended to the Pittsburgh agglomeration, but the rest of WV really needs to go with the rest of the red states.  I've heard that both Oregon and Washington State are quite different when looking at the eastern and western parts of the state.

I haven't quite thought much about about what these three countries would be called, though Pacificanda has a nice ring to it for California, western Oregon and western Washington (plus Las Vegas and Reno).  I think they would offer Vancouver the opportunity to join in, and it might well break away from B.C. to join.  (Alternatively, this region could just be called The Rim, and the citizens would then be Rimmers.)  This would be a country that focuses on strengthening ties to Asia but also being a global leader on environmental issues.  I assume that San Fransisco would become the capital.  I had briefly thought about Phoenix, but it turns out that Phoenix is in the heart of Maricopa County, which is extremely conservative, and it just wouldn't fit.

While it is extremely tempting to call the red states Trumpistan, that is just an artifact of a particularly bitter election season.  I think it does represent traditional values for better and worse, and maybe it would just be called The Heartland.  Dallas would be a logical capital and would help keep Texas from breaking away on its own.  I don't quite know how Alaska would fit in, but it would probably be a colony of sorts.

The third country would be comprised of the Northeastern corridor extended down to at least the Research Triangle in NC and then most of the midwestern cities, though Cincinnati and Indianapolis are excluded on purpose.  Coming up with a name is particularly difficult, though given that most of the 13 colonies would be incorporated, it might just be called Old America.  While New York would dearly love to be the capital, it might be best to migrate the capital back north (from D.C.) to Philadelphia as a kind of compromise.  Or even Pittsburgh for that matter, as it would be more central.  (Alternatively, Toronto might be willing to join this new country if it was named capital...)

The main differences between the maps are just how to draw the line between The Heartland and Old America.  The second map is a bit more expansive and includes Charleston, as well as the Quad Cities.  Maybe Fargo really belongs in The Heartland, though this list suggests Fargo would fit within Old America.

No question there are still difficult questions to resolve, especially what about Colorado, specifically Denver, Boulder and Aspen.  Could they be treated a bit like West Berlin back in the day?  Austin would also stick out like a sore thumb under this realignment.  Notice that I am not nearly as concerned about Florida, as most of the liberal-leaning cities there will be under water in 50 years (or less).

Aside from the difficulty in redrawing maps and property swaps between the new countries, as well as the excitement of each country getting to establish a new Constitution, it would be interesting if there would have to be a resettlement program.  It would just be far too painful to be in a liberal or semi-liberal enclave (such as Oxford, Mississippi) and know that you would never in your lifetime have even a liberal President (let alone Senator) and vice versa for conservatives in Pacificanda or Old America.

In any case, feel free to comment about cities that seem to be in the wrong place and need to be moved from one country to another.  Note that I am going to be fairly strict about keeping the countries contiguous.  If another arrangement, such as four or five countries, makes even more sense, do let me know.

Election Updates

I hardly need to tell anyone that the U.S. election has descended into an extremely unpleasant farce.  More oddly to me, it's also starting to feel a bit like piling on.  I would say it is extremely likely that the next several weeks are devoted to the media bringing out the woman who claim Trump has groped them in twos and threes and let them dominate the news cycle.  Given Trump's frankly unbalanced personality, he will spend all the remaining time in this election attacking his accusers and not spending any time on the issues (maybe this will be a relief for him, since he has no interest whatsoever in putting in the work it would take to prepare for a debate for instance).  But I would like the election to turn on the fact that Trump is stunningly unqualified and is actively pandering to racists.  It will actually be harder for the GOP to look in the mirror and figure out a way to sideline the racists in the future (i.e. add in a bunch of super-delegates or move away from winner-take-all in their primary process) since they can claim this fiasco all came down to Trump's sexist viewpoint and lack of verbal discipline and not admit that the GOP as a party has lost its way.

In any event, I dropped off our overseas ballots at the embassy (braving rush hour traffic on my bike to do so!).  I've read recently that only about 4% of U.S. citizens living overseas vote.  In some cases, they may be living somewhat under the radar and imagine that voting will draw more attention to them and the fact that they are probably not filling their U.S. taxes.  That's not an issue for us, however.  What is more of an issue is that my understanding is that overseas ballots are gathered up in each district but are only opened and counted if it is a close election in that state.  I decided to do a bit of research, and the Federal Voter Assistance Program (FVAP), which is designed to facilitate voting by overseas voters (particularly though not exclusively members of the military who are disproportionately affected by these issues), says that this is essentially a misrepresentation (by the media) of what actually happens.  They say that all overseas ballots that are cast in time are counted.  I still have my doubts, since when you look into the sausage making that occurs on election night, it's quite clear that things are not always going completely by the books.  However, it does seem that, by statute at least, my overseas ballot is supposed to be counted.  I guess that is as much reassurance as I am going to get.

I really can't wait for this election to be over.  I thought 2008 was stressful (and there are some interesting parallels in terms of how flaky the GOP candidate became under pressure right towards the end), but this is just dispiriting and awful.*  I suppose it could be worse.  I could live in a battleground state, such as North Carolina like my father, and be subjected to wave after wave of campaign ads.  I've essentially completely given up on TV and mostly get news from Canadian news sources (as well as the Guardian UK site), so I really very rarely come across any of the political ads at all.

* I really don't think cutting back on caffeine has made any difference to how I think about the election.  I'm down to about half the caffeine I used to drink.  I did have a bit of a headache today, but it was just as likely to be a stress headache as related to the reduction in caffeine.  Still, I will monitor how I feel, particularly in about a month's time when I should be completely off soda and just down to tea.

Thursday, October 13, 2016

10th Canadian Challenge - 7th Review - One Muddy Hand

In an sense, this is actually a review of two poetry collections: One Muddy Hand by Earle Birney (from 2006) and The Essential Earle Birney (2014).  In my view, The Essential Earle Birney is actually completely disposable: there are only two poems in the newer (and much, much shorter) collection not also in One Muddy Hand -- and neither are memorable.  If you are interested in learning about Earle Birney, you really ought to turn to One Muddy Hand.  One Muddy Hand itself draws heavily on Ghost in the Wheels, a selected poetry collection from 1977 that Birney had a hand in crafting.  However, One Muddy Hand then adds a few poems from Fall by Fury & Other Makings (1979) and a generous selection from Last Makings (1991).  Thus, the final poems by Birney are represented here.  I have to admit that I feel a bit of uneasiness around these last poems, since they are mostly love poems to his companion, who is 45 years younger than Birney.  (Woody Allen, eat your heart out...)

Anyway, I do think Birney is worth reading, but he is fairly far down my list of Canadian poets.  I'd put him behind Al Purdy, George Bowering, Robert Kroetsch and Margaret Atwood.  Perhaps it is because he jumped around stylistically so much, with several of the earlier poems drawing heavily on Old English tropes: both War Winters and the more successful Anglosaxon Street borrow liberally from Beowulf's poetic form.  Then he had quite a few poems that were more visual and experimental (sometimes called concrete poems).  I didn't like any of the concrete poems, however.  His mid-career poems are probably the most conventional and are generally the ones I liked best.  Finally, he ended his poetic journey with quite a number of love poems to Wailan Low, his last companion (the one 45 years younger than him).

There are a few poems I thought suffered by indulging too much in broad (and cheap) stereotypes such as the anti-corporate (or at least anti-Fat Cat) "Toronto Board of Trade Goes Abroad" ("Krooshef had no guts") and the anti-Americanism on display in "Billboards Build Freedom of Choice."

Perhaps my favorite poem is "On the Night Jet," where Birney describes looking down over Saskatchewan and seeing "small waffle-irons glowing / on a huge farmhouse stove..."

However, I was quite amused by "Sixth Grade Biology Quiz" once I realized that a rat was answering the quiz: "How are their {rats'} children born? / From hydrocarbon chains like yours / but harder. / What do they eat? / Your world's unguarded larder..."  It's actually a fairly creepy poem if you think hard enough about it.

I thought "Ulysses," "A Walk in Kyoto" and "Three for Allison" were also effective.  Given that the last section of "Three for Allison" involves Birney playing footsie with her, presumably Allison was a bit of a love interest before he encountered Wailan.

Which brings me to the last poems in the collection.  Al Purdy had commented that these were particularly moving love poems.  I really can't quiet my inner scold enough to fully enjoy these poems, although the very last are somewhat interesting.  I actually am put in mind of Yeats' The Scholars where the elderly scholars have no vim and vigor left and are "forgetful of their sins." Yeats would almost certainly have approved of Birney latching onto youth, but I am and will remain more ambivalent.

I suppose I do find it fitting that Birney is somewhat pained about leaving behind his young lover, though he puts on a good face and does not act jealous of her future flings.  In "My Love is Young" he writes, "my love is young & i am old / she'll need a new man soon / but still we wake to clip and talk / to laugh as one / to eat and walk / beneath our thirteen-year-old moon".

"End" is even more forward-looking and elegiac: "in your spring / you took my arm / to walk with me / into my snowscape / ... / a fireplace shared / to warm another / with the same love / you shone steadfast on me".  This was written in 1987, which was the same year he had a massive, debilitating heart attack, after which he was no longer able to write anything and had to go into a chronic care facility.  He never recovered and died in 1995.  This page contains a fairly detailed (and surprisingly critical) overview of Birney's life.  As I said at the top, it is worth reading these selected poems, but the impact Birney had on Canadian poetry seems fairly slight, all things considered.

Wednesday, October 12, 2016

Shock to the system (no caffeine)

I came across a really disturbing article on CNN yesterday.  Basically, the claim is being made that diet soda is just as bad and perhaps even worse than regular soda.  Just looking at the headline I was inclined to disbelieve, since it is inconvenient to me and my way of life.  There have been so many medical studies, particularly about what incurs or deters cancer, that have to be retracted later that I have largely stopped believing in all of them.  It seems to be an unfortunate combination of uninformed journalism and the fact that human bodies are so complex that it is hard to carry out rigorous studies on them.

As I read on, however, the findings started to ring very true, particularly how the artificial sweetness tricks the body into thinking it is about to get calories from sugar.  Then when those sugars cannot be digested and turned into energy, the body compensates by going into a kind of fugue state and increasing one's hunger until one gives in and has some kind of snack.  (I suppose this would probably be the same issue with chewing gum, so that's worth thinking over as well...)  I have felt that my blood sugar levels are somewhat out of whack, and I have had tremendous hunger pains when I know objectively that I have eaten enough. 

The good news is that I am not completely addicted to caffeine, though I do lean on it.  Most of the studies have found that, when controlling for volume, coffee has 5 times the caffeine of soda. Black tea has 1.5 times the caffeine of soda, though obviously herbal tea (which is what I normally drink when having tea) has much less.  Usually on the rare occasions I get sick, I was able to stay off soda for a week or so without suffering too much.

Part of me thinks it is kind of pointless to try to change my life at this point (and that I have already given up (or never started) so much -- meat, alcohol, coffee, smoking, no drugs other than the occasional second-hand buzz at concerts) that it just seems unwise to try to give up soda and diet soda completely, even if I do partly replace it with tea.  I probably would have to stop going to all the going-away parties at work (and there have been a lot of them!), since there is no reasonable alternative to alcohol or soda when you go to a bar after work.  (And no matter how you try to downplay it, you start coming across as a Sanctimonious Sam).  However, I can sense that there is something off with my body's balance, which has been worrying me for a while.  I'm going to slowly move into this phase (and I will drink up all the soda I've already paid for), but I'll try to switch over to tea (probably black tea in the morning and herbal tea in afternoon and evenings) and see how it goes.  If it goes particularly well, then maybe I'll see about cutting back at the snacking at my desk and the late-night snacking.  On the other hand, I may just end up so edgy and unpleasant to be around that it isn't worth continuing down this path.