Friday, May 20, 2005

Oh! Canada!

I love – absolutely love – the froth of anger and indignation that has greeted the latest outrageous antics of Canada’s federal political parties.
I don’t usually write about Canadian politics as they usually lack that mysterious ‘It’ factor so effectively, even effortlessly, achieved by our neighbours down south.
There the folks in power seem to operate with neither checks nor balances, running imaginary wars (imaginary in that they really aren’t wars so much as unprovoked attacks on people who have the simultaneous nerve to live wrong, coupled with the affrontery to produce oil) torturing various and sundry in opposition to and in flagrant contempt of international laws of conduct, seeking humanitarian employment for mad despots, and from time to time literally trying to raise the brain dead at home, while condoning an ongoing out-of-country, out-of-sight plague that is now killing nearly half of all its country’s inhabitants.
Nice work if you can get away with it.
(Seriously: can you imagine if the War on Iraq had been switched to the War on AIDS? We might still be dealing with ancient, falling-to-bits dictator Saddam Hussein, but mightn't that still have been a worthwhile swap for the millions of lives that could be saved? With stats claiming 44% of South Africans are now dying of AIDS, it's just a thought.)
But I digress - which is probably the #1 most popular activity these days; it honestly feels like the volume has been turned down more than a few notches in recent months, the press and public exhausted by the Presidential election, following the still searing stories with less enthusiasm and commitment than ever before. The stories keep happening (or perhaps not so much ‘stories’ as actual events… whoops!) but with the exception of organs such as The New York Times, The Village Voice, The Washington Post and The Observer – and even they have gone slightly sotto voce – people seem pretty much fed up.
Even Jon Stewart (my not-so-secret crush) is only now ratcheting back up the indignation to pre-election heights. I admit I actually saw him falter a few months ago, beginning with the Daily Show’s disastrous election night coverage, and continuing on through months of half-hearted attempts at moral outrage that exploded on camera with all the impact of a dampened squib. Switching gears with stories on the Michael Jackson trial and small town dumb-ass minor political functionaries just didn’t carry the same cachet as the spot-on Mess O’ Potamia coverage of yore.
Good times, peeps, good times.
But bless our little cotton socks, Canada has emerged triumphant with a real live gen-u-ine barn burner of a political story, complete with last minute live TV coverage of a vote count that could have gone either way and taken the current government with it. With blockbuster movie-style mystery, it would come down to one man (who actually looks like a gunslinger complete with wild hair, chewing gum and steely gaze as blue as his jeans) who would decide if the government would survive or if the opposition would manage to pull out a non-confidence measure that would have sent Canadian voters to the polls far sooner than polls suggest most of us would wish. (Silly Stephen! You’re luckier than you know…)
And that wasn’t even the biggest part of the story! That part burst onto front pages a couple of days earlier, when it was revealed that star political newcomer – and former contender for leader of the Loyal Opposition… and billion-heiress… but most importantly, blonde – Belinda Stronach would cross the floor to sit with the enemy and back their budget. Oh my dears! Oh my stars! It was a whirlwind of recriminations, accusations, hand on heart-ery, pledging to God, denying, swearing and Thirty Pieces of Silver. It was biblical – a fact that should have comforted the notoriously and only slightly ostentatiously Christian Conservative leader Steven Harper – complete with accusations of whoredom and allusions to Ottawa Babylon.
Epic and juicy pretty much covers the waterfall of reaction.
I’ve written before and I’ll say it again: I don’t really have a lot of time for Belinda Stronach. I think people should achieve positions of political authority the hard way – serving an apprenticeship of commitment and action for others, earning their stripes, rolling up their sleeves, getting their hands dirty… and a host of other clich├ęs – rather than slipping in on a perfumed cloud of money and influence. (The smell, don’t you know, gets pretty cloying.)
But I’m going to go out on a limb and give kudos here: I don’t think it was pure ambition with a side of sour grapes that fueled a journey that ended with a Cabinet post in the Liberal government – I only think it was mostly that.
I think she was unnerved by the Conservatives cozying up with the Bloc in one of those “The enemy of my enemy is my friend” scenarios in order to defeat the Liberals. I think she was suspicious of the delaying tactics posing as the ‘we need more study’ position of her party in the same sex marriage debate.
(To be honest, I think these things mostly because I think them myself. Though if I were Belinda I wouldn’t have been able in the first place to join a party that clearly still opposes a multitude of what many believe are potential human rights violations. But that’s me – and I was a Red Tory at one time, not just a knee-jerk Liberal... that came later…)
And there’s more! For anyone who ever accused Canadian pols of the crime of terminal boredom (a scandal involving $250,000,000 is just so pedestrian…though a crime and a scandal nonetheless… I’m just saying…) would be presented the image – on the 6 o’clock news! – of Conservative Deputy Leader Peter MacKay, world class conniver and slimy backroom deal maker actually whimpering on camera (between the healing act of planting potatoes on the family farm – not a smear of dirt on his pristine khakis, not a squidge of manure on his pricey designer wellies) as the realization that he’d been bested by his lover at a political game as old as the oldest profession: selling out for seniority. And worse: he didn’t see it coming. He wasn’t in the loop.
Oh yes, it got that good.
And here’s why I love it. We’re engaged. We’re paying attention. We’re thinking about the juicy deets, but more importantly, we’re thinking about the underlying issues. You simply can’t fully enjoy all the double dealing and intrigue – you can’t even risk voicing your opinion in a pub – without finding out a little bit about the story; about the principles and the principals and what you think they really mean.
All the old ‘Liberals are crooks, Conservatives are redneck nuts’ just won’t further your understanding of the backrooms and bedrooms of Canadian politics unless you read a little and ponder a little first. Become involved… become informed.
It may not be The Poincare Conjecture (the 100 year old math problem that seeks to explain the geometry of three dimensional space) it may not even be the new ninth grade arithmetics that was unveiled on the front page of my paper today - which as far as I'm concerned might just as well have been the Poincare thingummy - but it makes you think. It makes us as a citizenry think.
And that I love.

Sunday, May 15, 2005

12 like me

“A Bounty Hunter walks into a saloon…”
That’s how the joke starts, one of those shaggy dog stories with a weak ending that I go weak at the knees for. I love jokes that end in a sort of amused groan – the laugh out loud ones seem to be beyond my grasp… and in fact, the Brown Paper Cowboy joke is – with the exception of a few pathetic knock-knock jokes – the only one I can ever remember.
I first heard the Brown Paper Cowboy joke back in 1987. At a wedding. As told by a drunken Welsh wedding guest, with a terrible American accent and a million twists and turns in the tale. We were falling down, wetting our pants, holding our stomachs and begging him to stop. At the time, I thought it was the funniest thing I’d ever heard – but it wasn’t the joke so much as the telling, and it wasn’t the teller so much as they way he told it: he was committed to that joke in a way that carried us along, helpless with laughter, gurgling like drains. The perfect example of the kid within – and we became kids too.
We were told that this Bounty Hunter rides into town, ties his horse up at the rail, repositions his sweaty cowboy hat, drags the back of his wrist against his mouth to wipe off the dust of his journey and pushes through those swinging louvered-type doors that all decent saloons come equipped with.
So he walks up to the bartender (polishing a glass, natch) throws two bits down on the counter (never a quarter, or some other combo of change – always two bits) and orders a whiskey in a voice as cracked and dry as the skull of a steer parked picturesquely in the Arizona desert.
It’s at this point that the Welsh wedding guest began to really pour it on by describing how he drinks the drink and orders another and rolls and lights a cigarette and pays up his other two bits and other little dribs and drabs of barroom detailery, but now that I tell the joke I like to get to the sheriff’s office as fast as I can – this may be my only joke and I may have told it a thousand times, but I tell jokes so badly, I want to get it over and done with as soon as possible. I’m always racing ahead – trying to get it finished before my audience begins to suss me out and hurriedly arrange their faces into expressions of polite amusement, wondering when the nighmare will end.
So I introduce the ‘Wanted: Dead or Alive – The Brown Paper Cowboy’ poster tacked up on the wall behind the bar, and get the Bounty Hunter out of the saloon and down to the Sheriff’s office as quick as (insert something old-westerny here: a rattlesnake’s shake, a silver bullet through butter – whatever) and get the two of them talking about the Brown Paper varmint so I can get to the papery deets ASAP. (On his head he wears a brown paper 10 gallon hat, he wears brown paper Levi 501 jeans, brown paper boots with brown paper spurs, a brown paper neckerchief knotted above a brown paper shirt, brown paper six-shooters, and so on… there are endless variations right down to brown paper boxers, or, if you prefer, brown paper briefs.) The result – I lose whatever momentum I may have had and race toward the end lickety-split, squeaking out the last line in the dictionary definition of a whimper not a bang: “So the Bounty Hunter says: ‘So what’s he wanted for, this Brown Paper Cowboy?’ and by the time I get to the punchline, anyone over the age of 12 has long since left the building laughter-wise.
Ha ha – oh my aching sides…
But luckily, the joke and my speed at getting through it is absolutely perfect for the 10-12 year old set; they’re not into pure filth yet, they’re bright enough to make the punny connection, and kind enough to enter into the spirit of the thing. Tweens are helpful that way. Grown ups? Forget about it; tweens – my favourite demographic.
And what an interesting age to be alive: just old enough to not need a babysitter any longer, just young enough to keep watching cartoons on Saturday morning…
… Just old enough to be able to behave in a grown up restaurant (and begin to get the point of behaving), just young enough to still stuff yourself with stale Halloween candy when you get home… and still weigh 85 pounds.
…Just old enough to promise on your life – please, please, PLEASE – that you will look after the puppy, and walk it and feed it and clean up after it, just young enough and thrilled enough to actually do it.
… Just old enough to start thinking of the benefits of being a grownup, just young enough to reject it completely out of hand and go listen to music or watch TV or play with your X-Box.
… Just old enough to get serious homework, just young enough that a lot of it involves colouring in maps and diagrams.
… Just old enough to be aware of drugs and alcohol, just young enough to still HATE the smell and besides, be able to get perfectly dizzy by just spinning yourself round and round.
… Just old enough to be vaguely aware of government and politicians and the fact that there are a bunch of completely different types of worlds out beyond your front yard, just young enough to conclude that it doesn’t matter and nothing will ever change.
… Just old enough to begin seeing your parents as individuals rather than servants or cyborgs, just young enough not to be embarrassed at being seen with them in public.
Just old enough to be aware of the passage of time, just young enough to be frustrated that it takes soooo looooong.
Long shaggy story short, I think I’m a little like a tween; I believe not having children has kept me in the sort of emotional and intellectual place where I don’t have to be responsible in a way that means I’m not too grown up or grand to watch the Simpsons or read Lemony Snickett, or enjoy the sour kind of candy that absolutely KILLS your typical grown up. It seems to me there’s a silliness or playfulness quotient in any life that needs to be kept topped up, and in the absence of children I quite happily fill the void myself.
I’m sillier now than when I was a tween. (And you’d never recognize the teen me, so focused on fitting in and being cool and looking right and dying with envy and heartache a million times a day was I.) But I remember the ghostly tween me who was still playing pretending games and felt completely safe from harm and had no idea how lucky she was to have her health and parents who loved her and enough to eat and just enough wit and zing to attract her share of positive attention. She was a good kid.
So I go to the children’s hospital, and I hang out with my friend’s kids and I attract a crowd of pretty silly (nominally) grown up friends and watch The Princess Bride and South Park and re-read the Narnia stories and try to keep just a hint of that innocence and hope and faith that is the hallmark of the fortune-favoured tween.
And I keep telling that joke. And some day, even the adults will laugh.
“So what’s he wanted for, this Brown Paper Cowboy?” demands the Bounty Hunter.
The Sherrif pauses, squints up at the Bounty Hunter, weighing his answer with sherrifly authority... then hawks out a wad of chewing tobacco into the nearby spitoon - Ptang! - before replying:
“Rustlin’”.

Saturday, May 07, 2005

Away with words

I know I’ve mentioned it before, but really: is there anything better than a good word? The feeling you get when you find a brand new unheard of word?
Identified. Pinpointed. Applied. Named.
Hooray! Score! Yippee! Yahtzee!
For those of us not regularly involved in competitive team sports it’s that one chance we might get to perform the one armed fist pump – the victory over the goal line dance; if only there were folks around, we think, to carry us out of a stadium on their shoulders. But word usage is a lonely business, and the only sporting chances offered are to the under 15’s in that most exciting of competitions – the Spelling Bee.
But the Spelling Bee, for all its nail-biting, hushed-voiced glamourous glory is at heart an exercise in a different type of exactitude. Spelling is to great-word usage as math is to science: a component, a specialty, absolutely a necessity – but not the whole ball of wordy wax.
The latest word to come across my desk - and this is a desk backed up by a not inconsiderable dictionary and thesaurus collection, as well as membership in fully two separate word-a-day email programs (Dictionary.com ‘Word of the Day’ and Wordsmith’s ‘A.Word.A.Day’ – both highly recommended) not to mention a fascination with slang and idiom – is ‘Chav’.
Chav. It’s new – it’s unusual. It’s special…and I want to know more. We’re so samey-same here in North America; nothing new, nothing special – just a side by side nation of drones, finding our excitement and identity in studying the lives of that 21st century pantheon of Gods – the Celebrity.
Would that we had our own new homemade culture to observe – to love or to hate, to identify with, to attack or defend – a group so identifiable as to have created a new name and set of characteristics and qualities so unique as to make them recognizable anywhere.
Like the British and their ‘Chavs’.
Chav. The new word in UK common parlance (particularly in the south of England it is understood) identified as “a pejorative description created to describe groups identified as “non-educated delinquents” and “the burgeoning peasant underclass”. The subjects of these derogatory descriptions are said to be set apart by ignorance, fecklessness and questionable taste.
Not to mention the likely inability to understand words such as ‘pejorative’, ‘burgeoning’ and ‘fecklessness’.
I find the word itself snotty and snobby and mean-spirited in the extreme. From its high-falutin’ description, to its preoccupation with class, ‘Chav’ is that uniquest of uniquities: a word that doesn’t just describe, but assumes, extrapolates and expands. What’s the matter, I wonder, with belonging to a particular, identifiable, colourful (and no doubt unfairly downtrodden) group?
And as I research further into this fascinating designation of persons, I’m beginning to enjoy their saucy camaraderie, their style, their choices – even their secret language.
You’ve got to (absolutely must) love ‘em. For, not only have they named the ‘Chav’, they’ve already devised a number of synonyms: Neds, Townies, Kevs, Charbers, Steeks, Spides, Bazzas, Yarcos, Rat Boys, Hood Rats, Skangers, Scutters, Janners, Stigs, Scallies and Kappa Slappers. Like an Inuit describing snow, an inordinate amount of time and effort, not to mention love and understanding, has been invested in painting a picture.
To be counted amongst their number would for me, one who has spent a life drifting solo, a fresh chance to belong.
They even have their own online ‘Agony Aunt’ Auntie Shanice, who elicits queries thusly:
“Are your feral children out of control? Are you banging your wife’s sister? Do you only get turned on when you wear a Burberry baseball cap? If a tree falls in the wood and there is no one to hear it does it really make a sound? Whatever your sexual, moral, family or philosophical problem is, Aunti Shanice can here to help you aaaght!”
Naughty Auntie Shanice, who answers questions like so:
PROBLEM: So I’ve got this chavette preggers innit and the twat wants to hit me up for the child support money. I ain’t got no job and no house and I live wif me mums and I want to get out of the country, how can I run.
PS I think your me real auntie.
ANSWER: I ain’t helpin’ ya! You might ‘ave knocked up one of me mates and we girls always stick togever... (uvver than that one time when Shaz squeezed Kev’s arse cheek and I ‘ad to break ‘er nose) I don’t fink I am yer real Auntie..and even if I am you aint getting no birfday presents off me.
Luv,
Auntie Shanice
PROBLEM: My favorite film has always been Scum but for some reason I can't stop wanting to watch The Sound Of Music. Help me please!
ANSWER: The only reason anyone would ever watch The Sound of bleedin’ Music is cos they are too pissed to find the remote to turn it over on Christmas day… I ‘ave been in this unfortunate position and so I speak with authority and it’s a crap film, no cars, no fit blokes and Not one killin. But I do like the song where the daughter tries to convince ‘er bloke she’s ‘legal’.
Luv,
Auntie Shanice
As a former advice columnist myself, I can only bow to the insider knowledge so cheerfully and charmingly displayed by Auntie Shanice; to her confident, no-nonsense mastery of her target audience and to her experienced professional answers to questions that I must admit, left me reeling in ignorant limbo.
I am intrigued… I am enrapt… I am drawn to the Chavs. To their outsider status and devil-may-care attitude. I want to know more.
So I search and I google and I find – I find the description I’ve been looking for and all at once I am in the blackest of black despair.
Chavs, I discover, can most easily be recognized by the following:
“To illustrate the most defining of their characteristics – bad taste – critics point to their style of dress: a love of flashy gold jewellery (hooped earrings, thick neck chains, sovereign rings and heavy bangles, which all may be lumped together under the term bling-bling); the wearing of white trainers (in what is called “prison white”, so clean that they look new); clothes in fashionable brands with very prominent logos; and baseball caps, frequently in Burberry check, a favourite style. The women, the Daily Mail wrote recently in a characteristic burst of maidenly distaste, “pull their shoddily dyed hair back in that ultra-tight bun known as a ‘council-house facelift’, wear skirts too short for their mottled blue thighs, and expose too much of their distressingly flabby midriffs”.
Chavs, I discover are nothing new and nothing special: they are none other than Britney Spears and new (most recent) hubby Kevin Federline – the ultimate 21st century celebrities; perhaps even the models and poster children for chavs and chavettes living (shoddily) the length and breadth of the British Isles. I feel cheated.
I am throwing away anything sporting a label… dressing solely in non-descript tasteful shifts and trouser suits. Letting down my hems, raising my necklines, chopping off my hair and letting my face fall into all its comfortable middle class layers and folds. I am dirtying up my sneakers.
And - if they'll have me - I'm thinking of becoming Inuit.

Monday, May 02, 2005

Beastly boys and ghastly girls

Ben Brantley writes about the increasingly sinister nature of children’s entertainments in Sunday's New York Times, beginning his investigation in a darkened theatre awaiting the appearance of the hideous, hellacious Childcatcher (later than he would like as it turns out – as he endures much sighing and seatkicking from the impatient and put-upon juvenile delinquent seated behind him) in the Broadway stage version of the 1968 Dick Van Dyke movie vehicle(!) Chitty Chitty Bang Bang.
I remember Chitty Chitty Bang Bang. I was young enough to be in its target audience when it first appeared on the silver screen (and I’m old enough to remember when the screen was referred to as silver) and can even give a few verses and some of the chorus of songs I haven’t thought about in decades. (“Troooooly Scrumptious… you’re truly, truly scrumptious…” “Toot sweets, toot sweets…” “Oh! You! pretty Chitty Bang Bang…”)
At first I imagined it a strange choice for a stage show – after all how were they going to incorporate the myriad scenes and crazy contraptions? From the sweet factory, to the vile nation of Vulgaria and the underground caves where illegal children hide from the hateful Childcatcher, not to mention the flying car it(her)self.
But then I remembered the boating and chandeliering Phantom of the Opera and that other Lloyd Webber show that was performed entirely on roller skates, and I figure a few scene changes, a Rube Goldberg machine or two and a whimsical floating automobile probably wasn’t beyond the abilities of a modern stage designer.
No, the harder thing would be to recapture the silly goodwill and goofy suspension of reality, balanced against the way down deep, almost viscerally-felt fear of a story that could imagine the demonic Childcatcher character.
Think back. He was absolutely terrifying.
That’s the thing about childhood remembered; until you really give it some thought, you’d likely remember Chitty Chitty Bang Bang – if at all – as harmless musical froth, until you gave it another moment to recall the huddled masses of starving children hidden away in dark, dank caves and the Nazi-like nature of Vulgaria’s politics, and the fear that grabbed your throat and sent a sizzle of pure adrenaline to your tingling limbs as you imagined yourself captured and caged and swept from your parents care, like the adorable Jeremy and Jemima, screaming in helpless horror as Truly Scrumptious ran pointlessly, hopelessly after you – impossible to catch up to the flying hooves of the cage-dragging horses as they galloped you away to a fate worse than death.
Or maybe that’s just me and my old-fashioned imagination.
The other element that lifted such stories above the simple-minded scary fray was the sense of humour, subtly embedded in the clever writing of a Roald Dahl, or in the case of Chitty Chitty Bang Bang, the surprise of the famed-for-007 Ian Fleming. And the casting! Benny Hill, Lionel Jeffries – even Phil Collins (more famous now for his music) as one of the ‘illegal’ children.
For Brantley to suggest entertainments are taking a newly scary turn they’ve never taken before suggests to me he hasn’t had that much to do with children’s entertainment up until now. And I don’t mean tarted-up versions of Grimm’s Fairy tales; there’s plenty in virtually every Disney movie from Bambi, to The Sound of Music, to Mary Poppins to make a child’s blood run cold between the rousing musical overture and swelling orchestral arrangements over closing credits. And as for the Dahl series, from film to books (Willie Wonka, Matilda, The Witches) never was fear and laughter more deliciously dovetailed.
Murdered mothers, bloodthirsty Nazi’s, wicked, mean-spirited, child-hating step-parents, even the benign neglect by their parents of Mary Poppins’s charges borders on danger as the children are allowed to enter fantasy worlds where chimney sweeps carry them across rooftops and tall buildings, endangering life and limb as their oblivious parents prioritize their own personal pleasures and pursuits.
(Disappointing early shot across the bows of feminism though, as implied by depicting Jane and Michael Banks’ mother as a thoughtless abandoner of children as she hies off to risk imprisonment lobbying for votes for women… silly selfish female!)
But this is old material well gone over, well before me. At least these older entertainments had first class stories and magical song and dance numbers and the fantasies were the over-the-top, yet quaintly old-fashioned sort – so different from today’s irony-free Spy Kids and Ninja Turtles and comic book superheroes and the like, delivered to the screen with nary a wink nor an insider’s nudge.
Because the villains were villainous in ways that truly gave you nightmares. Plain old bad guys can’t match up to the depraved and diabolical Childcatcher, or Oliver’s dark and murderous Bill Sykes, or even Snow White’s evil cartoon Queen.
But we do have our areas of thrill, chill, spill and horror – check out our amusement parks. Anybody seen the latest commercials for Canada’s Wonderland? There’s a new interactive ride that sends you through an urban assault! Wheee! With a cute disclaimer crawling across the bottom of the screen advising viewers that they’re not REAL bullets – that would be silly! (Silly?) That’s an amusement? Dodging a hail of bullets? Eek. Pop me in a Teacup – stat!
These days I like I like my horrors as re-issued classics on DVD, or better – on the printed page. A hair-standing-up-on-the-back-of-the-neck fairy tale, or even a really grisly poem perhaps.
But with a sense of humour please!
Like F. Gwynne Evans ‘Little Thomas’ (“… a little glutton who took four times beef or mutton, then undid a lower button and consumed plum duff…”) a boy who ate so much he finally, well – read on…
“His old nurse cried much disgusted, ‘There, just when I’ve swept and dusted, Drat the boy! He’s gone and busted, making such a mess’; while the painful task of peeling Thomas off the walls and ceiling gave his family a feeling of sincere distress.
“When a boy who so obese is, scatters into tiny pieces, and the cause of his decease is having over-dined, it is hard to send a version of the facts of his dispersion to the papers for insertion, that will be refined.
“Any sorrowing relation asked for an elucidation of the awful detonation was obliged to say; ‘Germans have not been to bomb us: it was only little Thomas, who alas, departed from us in that noisy way.’”
Who needs bullets? Horror, blood, explosions and guts. It’s all there – it’s always been there. I think children need more darkness – and more dark humour; it improves them, seasons them, makes them more... delicious...
Brace yourself Ben; it’s scarier – and funnier – than you think.