Wednesday, April 30, 2008

Try to be nice ...

I have a nasty little post in my mind, but it will have to wait notwithstanding that it will be dated by the time I choke it out. Besides, wouldn't it be so much nicer if everyone were just nice. Now that would be nice.

Being congenitally nice requires a native blindness or, failing that, an ability to fake it at least sufficiently not to tip off the congenitally blind that they are being mocked. Now I am nice enough ... congenitally ... sufficiently nice to say a cheery hello to all and sundry, and to keep 'em all laughing. At work, of course, I suppress the filthy side of my ribaldry, and I think that is wholly appropriate. Most funny people, it has been my experience, have utterly filthy minds but have the good sense to drop the dirty bombs only in those intimate circumstances where other perverts are present and lurking. Perverts always lurk, even in plain view.

All that aside, and rambling on, it is precious difficult to be nice when one is surrounded by morons, and if you have been out of the house even once in the last year or so, you will no doubt have noticed the startling prevalence of morons and their complete lack of shame. Cell phones seem to be like marking devices for morons ... a sort of walking chemical test. Get a moron and a cell phone in the same ecosphere and you are bound to have an explosion. Like the dribbling moron female with a baby papoosed to her who blocked the narrow sidewalk where I was attempting to pass as she shouted something unintelligible into her moron marker. She had a friend with a child also ... the be-childed travel in clumps, as we know. The friend, cast adrift by her cell-phone addled papoose mama, vainly essayed to control her meandering offspring who was wont to wander in the road. When I was a child, a simple "don't do that" was sufficient. But the cell phone mamas, once weaned from their electronic teats, beg and moan at their children lest a simple command ruin them for life. Of course, spending an entire childhood with a cell-phone besotted mother would drive anyone to Bedlam.

Another child moment ... some child in arms squalling in the Caltrain station at Palo Alto while mama wiped its tears and talked to someone else. I remarked to RL that when I was a child, tears in a public place were greeted with the standard, "Keep crying and I'll give you something to cry for." I felt terribly hard done by, but I stopped crying. I like the old way.

Wait a second, I thought I was trying to be nice. So let me recount the joys of walking my dog. Well there was the idiot woman with a giggly smile and a large dog offleash who forced me and my tightly leashed Loki into the street. When I protested, she berated me ... I responded with a pithy remark which reflected poorly upon her overall intelligence. She, in fact, did not have the intelligence for an appropriate rejoinder that might have melted me ... so now I get to glower at her should I see her again. Hopefully she is just an interloper who walks her dog monthly. Too bad for the dog who looked to be only mildly less intelligent than she.

Also on the dog walk, the proud new probably liberal owner of some giganto-black-darkened-window-SUV parks the thing with more care than they take in docking the space shuttle ... it is nearly the size of the space shuttle. It has dealer plates which means that this perky proud liberal bought the damned thing within a few days or weeks. As he stands all chino-bedecked at Starbucks and gorges on his triple fat vanilla chai latte with ground cinnamon harvested by virgins in the forests of Nepal above the tree line ... does he not read the New York Times stories on global warning? Does he think that reality and its torments stops at the door of his 3.5 million dollar condo with hot tub and conjugal slavery and drooling spoiled spawn. He looked awfully content, even glowing. He had one of those surfer board holder thinggies on the roof ... probably just aerodynamic, since he and his wife spend their evenings eating beef at some local eatery where they can laugh gaily with their friends and ignore the blight they leave wherever they trod.

I gave him a withering look, as best I could muster, but he was playing with some electronic control in his new planet killer. Masturbating without release. If only global warming differentially drowned SUV owners ... how sweet would that be.

But it would not be nice.

Friday, April 25, 2008

The Possible and the Real

I am sore tired and a little cranky, but I want to post this now that I have written it. Tomorrow afternoon (Saturday) I will illustrate it with some pix from Frederick's Sans Souci.

Another chilling piece in the New York Times about the curious and bloodthirsty penchant of Americans for imprisoning their own. It got me thinking about an old rule of history, and a corollary: if it is possible, then it has happened ... and the corollary, the possible generates the real. I'll get back to the American lust to punish wantonly after an excursus into the 18th century.

I have finished Tim Blanning's excellent The Pursuit of Glory: Europe 1648-1815 and moved on to a biography of Frederick the Great, my favorite absolute monarch, which I last read in Berlin. Blanning's book is rewarding reading because he ranges across the period and the geography thematically before a rather short recitation of the events with which history buffs are much more familiar. He has a felicitous manner of expressing contradiction and dialectic, both historical and critical. In other words, he can see the Enlightenment, for example, both as a turning point or radical break and as a logical expression of all the forces which conspired both to create it and to attack it. I loved the way that he interwove the culture of reason and the culture of feeling, and I hope that my attempt to play with that through Judy Garland was not too oblique.

Blanning's period of history is goalposted by the end of the wearying and pointless slaughter that was the 30 Years War and the end of the wearying and rather more pointed slaughter that was the Napoleonic Wars. The 30 Years War was the last war of the Reformation, and the Napoleonic Wars were the first wars of the modern world. In between was a period of incessant but intermittent wars in Europe that were predominantly dynastic. Whether a Hapsburg or a Bourbon would reign in Spain (The War of Spanish Succession, 1702-1713) evidently mattered enough to massacre, slow bore, 400,000 people. Think of it, especially in the context of how much smaller the population was. 400,000 people. Precious few died in battle; vastly more died of disease and starvation and casual slaughter.

So this was the period of the rise of absolutism, such as it was, and absolutism had to cover its perks. Blanning does a good job of covering the notion of state and what I would call charisma, but he is much better at describing life and art and show and trade and livelihood. His first chapter alone is worth the price of the book ... he talks about transportation. I got to thinking that the slow rise of the West and the slow decline of the East might well hang on the different carrying capacities of horses in forests against camels in open ground and the manner in which Europe overcame its transportation disadvantage. It was a slow transformation, but by the time of Napoleon, Europeans could move human beings and materiel with an alacrity unimaginable 150 years earlier.

Absolutism was built on the back of new roads and forms of communication and organization that allowed genuine centralization and the accumulation of sufficient state power to undermine the centripetal tendencies of aristocrats. I think that the Reformation played a large role precisely by providing the centralized state with the opportunity to use religion quite independently of the church. But the key point is that absolutism became a reality because it was possible ... more precisely there could be no absolutism without the material preconditions for it. I think that is the difference between a teleological Marxism (in other words the notion that the possible leads inexorably to one reality) over a non-ideological materialist analysis (in other words the notion that you cannot grasp the real without looking at the possibilities that prefigured it).

This seems obvious, but we frequently forget it. Only my most dedicated reader will remember my rant against Michael Burleigh's Earthly Powers who is one of those lazy reactionary thinkers who titillates to sweeping blame with which he swaggers and nods to himself. So the Enlightenment is responsible for the Nazis, and Stalin to boot. Yeah, and Catholicism is still the peaceful dove of love. A Burleigh forgets the simple fact that the real arises from the possible. As I like to point out, Pope Ratzinger does not strive to burn me at the stake because he can't. If he could, well, he would ... and we have the long history of his sordid little religion as proof.

I guess I am ranting.

Blanning's work is impressive because his happy prose weaves the endless tiny details of a period into a tapestry of what it became. His is materialist history. Louis XIV could only become the king because he had the means to do it ... he had to have the will and the luck and the genius as well. But no amount of luck or will or brains can make up for a lack of means or possibility.

And so it is with the American prison system. We incarcerate because we can. With that same technological and material possibilities, we could also educate and ameliorate and even save the planet. These too are possible. But the possible only underwrites the real, it does not predict it. The American prison system proves that we have the means. It also proves that our souls are empty, and it points again and once again to the naked greed that has crippled this great civilization.

It will be our epitaph. We could have saved the world, but we preferred to imprison crack whores. We had the means, and we made the choice. It was possible, so we fall back on the plaint that it had to be that way. No, no, it didn't have to be that way.

Monday, April 21, 2008

Global Cooling

RL just handed me a Manhattan ... that was my first favorite drink when RL converted me from wine sipper to what I would call a spirits guy. Probably my favorite now is a chilled dry martini, but RL's cocktails are always so exquisite that it does not matter which of the drinks he proffers from his broad and expanding repertoire.

I changed my sig line at work today ... simplified, really, but added this line: One planet. Think global warming with every action we take.

I thought about the line a long time ... it is not particularly felicitous, but I did not want it in the second person as that seems so accusatory.

To set the scene ... the Giants are in a nice game with the D-backs, and Kevin Correia ... who seems like the nasty, dirty boy next door from the one family held lowest in regard by the peacock proud neighbors ... is pitching well, but is down 3-2 in the 6th.

Anyway ... I have meant for a while to speculate thusly (am I allowed to say thusly?) ... what if it were global cooling? What if Texas were threatened with August blizzards?

In other words, what if the physics of carbon dioxide were such that it blocked solar energy, and we were facing not a warmer but a cooler planet. The low-bore immoralists who continue to suck up giant obscene SUVs do so either because they don't care or because they rationalize that a warmer planet will provide for more summer vacations on the beach. But what if they were confronted with an imminent ice sheet crossing Lake Ontario and taking out Ohio.

Global cooling would have inspired faster action. I'm sure of it. Global warming seems like a boon, and it is easy for the blinkered to imagine that the scientists are doom-and-gloomers ... they just just buy some sunscreen and a new pair of speedos and head to the beach. It's summer party time, all year long.

One more thing on global cooling ... am I the only atheist who is puking at all the fawning over pope Rat? Talk about global warming. This is a guy who is from the most reactionary wing of the church ... he'd light the pyres, baby, if only he could. The New York Times has a blog on the pope with lots of commentators ... all Christians plus one Jew. No atheists, though. Atheists see through the charade. Atheists are not impressed by a fascist spewing hatred borne of a fourth-century self-loather whose doleful influence has been the proximate cause of death and misery beyond counting.

One skeptic I know well, my good friend Jim, noted with ribaldry that it is the pope who has the ruby slippers ... see my immediately previous post for context ... now, more than ever, we need Judy to rescue the ruby slippers from the evil witch from the East.

Global cooling, the pope with ruby slippers, Giants losing. What a wretched evening.

Photo by Arod, looking up in the National Gallery, Ottawa, Canada

Wednesday, April 16, 2008

Somewhere Over the Rainbow

Thinking a lot these days about the relationship between the Enlightenment and religion, and between the Enlightenment and romanticism, and between what Tim Blanning, in his fabulous book The Pursuit of Glory: Europe 1648-1815, calls the interplay between the culture of reason and the culture of feeling. These issues are at the heart of human history over the last two centuries, and they still define much of where we are at. So I'll try to get back to a more intellectual approach to those questions shortly ... at least before I finish the Blanning book and dive into a re-read of my favorite absolute monarch, Frederick the Great.

Said Diderot: "Everything must be examined, everything must be shaken up, without exception and without circumspection." Notwithstanding the obviousness of this and its unrelenting rationalism, it is a cruel prescription. It is also the prescription of an ideologue, for it presupposes the extinction of its opposite. History does not work that way, and in the event, notwithstanding the enormous gift that the Enlightenment gave to humanity, it did not work that way for our heroes, that is Diderot and his pals. Blanning calls the Enlightenment the culture of reason. And then there was the revanche of the culture of feeling.

Goethe said in his "Concerning German Architecture": "The only true art is characteristic art. If its influence arises from deep, harmonious, independent feeling, from feeling peculiar to itself, oblivious, yes, ignorant, of anything foreign, then it is whole and living, whether it be born from crude savagery or cultured sentiment."

Look at the difference between the key terms of those two statements: examined versus feeling. Look at the difference between the positive statement of Diderot against the essentially negative statement of Goethe. For Goethe, that which lives is that which is not foreign, that which is native, natural, peculiar, and, yes, ignorant.

In our era of the economic triumph of the rational (not to say that economics is rational, by the way), we have become witless victims of feeling. The truth is in the middle, of course, and perhaps I can demonstrate this by the following.

So there I was in Winchester, relaxing in the newly remodeled and fabulous living room of my brother and sister-in-law. It turns out that they are fanatics of American Idol also, and we had resolved to spend the Tuesday evening of my pilgrimage to the Cheese Capital of the Ottawa Valley passing opinion on the efforts of the remaining eight contestants. The boys again outsang the girls, although that did not prevent the fickle public ... and remember the claim that the "public" was invented in the period roughly comprising the Enlightenment and its lead-up ... from voting off the smoothly talented Michael Johns.

But what hit me, again, was the Jason Castro version of Somewhere Over the Rainbow. Have a listen (I have substituted a later studio version because YouTube killed the earlier version I had here):

My sister-in-law did not know that this song is an anthem for gay men ... I wonder how many gay men younger than I am know what this song meant to gay men before gay liberation. It is, of course, Judy Garland's song, and Judy died on June 22, 1969. When the cops raided the Stonewall bar in the early morning of June 28, 1969, the nelly queens were still mourning their fallen heroine, and their grief and rage and pent-up yearning to be free created the riot that launched the movement to which I owe my freedom. She is our Joan of Arc, and her terrible death spurred us to seek our freedom.

Now listen to Judy sing it:

"Why oh why can't I?" You see, the essence of the appeal of Judy's version is that it is an appeal to reason. Beset by her troubles, most particularly the horrid Miss Gulch who wanted to take away "that little dog", she wonders why things are so irrational, why she can't fly as birds do. There is no rational reason why she cannot live rationally. The essence of the movements for freedom of the 70s, the gay movement, the black movement, and the women's movement, had that precise negative appeal to reason: there is no rationale that adds up to denying us our ability to be fully human, to do with our lives as we wish to do.

No doubt Judy's song is filled with feeling. It moved me when I was a child, and it still sends chills down my spine as I listen to it on YouTube. But, no matter, it is still an appeal to reason. And thereby, we can see concretely how reason and feeling are not inimical.

Where, then, is the reason in Jason Castro, hot and appealing, his neck bedecked with a cross?

Simon Cowell mentioned a version on the Internet by one Israel which, like Castro's version, features a ukulele. Again, have a listen ... this one is a little longer, so feel free to cut out:

Israel Kamakawiwo'ole died at the age of 38 in 1997 of respiratory failure due to obesity that, at one point, topped 750 pounds. He is held in high regard by Hawaiian musicians. But his version is a song stripped of any appeal to reason, and left with only feeling. It is pure sentimentality ... the fact that a song that Judy Garland made iconic in about two minutes rambles on for over four minutes ... well, the maudlin always takes more time than the iconic.

I like this version. It filled me. But there is nothing here but feeling.

Poor Jason Castro, a sweet boy with alluring tight pants, just has no clue about any of this ... certainly nothing in his performance alluded to the historic resonances of this song. If Israel's version was pure feeling, Castro's version stripped away the feeling and left us with affect alone ... skillful affect, certainly. I admit that I enjoyed the performance. I hope the boy hangs in there and makes a record. But that spare individual style of his has no depth ... he would be ideal for Christian music ... it has no savoir faire, it has no reason. It has no approach to the realities that grip us and control us and toss us to and fro. He is not a new Bob Dylan, he is the person whom Tiny Tim lampooned.

So when we think of of the enduring dialectic between the culture of reason and the culture of feeling, we have to remember that reason has feeling and that feeling is never bereft of reason. It is not good enough to draw up the dialectic ... we have to define the terms. Feeling stripped of reason is a zero divider, as I like to say ... any equation in which here is a zero divider can admit of any answer. When people say that they just feel that there must be some higher purpose, they open themselves to anything ... and history has shown us that "anything" can be bloody awful.

But on the other side, reason without feeling is the motor of the ideologue ... the potential for a relentless "truth" that extinguishes the very reason that bred it.

In either case, without the dialectic, we are left with Miss Gulch.

Sunday, April 13, 2008

Blogging Winchester: Goodbye

I left Winchester at 5:00 a.m. on Saturday morning, and then spent 12 horus travelling via Ottawa, Chicago, and Los Angeles to San Francisco. My bag, alas, decided to spend a little extra time in L.A., but it finally arrived this morning.

Not much to say. had a great time. Love my parents and brothers and their families. Mother read all my blog posts, and had a good cry ... mothers are like that. I hate it when my mother cries.

I'll be back in October when my sister arrives from Australia.

Photo by Arod.

Friday, April 11, 2008

Blogging Winchester: Birds and Tulips

I have not finished last night's screed ... I crashed out in the middle of the third period of the second hockey game, and when I awoke just in time for Malcolm in the Middle at 12:30, I did not have the writerly urge. So that post, which will probably be below this one when I finally finish it, will have to wait a bit.

Mother, Father, and I are at the round breakfast table with little Hershey on the pillow watching the birds and squirrels at the feeder outside the window. It has been off-and-on light snowing or raining, but the birds are busy at work, of course. There is a small black bird that looks like a Junco to me, and Mother and I get out the bird book. Sure enough, it is a Dark-Eyed Junco .. and there is another one and another one. We are swarmed by the little things. There are plenty of grackles, and the robins are back, the odd mourning dove. We've seen a few Downy Woodpeckers as well. And lots of Common Redpolls.

I am sure that anyone with aging parents can empathize with this ... I am so happy that Mother and Father are in a secure little complex with a bunch of sweet old ladies and men who are friends and support. And I love their picture window on the little parklette. Father gets tired as the days waxes and wanes, so the long breakfast is the best time. A care worker comes daily, always at a different time, to bathe Father, and Mother gets to read the paper and clean up.

Father says that he once spoke about tulips at Carnegie Hall and made what amounts to a minor faux pas by forgetting to thank one of the organizers. He still remembers that moment. He was speaking on behalf of the Ottawa Tourism Board of which he was three times President, and which had rented Carnegie as part of a tourism marketing push. Father addressed the idea of a Friendship Garden which he says, went from country to country. After Ottawa, its next country was Greece and the Greek Ambassador was present. One of Father's friends and colleagues had huge paintings of tulips in honor of Ottawa's famous Tulip Festival.

This discussion arose because of those tulips. The Tulip Festival is in a donnybrook with the Ottawa International Writers' Festival because the former, under the rubric of its Celebridée program, invited Salman Rushdie to speak and because they "stole" the writers' tagline which is "This is Where Ideas Live", as opposed to the new Tulips' tagline "Where Ideas Bloom". A nasty cat fight in a tight corner. I tend to side with the writers because writers are not getting the financial benefits of the busloads of little old ladies who like the spring flowers. But this is certainly a case of "surely we can all get along."

Dad was once very involved in all those sorts of things in Ottawa, and he still follows its every in and out very closely. I think it is hard for him not be in the thick of things ... I can feel that.

I wish he could let it go and watch the birds a little more. But the drive that makes a mind like his go is not something that can be discarded. Stroke or not, he is still a sharp observer of the human condition. In that, he is my model and the one who sparked my mind to be whatever it is.

Shortly after breakfast and bath are over, Father puts the House of Commons on the television when it is in session. He listens to it closely ... he has the personal and political history of most of the members down pat. Old Canadian that I am, I find a spirited Question Period more fascinating by a long shot than virtually any aspect of American politics. I doubt that 5% of American politicians could handle Question Period. Ooops, being a Canadian snob, an occupational hazard, here deep in Ontario.

Photo by Arod, the view from the parental picture window in January 2007. The view today is so gray and messy that I cannot bring myself to photograph it.

Thursday, April 10, 2008

Blogging Winchester: Eat, Drink, Drive, Gamble, Hockey

Eat, Drink, Drive, Gamble, Hockey ... not necessarily in that order.

Eating the Canadian Way: Jim asks me if I have had any Canadian delicacies such as Kraft Canadian slices on white bread ... well no, although I did slap some thinly sliced pepper salami onto some "brown bread", now conventionally known as whole wheat, for a snack the other night. My sainted mother cooks in the Anglo-Canadian style. It is hearty and tasty but not complex. We had a fabulous pork loin roast that mother thought was overcooked ... true but only ever so slightly, and it was still delicious, but Father and I conspired to let Mother catch some shut-eye in the recliner because she always needs it. Tonight we had a fabulous macaroni and cheese casserole, but I didn't eat that much because we had lunch at the Rideau Carleton Racetrack which has senior day on Thursdays. They also have slots which I will address below briefly. I cannot confess as to what cholesterol bomb I fell prey to, although it is named after an American city with an exceptional claim to being the father of American independence.

Yesterday, of course, I had a mess of wings which are pictured above. I have not had my traditional grilled cheese sandwich at Mary's Restaurant. I did have a passable Caesar salad at the National Gallery. I bought mother some pea meal bacon ... she tends to avoid it because it is expensive ... and she made that with eggs one night. We have some kind of hot cereal every morning, but Red River Cereal is just too much trouble at this point given the enormous agenda that Mother has. Remember, Dad had that stroke, and mother works harder than I could keeping the whole thing together. Tonight we get homemade soup, which is my absolute favorite. Again, I share this with Father who is a big soup fan. I have specifically requested grilled cheese for lunch ... that is a particular comfort food.

I ordered pizza once to save on cooking on my birthday.

So Anglo-Canadian cooking is your basic white working class cooking. Not a lot of roughage ... we had salad one night, but had to throw the bag out tonight because it was no longer up to snuff. This is not a cuisine-driven culture. But what we lack in cooking we more than compensate with politeness and manners and a warm fuzzy nationalism that would never be the first to declare war.

Even Gamblers Sometimes Win: We went to the Rideau Carleton Racetrack for Thursday senior day. They have a vast restaurant designed to maximize viewing of the trots. No races today, of course, but plenty of oldsters enjoying the view and the $5 lunch. You have to walk through the "casino" ... actually a vast room with slot machines ... to get to the restaurant, but they have a side entrance so that children can come with their parents to the Sunday brunch.

Not much of a gambler, here, but dad plopped $20 into a 25 cent slot machine. Somehow he ended up with $40.25, and I suggested he declare victory and move on. He did, but while I cashed the 40 dollar victory fund, he killed another $5. That is about as far as the family gambling streak goes, outside of a highly focused lottery strategy. The place was filled with seniors. I don't quite get slot machines, but if it is amusing, what can one say.

Photo above is from the lobby of the Rideau Carleton Racetrack, taken in January 2007.

Driving the Countryside: On the way back, we detoured through Marionville. Before that, I stopped the car to take the photo directly above ... it is a mural on the side of the wall of a little jewelry outfit in the tiny town of Metcalf. These small towns around here are such sweet places to live that I wonder why they are not inundated. Like my dad, I think that all these towns would be well-advised to re-create themselves as cultural outposts. The town of Merrickville did just that, although it is certainly uniquely blessed with a large number of stone structures.

I love driving through the countryside, especially because of the crazy old barns and farm houses. Mother loves the trees and I think that Dad especially loves the countryside.

I do not know what more to say about this ... it is all a little bittersweet as I prepare to leave again.

View Larger Map

The Great Martini Quest: My oft-mentioned roommate and bartender RL and I plotted my drinking behavior with precision before I left. I had careful instructions in hand on how to make an exquisite martini nightly. So on the Saturday after I arrived, I headed to the LCBO ... the Liquor Control Board of Ontario, and if there is nothing that more defines the persistence of Canadianness into the 21st century than the idea and reality of an LCBO, I hardly know what it could be. The best gin on hand was Tanqueray, and only dry vermouth was Martini. Ice, of course, was ready to hand, and we had decided that the best way to make the martini was to pour the ingredients over ice in a glass and stir. Then pour the contents into a pre-chilled martini glass, and voilĂ :

I don't have a proper measuring cup, so I use one of the many plastic medication measuring cups. The cow, by the way, in the background is names Chris the Cow, a gift of my Australian nephew Chris to Mother and Father. I had a little trouble finding the right olives, but these ones are pretty good. The biggest problem was finding the glasses. Nowhere in town had anything even resembling a wine glass except for a little jewelry store which had a martini glass kit including shaker for $60; too much. My brother and sister-in-law fixed this though ... they gave me four fine martini glasses for my birthday.

So each night I have had a stiff martini ... a little more refined night-by-night ... and it has been almost as good as RL's.

I made a martini for my sister-in-law, and she gamely went after it. But she thought it was awful, and eventually I finished it for her. An acquired taste, apparently.

Hockey, hockey, hockey: That would be hockey,hockey, hockey, and more hockey after that. All and sundry are fanatical hockey fans, and the Montreal Canadiens, my Winchester brother's team, are in a good position to win it all. They play a fast pressing game that is reminiscent of the Warriors in the NBA, and they beat Boston 4-1 on Thursday night ... and the game was not as close as the score indicates.

Photos by Arod.

Wednesday, April 09, 2008

Blogging Winchester: All Over the Map

The yellow house is the "old homestead" mentioned below.

Crazy day ... well as crazy as it can be in tiny Winchester.

First of all, I have to say that the greatest curse of this modern era ... an era which allows me to publish these scribblings such that any motivated individual anywhere in the world can drop in on my mind ... is that you cannot escape from work. You also cannot escape from friends or family, of course. But most especially, you cannot escape from work.

I love my job, but this is ridiculous. I am taking 6 days of vacation, but I am going to ask for 2 back because I have been working more or less non-stop. To be fair, I am sufficiently obsessive that the ability to be in constant contact is actually reassuring. But, good lord, is there no rest? Well, no, son, there is no rest. Get used to it.

That said, I had my Ottawa journey today ... each time I visit Winchester, I try to get to Ottawa, which is 50km of brushy, bovine countryside away. Before that, I had the lingering breakfast that is the best part of Mother and Father's day, and I took the little dog for a walk past the old homestead ... not, by the way, a homestead in which I ever lived, but rather the old farmhouse that my parents bought for retirement before Dad had the stroke.

Parmalat in Winchester.

There are a couple of secrets about Winchester that I have kept from you. The first is that behind the idyllic Main Street is a major milk processing plant ... hence, the "Cheese Capital of the Ottawa Valley." I do not know the size of its employment, but there were ca 50 cars in the employee parking lot today. Mother says that there are plenty of people in town who work at the plant, and some of the folks in this senior complex still have privileges to buy cheap milk products at the employee store. So there is a hidden economic engine here beyond the ill-fated Country Boy clothing store which, as I mentioned a few days ago, is closing down. Then again, the Parmalat plant doesn't need Winchester, and if Winchester fails as the country town idyll, it will not affect Parmalat.

This guy has been sitting on these porch steps for many years, down the street for the "old homestead" mentioned above.

The other secret is that Winchester is roughly speaking the whitest place I have been in many decades. My sister-in-law's maid of honor and oldest friend is non-white, and one of Dad's excellent morning health care helpers is Chinese. But I cannot remember seeing a non-white face on the street. Ottawa, by contrast, is decidedly multi-ethnic. I noticed today that three quarters of the guards at the National Gallery were African, at least by my surmise. Winchester is a bit like Mayberry. I think this demographic peculiarity derives from one thing ... the distance from the freeway. Winchester seems a lot like it must have been a few decades ago. There are a number of newer homes occupied by commuters. But the most salient demographic facts seem to be that once they reach 18 or so, young people move away, and meanwhile the old folks never leave.

Mayberry with a hospital. The local paper today published the salaries of the top dogs at the hospital, and the CEO gets $180,000. Mother was suitably shocked. Aforementioned CEO lives in Winchester, and 180,000 smackers buys a lot of real estate here where houses sell routinely for $150,000 so she is probably living in style. I tried to interject that there is competition at the high end for good talent, but the argument was so weak that I just canned it. Mother noted that it is hard to justify public salaries like that when some people have to live on $20,000 and handouts. You see, I really do come from an old-fashioned socialist background. It's in the blood, even if I have tended to abandon the ideology and the hopefulness of it all.

The backside of Parliament through the atrium of the National Gallery.

Oh well ... so, finally, at 11:30, I headed down the road to Ottawa. I really wanted a tour of the Parliament Buildings, but the timing was not right given that Parliament is in session. Let me say that the Canadian Parliament Buildings are an underappreciated architectural jewel, not one whit less impressive than their British counterparts. They sit on a bluff, they are artful and intricate, and the Peace Tower is graceful, and iconic of Canada. I always gaze at them in awe. But, today, it turned out that my best view was through the geometric maze of the windows of the National Gallery.

I had no more than two hours at the outside in the National Gallery, and some of that was reserved for a Caesar Salad and coffee in the atrium outlier of the museum cafe. I did a quick tour of some of my favorite Group of Seven paintings ... especially Tom Thompson and A.Y. Jackson. I blew through the modern art gallery and had a good time talking to a guard at a kooky installation there. I always tour the Inuit gallery in the basement which is awe-inspiring ... what modern art would be if we chased the charlatans away.

But the highlight was a gallery of prints and paintings collected by George Ramsay, Ninth Earl of Dalhousie. It was the sort of exhibit that made me think of Canada, and what it means to be Canadian. I bought the Catalog on the premise that having it at home would eventually give greater substance to an afternoon's cravings ... that is what it is like being a modern person in a rush.
"Bird Creature" (1990) by Kiawak Ashoona of Cape Dorset, Nunavut.

After a mildly extravagant trip through the museum shop, I headed out to the northeast part of the city to visit my brother and my nephew, who is my namesake, and his girlfriend ... and their new boxer puppy, who is a doll. Nice time, especially the long walk that brother and I took with the new dog. The city is really ugly right now with the great rolling hills of filthy melting snow. I took photos of the snow for my Californian friends who may never have experienced the grime of early spring ... I won't mount them here because they are so ugly. The city is poised for a bit of flooding, especially if any rain comes along to add to the unusually extravagant snow.

Later, we all went to a place that specializes in chicken wings ... whoddathunkit ... and we polished off ca 10 wings per person along with french fries and poutine. No booze. The place was filling up with expectant chicken wing eaters preparing for the first hockey playoff game featuring the Ottawa Senators. They were fated to be disappointed, alas. At least they had chicken wing solace.

I drove home the long way, all the way up Bank Street, which becomes Highway 31 and runs right past Winchester. Not a lot of life on the street ... everybody was inside preparing for the crushing defeat of the "Sens."

Photos by Arod. The bottom one is some old stable, so brother and I think, on the Canada Mortgage and Housing complex near Montreal Road.

Blogging Winchester: Sounds

The birds chirping and singing in their countless thousands at dusk as I walked to my brother's place. The train horns in the distance. In the morning, a gathering din of Canadian Geese presages a flyover in millennial proportions; they are the B-52s of the avian world.

The tiny clip clop of little Hershey on the laminate floor. She demands to be put on her pillow in the window to gather the morning's rays.

Photo by Mother, the first on her new digital camera, of the blogger and the little dog Hershey.

Tuesday, April 08, 2008

Blogging Winchester: the Sugar Bush and American Idol

Just off the iPhone with Frobisher who is heading off to Basel and Sarawak ... what a life ... and we tormented the subjects of the day. So I have 33 minutes to blog this day, and still get to bed on time. Well, there is an episode of Malcolm in the Middle at 12:30, and I want to veg out to that. The martini beside me will be nothing but a dry memory at that point ... perhaps I will have another.

Had a nice long walk with the little dog today ... well nearly half an hour and perhaps a tenth of the distance that Loki and I would cover in thirty minutes. The pic at the top and the one below is from that walk. The Anglican Church pales beside the United Church from yesterday or the Presbyterian one I will run when I manage to walk by with the sun in the right spot for pix ... how the mighty are fallen here in the sticks.

But the main activity today was the Sugar Bush expedition. Dad belongs to a group of seniors in town who meet on Tuesdays for exercise and food and activity. This week's activity was to go to Sanders Pancake House, a barn-like establishment appended to a small maple syrup operation. I've been there before, but I will never go there again. After 25 years of slinging pancakes, they plan to close the pancake side of the business and focus on producing maple syrup.

What to say ... the staff of the mini-bus was so up and cheery ... moving it along, keeping everyone on point. I kept thinking that this sort of enthusiasm is what awaits all cynics and skeptics in old age. But, at that same point, everyone seemed to enjoy themselves. The pancakes were okay, the sausages were greasy but good, the coffee was weak but roundly praised ... but the the maple syrup was sublime!

Still, we were in the middle of Ontario ... no traffic, lots of birds (chickadees and downy woodpeckers), birch trees, empty fields of stubble and old snow and melt water. The land of my birth.

I spent the evening with my brother and sister-in-law. It turns out we are all American Idol fans ... my brother thinks hockey is the only sport, and I think baseball is the superior sport, but we agree on American Idol. Ah, how Fox Entertainment brings the masses together. (We did end up watching the last inning of the As beating the Jays ... and that was nice.)

The thing is ... again, Jason Castro. He sang a sublime version of "Over the Rainbow", all the while bouncing that goddamn cross on his perty boy chest. It was moving, until you remember that this is the gay male national anthem. Is he deep enough to understand that? I figure if he is truly a christian ... or at least truly enough for christians, which is actually a rather low standard achieved by all manner of charlatans over the ages ... he probably has a career of holy singing ahead of him. We'll just have to be ready to point out the meaning of "over the rainbow" to him in due course. Better, he realizes how sexy he is those 70s blue jeans, and gets all horny and just becomes a big slutty pop star. Yeah, that's a better ending.

Not feeling particular persnickety tonight. That's going to have to do it. Frobisher ... have a good time.

Photos by Arod, today.

Monday, April 07, 2008

Blogging Winchester: Father

Talking with Dad at the breakfast table. Mother and Father spend a long breakfast every day here enjoying each other's company and the idyllic view through the picture window. The little dog, Hershey, likes me well enough, but protests that I have stolen her chair in the sun, so I set up another one with a pillow for her morning doze.

Dad and I get to talking. Despite the stroke, he is the same man who has regaled his friends and family over the decades ... the stroke just seems to make it a little more difficult to get in gear. There is a pause before he speaks, but I am accustomed to it. We spoke about Winchester ... he noted that the town had raised millions of dollars at the behest of the provincial government for the local hospital. The fate of regional hospitals will tell a lot about the future of places like Winchester, and the tendency of the modern way of thinking is that these places are inefficient. But a town like this raises the issue of whether efficiency that destroys simple living is really efficient. And it is the more germane given the aging population, and particularly the aging population in little towns and the countryside.

Dad says, "The very nature of this area ... I would say that seniors form the biggest chunk of this population ... how they look after their seniors is pretty wonderful ... each community has a center that caters to the seniors ..." Government needs to understand those natural confluences and use them to advantage. The ultimate truth is that the electronic revolution makes that easier not more difficult ... but government thinks with its feet and its hindquarters ... it goes where it is chased by the loudest and richest of its tormentors.

Dad has this idea to create a Heritage Society in Winchester that could help in things like this. He has spoken about how the annual Winchester Dairy Fest has become little more than a craft fair now, and it ought to have things like a triathlon and a softball festival and a gospel festival. The first two are pretty obvious ... why not add some events to increase participating and excitement ... but the gospel idea is actually quite inspired. Dad thinks that a Heritage Society would be the ideal organ to plan something like that. And I think that the newly renovated "Old Town Hall" which has a community theater and various offices would be the perfect center. Of course, these sorts of organization need a mover and shaker, and that takes someone a lot of their time.

Back to the gospel festival ... like a lot of old towns, this place is lousy with churches, and at least two of them are quite spectacular. And the area surrounding has dozens of gospel singers ... albeit, an aging population ... that would be ecstatic to perform for a festival crowd. Remember, again, that George Beverly Shea came from here. Dad says that he never saw a place with so many pianists. When they do the annual mid-winter Festival of Lights parade down Main Street, there is a women in a bubble who plays the piano. And he added that it is pretty difficult to sing a hymn that he hasn't heard, but they had a couple in the common room here last week who pulled one out. Dad listed a bunch of people he thought he could approach to kick off the idea ... I tossed in the notion of calling it "Gospel and More" so you could invite a bunch of folk singers. Of course, you'd have the perfect venue with these churches ... maybe have a series of nights first in one and then in another.

Odd, of course, that an old atheist like me would be shilling for churches, but churches and their music played a big role in our family and where I come from. As in the notion that theology is bunk but the history of religion is fascinating, I would say that the social agenda of churches is noxious but the community aspect fills in often for what is lacking elsewise.

Dad is a lifelong atheist ... at least since he became an adult ... but like so many in his generation, he was raised in the church, and from that he knows all the hymn. When we were kids, he'd pile the family into the car ... there are six of us all told ... and we'd sing songs as we drove around in the country. Once we had cleared the non-hymns which the kids knew, Mother and Father would carry on singing hymn after hymn from their childhood experiences with religion. Sure we squabbled a bit as human beings will do, but those long drives are a deep part of our family memory.

So Dad and I got to talking about his childhood religious experience. He tells me that they didn't have a church in Kirkland Lake where he grew up, but that they rented the Oddfellows Hall. Wednesday prayer meeting was at their house ... but my grandfather, whom we called Papa and whom Dad calls Pop, was an atheist. Dad says that the bedroom was right off the living room, and Papa would just lie on the bed with his legs crossed and not say a word. Dad says that he had to sing solos while Mrs. Robinson played the pump organ. Old John B. Cunningham would arrive carrying this old organ by a handle like a suitcase. I've been to Kirkland Lake only twice, and flew over it once. I'll write about those visits on another occasion.

My grandmother was known to her five sets of grandchildren by five different names: Mudder, Minnie, Nanna, Grandma, and Meemee. We called her Meemee. Dad says she was a member of a breakaway sect called The Regular Baptist Church, led by Dr. T.T. Shields who was pastor of the Jarvis Street Baptist Church at Dundas or Gerard, Father thinks, in Toronto ... and they were much more right wing than the mainstream. I am not sure if this link on Wikipedia refers to the same group which appears to be focused on Appalachia.

But Meemee always felt a little used ... like she was always a soft touch for a free meal ... and she broke from them when she moved to Toronto. Reverend R. C. Slade (or perhaps Harold Slade) from Timmins joined Shields, and Meemee thought of him as one of those who had used her unfairly. That was the end of religion for Meemee, at least in the organized sense. But Dad, a teenager in high school after they moved to Toronto, got involved with the First Baptist Church in Mimico at the corner of Hillside Avenue and George Street with a short minister named Rev. Wentworth. Dad says the good reverend didn't think much of him ... he relates the story of how he wrote a column on Baptist youth for the local paper and he used the word "female", and that was a big no-no ... he got called on the carpet by Rev. Wentworth. He was involved with a network of young people from the Baptist church who tried to establish a Christian fellowship in the high school. They called it the Inter-School Christian Fellowship (ISCF) based on the college Inter-Varsity Christian Fellowship (IVCF) at the college level.

I asked if he had ever discussed this with Papa, and Dad remembers only once saying "Well you have to admit that if people do subscribe to Christianity, it makes them better people," but Papa didn't agree with that. Papa worked for Ritchie Cut Stone where they cut stone for facades of buildings. Papa was a blacksmith, and he made the stone-cutting blades for detail work. Papa had been a blacksmith in the gold mines in Timmins and Kirkland Lake, but he was also an activist, likely a fellow traveler of the communists, and the family, deeply split, was driven out of Kirkland Lake after the strike of winter 1942-43. Dad thinks everybody was living in one house ... Uncle Lockie, who was a "loud union member" and Aunt Madeleine, and Uncle Dave, who was crossing the picket line, and Aunt Rose, and uncles Gene and Vic as well who were younger and unmarried. Dad remembers that Uncle Lockie was basically an apprentice to Papa in the mine blacksmithy. Later my mother helped Uncle Lockie with the arithmetic he needed to get a license as a crane operator in Toronto, a job he held until the day he died at work some time in the 70s.

Dad quit high school in grade 11 and got a job at Loblaws (a Canadian grocery chain) and then CPR Telegraph. The family moved to Alderwood at about the same time as Mother's family moved to Alderwood, and that is where they met. They started dating within a short while, and they have been together ever since. A nearly 60 year love affair.

Lucky for me!
Photos by Arod in Winchester today: Hershey at the window, the United Church, and a mural on the side of Shadboldt's Hardware Store at Main and St. Lawrence.

Sunday, April 06, 2008

Blogging Winchester: Birthday

It's my birthday. I last spent my birthday with my parents 5 years ago when I turned 50. In most years recently, I have tried to spend the day alone, wandering my home town of San Francisco, taking myself out to an extravagant life of under- or uncooked beef or fish. Last year, I spent the day in Berkeley wandering the campus of the alma mater, and purchasing silly knickknacks like a bright yellow logo long-sleeved T-shirt that is still a favorite. I also bought shoes last year ... buying shoes is always a big deal for me since I have more than a slight paranoia about clothing shopping.

I discovered tonight that my father and I share the "counting" fascination ... counting things when they are there to be counted. Non counters would never recognize this, but for those of us who count, a collection of things simply demands a number. I never knew that father counted. It was a warm moment ... a little genetic crosscurrent. I don't know why I count. I have mechanisms to stop myself from counting when it becomes annoying or counter-productive. I no longer count the number of lights that are on in a room, and when I try to count things such that they interfere with thought, I think about random strings of numbers for a few seconds until I have interrupted the flow ... then I can return to the higher planes of thought that are the stuff of greater mental satisfaction. Father says that he counts Christmas lights ... I count Christmas ornaments, and I have taken photos such that I will be able to report accurately on the number of ornaments on my tree when I get around to it.

Sharing the counting thing, though, makes me think about the deep currents of family. We are a family in the western, Anglo-Saxon mode ... well as Anglo-Saxon as one can be when one's grandparental names were one each of Scottish, English, German, and Dutch. But the Anglo-Saxon thing is a good bookmark ... it represents a family that is small and less expansive, and one whose members drift into independent lives more readily. We are not like those families of those nationalities who count third cousins thrice removed as close as we do a brother or sister. No complaint there one way or the other. Family is as old as our species, and as variable as the mountains and plains, the valleys and shores which our species has occupied. I distrust the notion that family is first ... but it is certainly deep.

Last night, all the locals met at the Country Kitchen. We missed our cousins from Toronto who could not make it. Since Dad's stroke, we have become much closer to them as they have been so kind and concerned for Ma and Pa. They normally arrive with a full passel of assorted offspring whom I have only known in the last few years ... an exuberant bunch who meld with the Ottawa/Winchester based offspring of similar age. We are all sometimes a little loud for sweet Mother, but that is to be expected when families gather in their dozens. I look forward to seeing all of them when my sister arrives, husband by her side, from Australia in October.

The Country Kitchen does all of Chinese, Italian, Greek, Canadian, and modern veggie food ... and probably a few more. I had the Chinese which was shall we say, gnarly. I envied my sister-in-law's souvlaki ... perhaps I will experiment with that the next time. Most of the young folks, and Mother and Father and I, had the Chinese buffet despite my brother's warning that no locals ever dare go there. The young folks are assorted nieces and nephews, and a few girlfriends. All the boys are in their 20s but one, now, and it is such a delight to know them as adults. Even so early in their 20s, they are mellowing ... perhaps learning that the old saw that being young is the best time is a a fraud ... it is adulthood that rocks. Still, the youngest among them, my niece almost a teenager, is smart and warm and a delight to be with.

Me blowing out the candles ... 9 of them which has no relationship to my 55 years. It took me 3 blows, but I am a little leery of blowing so hard as to spittle a cake, as it were. I think the crowd was unimpressed by my candle technique

Winchester gives me a sense of a calm that is not really there. It is hard to know how a little town like this perseveres, and it is frightening to think about how quickly it too could be dragged into the morass of the soulless present that most of us try to navigate without abandoning our souls. (A propos of that, the local news on TV suddenly announces that their weather report is sponsored by some Hummer dealership ... I suppose Hummer owners may want to keep an especially close track on the global warming to which they are indiscriminately and disproportionately contributing ... so I quickly flipped the channel to a French program about drama or something. I love listening to Quebecois French even when I am not paying attention.)

Today was about laying about. I never managed to shower. I left the little apartment only to walk the 9-pound Jack Russell, Hershey, and to get some bread and eggs for our eggs and pea meal bacon lunch with one brother. Supper was pizza with the other brother and his wife. Sweet niece all day long. All very relaxing.

And now I am relaxing in a reclining chair to the smooth music of father's snoring, while I write my web 2.0 blog. The chair probably vibrates if I knew how to make it do so ... but that would probably wake up any of the numerous octogenarians grabbing a few deserved hours of slumber only a thin wallboard away from where I sit.

I keep forgetting it is my birthday. I keep forgetting to be dark. I keep forgetting to speculate on history and the terrible future which present ignorance portends. I keep forgetting to be skeptical.

A nice break ... a sweet birthday.

Photos by Arod, except the birthday candle which is one of a series by Darren.

Saturday, April 05, 2008

Blogging Winchester: Saturday

I am sitting here close to midnight in the tiny apartment of my sainted parents in a senior housing complex in Winchester, Ontario. I have a martini by my side ... the influence of my roommate and bartender caused me to abandon my previous habit of drinking wine by default. More on that below.

Tomorrow is my birthday ... 55 happy years on the planet ... or half way to one-ten, as I have been saying ... so the day was consumed in the slow build up to a family dinner at the Country Kitchen on Highway 31.

As the day passed, I caught up with sundry events I missed in the blackout of a day of flying Friday. Cal hired Mike Montgomery, late of Stanford ... old Blues like me are damned happy. Poor Ben Braun didn't seem to have the backbone to move to the next level. Meanwhile, things are heading for a nasty pass in the doomed Zimbabwe. Again, I think it is about the army .. if the army turns on him, he is lsot. They ought to assign a little troup of killers to end the misery.

But back to Winchester, the Cheese Capital of the Ottawa Valley. If that is not enough, it is also the birthplace of George Beverly Shea, for those of you who remember who he is. I do, which is saying something.

My paents found WInchester years ago when they took some drives in the countryside surounding Ottawa which is 50 kilmoeters from here. They liked the little town of 2000, appreciated the fact that it had a regional hospital, and also the fact that it did not appear to have been affected very much by suburban sprawl. That is still truw, and it largely dervies from the towns distance from any freeway. Nearby Kempville is another modern hellhole, best as I can tell from slender experience, because it sits astride of a freeway. People get suckered by freeways.

But Winchester is starting to suffer nonetheless. It is an aging town ... the young folks move away once they are adults, and aged stay put. That makes it perfect for Ma and Pa who have a great life in this little complex ... a little sad because Dad had a stroke 6 years ago. And everyone ahs a car, jsut like everywhere else. The businesses downtown compete with the eveil Walmart empires, not withstanding that theya re miles away. The Country Boy clothing store is closing, and that is a blow.

Winchester is small town, though. The last time I was here there was a story in the local paper that the cops had written a parking ticket. One parking ticket.

My brother found this place son after my parents did and he converted himself from city boy to country boy. He works in the city, but he is a happy camper, and I always try to see this little town through his eyes. As I walked around with him and his wife today, they knew absolutely everyone ... a place where everyone knows your name.

Getting fatigued here as we close on 1 a.m., so I will leave it at that. I'll get back to the family gathering, the two dogs, thes earch for a martini in a small town, and all that, tomorrow.

Photos by Arod, today.