Saturday, December 22, 2012

Blues for Newtown

I really wish Adam Lanza were still alive.  Because everyone's got an explanation why he would have gone to an elementary school to shoot and kill children and their teachers, and at least some of those people are wrong.  Only Lanza knows why, and he's not going to tell anyone, and that's either a problem or a blessing.

I suppose the response to this event is proof that it is still possible to blow the Western world's mind.  And yes, it took the mass gun death of children to do it, but the past week of rhetoric has been a general referendum on "My god, how did we get here?" across many platforms.  As so often happens, and will happen again, mass disaster is the only wake up call that registers on a large enough scale to have people reexamine their priorities.  Everyday tragedies are just too personal, right?  And there are many issues at hand here, so come on and walk with me.

GUNS.  Observation of much of this discussion has reminded me of one point:  I am not an American.  I live in Canada, and though I am greatly influenced by American culture, and I consume their products, and I am connected in some personal way to a number of American citizens, I don't live on American soil.  And what that means is that I don't, to the best of my knowledge, know a single person who actually owns a gun which is kept in their home.
The immediate knee-jerk reaction of many who live in a non-gun culture is that Americans are nuts to keep insisting on their precious Second Amendment.  But I've come around to the idea that there really is no easy fix.  I've witnessed an ongoing online discussion - and a genial one, surprisingly - that's been attended by advocates on both sides of the gun argument.  I've seen levelheaded arguments in favour of not just guns, but high-powered assault weapons, and high-capacity clips.  And what eventually struck me is that it's rather difficult for a Canadian to appreciate the climate in which this discussion is held in the USA.  Over the course of this discussion, I saw a gun ban advocate eventually move his thinking around to the viewpoint that perhaps he ought to consider purchasing a personal weapon of his own.  Newtown effectively became a trigger in convincing this person that, rather than taking others' guns away, perhaps he should arm himself too.
I'm a man of colour.  I am vigilant in public.  I am aware of what's going on around me, and situations I should avoid.  But I have never once considered that perhaps I should arm myself.  Being Canadian, I have completely internalized our fact that ballistic weapons are only to be held by law enforcement officers and soldiers. 
Though I am aware that life could change around me at any time, I am not paranoid about it because I still believe that I live in a largely just society.  I have never once, in my life, felt like a situation might arise which I might have to kill my way out of.  And what I see now is that a surprising (to me) number of Americans actually feel like this.  Like it's still the 1700s, or something.
I used to have a very simple position - ban guns.  My position is even simpler now.  I can't tell Americans that they should ban guns.  But as long as Americans continue to enjoy this hard-earned complete freedom - which it is - I personally have no desire to ever set foot on American soil again.

TEACHERS.  Yes, we've heard of many acts of everyday heroism.  I know what teachers do, I know many of them, and I know that they would die for my kid.  It's bigger than that; I would die for your kid.  President Obama says we are all responsible and I agree.  I've been on a field trip.  I've been in the schoolyard.  I would take a bullet for your kid, and so would any teacher I've met, and I would hope you would do the same for mine.  Because I hope that's who we are.

"MENTAL ILLNESS."  I'm actually more interested in seeing what the American discourse on this element of Sandy Hook will be.  How are you going to define mental illness now, and what effect will that have?  Aside from his brother saying Lanza had Asperger Syndrome, what clinical evidence have we that Lanza's acts were a result of any "mental illness" at all?  Is that not just a gigantic assumption?
I actually worried for about six seconds there that Asperger Syndrome would immediately become somehow demonized, that we'd see things like the next James Bond movie featuring a super villain with Asperger's.  People with Asperger's aren't violent, if anything they appear withdrawn and aloof to others.  There's a whole lot more going on here than that.
And frankly, as long as we're talking about "mental illness", how are we going to answer questions about the role of Lanza's mother?  The guns were her possessions.  One thought is that mentally ill people should be prohibited from purchasing weapons.  According to anecdotal and unverified sources, she was somewhat of a "survivalist", someone who chose to arm herself and her household in the event that the economy would collapse.  Sounds a little to me like someone spent too much time watching creepy HBO TV shows.  Isn't extreme paranoia a form of "mental illness?"  What's your perspective?  The President of the National Rife Association, Wayne Lapierre, said that "the only thing that can stop a bad guy with a gun is a good guy with a gun."  From a Canadian perspective, that line of thinking might indicate a form of "mental illness" in itself.

MEDIA.  They're everywhere.  They're us.  And they're interviewing kids coming off school buses who don't even know their friends are dead yet.  Quite the spectacle.  As someone with many friends who work in media, it's been interesting to see how tastelessly my ex-colleagues feel their own cohorts have behaved.  But this is what the business of news journalism has become - a mad sprint to produce "Content".  Many more people work in the content producing business today than who used to.  Schools are cranking out talking heads who know little of the old school ethics.  Giant media companies are focused on filling up airtime regardless of what is used to fill it up.  How are young journalists supposed to learn their craft in such an environment, anyway, now that the older ones can't even show them the ropes because they've been dispensed with?
As a highly online person, the fact is that today I learn about current events first through social media.  The world happens, people react, and I see their reactions.  But then I go to traditional media sources for information, data, and confirmation of fact. 
Traditional media needs to behave, hold itself to higher standards, and conduct itself with respect for its own profession.  Because if that sequence is ever reversed, that's when traditional media will become irrelevant.

TRUTH.  A six-year old boy named Jack Pinto was shot to death.  (Jack Pinto subsequently became famous for being a fan of New York Giants player Victor Cruz, which only made Victor Cruz more famous in the past week, which says a whole lot of what about our culture exactly?)  Jack's little friend John wrote a letter to him, and this is what he said:

Jack, you are my best friend.  We had fun together.  I will miss you.  I will talk to you in my prayers.  I love you, Jack.
Love, John

Speak like a child, indeed. 

I'm done now.

Saturday, November 3, 2012

Blinded By The Light

Provin' it all night
A few weeks ago, I went to see the fella on the right and his E Street Band play, for the first time ever.  Yes, the first time.

I finally saw Bruce Springsteen live.  At very close proximity - that's my shot, taken from "the pit."  Now, you may suppose you know how the rest of this is going to read.  But no, I didn't get religion.  I didn't "see rock and roll's future."  Something a little more remarkable happened... I found a little piece of me that I'd lost track of.

I first heard Bruce Springsteen's music in what must have been 1979.  Tony and Branko were playing the hell out of Darkness On The Edge Of Town, in that summer when we started driving around lookin' for nothin' to do.  I already knew I liked rock music harder and faster, bluesy, more guitar driven, melodramatic and explosive.  Springsteen was kinda different.  Lots of piano and organ, - saxophone! - and no showy guitar solos, but the cat brought genuine intensity to his music.  Significantly, the man was a real storyteller, using lyrics as sledgehammers, every line painting a concrete picture that dissolved into the next in cascades of emotion.  Not a word wasted.  I was already finding myself writing things, snippets, lyrics in some form... and Bruce became an immediate influence on my style.  The River came out, and in the face of new wave, skinny jeans, and British people who for some perverse reason loved reggae, I really did think the guy was the last best hope for what rock was "supposed" to be.

That's when it all started to change.

Rock was getting louder and hairier and faster.  Bruce released Nebraska.  Yeah, I didn't get it.  I get it now, but not then.  Not when I was 19 years old and wanting to turn everything up, dress up, go out dancin'.  New wave started to find its pop legs.  MTV exploded.  The freaks came out at night.  And then Bruce came back with Born In The USA, his shot at the heavyweight championship.

He won the belt, but he lost me in the transition.  It's a pop record.  It was totally misunderstood, by the frat boys who didn't listen to lyrics, who sang "Born In The USA" like it was the "America, Fuck Yeah!" of the time, who didn't realize how pathetic the story of "Glory Days" actually is and turned it into a beer commercial in their heads.  But Bruce became a massive rock star, married an actress, later made a divorce album with lots of synthesizers on it... broke up the E Street Band.  I still didn't get it.  And the guitar players were getting more awesome sounding all the time.  So while deep down I still loved the music that Springsteen used to make, I put all that away... for over twenty years.

And in all that time, I had never seen Bruce live.  Of course I'd heard the legends about three, four, six hour shows... yeah right... but he rocketed from cult status to playing stadiums, at a time when there was no place in Ottawa to play.  In the 80s, no one came to Ottawa.  All the best shows I saw were in Montreal or Toronto.  So by the time Bruce got the E Street Band back on the road in the late 90s, it wasn't something I was along for the ride for anymore.  And a lot of that was my fault.  The hair had been cut, the illusion had been used, I had begun to see through what was left of any rock and roll dreams.

Because it was never about rock and roll anyway.

It's 2012, and I'm older now, still runnin' against the wind, and Mike and Mark and Gail said come see Springsteen with us.  Because he plays Ottawa now, we've got a stadium and I don't have to go on the road.  They've seen him many times... prior to the show they're adding up how many times collectively and it totals well over thirty... and this is my first time.  You can find probably eight million Springsteen reviews on the internet.  That's not what this is about.

Because I wasn't expecting him to still be The Champ.  And he is.  Bruce is the most comfortable artist I've ever seen on stage.  The man is fully in his skin.  I've always wanted to see an artist and a band change up the setlist every night.  Decide on a whim what the next song is going to be.  Tell someone in the front row, "you know what, that's a good song and I'm gonna play it just for you", send the whole band offstage and just do it by himself.  Play new songs I've never heard before and they're absolutely great, they stand up with the best things he wrote thirty-five years ago.  I saw a rock show with absolutely no rock convention, no rock bullshit, no rock ego.  Who else turns all the house lights up for the last forty-five minutes, so you can look into all the eyes of the people around you who you don't know, and realize that you're all sharing a little Christmas morning together?

What makes the legend is the uncontrovertible generosity of spirit that Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band bring to the stage.

The very greatest have it.  My idol Carlos Santana has it (though I never got close enough to see it in his eyes - I saw Santana at Bluesfest from a distance of about 300 yards); young Aussie troubador John Butler has it.  And legions of rock "greats" don't.  The very best artists realize that the experience of a live show is about you, not them.  And this is what I've been missing, in the last twenty years of wondering why rock and roll had to die.

Because it was never about rock and roll anyway.

Once upon a time I played in a band.  I was the singer.  It was a great band, and I was privileged to play with those guys.  And all I wanted to do was sing with them.  Just being a part of it onstage was the most fun I've ever had.  I'm not a great talent.  I can sing a little, I can stay in tune most of the time and remember words and get the job done, but I know what magic voices are and I don't have one.  So sometimes someone might say "you were good tonight" or "you guys were great" and I always made sure to say "I'm glad you enjoyed yourself" because that's what it was all about.  If someone else has a good time with the music, that's what the job is and you got it done. 
The most repugnant thing I ever heard... we were breaking in a new drummer, and the guy had a terrible attitude.  We were practicing for a gig, and this Carl jackass starts going off about how he hates the people who come to bars, all they want to do is drink, request crap songs, and they don't respect him or us.  So I'm staring at this jerk, wondering why even play music for other people you profess to hate?  Never spoke to him after that.  Left the band soon after that.  It was just another brick in the wall.

Life goes on.  Things happen to you.  And events take you away from rock and roll.  But it was never about rock and roll anyway.  It doesn't matter what kind of music it is, because you'll find it in jazz, you'll find it in gospel, you'll find it it blues and reggae and klezmer and polka and even country - not new country but old country - and you'll even find it in techno, believe it or not.  It's the generosity of spirit in the shared experience, that makes music worth having. 

I'd seen too much that lacked that spirit.  And I'd forgotten where that part of my soul came from.  And the truth was revealed to me once again, by the heavyweight champion.

Thanks, Bruce.  I won't forget this time.

I'm done now.

Monday, October 1, 2012

That's What Makes You Beautiful

This is an open letter.  It's my confession, and my final stand.  It's a declaration of independence, and an unconditional surrender.  It's my ultimate strength, and my absolutely fatal weakness.  It's the hole in my soul, and my reason to live another day.  It's a warm safe place where as a child I'd hide, and wait for the thunder and the rain to quietly pass me by.

I love women.

This may come as no surprise to some.  But this is not going to be a list of double entendres for your entertainment.  No, that sentence was meant in one way only, and it's three words, and it's a world of trouble, but it's the only way I know how to do things.

Perhaps I'd better start explaining.  Long ago, I had a close friend.  He and I would hang out all the time, and being young enough to question everything, we would spend a lot of time trying to figure out the hows and whys of things.  But he always had one particular viewpoint, he was the type of fella who just could never understand why women had to be so damn different than us about everything.

And me, I could just never understand why he would women to not be different than us.  About everything.  For various reasons, we're not close friends anymore, but that's another story.  Maybe it's because I grew up in a house full of women, and I've never had a particularly functional relationship with my father, but... I've never found women to bug me.

What's the most common complaint men make about women?  Probably something like "they're unpredictable."  So it's true.  And it's true that men are, for the most part, predictable.  (No one wants to be around a man who's unpredictable.  That's called "prison.")  Now, I have eventually come to understand that I'm a writer.  That means I need stuff to write about.  That means I have to ask questions.  That means I have to learn things.

And I don't learn from men.

My favourite schoolteachers were all women.  My mentors, in business, in life, have all been women.  The four smartest people I've ever known are my mother, my sister, my best friend's wife, and the woman who hired me out of college and made me a professional writer.  Men are predictable.  The only things I've learned from men are about sports, cars, and computers.

When Carole died my immediate loss and regret was that I would no longer have her daily presence in my life.  Yes, she drove me nuts at times.  I needed it.  A woman's presence is an eternal counterbalance, an unanswerable question that gives you something you don't have because it is something that you're not.  I regret that I cannot properly source the following:  upon the launch of a tasteful but graphic exhibition on the nature of sex at the Canada Science and Technology Museum this year, I read an op-ed piece in the Ottawa Citizen written by a professor in human sexuality at Carleton University.  The professor opined that, while the exhibit was well-done and factual, it sorely lacked any explanation of the spiritual need for sexuality... that the true gift of sexuality is in the joining of two so that they may experience and take the qualities of each into themselves.  I'm paraphrasing, for my own purposes.

It's what I consider to be true.

But - and I mean this wholeheartedly - my addiction and obsession is not about physical sexuality.  I don't have to be attracted to a woman at all to reap the value of her simply being a woman.  Once again, it's something I'm not, so it's endlessly interesting to me.  Over time, I've realized that I've never been happier than in the presence of a woman... friend, lover, colleague... and learning something I didn't know.

As I said, a fatal weakness.  I hear you saying it'll be the death of me, except you're too late - it has been already.  But no one ever told me I'd come back.  Can it kill me twice?

I have no doubt that I'll find out.

I'm done now.

Wednesday, September 12, 2012

Getting Nowhere Fast

So I took the month of August off.  Seems like most everyone around here did.  And it's a little difficult trying to find a new job in that kind of climate, when your e-mails go out and you don't even know if they ever got to where they were intended to go.  But that's not what this story is about.

Back to September, back to school, back to yes, NFL Football.  The megalithic spectacle of contemporary American sport.  The beast that devours all American television programming, and in many ways, all American culture.  I have been an NFL fan since I was a child, and I always look upon the beginning of a new season as a chance to indulge in hours and hours of... pretty much the only thing I really watch on television anymore.

This past weekend was Kickoff Weekend of the new NFL season.  And boy, was it ever boring.

One of the enduring axioms of the grand old criminal racket known as Boxing has always been that "styles make fights."  The entertainment value of a fight is related to the tactics each fighter uses in battle.  Two guys do the same thing, you get a boring fight.  Well, that's football now.  Everyone does the same thing, and it looks very technical, but it achieves surprisingly little.

I have in front of me the Sports Illustrated NFL season preview.  Oh, the fireworks it promises!  The breathless enthusiasm!  "Why no record is safe!"  Quarterbacks and receivers throwing, catching, pirouetting in an endless ballet of airborne majesty and orgiastic touchdown scoring.  But it's not true.  Yes, they're throwing more than ever.  But they're doing less with it.

An astute stat-based website, Cold Hard Football Facts, points out that even though more passers are throwing more than ever, and they're doing it more accurately, this is not the highest-scoring era of NFL football.  That time was actually the 1950s... an era most consider a dinosaur age of passing football.  But in those times, teams ran the football to move it down the field, and threw it... to score.  Today's passing game appears to be, throw the football to... look as busy as possible.  You know someone where you work who does that, don't you?

I watched, at length, possibly the highest quality matchup of the weekend.  The San Francisco 49ers at the Green Bay Packers.  High-scoring Green Bay, at home at legendary Lambeau Field, quarterbacked by the record-setting reigning NFL MVP Aaron Rodgers.  Let the fireworks begin!  And yes, the intent was there.  Green Bay played virtually the entire game on offense with four or five receivers.  Rodgers in the shotgun.  They often had a receiver playing the running back position!  Yet against the monolithic and methodical 49ers, they played the entire game from behind, and lost.

In theory the whole thing works just like the "Four Verticals" play diagrammed above.  You dispatch a bevy of fleet mustangs to race downfield and confuse the defenders, and gash them with rainbow throws to spots they can't possibly cover.  The scoreboard explodes.  But in practice, everybody runs around, the quarterback picks the safest guy to throw to... who is usually within five yards... and the defenders swarm him before he can go anywhere.  And you punt.  Again.

The whole thing looks like:  ineffective token run; short pass; short pass; get off the field.  Know what that is?  Canadian football!  That's why I stopped watching Canadian football in the first place!

I got excited once.  Late in the third quarter, the 49ers, nursing a slim lead, took a penalty and faced 2nd-and-15 near their own goal line.  The crowd smelled blood.  But the 49ers rolled to the left and sent a roiling phalanx of massive bodies blasting a path for the running back, seventeen yards to a fresh set of downs.  A RUN PLAY.  One which the putrid Packer "defense" was completely unable to stop, because apparently football isn't played that way anymore.  (To be fair, the Packer "defense" appears to be unable to stop any kind of football which is played.)  On the next play the 49ers did it again, only to the right side.  30 yards on two run plays!  Bodies flying like bowling pins!  Oh, now this was fun!  Time for a killer drive.  Time to put the foot on the throat, run the ball steadily down the field, impose your will and take over the game and put it to bed.

Two plays after that, the 49ers' offensive coordinator, unable to control his innovative brilliance much longer, called for a long pass.  Which of course failed miserably.  As did the inevitable expected far-too-short pass on third down, which handed all momentum back to Green Bay.  Indeed, Rodgers managed to throw a touchdown pass on the next drive.  But by the end of the day, he simply didn't throw enough of them to have made the (extraordinarly pretty) effort worth it.

I've been a football fan for a long time.  But this is merely turning into a lot of guys jumping in the air every 30 seconds, which I believe used to be called basketball.  And it's not doing what it tells everyone it's supposed to, which I believe is still called a scam.  Football, you're on notice.

I'm done now.

Saturday, July 28, 2012

"You Are What You Put On Tape"

I'm going to say two words:  Penn State.  And now you know what I'm going to discuss.  Or at least you think you do.  For about the past 70 or so years, you'd expect I'm about to discuss football.  For the past 50 years, probably Joe Paterno.  Well, I suppose those things are still true.

The title of this post is a quote from the coach of the Pittsburgh Steelers, Mike Tomlin.  And what it means to say is that simply, on game day, it doesn't matter what you intended to do, or what your plan or intent was, or what you feel like or think your actions achieved.  What you performed achieved a concrete result, and it's there for everyone to see.

So let's start with the basics.  This is not a story about football; it's a story about sex.  Illicit criminal sex.  And as is usually the case with sex, only the people who were involved in the sex really know what happened.  And that's the heart of all the controversy with Penn State - who really knew what happened?

This we know - former football assistant coach Jerry Sandusky raped numerous boys on numerous occasions, over a period of many years.  This has been accepted as fact by a jury of his peers in a court of law.  By all evidence he did so on the grounds of Penn State University, using his position as an esteemed member of that institution to attract and entrap his victims.

This puts the university in a position of liability for its harboring of Sandusky, and it has called into question who among his superiors knew of his criminal activity, and what they did or didn't do to cease and prevent it.

And there, as I said, only the people who were there really know what happened.  And the most famous of them, Joe Paterno is now dead, and can say no more.

Now, most of them are going to face their own days in court for this, because they appear to have perjured themselves before an investigating Grand Jury in the leadup to pressing charges against Sandusky.  And that's fine, because the court will have its due process.  But the university commissioned its own independent investigation to be headed by an esteemed member of the law community and former director of the FBI, Louis Freeh.  And the Freeh Report appears to confirm the public's suspicions, based most tellingly on various e-mails exchanged among Sandusky's superiors, that everyone knew - especially Joe Paterno - and they covered it up to protect their own interests.

Appeared to confirm the public's suspicions - let me get back to that in awhile.

Since the report has come out, the NCAA has levied sanctions against Penn State's football team which effectively strip away everything it - and Joe Paterno - entered into record since suspicions of Sandusky's activity first came into evidence in 1998.  Let me say, I believe the NCAA got it wrong. Their justification of their punishment of Penn State is that Penn State made glorifying football success too important in its culture... but then they punished Penn State by removing football success from its record.  Does that not make football success appear to take on even more importance?  They punished the dead man by removing his name from their record books, as a response to the public's revised image of that dead man.  Ah, there's the public again.

The NCAA's response - and remember, the NCAA was not entitled to do anything to Penn State since it only oversees athletics - appears to have been based on the Freeh Report.  Now the defenders of the university and Paterno state their case.  The Freeh Report is flawed, they point out - it's independent, incomplete, not given due process of law.  Not everyone was interviewed.  Paterno is dead, no one can possibly know the truth of what he knew or did not; what he did or did not.

And on and on the lawyers will do their dance for years to come.

I think back to something I saw in 2001 that stayed with me.  Michael Jackson was about to release his first studio album in ten years, Invincible.  By this time, this album would reintroduce the King Of Pop to a younger audience, those who had only been children by the time he'd already ascended his throne, a generation who knew him not as a musical prodigy, but as "Wacko Jacko."  CNN interviewed people on the streets of Los Angeles, and I will never forget one young lady's response - "I think it's really good for him, considering he had to go to jail and all that."

Michael Jackson never went to jail.  But she'd assumed and believed that he had.

So that's my point about Penn State, and Paterno.  The lawyers can do all they need to.  The story won't end for a long time.  Anyone who wants to defend Paterno, including his family and his players, can certainly do so and may yet be proven correct.  But it looks like he knew everything, and it looks like he protected Sandusky, and that may be everything anyone ever chooses to understand.

You are what you put on tape.  Deeds, not words.  I think it's worth remembering.  You don't have to be a famous coach, or a star of any kind - it applies to all of us.  It may not stand up to due process, and it may not be fair, but ultimately those things may not matter.

I'm done now.

Sunday, July 8, 2012

The Greatest Thing I Ever Did See

"I've seen things you people wouldn't believe..." - Roy Batty, Blade Runner.

I can tell you which teams played in every Super Bowl, and who won.  I poured a beer over my own head when Joe Carter hit the home run that won the World Series.  The picture of me on the right is actually a picture of me next to Terry Bradshaw.  I'm a sports fan.

On June 9, 1973, I was ten years old, and it was the greatest time ever to learn to become a sports fan.  (It's been said that every man thinks the greatest time ever in sports was when he was ten years old.)  I was watching Bobby Orr, and Johnny Bench, and Muhammad Ali and Joe Frazier, and I would never see their likes again.  But something was about to happen that would change me, and sink deep into my soul, and which would affect the way I look at sport and life and ways of being, forever.

Horse racing was part of the culture in Trinidad, and my family brought it to Canada with us.  My granny was very much a fan of the ponies, and when she would visit relatives in Toronto she would usually take in an afternoon at Woodbine.  Granny's advice was to bet on a horse wearing green racing silks, for luck.  (To this day I scan a post parade for horses in green silks.)  But on that day in 1973, everyone was watching the Belmont Stakes - we at home on our (first!) colour TV - because no horse had won the Triple Crown in a quarter-century.

Orr.  Bench.  Ali.  Now Secretariat.  How could I not root for Secretariat?  He was big for a thoroughbred.  He was chestnut red.  He had three white ankles, and a white stripe down his nose.  He wore clean blue-and-white checkerboard silks, with blinkers.  Big Red was gorgeous, and more importantly, cool.  And he was fast, having already set records in winning the Kentucky Derby and Preakness Stakes, which still stand today.  The horse was like a thunderbolt from the right hand of god, and the sports world had been waiting for him, so the occasion was highly charged.  I knew very little of this, of course, being ten.  All I knew was that he was joining my list of heroes, and I was hoping for him to win the race.

The Triple Crown is a gruelling test for a three-year-old horse, three races run over a span of five weeks each spring, at three different distances.  The final leg, the Belmont, is contested at a distance of a mile and a half, a distance which is not often run, and for which many horses are not bred or fully trained to run.  In the Kentucky Derby Secretariat had broken from the gate last, then run each quarter mile of the race faster than his previous one, not taking the lead till the top of the stretch.  In the Preakness he'd again broken last, then - presumably outraged - gone from last to first around the first turn and never looked back.  He'd already executed markedly different feats of speed and stamina, but none such as what was to come today.

There are some who say a horse should not be considered an athlete.  Utter nonsense.  (Know who aren't athletes?  Poker players.)  Every animal is an athlete, none more so than a horse.  What is the most basic athletic feat one can perform?  To run.  Considering what evolution means in the development of life forms, the physiology of horses has evolved to do one thing better than anything else - move forward over land at a high rate of speed.  To run.

That day, Sports Illustrated writer William Nack was in the barn with Secretariat.  "I had never seen a horse so fit", he later wrote.  "The Derby and Preakness had wound him as tight as a watch, and he seemed about to burst out of his coat."  He did.  Facing a mere four other horses in the field - Secretariat went off at 1-10 odds to win - he blew out of the gate immediately, taking only his beleaguered competitor Sham with him.  After only six furlongs Sham tired, and Secretariat ran on alone.  What happened next jockey Ron Turcotte would never take credit for, because no reputable jockey would ever ask a horse to do it.

Secretariat got faster.  He widened his lead.  Then - again!  The other horses were no longer on the TV screen.  The horse ran alone, on his own, faster and faster, like an ancient myth.  TV announcer Chic Anderson's iconic call - "He is moving like a tremendous machine!"  He never stopped.  Going faster still, Secretariat hit the wire at 2:24 flat, yet today the standing world record for a mile and half on dirt.  He won the Belmont by 31 lengths.

I have nothing to compare it with, to put it into any perspective.  A car winning the Indy 500 by 50 laps, maybe?  A hockey player scoring 20 goals in a game?  The beauty of it was seeing this animal run a race by himself, not in a walkover, but magnificently.  The mystery of it was in wondering why.  I later heard that horses naturally race.  When they run in the wild, they run in herds, and in the best of them, their instinct is to naturally move to the front.  It's just what they do.  Secretariat, on this day, ran without hindrance, without obstacle, without competition, faster than any other horse ever had.  For no other reason, apparently, than that he felt like it.

Secretariat retired to stud at Claiborne Farm in Kentucky, and lived to sire numerous stakes winners.  In 1989, he contracted laminitis, a painful hoof condition which often proves incurable, and was euthanized at the age of 19.  The veterinarian who performed the necropsy, Dr. Thomas Swarczek, discovered Secretariat's heart to be "almost twice the normal size" of an average equine heart.  "And it wasn't pathologically enlarged.  It was just larger.  I think it told us why he was able to do what he did."

It's now 2012, and no horse has won the Triple Crown in the past 34 years.  Critics of the sport suspect that horses just aren't bred to be able to do these things anymore.

It's now 2012, and I can watch this race again, as often as I want to, on Youtube.  I don't.  It makes me cry every time.

I've seen things you wouldn't believe.  Nicklaus.  Wilt; Bird; Magic; Jordan.  LT, and Sweetness.  But when I was ten years old, I saw something I know I'll never see again.

I'm done now.

Sunday, July 1, 2012

Clockwork Angels - Rush

For Canada Day, so let's discuss the undisputed greatest Canadian band of the hard-rock era, Rush.  Just what you needed, another online review of the new Rush album.  But I have a point to make, I promise.

The fact is, I didn't even plan to buy Clockwork Angels till I read a review by esteemed blogger Tony Howard.  Tony likes the same things in music that I like... it sounded worth a try.  Why my lack of initial interest?  Well, though I consider myself a Rush fan and own most of their albums, I am one of those Rush fans who still idolizes the days of Moving Pictures.  Though I'd given their past few albums cursory listens since the 1990s, to my ears the songs just sounded like... more Rush music.  Rush is certainly a band with their own easily identifiable sound and style, and I understand the growth that's gone into their songwriting since the Bastille Days, but over the past few albums... sorry to say, the songs just didn't jump out and grab me.  Not this time.

On Clockwork Angels Rush have for the first time made an entire album a concept album.  In the past they've only taken that approach with sides of albums, or suites of songs.  I don't want to dwell on the details of the story, for though it is rather colourful and imaginative, it seems to have served a more important function on this album.  Rush have compared themselves to the world's smallest symphonic orchestra, and to my ears it seems as though writing songs as parts of a story serves to tighten the band's focus.  This is, in my opinion, the most cohesive Rush album in decades; the best of their past five or so efforts combined and compiled into one.  It's a fully realized statement of what this band can and perhaps should be.

Clockwork Angels may or may not be a starting point for someone unfamiliar with Rush.  It's a hell of a deep end to dive into, but it's representative of everything they are musically.  Over the past decade, especially with the release of the documentary Rush : Beyond the Lighted Stage, evidence has been given of the respect in which Rush is held by Canadians, and their influence on musicians worldwide.  This album seems to me to be a love letter to Rush fans, a band stripping away furtive experimentation and giving the fans exactly what they've always seen as the best of Rush.

This album is loaded with musical moments that take you back and forward at once.  Parts of songs remind you in a flash of classic Rush moments and riffs, as if they've sampled all their greatest hits and recombined into something new.  Though the production is multi-layered and atmospheric, to convey the many shifting moods of the storyline and scenery, the most arresting moments come when the backing drops out and spotlights shine on the players as a rock three-piece.  The effect is very much as Rush sounds live, and there are times - as in the solo section of "Headlong Flight" - when it almost sounds as if Rush are jamming, an electric surprise from this most meticulous of rock bands.

Of course the musicianship is peerless, with inspired and free-flowing performances from drummer Neil Peart and guitarist Alex Lifeson, but most of all Geddy Lee's bass is MONSTROGLORIOSTRIOUS.  This is easily the rock bass album of a year or a decade, and producer Nick Raskulinecz has captured what may be the nastiest, snarliest, grindingest bass tone ever.

Rush has not yet been inducted into the Rock 'n' Roll Hall of Fame.  Perhaps because they're Canadian; perhaps because of a lack of respect for progressive rock.  But there is a very short list of musical acts who have produced 20 studio albums over 40 years.  And I would suspect the list of those who can claim their 20th to be among their five best ever is even shorter.

I'm done now.

Thursday, June 14, 2012

Can't Stop Rockin'

So if you don't die before you get old... what if you don't burn out, or fade away?

The colour of rock is, more and more each day, turning grey.  Which was to be expected.  And which is not a bad thing.  Unless of course, it no longer looks or feels like it should.

Rock culture has always been that of youth.  Mozart, they say, rocked.  (Contrary to what some of my former cohorts may think, I did not see Mozart play.)  Benny Goodman rocked.  The "Welcome Back Kotter" guy was on the bill at Woodstock.  At one time they all rocked... but we now live in the age of rockers who refuse to stop rocking.  The effect is not always Satisfaction.

Keith Richards has said that he will go on as long as he can.  He sees himself as a descendant of Muddy Waters and John Lee Hooker, who certainly never got too old to keep on keepin' on.  And Mr. Richards is right to say so.  But what seems to have been annoying me is the hard-won realization that, without reason to be, a rock show is ludicrous.

Given the choice to be among the oldest in a crowd or among the youngest, I'd opt for the former.  As time passes, I find myself more and more in attendance at shows with people who time is being less and less kind to.  To paraphrase a friend, "I always see the same people, but only at these shows."  And the effect of age on all people is the same; age robs mobility.  People move less (but drink more.)  Which is again, fine - we should all be turning it down from 11 by now.  Alas, the rock show is compromised when age takes full effect on its performers.

It's a spectacle - and rock musicians are expected to be spectacular.  ("I've seen things you wouldn't believe.")  Steven Tyler, now a crazy old woman, was simply the best front man I've seen in person.  So yes, maybe I'm demanding too much when I say that the rock show falls apart when the guys on stage become just regular ole dudes.

Saw a band at Bluesfest a couple of years ago; one of the finest houserockin' blues-rock outfits in the late 70s.  Except now they act and look like a bunch of tech salesmen on the weekend, same guys you'd see poking around the gardening section at Home Depot.

Saw George Thorogood a few weeks back, and this is where it hit me.  He looks like the great football coach Bill Parcells now.  Nothing wrong with that.  He and the band sounded fantastic - close your eyes, better than the records.  Nothing wrong with that.  But George made two big mistakes, in my opinion.  He put down the guitar and paraded around like Mick Jagger... which he never did, even back in the day.  He felt compelled to put on a show, but it didn't look right on him.  And... he put down the guitar.  He had another guitarist in the band, a younger fella, on hand to play the majority of the solos.  I went to see a guitar player who didn't play his guitar.

What's the point?  It has to be about more than just the rock.  I never once thought of age when I saw Prince; Santana; Tina Turner; Rush.  Who blew me away at the Queen Elizabeth II Diamond Jubilee concert?  The oldest performer onstage, Tom Jones, who simply bludgeoned the world with his undiminished voice.  These things are about genuine talent, and honest power, and undeniable artistry.  The true human element of soul power is what makes a great show... and that's the element that age will not mute.

On a certain level, rock is dying or already dead.  Many young people now care absolutely not for these things I'm writing.  They have their own culture now, and rock may be an anachronism to them.  So perhaps age is doing us all a favour.  Once the great conceit of rock culture was than anyone could participate, but maybe that was always just a forlorn dream.  Certain of those who stepped out of the crowd and onto the stage truly were blessed.  Time is stripping away the superficial layers, and leaving only the truly fundamental.

Naturally, as I write this, I'm looking forward to a show in September with Loverboy, Pat Benatar, and Journey headlining.  I'm going because I want to see Pat Benatar; I've always been a big fan of her voice and her true talent.

Only two of the five guys in Journey are original members.  That's par for the course with such bands, I guess.  But I suppose those two and I have something in common.

Livin' just to find emotion.

I'm done now.

Monday, June 4, 2012

Malignant Narcissism

So they found him.  The body parts guy.  Fittingly, the police caught up with a man who made an internet sensation and an international criminal of himself, in an internet cafe in Berlin, checking himself out on the internet.

We're living in the golden age of narcissism.  Never before have so many been so in love with themselves.

At the risk of sounding like an old man railing at invisible birds in the trees, I blame the digital age.  Free speech has been won, at the sacrifice of composure, dignity, and what used to be known at one time as "class."  Everywhere, internet denizens are falling all over themselves to... well, fall all over themselves.

We've got thrillseekers crawling over each other's dying bodies to get to the top of a mountain - an achievement which apparently no longer requires technical skill to achieve, only money - so that they can "tweet" this achievement to the world.

We've got psychopaths who may never have realized their inglorious potential had they never been exposed to the internet.  I'm no psychologist, but please hear me out.  The notorious Russell Williams lived the first thirty-plus years of his life as a model military man, never committing a criminal offence till a relatively advanced age.  Where did he discover the kink that set him off?  The internet.  What did he like to do with his victims?  Take photographs, which thanks to digital technology could be self-published.  Remember when someone else had to develop your photos for you?  (I do.)  Had he come along before the digital age, no Russell Williams.

Similarly, the just-convicted child rapist and murderer Michael Rafferty.  Surely, an unsavoury character in so many aspects, but whatever took him down the path of desiring sex with a child?  The internet.  The fact is, whatever dark hole there may be in your soul, there's someone else out there who has a similar one, and the internet is where you and that other freak can meet and compare notes.

So naturally it had to come to this.  A supremely narcissistic performer who escalated from strange writings to animal torture to a majestic performance of murder and cannibalism, enacted for his adoring public.  Don't believe he acted alone.  In discussion with a friend regarding this story this past weekend, my friend told me of someone they knew - a normal person - who sought out the video online and watched it.  They said it was horrible.

But they watched the thing anyway.

What the hell is wrong with us?

I never fail to be amazed at the blatant honesty of the Youtube slogan - "Broadcast yourself."  Yes, it's your right.  Your opportunity.  When did it become a demand of you?  When did your participation become obligatory?

Worst, narcissism eventually filters to every level of social media.  Sure, it's just a big conversation, and every conversation has always included people who just say "Hey, have you heard of this?" just as well as people who say "Hey, look at me!"  But the "look at me's" are shouting to be heard and seen and noticed over one another now.  And no one bothers to object to the "look at me's" anymore, because their behaviour is expected now.

So what's the risk?  What's the harm?  The same old thing it always has been... you may end up killing the thing you love.  You may eventually lose your digital freedom.  Because the more the "look at me" people infect the culture streams, the more clogged the arteries become.  When facebook becomes more like LinkedIn, and LinkedIn becomes more like spam e-mail... and next thing you know, the people you think are friends are the ones spamming you (which is happening already, by the way)... well, I suppose everyone will find the next hot thing to do, and move on to that.

Long ago, I studied computer programming.  I was good at it.  But I wasn't as dedicated to it as the supreme geeks were, so I moved on to other things.  Had someone told me then, "no computers aren't just going to be used for information processing, they're going to become a household's primary source of entertainment", well, I'd have thought differently.

Had they told me, "and you can video yourself microwaving a cat"...

Jesus, we've still got a lot of work to do.  May I respectfully suggest that we start with that whole "dignity" thing again?

I'm done now.

Wednesday, May 30, 2012

The Secret

The Conversation would usually go something like this:

"So what do you do?"
"I write commercials - at a radio station."
"Oh!  Well, that must be... interesting!"

Or "creative."  "Challenging."  Or "fun."  At that point I'd habitually demur, noting that it was a tremendously stimulating environment to work in.  The "work" itself doesn't necessarily engender inspired repartee.  Writing is, to my mind, somewhat like singing.  Most anyone can do these things a little, or even a lot.  But - can you write all the time?  Perhaps that could drive one crazy, and maybe I am.

I never truly intended to become a writer.  I had other nebulous designs on an advertising career, but my writing seemed to produce the most appealing and immediate results... which naturally made it the easiest way to enter the business.  Only recently have I become fully aware that I do it... all the time.

I have, by nature and somewhat regrettably, a solitary mind.  I'm far too comfortable alone.  For example, I became a relative insomniac in part because I am rather cozy within the idyll of uninterrupted night.  Even when living with my ex, I could be awoken by her snoring at 2 AM, then spend an hour or two puttering contentedly around the apartment... and I still today relish time on my own after my son goes to bed.  I usually don't sleep till long after midnight.  But that's not because things are quiet; it's never quiet.  No matter what I'm doing, unless I'm directly speaking with someone, up in the workshop I'm constantly forming phrases.  Compiling notes.  Charting fragments of ongoing narratives.  No, I don't hear voices... there's no man behind the curtain, or invisible six foot rabbit.  But my mind honestly never stops composing... something.

Thankfully, it's internal.  I think the most outrageous description I've ever heard said of me is that I'm the "quiet" one.  God no, there's a maelstrom going on in here.  I can't let anyone hear all of it; the men with the hypodermics will come running.  "I" am a heavily edited version of me.  And thus, a career of writing for someone else's purposes came rather naturally.  I have this going on already, all you have to do is tell me what you'd like it done for.  The machine is churning anyway, just throw your stuff in and see how it comes out.

Now once you've started, you develop and nurture actual writing skill, of course.  When you give yourself to it, you learn to love it, and to respect it and the conventions of language.  You discover the endorphin release of creative flow.  That's the fun of it, making the notes dance around each other, just like playing music.  You develop your riffs and your voice, and you learn to see those things in the writing of others.  And when you can get together with others who write you eventually get those shop talk moments; someone will start in on pet peeves like misused words or meaningless conventional phrases.  That's how you know you're not the only one imagining this stuff.

But I can't say that this is "how one writes."  Or claim that anyone else who writes may do this too.  Or even claim that anyone else may do it.  I've often wished I knew what it was like to be one of those who lives without inner counsel... free to live a visceral, more animal existence, without trial, angst, or doubt.

No, this is how it works for me.  It rarely stops.  So if you've ever wondered where it comes from, that's it.  Eventually something coalesces, like this navel-gazing rumination on the sound of silence that hopefully doesn't make you think I'm insane.  It's not always challenging or fun, but I guess it might be interesting.

I'm writing.  Even if it's about nothing.

And for the moment, I'm done now.

Wednesday, May 16, 2012


"You, sir, are a monster."

With those words, Justice Thomas Heeney yesterday sentenced Michael Rafferty to life imprisonment for the rape and murder of eight-year-old Victoria Stafford three years ago.  And the reported evidence presented throughout this two-month-plus trial has indeed led me to reflect on the nature of the monster we find ourselves with.

A recent book was published about the notorious sex criminal and murderer Russell Williams, entitled "A New Kind of Monster".  Appropriately titled, in that Williams was an educated, remarkably accomplished, and widely respected individual, the sort who historically has not proven to indulge in such animal behaviour.  Rafferty has also broken the mold, albeit in a much less noteworthy way.

Given that the basis for the prosecution's case against Rafferty was the testimony of his co-conspirator Terri-Lynne McClintic, the only witness and other participant in the crime itself, the trial seemed to drag on as fact after fact was entered into evidence relating to Rafferty's actions and deeds around and after the crime.  It was seemingly the prosecution's intent to forestall the defence's assertion that Rafferty was an innocent dupe who'd been set up by McClintic... at no time did his behaviour show any rightful concern of being framed.  But while the "character" of this man may have been immaterial to his guilt in the accused offences, we were shown an almost incredibly dull portrait, a remarkably depressing account of a virtually useless member of our society.

Addicted to Oxycontin, but not in an incapacitating way.  Trolling dating websites and hooking up with a large succession of hard-luck women to lie to about jobs he never had.  Even dipping into bad-boy territory as a small-time pimp.  The narrative destroys any idyllic image of small-town Ontario.  Yet obviously the fellow wasn't an idiot, displaying enough tech savvy to download child pornography and to conveniently compile reams of evidence through the use of his Blackberry.  It seems as though he'd have been intelligent enough to embark on a real career if he'd tried.

See the picture of Rafferty now, the undated one which ran with every news story.  Close cropped frosted hair in an overly aggressive cut; moody soul patch; requisite hipster necklace; body-hugging graphic white tee-shirt.  He looks like any other schmuck his age; one of hundreds you see every day... "douchebag" at a bar; bouncer in the club; in line with his baby mama at Wal-Mart; yammering at his cellphone on the bus.  No outdated spectacles, no lisp or twitch, no barely concealed paranoia as in the movies... no, the dreary reality of the monster Michael Rafferty lies in how stunningly below average he is.

He looks like any other guy.  He could have been a hundred guys I've known.  But he deviated into sickness, and while one could say that his evidenced behaviour certainly displays the narcissism requisite of a true sociopath, Rafferty seems to have ventured down such a destructive path for the lack of other things to do.
(And in case you were wondering, I fully concur that his desire to rape a child drove this entire event, as McClintic testified.  The suppressed evidence was the final straw, in my mind.)
He became a piece of society which served no function, and no purpose, and which went cancer on the rest of the body, in the most horrible way... because, it looks like, he had nothing else to do.

That's the most remarkable part of this, for the rest of us.  The two people who killed that little girl could have been the next two people you see walking through the mall.

"Idle hands are the devil's workshop"... and in a society which leaves people along the way with nothing to do, they just might create a monster.

I'm done now.

Saturday, May 5, 2012

Man At Work

My father built a boat once.

Actually, more than once.  Growing up in Trinidad in the '40s and '50s as he did, you learned to live on a boat.  But you wouldn't buy one; you'd build your own.  That's just the way things were done, and he knew how to do it well.  So one summer... I think 1972... Dad built a boat in our backyard.

Not a canoe.  Not a rowboat.  This was a full-on fourteen-foot runabout.  A genuine motorized aquatic vehicle!  All-wood, handmade, with a fiberglass-and-resin reinforced hull.  It could handle up to 100 horsepower but Dad outfitted his with a relatively modest 40-horse Mercury outboard... not quite sufficient to tow a skier, but close.  And did I say handmade?  Dad found a book with the blueprints; bought the wood, parts, and fittings from Canadian Tire; and put it all together by himself, in the basement and back yard.  Cutting high density foam and blue sparkle vinyl for the seats.  (Yes, blue sparkle vinyl.  It was the '70s.)  Staining the deck.  And painting the hull in the iconic red, black and white of the Trinidad flag.

With all due respect to my contemporaries, I can't imagine anyone's father building something like that today.  My brother-in-law is remarkable at home renovations... but I don't suspect he's ever considered building a boat.

I was only nine or ten.  We'd take the boat out on the Rideau River, to the cottage... Dad showed it off for the relatives from Trinidad when they came to visit.  I believe he even let me take the wheel once or twice, when he was absolutely sure there was no one around for hundreds of yards.  He taught me how to fish, but I thought fish were kinda gross.  (Still do.)  And I had no idea what my sister and I had been given, man.  I was getting into hockey and football, and probably wondering why I had to take a day away from play to hang around with my dad so we could drag this thing into the water.  I don't think I even liked water back then.  Youth.  It was my dad's way of life, but it wasn't mine, and now I wish I could show it to my son.

This all came back to me recently, on Good Friday.  A day off.  Recently I've had a lot of days off... and I'm almost as mentally loaded down as when I was in the office at the radio station.  These days my smartphone is my office, connecting me to my network.  Back when Dad was building that boat, in the evenings and on the weekends... I don't believe taking time to check e-mail would have fit into the picture.

I suppose the message is... by no means an original thought... that you just might not remember how much you can do for yourself when you step away from the business side of things.  It's unfortunate that I've spent so much time recently putting my personal life in order, yet I can somehow feel "unproductive".  I remind myself that I'm actually gradually building a very small man, and hoping I will figure out how to teach him to care for himself and others.

So go take time for yourself.  And build something - a relationship, a passion, a reason to laugh. 

Maybe even a boat.

I'm done now.