Thursday, July 31, 2008

June Gloom

I've read/heard/watched some really awesome things this summer and thought that I'd share a few of them with anyone who's looking for a few suggestions. There isn't much summer left, but try to take in as much delicious culture as possible.

Reading List:

Armageddon in Retrospect by Kurt Vonnegut: This is a collection of short fiction and non-fiction on the subjects of war and peace, compiled by Vonnegut's son, Mark after the legendary satirist passed away in April of 2007. What I loved about this book was how surprisingly simple and small-scale many of the stories were, especially by Vonnegut's standards. Of course, there's more-than-passing suggestions of sci-fi fantasy here and there, but for the most part, this set of stories is very concerned with the human cost of war. An essential read for any Vonnegut fan. 

The White Guy by Stephen Hunt: This was a ridiculously enjoyable read. It's kind of an ethnographic look at...the white guy. Surprised? Anyways, it's written wonderfully with an engaging balance of humour and insight. Maybe not so great at actually demystifying its subject, but definitely great fun, The White Guy was a solid summer read.

The Rebel Sell by Joseph Heath and Andrew Potter: I talked about this book pretty extensively in the entry called "Help Wanted," so I'm not going to go into detail about the book itself. It is, however, an excellent piece of work that is incredibly readable and entertaining for a book with such an academic, philosophical foundation. Heath and Potter do an excellent job examining and systematically debunking the myths of countercultural theory and create what seems to be a viable, moderate course of action for overhauling the shortcomings of mass society. Required reading for anyone interested in cultural studies. 

American Nerd: The Story of my People by Benjamin Nugent: As a word of warning, this book is probably not what you expect it to be. Author comments on the back cover by people like Chuck Klosterman belie the deeply academic and tirelessly researched study of the development of the "nerd" stereotype in American culture. This book was challenging to begin with- not technically, per se, but it is incredibly dense in literary reference, academic study and philosophical theory which, admittedly, is not what I was expecting. Once you manage to adjust to Nugent's writing style, though, the greatness of this little book unfolds. It's actually amazingly insightful without erring into the ethnographic or anthropologic, and Nugent's reserved, academic style make his bits of personal anecdote and potty humour that much more enjoyable. Highly recommended. 


Third by Portishead: A high concept, and highly successful return to the studio for the originators of the trip-hop genre. It's easy to get lost in this album and not realize how time is flying by, so if you want to give it a serious listen, book some time out. Recommended songs: Machine Gun, Silence

The Hold Up by Donovan Woods: A really, really satisfying folk/rock album from this Toronto-based singer/songwriter. Sort of a really pleasant mix between Iron and Wine and Ryan Adams. Great, memorable, re-listenable songs with strong musical values. One of my favorites in a long while. Recommended songs: Car Won't Start, My Cousin has a Grey Cup Ring, Once a Week

Postcards and Daydreaming by Dan Mangan: As an album, not so awesome, but some REALLY strong songs held together by Mangan's absolutely awesome, husky voice that wraps around you like steam off a hot cup of coffee. As mentioned, there are some low points on the album due to songs that don't quite hang together so well, but overall, worth a listen. Recommended Songs: Journal of a Narcoleptic, So Much for Everyone.

Oh Heart EP and For All Time by Jill Barber: Excellent albums, fantastic songwriting, a stunning voice that immediately makes me think of Emmylou Harris in her prime. Also, the best live show I've ever seen. Recommended songs: Pretty much anything, but my favorites are Starting to Show, Measures and Scales, When I'm Making Love to You

Tasseomancy by Ghost Bees: Not for everyone. I don't think I can stress that quite enough. Not for everyone. Ghost Bees, a sister-sister duo from the Maritimes, specialize in spinning musical fantasies about falling in love with vampires, and monsters that live in the woods and eat children. Also, the occasional reference to Terisias is not out of the ordinary. Beautiful harmonies and clever writing make this album an exciting and rewarding listen, but the caution still stands- the voices may not be to everyone's tastes. Comparisons to Joanna Newsom have been made. Just FYI. 

Oh, My Darling by Basia Bulat: So great! This album made the shortlist for the Polaris Music Prize this year and deserves it. An impossibly warm, adorable mix of things like autoharp, ukulele and clapping loops make this album go down a treat on every single listen. It's a perfect summer CD that will no doubt put a smile on your face. Recommended songs: In the Night, I Was a Daughter, The Pilgriming Vine

Love is Where the Smoke is by Jane Vain & The Dark Matter: A moody, smokey, ambient ride through sad dreams and vengeful hearts. It's swirly, it's rich, it's thick and it's really awesome. Take a listen, you won't be disappointed. Recommended songs: Ships Bound to Sink, C'Mon Baby Say 'Bang Bang'

Box Office:

The Dark Night: I don't think there's a person reading this who hasn't seen this movie. And rightly so. An amazing movie: action that is truly breathtaking and blockbuster-worthy, a moody, beautifully-constructed mise-en-scene and pretty excellent acting on all accounts (with the possible exception of Maggie Gyllenhaal). I'd be amiss (and probably crucified) if I didn't make mention of Heath Leger's performance as the Joker. Basically, it was astounding- intensely creepy and volatile, but funny as all hell when given the chance. It was a wonderfully freaky, bipolar performance- a childish silliness balanced with absolute Iago-like blood-lust. Spectacular.

Wall-E: Like The Dark Night, this film proves that the summer blockbuster hasn't given up on artistry just yet. This is one of the most beautifully rendered filmic universes I've ever seen. The animation was absolutely astonishing and the dystopian world which the directors and animators created was beautifully eerie. Not to mention, the story was impossibly sweet, and for the first 20 minutes, I felt like I was watching Charlie Chaplin. 

The Lives of Others: Winner of the 2006 oscar for Best Foreign Language film, so not necessarily new, but definitely worth watching. Excellent acting and absolutely incredible writing make this story of intrigue, obsession, betrayal and loneliness in Communist East Germany a very intense ride. 

Cache: This one also isn't new, having come out back in 2005, but I recently rewatched it (for about the fourth time) and it finally opened up. It's a technically challenging film that deeply questions and destabilizes the traditional relationship between film and spectator. Watching this movie is mentally taxing, there's no question. But if you work your way through it and pay very close attention, the twists and turns make for an excellent thriller. 

Persepolis: Surprisingly, not so awesome. I've not read the graphic novel on which the movie is based, but I've been guaranteed that it's excellent. Something tells me that the film adaptation fails to measure up. It was enjoyable, definitely, but lacking some pulse or energy that this story of discovery and exploration demands. Take a look for the design and animation, but I was left a bit cold by it. 

Recommendations, comments, additions welcome! 

Wednesday, July 30, 2008

Lazy and Uncreative

While I generally believe in other people, and in the world around me, there is absolutely no questioning that our social reality is kind of messed up. Thus, in lieu of a well thought out, intelligible posting, I present to you...

The Top 10 Things in This World that I Don't Understand**:

10. The Late, Late Show with Craig Ferguson: For real, I just don't get it. What part of the show is supposed to be funny/amusing? Help?

9. The Fanatically Radical Left: See The Rebel Sell (Heath and Potter) for a complete analysis, but basically, don't be passing up real, workable solutions just because they don't involve a revolutionary proletariat and strong political iconography. Policy formation is probably more effective than, and about half the effort of a revolution. 

8. The Fanatically Religious Right: Hey kids, cool your jets. There's bigger fish to fry these days than whether or not homosexuality and pre-marital sex makes Baby Jesus sad. You know...things like global famine, third-world debt, skyrocketing energy prices...just throwing it out there. The only reason these guys are further down the list than the radical leftists is because the Right doesn't have nearly enough fun with their kooky ideas. The radical left writes really wicked manifestos and doctrines. The fanatical right has all the same polarized hatred that the radical left does, but none of the flair. 

7. The fact that The Beijing Summer Olympics aren't being boycotted: Come on, we've boycotted less important things over less important issues. Also, the Olympic boycott is wicked effective. It's often argued that the boycott of the Moscow games was one of the main reasons for the Soviet withdrawal from Afghanistan. If we're willing to boycott to protect the citizens of one nation against the armies of another, why not boycott to protect the citizens of a nation against the abuses of a corrupt government? Just sayin'.

6. Why people like Ann Coulter don't get their asses thrown in jail: How is it that some crazy bitch who hates Jews is still a radio, television and literary star? Like really. It's an honest question. This isn't really a joke. In Canada, she'd probably get her ass arrested for hate crimes. I have a sneaking suspicion that the reason she's still kicking around is because of the people who occupy the #8 spot on my list. A suspicion, mind you. 

5. Why some alleged Democrats went on the record as saying that, should Hilary Clinton win the Democratic nomination, they would vote for John McCain: This actually has no place on this list. I understand these people perfectly. They're dumb. 

4. The fact that MTV insists on hanging onto the "M," despite the fact that it has little to nothing to do with music: Shouldn't we just call it TV at this point? Doesn't that make more sense? 

3. How Charlie Sheen still gets work on high-profile networks and gets cast in shows which air in crucial time slots: Can't you just imagine Charlie showing up on set to shoot an episode of "Two and a Half Men" totally hung over, cigarette hanging out of his mysteriously chapped lips, two ladies of the night hanging off his bowling shirt-clad arms, giving the kid who plays Jake a stiff backhand slap, then breaking down in tears in the middle of a take? Can't you just see that? 

2. How the Canadian government can even consider passing Bill C-10: I'm not going to go into detail, because I'm a little tipsy on wine and kind of lazy, but do some reading on C-10 and just try and convince me that it's a necessary/good idea***. Is that American legislative puritanism knocking on the doors of Parliament I hear? 

And the number one thing that I don't understand in this world...

1. The View: I'm actually more impressed than confused by this show. It's genuinely astounding to me that some producer has managed to turn a solid hour of yelling and bickering into one of the highest rated daytime talk shows on the air. Kudos, sir or ma'am. Kudos. 

*There are some things that aren't on this list that should be, like calculus and physics, but those have less to do with the theme of my blog than random beefs with TV and radio do. 
**Also, for a really good explanation of why white people love arbitrary top ten lists, read The White Guy by Stephen Hunt. 
***As a note, a pair of Liberal senators has recently introduced a set of proposed amendments to the bill which would largely negate the problems with the original formatting of the bill. But still. 

Tuesday, July 29, 2008

On Guard For Thee

Just in the unlikely event that someone I don't know stumbles across this blog, I'm from Canada, and I'd like to use my time today to show my appreciation for where I come from. Old fashioned and lame, perhaps. But it's how I roll.

Basically, Canada is wicked*. We just have a hell of a time figuring out how or why. We tend to define ourselves negatively- we are everything that we are not. We are not British, we are not American (and to the stocks with anyone who says we're the same as the latter), and we're not terribly sure what we are. But there's a strange, universal agreement among most Canadians that there's something profoundly, if subtly different between ourselves and those we resemble. One of the more famous attempts at defining our nation happened to be that Molson commercial. You know, "I'm Joe, and I am Canadian." It professed our love for things like peacekeeping, the word chesterfield (which I'm not sure I've actually ever used) and other bits of maple-soaked goodness. Molson took a lot of shit for that ad and most of it was being flung by the academic world who saw it as reductive, cliched and horribly contrived. It only made matters worse when Sheila Copps (who I think was Foreign Minister at the time) showed it at some international conference in an attempt to define Canadian identity. For those who need a refresher, take a look:

To be fair, I kind of felt the same thing. Like I said, I've never, with any level of seriousness used the word "chesterfield," I don't really speak French that well, and I've never slapped a Canadian flag on my backpack. So part of me, when the ad came out, really resented it for turning me into some national parks interpretive centre flavour of Canadian. I'm starting to reconsider.

While at school, I read a huge number of articles on Canadian identity, how we define ourselves in our media, what differentiates our cultural products form those produced by the American studios, and so on. One of these articles (whose name and author I've totally forgotten) discussed our difficulty in defining ourselves in the same way that Americans can. The author argued that American history is intrinsically narrative, and that American citizens identify and defend these narratives as their national identity. Stories like the fight for independence from the British, the harrowing, family-splitting tales of the civil war, the underground black resistance against slavery, for example. There's a reason that Americans never forget the Alamo. It's because  American history reads like a series of adventure novels, and if someone were to forget stories like the fight for the Alamo, they've basically forgotten what defines them as American. Canadians, the author argues, are different. Rather than defining ourselves as players in some historical narrative trajectory, we identify with, and find definition through concrete institutions. Rather than defending our national narratives, we defend our hockey arenas, our belief in peacekeeping, our railroads, our mountains, our various syrups. While Canada has some grand tales, like the 1972 Canada-Russia olympic hockey rivalry, and the construction of the railways (probably one of our not-so-great moments, FYI), I'd argue that we identify more with the institution of hockey and the physical symbol of a cross-country railway more than we do with the tales behind them. Incidentally, I have a theory that this is why Canadian films struggle so hard to succeed outside of the festival circuit, but that may be another entry, altogether. 

So maybe the Molson ad was a pretty decent attempt at defining us, and one that doesn't deserve all the flak it's taken for being reductive and cliched. It points out concrete, tangible things that make us Canadian, rather than the things that make us not American. Maybe we just don't quite understand yet that we Canadians worship at the idol of figures, rather than narratives. Maybe the things that are "cliche" Canadian are just really, really good examples of what is, in all honesty, Canadian- that's why we fall back on things like peacekeeping, not being fur-traders, our pronunciation of words like "about"- all the things that "Joe" from the Molson ad so adamantly points out. 

Maybe it's in our polite nature to be self-deprecating and modest, and maybe that's why we rely so much on negative terms to try and define ourselves. I say, to hell with modesty. We DO spell things differently from the Americans, we DO make some damn fine breakfast condiments and we are, in fact, despite all our humming and hawing, Canadian. 

I feel all riled up. I'm gonna go rustle me some buffalo.

*For an understanding of why Canada is wicked, listen to CBC radio, in particular CBC Radio 3, read magazines like Geist, and watch movies like C.R.A.Z.Y. and Radiant City. 

Monday, July 28, 2008


I've finally done it- I've found proof that somewhere between Perez Hilton, FOX online and that monkey who pees in his mouth, there's wonderful things to be found out there on the Interweb! I thought I'd post a few of my favorite videos from YouTube as irrefutable evidence that, on occasion, the prophecy of Web 2.0 is fulfilled. Full credit to the owners of the videos.

Julia Nunes (AKA Jaaaaaaa)- Balloons

Lauren O'Connell (AKA LaurenOC12)- Tangled Up Kites

Terra Naomi (AKA....terranaomi)- Santeria (Cover of Sublime)

That's just a taste of some really, really good stuff that I've found. It's kind of astounding and really wicked cool to me that finally, people with genuine talent have a chance to make themselves famous on their own terms, almost totally independent of the traditional record label famehunting cycle. So cool. Go find some new music in YouTube and send the link around. 

Julia Nunes

Terra Naomi

Sunday, July 27, 2008

Grapes and the Global

Just in case you wanted to know: A day of wine tasting is a wonderful idea. Wine is magic, as far as I'm concerned. Go grab a pocket guide to wine and flip through it. You'll never look at a grape the same way again. 

In other, less alcoholic news, I've been stuck on a thought for a while. I go to school to learn about a few things: 1) Noam Chomsky, 2) Why every definition of everything ever is reductive, deterministic or uninformed, and 3) Globalization. Believe it or not, globalization is the trickiest of the three. The term itself has become such psychobabble since the beginning of the 90's that it's diluted and confused beyond recognition. We see the Internet, TV and just about every other damn thing we interact with as a force of, or consequence of this ambiguous notion of "globalization." Our youth are no longer citizens of a nation, but citizens of the world. Corporations act nationally, but think globally, and a bunch of other bullshit that I suspect is mostly PR jargon. 

I don't question the fact that geography is changing due to technology. I live in a profoundly different world that my parents did, and if I had a younger sibling, they would be of the first generation to grow up never knowing a world without the Internet. The fact that I can communicate readily and cheaply with someone half a world away from me without batting an eye is pretty astounding. But it strikes me, that the whole notion of Globalization is twisted. It's sold to the public as an almost wholly good, or wholly bad process. It's either the democratizing force of the new millennium that will eradicate borders, or it's the newest scheme cooked up by the West to exploit and devastate the downtrodden of the global economy. I take exception to both of these definitions. I think that much of the confusion that swirls around globalization comes from an ambiguity in the term. I must be learning something- I'm correcting definitions of concepts that are undefinable! Money well spent. Regardless, I think that there is serious definitional problems with the term "Globalization." The term itself seems to call up notions of tribalism, a return to a type of close-quarters, village living. It evokes images of unity, inclusion and, more than anything, a sense of mutual understanding. It seems to suggest that in a new networked social, political and economic reality, every "citizen of the world" shares some sort of fundamental understanding of how this new order is going to go. 

There's some obvious flaws with that thinking. While I think she is kind of manipulative and may/may not be pushing the definition of hypocrite extrordinaire, Naomi Klein, author of No Logo, has articulated (or indoctrinated, depending on how you see it) most of the major arguments against the doctrine of globalization: That it is an exploitative force which kicks Third World nations while they're down, steals their milk money, and tells them to clean up the mess. ...Okay, so that may be a really big oversimplification of Klein's argument, but for my purposes, it'll work. Regardless of her overstatements, Klein brings up some really good points, one of which I feel is the biggest problem with globalization. So far, there has been nothing global about globalization. It has been carried out expressly on Western (read, American) terms. The idea of global community has been used to force open new markets in areas such as Sub-Saharan Africa. Cheap imports flood into these nations, local industries stagnate and die and the local, indigenous economy begins to wither. 

Thus the paradox of globalization: It's intentions are wonderful- opening global trade to increase the wealth of all the world's nations. And it could work, if we tried at it. The income that Third World nations, such as those in Africa and southern Asia, could generate for themselves if the globalized economy were truly global is staggering. The reality, however, is less reassuring. If a North American or European company sets up shop in Namibia and begins distributing goods at half the price of indigenous products, the action taken could surely be considered global. But you'd have a hard time convincing me that it helps to foster a new, global citizenry. 

So what to do? There's bigger problems  (way bigger) with globalization than simply the word itself. But, because of the language of "global," it's easily exploited and turned into a corporate buzz word for international expansion. I propose that we do away with the term "globalization" all together and give it another shot. Try "Universalization." To begin distributing cheap North American products in Namibia is global, but NOT universal. To call something an act of universalization implies a sense of wholeness, an inclusion of all parties affected, the bringing together of many into one- hence the prefix "Uni." You could not safely exploit a nation for corporate gain, then call it universalization in the same way as you could make it seem rosy and modern by tacking the term "globalization" onto it. Michael Burroway does a wonderful job explaining the notions of globalization from above and from below in his article "Manufacturing the Global," but essentially, globalization from above is the globalizing actions taken by corporations, NGOs, national governments, and other institutions who control the upper reaches of political and economic power. Globalization from below, however, refers to the "experience of globalization," and the concrete, tangible ways in which the process of globalization interferes, betters, worsens and/or leaves unchanged the situation of those living through the process. 

It is a sad reality that "globalization" has become interchangable with "globalization from above," and what's even worse is that very few seem to have noticed. I'm not an anti-WTO protester. The WTO is a really, really solid idea, in my opinion. The agenda of globalization, though, needs to be reformatted. We need to look at the process, as Burroway observes, not as links in a chain, not as actions transmitted down the wire from above to below. We must look at it from above, from below, and from all perspectives beyond the chain. In other words, we must universalize our approach to the global to include the powerful, the weak, and everyone in between. 

Give up on globalization, I say. We've screwed it up too bad with faulty definitions and half-hearted efforts. Universalize. Make me a citizen of a universal world, and I'll be a happy camper. We know from childhood to look both ways before we cross the street. Why is it so much harder in a conference room than it is standing on the curb? 

Saturday, July 26, 2008

Help Wanted

First things first: I am on vacation! I am bathed in sun and drenched in wine. Callu-callay! Please excuse any faulty sentences and chalk them up to a happy delirium. 

I am half-way through reading Heath and Potter's great book, The Rebel Sell. I'm aware I'm a bit behind the curve in picking up on this one, as it's been out for quite some time. Nonetheless, it's a great little thing and a very enjoyable read that I highly recommend for anyone interested in pop culture, counterculture and all the degrees in between. It addresses a pretty interesting and very old and convoluted issue- that of countercultural rebellion. Does any gesture of "sticking it to the man" truly stick it to the man? Is there even a man to stick it to? While I still recommend that you read the book for yourself, Heath and Potter argue very convincingly (with a few quibbles here and there) that gestures of anti-consumerism and other forms of countercultural rebellion are the true forces behind the phenomenon of consumerism. Among other things, they argue that the non-conformist "rebel consumer," who presumes his or herself to be above the "mindless cogs" in the machine of late capitalism, is in fact the cornerstone of the epoch of late capitalism (that is, roughly, the period of time we consider to be the postmodern. Or post-Reagan. Take your pick). This small lot of consumers does not buy to conform to a brainwashed mass, as countercultural theory would have us believe, but rather as a form of distinction- competitive consumption. As Heath and Potter put it- we don't want to keep up with the Joneses. We want to beat the Joneses to the punch. Consumption becomes a means of distinguishing oneself from the Hobbesian masses who buy industrially-produced goods like little lambs led to moral slaughter by powerful corporations. To own a Lexus means nothing if everyone owns a Lexus. But if you're that one pimp on the block with a Porsche, you're something. 

Heath and Potter go on to explain how it is these consumers, the quintessentially "cool" customers, who have the crosshairs of corporate advertising on their back. Business is locked in a cycle of "coolhunting" where market researchers scour the streets for something fresh to market (safety pins, military detailing, etc.) as "cool." Thus what was once seen as alternative, or distinctive, or "cool" is "co-opted" (however dubious and vague that word may be) by the system and the rebel consumer is forced to push the boundaries of style and behaviour to stand apart from the Joneses. 

It's a seriously compelling argument, and one that doesn't take a whole lot of convincing on. It's easy to see the influence of once radical subcultures such as punk and goth worming their way into off-the-rack clothes at any major retailer. And here I am, stuck. To seek individuality and differentiation form others is normal, healthy, and kind of fun/fulfilling. But it seems that the material gestures of difference that countercultural theory so wholly believes in are, in and of themselves, the definition of fashion- constantly changing, locked in a state of perpetual competition and one-upmanship. This is especially strange when we consider that most subcultures claim to be viciously anti-fashion in that they aren't enslaved by aesthetic value and normalcy. This is a very basic conundrum that you've probably turned over in your head many times. 

So what's an identity challenged junior high kid to do these days? Being a mindless cog didn't work, being the countercultural rebel didn't work. In all honesty, how do we find and anchor that we can truly call unique in the postmodern, late capitalist world. One scholar (whose name I will look up at a later juncture) called our current era a "carnival of signs." Basically, we're awash in symbols and signs which respectively, have no solid relationship between signifier and signified, symbol and referent. Safety pins next to tattoos next to scarification next to vintage clothing, all without any solid meaning. So I ask again- what in the hell are we to do? 

It's an honest question that I have no answer to, thus why I'm posing it to whoever reads this. The closest I came to a decent answer is that to "opt out" of the consumer cycle, to anchor yourself as something other than a cog or a rebel, you have to rid yourself of every notion that you are one or the other. If you wear off-the-rack clothes, you are not mindless. If you wear hand-woven, organic cotton clothes, you are not superior. Stuff is stuff. The only way to feel secure as something wonderfully and perfectly unique, as far as I'm concerned, is to actively partake in some act of creation. To write a song, or a poem, or a story is something completely unique. Those words/letters have never been put together in quite that way by anyone who's come before you. Unless you plagiarized, in which case, 50 lashes at dawn. The same goes for any act of personal work, be it scientific, artistic or otherwise. The act of creation is completely unique.

So try it. Create something that is you to the core and see if you feel any more anchored, any more a "self." With any luck, if enough people do it, and if it works, we'll all be spared trends like trucker hats in generations to come. 

I am still open to suggestions, though. Feel free. 

I am off to find libations. 

Friday, July 25, 2008


I will keep this brief as my previous entry was absurdly long. Just for reference: most of what I write will be absurdly long. I'm writing without page restrictions and word limits for the first time in a year. I'm trying to squeeze as much joy from it as I can.

In North America, we move very fast. We have a very skewed view of time as linear and relentless- something to be compartmentalized and conquered one unit at a time. Time is simply the means to some end. I feel that this is dangerous thinking. Time is an almost supernatural force which, along with a few other things (gravity, magnetism, Rupert Murdoch) more or less govern the way our world is structured and more importantly, how we view our physical and social realities. How, then, can we feel like we can safely subordinate time to our wishes (usually material or monetary) and not be messing with some serious shit? 

This will just seem like an over-glorified iteration of "take time to smell the roses." But hey, that phrase has been kicking around for a good while now. Maybe it's time to shut up and listen. In the fight between people and time, time always wins. Always. That's why we die. Medical science has given time a run for it's money in the last 50 years, extending the life span of the average North American by a number of years. That is admirable work and work that I appreciate. It's reassuring to know that I've got more than 20 years to play with after I get out of school. But time will always win. Why not just accept it and work with it?

Don't yell at people to get going faster. Don't speed on highways, tailgate and pass on double lines. Don't endanger your family by dodging in and out of cars to try and shave a few minutes off your trip. Just...smell the roses. Ouch. Work with time, not against it. Drink wine, eat good food, read good books, stay up late and sleep later, enjoy simple luxuries, take vacations! Enjoy.


"I tell you, we are here on Earth to fart around, and don't let anybody tell you different."
-Kurt Vonnegut

Thursday, July 24, 2008

Race to the Bottom

I have nothing profound to mention about the beginning of this blog. It has no quirks, no agenda, no theme. It isn't the beginning of a countdown, it isn't a list and it isn't that interesting. I'm doing this mostly for me and for the few who will read it. It's a way that I can get back to writing for pleasure. University kind of sucks at encouraging the joy of writing. 

This will be a place for the speeches I always wish I'd given. This will be the essays I write in my head when I should be paying attention to the road. This will be the nights I lie awake, arguing myself in circles. It will also be long-winded and tedious. Just FYI. 

I live in a suburban city. It doesn't really matter which, because they all look the same. That's not an expression of trendy weariness with uniformity and the mainstream. The mainstream is pretty okay most of the time. That's why it's the mainstream. Anyhow. It's just plain true that most cities that have experienced booms in construction in the post-war years have become more-or-less interchangeable. In any major metropolitan centre, there will be a downtown/core area with lots of boutiques, high-rises and high end department stores. There will also be a lot of men and women in kind-of-dated business clothes who hate the people they're with. Most of them are also probably alcoholics. Outside the core, there's the high-end inner-city revival communities made up of heritage houses of varying sizes, colours and shapes. Pretty much the only thing they have in common with one another is that they're all worth more than the GDP of most former Soviet Republics. Beyond these areas are the suburbs- the dominant form of urban development since the late 1940s (in North America, at least) and one of the thorns in the sides of people like Kurt Cobain and David Sedaris. Obviously, some people have coped better than others. 

Most of you reading this live in the suburbs. And if you're between the ages of 12 and 20, you probably fucking hate it and wish you lived in a downtown loft, or in one of those cute little character houses along the river built in 1912. These new communities usually have names inspired by the natural splendor of the countryside beyond (which continues to be annexed by sprawling suburbs. Go figure). Things like "Misty Haven" or "Water Song." I live in one of these places. I don't hate it because I feel stifled creatively, or because I feel it encourages mass uniformity and delusion. I hate the suburbs because they're just fucking inconvenient, confusing and really impractical (also because they've fallen short of almost every goal they've set out to achieve). Every street has the same name. Take the example of "Misty Haven," an imaginary suburban community. If it were built, there would be street names like Misty Cove Drive, Misty Rise Close, Misty Close Drive, and so on in that fashion until you'd rather shoot yourself in the knee cap than try and find your friend's house. Second, there's nothing about the suburban model that creates community. The suburbs came out of the post-war years when scores of men returning from Europe wanted to find more room in which to raise families. A mass exodus from the core to the edges of cities occurred and the suburbs were established as imitations of the patchwork inner-city communities where the pre-baby boom generation had been raised. The unfortunate part about the trend is that the imitations were shitty. Really shitty. Like that fake ID you got from that guy who knows the guy who goes to University. Pre-war communities were mixtures of single family and multi-family housing: row houses alongside detached homes with shops scattered liberally throughout. This planning encouraged walking from place to place, as well as a profound mixing of different types of families. In other words, it encouraged community. 

The suburban planners took pictures of the architecture of these communities and built what they thought were the same thing. They kind of missed the point. Rather than mixing single and multi-family housing with shops and community spaces, single family housing became the sacred cow. Almost all the land in the "community" was reserved to build single-family, detached housing. This pushed the multi-family units to segregated areas and forced shops to become clustered in "town centers" entirely outside the community. Now, rather then encouraging a walking lifestyle, residents were forced to get into their cars to go to the store and high income was isolated from lower income. In short, the whole notion of community which was so desirable in the post-war years had been totally obliterated by the project of suburbanization. Isolation and segregation replaced cohesion and amalgamation. 

Now, every new suburban community which is constructed on the outskirts of the city appeals to our desire for that idyllic, patchwork, pre-war community by the river. So we buy into it. Finding it no more a community than "Misty Haven" had been, we pack up, move further out and end up in the same situation in "Autumn's Grove." The more we chase the dream of the true community, the further we run from it. Until we realize that single-family housing and enormous town centers 20 minutes by car from the front door were not the norm of the pre-war community, we're shanked, doomed to keep leap-frogging from Grove to Cove to Haven to Rise, searching for that perfect spot. All the ingredients for a real community are in the suburbs- shops, homes, people, trees. Just throw them in a blender and hit pulse once or twice. You'll be amazed how quickly "Misty Haven" starts to look like where you grew up. 

I like my suburban home. I like where I shop. I don't feel numbed by my cookie-cutter existence. I just think there's a better way. Sorry, Sam Mendes, I loved "American Beauty," but I just don't quite agree.