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2015: Paris et Charlie, Chuck and Li’l Ol’ Me

I’m still writing like it’s 2015. I don’t mean brainless mis-dating in my chequebook (for those who remember writing cheques), just that my writing nook is a jumble, my mind is a mess and my habits are blowin’ in the wind. 2015 wasn’t any annus horribilis for me, and I’m far too privileged to complain about my lot in life. But although I wrote some things I’ve liked in this space, I wasn’t even a moderately productive pen-monkey¹ this year. I won’t annoy you (or me) with the details. However, I do believe in fresh starts, and before January gets any older, here’s a small bloggish step in any given direction.

¹ Writer Chuck Wendig’s self-description.

Yesterday was the anniversary of the Charlie Hebdo massacre. I wrote about it, though briefly, as part of my January 2015 lookback at a better year of JH.com bloggishness. For the second time in two months, Adam Gopnik was in my radio Thursday commenting on a freedom-of-speech manifesto written by the Charlie Hebdo editor, Stephane Charbonnier, not long before he and 10 others were murdered. Another misguided wretch, butcher knife in one hand and a box of toxic notions in the other (and a fake suicide vest – what in hell was he thinking?), tried to darken Paris, too, with his own in memoriam.

In November, Gopnik, Canadian-born and U.S.-based but with a longtime attachment to the City of Light and Love, had spoken movingly of how the second Paris attacks, that thuggery-in-spiritual-clothing, felt to a lover of the place. (Writer Nancy Huston was on the same CBC Sunday Edition program, and I still think of what she said. I’ll be quoting her in “He Said/She Said” soon; I’ve meant to for a month.) The dark side of the human spirit grossly forced itself upon Paris twice this year, but it was also the site of the United Nations’ COP21 environmental conference, the gathering that spotlighted an awakening world’s mounting concern over, and stumbling commitment to act on, climate change – and all the self-destructive habits and attitudes that are producing it. A long, often painful global roadshow – the one that portrays the dawning consciousness of the oneness of humanity – made three fateful stops in Paris in 2015.

I barely wrote about any of it. A snippet here, an oblique reference there. Bad pen-monkey.

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Return of the Attack of the Cool Lean Bean-Counter

[Last night, the Ottawa Writers Festival took me on a road trip to Rwanda with Canadian humorist Will Ferguson. Wait. What? Rwanda? Humour? Yes, both, and it was superb. SPOILER ALERT: Rwanda has more to it than machetes and murder. (Gorillas. Mountains. Peace. Progress. More females in government than in your country.) Rwandans laugh. They remember. They change. It’s not still 1994 there, even if it is in most of our minds. But speaking of thought, I haven’t even told you about the previous WriteFest journey I went on, which stayed much closer to home.]

 

Speaking of public radio, and public spaces, and public service – as often happens around my little corner of the globe – I was in a sacred place last week where service to the common good was extolled with the help of a radio star that video couldn’t kill. (It probably helps that Alan Neal might be part hobbit.)

The SPACE: Centretown United Church is a lovely old stone building about 10 bus stops from Canada’s Parliament. Churches give some people the creeps, sometimes with good reason – desperately resisting the temptation here to mention what happened in Rwandan churches – but the UC is a benevolent and remarkably open-minded Canuck institution, and this place gets a different but complementary dose of the sacred whenever the Ottawa Writers Festival takes it over. Stained glass, hard benches, bright light at sundown, elevated and inspiring conversation. And BOOKS. (Another flavour of heaven, though as my father-in-law muttered afterward, “I don’t know what Pierre Berton was thinking when he called his book The Comfortable Pew. Had he ever sat on one of these things?” Irony can be fun.)

The RADIO: An interview with the evening’s author had already been done on CBC Radio 1’s local afternoon show, but the cherubic and funny Alan Neal was glad to recapitulate his conversation with Kevin Page for a live, though clearly greying, audience. It was like public radio in a really big studio, and was punctuated by the duo’s mock competitition to see who could insert more promos: the host at “All-in-a-Day-at-91.5-FM-in-Ottawa” or the writer “flogging my book Unaccountable”. I declared a tie. They made a good comedy team in the context of what could have been a very dry and earnest conversation. It gave bureaucrats (and public radio) a good name.

Kevin Page and a Parliamentary chandelier. (photo by Chris Wattie/Reuters)

Kevin Page and a Parliamentary chandelier. (photo by Chris Wattie/Reuters)

The PUBLIC SERVICE and its SERVANT. Kevin Page became an unlikely centre to a surprising storm of Canadian attention. A self-professed “bean-counter”, this long-time economist within the Canadian federal public service became Canada’s first Parliamentary Budget Officer in 2008. “Nobody else wanted the job,” he claims. It would seem to be a rather grey and readily-ignorable position; certainly, the sitting government during his tenure would have preferred that it remain so.

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ODY: Weeks 14/15. Frantic Talk, Classic Rock.

My account of a mid-life guitar obsession continues. 105 straight days of terrorizing an innocent instrument, and counting. It started on August 21…

I rarely listen to Classic Rock radio stations anymore. It just gets old, quite apart from having to listen to the ads. (In the car, I always have at least two pre-set stations for any form of commercial radio so I can minimize the sell. Easier, of course, to keep locked on CBC/RadioCanada – always something I can listen to one of those four channels – or, occasionally, campus radio where there are wonderful little enclaves of ethnic music.) The classic rock that I want to hear generally doesn’t get played, but the occasional historic blast is fun to hear. Mostly, though, I’m with Watterson.

I still get Bill Watterson’s late lamented Calvin and Hobbes cartoons on-line, and here’s one of the latest. In the first three panels, Calvin is sitting on the floor listening to a portable radio. It bellows, “You’re listening to ‘Boomer 102’, Classic Rock – where we promise not to expose you to anything you haven’t heard a million times before! We’ll get right back to more hits from those high school days when your world stopped… But first, here’s our critic to review the latest movie based on a ‘60s or ‘70s TV show!” In the fourth panel, Calvin walks away from his father’s easy chair with an expression of, what, smouldering rage? Or maybe it’s terminal disappointment etched on his face. Dad: “What’s that look supposed to mean?

I will admit to dipping back into musical nostalgia and “comfort tunes” occasionally. Heck, I was playing my vinyl Chicago VII this morning. (Remember “Wishin’ You Were Here”? Embarrassingly sweet, but this was one of their last albums that still had some meaty rock and roaring, untamed horns.) I’d rather hand-pick my sentimentality than have it served up to me in a pre-digested, sell-the-ad-space format. (I also lecture on Mondays and Thursdays.)

All that is a prologue to this Old Dog’s Guitar Lesson the Last with Kurt, which took me to old Ottawa south in the middle of Week 14. For some reason, I flipped to “The Bear” and found myself listening to John Fogarty and Creedence Clearwater Revival, a band I’ve been thinking I should revisit. Some simple and good guitar lickin’ for ODY embellishment, and Fogarty is one of the great voices of rock ‘n’ roll. (I can’t play the song yet, but I patrolled Centre Field for major parts of my memory; I’m grateful for Put me in, coach! I’m ready to play…) It had been a pretty soggy month in my part of the world – It’s beginning to look a lot like Climate Change / Everywhere you go… – so no surprise that “Who’ll Stop the Rain?” should be playing. It was just slightly spooky that this was one of the songs that Kurt the Guitar Guru skated through on our last evening. All I need to do is get the hang of the regular right-hand muting of every second or third strum, and from there it’s a breeze: it’s a two-chord alternation (G and C), with a turn to D at the end and a ringing E minor as the sonic cherry on the top. I can do that.

We also, in the midst of a quick glance at another muting technique, raced through little ditties that may raise my respect quotient with my own six-year-old Calvin: one of them is that little intro bass plunking of the TV Batman theme, and the other was “Shaken Not Stirred”, the brainless and archetypal Bond-on-the-run theme. What else? Daily Scale Studies, page 35 of the manual. (Do ‘em as much as you can stand!) More Scale Studies, 36. (Do more than you can stand!) Daily Non-Tonal Studies, 37. (These are even less musical than the previous ones, but they are a MUST for getting those fret fingers strong and independent. Go hard!) Blues, 38. (Don’t forget these guys. Memorize the 12-bar and 8-bar blues progressions. You’ll be glad you did!) Basic Chord Progressions, 39. (I know, you’ve had chord pages to work on before, but these are longer and more challenging ones. And look out, kids! Some of them are Actual Songs! See if you can identify ‘em.)

(At this point, I asked the GG how to do that “cheating F” chord, since the regular F is “such a bastard!” So he scribbled the diagram, noted that it was a moveable one – aha! – as is B-flat, by the way, oh, and B-flat minor which becomes C minor just by running up two frets, and take a look at the root note in an F minor and you’ll see that up one fret it’s an F-sharp…So remember, the basic movement through the chords is that changing from one letter to another, like A to B, is usually a two-fret movement, except between E and F and B and C, now, howya going to remember that? Okay, ‘Ernie farts’, ‘Bert collapses’! Okay? It was a bit fast for me, and of course there was way more than I could take in, but the encouraging thing was that it didn’t seem like Ancient Greek anymore. I can’t speak the language yet, but I can understand some of it, at least enough to go back later and teach myself what he said. Which is the GG’s modus guitarandi, anyhow, that and bubbling with enthusiasm for music and unrestrained goofiness.)

Campfire Songs #1, 40. (You’ll be able to figure these out. And I think I can!) Campfire Songs #2, 41. (Ditto.) Rhythmic Studies 1. (Okay, these exercises have every rhythmic figure you can strum, in 2/4 time, anyway. ‘Member the left-hand muting? Well, this is it. Spend a few hundred hours!) “And as for the rest of the pages we didn’t get to,” the GG grinned, “don’t bother with ‘em. They’re too hard!”

All this semi-frantic run-through was just to get us to keep practising like fiends when there is no longer any urgent reason to do so: no more lessons for awhile, and Lord knows there is no outcry for me to play my chaotic rhythms and stumbling chord-changes in public. In another month or so, the GG will be doing Beginner’s Guitar for Adults II, which he promises will be more song-based, but until then we’re on our own again. “Okay,” he said, “thanks for trying, keep on trying, bye!” And off he ran to his next group lesson. I still don’t know any names – no, wait, there was Glenn – but some will be back for BG 2. It might be fun, next time, to actually try to get to know some of these strangers I’m sharing my insecure stabs at learning with…

Living in the Car

In 1992, it was 54 minutes, and by ’98 it was nearly an hour. And last year, according to Statistics Canada, the average Canadian worker spent 63 minutes a day, or nearly 12 full DAYS across a working year, commuting to and from work. In Toronto, of course, it was decidedly longer: two full weeks for the typical worker bee. (Imagine Los Angeles.) In other words, StatsCan observes, we spend nearly as much time commuting as we do on vacation. Yoicks!

I can still hear Freddie Mercury after all these years, and it’s not “Bohemian Rhapsody”: “I’m in love with my car / Got a feel for my automobile…” I think it’s a pretty dysfunctional romance, for the most part. I’m often amused, for example (when I’m not irritated), by people’s mournful complaints about gasoline prices. (Cripes, I gotta pay nearly as much for gas as I do for soda pop or plasticized water!) But if it’s so bad, why aren’t more people seriously re-thinking their driving habits? Smart cars are still figures of fun and even scorn, and SUVs are not only filling the roads but, as my 6-year-old pointed out to me today, they’re starting to look like Hummers. (An obvious case of grill envy.) I’ve become convinced that many of the most bland and problematic aspects of our cities and ‘burbs come from putting the needs of cars foremost in how we plan them, though that might be a rant for another day. I’m in love with my car, indeed.

I’ve mainly managed to avoid commuting for most of my life, not because of any particular environmental virtue but mainly because I don’t love driving. (Bi-Weekly Bugle: Guy Cred Erodes With Surprise Confession.) I do it well, I can drive for long distances if necessary, but for fun? To blow off steam? (Dangerous, that.) To clear my head? Not interested, thanks, so whenever I could, I have located myself in the community if not down the block from my workplace. Here in Ottawa, my work for the Governor General involved 15 minutes on bus or bike, 25 by sneaker. For the past few months, I’ve just stumbled from bedroom to study, fired up the scribbling machine and I’m off. The 63-second commute, both ways. (The view is nearly as dazzling as the lunchtime banter.)

EcoWoman, on the other hand, pedals out of our driveway ten months an Ottawa year and spends her 63 commuter minutes pumping those lovely legs, taking in the riverside sights and listening to CBC Radio. My lady’s doing it right, say I, and in this town, she’s no Mad Biker Pedalling in the Wilderness, though Ottawa has no shortage of gridlock. Every once in a while, I find myself on the Queensway (or on the 401 over the top of Toronto) during hell hours and think, And folks do this every day? Sheesh.      

Leonard Cohen and Five Good Songs

“You should never throw anything away, including people and ideas. It’s really true that we should never give up on anyone.”  That was Leonard Cohen, in my radio today.

Cohen is 71 now. Five of his songs were inducted into the Canadian Songwriters Hall of Fame on the weekend. (Did you know there was one? Not the weekend, I mean the Hall. Although, actually, there is no actual hall for the Hall. Someday.) He was on Sounds Like Canada this morning, a taped interview he’d done with Shelagh Rogers. I missed the first 15 minutes or so of a warm, intelligent conversation of the type that CBC Radio occasionally pulls off so wonderfully well. (The “Mother Corp” takes a lot of hits from people who don’t listen to it. The TV side has its highs, even beyond Hockey Night in Canada, but I don’t watch it much; it’s so-so, even before you account for having to watch commercials. But the radio side is brilliant, commercial-free, and getting better, getting a little younger. Superb.) It was an hour-long conversation, followed by an hour of highlights from the HoF awards show. (How’s a guy supposed to get any work done?)

“Ring the bells that still can ring / Forget your perfect offering / There is a crack in everything / That’s how the light gets in…” This is an example of the songwriter as Writer, as Poet, a designation Cohen once refused, feeling that it was too early in his career to apply to himself such an exalted title; I take it upon myself to confer it now). It comes from “Anthem”, which enters the Canuck Songster Pantheon along with “Bird on a Wire” (Willie Nelson was there to sing it, and that’s the version I hear), “Ain’t No Cure For Love” (I hear Jennifer Warnes), “Hallelujah” (kd lang did a glorious version at the ceremony, but I like Bono’s, too) and “Everybody Knows” (Don Henley does a terrific rendition on the tribute album Tower of Song, but Cohen’s own is one I find more listenable than some of the others, gritty and morose).

I’m hoping that the whole interview, as well as the awards package, will be available. I looked on the CBC site tonight for it tonight, and instead went wandering through their archives of 1950s radio interviews and 1960s television chats – Adrienne Clarkson, in all her youthful bouffant glory! – and on into the more recent past. And in case there’d been any doubt, I found an extraordinary man. Even in his youth, Leonard Cohen was profoundly articulate, gently contrarian, an artist and a seer who sounded and looked as contemporary as his interviewers looked and often sounded quaint. Now, his intelligence, insight and deep humility are beautiful to hear. I hope to hear today’s interview again. (Apparently it was filmed for eventual airing on television. I’ll let you know.)

Repertory Cinema and Sentimental Radio

I was quite taken in by The Beat That My Heart Skipped at the Mighty Bytowne Cinema last night. A French film by Jacques Audiard, not someone I had known before, but it’s gritty and kinetic and tough-minded. (Much of the dialogue was slangy enough that my attempts to forego the subtitles found my conservative ears missing whole chunks, forcing my eyes back into double-duty. No great hardship, but a slight poke at pretensions of fluency.) It asks the cinematic question: What happens when a restless thug finds in himself an obsession with and a talent for classical piano?

It’s a remake of something apparently very cheesy called Fingers that Harvey Keitel was in early in his career, and I wonder what an American film made of that ending. Presumably, it was much more sentimental than the French one, with a not-quite-redemption scene charged by a brutal return to the life left. I’ve never seen Romain Duris in anything, but he was a dynamo, as deeply believable in this straddling of two utterly different worlds as the film itself sometimes was not (but not often). We cheer for him, are compelled by him, even as we find him a difficult character to like. I’d go again (if I had a teenager’s time).

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And, in an odd but soothing cross-cultural conjunction, I also lucked into the last night for Mary Lou Findlay on As It Happens as I drove away from the movies. [Warning: indignant rantings of an unrepentant CBC Radio-lover to follow. “What do you mean, you don’t know who Mary Lou Findlay is? Next, you’ll be telling me you’ve never heard of Michael Enright!”] I don’t often listen to AIH straight through, but I spent a fair amount of time last evening sitting in parking lots instead of completing my errands. It was a nostalgic journey of the kind I’m profoundly prone to: the best and funniest archival interviews done by Findlay, and warmhearted exchanges with her friend and partner, Barbara Budd. Such good and thoughtful people, such good and thoughtful radio. Fun.