Friday, January 31, 2014

What Kind of Guitar Should I Buy?

So you want to buy a guitar for yourself, or someone else, and don't know what to get? Let me help you. In this blog post, I'll try to give you the guidance you need to start your guitar adventure off on the right foot.

Guitars are either acoustic, acoustic-electric, semi-acoustic, or electric. Most beginners start with an acoustic guitar. They're simple, straightforward, sound nice and loud naturally, don't require amps and cords, and are portable. If your goal is first, just to learn how to play, and maybe play in front of family and friends, and that's as far into the distance as you can see, get a simple acoustic (about which more below).

However, if your goal is to start playing live in public alone as an acoustic guitar player or singer-songwriter, by all means, buy an acoustic-electric. And if your goal is to learn as fast as possible to shred (play super fast solos), or join a rock band, by all means, buy an electric. Keep in mind, however, that if you're serious about guitar as a hobby or profession, you'll almost certainly wind up with at least one guitar from each of the four categories above. They each have different applications, after all. So, for my money, you might as well just grab an acoustic to start with, learn the basics, and go from there.

So what type of acoustic guitar should you buy?

If you are a rank beginner, so that you can't even meaningfully compare things like playability, my suggestion is the Yamaha FG 730S. (No, I have no affiliation with Yamaha, and don't get money for this). These acoustic guitars are the best bang for the buck out there: solid sitka spruce top (that's what you want in a pure acoustic), Indian rosewood sides and back, a fine neck, and a lifetime warranty. You can buy one for what the sales tax would be on an acoustic from one of the big brands like Taylor, Gibson, Martin, or Larrivee - and the Yamaha will probably sound better anyway. Don't believe me? Go into a guitar store which carries the Yamaha FG series, and do a blind hearing test. Choose the Yamaha plus a couple of other options ten times the price, have a friend or employee strums chords on each, and see if you can tell, with your eyes closed, which guitar costs ten times more the other. You won't be able to, and in fact, there is a good chance you'll choose the Yamaha for sound over the others. (Let me add that the Yamaha 720S is a smaller version of this guitar, and also a fine choice).

A few more suggestions. Although your guitar will come with strings, they will lose their sonic brilliance and start to look old and grungy within a few weeks. So while you're at the music shop, I suggest picking up a package of Elixir Nanoweb Acoustic Light Gauge Strings. (No, I'm not affiliated with them, either). The Elixirs sound great, and last far longer than normal strings, due to the thin coating they have on the strings. So even though you'll pay a couple of extra bucks for the strings upfront, you'll save a lot of money in the long run on strings. (If you're bewildered by how to change strings, I'm sure there are plenty of youtube instructional videos on that now).

Also, grab a few picks (guitarists always lose them, so yes, get a few). What type you get is completely a matter of personal preference. Try out as many picks as you want at the store. One good choice is the Dunlop .73 mm Nylon Standard.Why? Because the nylon never breaks (plastic picks break all the time); the ridges on the pick make them much easier to grip than smooth picks; the width is a good compromise between flexibility and solidity; and they sound good. However, again, picks are completely a matter of personal preference, so try a few out and choose which one you like the most.

The mulleted music shop employee might try to sell you a tuner to go along with your starter kit. Don't bother. Simply download a (free) tuner app for your smartphone. Get a guitar case if you want, as well as a basic chord book, and maybe a capo (a clamp-on device which allows you to effectively shorten your guitar's fingerboard) and voila - you're in shape. You can walk out of the music shop with a top class acoustic guitar set-up for around 450 bucks.

One final thought: cases protect your guitar, yes. They're also cumbersome. And with the Yamaha 730S so cheap, my question is, is it really the end of the world if it gets a few nicks and scrapes on it over the next few years? Because you want to bring your guitar as many places as possible with you when you're just starting to learn, I'd consider just keeping your guitar nude. Grab it, throw it in the back of the car, show up at the beach or the camp site, boom, it's there ready to go, and you're not fussing around with a case. This is a personal preference of mine, of course. Just thought it might be worth mentioning.

And the final final thought on your brand new acoustic guitar is this: after your purchase, take your new acoustic guitar to a local luthier and tell him you're a beginner who wants the guitar to be as easy as possible to play. I say this because sometimes with off-the-rack guitars, the action - the distance between the string and the fingerboard - can be unnecessarily high, making the guitar strings difficult to press down. And who wants that? Guitar playing should be fun and easy. So ask your luthier if he can get the action any lower. Doing so will be a pretty simple operation, it won't cost you much, and your guitar will be a lot more fun to play.

What type of guitar should you get if you're eager to get out there and start performing at coffeehouses? Easy - the Yamaha model I mentioned above comes in an acoustic-electric version. Another excellent choice for an acoustic-electric is something from the Yamaha CPX line.

I've mentioned Yamaha a lot, so let me say, it is not the case that other manufacturers don't make fine acoustics and acoustic-electrics. I own a very fine Martin myself, and have played wonderful guitars from other manufacturers. I'm recommending Yamaha here only because the quality for the price is, in my experience, unbeatable.

Anyway, back to your guitar. Let's say you want to buy your first electric. What should you choose?

Well, a quick question: which guitar sound would you prefer to have - the guitar sound at the beginning of Jimi Hendrix's "Hey Joe", or the guitar sound during the solo section on Led Zeppelin's "Heartbreaker" (scroll ahead to the two minute mark)? These are just two samples to illustrate the difference between the two main voices in rock 'n roll (the Fender Stratocaster and the Gibson Les Paul, respectively). The clips are not quite a fair comparison, however, in that Hendrix is playing his Stratocaster clean, while Jimmy Page's Les Paul is distorted. So click here for a fairer comparison. In it, the guy plays the same song (Jethro Tull's "Aqualung") through the same amp on a Fender Stratocaster and then a Gibson Les Paul.

As you can hear, Stratocasters have a more hollow, chime-y, bell-like sound than Les Pauls, which sound fatter and thicker. This is largely attributable to the different pickups they use (the devices which pick up the vibrations of the strings). Stratocasters use a pickup with a single coil; Les Pauls use a pickup with a double coil. Another contributing factor is that the length of a Stratocaster neck is longer, increasing the tension on the guitar strings, which helps produce a twangier, brighter sound. Other differences? Les Pauls have 22 frets, while Stratocasters only have 21. And Les Pauls tend to give you more sustain on your notes. Which voice is better? It depends on what kind of part you're playing on what kind of song, and your own preference. It is hard to imagine the classic Dire Straits song "Sultans of Swing" played on a Les Paul. Likewise, it's hard to imagine Bad Company's classic "Can't Get Enough of Your Love" on a Strat. It would sound weak and ridiculous. (Obviously, if you have the money, just buy one of each!).

But if you must choose one right now, and you decide on the Stratocaster, you have a few options. Luckily for you, Fender (and its subsidiary company Squier) make Stratocasters in all different price rangers. The cheapest are the Squiers. You can get a Squier Stratocaster for under $200, and yes, it will sound pretty much like the guitar at the beginning of "Hey Joe". Proper Fender Stratocasters you can get in the $500-$600 range. That's pretty good. You can also try out a Fender Telecaster. They tend to sound even twangier than Stratocasters (although that twang can be modified through amp choice, of course). Keith Richards of the Rolling Stones has long favoured Telecasters. Bruce Springsteen also plays one. And interestingly, Jimmy Page (known mostly as a Gibson guy) used a Telecaster exclusively on Led Zeppelin I. He also played the solo on "Stairway to Heaven" on a Telecaster. And as with Stratocasters, Fender and Squier give you plenty of choices and price points with the Telecaster.

Les Pauls are a bit trickier. I have no hesitation in saying that the Gibson Les Paul is probably the most over-priced electric guitar out there. They're like two and three grand, sometimes more, and just aren't good enough to warrant that cost. (It's the same with their acoustics, which is again why I recommended the Yamahas).

This is not to say I don't love Gibson Les Pauls. I do. It's just that, right now, they're a rip off for the money. SO, what to do, if you're on a budget?

Buy an Epiphone Les Paul Standard (Epiphone is a Gibson subsidiary company). Those cost a few hundred bucks. Sure, you don't get the Gibson name on your headstock - but who cares? The Beatles played Epiphones. So did Noel Gallagher from Oasis. The pickups aren't great, but the price is (but I have a plan for that. See below). Another choice is the Epiphone Les Paul Ultra III, which is around $750, but gives you some cool features (you can make it sound kind of like an acoustic guitar, as well as a standard Les Paul). The Ultra also has a slimmer neck, and has a few hollowed-out "pockets" in the body, which make it lighter, and also make your tone sound a bit softer than a normal Les Paul's.

But let's go back to the straight Epiphone Les Paul Standard. The price is right, but as I said, the pickups are pretty average. So let's say you want an amazing sounding Les Paul, and the Epiphone for that reason just won't cut it, but you don't want to pay $3000 for the Gibson (whose pickups are better, but still aren't that spectacular). What do you do?

Easy. Buy an Epiphone Les Paul Standard (or any of the Epiphone Les Pauls you like the look of), and then purchase, online, two high end boutique pickups (one for the neck position, one for the bridge). When they arrive, take your Epiphone and your new pickups to a local guitar repair shop and tell the guy to put them in, plus upgrade your wiring and tone pots (he'll know what you mean). Yeah, it's more cumbersome, but when you're done, you'll have spent maybe four or five hundred bucks on the guitar, three hundred for top class pickups, plus a hundred bucks or so for the installation and the wiring upgrades; and for under a grand, you'll have a Les Paul which sounds WAY better than the three thousand dollar Gibson Les Pauls I just told you not to buy. And the name "Epiphone" on your headstock is nothing to shake a stick at. Noel Gallagher conquered the world with one. You can, too (supposing you can write a song as good as "Don't Look Back in Anger" - but that's another blog post altogether).

Which pickups should you order? The good news is that there are many fine independent pickup manufacturers out there now making fantastic humbuckers. Just a few off the top of my head are Bare Knuckle, Wolfetone, Seymour Duncan, Wizz, OX4, Fralin, Lollar, and Electric City. Any PAF-style humbucker set (neck and bridge pickup) from those manufacturers will sound better, and be more responsive and dynamic, than any stock Gibson pickup. (For those keen on their Les Paul sounding exactly like an original '50's Les Paul, consider getting an "unpotted" humbucker. "Unpotted" means the pickup was not dipped in wax, which means it will have more an airy, treble-y sound. The downside is that unpotted pickups are more likely to feed back when around high volume, so...your choice. I know that the Wizz "Premium Clone PAF", the Wolfetone Legend, and the Seymour Duncan Seth Lover come unpotted; there are others out there as well.)

Another (although more idiosyncratic) option, is a combo set from WCR - the set with the Crossroads in the neck position and the Darkburst in the bridge position. These pickups are built to sound like that classic Clapton "woman tone", and they really nail it. I have these in one of my own guitars, and I am blown away by them. They sound awesome, but like no other pickup I know of. For a unique, earthy tone, you cannot go wrong with these.

What about semi-acoustics? Sure, get one if you'd like. Do make sure it's a "semi-hollowbody", or you'll most likely have problems with feedback when you play live. And again, instead of wasting your money on a Gibson, buy an Epiphone (or some other brand) semi-hollowbody and just put the better pickups and wiring in, and you'll be good to go. Clapton played a semi-hollowbody. So did Alvin Lee. So do Noel Gallagher and B. B. King. They tend to give you a slightly richer, warmer tone than a solidbody.

What about other guitar brands? By all means, try some out. Yamaha makes some great electrics. So does PRS (although I personally dislike their big, chunky necks, but you might like them). Gretsch is good for rockabilly (like Brian Setzer), or playing exclusively power rhythm (like Malcolm Young), but tend not to be great for lead work. And if you happen to prefer smaller guitars, try out a Fender Mustang. Ibanez is another brand worth checking out.

Having said all this, I need to stress that in the end, the most important thing is that you find a guitar you love to play. If it needs some tweaking - new pickups, neck adjustment, etc. - a luthier can do that in no time. I've given you lots of information here, and hopefully some guidance to get you started; but honestly, don't sweat it. If you love playing a particular guitar, and you love its sound, that's all that matters in the end.

If this blog has helped you out in any way, or you have any follow up questions, let me know in the comments section below. Good luck!

Sunday, November 4, 2012

Ronnie Time

Somehow or other, I managed to grow up in a house with a 70's rock star dad, without ever hearing any Lynyrd Skynyrd albums. My dad had albums by almost everyone - all he thinks about is music - but despite having toured with Lynyrd Skynyrd, he had no Skynyrd albums, that I ever saw.

Of course, I knew the hits; but the hits were hits, because they were immediately likeable; and that means that, usually, hits don't have the musical depth that other "album tracks" have.

And so, I confess it was a revelation starting to listen through the old Lynyrd Skynyrd albums this past year; and when I was able to wrangle a few weeks camping trip with three of my kids this past summer, I knew just what CD's we'd have to bring.

With my twelve year old daughter "Red Bear" (the redhead), my ten year old son "Sno-Cone", and my sixteen year old "E", I set off southward, only a vague notion of where we might go. On the itinerary was the KOA in Kent, Washington, a drive past Mount St. Helens, and then, the little resort town of Seaside, Oregon, but after that, things were a little fuzzy: maybe we'd hit California to help crew on the Tevis Cup endurance race, or even make it to Utah, where all the relatives were.

Well, I rented a Thule roof rack for the Sequoia, built a little bunk in the back for my daughter, threw a bunch of sheep skins and foam in the back (as a mattress), and we set off. It would spiral into an amazing adventure, in which we crawled through the lava caves in Mount St. Helens, dug for fossils in Wyoming, went body surfing and zoomed over the sand dunes in Oregon, ran into a herd of wild horses in northern Nevada, hung out with all the cousins in Utah, went mountain horse riding, and more. But it was Lynyrd Skynyrd, and Ronnie, the lead singer, who provided the soundtrack, and provided for maybe the most memorable moments of the whole trip.

The first magic moment occurred as we approached Mount St. Helens, the mountain in Washington whose entire top blew off when I was a little kid, in a volcanic eruption. As we ascended into the forests around the mountain, "The Ballad of Curtis Loew" came on; and to my utter amazement, as the chorus came on, all three kids - including E, my sixteen year old, who is very squirrely and shy - burst out singing at full volume, "PLAY ME A SONG, CURTIS LOEW, CURTIS LOEW!".

Wow. We'd been listening for the previous couple of days, but I had no idea it had resonated that much.

"Okay, put on 'Simple Man' now!", shouted E; and when the chorus came, sure enough, all three kids began singing at top volume, "BABY BE A SIMPLE...KIND OF MAN!". Of course, I sang along, too; and for a weird moment, I almost kind of got choked up.

You see...it was an awesome moment, but it had a bitter underside to it: Mom should be here, and the other kids. This is great...but it's not what it should be. We should all be here, together...and I felt a strange mixture of joy and sorrow, as I remembered some of those great times of old.

But, I thought, we are here, at least, and that is great; and one day, I will find that new woman, and she will be here, and it will be better than ever. And for the rest of the trip, I managed to enjoy all the other moments, as much as I could.

Like when we rolled into Bellingham, Washington, coming back home, and "Poison Whiskey" came on. I cranked it full blast. Red Bear was in the front, and began dancing wildly - still strapped into her seat - in the full throes of reckless ginger abandon. I even whipped out my Galaxy 2 and got some video of her doing her crazed "seat-dancing" (which I'm sure I will cherish forever). Or when, during the trip I wondered aloud if we should put on the Joel Osteen CD a friend had sent us, and E started screaming, "No! Ronnie's already taught us everything we need to know!", and then proceeded to enumerate all sorts of pearls of wisdom gleaned from various Lynyrd Skynyrd song lyrics. Or when "I Need You" came on again, for the 400th time, and one of the kids said, "this is the greatest song ever written". Or when I abruptly turned down "Tuesday's Gone" just prior to the piano solo, and all the kids started screaming, "PUT IT BACK ON! IT'S BILLY POWELL!"

By the time we got back home, the kids had become full-blown "Skynyrdologists", and I know that whenever any of us hear any of those songs for the rest of our lives, we'll go right back to those sunny summer drives, heading down through the great Pacific Northwest, and then east, across the deserts, to Utah and Wyoming, and then heading back up to Vancouver Island, on our 2012 summer adventure.

Everyone knows that music has the power to bind; but it struck me especially forcefully on this trip. It has been quite rare that Red Bear, E., and Sno-Cone have all been together with me for any length of time over the past couple of years; and to develop together a mutual obsession (with old Lynyrd Skynyrd tracks) was, I have to say, really cool; maybe even more so than doing all the cool adventures together.

And now, often when we are in the car driving somewhere, one of the kids will eventually say, "Hey Dad - it's Ronnie Time"; and we will crank up "I'm a Country Boy", or "Cry for the Bad Man", or "I Ain't the One", or any one of dozens of other old classics; and we will all laugh, and roll down windows (and even once last week, rolled down all the windows and the sun roof during a blinding rain storm, so that we all got soaked), and sing along with Ronnie, at top volume, together.

And I wonder, in those moments, if there is anything better than that...but I can never think of anything :)

Saturday, June 30, 2012

So, You Want a Great Guitar Sound...

Want a great rock guitar sound? Do everything "wrong". Allow me to explain.

For a variety of reasons - some of them understandable, some of them daft - many aspiring rock guitarists think that a "great guitar sound" means buying a guitar with a "hot" (high output) pickup, a large amp cranked to the max, and maybe a distortion pedal in between. But if a "great guitar sound" is one that sounds more pleasing to the human ear than other possible alternatives, what I just described is not a "great guitar sound". Here's why.

What we hear as a sound is a wave of pressure through the air. The speed, or frequency, of these waves, we measure with a unit called a hertz. A hertz tells us how frequently the wave is cycling per second. So, a wave of 500 hertz means that the sound wave is cycling at a frequency of 500 times per second.

Human beings can hear sounds which range from about 20 to 20,000 hertz, but crucially, we cannot hear all those frequencies with equal ease. In fact, our ears are designed so that there is a bump in our sensitivity to frequencies around 3000 hertz (also known as 3 kilohertz or 3k, a kilohertz being equal to one thousand hertz). This makes sense, as the primary frequency in human voices is around that range. Now, virtually any sound or noise is an array of different frequencies, with some being more audible than others. But the more frequencies in 2 to 4 kilohertz range in any sound, the more we will hear that sound as harsh and unpleasant, simply because our ears are so much more sensitive to frequencies in that range.

Now, back to your guitar sound. The particular wood used to make an electric guitar will have a measurable effect on a guitar's tone, but the primary determinant of a guitar's sound is the pickup. A pickup is the device in an electric guitar which senses, or "picks up", the vibrations of the guitar strings, and converts them to an electric signal, which can then be amplified. Naturally, different kinds of pickups affect the characteristics of that signal in different ways.

One determining factor in how a pickup affects sound is the number of winds that the pickup has. (Pickups are made by winding metal wire around magnets).  Essentially, the more winds a pickup has, the louder (or hotter) the output of the pickup becomes, and the less the pickup picks up high and low frequencies from the strings, and thus, the more the pickup broadcasts "mid-range" frequencies, in the - you guessed it - 2 to 4 kilohertz range. Which means, the harsher it sounds.

Further, as the output from a hot pickup is distorted, the more the signal from the string itself is clouded over by harsh, white noise (since that noise is in the same 2 - 4k range, and is therefore boosted by the pickup). This doesn't happen with low output pickups, at least nowhere near as much, because they pick up more of the highs and lows, while slighting the mid-range frequencies. In short, up to a certain point, a lower wound pickup gives you a better guitar sound. If your output is too low, you simply turn your amp up more; or if you want more volume running into the amp, so as to get a more distorted sound, you simply run your guitar through a volume pedal or volume-boosting EQ pedal. The pedal increases the guitar output without increasing the "noise"that a higher-wind, higher output pickup would have.

Does this sound too simple, or too good, to be true? It shouldn't. This is just how you get a more pleasing guitar tone, and certainly how you can get a great distorted rhythm sound through which you can still hear string clarity.

Consider one of the greatest power-chord rock songs of all time: "Won't Get Fooled Again", by The Who. Millions of people envision Townshend in the studio playing a Les Paul with souped up pickups, standing in front of a wall of Marshall amps, to get that sound. The truth is that Townshend played the song on a hollowbody Gretsch 6120 which Joe Walsh had given him, fitted with Gretsch's standard (low wind) Filtertron pickups (the same set up Brian Setzer used for his classic Stray Cats material). Townshend then ran the signal through a volume pedal and into a Fender amp, thereby distorting it. Presto - a truly awesome distorted power chord sound, which retains a lot of string clarity.

My dad, on "Takin' Care of Business", used a hollowbody Gretsch with Filtertrons as well, and got another classic dirty rhythm sound. Malcolm Young, of AC/DC, has always used Gretschs with Filtertrons for the same reason. His brother Angus plays a Gibson SG with humbuckers - but the humbuckers are also low, or "vintage", output. Add to this the fact that producer Mutt Lange (who produced "Highway to Hell", "Back in Black", and "For Those About to Rock" for them) regularly twiddles the EQ knobs so as to zap out the 3K range entirely from his mixes, and you have an explanation as to why the classic AC/DC guitars sound so good. (I should add here that while Filtertrons are great for distorted rhythm, they are less suited to lead work. They use a fairly strong magnet, which gives them that great attack, but detracts from sustain).

Speaking of lead work, consider what most historically-minded rock 'n roll aficionados and guitarists consider the greatest lead sound ever: Eric Clapton's sound on the John Mayall and the Bluesbreaker's "Beano" album. And, guess what? It was a '59 Les Paul, with relatively low output humbuckers, through a small Marshall combo amp. Clapton reportedly regularly turned his guitar's tone knob all the way down, and according to some reports, ran his guitar through a treble booster to restore some of the treble lost on the way to the amp. But even so, we're talking about a set-up which maximizes tone and string pitch, over harsh noise.

Another great lead sound was the solo on "Stairway to Heaven". People think it's a hot-rodded Les Paul through a Marshall stack. It's actually an old '59 Telecaster, outfitted with its standard (relatively low output) single coil pickups, through (by most accounts) a small Supro amplifier. Add in a tiny bit of natural room echo/reverb, and boom, there's another classic sound.

What Townshend, Page, and other pioneers of classic rock guitar sounds had was tone; and they had it, because they weren't using hot-rodded, high-output pickups to play through three different distortion pedals and gigantic stacks, boosting their noise to signal ratio. They were, for the most part, using older guitars, with lower output pickups, to get subtler, sweeter distorted sounds, which paradoxically, make their guitars sound far bigger than most modern distorted guitar sounds. And certainly, those vintage sounds were far easier to listen to - not because there is something "magic" about their age, but simply because the set-ups were, in effect, reducing frequencies in the 2 to 4 kilohertz range, and accentuating string pitch over noise.

For those interested in experimenting with achieving tone, as opposed to white-noise-style distortion, a few recommendations.

Lollar offers a great sounding low output humbucker pickup called the Low Wind Imperial. Kinman also offers spectacular sounding, lower output humbuckers. Seymour Duncan offers an Eric Johnson-designed low output humbucker as well, and while I have heard good things about that, I have never heard it myself. And then, of course, there is the Filtertron, the pickup that Townshend used for the great rhythm sound on "Won't Get Fooled Again". I suggest going to the TV Jones website if you're interested in that; they make a wide assortment of Filtertron reproductions of varying hotness. (Remember, though, that if you're looking for a lot of sustain for rock leads, a classic Filtertron may not be your best choice).

In any case, good luck with your quest to get a great guitar tone. Send me an email if you want to discuss.



Sunday, June 24, 2012

Brave?

I took my kids to see "Brave" last Friday.

I admit, I was excited. I don't go to the movies much, but it seems like every time we've gone in the past year, we've seen a trailer for it. It seemed promising: Pixar is a quality outfit, the lead looks just like my daughter Red Bear, everyone loves movies about Scottish people fighting, and you naturally assume that when a studio blows that much money promoting a movie, it's gotta be good.

Well - the animation was excellent. The voices were excellent. The look of the characters was excellent. The music was not that great (they should have used more ancient sounding music, to match the time period), but potentially, we could have given them a pass on that. The real killer was that the story was surprisingly, disappointingly, thin.

And that's what I don't get. How can that much work go into every facet of a movie - the promotion, the voices, the animation, etc. - without a corresponding amount going into the story itself? The story is the basis of the whole thing. That has to be robust, compelling, and believable. It has to make sense. Once the basics are in place, the story needs to be fleshed out, with supporting characters, and a compelling subplot or two.

"Brave" rounded second, but never made it home. It is the story of a young princess named Merida, whose dad, the king, is an amiable doofus, and whose mother (Queen Eleanor) wants her to marry whichever suitor wins a contest. But Princess Merida doesn't want to get married. She wants to ride horses and enjoy her talent for archery. After an argument with her mother about the whole situation, Merida consults with a witch, who promises Merida a way out. The witch then turns Queen Eleanor into a giant bear.

The rest of the movie consists of Merida and her mother - as a bear - trying to figure out how to turn her back into the queen. Actually, not true - they find out pretty quickly how to turn her back. But, they just don't get around to it until the last, pseudo-cliffhanging moment. Hm. Also, Merida and her mother find another large bear out in the ruins of an old castle, who had previously been a prince, and who had previously tried to kill the king. There is some mother-daughter bonding/reconciliation, as they fish out in the woods. And there is some overreaching on the part of the director (some lady I'd never heard of) to try to create dramatic moments, when the drama has not really been generated by the story itself.

Aside from the comical depictions of the suitors, none of the jokes work. A bit more comedy would have been good, especially in the form of "Timon and Pumba" style supporting actors. But there was none of those. What character arc there is for Merida, was not particularly dramatic. And while it was obviously important for Merida to turn her mother back into a human, we could have used even higher stakes (like, if she doesn't turn her mother back into a human, the entire kingdom is overtaken by evil invaders - hell, anything). There was also no real subplot, and hardly any main plot at all. It just wasn't enough.

There was a whole lot of work put into making this movie, but the core story structures, and their development, were just not there. I'd give it maybe a 6.3/10.

Thursday, June 21, 2012

Hatred: An Ode

I guess "hatred" is sort of a strong word. But what I feel is kind of in the ballpark (yes, I've gotten kind of sensitive about my topic today :).

I logged on today here, after a year, to post something new; and what to my wondering eyes did appear, but a dramatically changed Blogger. It was disorienting. It took me a full seven minutes to even figure out how to get to this little page here, where I am currently typing, and no doubt, it will take quite a bit more time to figure other stuff out.

And, my question is: why? Why dramatically change what was working (instead of incrementally)?

It was like this on Gmail. There was nothing wrong with Gmail. In fact, there was so "nothing wrong with it", that Gmail went from zero to incredibly popular very quickly a few years ago when it came out. Yet, despite the fact that tens of millions of loyal Gmail users wanted no change, and had absolutely no complaints to make about Gmail, and were entirely uninclined to spend even a minute - let alone an hour or two - trying to find out where Google's software nerds have just hidden all their favourite features in the new program they didn't want, Google went ahead and changed everything anyway. Were there any user surveys? Of course not. Any preliminary market research? No. Any responses to the widespread dissatisfaction with their lousy overhaul? Far too much to hope for. Out of curiosity one day, I searched for hours trying to find any thread or forum where more than a slim minority liked the new Gmail changes. Almost everyone hated them.

It is not that I am against change. That would be crazy. It is that I am against mindless change, with regards to things that matter - like, when people say they are going to vote for one party or another, because they want "change", without ever contemplating for even a second what specifically they think needs changing, and for what reasons, and what shape that change ought to take. That kind. Or the kind that takes a much-valued good or service, and suddenly, dramatically changes it, just because. Just because the new CEO smelt the urine of the last CEO on the hydrant, and had to lift his leg and pee all over it to mask his predecessor's lingering presence, and for no other reason.

Anyway, I have spent a year away from my blog, and I intend to write on it more regularly. That is, if I can figure out how to use the newly reconfigured Blogger :)

(For those brave few who may want more exposure to my Town-Crank-on-Steroids bloviations, send me a Facebook friend request, and read some of the threads there).




Sunday, June 19, 2011

A New Beginning


Once, I embarked on a fantastic project. First, I'd meet my true soulmate, fall in love, and get married. Then, we'd have lots of children and create a heaven on earth by designing a life which had just the right balance of challenge and risk and fun and adventure. We would continuously grow in unity and love as husband and wife and children (and eventually, with their spouses), and their children, until, in the end, my beloved and I would pass away, leaving an inspiring legacy for our descendants. The end.

The truth is that no words can describe, three years on from the violent rupture of my marriage, the combination of shellshock and nausea-inducing horror I continue to feel over the fact that this project has been destroyed, and that my efforts to save it have failed. Worst of all is knowing that my children will pay the heaviest price.

After all the conventional sloganeering about "two sides to every story" and "people just growing apart" and "you need to do what's best for you" stops, a brute fact remains: there is no way to justify the destruction of this beautiful family. A million dippy friends and "finding yourself"/"self-realization" articles and cliches could be trotted out; they don't change anything. There is no way to justify the destruction of this family, and the heartache it has caused to the children, and the heartache and trouble it will cause for many years to come.

Certainly, innumerable excuses have been imaginatively created and announced, each one seemingly more detached from the actual events of the past than the one before, and thus, more obviously ridiculous than the one before; but there's no point in pretending anymore that they are anything besides attempts at guilt-reduction and defending the indefensible. We had created a heaven on earth; we had countless adventures and laughs, done a hundred little projects, road trips to California and camping and dinosaur fossil-digging and barbecues and building bird cages and visiting hot springs and making beach bonfires; we had welcomed each new child with greatest gratitude; each day, each moment, as a bound family unit, was a miracle. All that is gone now, replaced by nothing but two souls, still completely bound at the cellular soulmate level regardless of the past and regardless of what either person tells anyone else, just living in different houses now, taking turns visiting the children we ought to be raising together, one of us in the throes of a kind of insane, stubborn hubris which impels her to keep on trying to accomplish what deep down she must know she shouldn't, and the other, a man still unable to conceive of himself with any other woman than the one he still feels cosmically bound to, despite all that has occurred, and who is therefore completely uninterested in any kind of intimate relationship with any other woman - and who is therefore, stuck. The children, I can't go into detail about, of course...but I will say they deserved a lot better than this. And they once had it, which I think makes this all the worse for them.

In a way, I want God in on this. I want a final reckoning. Of course I submit myself to such judgment; after all, this destruction is so rotten, that whatever I've inadvertently done to contribute to it or misguidedly enable it, I ought to pay for, as much as the force which actually lusted for, and caused, the destruction. I am so frazzled, so heartsick, so totally dumbstruck by the violence and insanity of it all, that I want some eventual clarity to replace the confusion, some final, righteous judgment to replace all the misjudgments, some final investigation, with appropriately excruciating punishments meted out. I want some divine order after all the hellish disorder. And I want to know how a parent could look into the young, innocent, trusting eyes of their own flesh and blood, and then walk out the door and destroy everything those children cherish most in life, which they are trusting that parent to protect.

I'm sure I sound bitter. It's more complicated than that, and far more overwhelming. Mixed up with the shell-shock and horror are all sorts of other feelings that never go away, and I don't know if they will ever go away. The incredulity, the outrage, the regret, the sense of loss and failure, the deep conviction of the wrongness of it all, the total frustration and pining for her and powerlessness and sorrow...when does it all go away? My whole adult life I thought of myself as the protector of my family. When it came down to it, it was destroyed from within, and - that I could find anyway - I had no power to stop it. And that - - really - - sucks. I have this terrible feeling I will never, ever get over it.

Resurrecting this seems impossible. But as another old saying goes, "you can't begin again; but you can make a new beginning". Maybe, one day, I will find someone I can make a new beginning with. Maybe I'll be like one of my musician buddies - a devoted father and husband by day, a famous rock star by night - who told me once that dealing with his first wife, and the ensuing divorce, was the worst thing he'd ever been through, but that it was all worth it just to meet his new wife, who was the most incredible woman he'd ever met: willing to accept love and appreciate the gifts he can give her, and who was attentive, supportive, loyal, etc.

Maybe the woman I meet one day will be moved by a love song I write, or excited by an adventure I plan for us. Maybe she will come up with her own ways of infusing our lives with peace and respect and love. Maybe she and I will really complement each other. Maybe she will love my children as her own. I can't say there is anyone like that on the horizon, but maybe that will happen one day. I don't know.

What I do know is that right now....I....ummm....well...I need to buy some horses, and start riding with my kids, as many of them as will come...and we need to ride up to Michell's farm, and ride over to the beach and have a picnic, and ride round Elk Lake, and Thetis Lake, and maybe even ride out through the wilds, near Goldstream, and camp out overnight, and maybe even try to make it all the way up to the Cowichan Valley, and try to keep as much of the magic we once had all together going, for as long as I can...and maybe, one day, a beautiful girl will join me; and the kids will love her, and she will love me, and I'll love her back, and we'll all build a beautiful heaven on earth together. And maybe that heaven is one which will last forever.

Wednesday, May 11, 2011

Thor-rible

I went to see the movie Thor last night with my sixteen year old son, T-Bone. I hadn't heard anything about it other than that it was directed (or, as I would now put it, "directed") by Kenneth Brannagh. And remembering Brannagh's good version of Henry V, I had pretty high expectations.

Well...I don't know if Kenneth Brannagh has been hit by a train in the last year or so, but if not, I'm not sure what else could account for this movie. There is, literally, almost no aspect of it which works.

Let's take something relatively trivial: language. Thor, a Scandinavian god who lives in Asgaard a thousand years ago, falls into the New Mexican desert through a tornado-like funnel connecting Asgaard and earth, having been banished for disobeying his father, Odin. Well - we can give a pass to the time travel and interstellar funnels and stuff. After all, it is a fantasy. But even fantasy movies, while requiring some suspension of belief, cannot go so far as to require the complete cessation of mental function. And so, my question to Kenneth Brannagh is: Would it have really been that difficult to provide even a flimsy explanation for why a Scandinavian who lived one thousand years ago, speaks fluent modern English?

Let's take something else trivial: the costumes and hair. Wasn't there anyone available better than the lady who did the costumes for Brannagh's local elementary school's rendition of "The Hobbit"? Couldn't we get something at least semi-realistic? The "armour" looks ridiculous, the bad hair dye jobs look ridiculous - it all looks ridiculous.

Now, something a bit more important: How can Kenneth Brannagh expect us to believe that the bloodthirsty warrior Thor, after returning from earth, no longer wants to see the annihilation of Asgaard's murderous enemies (the frost-monsters trying to destroy Asgaard) purely on the basis of a Bono-like humanitarianism he somehow acquired because of his infatuation with Natalie Portman? That's the big peak of the character arc? A desire to let enemy creatures live who are infiltrating your kingdom and trying to kill your father and all your fellow citizens? It makes no sense.

How does Brannagh expect us to believe that Thor could break into a military compound built around his hammer (lodged in a piece of meteorite), wipe out a dozen guys, but that the commanding officer watching the whole break-in would not authorize even the firing of a tranquilizer dart into the man? And how does he expect us to believe that after all that, the military officials would just let him go (without arresting him, detaining him, etc.)?

And when the giant, fire-breathing monster shows up in town for the final showdown for Thor, and starts blowing the town up, lighting things on fire, etc., where are all the military people? Even though the military folks seem able to show up in seconds to any other unexpected event, for some reason, they are nowhere to be seen as soon as Monster Man starts destroying everything.

How does he expect us to believe in a cutesy goo-goo Thor, who hams it up for cellphone cameras?

I don't understand how a guy who has been acting and directing, literally his entire life, and who has won so many awards for doing so, could have overseen the making of a movie this bad. I mean, aside from "Train Theory". I just don't get it.

Wednesday, March 30, 2011

The Best Game Yet

I hate losing, but I think the most fun I've had so far this year in rugby was our loss against our crosstown rival, the Velox Valhallians.

No one in town likes to lose; but in particular, no one likes to lose to Velox. They don't have the glorious, century-old tradition of winning which James Bay has, nor the tidy, almost professional air which the University of Victoria Vikes have, nor the big membership and rollicking, city-wide, let-the-good-times-roll vibe of my own club, the Castaway Wanderers. Losing to Velox is thus something of a bitter pill for teams. It just always seem to everyone else (no doubt unfairly) that they should be able to beat Velox.

But the truth is, I've played against them several times now (Third Division), and their teams have always been very good. Todd, their fly-half, runs a very tight, effective ship, and once they get on a roll, they are very hard to stop.

I experienced this again last time we played them (maybe two months ago?). They got on a roll, Todd and the inside-centre kept putting guys away on the wing, and they started racking up points. As a result, we began to panic, and began taking stupid chances in order to try to catch up. More often than not, we would turn the ball over, and then the Velox backline would begin to pound us again. If we were lucky enough to get it back, we could barely get anything going because of their ferocious counter-rucking.

I experienced that ferocity personally. My buddy and teammate John Graf had the ball and ran into contact. Tackle made. The tackler jumped up, and in that split-second, I ran in over Graf and crouched to secure the ruck (to prevent the tackler and other defenders from pushing over Graf and stealing the ball). I had it covered - both hands and feet on the ground, over Graf, crouched low. Graf put the ball backwards and I heard our scrum-half run up to snatch it away; when out of nowhere, a semi-trailer smashed into me. I'm 200 pounds, but I was smashed up and backwards like I was an 8 ounce inflatable dummy. I never saw the Velox guy coming. All I knew is that even though I had been low in a four point stance, a split second later, I'd been flipped and was hitting the ground hard on my side six feet behind where I'd been crouching. The Velox forward who'd hit me landed right next to me almost simultaneously, both of us facing each other; and in that moment, I looked at him, and he looked at me, and then...we both started laughing. I had been completely owned. I knew it, he knew it. I just blurted, "that was textbook!", and still laughing, we gave each other a tap as we got up and resumed play.

The onslaught continued without ceasing for the next hour, the Velox guys scoring try after try. With a few minutes left in the game, our coach subbed me off. I thought I was done for the day, and stood watching the game from the sidelines. Suddenly, someone got hurt, and our coach started saying, "We need a flanker. Who's available? We need a flanker!". Then, noticing me standing next to him, he said, "go in at flanker!".

"'Flanker'?". I was a back. I'd never played flanker. I wasn't even sure where I was supposed to be.

"Go!", he said. "They're about to set the scrum".

"I'm in the scrum?!", I said.

"GO!".

I went running out on the wet, muddy field toward the scrum, only a minute or two to go, us getting our butts totally kicked, completely clueless about what I was supposed to do.

"Troy wants me to play flanker", I said to Alex, another forward. "What do I do?!"

"Just play", Alex said.

As it happened, I didn't have time to get near the scrum. I quickly assumed a place in the diagonal backwards-stretching line, and almost before I knew what was happening, Kevin, the scrum-half, had snatched up the ball and was firing a pass at me.

By this time, after nearly 80 minutes of drizzle and muck, the ball looked like it had been dipped in one of those Dairy Queen vats of liquid chocolate; but sprinting forward, I managed to catch it. In that split-second, I could tell I had no gaps in the line in front of me, and so I flicked the ball to my right, to Trent, an awesome young kid who plays every game not just like it's his last, but like he's living his last minute on earth.

Just as I flicked it over, I was hammered by one of their big goons back down into the mud. But as I went down, I managed to see Trent catch it, and then - just as he was in turn being hammered by one of their goons - flick the ball back toward me, to one of our backs who had cut a line right through the middle of us. In a flash, he was through....

And there, lying in the mud next to Trent, both of us covered in grass and muck and sweat and blood, in the last minute of an eighty minute torturous ordeal in which our team hadn't been able to score one single try, getting our faces kicked in (metaphorically and literally), we watched our teammate run right through the gap created by their defenders tackling Trent and me, run another twenty metres to put a move on their fullback, and then run the remaining fifty metres all the way to the try zone to dive in for the score...and no lie, I think it might have been the most exhilarating moment of my rugby career so far (barring the try I scored last year).

We did it!, I thought. I started laughing.

"WE DID IT!", Trent shouted, in almost the same instant.

"Yeah! We did it!!!", I shouted back. "WE DID IT!", we both shouted together. And both of us started laughing uncontrollably, still lying there, covered in muck, exhausted. "We did it, man! We friggin' did it!!! Ha ha ha!". After nearly an hour and a half of trying, and failing, we had finally scored.

We stood back up. High fives. "WE DID IT!". For some reason, we just couldn't stop laughing. And even in the dressing room, we couldn't stop laughing.

And funnily enough, two or three other guys came in, also laughing, saying, "that was the funnest game we've played all year".

I thought of that game last Saturday night. I popped in to the local pub The Irish Times to check out my buddies playing, and I bumped into a couple of guys from the club, K and G. We got to talking, and the subject of Mormonism, my former religion, came up.

I didn't really want to get into the church - I've long since tired of talking about it, for the most part - but I just said, "Well, it was really devastating...to make a long story short, I discovered that it wasn't true".

There was a pause, and then K, very seriously, said, "Rugby's true. It's always true".

And G said, "it's the one constant in my life".

I knew what they meant.

And then K said, "Rugby is war, and in war, you can only live by the truth. You have to live your life by the truth...You have to live your life by the truth".

And it's hard to explain...it's something about the truth, and rugby...but I can feel it deep in my bones...

And no doubt it sounds totally ridiculous to most people - not least to people who have never been Mormon, or who haven't yet realized it is all a fraud, or who have never belonged to a warrior cult in which, in every moment, you must live by the truest truths your mind and heart can fathom, or else suffer or die (in some way or other) - but I admit, to me, in that moment, it didn't sound ridiculous at all. It sounded...well, like the truest truth there can be.

This Sunday, we play Velox again. Maybe that game will bring a lot of laughs. Then again, it could bring a lot of injuries...but whatever it brings, I'm pretty sure it will be true :).

Friday, December 10, 2010

A New Genre: The Prospective Movie Review

Maybe it's wildly unfair of me, but as soon as I saw the commercial tonight for director Julie Taymor's forthcoming version of Shakespeare's "The Tempest", I thought, "it'll be a dud". The commercial showed Prospero having been changed from a male to a female; and while, strictly speaking, that in itself isn't enough to torpedo a movie, I have a sinking feeling about it all the same. The father-daughter dynamic - obviously heavily dependent on the sex of each character - is crucial to the story; change dad to a mum, and it's almost a given that Shakespeare's enchanting and powerful tapestry begins to unravel. Certainly, Hollywood's history of destroying classic tales by trying to "update" essentially unimprovable and timeless story lines and characters only inflamed my sense of foreboding; and when I later caught Taymor's interview with Stephen Colbert, it only aligned with what I'd thought two seconds after I saw the commercial.

Though few people in Hollywood seem to grasp it, structurally changing classics in order to make them "relevant" is generally a VBI (very bad idea); after all, the reason why any story is a "classic" is because it is inherently immune to becoming irrelevant. A classic can, I suppose, be neglected by people who find things like Youtube clips of gerbils eating their own young or people falling off of ladders more entertaining, but a classic, by definition, doesn't become irrelevant. In fact, the only time classics smack of irrelevance is when the artistically mediocre, desperate to think of themselves as contemporary colleagues and peers of the original genius creators, torment us with their dull-witted versions of them. So bottom line is, I'm giving this new version of "The Tempest" a thumbs down. I hope, when I see it, I find myself to be very wrong, because it's been my favourite Shakespearean play since I first read it in Dr. McNamara's political theory class seventeen years ago (that went fast!).

On the other hand, a forthcoming remake of the John Wayne classic True Grit, directed by the Coen Brothers and starring Matt Damon, will no doubt be terrific. The Coen Brothers of course are a sure bet, so I'm not saying anything that most people don't already know. I mean...good script, good actors, and good director, means good movie.

So there are my two prospective movie reviews: The Tempest is dudsville, True Grit is great.

Saturday, August 7, 2010

On Hold

Hi everyone - I'm on hold. I've been traveling and doing things with the kids and just haven't had much of a chance to type anything worthwhile. I hope to post something again soon.

Hope everyone's having a good summer.

Talk to you soon,

Tal

Friday, June 11, 2010

Overlords RFC, Part 6

"We keep writing songs. Why don't we just do a record?", I said to Spoiler one day.

"Yeah, totally", he said. "We'd have to think of a name, though".

A couple of days later, Spoiler and I sat eating in the kitchen. Outside in the sun, the kids were having a waterfight.

"I had an idea", I said. "Why don't we just call ourselves 'Overlords RFC'?"

"Because that's the name of our rugby team", said Spoiler.

"I know, but we can have a rock and roll band that's....also a rugby team", I said.

There was a pause. "That sounds really weird", Spoiler said finally.

"I know - but it's so weird it might work", I said, warming to the idea. "We write a bunch of songs, most of which have lyrics and themes drawn from rugby; and the band has colours like an actual rugby team, and we even have team, I mean band, jerseys. The rugby thing's not so explicit that it wouldn't get on radio, but it's there enough so that rugby people would pick up on it".

Spoiler shoved a hot dog into his mouth. "Like ah shed, shoundsh pretty weer'".

"What about Sum 41, or Run-DMC, or Blink 182? Those were pretty weird names. And what about 'Smashmouth'? That was a reference to Mike Ditka's Chicago Bears".

Well, the more we talked, the more Spoiler warmed up to the idea. And the next day, in a flash of inspiration, he sat down at the piano and came up with a very catchy verse and chorus, and a bunch of lyrics. I suggested the solo-bridge sequence and helped with the structure and a few lyrics, and all of a sudden, we had a song. It didn't have anything to do with rugby, really, but I reckoned we could figure that out later. The important thing was, it sounded like it could be on the radio. So we started to get excited. And Spoiler and I really started to get into character. Scottish rugby player character. Who also was in a rock band.

See, it was that week that the old Scottish guy next door had started shouting across the fence at our new puppy, which had provoked a million jokes, in Scottish accents, amongst Spoiler and my older kids and me. In fact, we hadn't been able to stop talking in Scottish accents since it happened.

So we began trying to come up with song ideas every day. Often the ideas were less about any song, and more calculated to just get more laughs out of the resentful, brusque, coarse, 85 year old Scottish guy alter-egos we had now fully adopted. We'd sit down with guitars, and then one of us would say something like, "Let's wrrrite a song about....about a guy who gets his face ****in' right bashed in on a rugby pitch and there's blood everywhere!", and "let's write a song about a rrrancid slag who won't come to her fella's rugby games!", and "what about one where a guy throws a deep-fried Mars Bar at the referee at Murrayfield for missing a call, and blasts his eye socket to smithereens?"

Quick digression here:

One night, in the midst of all that, we arranged for my oldest son to babysit, and Spoiler and I went down to Darcy's, a local pub, to hear some live music. I bumped into some of the Castaway Wanderers players I knew, began to chat, and got separated from Spoiler. When I finally wandered back to try to find him, I spotted him, holding a Budweiser, talking to a cute blonde girl.

I approached and said, "hey". Spoiler quickly pulled me aside and said into my ear, "Brudder - you gotta help me out on this. I told this chick we were Scottish rugby players from Aberdeen, and we're just over here for six months playing with CW. She's totally buying it. Just keep the accent going".

Not seeing much harm in that, I held out my hand to her. "Pleased to make yair acqueentance, missy", I said.

"Same here!", the blonde said, seemingly quite taken with the whole thing. "So amazing you guys are over here. Your brother was telling me all about where you guys live in Scotland, and all about your games" (Needless to say, Spoiler's never even been to Scotland, and had never picked up a rugby ball until eight or nine days earlier, and the only game either of us had ever been in at that point was touch rugby against the little McCue kids [who had taken to calling themselves 'The Hellcats'] at the park). "So awesome you guys play".

"Aye, it's great fun but o' course just a wee bit dangerous", I said.

"I love how you guys say 'wee'! It's more than a 'wee' bit dangerous anyway". She looked admiringly back at Spoiler.

"Rright then, lassie", he said, shooting me a quick "eye-smirk". "How about another pint then?"

Sadly for Spoiler, Blondie got around to sheepishly admitting a short while later that she was married and that she'd come to Darcy's with her husband, so that ended that...but the magical power of the schtick was not lost on either of us. And so it was that a few days later, Spoiler went back to White Rock for a day to meet up with V., an ex-girlfriend who had been trying to re-initiate their relationship. Spoiler called me the morning after, triumphant.

"Okay Brudder, last night I was hanging out with V. I told her upfront that there was no way I was getting back together with her, 'kay, but I dropped a couple of hints about how I might be into spending a bit of 'quality time' with her. SO BRUDDER CHECK THIS OUT! She was all curious about what I was doing over in Victoria, so I say, 'I've been playing a lot of rugby'. Brudder, she went into total shock, because she knows I've never played any sport! She was like totally dumbstruck. She was like, 'you - you - you play rugby now?'. I'm like, 'oh yeah, I'm on a team called the Overlords. That's why I can't stay over here very long. They need me back there for practice and our next game'. Then she's still dumbstruck, like she can hardly speak, and she's like, 'What - what - like - what, what teams do you play against?'. So Brudder, I go, 'Well, we play a lot of games against this team called...The Hellcats'. Brudder! Her head completely exploded! She was like, 'oh - my - God. I always knew you were amazing. But this just proves you can do anything! That is amazing!'. And brudder, lemme just tell you, after that it was ROGER WILCO ALL SYSTEMS GO shagfest! HA HA HA HA!".

Well, I'm not saying I condone his little maneuver, but I must admit I ended up choking with laughter at the thought of Spoiler, keeping a straight face, reporting that he was now on a rugby team which often played against their crosstown rivals, the Hellcats - and happening to omit the fact that it was touch rugby against a bunch of eight and nine year olds - and so completely blowing his ex's awestruck mind.

Where was I? Oh yes - the band that was a rugby team that was a band.

More later.

Wednesday, June 2, 2010

Will Bud Selig Do the Right Thing?

Will Bud Selig do the right thing? I think the answer to that question is another question: Why would he start now?

Bud Selig's refusal to allow any sort of video replay into the game he claims to love has once again been revealed to the entire planet as the supremely idiotic position it has always been. Detroit Tigers pitcher Armando Galarraga tonight pitched a perfect game against the Cleveland Indians, except that first base umpire Jim Joyce erroneously called Jason Donald safe at first. Making it all the more nauseating is that it wasn't even close. Donald was clearly out, but once Joyce ruled, that was it, and Galarraga's perfect game - only the 21st in major league history - will, at least as of this writing, not be officially recorded as such.

What is the right thing to do? I think the answer is obvious. Just as baseball commissioner Ford Frick ruled in 1961 that Roger Maris's homerun record of 61 in a season be recorded as having been accomplished in 162 games (to distinguish it from Babe Ruth's previous record of 60 in just 154), Selig should decree that the history books record that Galarraga pitched a perfect game tonight. Furthermore, he should shut the hell up about Ernie Banks and Dizzy Dean, stop hazily dreaming about the past, and take baseball into the 21st century - which means utilizing video replay. It's simple - each team could have one challenge opportunity a game, or even a certain number per season. The NHL uses video replay. Rugby league uses video replay. Football uses video replay. Rugby union uses video replay. Why? To preserve the integrity of their game. That's what's so stupid about Selig's position on this: despite all his prattling about wanting to maintain "the integrity of the game" by keeping video replay out, it is precisely that integrity which is damaged when the outcomes of games are determined not by the players, but by refereeing errors. Duh.

But...why would Selig start caring about (as opposed to just talking about) "the integrity of the game" now? After all, he's the guy who turned a blind eye to steroid use for years, and in doing so, facilitated the most integrity-damaging saga in baseball since the Black Sox scandal of 1919. No - if Selig does the right thing in this case, it will be, first of all, a miracle; but second of all, prompted only by a vain concern about looking like an idiot, rather than an innate sense of decency or justice.

So hopefully, there will be enough of an outcry over this episode that Galarraga's marvelous performance tonight will be enshrined in the record books as the perfect game it was, rather than the one-hitter it was not. But...I'm not counting on it.

Time for a new commissioner - and video replay.

Thursday, May 27, 2010

Overlords RFC, Part Five

The next day around noon, I said, "Okay Brudder, if you want to get going here, you could get that big wisteria planted, and then get on the beds for the cedars. The kids and I can start on the flower beds".

"No problem, Brudder. I just gotta run to the store to get a few things". That made some sense, because he'd shown up with only a backpack, and was supposed to stay for three weeks. "I should be back in a few. Can I get twenty bucks in advance?". I said sure. Being carless, he jumped in my van and left.

Three hours later, with still no sign of him, I called his cell.

"Hello?", he said. In the background, I could hear what sounded strangely like calling seagulls, ocean waves, bottles clinking, dogs barking and people laughing.

"Brudder - where are you?", I said.

"I'm at the beach. It's totally awesome down here! Joey, wait, try it upside down...yeah, like that...HA HA HA HA HA!".

What the...? Who's Joey? "Hello?"

"Here boy, come on over - Tina, grab him for a sec..."

"Brudder, you there?"

"Yeah I'm here, hang on - Wait, let me try, I bet he jumps right off the edge. WOOOO HA HA HA HA HE DID IT! GOOD BOY! (ruff ruff rrrrr ruff) Where'd Bucks go? Hey-"

"Brudder - what the hell's going on? Who are you with?"

"I'm at the beach with some friends..."

"'Friends'? You just got here last night. How can you have friends?"

I heard the sound of guitar in the background, then Spoiler saying, "That's not how you play it, gimme that..."

"Brudder! Listen - you there? I need the van. I have to go get food for dinner".

Well, Spoiler finally made it home, but as usual, was frustratingly vague about how he could have made a dozen friends almost instantaneously on a trip to a store. Although, I'd seen this kind of thing before with him. We're somewhere, someone - or a group of people - appears and approaches him - not me - and says, "Hey man! What are you up to? Nice to see you. We're hitting the lake tonight, you should come on down. K, catch you later!". And then when I say, "Who was that?", Spoiler says, "I don't know; I've never seen them before". It made no sense. It was totally inexplicable, and it happened over and over. Maybe there was some cosmic "party" energy field that these people were all attuned to, that I had no access to, which enabled them to find and identify each other. No clue.

Anyway, we went to the grocery store, then threw some steaks on the barbie, and after dinner, we got out the rugby ball and went into the back yard. I don't think Spoiler had ever touched one in his entire life up to that point.

"How do you throw it?", he said.

"Just like this". I put my right hand towards the back, my left hand towards the front, and gave it a little spin as I tossed it. Within a few minutes, Spoiler had gotten the hang of it, and along with the kids, we all tossed it around.

"So Brudder, you gonna play with us against the McCues?".

"Yeah of course, Brudder", Spoiler said. "I'm an Overlord now". That was quick. Cool.

"Too bad we don't have a uniform that will fit you", I mused.

"WHAT?", said Spoiler. "Brudder, WHAT ARE YOU TALKING ABOUT? I'M NOT GOING TO SHOW UP IN A T-SHIRT FOR A GAME. WE'RE ON A TEAM. THIS IS RUGBY. I'M AN OVERLORD-"

I admit I was totally caught off guard. I had no idea Spoiler would instantly take this so seriously. I mean...he hadn't even heard of the Overlords until a day or two earlier, and I don't even think he'd ever been on any actual team in his entire life, except for maybe a stint on a Little League team when he was seven or eight. "Okay Brudder, calm down - we'll try to figure something out", I said.

"YEAH BRUDDER. GUY INVITES ME OVER, AND THEN WANTS ME RUNNING AROUND IN A T-SHIRT DURING AN OVERLORDS GAME. UNBELIEVABLE!"

Well, a few days later we headed out to Sierra Park for our scheduled match against the McCues, the 6'3" Spoiler jammed into one of our Overlords jerseys, Polish-sausage style.

An hour later, the game was over, and we headed back to the house. The kids wanted to jump on the tramp while the sprinkler was on underneath it. Spoiler and I sat down with a couple of guitars. Within a few minutes, we'd come up with a pretty good idea for a song. The next day at the beach, we came up with another couple of ideas. Same thing the next evening, sitting around the fire.

And after a week of that, I had a strange idea.

Thursday, May 20, 2010

Robin Hood Review

We interrupt our regularly scheduled broadcast...

I saw "Robin Hood" last night, the new Ridley Scott-directed movie starring Russell Crowe and Cate Blanchett. I'd heard from a few sources that it was average, but I didn't believe them. Putting together, in my head, the "Gladiator" director and the actors and the timelessly appealing story, I just thought, "it's gotta be good". In fact, it was average, a five out of ten.

Probably the most important reason for its mediocrity is a less than compelling story. The story depicted is actually backstory, an explanation of how Robin became Robin (the movie actually ends at the moment that Robin becomes an outlaw). Now that I think of it, this is the first movie I have ever seen which seemed entirely devoted to being "the first movie of a series of movies", rather than primarily a stand-alone movie, which, secondarily, could also setup a sequel. Anyway, bottom line is, the story just isn't that compelling, and is depicted in too lengthy and cumbersome a fashion.

The second factor is casting and acting performance. I can see Russell Crowe as Robin Hood, though just. He would definitely be a rougher, cruder, more piggish Robin Hood than, say, the dashingly nimble Robin Hood played by Errol Flynn decades ago. But...you know. Maybe that would have been better, more realistic. But Cate Blanchett - a fine actress - as Marian? I can't buy it. I'm not trying to be mean when I say that Cate Blanchett is one of those actresses (others include Jodie Foster, Whoopi Goldberg, and Sarah Jessica Parker) who have made it to the top-tier of their profession while being entirely devoid of sex appeal, so I think she was an odd choice. Great as Elizabeth I, miscast as a dashing hero's love interest. It's completely unbelievable.

The supporting actors are likewise pretty mediocre here. Mark Strong as Godfrey is too...what's the word...obvious; too "caricature of a bad guy". William Hurt is too American for this picture; he looks American, he moves "American", he just shouldn't be in this movie. Danny Huston was phemonenal in "The Proposition"; here, his brief acting performance, like so many of the others, is just that tad overwrought (must be Ridley Scott's fault). Robin's Merry Men, same thing.

"Robin Hood" would have been far better with a different leading lady, subtler, more "organic" acting performances, and a tighter, more dramatic story, whether comprised of pure backstory or the traditional tales of Robin Hood, or some combination.

Thursday, May 13, 2010

Overlords RFC, Part Four

Right around this time, I had a chat with Mommy.

"I'd like to go back to England", she said. "I need to re-connect with my family and friends. That will help me on my journey of healing" (healing after leaving Mormonism, that is).

Not to go into too much detail, but no one had been longing as desperately for Mommy to complete her "journey of healing" more than I had over the past few years, so in the moment she said it, I was on board. She asked me to buy the tickets and schedule the trip for her, which I did: three weeks in July (2008), back to England. I would stay at home with the kids. As usual, I felt very hopeful - in retrospect, naively so - that this trip would really help her achieve peace, etc.

We were all sad to see Mommy go, although I also was relishing having a fun, laidback three weeks with all eight kids. Barbecues, the beach, swimming, biking...I thought we'd be able to have a blast. And then I had another idea. I called up my brother, Spoiler, who was still in White Rock (on the mainland, a suburb of Vancouver).

"Tracy's gone for three weeks. Why don't you come over?", I said.

"I have no money", he said.

"I have landscaping I have to complete. You can help me, and I can just pay you".

"Done", he said.

The next day, my cell phone rang. It was Spoiler.

"Brudder, it's me. I'm just pulling in to the ferry terminal. My friend gave me a ride on his motorbike".

I wondered why he was calling me if he was still riding on the back of a motorcycle. Didn't you need to hold on with both hands? In any case, it sounded like they were just stopping the motorcycle, and he was trying to get off.

"I'll be on the 3, can you pick me-OWWWWW!!!!", he suddenly shouted. "YOUR BIKE JUST BURNED MY LEG! LOOK AT MY LEG!".

In the background, I could hear his friend was saying, "Oh, you gotta be careful around the-"

"YOUR BIKE JUST BURNED MY LEG! NOW I'M GOING TO HAVE A SCAR! ALL SUMMER! A GIANT SCAR FOR SUMMER! LOOK AT MY LEG! WHY DON'T YOU WATCH IT WITH YOUR STUPID BIKE, MAN?! Brudder, this guy's pipe here just totally burned my leg. YEAH THANKS A LOT MAN. NOW MY LEG IS BURNT!....YEAH WHATEVER....YEAH....YEAH, SEE YA LATER!"

Listening in, I couldn't quite grasp how it would have been his friend's fault (who after all, I assumed had given him a ride all the way from White Rock to the Tswawwassen ferry terminal) that Spoiler, who was wearing shorts, had burned his leg on the pipe while dismounting.

In any case, the kids and I picked Spoiler up a couple of hours later on the Vancouver Island side...and thus began a legendary three weeks of hilarity.

Gotta run, more later.

Sunday, May 9, 2010

Overlords RFC, Part Three

I put a call into Rich McCue. We had been friendly with Rich, his wife Heather, and their kids for a couple of years. We had played hockey with them a few times, so I thought they might be game for a rugby adventure. Fortunately, they were, and we scheduled a touch rugby game for the following week.

So far, the kids had been pretty excited about the idea. This was as surprising as it was gratifying to me, since none but two had ever shown any interest at all in rugby. Maybe they felt the low morale, too; and maybe the idea of a new adventure that we would all be embarking on, and the alter-ego element, the opportunity for totems and colours and all those things, and maybe even a kind of small-scale glory, appealed to them the same way they did to me at that moment. T-Bone and A-Roq were already interested in Norse and continental mythology, and were quite into fantasy video games, often with a martial element. They began coming up with a mock mythology for our alter-egos almost immediately. Sno-cone, six at the time, came up with a stirring riff on the piano one day, which we immediately adopted as our battle theme. The little girls, for their part, seemed very keen on dressing up in the navy and blue family jerseys, with the matching shorts and socks. We even began brainstorming for an official logo and motto. We came up with a logo - an upright oval with a simple half-cross in the upper half - and tossed around the motto "Break or Be Broken" for a few days, before concluding one day, amongst a few chuckles, that it was too intense for playing touch rugby with a bunch of little kids (we finally settled on "Together We Rise").

Anyway, we hit the local elementary school field a couple of times for practices, and when our debut game came that Sunday, we were ready. We laid out the boundary cones, went over some rules with the McCues, and the fun began. I must say it was disconcertingly tiring. I couldn't believe it. I couldn't even breathe after two minutes. Rich is something of an athlete already, and does triathlon training. I thought I was in pretty good shape, but the continuous process of stopping, accelerating as fast as possible, slowing, accelerating again, stopping, leaping, etc., really destroyed me. Rich zipped past me more times than I'd care to admit.

Despite my exhaustion, we managed to eke out a victory, and our amiable rivalry had begun. Almost immediately, our weekly games became the family highlight of the week, and I was thrilled that the kids talked about it so often, and even wanted to go out and practice during the week. I wondered sometimes how many sixteen year old boys were keen on going out a couple of times each week to run rugby drills with their little brothers and sisters. Everyone was excited and it all seemed to be working better than I had dared hope. Kids started tossing rugby balls around in the house and in the yard ("we need to practice again, our game's only in two days!"), and two even asked if they could wear their Overlords RFC jerseys to school. It seemed like magic.

The seven of us: A-Roq, T-Bone, Skinny Dip, Lady Lu, Red Bear, Sno-cone, and myself so far comprised the team (Trixta had only just turned three, and J-Dawg, the oldest, was more focused on doing musical demos at the time). We would have had an awesome time for the rest of the summer just us, but Overlords RFC got an injection of new excitement when an unexpected addition to our playing side showed up one day...

To be continued.

Overlords RFC, Part Two

We need something to rally around...we need some common goal or pursuit...we need some story...and something that can unite our three year old with our seventeen year old, something we can all do...we need...

And then suddenly I had it:

We need a family rugby team.

I had never played before, only tossed balls around with the kids. But I'd always known that rugby was the coolest sport on earth. Making it easier was that a couple of my kids had played for a local club.

We'll start a team. We'll get jerseys. We'll start drilling. We'll find another family to play against. Each week we will have a game; that is, we will go to war. We will have fun. We will have colours, a team name, maybe chants or songs, code words...it'll be like something out of James Frazer's Golden Bough....

I began wracking my brain for our "one true team name". I didn't want any name that had ever been taken for a sports team. I didn't want "The Cougars" or "The Tigers" or anything like that. No...this had to be different...unique...it had to be us.

Then one day, I think after we just got home, reading a magazine article about the Anglo-Saxons, I came across a sentence, and the word just popped out at me: overlords. That's it!, I thought. I ran a google search; there was no team on the planet called The Overlords. Plus, it was a key word in my very first favourite song, and probably the coolest rock song of all time, Led Zeppelin's "The Immigrant Song" - and all the kids had always liked the song, too. So we also had a theme song. Even better, Mummy was from England; my family was from Germany; there was an actual blood connection between us and the ancient Anglo-Saxon overlords of the British Isles. It was perfect.

The next task was determining the colours and getting jerseys. I looked online to see how much it would cost to get custom-made rugby jerseys for all of us. Way too much. I then looked around local shops - Wal-Mart, Zellers, Roots, The Gap, etc. - trying to find shirts that A.) looked like rugby jerseys, and B.) came in sizes to fit everyone from Trixta (three years old) to me. Frustratingly, I just could not find anything.

Then luck struck again one day. I popped into Old Navy, and there, marked way down (clear-out), were a bunch of matching cotton shirts, white front and back, but with navy shoulders and neck band, in all boys sizes, from extra small to large. The shirts even had a couple of navy stripes on each short sleeve. And the cotton was stretchy enough so that I could actually jam into a size large. And they were like three bucks each or something. I had already come up with the idea of having our colours silver and navy, so when I saw these, I just thought, Done.

I bought them all, plus matching white and navy blue athletic socks, and then took them to the local T-shirt shop, where I had them emblazon, in navy and silver, the name Overlords RFC (rugby football club) with a navy border around it. I brought the jerseys home, and there was an element to the whole thing that seemed akin to the thrill an as-yet-unsassigned superhero-in-waiting might feel once he is given his superhero name, a list of his superhero powers, and his official superhero outfit. All the kids put on their jerseys, looked at themselves in the mirror, and somehow or other, instantly became The Overlords, a family of elite superheroes which no force on earth could now keep down, let alone separate.

Now, we just needed a battle to fight.

Tuesday, April 27, 2010

Overlords RFC, Part One

We needed something. Family morale seemed to be sinking, maybe because some strange distance had once again emerged between Mommy and me, a distance I hated and wanted to erase. Why? Because I loved the woman body and soul. I'd tried a bunch of things - giving her lots of space, getting us matching beach bikes for joint evening rides, getting us kayak lessons, trying out various seduction strategies, going to a couple's seminar, giving her even more space, lots of date nights, writing notes and songs, surprise concerts, more space again, fantasy getaway weekends, counselors, everything I could think of - but nothing had really worked, and I couldn't figure out what else to do.

It was spring of 2008. Tracy and I had had a rough time two years earlier, but we had gotten over that. But now...it seemed like the bond was slipping again. What to do?

I thought and thought - kind of like Winnie the Pooh trying to get an idea - and finally I came up with something. Maybe - long shot - but maybe just getting out of town for a couple of weeks would help us re-set. But where? Well...we need happiness, I thought. For that, where else do you go but "the happiest place on earth"? It was worth a try anyway.

That's how in May of 2008, Tracy and I and our six youngest kids wound up driving to Disneyland from Victoria in our RV (our two oldest wanted to stay at home with friends). Ideally, the two of us would have gotten away alone, but it's hard to find someone to watch eight kids for a week or two. In the end, it became obvious that if we wanted to get away, we'd all have to go. Despite that, I hoped there would be some special moments between the two of us...

I don't know what Tracy would say now, but I thought our trip was a blast, and I think the kids thought so, too. We stopped first at one of our favourite little getaway places, Seaside, Oregon, and then next in Florence to ride on buggies on the giant sand dunes, and...finally we got to Disneyland, and did it all: the Matterhorn, Space Mountain, Big Thunder Railroad, Sleeping Beauty's Castle. I don't know what it is - the tidiness, the faint smell of jasmine everywhere, maybe even the comforting predictability - but for some reason, the magic of the place never fades for me. I've been going there since I was a little kid, and each time, I feel the same thrill.

We augmented our trip with a foray to Knott's Berry Farm, during which my son Sno-Cone I think became the youngest child to ever ride on Montezuma's Revenge, and another to a dinner theatre thing with pirates, and a night out at Medieval Times. We also hit the Long Beach aquarium, a few other beaches, etc. On the way home, we stopped at a nice little resort somewhere off the highway near San Luis Obispo. It was awesome.

But the whole time we were gone, I found myself mulling over the follow-up questions: How do we keep the family morale up when we get back? How do we keep having fun together? Even though we all live our own individual lives, how do we remain centered as a family?

And then one day, lightning struck, and I had it: Overlords RFC.

More to come.

Monday, April 26, 2010

Heroes vs. Hypocrites: Mormon Rugby Girls vs. Mormon Leaders

So, let's see.

The BYU women's rugby team drills for hundreds of hours: wind sprints, push-ups, burpees, tackles, line-outs, scrums, rucks, passes, the whole deal. As they are not an official university team, they scramble for financing, holding fund raisers, relying on any source of money they can find. They pull together and make it to the national finals in Florida, where, due to a scheduling error, their second-round game against Penn State is scheduled for Sunday, rather than for Saturday. The BYU girls are then confronted with the heartbreaking choice of either pursuing the dream they have worked so hard to realize, or living up to their religious commitment to keep the Sabbath day holy. Devastated, they finally decide to live their religion. They forfeit the game. And with that, their shot at the title disappears.

But at the same time, the men who run the church they believe in so deeply feel quite happy to require that church-owned businesses - of which there are many dozens - operate every single Sunday. Why? For the same reason those leaders require them to operate the other six days of the week: profit.

This isn't right. Mormon church leaders never tire of telling church members to keep the Sabbath day holy. As an example, consider the words of the late Mormon president Gordon Hinckley in an LDS General Conference talk called "Look to the Future":

"...There are what some may regard as the lesser commandments but which are also of such tremendous importance.

"I mention the Sabbath day. The Sabbath of the Lord is becoming the play day of the people. It is a day of golf and football on television, of buying and selling in our stores and markets. Are we moving to mainstream America as some observers believe? In this I fear we are. What a telling thing it is to see the parking lots of the markets filled on Sunday in communities that are predominately LDS.

"Our strength for the future, our resolution to grow the Church across the world, will be weakened if we violate the will of the Lord in this important matter. He has so very clearly spoken anciently and again in modern revelation. We cannot disregard with impunity that which He has said".

But "disregard with impunity" is exactly what Hinckley did throughout his tenure when it came to the fourth commandment. As the man at the top of the Mormon pyramid, he could have stopped the operation of the church's for-profit businesses on Sunday at any moment. Instead, he authorized it, just as his successor, current church president Thomas Monson, does. To take just one example of this shockingly open hypocrisy, the church's Salt Lake City NBC affiliate, KSL-TV, as a rule broadcasts six hours of sports each Sunday, the watching of which is the very thing that Hinckley, in the talk quoted above, told Mormons was bad. So while the BYU girls refuse to play a game on Sunday for which they will not be paid, on grounds that doing so is incompatible with the Sabbath, the very church leaders who in effect told them not to, are making money off of broadcasting sports every single Sunday of the year!

The BYU girls walk the walk. Why don't Mormon leaders? How can they preach against the very thing they are doing? Easy - the same way Jimmy Swaggart, Jim Bakker, Jesse Jackson, and dozens of Catholic priests have all preached chastity while having sex with prostitutes, mistresses, or children; the same way conservative writer Bill Bennett preached a return to old-time virtues while blowing millions in gambling casinos; the same way radio host Rush Limbaugh preached against soft-on-crime liberals while he was illegally buying Oxycontin off of drug dealers in Denny's parking lots; the same way Idaho senator Larry Craig preached family values while cruising for anonymous gay sex in airport restrooms; the same way California senators Dianne Feinstein and Barbara Boxer preach the evils of guns while both possessing concealed weapons permits...they just say one thing, and then do another. They just exempt themselves from the rules they tell everyone else to live by. It's easy.

Some people might think the BYU girls are stupid. I don't. I think they have demonstrated what character is all about, and I admire them: they sacrificed their own pleasure for the sake of their principles. It's too bad their religious leaders are too busy counting up the profits from the Sunday sports shows they tell everyone are sinful, but happily broadcast anyway, to do the same.

Final score:

BYU women's rugby team: heroes.

Mormon leaders: hypocrites.

Thursday, April 8, 2010

Sno-Cone

I'll always remember the night my son Sno-Cone (nickname) was conceived.

It was late July, 2001. We were living in White Rock, BC, and I landed around 5:30 PM in Vancouver that day after a week away. I'd missed Tracy a lot and eagerly jumped in the car to begin the forty minute drive home.

I flicked on the radio as I pulled on to Highway 99, and heard an advertisement for what was then called "The Symphony of Fire" (now "Celebration of Fire"), Vancouver's annual fireworks contest held in English Bay. They haul a giant floating platform out into the water, and then teams from all different countries come and take turns shooting off their fireworks displays every night over the course of a week or so. Judges then award prizes for the best displays. In that instant, listening to the ad, I had an idea.

I grabbed the cellphone and called Tracy, telling her I'd just landed and that I wanted to take her out for a special overnight adventure, and to pack and put on something she'd feel comfortable going out in. When she asked what we were doing, I said it was a surprise, but not to eat. I made a few other calls to get everything arranged, including overnight babysitting, got home, hugged and said hi to the kids, jumped in the shower, threw on some clean clothes, and then we left, heading back to Vancouver. So far, so good, I thought.

It was another amazing sunny summer Vancouver evening, slight ocean breeze, the odd eagle overhead, pines and firs everywhere...it felt great to be back home, and to be out with Tracy. She seemed excited and curious, which was pretty charming, and looked beautiful as ever - like a cross between Brigitte Bardot and Marilyn Monroe. No one could believe she'd already had six children.

As we parked a couple of blocks from English Bay, I revealed that I'd made reservations for us to eat dinner at Rain City Grill, a restaurant we'd never visited, but which I had noticed always got rave reviews in local papers for the top flight dishes it served, using only fresh, seasonal, local food.

We walked in, and to my surprise, the greeters recognized me, and seemed thrilled to meet us. Even with my songs pumping on radio, I wasn't recognized very often; and while I honestly couldn't care less about that sort of thing normally, I have to admit that on that particular night, out on a special date with my wife, hoping that everything would go well, it felt kind of nice to meet people who seemed excited to meet us...it added to the "specialness" of our evening thus far.

I can't for the life of me remember what Tracy ordered that night, but I do remember that I got the short ribs, and they were phenomenal. We ate and chatted and laughed as the sky outside more and more turned indigo, and took bites of each other's dessert, until finally we were done.

We walked down to the beach, just a few metres away from the restaurant, and found a nice place to sit. The fireworks displays were breathtaking, and...I can't really find words to describe how I felt, sitting out there in the warm summer air next to the mother of my children, watching the shooting flames and sparks, thrilling along with the crowd to each surprise, smelling the ocean air and catching glimpses of reflections coming off the water. Everything seemed right in the world that night.

After the climax of the last fireworks display had ended, we made our way a block up the street to the quaint little hotel I'd booked for the night, and, well, you know. Our surreally, powerfully beautiful evening ended in similar fashion.

Well, you know where this is going. A few months later on Salt Spring Island, where we had moved in the meantime, Tracy got the predicted due date of our seventh child after having an ultrasound, and out of curiosity, looked at the calendar, and then exclaimed: "it was the night we went to the fireworks - it had to be!".

Sno-Cone was born April 5, 2002, in Bellingham, Washington, a hale and hearty boy, with white-blonde hair (which he still has), his blue eyes shaped like almonds (like his mother's), and an unusually calm, solid demeanour.

More to come on Sno-Cone.

Friday, March 19, 2010

Unreasonable Reason

One version of the story of the last three hundred years is that the intellectual movement known as The Enlightenment spearheaded a glorious change in human affairs, in which the shackles of dark religious superstition were cast off and replaced by the light of human reason. Popery and priests were out; science and logic were in, and amazing increases in human well-being would ensue.

We now have cell phones and aeroplanes, microwaves and computers, MRI machines and laproscopic surgery. Those are very nice things. But in the immediate wake of the Enlightenment, we had the almost insanely savage French Revolution, followed by Napoleon's tear through Europe, and then a century after that, we had the two most savage wars in human history (which included historically unprecedented genocide). And they were fought mostly by the most scientifically advanced nations ever. Moreover, in the wake of World War II, we had tens of millions of people tortured and butchered by communist regimes in service to the aims of their "one true social science". Our technology has improved. The problem is, we haven't.

Actually, the problem is worse than that, because it's not just that we haven't changed - it's that we can't. Despite all our longings otherwise, we remain human. That means we still love, and we still hate; we still unite, and we still divide; still share, and still steal. And this will never change, no matter how much more technology we have, or knowledge we possess. Contrary to Thom Yorke's ongoing paranoia, technology doesn't turn us into machines. It just gives us a power we wouldn't otherwise have. And that power can be used for good or for ill. All the while, the human animal remains the same.

Why can't people see this? The silly (if not dangerous) old notion, first purveyed by Plato and regurgitated ad nauseam even nowadays by self-styled "secular humanists", that "knowledge is virtue" - that the more "reasonable" we all are, and the more we all learn, the better people we will all be - has been refuted a million times, in a million different ways, and will be a million more times in the future. Yet it doesn't make any difference at all to the secular humanists, no doubt for the same reason that knowing that the communion wafer doesn't actually "transubstantiate" into the flesh of Jesus doesn't make any difference to the believing Catholic: because these claims are now dogma. They are now identity to these people. They have become unchallengeable articles of faith, beyond the power of any argument or empirical proof to refute. Yet, the truth is, the wafer doesn't become Jesus, and knowledge doesn't become virtue. And that means that "secular humanism" - or to call it by its real name, The Enlightenment - is as much of a fraud as Catholicism. Those who most loudly champion reason over faith, are often as unreasonable as the religious believers they think themselves superior to, if not more so.