To be or not to be… hopeful

“If my critics saw me walking over the Thames they would say it was because I couldn’t swim.” – Margaret Thatcher (great line regardless of whether you supported her or not)

We have a conscious choice to make when we start writing anything, whether to be positive or negative.  Given the near infinite flexibility of words to create a specific tonality, even one phrase out of place, one ill-timed sarcastic barb, can radically alter the message we are trying to send.  If one tends toward the cynical, toward an overwhelming frustration with the way of the world and humanity’s seeming unwillingness to get its collective act together, keeping an upbeat theme is that much harder.  Throwing up one’s hands and then crapping phonetically over everything that rubs you the wrong way is the escape valve for the bitter, the apathetic and the cowardly.  One can liken optimism somewhat to the idea of faith, in the steadfast committal to believe in something in spite of physical evidence to the contrary.  Human beings are tremendously flawed creatures capable of doing terrible, unspeakable things to each other, but do I want to live my entire life resigned to accepting the limits of our collective potential being defined by the worst of us?  Must we always be forced to play in the dirt by those who choose to wallow there?

Criticism is a word with almost universally negative connotations, because in the age of the Internet, where “coolguy69” can dump polemics of visceral hatred (usually not phrased or even spelled as eloquently) on websites and message boards around the world and skulk back to his mother’s basement free of the responsibility of standing behind his words, we’ve forgotten that the point of criticism is, fundamentally, to offer suggestions for improvement.  Snark gets noticed – when dealing with attention spans so overwhelmed by sheer volume of input they’ve been reduced to microseconds, the quick jab with the blade garners the headline and the retweet, instead of the drawn-out approach of reason and thoughtful consideration and counterpoint.  We then pat ourselves on the back for what clever smartasses we are, forgetting in our momentary endorphin glow as the clicks and likes add up, that we are contributing nothing, advancing nothing, signifying nothing.  It is as Shakespeare so cannily observed 400 years ago, a tale told by an idiot – and deserving of no further consideration.

I don’t want to be that guy.  I don’t want to be the hipster loudmouth at the party who sips his appletini while he pontificates upon the downfall of Western civilization, throwing in handy Cliffs Notes references to Albert Camus and the collected works of Francois Truffaut while he constructs a dizzying, grand unifying thesis of how the human obsession with reality television and Facebook is merely foreshadowing the zombie apocalypse.  Instead, I want to be the optimist.  And that’s easier than you might think, because the evidence is everywhere.  For every Joseph Kony in the world there are a hundred million good, decent, honest people, working hard, raising families, treating friends, neighbors and strangers alike with the respect and tolerance we should all merit by the mere fact of our existence.  Not easy to remember when the Konys suck up all the news coverage, which is why sniping at the big bad universe is always the quicker, more seductive path – the dark side of the op-ed.  When discourse has become so polarized, left and right so implacably divorced and compromise an archaic concession of the ideologically weak, is it not morally better to try and calm the waters – to try and point towards better days ahead – instead of stirring them further?  Sighing and sneering won’t get us to the future that I continue to hope for in moments when I behold the wonders of nature, the possibilities of human achievement, and the smile of a child.

I don’t have a problem putting my name and photograph alongside my words, because I’m of the belief that if you wouldn’t carve it in concrete on your front porch, you shouldn’t publish it online.  I can do that comfortably because I am proud that I have chosen, as the old song says, to accentuate the positive, and if I’m to be criticized for what I’ve written, I can take it, secure in the knowledge that I’ve given my best.  It’s difficult at times; I get frustrated, even downright pissed off at a lot of what goes on out there, and many first drafts full of ugly vitriol have gone into the digital bin when I have stopped, taken a breath and asked myself what good it would do.  That’s a question we should all be asking ourselves.  Are we doing any good with our words?  If not, then why are we bothering to write them?

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Sorry, but blogging is actually pretty cool (and literary too)

William Blake.

There’s an old saying that the cream rises to the top, but so does the scum.  (Just look at Congress.)  The same applies to writing.  For every successful masterpiece, there is an equally profitable pile of crap.  I read with bemusement this screed from one of my fellow Huffington Post contributors this morning in which, with a nod to Sideshow Bob, he engages in the ironic device of blogging to decry blogs.  Now, he is in high school and has a lot of living to do, so one can understand and forgive the sweeping judgement pronounced therein.  I don’t know him at all; we ranks of HuffPosters are vast and we don’t regularly (or ever) get together to knock back single malts.  He may be a rather smashing bloke in spite of the mildly condescending tone with which his post is composed.  But I can’t agree with his thesis that “uncontrolled publishing,” i.e. blogging, is destroying literature.  I’d say it’s forcing those of us who take writing seriously – which I’d suggest given my experience is a majority of bloggers, not the reverse – to up our game .  If one hopes to be noticed amidst the cacophony of background noise and Bieber fandom, one must aspire to be magnificent.  We might not achieve greatness every time, but the fact that we’re trying means something in itself.  And the blog gives us that opportunity to try.

My unmet cyber-colleague uses an allegory of William Blake physically carving poetry into the roof of a favourite drinking haunt to criticize the supposed ease with which words can be assembled and flung out into the world in the 21st Century; the argument being, seemingly, that without limitations to overcome with sheer force, writing can’t possibly be any good.  Blake, he says, had to craft his verse methodically and with care, paying attention to the shape of each syllable, every minute detail of meter and imagery.  I fail to understand how that level of dedication cannot still be achieved with the use of a keyboard instead of a chisel.  If anything, I’d argue that the delete key and the ability to revise easily has lowered our collective tolerance for sloppy mistakes, for ill-advised turns of phrase and general unprofessionalism (leading to the birth of that most pesky of trolls, the Grammar Nazi.)  If fixing a mistake is simple, then there’s less excuse for letting them slip through.  And ultimately, the most wonderful aspect of Internet browsing is that beautiful little red X in the upper-right-hand corner of the screen.  If you don’t like what you’re reading, close the window and move on to something else.  Uncontrolled publishing may allow a flood of mediocre writing into the ether, but it has no effect on freedom of choice.  To read, or not to read, remains our question.

Publishing is now, if it has ever been the reverse, less about quality and more about what will sell.  This is not a criticism; publishing is a business, staffed by people like you and I, working to feed their families.  If a barely coherent rant about shopping and shoes by a D-list reality television star moves X number of copies more than a brilliantly crafted treatise on deconstructionism of modernist attitudes in 1920’s France by an unknown doctoral candidate, well, Snooki gets the rack space.  It sucks, but forget it Jake, it’s Chinatown.  That’s a problem originating with the audience, not the existence of blogs.  Until the world at large turns away from its fascination with the banal, publishers are obliged, in order to keep their business going, to cater to demand.  Basic economics unfortunately, and literature gets a solar plexus to the gut in the process.

Where blogs can turn the tide, though, is in their openness and accessibility.  You do not need to be famous or have an “in” with an agent or a major publishing house to invent a domain name and start writing and publishing.  I am reminded so often of The King’s Speech and the fundamental reason why that movie struck such a chord with people – not because of the performances or the direction or any one particular element of its filmic construction, but because of its theme, the universal desire to have a voice.  To be able to speak, even if no one, for the time being, is listening.  There are over 150 million blogs in the world, covering probably far more than 150 million different subjects.  Some are brilliant, and some are execrable wastes of time.  But they all began for the same reason – because someone wanted to use their voice.  If many of these voices produce sounds that are unpleasant to our ears, whether in what they are saying or how they are saying it, we have two choices:  we can either call them on it, or we can tune them out.  We don’t have to stew in our angst and complain that their mere existence is diminishing the written word.

That Snooki is a (shudder) published author doesn’t depreciate Shakespeare or William Blake or even Aaron Sorkin for that matter.  These and other Muses remain figures to whom we can look up, and whose quality we can aspire to achieve, even if we will usually fall short.  Blogs give us the wonderful privilege of chance, instead of restricting even the opportunity to a select few.  Many will just suck and most bloggers will toil forever in utter obscurity, but there will be the gems.  You might come across someone’s memoir of a departed friend that moves you to tears in a way that Blake himself never has or never will.  You might read a mommy blogger’s tale of her daughter’s adventures in daycare and unlock the secret of the world.  The late Christopher Hitchens said famously, “Everybody does have a book in them, but in most cases that’s where it should stay.”  Note he didn’t say “all cases.”  Even for the notoriously prickly Hitchens, the possibility of greatness remained.  Literature, or writing in general, must belong to the masses, for what is a masterpiece if it remains unread, or simply unwritten?  I don’t know much about William Blake, but I have a feeling that if he were alive today, he’d be a blogger.  I’m certainly proud to be one, and I’m not going to stop anytime soon.

What’s the matter with Belarus?

Greenland is still not that big.

Like many of my fellow WordPressians, I find the country view statistics page fascinating.  It’s a bit surreal to see how wide your “reach” truly is (and a good reminder to not put anything on the web that you wouldn’t be comfortable carving in cement on your front doorstep).  Again, I’m not under any illusion that a lot of these hits are anything but accidental, as search engine terms meet in the conflux of wilderness that is the Internet.  But like any good geek, I’m a completist, and there’s an indescribably giddy sensation that results whenever I check this map and see a new country colored in.  The sad reality of the world, however, means that barring radical change, none of us will likely ever be able to complete the set.

Glaring exceptions like the over 1 billion people locked behind the Great Firewall of China continue to stand out. North Korea, where despots would rather build useless rockets than let their people watch cats dance on YouTube.  Closed internet systems like the ones operating in Cuba and Burma. Iran’s Supreme Council of Virtual Space (ironic given that there are, according to Wikipedia, over 700,000 Iranian blogs.)  The big annoying exception there in Eastern Europe, Belarus, where no website is allowed in country unless it has registered with their Ministry of Information first (can’t believe I forgot to send the form in again!)  Afghanistan, or huge portions of Africa that are too poor to feed themselves or too consumed by tribal hatred to live in peace, let alone gain anything as First World-privileged as regular web access, are a reminder that this freedom that I and millions like me have to share our words is so very precious, and so terrifyingly fleeting – we need to guard it with our lives and celebrate it at every opportunity.  And not only that, we owe it to the rest of humanity that what we are sharing is something worthwhile – worth whatever amount of time we’ve so humbly asked for your attention.  Squandering a post on a mindless, misspelled profanity-laced rant about some band you’ve never liked is not only a waste of your own intellect and time, but it’s a virtual slap in the face to millions of people who would love to be able to read what’s out there and can’t because of poverty, oppression or a hundred other reasons that would never even occur to us.  We owe it to them to always try to raise our game, to elevate the conversation and push things forward.

There is nothing as singularly powerful or resilient in the universe as an idea, and those ideas can spring from the humblest beginnings; an idle thought on a spring morning can one day come to change the world.  On a blog, we don’t have to answer to an editor or fit a predetermined viewpoint based on an advertiser’s demands.  We are ideas in their purest form, and participants in a grand tradition dating back to the first time one homo habilis showed another how to use a bone to smash open a piece of fruit (or, depending on your beliefs, to when Eve suggested to Adam that he take a bite of that fruit).  So let’s make our ideas good ones.

Game of Thrones and the many faces of the goddess

Carice van Houten as Melisandre, warning of darkness and horror and the return of the smoke monster from Lost.

Maiden, mother, crone; child, witch, whore; the meek and the bold, the submissive and the dominant, the loving and the cruel.  The infinite and mesmerizing complexity of the feminine was embodied by the incredible women of Game of Thrones in this week’s episode, “Garden of Bones.”  While the show can come off as a man’s world in which kings, knights, lords, gentlemen and brutes alike vie for power, “Garden of Bones” reminded the audience that even as they strut in their armor and proclaim their mastery of all they survey, the men are but pieces in this grand game, and that the women are holding the board up – with a flick of their elegant wrists this precarious world will collapse.  That they have not yet done so speaks to the quiet bemusement with which they allow the boys to go about their manly and yet hollow pursuits.

That the men of Westeros are ultimately servants to the other half of the sky is evident in several scenes in the episode where men attempt to assert their dominance only to see their egos undercut by feminine power.  The arrogant Littlefinger, his very moniker a comment on his masculine limitations, waltzes into Renly Baratheon’s camp, first confronting Margaery Tyrell about Renly’s love that dare not speak its name, then presenting his unrequited crush Catelyn with Ned’s remains and dangling a chance to reunite her with her captive daughters.  In both instances the women will have none of it.

Margaery knows well that her marriage is a sham designed to secure a political alliance and is content to act her role, and Catelyn is not so naïve that a shameless appeal to her maternal instincts will excuse Littlefinger’s betrayal of her late husband.  Robb Stark is struck speechless by the simple healer Talisa when his proud military victory is utterly diminished by her simple comments to him in the battle’s aftermath, as she accuses him of massacring a bunch of innocents and having no greater plan for the future of the Seven Kingdoms.

Where Littlefinger and Robb respond to their encounters with powerful women with silence, a more sinister path is taken by another profoundly insecure man attempting to assert his dominance over the female – in the skin-crawling scene where petulant King Joffrey commands one prostitute to beat another bloody.  He cannot master them with his questionable masculinity, so he uses the coward’s fallback of fear and brutal violence instead.  Joffrey’s understanding that he can never equal Robb Stark as a military commander, the more traditional masculine role, leads him to mistreat Sansa instead.  Interestingly, while the delicate, virginal Sansa appears to be displaying battered woman syndrome in her continual proclamations of love for Joffrey despite his abuse, she is doing so not out of misplaced devotion but self-preservation – biding her time until she is freed of this monster.  Her sister, Arya, utterly defeminised by circumstance (even commenting to Lord Tywin that being a boy made it easier) is likewise still a reserve of indomitable strength, going to sleep each night muttering, like a mantra, the name of each man she means to see dead.

Indeed, the only male character who seems not intimidated by the power of women (at least in this episode) is the one whose masculinity has always been dismissed by his fellow men:  Tyrion Lannister.  In fact, it is his knowledge of his cousin’s weakness for Queen Cersei’s feminine wiles and his ability to manipulate that awareness that allows him to gain a spy against his scheming sister.

The two sides of motherhood, giving nurturer and ferocious protector, are also on display with the “Mother of Dragons” Daenerys when she is petitioning for entrance to the desert city of Qarth, first pleading that a refusal to admit her people would condemn them to death, then threatening to use her dragons to burn the city to the ground when she is rebuffed.  She is the mother of her clan of ragtag Dothraki as much as Catelyn finds herself mother and counselor not only to the Starks but to the men who would be King (treating the battling brothers Baratheon as if they were her own misbehaving children).  Where her gilded sibling Viserys was an entitled prat cut from the same unearned royal cloth as Joffrey, Dany’s leadership qualities are being forged through fire.

And speaking of fire, there is Melisandre, the enchantress, trying to tempt grizzled old Davos Seaworth with the secrets beneath her robe.  When he finally beholds her stunning (and very pregnant) naked self, the Onion Knight comes face to face with a depiction of the primal fear of all men, what they cannot understand and have never been able to control since the Garden of Eden:  the magical temple of life and sexuality that is the woman’s reproductive system, from which emerges in a Freudian ecstasy of smoke and shadow the darkness and horror that Melisandre had cautioned Renly about earlier.  To see this sheer force step forth and take shape as the sorceress smiles, at once incomprehensible and weirdly compelling, is the final affirmation in an episode already packed with revelations that the women have written the rules of the Game of Thrones, and they are its referees.  For all the talk of the old gods, even Melisandre’s repeated comments about the “Lord of Light,” it is the Goddess, in all her magnificence, elegance, vulnerability, bravery, mystery and cruelty, all her many forms, young and old, beautiful and ugly, wise and foolish, who is running the show.

Rob Ford and political chicken

I’m no fan of Rob Ford.  I find him to be a regressive, rude, bullying, half-witted right-wing douchebag I wouldn’t trust to have my back in a bar fight, let alone as the mayor of one of the most progressive cities in the world.  Yet this uproar over his recent purchase of some fried chicken at a local KFC, dutifully recorded and uploaded to the Internet for the digital world’s derision, is a step too far.  I recall a conversation with a guy I used to work with, when we were talking about Ford and I was relating my less than favourable opinion of him.  This fellow said to me, “I appreciate that you don’t ever talk about his weight.”  My response was, why should I?  He could be a 98-pound beanpole and still advance policies that make my stomach turn.  Ford’s physical condition has absolutely nothing to do with how he conducts himself or how he performs as a public official, which are the only things we should be judging him on.

The counter-argument is that Ford made his weight an issue ripe for public scrutiny by politicizing his “Cut the Waist” challenge.  Contrast this with the response to Vic Toews and his infamous “child pornographers” comment.  There were two major initiatives on Twitter:  the @vikileaks feed, which posted publicly available records of Toews’ divorce, and the spontaneous #TellVicEverything campaign, in which users overwhelmed Toews’ Twitter feed with the mundane details of their lives – what they ate for breakfast, what was playing on their iPod, how many pigeons there were in the park and so on.  The former was disgraceful, because it made political hay of Toews’ family problems.  The latter was hysterically funny, because it mocked Toews’ boneheaded political stance.  It made the policy a laughingstock, without belittling the man’s private life.  That’s what the other guys do.

Imagine if Rob Ford were a liberal titan, boldly advancing green initiatives and progressive social policies and vowing to make Toronto car-free and overgrown with trees by 2020 – would we on the left side of the spectrum be so inclined to laugh about a lapse in his diet?  Anyone who’s ever dieted knows how hard it is, how bad the cravings can get, even when you’re not under the 24-hour stress of leading a city of millions.  We’ve all had our weak moments where we reach for the ice cream.  That’s not a criticism of Rob Ford; if nothing else, it humanizes the guy a little, and reminds you that under all the bloviating and bluster there is in fact a very vulnerable soul.  Which I would still never vote for.

The past few elections in Canada, and the upcoming American presidential contest, have brought to the forefront of the public consciousness a hideous scorched earth form of political campaign where nothing is off limits.  Effective government leadership demands that the best people step forward, and how will we encourage those folks to step out into the spotlight when the mere public rumination of a run for office can spark the filthiest invective from the opposition in response?  The silent demographic who do not vote because they cannot abide the cynicism of politics are not silent without cause.  They have been systematically alienated from a public debate that operates on the intellectual level of a high school cat fight.  It’s all too tempting for liberals to want to get down into the mud and fight just as dirty as their conservative counterparts, but doing that only accomplishes two things – it accepts with resignation the premise that government and public service is the realm of savages, and often engenders sympathy for the opponent (and by accidental consequence, the opponent’s argument).  It takes more courage to stand up to a bully with words instead of fists.  But sometimes, a victory won with words – the right words – can be all the more decisive.  Canadian and American progressives may dream of a day when right-wing parties are a nausea-inducing anathema to the voting public, but we won’t get there by calling Conservatives and Republicans fatty-Mcfat-fats.

A comedian whose name I can’t recall once opined that it was stupid to be a racist, because if you got to know the person really well you could find a much better reason to hate their guts.  Likewise, it’s ridiculous to go after Rob Ford because of his weight.  He could be the most drool-worthy, sculpted embodiment of Adonis on the planet and still be a lousy mayor.  Call him misguided, call his policies ludicrous, call his approach to governing positively inept, but if the guy wants a bucket of extra crispy chicken for dinner after a bad day, leave him the frack alone.

Close encounters of the celebrity kind

Sean Bean, 53 years old today.

It’s Sean Bean’s birthday today – in my humble opinion, one of the coolest actors alive.  For a couple of reasons:  one, that he brings gravitas, dignity and believability to anything he’s in, regardless of the silliness of some of the lines he has to utter; two, that he is such a badass that he was once stabbed in a bar fight and instead of going for medical attention, went back in and ordered another drink; and three, that he happens to be a very nice and genuine person in the flesh.  I met him briefly during the Toronto International Film Festival a few years ago, and even though I was some nobody interrupting him on the way back from his smoke break, he was warm, friendly and seemed interested in what I had to say (even if most of it was star-struck fanboy gushing).  One thing you do notice when you do talk with him is how thick his natural Sheffield accent is, and how much he tempers it for his roles.  I’m pretty good with deciphering British dialects and I was having a hard time catching everything when we were chatting.  (Or, it could have just been the rather heavy cigarette breath.)

I have always found the experience of meeting celebrities a bit weird.  You have a kind of ersatz relationship with them going in, a sense of who they are based on the characters you’ve seen them play, or how they’ve been in interviews you’ve watched; you become acutely aware of their quirks and this creates a sort of false familiarity that part of you expects to be reciprocated, even though you know they have no idea who you are, nor should they for any reason.  Call it a substantially less-psychotic version of stalker syndrome, I suppose.  It can be tremendously disappointing if the celebrity happens to be in a bad mood that day, if they are sullen and withdrawn, in contrast to the larger-than-life wisecracking persona they display in their work.  Christopher Guest, of Spinal Tap and Best in Show fame (or the Six-Fingered Man in The Princess Bride), says that people are often shocked when they meet him and find that he is a very serious, somewhat humorless man offstage.  For Guest, being funny is his job, not his personality.  That dichotomy between the public persona and the private life is hard to reconcile when you’re a fan.  I suppose a way to articulate how it must feel for the celebrity is to imagine you’re out shopping at the mall and a random individual approaches you and starts gushing about how much they loved your last PowerPoint presentation and how your reports are worded and what it must be like to work with your immediate supervisor – who you think is an absolute douche.  Now try feigning interest in that.

Of the celebrities I’ve met, some have been terrific – Bean, Anthony Stewart Head (Giles on Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Uther on Merlin), Chase Masterson (Leeta on Star Trek:  Deep Space Nine).  Ray Park, who played Darth Maul in The Phantom Menace, was an incredibly nice bloke who seemed like he would have loved to have gone for a pint with us if there weren’t myriads more autographs to sign.  I also have it on good authority that Hugh Jackman is a pretty amazing fellow.  Others, for whatever reason – bad day, headache, any one of a thousand things that are none of our business – have been far less genial in my brief encounters with them:  Terry Gilliam, William Shatner and most recently, Dean Stockwell.  I met Mr. Stockwell this past weekend and immediately stuck my foot in my mouth when I asked him excitedly about Gentleman’s Agreement and what it was like to work with Gregory Peck (who played his father in the 1947 Best Picture winner).  He became very quiet and muttered that Peck was cold, that he was one of those actors who did not enjoy working with children or animals.  Stockwell then sort of looked away, conveying quite clearly that he was done with this conversation.  I made my excuses and wandered off.  I of course had no way of knowing that only a few days prior he had given this interview indicating how miserable an experience that movie and indeed much of his childhood was.  Oops.  Should have asked about Blue Velvet instead.

Celebrity worship is one of the strangest behavioural phenomena, and one suspects it derives largely from a sense of inadequacy and lack of fulfillment that many of us carry.  Some are disappointed in how (relatively) little their lives have amounted to, and look up with awe at those who have achieved what they perceive as greatness.  Yet greatness and renown are not necessarily the same thing.  More often than not these days it seems that celebrity is achieved for all the wrong reasons – from national or worldwide embarrassment, or for utterly hollow pursuits.  One wonders why we cannot simply appreciate the work being done without raising the person behind it to godlike heights.  I’ve enjoyed Sean Bean’s performances, it was nice to have the opportunity to thank him for them, and that’s more than enough.  To treat any of these people with the reverence accorded to kings is diminishing our own sense of self – they are, after all, simply human beings, and neither of us is fundamentally any different from the other.  Just different ships sailing down the long and often stormy river of life, all equally vulnerable to the rocks and shoals.

The questionable wisdom of electing potted plants

Recently, a member of the Canadian House of Commons,  John Williamson, invoked Martin Luther King Jr. to praise the abolishment of the long-gun registry. Not to be outclassed by his northern neighbor, an American Congressman, Allen West, opined that eighty members of the opposing party were Communists. The frequency of these lapses into idiocy by elected officials in their public statements is reaching critical mass, and so disheartening to the voters of our two respective countries that stupid statements, false equivalencies and comparisons to Hitler are becoming the new normal way of going about the people’s business. But you cannot blame a puppy for making a mess on the floor if he hasn’t been housebroken. The responsibility lies with the ones who put him there. Morons are running the show because we tossed them the job and sighed, “Have at it, oh insipid masses.”

Democracy is the most precious form of government and the most capable of greatness when insightful, committed people are in charge; it is equally the most susceptible to abuse and neglect when the wrong sorts get their hands on the public purse. One of the problems with our democracy is that the mechanism by which one chooses one’s representatives – the election – has for a long time, philosophically, been not about establishing a vision and a set of tenets to guide a nation, but simply about delivering the other guy a resounding whuppin’.

I’m not the first to come up with the analogy that we are treating our politicians like athletes and supporting the parties the way one would pledge undying allegiance to a particular sports franchise. Much as we expect nothing more from athletes in their post-game interviews other than “Yeah, well, we gave a hundred and ten percent out there,” it seems acceptable for politicians to spout inanities and continue winning. In Canada, the opposition bemoans how media revelations of mismanagement, ineptitude and suspected election fraud have done little to move the polling numbers of the sitting government. Yet the Toronto Maple Leafs haven’t won a Stanley Cup since 1967 and they still sell out their home games. When you abdicate the responsibility of informed citizenship and become merely a fan, of course you’re not going to care how badly your guys are doing – they’re your guys, thick and thin. The thing is, whether the Leafs win or lose a game has no bearing on your daily life. Who wins elections does.

In a properly functioning democracy, the people deserve a true debate, where points of view are considered, argued vigorously, and evaluated on their merits. I have my ideological leanings, as we all do, but if it came to a choice between a reasoned and intelligent advocate of the other side versus one of my guys brainlessly reciting talking points and breaking Godwin’s Law, I’d choose the former. I want a functioning, curious and logical brain hard at work for my community, because they truly want to make it better and not because politics comes with a sweet pension. A person of true principle, not an empty suit who only understands every third word of the legislation we’re entrusting him to vote on; a seat-filler who last had an independent thought sometime in the summer of 1985.

Every hockey coach knows that one strong forward won’t make up for a bunch of guys who can’t skate. In politics, even the best leaders need a strong bench. We need to stop filling out the ranks of our representatives with twits and thugs we wouldn’t trust to wash our cars just because we might like the guy at the head of the pack, or the team they happen to play for. We deserve better than that. Our democracy deserves better than that.

Governing is not easy. It requires the best of the best. And yet, every political party in existence has its safe ridings or districts; areas where the loyalty to a team is so entrenched that little attention is ever paid to the caliber of the individual acting as the standard bearer, nor must much of a case be mounted to ensure that loyalty. It’s said of such races that the incumbent party could run a potted plant and still win. It should come as no surprise then when the winner shows in his or her representative career the kind of reasoned and nuanced approach to governing possessed by the average fern. (No offense to ferns.) Otherwise sane parents who would not for one moment tolerate their child throwing a tantrum and calling Uncle Frank a Nazi are only too eager to install like-minded infants into elected office because of party worship. And unless that stops, unless we choose the best of us and not the loudest, we’ll never get the government our democracy needs. We’ll only get Wrestlemania in suits and ties – and last time I checked, I’m not sure The Undertaker had much of a fiscal policy.

Grand Allusions or, Where Many Men Have Gone Before

"I have been... and ever shall be... a metaphor."

I watched Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan for probably the fiftieth time last Friday.  The significance of experiencing a movie about sacrifice and the promise of hope and resurrection on Good Friday did not escape me, either.  In a previous post I discussed the writing lessons learned from Gene Roddenberry, about the need for a story to always be about something; to that I’d add The Wrath of Khan as a further lesson, for not another science fiction film comes to mind with more of a pedigree so indebted to classical literature.  Where Star Wars is the most famous embodiment of Joseph Campbell’s hero’s journey, The Wrath of Khan is steeped like the finest blended tea in the traditions of Shakespearean drama, and its famous finale borrows greatly from the story of Jesus Christ.  As writers we need to be aware of the traditions of storytelling, the recurrence of specific themes and motifs throughout history and the capacity of allusion to elicit powerful emotional reactions from our audience, for these notes will tend to seep into our own work whether we are conscious of it or not.

It is interesting to observe, as we delve into the Christian parallels at work in this particular tale, that The Wrath of Khan in many ways represents the “New Testament” of Star Trek, as it was the first Trek to be produced without Gene Roddenberry as its guiding hand.  He was removed from day-to-day supervision of the film by Paramount studio executives who blamed the massive cost overruns of Star Trek: The Motion Picture on Roddenberry’s working style.  The Wrath of Khan was instead produced by Harve Bennett, who came out of the penny-pinching tradition of 70’s television, and written and directed by Nicholas Meyer, a beginning filmmaker whose biggest success to that point had been a series of Sherlock Holmes continuation novels.  Meyer is a studied intellect with a well-stocked library, and he packed the screenplay with references to A Tale of Two Cities, Moby Dick, the Horatio Hornblower novels, King Lear and Paradise Lost, eschewing complicated special effects unavailable to this movie’s reduced budget in favour of character development and deep thematic exploration.  As a result, even though the movie cost a third of what it took to mount the first one, it feels substantially more epic.  Meyer dared to tackle what tends to be taboo among movie stars forever worried about their image – growing older.  He elicited from the infamously hammy William Shatner tremendous depth, nuance and vulnerability, arguably the best performance Shatner has ever given.  Actors love Shakespeare, and Meyer gave his cast the next best thing – a brilliant pastiche, set, despite its futuristic trappings, firmly in the Bard’s thematic wheelhouse.  (On the DVD director’s commentary, Meyer relates how he tried to convince Ricardo Montalban that he would have been a magnificent Lear, and regrets that such a performance never came to be; I know I would have loved to see it.)  Although they never worked well together (or by any reports even liked each other that much), Meyer knew the same basic truth as Roddenberry, and by extension Shakespeare – that the weirdest, strangest, most alien people can be relatable on the basis of their emotions.  A laugh and a tear are literally universal.  This is where the use of allegory comes so strongly into play.

The best allegories operate invisibly.  We don’t exactly know why something we are reading or watching is resonating with us so much, other than it seems to appeal to something deeper in the unconscious mind, or in the heart.  The power of the story of Jesus Christ’s sacrifice for mankind’s sins and his eventual resurrection touches the instinctual fear of death held by all living things, and to the human need to find nobility and purpose in what can seem like the meaningless end of life.  The three-act structure of drama parallels this instinct as well:  in the first act, you introduce your character(s), in the second, you drag them down to the lowest possible point of total collapse, and in the third, you show their climb from that abyss and ultimate triumph.  In this too we find the Greek concept of catharsis – the emotional release found in an audience’s experience of a character’s pain and suffering.  Interestingly, in the original cut of The Wrath of Khan, there was no hint that Spock’s death might somehow be overcome.  It was observed by the powers that be following an ambivalent test screening that the movie featured Good Friday, but not Easter morning.  The end of the film was then reshot (against the wishes of Meyer, it should be noted) to provide more uplift and hope, including a concluding shot of Spock’s coffin at rest in a Garden of Eden-like setting on the Biblically named Genesis Planet.  Whether or not one is Christian, the cycle of sacrifice and rebirth (whether that rebirth is literal, or metaphorical in terms of the reborn spirit of those left behind) has a primal appeal, and when one of the pieces is missing, as in Wrath of Khan’s original ending, things feel out of sorts – the emotional experience is incomplete.

The issue I have struggled with in my own writing is when does allusion and allegory venture over the line into imitation and duplication?  When so much of our creative world at present feels like karaoke, the value of true originality escalates into priceless.  Yet audiences both literary and cinematic have this need for the reassurance of the familiar, the sense of being able to connect with the story on a visceral level, that commonality of hope and fear shared by all of humanity.  Campbell observes that we have always been telling each other the same story over and over again; his titular hero of the thousand faces.  Writers need to accept this basic truth or they will never even get started:  they will be crippled, as South Park so wittily showed, with “Simpsons Already Did It” syndrome.  And not just accept it, but come to embrace the idea that by infusing these ageless themes into their own work, they are taking part in a tradition that dates back to cave paintings and the fireside tale, and deepening the emotional experience of their story for the reader who will bring to it those same instinctive feelings about life and death.  They will recognize the thread linking your words, their life, and the lives of all those who have come before and will come afterwards.  And your work will truly live long and prosper.

Hail, ye olde Commodore

Hello, old friend.

Ready.  That’s what my Commodore VIC-20 told me every time I flipped it on.  No “Press Ctrl+Alt+Del” or any other series of commands to get things moving.  Just Ready.  Ready for what seemed like the limitless possibility of high-tech adventure waiting at the first keystroke.  A basic calculator purchased at the Dollar Store today likely has more computing power than my old Vic, the chunky pillow-sized box you had to plug into your television.  Commodore has faded from the scene, its late founder Jack Tramiel, who passed away Sunday at the age of 83, hardly a household name with the recognition factor of Jobs or Gates.  But for many of us who have grown up never knowing a world without computers as a part of regular life, the Commodore line was our gleaming key to the front door, an inexpensive welcome into the virtual world of ones and zeroes that has come to redefine history.  It was ready, and so were we.

Pitched on television by none other than William Shatner, the VIC-20, introduced in 1980, was already obsolete when I unwrapped it one fateful Christmas morning three decades ago, but it cost half as much as its successor the 64.  It came with a pair of game cartridges – a thinly disguised Pac-Man clone called “Cosmic Cruncher” and the frustrating “Jupiter Lander,” where the goal was to guide a collection of pixels roughly resembling the Apollo 11 lunar module across the uneven green blob of an alien world.  I like many other youngsters of the era was more interested in the instruction booklet, because it included a tutorial on basic programming language, a rudimentary guide to getting your Vic to do anything.  A handful of sample programs were included, my personal favourite being one that showed you how to animate a stick figure doing jumping jacks.  10 PRINT “\O/” was the first line and you can guess where it went from there.  If you were really ambitious, you could get the jumping man to change colors too.

The most complicated program in the guide created a menu from which you could select one of three different dishes, the recipes for each you had painstakingly typed into the Vic’s memory, and these were the days when you couldn’t save anything.  Unless you had the add-on cassette drive, which used audio tapes you hadn’t already turned into bootleg recordings of Thriller to store dozens of primitive games and anything else you could dream up to impress your friends.  Can’t-miss cartoons of the day were swiftly forgotten, replaced by hours inputting commands to make the Vic do anything from drawing a happy face to calculating baseball statistics to asking trivia questions.  You didn’t need a degree in coding to get the Vic to perform for you; a quick study through the manual was enough to get you going.  In many ways its simplicity helped demystify and deprogram – pardon the pun – the idea of the cold, impenetrable, malevolent silicon intelligence of HAL 9000 and his cinematic siblings from the public consciousness.  Now, anyone could figure these things out and make them dance.  It made us feel in charge of our machines again.

Looking back the entire package was not much of a step up from punch cards and the telegraph, but that didn’t matter.  What differentiated the Vic from its competitors was that with the Vic, you weren’t just playing in somebody else’s pre-designed sandbox, limited to discovering new ways to guide a frog across a highway or save a princess from an angry barrel-throwing monkey.  The Vic was your sandbox – you were learning and creating.  You were computing.  You were laying the foundations of the next great evolution in human communication to come, even with the brown buttons and the beige box.  The Vic, and its more successful cousin, the Commodore 64, gave you the ability to exercise the most important muscle of all – your imagination.  All it asked was that you be ready, and at the appropriate time, type in RUN.

Walking after midnight

Marion Cotillard and Owen Wilson in Midnight in Paris.

Were the good old days really so wonderful?  That’s the question at the heart of Woody Allen’s Midnight in Paris, his 2011 movie I was finally lucky enough to see this past weekend.  After a somewhat overlong travelogue opening, a taut, beautifully shot 90 minutes tells the story of successful yet frustrated screenwriter Gil (Owen Wilson), trapped in a relationship with high-maintenance Inez (Rachel McAdams), her conservative parents and tiresomely elitist friends.  Setting out drunkenly on his own one warm Parisian night, Gil is picked up by an old car precisely as the clock strikes twelve and finds himself in the Roaring Twenties alongside such luminaries as Ernest Hemingway, F. Scott Fitzgerald, T.S. Eliot and Pablo Picasso.  He has his debut novel critiqued by Gertrude Stein, suggests movie plots to Luis Bunuel, inspires Salvador Dali and ultimately falls in love with a beautiful French muse named Adriana (the always spectacularly alluring Marion Cotillard) who is herself pining for a more golden era – the 1890’s France of Toulouse-Lautrec and the Moulin Rouge.  Woody Allen isn’t interested in the mechanics of the typical time travel plot – how Gil is able to journey to the 1920’s and back every night remains an enigma that even Gil isn’t that keen on solving.  The magic just happens, and he rolls with it, soaking in the wonder of being surrounded by his heroes, people to whom he can relate with greater ease than anyone in the present day.

It’s a dilemma to which I suspect many of us writers can relate, and indeed, the writers who make up the voting membership of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences were taken with the message enough to award it Best Original Screenplay despite Woody Allen’s persistence in ignoring all the Oscars he’s ever won.  We are mired somewhat in our admiration for the traditions forged by those who have tread the path before, people like Hemingway, Fitzgerald, Jack Kerouac to name but a very limited few.  We eye with disdain the half-efforts by celebutantes, reality show castoffs and vampire devotees finding wide readership today and question how we can possibly be a product of the same era.  We must belong to an earlier, more golden, more innocent time, where our deepest literary ponderings would find sympathetic ears at every turn.  In the movie, Gil is taken aback when he and Adriana find themselves even further in the past, in the time where she wants most to be, and discover that the literati of that era are dismissive of their present and longing for the Renaissance.  The conclusion eventually drawn by Gil is that the sense of nostalgia is a continuous thread winding its way through each subsequent generation, that it is not by any means unique to the children of today.

Chances are great that if any of us was to experience the timeslip of Midnight in Paris and be transported to that bygone slice of history – to the Capraesque American heartland of the 1940’s, to pick but a single example – we too would not find our nostalgia sated for long; we would see the people around us saddened by harshness of their present and longing for the easier days gone by.  The past is, ultimately, prologue.  As hard as it is to imagine, the people of the 2050’s may look back on 2012 with fond memories, recalling wistfully when gasoline cost only as much as it does now, when we still had polar icecaps and polar bears for that matter, when the kids danced to Lady Gaga and Rihanna, the iPad was the hottest thing going, and the world held its breath waiting for the next Hunger Games movie.  I have lived long enough to see one particular decade of which I have strong memories – the 1980’s – transform from what was normal to what is camp and kitsch; how long before the subtle shirts and ties I wear to work every day become the subject of mockery like leg warmers and acid wash jeans?

The lesson I take from Midnight in Paris is that the past is a nice place to rhapsodize about, but you shouldn’t want to live there, because you likely wouldn’t like it as much as you think you will.  Instead, the past should only help us make better choices going forward, as Gil realizes when Gertrude Stein’s critique of his novel prompts him to make a radical change in his present-day life – for what turns out to be the better.  So as much as I might like to sit in the room while Jack Kerouac pounds out On the Road on his rolls of typewriter paper, share a fireside chat with FDR or float in the Eagle with Armstrong and Aldrin, I do their legacies and the world no favors by waiting around for it to actually happen.  My task is to blend my romanticism of the olden days with the experiences of my own life into something worthy and lasting, both in how I live my life and what I put down in words.  And perhaps, someday in the far future, someone yet to take their first breath on this wonderful earth will wonder about what it would have been like to spend an afternoon in my company.  They may very well – for reasons passing our understanding at this point – see these days above all others as the golden age.  Don’t we owe it to them to try and make this time worth getting nostalgic about?