Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Book Review: The Best Laid Plans by Terry Fallis

"In fact, it's becoming increasingly clear to me that the same laws and principles that govern science and engineerin' also preside over politics. ...Newton's first law says that an object at rest or in motion will remain in that tstate unles acted upon by another force. In politics, if a party is at rest--stalled in the polls, as it were--it will remain there unless it, or some other force, does somethin' to change its fortunes. Newton's third law says that for every action there is an equal and opposite reaction. Well, this plays itself out daily in the Commons. The Government makes an announcement, the Opposition responds, as the name suggests, in an opposin' fashion." --Angus McLintock, in Terry Fallis' The Best Laid Plans

Short review: The Best Laid Plains is a well-written, light-toned political satire, and I didn't really care for it at all.

The longer version will, as you may expect, be somewhat longer. First, let's talk about one of the most interesting aspects of the book: its distribution. Fallis originally wrote the book, but was unable to find a publisher for it. So he broke it into pieces, and released the pieces as a podcast. (A podcast which, incidentally, is still available; the first chapter can be found here.) It proved successful enough that he felt encouraged to self-publish the novel in book form, and that gained enough attention to garner him the Stephen Leacock Award for Humour and a sequel, The High Road. Though my main reading was through the book, I listened to a bit of the podcast as well; Fallis has a good voice for such readings, and I think I prefer that form to the book, simply because it conveys a little more of the author's intention when Fallis is on hand to provide the emphasis and tone he meant the book to convey. It's an interesting comment on the commercial/cultural mindset of the reading public that we're willing to pay for a book copy of a product that existed previously (and concurrently) on the Internet for free.

And what about the plot? Well, it all revolves around Daniel Addison, speech writer for the Canadian Liberals, and owner of a PhD in Canadian Literature. After realizing that politics was making him somewhat jaded--and coming across his financee engaged in a, um, different sort of congress with the Party Leader--Addison decides to turn towards a career in academia. The political body lets him go without hard feelings--providing he can find someone to run on the Liberal ballot for the university's constituency, one that is counted as a sure-win for the Conservatives. He eventually strikes a deal with his landlord, the 61 year old Scottish engineering professor, Angus McLintock. The deal is this: Daniel will teach Angus' English for Engineers course, and McLintock will run on the ballot, provided he doesn't have to campaign and has no chance of winning. I think anyone with a passing familiarity of comedy knows what happens next: through a series of unfortunate events, the outspoken, no-nonsense Scotsman is suddenly a member of Parliament. And--surprise--his nonpartisan, direct and honest approach to politics turns out to be just what the country needs.

The novel has a lot to recommend it. It's light, but no so light that there's no substance to it. It's a fairly critical and fairly accurate depiction of business in Ottawa. And yet... it rubbed me the wrong way, for two big different reasons.

First, there was a plot. From the description above, you may gather that it's reasonably predictable, and perhaps a bit too much of a stock story. But I don't have any problem with that; one of my favorite genres is 18th century comedy plays, and those follow such a stock formula that you can often predict exactly how the story will unfold just from the list of character names. (If there's a character named Colonel Cuckold, he's probably not going to have a happy ending.) In my book, innovation is great, but it's secondary compared to execution. And that's where the book, in my opinion, falls short. There's a number of characters in the book: Angus' immediate opposition and his head tactician; the two Petes, punker Engineers supporting Angus' campaign; various reporters and Liberal politicians who range from slightly more jaded than Daniel to out and out villains; and the tough-as-nails, aged former Liberal candidate, Muriel Parkinson and her granddaughter Lindsay, also Daniel's love interest. Or perhaps a better phrase would "love vague inclination," since the relationship seems to unfold and settle without any particular effort on the part of any of the characters involved. Most of the characters, in fact, are fairly ancillary and paper-thin; for the most part, the only two who receive any fleshing out are Angus and Daniel.

Again, I don't have a particular problem with this. Stock characters are part and parcel of the stock comedy; you don't need them to be much more than placeholders, as long as the main cast is strong. In this case, the main two characters we're left with are Daniel and Angus. Daniel, following the traditional model, is cast as the straight man to Angus' performance. That means that quite a lot of his actions involve telling Angus that he can't do something, then being secretly glad that he did it. His other major defining characteristic is an obsession (one shared, and taken to greater extremes by Angus) with correct English grammar. I too am following the English studies career path, and even I find grammar obsessions to be incredibly pretentious and annoying. (That doesn't mean I don't correct people's grammar all the time; I do, I just recognize that I'm being pretentious and annoying when I do it. It's the self-awareness that's important.)

And that leaves Angus. Angus is something of a modern day Renaissance Man. He is a full-fledged engineer, and one of the book's running subplots is his work on his homemade hovercraft. He is a romantic, as evidenced by the daily journal entries dedicated to his dead wife. He is an intellect, as demonstrated by his constant games of chess and attention to English language. In politics, he refuses any level of compromise for his principles, and waits on no man. In fact, Angus is a saint, a comparison Daniel himself makes, albeit half jokingly, when Angus receives an award for his engineering efforts in a Papa New Guinea village. Wikipedia, ever the forefront source for accuracy, contains this entry: "A Mary Sue (sometimes just Sue) in literary criticism is a fictional character with overly idealized and hackneyed mannerisms, lacking noteworthy flaws, and primarily functioning as a wish-fulfillment fantasy for the author or reader." Angus, thus, is a fully fledged Mary Sue, and the book's insistence on this point is its major detraction point, in my mind. His only personal flaw is the occasional bout of flatulence and the only mistake he makes in the entire story comes near the end, where he holds a town meeting and tries to convince the townspeople that voting against tax cuts is a good thing, and gets booed off the stage. In other words, his one mistake is believing that he can reason with the masses.

My other problem with the book is on a political level, or rather, an ideological one. I've already gone over my political views in a previous post; granted, it was a few years ago, but it still stands. I'm not going to condemn Fallis for promoting the Liberals over my own group of preference; on a federal level, there's not really much reason to support the NDP at the moment anyway. But what I will object to is the alternative Angus represents. One of the pervading themes of the book is that politics, left unchecked, are a corrupting influence, transforming the optimistic into the pragmatic, and the pragmatic into the opportunistic and self-interested. I'm not going to oppose that; I think, like most people, I feel a little jaded towards politics in general, and a reason to bring in some optimism is a good thing.

But according to the principles the book espouses, the proper way to do that is, first of all, abandon the party line system in effect in Ottawa, and ignore your party's stance on an issue in favor of your own interpretation of what that stance should be. (Which, come to think of it, is an endorsement of the American style of congress and representation, a connection that is somehow never fully explicated in a book very conscious about its appeal as Canadian literature.) And at the same time, Angus doesn't believe in voting in terms of what's good for his individual constituency, and certainly, after the booing, doesn't believe in doing what his constituents want, as they are driven by self-interest. Rather, he votes to his own conscience, and for what he believes is best for his country.

The irony is, that's not too far off from what my own beliefs of what a representative should do. He or she can't afford to take a poll every time a vote comes out; rather, he/she needs to trust that the constituents knew who they were electing, and know the conscience and values of that individual (although that doesn't quite work in this case since Angus deliberately refused all campaigning, so no one knew really what he was like). My problem is with presentation. Because Angus is a Mary Sue sort of character, he can be counted on to always, always see the truth of the matter, and to be right in all situations. The political system Fallis is espousing, then, has a similarity to Plato's old claim that the ideal government is the one ruled by the perfect philosopher god-king; as the genius engineer/political activist/saint, Angus comes close.

In this regard, the book reminded me of another politically-oriented work, L. Neil Smith's The Probability Broach. Its politics couldn't be more different; while The Best Laid Plans ostensibly is about a liberal view of politics, The Probability Broach is ceaseless and almost aggressive in his portrayal of libertarianism. (Also, Smith's book is science fiction, not comedy, and features alternate realities, dolphin scientists, and monkey police officers.) The similarity, though, is that both books present a fictional world in which their respective philosophies form the ideal; neither, in their utopias, can do any wrong, not because the ideas are perfect, but because the author is stacking the deck so that no flaw is ever shown. And even that isn't a make or break element of a book for me; Terry Pratchett's Nation is, arguably, a humanist screed, but because its characters demonstrate some nuance, and are willing to entertain other points of view, I enjoyed it, and a lot more than I did Fallis' or Smith's works.

And if you want to see really pretentious behavior, I could go on a rant here about the quotation I started with the post with, and the danger of overapplying scientific rationalism to humanist institutions, but I'll settle for just saying that, as someone who's taught English for Engineers for decades, Angus should really know the difference between a scientific theory and a metaphor.

Final word: I would have probably liked this novel a lot more if either my political affiliations or my support for individualism was slightly increased. As it is, though I didn't like it, it did generate a lot of thought on my part, which is part of what literature should do. And I'd probably sit through the sequel--especially if it came in podcast form.

Later Days.

Friday, November 26, 2010

Friday Quotations: Hell Hath No Fury Like a Wolverine Scorned

"Wolverine's soul has been sent to hell by the Red Right Hand, and his body possessed with a demon bent on killing Logan's friends and loved ones. ...While Logan's friends and family are attacked on Earth, back in Hell the Devil continues to test Logan, still searching for a scream from its latest plaything. It finally comes with the help of Mariko Yashida, Logan's old fiancee. However, even Wolverine has friends in hell, as the north-of-the-border dwarf Puck resolves to help his fellow countryman. Can hell handle two Canadians?" (Recap page of Wolverine vol 4, issue 3, emphasis added.)

I have to say, quotations like that last sentence encompass a large part of the reason I read comic books.

Later Days.

Wednesday, November 24, 2010


I dunno if this will turn into a regular thing or not, but this post is one that I've been meaning to do for a long time. I think everyone has a few words that, for one reason or another, become the equivalent of fingernails down their lexiographic spine.

--The phrase "fair enough." First, it offends my sense of the word "fair." To me, fair is a binary state. Either something is fair or it is not--in which case, the word "unfair" can be brought out. "Fair enough" introduces a level of gradation to this issue that I am not comfortable with. If that sort of nuance needs to be brought in, why can't we just leave the "fair" part out of it? Second, I know that a lot of people, when they're using the phrase, just mean it to act as a synonym phrase for "that's fair." But I've also heard it used in a very passive-aggressive manner. Under that usage, the "fair enough" is shorthand for "I don't think that's fair at all; at the very least, I think it could be more fair. But I don't have the time or inclination for outright disagreeing with you, and I want to appear as if I'm rising above the argument, so I'll reply in such a manner that preserves the chance for my later disagreement and indicates my disapproval, but in a way that makes it impossible for you to challenge me on it without sounding small and petty yourself."

It's a pretty complicated shorthand.

--This one isn't so much a word that annoys me as it is a word that may grow to annoy me if its frequency persists. Have you ever noticed that when your attention is drawn to an unusual word or phrase, you suddenly start seeing it everywhere? And then you can't tell whether people have just started using it, or they always have and you're finally paying attention to it? Well, for me, the most recent incarnation of "that word" is wheelhouse. As in the phrase " is in my wheelhouse," to indicate that you're an expert on said . And I'll admit it: I have only the vaguest idea on what a wheelhouse actually is, besides the obvious connotation that it is a house full of wheels, and perhaps has something to do with carriages. A quick search of the Oxford English Dictionary tells me that it refers both to that, and to the enclosure surrounding the steering wheel of a steamship. (It doesn't actually include the "in my wheelhouse," because the OED is above that sort of gutter talk, thank you very much.) So essentially, it's one of those phrases whose original meaning has been largely antiquated, like "book on tape" or "buribunkist" (all right, that last one isn't technically antiquated, but it is sufficiently obscure).

--The word "similarly." Don't like it. Never liked it. Never will like it. If there comes a point in some academic article I'm writing where the word is appropriate, I will perform whatever acrobatics are necessary to avoid it. "In a similar manner," "In a similar fashion," even "likewise." In this case, my distaste for the word is purely because of the way it sounds. I don't like the combination of the "lar" and "ly" syllables. I don't know why, I just know I don't.

And that's it, for now at least. And if you think that I've gone into far too much detail over such minor things, that I'm making mountains out of molehills, that I've become the cyberspace equivalent of an old man telling kids to get off his verbal lawn, well then...
Fair enough.

Later Days.

Sunday, November 21, 2010

Movie Buff: Chick Flicks & Testosterone

All right. Here it is at long last, because someone actually demanded it: the Movie Buff feature. (And yes, I'm surprised as anyone that someone actually made a tangible, audible request. I know you're out there, lurkers. I can see your IP addresses.) Three of the following movies were viewed as part of the primary material for the class on Cosmetics and Aesthetics that I'm auditing, and one was for my own amusement. Try to determine which one; I'm sure you'll be pleasantly surprised.

. The first time I ever saw Ben Stiller was his guest appearance on Friends, waaaay back in 1997, season 3, episode 22, "The One With the Screamer." He played a crazy boyfriend of Rachel, who acted insane only when Ross was the only person in the room. And when your job is to make Ross seem like the preferable, sane alternative, you know your character is a little beyond the pale. Anyway, I don't know if it was the character he was playing, or just the association with Friends in general, but ever since, he's been a very hit and miss actor for me. In There's Something About Mary, he proved that a woman's choice is between either crazy men or bland, in Night at the Museum, he proved you don't have to be funny to carry a film, and in the Meet the Fockers series he proved that the funniest thing about a movie can be its title. On the other hand, I quite enjoyed his performances in Tropic Thunder, Arrested Development, and the Royal Tenenbaums.

In Zoolander, he plays a fashion model brainwashed to assassinate the Prime Minister of Malaysia, whose non-child labor policies threaten the fashion industry. Also on hand are Owen Wilson, as a model/frenemy; Christine Taylor as the straight man (or woman, as the case may be); Jerry Stiller as the agent; and Will Farrell as the fashion mogul. The movie does a pretty good job of satirizing its target, portraying the models as airheads, the fashion executives as predatory animals dressed in clothes, and the fashion world at large as glitzy and ridiculous. That part's done well enough, but mocking the fashion world is like shooting at fish in a barrel, after you've removed all the water and replaced it with more fish. Essentially, how funny you'll find this movie is directly proportional to how much tolerance you have for Ben Stiller playing a role wherein he talks with an odd baby voice and Owen Wilson playing a role wherein he plays the same damn character he plays in every movie. It's light, fluff entertainment, which I guess is what it's meant to be.

Red. Also known as "that other action movie with all those old people in it." Red stars Frank Moses (Bruce Willis) as an ex-black ops agent trying to live out retirement when the same agency that employed him puts out a hit for him, and Sarah Ross (Mary-Louise Parker) as the innocent love-interest swept along for the ride. Also featuring John Malkovich, Helen Mirren, and Morgan Freeman as the team that he puts together to help him get to the bottom of it all. And for the record, let me add that Mary-Louise Parker looks amazing for a 46 year old woman. Or for a woman of any age. Or for the mammalia class. ...Probably didn't need that last bit. The movie itself is a series of amusing quips and death-defying stunts. And while I don't usually find the action genre very entertaining, here, it really works. I understand the movie was based on a graphic novel by Warren Ellis, which I think I've read. I say "I think" because I'm not 100% sure; one of Ellis' favorite subjects is the grizzled agent brought in for one last mission, and they all tend to blend together after a while. On those terms, Red is one of those rare adaptations that surpasses the original. While it'll stick in my head for its great cast of quality actors as much as for the comedic action sequences, it still left a far greater impact on me than the original.

My Fair Lady. BEST THREE HOURS I'VE EVER SPENT ON A MOVIE. You can take your Harry Potters, your Titanics, and your Lord of the Rings, and you can stuff them in a sack, mister. THIS is what truly qualifies as epic cinema. The plot is fairly well trod, even by the film's original 1964 debut: it's based on the 1938 movie Pygmalion, and the 1950s musical, which in turn were based on the original 1912 play by George Bernard Shaw. Philologist Henry Higgins (Rex Harrison) makes a bet with Colonel Hugh Pickering (Wilfrid Hyde-White) that he can turn flower-girl Eliza Doolittle (Audrey Hepburn, with Marni Nixon singing) into a proper English lady. Eliza's father, Alfred P. Doolittle (Stanley Holloway) tries to cash in on the situation, and succeeds better than his greatest dreams, and nightmares.

I had no idea just how many classic songs are in the movie: "The Rain in Spain," "I Could Have Danced All Night," "On the Street Where You Live," "Get Me To The Church On Time," "Accustomed to Her Face"--it's a broadway karoaker's dream. (Not that I'm saying it's MY dream, because---yeah, let's just move on.) Suffice to say, I can't wait to these all get stolen by Glee, and put into a mash-up with Jennifer Lopez's "My Love Don't Cost a Thing."

But for me, the real winning element of the film is its tight equation of the British class system, presentation, and gender relations. Higgins' basic point, that phonetics and appearance are crucial determiners for rank, is made over and over again. The contrast is neither more evident in the horse race scene, featured below:

Any semiologist worth her salt could spend hours dissecting the scene, but let's consider a few of the most obvious points. First, the clothes. There's a sharp delineation between the male and female, not only in type, but in color, the drab gray suits contrasting with the ostentatious blacks and white dresses. The purpose of the event has been entirely repurposed: rather than come to gamble on horses, everyone we see is there precisely to be seen, to be part of the living tableau. The lyrics reinforce this point: "Ev'ry duke and earl and peer is here// Ev'ryone who should be here is here." "Here" is repeated over and over--the only purpose to the event is to be seen as present at the event. Eliza, when she's finally introduced at some point after the 5 minute mark, has been domesticated to the point where she visually fits right in--except, of course, for the red rose. The one who appears most out of place is actually Henry Higgins, a point of irony that the film makes a few times, but usually in a subtle manner: in many ways, Higgins doesn't fit into the upper society that he is trying to force Eliza into any better than she does. The end of clip, featuring Eliza's eternal embarrassment, comes about as a transgression on multiple levels. In addition to uttering vulgarity, she also brings attention to the materiality of the horse race, and attention away from the upper class's own self-focus. By highlighting the spectacle, she becomes the spectacle.

Besides the class issue, there's a persistent gender concern throughout the film, one that's tied to the class issue in complex ways. From the beginning, Eliza declares over and over again that she has as much right as anyone, that her money is as good as anyone's, and that Higgins has no right to treat her as lesser. (In fact, by the end of the film, everyone gives the impression that, as a person, she's probably a few notches above him.) Higgins, for his part, is constantly trying to define Eliza as his creation, as his investment, and as his achievement. After she has been fully transformed, Eliza quickly comes to assert her independence and self-worth, but given the context (which is admittedly muddled, as it's a 1960s Hollywood re-imagining of early 20th century London), she doesn't have a lot of options. She can stay with Higgins, and suffer through a lifetime of condescension. Or go with Freddy, and spend a lifetime supporting him. Or go back to the gutter and die, or go and teach and wither as a lonely spinster. For a good-natured comedy romp, it's fairly bleak stuff. I understand in the original, she married Freddy, but stayed close friends with Higgins; although I understand why Hollywood would go a different way, that's probably the best course. She gets the intellectual engagement of the one man, and the devotion of the other. (And yes, the best solution is the fish/bicycle option where she's happy alone, but we work with the tools provided.) And this option also gets around another of the film's subtexts, that perhaps Mr. Henry Higgins is... not quite a lady's man, but... more of a... man's man.
Exhibit A:
Exhibit B:

Your honor, the prosecution rests.

Oh, and as a final note, while My Fair Lady is a wonderful film that I fully recommend, make sure you have enough time to watch the entire thing before your roommmates come home, 'cause boys are jerks.

She's the Man. All right, as my above 1000 word mash-note on My Fair Lady demonstrates, and my ownership of My Best Friend's Wedding proves, I am not a man who is above the occasional chick flick/girly movie. But this... this was annoying, on so many levels. Plot: stolen entirely from Shakespeare's Twelfth Night. To the show's credit, it at least admits this theft straight out. So: Viola (Amanda Bynes) takes over her brother Sebastian's (James Kirk--note awesome name) life when he ditches it to head to London to be a musician for two weeks. Her intent is to go to the private school he is enrolled in to teach her former school that girls can play soccer as well as boys. And the most obvious way to do that is by pretending to be a boy and joining the rival school's soccer team and beating the original school. Because simply finding enough girls to fill out the roster at her school--which was the reason the girls' soccer team was eliminated in the first place--is plainly ridiculous. And along the way, as per plot regulations, she falls in love with Duke (Channing Tatum) who is in love with Olivia (Laura Ramsey), who, embarrassingly, is in love with Viola as Sebastian. (And the movie goes through some truly impressive convolutions to make sure Olivia's eventual transference of affection to the real Sebastian isn't as insane as it appears.)
There is, on the surface, a lot in the movie that COULD be appealing. There's a gender role subversion current, of course. And there's some interesting reflections on the state of adolescent masculinity, that "Sebastian" becomes automatically cool after Viola rejects some hot girls, and that the boys refuse to talk about things like their gooey emotions. There's some good acting performances, although they mostly come from peripheral characters such as David Cross as the principal, Emily Perkins as the oddball girl, and Vinnie Jones as absolutely terrifying--I mean, as the coach for the new school's soccer team. And there's something interesting about the way that all adults in the film--except Jones--are portrayed as idiotic buffoons. So yeah, there's... all that.

The problem is that the whole thing is so... perfunctory. It goes through the original Shakespeare plot, it adds a few soccer scenes, and... there's the film. Viola makes so many guffaws in the name of comedy that it seems utterly implausible that anyone, anyone, would be fooled by her performance. It's not the utter train wreck of, say, White Girls, but it is only a few steps above Betty and Wilma donning mustaches to sneak into the Water Buffalos. And while there is some passing resemblance, there is absolutely no way anyone would confuse Viola-as-Sebastian and Sebastian as the same person, once you've seen both. Finally, during the intimate heart-to-heart between Duke and a revealed Viola, I was supposed to be feeling for the star-crossed couple, but all I felt was annoyance at the constant stream of "Like, you know, I like you. And stuff."

I don't know. Maybe I'm just too old for this one. Is Bend It Like Beckham any good?

Later Days.

Friday, November 19, 2010

Friday Quotations: Spector, Projector

Warren Spector, creator of Deus Ex, on the future of video games: “I don’t think anyone can say for sure what videogames will be like next week, let alone the future. It’s tempting to say something quotable like ‘the holodeck will be a reality’ or ‘the future is online games.’ But, while those are all nice soundbites—and I think all of them are possible, if not likely—each tells only a bit of the story. The fact is, there is no one Gaming Future, any more than there’s a single literary future or cinematic future. The future of gaming is limited only by the creativity of the men and women making games—which is to say there are no limits.”

Shigeru Miyamoto, creator of Mario and Link, same question: Honestly, I cannot tell. Something which I can explain in words is not going to be a very fun thing!”

--Supercade: a visual history of the video game age 1971-1984

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Jogger's Ettiquete

I've got fifteen minutes till the bus comes, so I thought I'd do a post. Considering most posts are constructed painstakingly over the course of an hour or two, this rigid time constraint should present some interesting challenges.

Or I'll get bored and end after a hundred words or so. Either way.

Anyway, today's subject is running. I know I've sort of given up on the *running update* feature. For once, that's not because I've taken a lazy man's hiatus, but because my current path involves so many footpaths that Google Map is really unhelpful in determining exactly how long the route is. But I'm still getting out at least four times a week, and when the weather dips below five degrees, that's an accomplishment in itself.

More specifically, though, today's subject is my run this Monday. For a while, I've been left with a conundrum whenever I run into (rarely literally) into someone I know while on a jog. If I'm being honest, it really interrupts the flow of the run; if I'm being really honest, I often have a hard time coming up with anything more than idle chitchat if I haven't prepared conversation topics in advance. (At least I've gotten to the point where the topics are just prepared mentally. The cue-cards are getting burdensome.) So, generally, if I see someone I recognize while jogging, I pretend I'm very, very intent on the process at hand.

This policy, understandably, has created some mixed feelings towards yours truly. So on that Monday run, I decided to stop and greet each person I recognized. And of course, that's the day I run into three different people: one fairly good friend, one more distant friend (but still a nice guy) and my supervisor.

This stopping resulted in three of the most awkward conversations of my life. The one with the good friend was fine enough; a little strained since we were both heading in different directions, but okay. The one with my supervisor was... more strained. He very clearly wanted to be somewhere else. And the third conversation was entirely awkward; my earphones got tangled, so my part of the conversation was largely repeating "What?" and "pardon" over and over again, while his part descended into incomplete sentences and random blandishments. To sum up, forget honesty; sometimes feigned mistaken identity and sustained silence is the best policy.

From this experience, I think there are three possible conclusions:

a) People are uncomfortable talking with someone who was clearly in the middle of a non-talking activity. (This statement is, of course, dependent on the activity.)
b) People are uncomfortable talking with someone who is clearly sweating profusely and smells terrible. (Unfortunate non-running behavior confirms this statement.)
c) People are uncomfortable talking to me. (Perhaps the most likely conclusion, but one that requires a more long term solution.)

That's it--bus is imminent.
Later Days.

Saturday, November 13, 2010

Sometimes I Don't Want to Do a Real Post

I chose the frames for my new glasses purely on the basis that they better matched the Scott Pilgrim avatar I made last August.

Later Days.

Friday, November 12, 2010

Friday Quotations: Doctors Do Not Recommend the Morrison Breakfast Special

"I'm making these notes on the Boulevard Pomare, downtown Papeete, trade winds rattling the palm leaves, a fresh spray of warm rain, white surf on green water, clouds blurring the jagged volcanic outlines of the island of Moorea off in the background. Slow Sunday in Pardise. Drikning espresso with the left hand, screwdrivers with the right, in an effort to disconnect the hemispheres of my brain. The vodka and orange don't seem to be mixing very well. Tastes funny and smells like something shit in my glass. Only thing to do, I suppose, is keep on drinking until I lose my sense of smell altogether. The best thing about writing is that it can be done anywhere and anywhere is, of course, my favorite place."
--Grant Morrison, The Invisibles vol. 1, issue 1.

Tuesday, November 9, 2010

Shop Till You Droop

Just so y'all know, there'll be a proper movie buff post in the near future; I need to watch Zoolander in the near future for my audit course, and that will shore up the numbers I need to make the post a proper length. But for now, here's a post on what I did yesterday.

Speaking of my audit course, we took a field trip yesterday to a newly constructed Shopper's Drug Mart, to analyze it in terms of aesthetics and design. Sometimes, when you take some ordinary facet of life and really pay attention to it, you are rewarded with a sense of wonder and delight at the intricacies of humanity. And some times, you realize how incredibly weird people really are. This trip was definitely leaning towards the latter.
Shopper's kept its extreme, high-end beauty products in an area sealed off from the rest of the store by two archways--and you had to go through this area to enter the store proper. The actual merchandise was display case after display case after kiosk of very expensive beauty products, culminating in a massive perfume display with bottles that started around $50 and averaged around $100.

In general, there was a pretty stark gender divide between products. My favorite female-oriented product was L'Occitaine's Immortelle line of "anti-aging skin creams." In a single word, it conveys a sense of foreignness, plant-based healing, and the feminine. Not to mention a claim for out-and-out immortality. When you get right down to it, a lot of aesthetics is marketed towards exploiting a fear of aging, but you almost have to admire a company that is this aggressively forthright about it. The product'swebsite also uses starkly suggestive language: "Immortelle anti-aging skin care reduces signs of aging by multiplying collagen production, improving microcirculation and fighting against free radicals." Note the repetition of "aging," and the focus on improving, which makes old age sound like some sort of disease that you should do your best to get over. Or like a peasant uprising that needs to suppressed--gotta show those free radicals who's boss, doncha know.

And then they go and toss out all that rhetorical clout on the "Read the True Story" link (which in itself is an amazingly weird concept--does that imply the story up to this point was a lie?), when they use the word "extraordinary" twice in two consecutive paragraphs. Extraordinary: fantastic, wonderful, fascinating, unique, special, wondrous, amazing. This is not a topic lacking in synonyms.

As for best male product, I'll spare you the analysis and skip straight to the picture:

Diesel's "Only the Brave." IT IS A PERFUME BOTTLE SHAPED LIKE A FIST. Words fail to describe this glory.

There are pages and pages of other things I could discuss here. One parting shot: the store's staff--while in general very helpful and easy to talk to--were absolutely adamant in refusing to allow us to take any photos. Combine this with the fact that their electronics section was entirely dominated by advertisements pushing their digital camera services, with an emphasis on capturing and cherishing a given moment through its digitization. The store was very intent on presenting ways to control and immortalize images, especially its own image. I guess that's only fitting; controlling the image, after all, is what the cosmetics is all about.

Oh: side note. A friend of mine just launched a blog of his own, and it can be found here. It's good stuff. And by mentioning it on my own blog, I am showing just how supportive I am and how I not at all feeling very, very threatened by its mere existence.

Later Days.

Thursday, November 4, 2010

Friday Quotations: Sometimes I am amused by odd things

"The Silver Surfer is one of the most powerful super-heroes in the Marvel Universe. However, in this game, he can be one-hit killed by fish, ducks, and riverbanks." --Brett Weiss, Classic Home Video Games, 1985-1988: A complete Reverence Guide.

Later Days.

*UPDATE: Oct 6 2011--I just realised I committed a Freudian slip and wrote "Reverence" when I meant "reference." Oh, videogames.

Wednesday, November 3, 2010

Bleh. Just bleh.

I had one thing to do today: turn in my 2010 SSHRC proposal. All I had to do was go to the university, print it off, drop it off, go home. Easy, right? Not so, evidently.

The first thing that went wrong was that I became disastrously aware of my bike's brakes officially downgrading themselves from "poor" to "nonexistent." I emerged unscathed, but the bike is clearly out of commission for the season--or until I get it to a shop for a tune-up, whichever may come first.

With cycling off the table, I thought I'd take advantage of the still-new student bus pass and take public transportation. Of course, by the time I made this decision, the bus had just gone by. So a few minutes of waiting later, I was university bound. Everything went fine, until I tried to print off the files. After waiting some more for an unresponsive printer, I went to the IT guy on duty. After a half hour of work eventually involving another three guys from IT, they determined: a) the printer is really, really jammed, and b) the guy that does printing refunds wasn't there today, so I wouldn't be getting my money back.

That created another problem: I didn't have enough funds on my printing account to do the printing over again. And I didn't have my credit card on me, which meant I couldn't transfer the funds online. So I had to walk to the ATM, withdraw some money, go over to the library to put the money onto my student card, go back to the computer department, transfer electronically the balance on my student card onto my printing account, and finally print off everything on the OTHER printer. I take the results, turn them in, and that's that done.

But there's still the return trip to manage. After the delays, I figure out that I have only a few minutes to get to the departing bus, so I start running. I get about five steps before I trip and sprawl all over the pavement. The damage isn't too bad; I bruise my shoulder, rough up my palms (but nothing breaking skin), and scrape my knee. The worst part is that I tear the knee out of my jeans. It was, unfortunately, the last pair of comfortably fitting jeans I currently own, which necessitates a trip to the mall for clothes shopping tomorrow. Here's a statistic that will convey my feelings on the subject: # of times I went to the dentist since moving to Ontario: 3. # of times I have gone to shop for clothes: 0.

So I'm in a pretty bad mood at this point. But resilient, I get up, brush myself off, and head towards the bus... and make it about another 5 feet before I trip AGAIN. This time: My shoulder is throbbing, both hands have been torn open to grant me my own personal stigmata, and the knee--which got the worst of it, with even the faint protection my jeans previously provided being torn away--was a mess of bloody scratches and open wounds. At this point, I opted to forget the damn bus and hobbled home. And here I am. I got back and cleaned myself up (including pulling threads of the blue jeans OUT of the rapidly scabbing wound--fun!). And now I'm going to watch multiple episodes of The Simpsons while eating pizza pops and skittles, because, dammit, this day owes me.

*UPDATE* Didn't help. Nor did my "let off steam" run. Probably because most of that run was in the rain, and it was 45 minutes into it before I realised I was wearing shoes that didn't match. You know what? It's 6:38 pm, and I'm going to bed. DAY OVER.

*UPDATE 2* And then I watched WALL-E. I know Pixar is part of a multinational corporation that accumulates capital through the manipulation (masterful manipulation, mind you) of emotionally loaded situations, but WALL-E is still the most adorable garbage machine ever. What a nice day.
Later Days.

Tuesday, November 2, 2010

The Short Yet Heartfelt Conclusion

Sorry for the delay, but I've always found the posts that aren't comedy-based or theory-based to be a bit harder to get out. All right, some background here. My aunt passed away a few weeks ago. It was from a brain tumor that had been growing for years now, and her quality of life had been diminished for quite some time. The wake was held on Thanksgiving weekend, and since a flight out to her home province would have cost upwards of $800, I talked it over with my parents and decided that it wouldn't make sense for me to fly out to be there. It wasn't an easy decision, and I struggled with it. I would have liked to be there with the family. By large, my interactions with my aunt had always occurred in that setting: family trips, weddings, birthdays. And that would have been an appropriate circumstances to say goodbye to her.

But, well, I didn't go out, so I needed/need to say goodbye to her in a different way. I was hoping this series of posts would help me work through what she meant to me. There's no single answer; in addition to what she meant with me in the context of our mutual family, there's also the undeniable fact that I associate my aunt with the city she lived in. I doubt I'll ever be able to go there without thinking of her--visiting her house and staying with her there has seeped into my bones from all the times in my childhood to my adulthood. (If you're curious about the city, I'll give you a hint: start in Winnipeg, and travel waaaaay west. If you've hit Victoria, you've gone too far. And you're also very wet.)

It's funny; when I think of a person, I often can't divorce what they mean to me from the time and place that I knew them in. (Or maybe not so funny. We're human beings, and we live in one place at a time, linearly.) Who is my aunt to me, what defines her to me outside of the family position, and her geographical location?

My aunt was a strong person.

Not physically, since her height and frame didn't really lend itself to that sort of thing, but in terms of an strong will, and a strong sense of self. Without getting into a past that I really have no right to divulge, she spent a long period of her life alone. And compared to the family I was used to, she drank more, smoked more, and, um, used saltier language (which, to the mind of a young boy, just made her that much more appealing yet feared). She bore her adversities--brain tumor and all--with a lot of pride and a lot of dignity, and, consequently, a sort of grace. She was a strong person, and for that strength, I'll always admire her and look to her as inspiration.

To connect this more thoroughly to my previous posts, and without diminishing my admiration for my aunt in any way, strength in general is a hallmark of the women in my family. On both sides, the women are no wilting wallflowers; they stand their ground, and if you cross them, believe me, you'll know it. (Unlike the men. We're kind of the strong, silent type.) My family tree is a cornucopia of empowered women, working as teachers (lots of teachers), nurses, concierges, zoo workers, paralegals, and film-makers. (And I'd imagine a few significant positions I've forgotten. Which I'm sure I'll hear about later in great detail.)

To tie back to the first post, one of the reasons I felt so indignant towards the effacing of the Little Mermaid's female family is that I've felt so gifted for my own. And to tie it back to the second post, I don't know why I've been less drawn to women creators in my fiction or research. But I know for certain it's not because I think that women don't have anything to contribute. I've lived with example of example of strong, vibrant women all my life. It never occurred to me that they'd be any other way.

So here's to my aunt, and all the other proud and independent women in my life, family or otherwise. I'd say keep up the good work, but frankly, I'd like you to slow down a bit; you're making the other genders look bad.

Later Days.