Friday, October 06, 2006

It's Dark at 7 AM


“Did I have a good time last night? Did our guests have a good time last night?”

It used to be kinda fun when I couldn’t remember.

“Boy, the last two hours of last night are a bit of a blur, man. Can you tell me what I said?”

But I have to admit that I can’t have fun with this kind of question anymore. The other night at a dinner party one of the guests was telling me about how he and another friend were drunk and took turns pissing on come cyclists at the skate park one night. Me and the other guy listening to the story laughed and gave each other knowing glances. Because we knew. I’ve never been so reckless when I’ve been drunk that I’ve peed on another human being, but I know the state of mind, and not as a long-forgotten memory either.

The Lake

Jill noticed that the leaves were turning colour when we were driving along the highway towards the cabin outside of Salmon Arm. “I’m sad the summer is over,” she said.

Every year I’m convinced that the leaves turn colour earlier and earlier in August. But the fact that I notice this every year means that every year I’m surprised at the exact same moment. Memory is not truth. The fact that I don’t remember that the leaves start to go yellow by August 10 is not a fault in wiring but rather an act of will. I’m sure that part of this defiance goes back to my 13 years of public school and the countdown to the first day of school. Yellow leaves means school. Yellow leaves mean sad.

But I do like autumn.

Hell, the only season you’re really allowed to dislike is winter. Popular consensus. If you like winter you’re a freak. Unless you live in Australia land winter is summer. But here in Canada, despite the fact that winter is completely out of our control, and that as kids we LOVED snow and snowstorms and snowball fights and cold cheeks and snow forts, as adults we are encouraged to bitch about it.

Keith’s 8-pack

Jill was sick as a dog with a hangover the whole drive yesterday. I wasn’t “sick” by definition but I was tired and only two hours out of Calgary I was thinking that I was not going to make the whole 6-8 hour drive to the lake. By the time we make Revelstoke, only 2 hours from the cabin, we decided to eat a greasy dinner and stay in the Frontier Motel.

You don’t just drink for a night, you carry it with you the whole next day. This is especially a problem when you have to go to work.

The plan was that we would “dry out” on the Shuswap. No liquor. If you read this and you think that I’m a retard to even mention this simple prohibition then you’re not a drinker.

And it was looking good. No booze purchased in Salmon Arm. No pangs of regret. We had a load of healthy food from the farmer’s market.

We got to the cabin and discovered an 8-pack of Keith’s in the fridge, and a trickle of rye in the cupboard. We drank the rye first.

New Year

We were talking in the car about how school is such a weird experience. Jill was speaking. “I never wanted to be there, but I had too. I had to get up at, I don’t know, like 7:30 every morning and go to school. I rebelled as much as I could by cutting classes and that. We took a bus—a school bus—in the mornings and one day I missed the bus. So I decided to walk to school to ‘find out how long it would take me’ and I missed my first class.”

“You did that on purpose.”

“Yes! I took me 45 minutes.”

The “year” doesn’t start in January it starts in September.

We talked in the car about how school wasn’t just set up to teach us facts and skills, but also—perhaps more so—to condition us to a routine that began in the morning and ended in the evening. To prepare us for a life of work.

“Some people don’t end up with that routine,” Jill said.

“But most do.”

The end of summer is the real time for reflection and the actual moment to pull up your socks. New Year’s Eve in January is just a hella party that comes on the tail of all the Christmas parties that precede it.

I’ve always thought that New Year’s Eve is always so “disappointing” because the night is supposed to the BIGGEST party of the year, with suits and gowns and jewellery and HEAVY DRINKING and HARD DRUGS and you can never, no matter how hard you try, match the New York “When Harry me Sally” party in your mind. We learn that this should be New Year. And so New Year’s Eve is never New Year’s Eve.

This is a moment when Plato is useful.

But don’t get me wrong, the past few New Year’s that I’ve had have been the most fun. And this is because I know that I need to leave the city for New Year’s to be fun. If you’re in the city you’ll always know that there was a bigger party that you didn’t find. In the country, in the woods, you are the party. You are the city. I lost my bathing suit at Halcyon Hot Springs last January and don’t begrudge the fucker who boosted it one bit. I hope it cups his nuts in soft nylon netting like it used to cup mine.

The point is that September is the real moment for recollection, reassessment, and resolution. It’s hardwired into our minds—no matter what our profession or pastime of the moment—that the next step, the new beginning, happens when the leaves turn yellow and the air cools and the kids go back to school. And so fall is sad and a good time to think about drinking.

What’s Your Flavour?

When a person within earshot declines a drink because they “don’t like that,” I’m usually flabbergasted. This makes no sense to me. Liquor is liquor and sure, if I’m at the store I make discerning choices about how I’m going to get drunk that night; but the bottom line is: I won’t refuse a drink. It could be cinnamon flavoured with gold flecks, it could be thick with egg yolk, it could be the cheapest, sweetest malt liquor on the shelf but I’ll drink it. People who refuse alcohol are not drinkers.

I tried to pace myself the other night, when our friends were hosting us, by drinking Keith’s (a whole 8-pack) all night until I had no option but to start mixing myself glasses of rye and Safari (don’t ask) with a splash of soda. Up until then I was fine but now I can’t really remember the last two hours of the night and what I said and whether or not I said anything I’d like to take back.

Monday, May 29, 2006

Pixies and Perfect Rock Music

I just burned a CD of Pixies for a friend in Banff. And I'm listening to the music and just love it. Now, let's not forget the seductive allure of the discovery of a band during a phase of life that you've already decided will be a part of your "I was 22 once and I never will be again" nostalgia; but this shit rocks.

"This shit rocks"? You might exclaim. "I've heard that before!"

The Pixies recorded tunes that are technically simple, the kind of stuff that you can cover in your garage. But the quality of song-writing and arrangement are just unbelievable. And you know what? My teeth were cut for the Pixies years earlier (than my 21st birthday) by the Talking Heads. Tight, almost neurotic rhythm guitars laying a base for short, exciting tunes. The Pixies have more groove than Talking Heads, for sure, but there's a similar approach--fast, tight strumming and a poetic, somewhat aggressive vocal delivery. Pixies, however, tapped into a root of classic (perhaps retroactively?) "rock" rhythms and sounds that betray a quality of energy and delivery that always kicks my ass.

Just cue up "Planet of Sound" on yer music device and tell me that I'm full of shit.

Or their cover of "Head On".

"Wait!" You say. "Both those songs are from "Trompe le Monde, the Pixies's most COMMERCIAL album!"

Ha. Non-believer. Trompe le Monde was inevitable, and still my favourite Pixies album. What the Pixies always did was rock hard, and with Trompe le Monde they managed to unite some of the "punk" (I use the term with some reluctance) sound of their earlier work with a show of pure crotch-strumming licks to perfection. There's nothing wrong with a crowd-pleaser, wankers.

Thursday, May 18, 2006

Northender's Serial Banff Chronicle

I'm afraid of people today. It's glorious because I don't normally give myself permission to feel this way. I've spent the whole day in my room, except one hour with the voice and performance coach (more on that later) and a jog through town, followed with a steam bath. It's not that I've been mistreated or anything--everybody out here is great. But I'm exhausted because I've been wearing my "game face" pretty much straight for almost three weeks.

I agreed to help sell books at the Writing Studio reading this evening, which I regret because I'd rather just skip the whole thing. Can you believe it? Still, it should be a trip to experiment with my newly-sanctioned desire for solitude. We'll see if I can resist the free booze that follows.

May 19, 02:22

I just started watching "My Own Private Idaho". Does America really think that they've got a monopoly on the "great empty landscape?" Horseshit. We really need to be proud of our goddamn landscapes. The great problem with Canada is that we're so charged to out-do the States that we focus on the big cities and--yes, just admit it--British Columbia. Americans get all kinds of currency from the endless road into the horizon, and yet if buddy tells you he's from Saskatchewan you nod in sympathy. Fuck that shit.

May 19, 18:02

In our fiction meeting today we discussed whether or not "great literature" is imbued with something intangible yet permanent, like a soul. Is this an aspect of a great book?

I believe that there is such a thing as quality in writing, but at the same time I'm sensitive to the fact that writing, great or not great, is hardly accessible to everyone. In other words, books that are often labeled as brilliant or classic do not communicate easily with people who lack experience, and, I might as well just say it, practice, reading long complicated texts. For example: my mother is an intelligent woman and voracious reader but she refuses to read texts that do not use punctuation to indicate dialogue. Does this mean that she cannot "read" a brilliant text that eschews dialogue markers? Does this mean she's "wrong" if the book makes her crazy?

Whether or not a text qualifies as great literature seems to be a privileged discussion, and the presumption that follows is that if The Collected Works of Billy the Kid is deemed to be brilliant, then this brilliance should be obvious to anyone who reads it. And I know this is not the case. If a person reads Billy the Kid and says, "I don't get it," then doesn't this suggest that detecting quality writing is a skill? Learned and therefore has rules? Why didn't Billy the Kid's "soul" just leap out and grab this reader?

A text cannot have a soul--it's an object. I'm with Abraham on this one. The reader, however, does have a soul. When a text excites or moves a reader, communicates clearly on several different registers at once with the reader (emotional, spiritual, psychological, etc), it seems like a moment of connection with the text. It is a moment where the reader recognizes themself while reading the text. But this happens inside the reader.

This moment of connection, of recognition, depends on all of the complex registers upon which an individual sounds: prior reading experience, nature of education, familiarity with the topics and themes of the text, childhood, what they had for lunch, etc. When a book connects with a large number of people, it's not possible that they're all having the exact same experience and/or reaction.

So what does this mean? Perhaps a good book, good literature, is constructed such that it causes many connections with the souls of many readers. If the reader has to do some work, has to stretch a little to understand the subtleties that are written into the text, has epiphanies, on many different levels over the course of the text, then maybe they'll come to think of this text as great. A text that can produce this reaction in large numbers of people will be received as brilliant. But there is no "nugget" inside the book that is identical for every reader, no matter how many conversations in common they might share about favourite moments.

Sunday, May 14, 2006

The only celebrity death I've ever mourned was Jim Henson. I bought the People magazine that delivered the play by play of his final moments.

Tonight I played the Rainbow Connection and cried like a child. I refuse to watch any muppets media since the death of Kermit.

Tuesday, March 21, 2006

Nirvana, Nostalgia and the Collective Experience of Suicide

Around two weeks ago I started to search the public library catalogue for Nirvana albums. I don’t remember why; maybe I read a Kurt Cobain retrospective in a magazine or maybe a patron checked out one of their CD’s. I wanted to hear the music again and see how it sounded “again, for the first time.”

I remember when Smells Like Teen Spirit made a splash and Nirvana became a household name. In 1991 I was 15 and just starting to explore music beyond my parent’s record collection in a fairly aggressive way. I ended up as a devoted and definitely geeky (but completely unrepentant) Rush fan for a number of years; as such, I was also sceptical (hell, I’ll be honest: hostile towards) music that was trendy and popular. I mean, if lots of people are crazy for it how can it be good, right? (This attitude is certainly not exclusive to me. It was common among many people I knew when I was younger and persists in myself—and others—to this day, albeit in a somewhat repressed, embarrassed way. My ventures into music that lots of other people actually liked but was still considered “alternative” might be archived on this blog in the future. Possible title: “Northender gets into cigarettes, alcohol and drugs, and rediscovers the Pixies”) I secretly enjoyed Nirvana, but because I never picked up one of their records my knowledge of their discography remained limited to radio and MuchMusic rotations.

I remember listening to Nevermind on a ghetto blaster in my brother’s room with the music spinning off a cassette and thinking about how aggressive and catchy it was. Like I said, I liked it at first but kept my distance when the Nirvana explosion propelled them into superstardom, which must have happened in the few days that followed that first exposure.

Now, I seem to remember that Nirvana was always considered a “genius” band that wrote “innovative” music and established a new genre (“grunge”—essentially the Pixies with good looking frontmen, slightly more normative songs, and no Spanish flavour). It seems like Kurt Cobain’s strung-out stare framed by stubble and bleached hair was staring out of magazine covers during their whole career, and that the critics and fans were always devoted.

However, it’s been 15 years since the night with a cassette and ghetto blaster, and 12 since Kurt was found dead with a shotgun nearby (in his hand? beside him?). Like all prophets and true heroes Kurt was taken from us “too soon”, i.e. before he could release a bad record, then several more, then turn up 20 years later alongside Pearl Jam and the Smashing Pumpkins at Live 8 II: People Still Need Rock! In other words, he did his career a remarkable favour by dying while on top.

Every time I see Kurt Cobain’s face staring out of an Imaginus poster, or in the liner notes to Nevermind, his stare isn’t strung-out, or edgy, or angry; no, by virtue of his violent death his face is haunted and burdened, his eyes piercing and sad. And I can’t tell whether this was the Kurt that existed before his death, or whether this was the Kurt created by his death. If I looked through a large selection of reviews and articles written while he was still alive, would the band seem like a legend? Would Kurt appear in the guise of a troubled (and therefore prescient) artistic genius or the trappings of an angry, rags-to-riches white trash rocker? When I read the paper that announced the death of Kurt Cobain and also the following press that covered the vigils held by weeping teenagers and young adults, some of whom (apparently) were threatening to kill themselves as well, I wondered, “whoa, where the hell did all this come from?” I also understood that it no longer mattered what anybody thought about Nirvana and Kurt Cobain up until that point, because now it was all certain: Kurt was an artist who was too much with this world and his band was his creative instrument (I frequently wonder what happened to Krist Novoselic…).

I write “when Kurt was found dead” and not “when Kurt committed suicide” because I’m one of the many who suspects foul play. Now, I certainly never knew the man nor do I find it particularly hard to believe that he would kill himself, but there’s something so perfectly juicy about a murder story. Also, and perhaps this is part of my rationale as well, a murder plot exonerates him.

Two of my friends from high school killed themselves, and both events were disturbing and sad; these suicides are characterised in my memory as bizarre fluctuations in my life rather than catastrophes. I wasn’t close to either or these guys, and that distance explains a lack of devastation in my reaction; but at the same time the tragedy of their deaths—both of them were around 20—was mixed with an inescapable understanding that both of them chose to die. If they had been murdered, perhaps their memory wouldn’t be touched with the wilful self-destruction of suicide.

I’m also very interested in the Courtney Love conspiracy theory. I watched the documentary (don’t ask me the title; Kurt and Courtney?) directed by a British journalist who was convinced that Courtney had Kurt murdered. Like all skilfully directed documentaries it was persuasive; and yet perhaps some of this persuasiveness derives, in part, from the desire to deny the reality of a suicide, the desire to hold another person accountable for a deliberately inflicted human death when the culprit is paradoxically annihilated in the same moment.

It’s possible in the end that Kurt Cobain and Nirvana had made more of an impression on me than I thought. That all my rejection of him and his band was an effort to distance myself from a media-enabled experience of a personality linked to an exciting moment in music. The awareness that “we” were being sold a product tainted the music at the time and it still does. But at the same time, as a denizen of this culture in this place in time it’s very interesting to realize that all the press and all the narratives that circulated over the years did get their hooks into me, and that it’s possible to react in a fairly profound way to the suicide of a man that you’ve never met who fronted a band whose albums you never bought.

Sunday, January 29, 2006

I think I pooped in someone's drawer...

Thanks to all of you who showed up last night to wish Mel and Andy farewell and good luck. It was a good night and I'm grateful that I don't drink like that all the time. I'm very sorry if I groped you.

Monday, January 23, 2006

Election Day: Some Thoughts on Political (In)Activity

I encouraged my students to vote. I told them that I don’t care who they vote for, as long as they throw their two cents into the pot. And you know, it’s true: I don’t really care who they vote for. Sure it’s hard to maintain faith in our party system in Alberta with so many votes being cast for the Conservatives, but on the other hand, I didn’t hit the streets and campaign on behalf of any of the alternatives nor did I volunteer my time at a candidate’s constituency office. It’s one thing to complain that the other federal candidates aren’t doing enough to drum up support, it’s another question entirely to wonder who, exactly, is meant to do this. It’s very tempting to sit back and lament the bias of the media and the horrible inevitability of a Conservative sweep in Alberta, but in the end if you want people to change their minds then you’ve got to issue some challenges yourself; I know from experience that if you hit the streets on behalf of a candidate in the capacity of official volunteer there’s a lot of work you can accomplish.

I cheerfully cast my vote for John Chan of the NDP, the party for whom I’ve always voted, the party that employs my mother and father in Winnipeg. I’ve been guilty of decrying the obstinacy of Conservative voters, accusing them of following the tradition of the their families. But I’ve done exactly the same my whole life, and it really doesn’t make any difference that the party in question is the NDP. A dedication to a comfort zone is a dedication to a comfort zone regardless how that zone is furnished.

One of my library colleagues is very thoughtful about the near-certainty of a Conservative victory. She feels that a change in government would be a good thing, because regardless of a perceived lack of an alternative, the Liberals have worn out their welcome. She is also of the opinion that if the Conservatives win the election, they will do so on the strength of a large number of voters who cast their ballot for the Liberal party not so long ago. In other words: they’ll be on a trial run for the first year, if not the first few years of their mandate, especially if they cannot take a majority of the seats in Parliament. This is a new Conservative party, the first time that the remains of the Reform Party will take the helm of Canada, who still, nevertheless, must crawl out from under the shadow of the country’s mass rejection of the Progressive Conservatives in 1993; this shadow has crept back up the lane recently with Peter C Newman’s Mulroney Tapes.

If you’re someone who genuinely and profoundly feels disappointment with the possibility of a Conservative Prime Minister, remember it during the next election, and see if you can work towards a difference in other people’s opinions. I’m not thrilled about the looks of this election, but you know, I’m not going to let it ruin my day. I trust Canada and I trust Canadians.