Saturday, 22 November 2008

Have you seen this cat?

Courtesy of Alison Lang's Facebook Album.

Wednesday, 12 November 2008

A little less irony please...

I assume that the two or three of you who read this have probably already seen a Kate Bush music video from the 80s. (In a very unhip fashion I kept saying she was from the early 90s yesterday. Everyone present rolled their eyes, and rightfully so.) Well, Kate Bush is one of those musicians who has gone under my radar until relatively recently, so please humor me while I make discoveries that may already be very familiar to you. If they're new to you too, you're in for a treat. All of Kate Bush's dancing is fantastic, but the dance that really got me is in the music video to "Running up that hill." I was struck by a nostalgia for a time I remember so little I have a hard time saying whether it was the 80s or 90s.

What is this thing called irony? Why does the zeitgeist suddenly fluster, embarrassed, at something that could once earnestly touch people on an emotional level? I ask because this video, for all of its parodied style, is unmistakably beautiful. It will be interesting to see, in the future, if eventually videos like these may shed their post-ironic skin and become universal touch points for humanity again. Shakespeare was also unfashionable about twenty years after his hey day. Then I started thinking about all of the music videos that I loved so much in the late eighties - early nineties. They were so unabashedly serious - dramatic - even tragic. Madonna's Like a Prayer video, Aha's Take On Me video, Meatloaf's I Would Do Anything for Love. They all had amazing narratives, a nearly gothic sense of atmosphere that really captured my childhood imagination. And then, suddenly, music videos decided that they were entirely too frivolous to take themselves seriously. We were left over with these earnestly emotional and dramatic videos, and first we dismissed them, tried to forget about them, and then, trying not to give away too much, hesitantly stepped forward to reclaim them under the umbrella of irony.

I've always taken a bit of issue with my generation's love of irony - mostly because I wonder if it's a bit of cowardice. I wonder if, by claiming irony, we keep ourselves at a distance from our emotions - from the things that truly touch us, excite us, make us think. I say this because liking something "ironically" does buy the admirer a lack of commitment, a shield against criticism, because irony suggests a simultaneous critique and admiration. It seems fine and dandy, but imagine someone telling you that they were in love with you, ironically? Imagine someone being your best friend ironically? Or loving their dog, ironically? It's terrifying, because in the action of love, there is a dismissal that suggests that they will brush you aside as easily as they'll embrace you. That at any moment they might shed you like a skin. I've got to say, what we call irony is a kind of armor our generation has invented to deal with the way things are.

Then of course, there's an artist who encapsulates every aspect of the 80s we blush at, who is cheesier than brie, but is entirely beyond irony. He's invulnerable to it. He keeps the 80s alive and well, but only if you are willing to love him earnestly, as a fearless emotional leader. If you will stand by him, vulnerable to the jeers of those who just don't get it, the man is a moveable feast. I'm not talking Morrissey, though I could be. Check the link, for the sexiest pay off to this question in the form of a video I can't embed.

Sunday, 9 November 2008

A few acres of home

It's an age old topic on this blog: What does it mean to be a Canadian? I've been over it many times before - in a nostalgic list of things I like to do in Toronto, in a short story about taking the bus from Kingston to Ottawa, even in a list of "Shameful Canadians" - the very few Canadians whose nationality I hesitate to bring up in conversation, rather than feel compelled to mention as quickly as possible. But I gained a new kind of perspective on it today by listening to, strangely enough, an episode of the radio show This American Life called "Who's Canadian?"

Now I'm confident that anyone with an interest in the Canadian National Identity (and let's be honest, that could only, at max, be about 32 million of you, which by internet standards is comparatively low) should make the effort to listen to this episode. It traces the Canadian question from the perspective of Americans - who do really see Canadianess as a sort of quirky blandness, exotic in how incredibly unexotic it really is. For example, there is a lengthy debate in the program between Ian Brown, former host of the CBC radio program "Sunday Morning" and Sarah Vowell, (who Janet recently wrote a hilarious blog posting about) where Sarah seems to argue that what Ian sees as major differences between Canadians and Americans are negligible. It was amazing. I could hear Ian becoming defensive at the exact moments that I myself felt defensive. Although he's an incredibly smooth and confident speaker, I could hear the nervousness - that maybe, through sheer Americaness, Vowell might take our shreds of what it means to be Canadian away from us.

For example - when asked what he perceived as a "soundbite" for Canada, he said, "The true North strong and Free" which she laughed at, thinking he was joking, and then he quoted Voltaire's description of Canada, "a few acres of snow." I was incredibly touched by this description, but Sarah Vowell found it a really uninspiring national maxium. "A few acres of snow? That doesn't really make you want to get up and change the world?" She said. But of course I was thinking, well, we're Canadians. We don't change the world. We're defined by the fact that where Americans railed to change it, we sort of waited for them to get on with it and then fell in line. I mean, we didn't have the same problems America had. We didn't have slavery. And every problem we did have - women needing the right to vote, etc, the Americans and the British did us the favour of kind of sorting out for us. Am I saying this is a good thing? No. But maybe it adds to a kind of calmness - a lack of manic (both good and bad) behaviour, and a more subtle, evolutionary way in the Canadian national identity that (even if it's not necessarily positive) is a major difference between the two countries.
But this isn't something I'm necessarily proud of. I don't know. I feel the way you'd expect a Canadian to feel about it. Calm. Accepting. It was amazing to me to hear Sarah Vowell scoff at "A few acres of snow" when I'd been so touched by it - is it the zenlike quality of snow? Just that image of absolute stillness, of expanse, the deprecation in it as well, that just makes me all nostalgic and Canadian feeling?

And then I started thinking about what I do consider Canadian. The things I've written about on this blog as Canadian... and I started to wonder if these things might not be particular to Canada, but particular to me. In America, in England, in France, in Ireland, surely there are vegetarians, there are Indie bands, there are recycling kids wearing used clothes riding around on bicycles, maybe I just hung out with them more in Canada. Maybe I just feel more comfortable with them there, because in Canada I'm on my home turf.

I feel like I'm getting at the truth here and also veering further from it. Okay - this is what I mean to say - what I think of as "Canada" is not, I'll wager, what Stephen Harper, Alanis Morisette, Neil Young, or any number of other Canadians think of Canada. It is not a quintessential Canadianness. What I think of as Canada is linked with what is familiar to me, what I grew up with, it's as individual as I am, it's mine, I own my Canada. I mean, I can. All us Canadians can. It's such a non-descript country, we can all individually define "Canada" and "Canadian" however we want. And yet my own definition feels so inherent, so much a part of me, that it seems an inelluctable truth. Any national identity is like this I guess, but Canada, by the very virtue of being so pliable, so unfixed, is more so. Canada is a make-your-own-national-identity national identity - Which, my gosh, to me seems to be the most inspiring national identity of all. For all of the American talk of Freedom and Justice for All (Great Soundbites, to be sure) what can be more free, more just, more infinitely exciting than to come from a nation where you, you as an individual decide what that means. I don't think I'd exchange it for all the conflicting soundbites in the world.

Thursday, 6 November 2008

One day you wake up, and the world feels different

You were there. So was I. Where I was, it was about 6am. We'd been at a flat, at a bar, at another flat - following the results around like bees polonating. At every new television set, it just got sweeter. Barack Obama was going to be the 44th president of the United States.

I was watching the results on BBC, and as soon as the results rolled in, the station took a typically British approach to good news. "Oh yes, of course, this is a historic occasion, but can he really fulfill his promise? How will he deal with the millions of first time black voters who think the man can walk on water?" It seemed a distinct downer as voice over for those buoyant images of Americans celebrating. One commentator said as much, "Yes, yes, of course it will be hard, of course he has a lot to do. But for now, let's just sit back and enjoy a moment that is, if nothing else, symbolic." There was a moment of calm, and on tv, the confetti continued flowing.

Symbolic is the perfect word for it - Even with my own lurking doubts, contrasting Obama's flash with the loomingly dull recession - I found myself truly moved for the very first time by a symbol I had previously thought of as intensely irritating - The American Dream. Even a disappointed John McCain engaged in the moment's symbolic power, reminding that hissing right wing crowd that today America was delivering on its promise. Today America could truly say it was a land of possibility.

Symbols have the power to change. They change the way a country thinks of itself. They change a sense of esteem, a sense of core responsibility lurking very deep at the heart of a person's sense of nationhood, and their very sense of self. Engaged and inspired as we all were, Canadians, Europeans, Asians, South Americans and Africans alike, this symbol could change a sense of core responsibility worldwide. In 2000 it seemed that the world collectively had their hearts in their throats as we all watched democracy gone very very wrong. The feeling was like a bad ringing sound in the world's ear that got louder in 2001. We'd all resigned ourselves to it as an inevitable fact even as it was growing deafening by 2008. On Tuesday night the ringing stopped. And there was a powerful feeling that something had gone very very right. Democracy was back. It proved itself. And every person living in a democratic system in the Western World could suddenly hear their own voice clearly.

He can't walk on water - claims like those are a matter of faith. But Barack Obama has delivered the country something more ground-shaking, more integral. His team has shown us all that uniting and working together for a common goal does have results, results that pay off. Why did Tuesday give creedence to the stale cliche of the American Dream? Because finally, after eight darkened years, the Western World felt a sudden surge of hope. It was as light and indefatigable as the most ancient and guiding symbol of all... Dawn.