Friday, June 26, 2009

Michael Jackson

It's funny on facebook how everyone is so divided on this. You have half the people saluting the one time king of pop while the other half is saying good riddance to a presumed pedophile and creepy fellow.

As for me, I was kind of stunned, more than I'd care to admit. It just seems so strange. I don't think I really cared about anything Jackson did artistically since the mid-80's but for some irrational reason I still thought a comeback might be possible. At the very least, it might have shown that the past two decades of weirdness was somehow worth it. Of course, this stopped being a hollywood type story years ago so I guess there was never any chance of a hollywood ending.

In a lot of ways I am more forgiving than some of the people on facebook. At the very least, I can find some way to divide the art from the artist. I still love On the Road while accepting that Kerouac had a homophobic streak a mile wide. I can still get a thrill out of Jerry Lee Lewis doing Crazy Arms while accepting that the killer was a creep. Bobby Fischer, Hemingway, Ezra Pound - all creators of great art while being less than stellar human beings (Fischer's chess in it's prime was a work of art). You know it's a bad crowd when Hem starts looking like the well adjusted one.

Thriller was one of the first albums I ever owned. I was ten at the time. Over twenty years later, I still probably know most of the songs by heart, not that I've ever been quick to admit it. For all the madness - the rumours, the innuendo and whatever the reality may be - you have to give him that. In his prime, he created great music.

Wednesday, June 24, 2009

New Music Day!

Once every four weeks, I work a shift on a Tuesday that finishes at seven in the evening. It's become something of a ritual that I leave work and head up to Little Italy to visit Soundscapes Records. As I've mentioned before, Soundscapes is one of the best shops in the city. It's just a small store but it has pretty much everything you could want, from the newest indie stuff to jazz to classical and all the stops in between.

Today, I picked up three brand new discs:

Regina Spektor's far - back in university, I listened to way too much Tori Amos. Regina Spektor is kind of like Tori Amos with a sense of humour. She writes weird and funny songs from strange perspectives that kill me. I have pretty high hopes for this disc.

God Help The Girl - Belle and Sebastian's Stuart Murdoch as pop svengali - writing and producing a story set to music. Murdoch is one of those musicians that can seemingly do no wrong so I had to pick this one up.

Larry Jon Wilson - this is the disc I've been listening to since I got home last night. A fairly obscure singer songwriter who rose and faded back in the 70s, Wilson has put together a disc of stripped down voice and guitar songs that echo the greats - Kristofferson, Van Zandt, Cash's American recordings - but doesn't feel out of place on Drag City, the label that is home to Bill Callahan and Will Oldham. I love it.

In other news, I went fishing last weekend for the first time in years. My father and I went out for a bit, just rowing down the lake a ways. I really need to get out more often (fishing, that is). Is there anything more relaxing than a well placed cast on a sunny day? Next time, though, I will remember to put suntan lotion on my legs. I knew there was a reason I always wear pants.

There's fish in there somewhere. . . Even if we didn't find any on Sunday.

Friday, June 19, 2009

Beck covering the Velvet Underground!!!!

I'm heading up north tomorrow for fishing and hanging out and father's day and stuff. I'll try to blog while I'm up there. Until that time, though, go to and watch the man cover a velvet underground gem. It is the greatest thing since sliced bread (until the next thing comes along).

Wednesday, June 17, 2009

Canuck Book Extra Credit 2 - Spent by Joe Matt

One more Matt book though I guess some of this was done after Matt returned to the States (he lives in LA now) so it may not be as Canuck as some of the other books I've read. It is, however, set in Toronto and published by a great Canuck press (Drawn and Quarterly) so I'd say that counts.

Basically, this book is great if you love Joe Matt's work, so-so if you don't. It has all the usual trappings of Matt's work - misanthropy, ridiculous degrees of thrift, stunted emotional life, porn, more porn - and it moves fairly well. It doesn't break any new ground and by the time it winds down - with Matt complaining about how he has wasted his life with no great revelations to satisfy the readers - I think even the most die hard fan is glad to see it end - not with a whimper, but a whine.

Tuesday, June 16, 2009

Canuck Book Extra Credit 1 - Heaven is Small by Emily Schultz

What Mr. Mutford wants, he gets. Just 47 books shy of 1000 books for the year, John asked us to read more Canadian this month. So I did. Here goes:

Man dies but doesn't realize it.

Man takes subway and bus to the far reaches of suburbia for a job interview.

Man gets job as proofreader at Heaven, a huge corporation that publishes romance novels.

Man starts to suspect something.

I've been reading Emily Schultz for years. She spent time editing Broken Pencil magazine, put out a series of micro chapbooks by anonymous authors (the pocket canon series) and published a good collection of stories, Black Coffee Nights. Her first novel (Joyland) wasn't as good as I'd hoped but it kept me interested. Which was a good thing because Heaven is Small is a really good novel. Not perfect, but a very enjoyable read.

I don't really want to say more about the story than I already have because a good part of the fun of this book is the little surprises, the revelations when you start to understand how things work in the world of heaven. Needless to say, it's well thought out with large doses of humour mixed with darker details. I thought the ending was a little rushed. As I noticed myself getting closer to the back cover, I started to worry that there wouldn't be enough time to finish thing. After finishing, I still think the book could have gone a little longer.

But that's a minor quibble. The book is fun and well constructed. A while ago, Schultz was showing up on lists of young Canuck writers to watch. This book proves the lists were right.

ps - My other minor quibble is the dust jacket. Not exactly the best cover design if you want to get men to read the book (and they should).

Wednesday, June 10, 2009

A Scary Thought

Toronto is mulling over the idea of offering only diet (meaning aspartame laced) drinks in high school vending machines. There are good intentions here - the school board wants to limit students' exposure to high caloried glorified corn syrup (otherwise known as pop). Of course, once those good intentions come up against corporate sponsors (Coke and Pepsi), all bets are off and stupid self-serving ideas seep in.

Aspartame is not the answer. Not only are there lingering health questions tied to the products, there is also the simple fact that a substance 150 times sweeter than sugar actually makes a person crave more sweets (and my nutritionist thinks I don't listen to her). When you think about it, it's not that surprising - how many people do you know that really lose weight drinking 'diet' pop?

As for the health issues, here is a list of illnesses that have been associated with aspartame: brain tumors, multiple sclerosis, epilepsy, chronic fatigue syndrome, parkinson's disease, alzheimer's, mental retardation, lymphoma, birth defects, fibromyalgia, and diabetes. While I already knew about a few of them before today (apparently the rate of MS among female office workers is off the charts), there were some surprises. And yet this stuff is considered safe for human consumption.

So what is the solution? Fruit juice? Not really. Contrary to what they tell you in the commercials, drinking a bottle of fruit juice is not the equivalent of eating so much fruit. What you really get is all the sugar, some of the nutrients and almost none of the fibre you get from eating fruit. Furthermore, because of its concentrated nature, you are consuming far more of those sugars in one sitting than you really should. Before fruit juices are considered, they really must also look at portion control and reducing the size of the packaging. A half litre of orange juice in a sitting just isn't that good for you.

Water? Yup, but not in those nasty plastic bottles. If the school board was truly interested in their students' health, they should probably offer free stainless steel water bottles and put a tap beside every water fountain so the students can fill them when they want. Tap water is no worse than what you find in the plastic bottles. In fact, in the case of Aquafina (Pepsi's water) and Dasani (Coke's water), that's all you're getting (read the label if you think I'm wrong and realize that those 'municipal sources' are the same sources you tap when you get a glass of water in the kitchen, only wrapped in plastic).

I don't know what the solution is. Personally, I figure if they keep the vending machine, they should keep all the options available, even normal pop. What I would like to see most is a huge reduction in portion sizes. Do you realize that the child size pop served in most fast food joints is bigger than size of pop they served to adults in restaurants in the 50's? Remember how much smaller cans were in the 80's? I say offer the drinks but drop the sizes to something a little more manageable.

While we're on the topic of drinks, I would like to burst one bubble (it's a pet peeve). So-called "flavoured water". I know, you feel real good because look at all the water you're drinking. Isn't that great? No. You're just drinking watered down juice or uncarbonated pop. Would you let your kids go around drinking kool-aid all the time? I didn't think so. So why is it okay for adults to break out the drink crystals every time they want a drink of water?

It's not really the product I am opposed to. I spent a large part of my adult life drinking sugared pops so I'm not in a great position to criticize what people want to drink. Besides, if an adult wants to drink juice drinks all day, he or she should be able to. It's the marketing that offends me. I hate the fact that these concoctions are marketed as being the same as having a glass of water, which they aren't. By the logic these companies use, we're all just water drinkers. I mean, what is coffee if not just flavoured water? Beer? Tea? Argh!

I'm so old school. . .

I just made a reference to Skinner boxes on facebook. Not that I expect all that many people to even know what the heck Skinner boxes are. Sometimes I think my sisters are right - maybe I did cause my aneurysm by filling my brain with too much useless info.

Anyways, here's an interesting article that refutes one of the great myths about B.F. Skinner and his childrearing practises:

Tuesday, June 09, 2009

Argh, My Roots are Showing!

8 days before I see Bob Dylan and Willie Nelson (and John Mellencamp) with my father in Syracuse, I will be going to see Steve Earle at Massey Hall!

What a year:

A new Dylan album and a great disc of Townes Van Zandt covers by Steve Earle are already out. This month, there will be a new disc by Regina Spektor. This fall, there will be a new disc by Tom Russell.

Even better, I just read that John Irving has a new novel coming out this year. As does Richard Russo.

2010 is going to be so dull.

I Wonder. . .

How much credit banks would give me before they started to think better of it? Even in this time of supposedly tightening lending practises I still get all kinds of stuff in the mail telling me how much money banks are willing to give me. There's a part of me that would like to take out all the loans possible just to see how long it would take for the supposedly smart people at the banks to turn off the tap.

For instance, today I was doing some banking online (how did we ever survive before? Banking in anything other than pyjamas just seems wrong) and I noticed that the limit on my credit line was $6000 more than I thought it was. Basically, I keep a credit line around because it's cheaper than paying credit card interest. If I want to purchase something big - like a trip to Iceland - I'd much rather pay the credit card with the credit line and enjoy an interest rate that isn't highway robbery (does anyone really get robbed on the highway anymore?). I don't want a high credit limit because I don't believe in having that much available credit outstanding. If a time comes when I need more money, I'd just go talk to the bank. Until that time, I like to keep things in control.

So I wound up making a call to the bank. They warned me that - gasp - if I ever wanted to raise my limit, I would have to talk to them about reapplying for more credit. Which was kind of what I wanted in the first place.

This isn't the first time I've had to do something like this. For a while there, I was making almost yearly calls to Amex and Visa getting them to drop the limit back to what I want it to be. They have finally given up on the automatic increases, but they still send me mail about even shinier, prettier cards I can have.

I did the bank ask why it is that I can apply for credit quite simply through online banking but that there is no way for me to reduce my credit limits online. (Not that I actually expected a good answer.) Apparently, it has something to do with them having to manually drop credit limits. But they can raise them automatically with no problem. With people like that taking care of my money, I am not exactly feeling warm and fuzzy feelings right now. Alas, my mattress is far too new for me to start stashing money in it.

Friday, June 05, 2009

Travel essentials. . .

I don't really consider myself to be that adventurous. Compared to some of the people I've met on the road - round the worlders shoestringing it (you know you're hardcore if 3 or 4 bucks a night for a room in India is too much and you sleep in a dorm for a buck) or the woman I met in Iceland who went on a road trip with friends in a small car from London to Mongolia - my exploits feel pretty tame. Those people are adventurous. Me? I just wander about sometimes.

I have, however, wandered about a fair bit, both in and out of Canada. In that time, I've developed an unwritten list of tools and tips that make the trip easier, things I make sure to take along. It wasn't until I started thinking about it that I realized how long a list it actually is.

1. The luggage - While my backpack collects more and more dust in my closet, I have not switched to suitcases. Instead, I usually pack a black duffel bag from Mountain Equipment Co-op. I have two sizes - one for weekend trips and one for anything longer. A lot of times I will take the larger one with me on short trips because it gives me enough room so I can pack my camera bag in it. I like duffel bags. I can sling them over my shoulder and carry them for fairly long distances without too much strain. Unlike backpacks, I can pack things a little better so I'm not always walking around with wrinkled clothes. Unlike suitcases, they can take lots of abuse. You can toss them under buses, drag them for short distances and generally give them a beating without worry. If your stuck in the middle of nowhere waiting for a ride, I'd much rather sit on or lean back against a duffel than a suitcase.

As for suitcases with wheels? I think they are great for the elderly or the infirm. Other than that, if you feel the need for wheels, you're likely carrying too much stuff. Don't worry, I know I'm out in the lunatic fringe on this one. Any trip to an airport or train station tells me it's a lost cause. In spite of this, I can't bring myself to buy a bag that rolls.

2. Camera strap - Want to know a secret tip about taking good travel photos? It's quite easy, though not without some sacrifice. First, take your camera out of your backpack or suitcase. Second, hang the camera around your neck. You'll start taking better photos almost instantly. Why? Simple. You no longer have an excuse to pass on this shot or that shot because you couldn't be bothered digging out your camera. The more shots you take, the better you get at composing them, finding the image that resonates rather than the image that was easy.

The sacrifice? You look like a tourist. The secret? You probably look like a tourist anyways, so you're not giving up much.

3. Memory, lots of it - It's the digital age. For the cost of a couple of plastic squares, you can take far more pictures than you would have with film. Even better, you don't have to change the cards that often. I was thinking of this on a cold, wet day on a crowded amphibious boat/bus thingee in Iceland. If I'd been shooting 35mm, I would've missed most of the good shots.

Just make sure to edit for content later. Just because you can take 53 shots of the same iceberg, it doesn't mean your friends or family want to see all 53 shots.

4. Travel alarm clock - Yes, there are places out there that don't do wake up calls or room service. A small alarm clock solves one of those problems.

5. A stuff sack - The same type that backpackers and outdoorsy folks use for their long treks in the wilderness. I take an empty one along for dirty laundry, mostly socks and underwear. While I will reuse shirts and pants with reckless abandon, I don't often do the same with the aforementioned socks and underwear. A stuff sack is a great place to put them.

6. Ipod, folding headphones and travel speaker - Not only will having your own pair of comfortable folding headphones (my ears were not made for earbuds) save you a few bucks on the plane when you want to watch a movie, travel speakers and an ipod make hotel rooms much more enjoyable. There's only so much french or spanish or icelandic tv I can watch before it all starts sounding greek to me.

7. Pocketknife - A million uses, most related to impromptu picnics (ones with corkscrew and/or bottle opener are best).

8. The US dollar - It really is the universal language. Take a small stash with you and keep it for emergencies. I remember getting to the Nepali border at night and all the Brits scrambling because the border officials only wanted greenbacks, not British Pounds.

9. Converters and adapters for electrical devices - It pays to do your research. Ipods and most laptops will work on 120v or 240v, so all you need is the proper plug adapter. Other items (Nintendo DS, for example) only operate on 120v, so you need a plug adapter and a power converter. Personally, I'm fine with carrying a plug adapter but not much more. Anything requiring a converter gets left behind.

10. A yahoo/hotmail/whatever web based email account - You can find internet almost anywhere. On my trip to India and Nepal that was the main way I communicated with friends and family. Same with Iceland. Set up an account before you leave. Perhaps make it a different one from your everyday account in case anything happens to it (I've never had any issues, but it's worth it to be safe).

11. Guidebooks - I generally use Rough Guide or Lonely Planet. Buy the book well before you leave and browse through it. Find the things you would like to see. Get a basic understanding of the cultural differences. It can be mildly disconcerting having an Indian tell you yes while shaking his head no (in India, the head shake - sort of reminds me of a figure 8 - is a sign of agreement). Take the book with you and use it but don't be afraid to try something that isn't in the book - guidebook writers can't get everywhere and, besides, things change. The books are worth it for the maps alone.

12. A money belt - Nothing beats simple awareness and common sense for keeping thieves at bay, but a moneybelt does help. After a while you get used to wearing it.

13. A decent toiletries kit / a first aid kit (for more adventurous destinations) - Be strict but don't skimp too much. Buy a pack of plastic containers from a drug store and use them for soaps and shampoos. Pack some tylenol and immodium (Moctezuma's revenge can strike you anywhere, not just Mexico and it can make travelling suck). Make sure you have enough of what ever medications you take so you can handle being delayed for a couple of days. If you are taking prescription meds, take a list of them along and keep a copy in your daypack and in your toiletries kit in case something happens.

14. Travel insurance - Buy it for any trip outside of Canada, even / especially to the States. It's fairly cheap, but gives you that peace of mind you need. Leave a copy of the info. with someone at home and take copies with you (perhaps on the same sheet you use for listing meds).

15. A good book - You knew this one was coming. Leave the portable dvd players and ds's at home. Take a book and enjoy it. You're on vacation.

Monday, June 01, 2009

A little more Iceland

Just got back from a trip up north. Tomorrow, I'll probably post something more substantial but, for now, more Iceland pics:

Anybody got some good whiskey to go with that ice?

Kind of a self portrait of sorts.
Taken from the parking lot of a gas station.
I think I'll stick to the harmonica.