Monday, April 28, 2014

Athens moments

Greece is a southern European gentleman with the exotic perfume of the Middle East on his collar...


At first my lungs struggle to acclimatize to the leaded gas vapors permeating this part of the city, and my North American belief in rules and straight lines is stunned by the Formula One chaos in the street, and by the occasional motorcycle on the sidewalk.


We are lunching on the second floor of the McDonald's across the street from Syntagma Square. We notice the police starting to form a line along the sidewalk out front, and assume there must be some important motorcade en route to the Parliament building. As minutes elapse, the police are now shoulder-to-shoulder, double file, and officers with dogs are scurrying about.

A McDonalds employee suddenly appears at the top of the stairs and yells "Everybody out! Everybody out!" I glance at my watch and reason that these people must take siesta seriously. Seconds later, a machine-gun wielding soldier bursts into the room and barks "Everybody out! Now!" In the crush of people pushing their way down the stairs, we manage to hear someone say that this building is the target of a bomb threat.

Outside, the air is electric with jangled nerves and militarized emergency plans snapping into action. As ordered, we cross the street to a sidewalk cafe. Part of me wonders if perhaps we've ended up in the Gaza Strip by mistake. My legs feel like rubber. Meanwhile, a local languidly takes a drag on a cigarette. "Bomb threat?" he says, and then casually looks at his watch and says "About time."


We quickly learn that you always ask how much something is, even when a price is clearly posted. If it says five euros, you ask anyway. "For you, my friend, three euros." In this part of the world, a price tag is only ever the opening bid.


A big beefy guy with stubby fingers and an expensive suit puffs on a huge cigar as he entertains a couple of high maintenance ladies. The trio are seated in lounge chairs around a low poolside table in this candle- and torch-lit evening. With his slicked-back hair and fast company, he appears to be a Hellenic take on Tony Soprano.


We pass some time sitting in the Theatre of Dionysus Eleuthereus, communing with an audience long lost to the winds of history. For me it is is something like a religious pilgrimage, as I had played Creon in a local production of Antigone, and here I am at the site of its premiere five thousand years earlier.

Saturday, April 26, 2014

Suburban Wildlife: A Very Short Primer

My wife saw a deer amble down the middle of the road on the evening of the day we moved into our townhouse. She told me all about it after I returned from the apartment with one last carload of our stuff. We both thought that was neat, being close to nature ‘n all. I even made an uninspired crack about how we had traded one form of wildlife for another. (Audience groans, comedian apologizes.)

Our former apartment building is in the west end of our city’s inner core. While tame compared to its equivalent in larger cities, our neighborhood was a little scuffed and worn for this government town. It wasn’t unusual to see derelicts of all sorts whenever we stepped out the door. And every now and then, one of them would get loose inside our building. It was that, as well as our shrinking living space, that made us decide to move out to the suburbs, to a neighborhood just one subdivision over from the one where I grew up, to raise The Most Beautiful Baby Boy You’ve Ever Seen.

Out here on the greenbelt’s outer rim you’d be hard pressed to find the homeless. At least, that’s what I tell myself.

But then I think back to my teen years, hanging out at a coffee shop that used to be not too far from here, where one day a rather down-in-the-heels man, a real live hobo, walked in and asked he could use the restroom. The store manager answered this query not with yes or no but with a firm request for him to leave the premises.

“C’mon,” he said, “I really gotta use the bathroom.”

With that the manager picked up the phone and called the police, and the hobo stomped outside and plunked himself down on the sidewalk just outside the coffee shop window. Soon enough, not one but two squad cars were on the scene, and a heated discussion ensued. The hobo waved his hands about, and the cops were holding theirs up in a gesture that seemed to say “Alright, buddy. Just settle down.”

This went on for some time as the hobo’s emotions escalated. From my somewhat close proximity from within the shop, I could see tears in his eyes – of rage? of sadness? of some cumulative weight bearing down, years in the making? We’ll never know, as he was cuffed and put into the back of one of the squad cars. 

Don’t mess with suburbia.

Just up the main thoroughfare from our new house, a large swath of greenbelt has been razed, and a large sign heralds the impending arrival of yet another neighborhood, Coming Soon! 

I hate to see this constant encroaching on nature, but here I am endorsing it by choosing to live here. Whenever I drive down the road, I feel like I’ve clicked on an unseen I ACCEPT button just underneath Coming Soon! 

At a time like this I should be thinking about (and relishing) my family’s new home, and anyway isn’t it swell to be seeing a real live deer walking past our door? Instead, my thoughts are on homelessness and the vagrants of the world, human or otherwise.

Journal entry, July 2012

Friday, April 25, 2014

Schiphol moments


Schiphol is an exercise in protestant European orderliness. A female voice over the P.A. system drones on in a friendly, unwavering monotone about which flights are arriving and departing at which gates. Somehow, this exact same voice cautions "Watch your step" every time we step on or off the moving sidewalk. I wonder if they are twin sisters working in tandem, Bertildis and Betje. Or maybe androids? Over the hours of our stopover, the voices never vary in pitch or cadence.


Hedonism is permitted, if strictly regulated. I see a small group of men smoking cigarettes in a tiny glass box. Meanwhile, the airport gift shop openly sells ash trays and all sorts of items emblazoned with a cannabis leaf.


Our return stopover here is unbearable - an eight-hour wait. We opt to steal some sleep at a nearby hotel with hourly rates. A free shuttle bus takes us through five minutes of Dutch countryside, and along the way we see adult cows with short, stubby legs. If Darwin had it right, we can assume their legs would be longer if they really needed to be. Unsurprising that in this part of the world, they are efficiently constructed and engineered, with no bone or muscle wasted.

Wednesday, April 23, 2014

Things I Can Live Without: Ideology

The following was submitted to the Ottawa Sun as a letter to the editor.

Re: Conservative view of Flaherty legacy, April 16

Ideology is an invitation to stop thinking for yourself, and can lead to intellectual dishonesty. Witness John Robson as he reflexively gags on the notion that Keynesian economics helped see our country out of the financial crisis.  “As a conservative doctrinaire,” he writes, “I still think those deficits harmed us.”

Merriam-Webster defines ‘doctrinaire’ as “one who attempts to put into effect an abstract doctrine or theory with little or no regard for practical difficulties.” It would seem Mr. Robson wishes we had put ideological purity ahead of the economic well-being of our country.

When he tries to convince us that John Maynard Keynes got it wrong, is he telling us the truth as he sees it based on careful analysis, or is he simply upholding a dogma at any cost? (Keynes predicted that the severity of reparations imposed on Germany would result in chaos in Europe. As the subsequent rise of Hitler teaches us, he most certainly got it right.)

As for other countries’ stimulus spending, he doesn’t consider whether it was sensibly applied, nor does he consider mitigating factors. The problems with the United States’ economy, for example, run too deep to assume a direct correlation between the size of a stimulus-incurred deficit and the extent of the recovery.

Any practical conservative would agree that we need clear-headed pragmatists with a wider view to guide us to prosperity, and not knee-jerk zealotry.

James Deagle

Monday, April 21, 2014

Things I Like: Beachwood Sparks

I hope you had a great Easter. For the foreseeable future, all blog posts (starting with this one) will contain a clue that will add up to an 'Easter egg' for those nerdy enough to put it all together. The clues will make no sense on their own - you'll have to check in on a regular basis and look at them in sequence. Also, don't just look in the body text of any given post. Look in all of the elements, from the headline on down to the comments. The only other clue regarding the clues (the meta-clue, if you will), is that each post's respective clue will always be in the same spot. 

This will be the last mention of this endeavor until someone posts the solution in the comments of this particular post.

We now return to our regularly scheduled program...

If you're like me, you don't find much to rally behind in today's pop music, nor in the deluge of pop music being marketed as 'alternative' or 'indie'. A certain something just seems to be missing in most (if not all) of what you hear on Top 40 radio. As a result, I'm guilty of falling back on oldies of one sort or another, music from a time when songwriting and musicianship meant something.

There comes a point, however, when one must stop living in the past and find that which is vital in our own time. Thus, I concentrate much of my music listening on other avenues, particularly shows like Morning Becomes Eclectic on KCRW, an NPR station broadcasting out of Santa Monica College. 

If you're also willing to scour the Internet, you can also make some startling discoveries. One such find happened while I was on a website devoted to jam bands, trying to find some contemporary equivalents of the Grateful Dead. I happened upon a review of the then-new Beachwood Sparks reunion album, The Tarnished Gold, and it was like a revelation. From the opening acoustic strum of Forget the Song giving way to swelling keyboards and steel guitar and then to soaring vocal harmonies, it was like a bracing gust of fresh air after being cooped up inside.

While not a Grateful Dead pastiche, they certainly hark back to an era that encompassed what I consider the Dead's golden era, namely from 1969 to 1974. More accurately, they continue the tradition of Gram Parsons, the Flying Burrito Brothers, and the Byrds, as well as the mellow 'country rock' typical of the so-called Laurel Canyon scene of the time.

And although their self-titled debut album from 2000 is awash in Byrdsian 12-string guitars, they are not specifically a nostalgia act. The Tarnished Gold in particular shows a maturity and confidence that comes with experience and craftmanship, and features a sound that is not so easily pinned to their iconic forebears. While the songs therein are great for when you want to drift away on some good vibrations, it is also music that stands up to repeated listening, and offers something new each time around.

In these days of smug sarcasm and ironic detachment, it's refreshing to hear music that comes straight from the heart.

Friday, April 18, 2014

Things I Like: Public transit

Beyond the carbon footprint-reducing environmental benefits, commuting by public transit has much to offer, namely:
  • time to read, contemplate, meditate, or even grab a catnap, 
  • the chance to be exposed to a more varied mix of people, including those from outside of your caste, 
  • the possibility of communicating with said people in ways that don't involve laying on a car horn and raising a middle finger, 
  • did I mention catnaps? 
  • a justification for being able to say to a co-worker "My driver is picking me up at 4:17", 
  • watching the same ol' landscape for something new (and there's always something new), 
  • a reason to embrace slowness as a moral imperative in a stressed-out world, where saying "I'll get there when I get there" could be construed as a treasonable act, and
  • a way to extend the life of your car while sticking it to the gasoline cartels. 
Yes, I ride the bus to work, and offer no apologies to those car-centric elitists who would cast aspersions.

Wednesday, April 16, 2014

Things I Can Live Without: The culture of anti-smoking

Full disclosure: I am a former heavy smoker who hasn't touched a cigarette since September 2005, with the exception of lighting a cigarette for a gentleman who had fallen after slipping on some ice in January 2010. (As the first responder, it was my next order of business after calling the ambulance.) Far from triggering a relapse, that brief puff only reinforced how glad I am to have left that filthy habit behind.

With that out of the way, let me say that I find our society's fixation on demonizing smokers highly suspect, as I believe very little of it has anything to do with saving lives.

Can cigarettes cause cancer? Absolutely. On the other hand, we live in a world that is chockablock with known carcinogens, or things that could be shown to be carcinogenic if the powers that be had the appetite to get to the bottom of it.

What about the other things that cause illness and misery, such as the overconsumption of alcohol? Where are the scary warning labels on booze? "This product can destroy your family." "Alcohol consumption can lead to transgressive or abusive behavior." "This is a liver bloated by a lifetime of liquid lunches." (In fairness, there is a movement here in Ontario for such labels, but as far as I can tell it is still just that - a movement rather than a sanctioned cause.)

How about the stress the average person takes on while pursuing their required alotment of status symbols? Years ago, my old family doctor told me that easily 80 percent of the cases coming through his practice were stress-related. If his observation is representative of the public at large, then why hasn't stress been declared a wide-scale public health emergency? Where is the movement to unilaterally ban its biggest causes? (My own belief is that there are some who work themselves sick, and others who benefit economically from that unwarranted level of loyalty and commitment, but that's a whole other thing.)

In the end, cigarettes are an easy target: they're stinky, they discolor human tissue after prolonged exposure, and are unhealthy enough to distract the populace from asking serious questions about other sources of illness.

Instead, we have ever more graphic warning labels that I presume are meant leave us with the warm and gooey feeling that comes with knowing that cancer is being eradicated, one supposedly grossed-out smoker at a time.

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NEXT - Things I Like: Public transit

Monday, April 14, 2014

Things I Like: General interest magazines

In recent years I have cooled to the idea of special interest media. That's not to say I don't ever seek out an all-music radio station, an all-news TV channel, or magazines geared to a narrow topic - it's just that I've become more open-ended in how I approach my media consumption.

The biggest reason for this shift from special to general interest is a desire to be caught off guard by unexpected topics or perspectives, to be pulled in a direction I didn't know existed. A good example of this is demonstrated by a change in how I buy and read magazines.

There was a time when I would hunt down whatever magazine scratched a very specific itch, be it guitars, cameras or poetry, to name a few. And prior to making a purchase decision, I would accumulate a shortlist and then pour through the contents of each until I determined which one would give me maximum reading pleasure for my money.

This seemed to work for a number of years, even though it meant I usually knew exactly what was coming next, and, ironically, often found myself skipping over entire articles.

Fast-forward to the present, where my tendency now is to simply grab a title I know and love (such as Harper's, The New Yorker, or the Saturday Evening Post), and do my utmost to not glance at the table of contents or even study the cover too closely before sitting down to read it from cover-to-cover.

In this way, I now make a much heavier demand on a magazine - whereas before it only had to satisfy whatever nich whim I was following at the time, now I expect it to do nothing less than open up whole new worlds to me.

That's a pretty tall order, but when it is met, reading becomes the thrilling adventure it was always meant to be.

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NEXT -  Things I  Can Live Without: The culture of anti-smoking