Monday, December 31, 2007

The Zeppelin Re-Inflates...


It has been a long time since they rock and rolled...not counting the Live Aid and Hall of Fame performances, it's been almost three decades since they broke up.

But on December 10th, the three surviving members of Led Zeppelin, with deceased drummer John Bonham's son Jason on drums, played what was apparently a fantastic show at London's O2 Arena...and there are rumblings around the world that the re-formed biggest, baddest, crudest, most shameless hard rock band in history is considering a world tour. It could very well be the biggest world tour ever.

And for every music critic with a safety pin jammed through his cheek rolling his eyes over this (though I notice that virtually everyone these days gives Zeppelin its due), there are probably ten thousand people who would consider selling their grandmothers into slavery to go see them. After all, Led Zeppelin...well, they weren't Herman's Hermits, were they? They weren't the Yardbirds. They weren't even the Rolling Stones. The Rolling Stones may have started out as a blues band, but they are, and have been since very early on, a pop band in the truest sense of the word. Heck, even GOP presidential hopeful - and ordained Christian minister - Mike Huckabee cites Keith Richards as his favorite guitarist. And we're not even mentioning Margaret Trudeau and Truman Capote and Captain Jack Sparrow...

But Led Zeppelin was never like that. Like all great cults, they never really made it into the mainstream, for all sorts of reasons. One reason was this: it is almost true to say that Led Zeppelin hardly had any real "songs". When you think of a classic rock "song", you think of "Can't Get Enough of Your Love" by Bad Company, or "Alright Now" by Free, or "China Grove" by the Doobie Brothers: there was a verse, and then a chorus, and then a verse, and then a chorus...maybe a bridge or breakdown...then a verse, and a chorus. Or something very similar. These songs are taut. They stick to classic song structure.

But the funny thing about Zeppelin is how often their "songs" are slightly - or greatly - skewed. "Whole Lotta Love", for example, obviously very much has a chorus, but it also has somewhere around a minute of bizarre sound effects, with no melody or chords right where a bridge should be. Songs like "Communication Breakdown", "Ramble On", and "Good Times Bad Times" have big choruses, true; but so many of Zep's classic rock radio station staples - "The Ocean", "Stairway to Heaven", "Black Dog", "Trampled Underfoot", "Over the Hills and Far Away", "When the Levee Breaks", "Kashmir", "Four Sticks", "Houses of the Holy", "The Wanton Song", etc. - just don't really bear any real resemblance to "normal" songs at all. There are no choruses. There is no real song "structure". Often the lyrics veer into inanity, or childish crudity, or self-importance, or are incomprehensible.

So, whereas any bank teller could immediately relate to "Honky Tonk Woman" or "Last Time" or "Satisfaction", virtually NO bank teller could relate to "Dazed and Confused". It's just too damn weird. You almost need something wrong with you to get sucked into the Led Zeppelin vortex...because you have to be, I suppose, fairly susceptible to a certain form of mesmerism.

Yeah, mesmerism. Hypnotic trance. Deep, vivid, sensory hallucination. You have to be able to hear "The Battle of Evermore" and...start to get glimpses of a cloudy sky...with arrows shooting across it...and stone castle walls...and ancient soldiers wearing dark grey armor and scarlet tunics...and you've got to smell the pungent, medieval earth...and you have to long so much to be able to go back in time and really be there during some ancient battle, that you often can hardly stand to be confined to your own time and space...you have to live with a permanent ache that you can only ever get glimpses, and that maybe, you don't entirely belong to your own era...

Like I said, you gotta be unbalanced in a way.

Gotta go to bed - WAY more to come on this.

T.

Friday, December 21, 2007

Say It Ain't So...


Not Roger Clemens...

Barry Bonds, no problem. I couldn't stand Bonds even before the roid thing - low-class, rotten teammate, lousy husband, megalomaniac. For me, Bonds's obstruction of a federal investigation is just another vat of kerosene on an already blazing bonfire.

But Roger? Watching Roger Clemens pitch over the last twenty years, I thought I was watching the reincarnation of Cy Young or Christy Mathewson. He was Bobby Feller on - well, steroids - a grunting, snorting, stomping, seething, barely-contained animal. My fave will always be my boyhood hero, (the gentlemanly) Nolan Ryan; but for the last twenty years, Clemens is my Top Three or Four (Mariano Rivera's up there, too).

True, we have only the word of this McNamee character - Clemens's "trainer" - that Clemens was juiced up when winning those last Cy Young awards. But...Andy Pettite's already corroborated one charge of McNamee's, lending him credibility. In addition...I hate to say it...but steroids would explain a lot over the last eight years of Clemens's career. Not just the spectacular success, but the weird stuff - the angry outbursts on the mound...and throwing Mike Piazza's shattered bat at him in the 2000 World Series. (That might be the weirdest thing I've ever seen in baseball - though the 400 pound, 82 year old Don Zimmer attacking Pedro Martinez might be a close second...).

Moreover, it is hard to imagine why McNamee would invent a story about Clemens when we already know he told the truth about Pettite; but it is obvious why Clemens would deny it even if true. And even worse has been Clemens's fairly strange responses to this allegation. I'm not sure I believe David Justice's denial, but at least his response was something like what my own might have been if I'd been wrongly accused. Clemens's denial, by contract, was mitigated by numerous strange, vague statements about answering the allegations "in the right way at the right time". Plus, I understand he refused to cooperate at all with the Mitchell investigation team, and even refused to meet with them after they approached him with the allegation.

No need to post telling me that steroid use isn't the end of the world. I know that - it's just that one of the reasons I admired Clemens was because of his famously disciplined work-out routine in between games; thinking he might have been juicing the whole time can't help but take away from that. Too bad.

And besides, maybe, as Clemens says, he has always been clean, and McNamee isn't telling the truth. It just doesn't seem like it.

And by the way, could Curt Schilling please shut up about this? Like, just for a week while I and millions of others recover from realizing that athletic feats we admired may very well have been as attributable to some dweeb in a lab coat mixing chemicals as to hard work and raw talent? Hearing Schilling already talking about Clemens having to give back his Cy Young Awards is really irritating. Come to think of it, his strident reaction makes me wonder about Schilling himself. Besides, Curt Schilling was at the forefront, as a player's union rep, at obstructing the testing policy that Bud Selig finally tried to institute (in 2004). Schilling's reasoning was that testing couldn't be left to the owners since they wouldn't keep the results confidential. (SO? Who cares?)

If The Rocket in fact was clean all those years, my suggestion is that he pull out all the stops to clear his reputation. And if he wasn't clean, my suggestion is he do what Andy Pettite did: just come (fully) clean about what happened and let's move on. But...it's almost too late for that now, and how this ends is anyone's guess.

Wednesday, December 19, 2007

Mark Steyn's Badge of Honour

Well, they finally went and did it. My only question is: Why did it take them so long?

The Canadian Islamic Congress has filed a "human rights" complaint with both the BC and Ontario Human Rights Commissions against Maclean's magazine for publishing a piece by journalist Mark Steyn in its Oct. 23, 2006 edition, entitled "The Future Belongs to Islam" (www.macleans.ca/article.jsp?content=20061023_134898_134898&source). The CIC complaint claims that “the article subjects Canadian Muslims to hatred and contempt,” and that Steyn is "flagrantly Islamophobic".

I find this a tad odd - if any tone best characterizes Steyn's piece, it is resignation, not fear. True, "Resigned to the Inevitable Impact on Western Civilization of Demographic Realities, in Particular the Relatively High Birth Rate of Muslims, a Fair Number of Whom Recognize Only the Legitimacy of Sharia Law" doesn't have quite the same ring to it as the tidy term "Islamophobic" - but if anything should require accuracy of language, it's a lawsuit.

About that lawsuit. "Hatred" and "contempt" are very strong words. What is most notable about them in this context is just how rare it is to ever hear them used by (non-Muslim) Canadians to describe their feelings about any ethnic or religious group, let alone Muslims. The truth is that, though some Canadian Muslims seem not to have noticed, most Canadians simply do not have hatred of ethnic or religious groups in their psychological repertoire, and a hundred Mark Steyns wouldn't be able to change that even if they wanted to.

But of course, there is one group of people in Canada for whom expressing "hatred" and "contempt" for entire groups of people - Jews, Americans, homosexuals, "westernizing" Islamic women, anyone who finds their hatred and contempt disturbing - is simply a regular feature of discourse. (No wonder they are so prone to believe that others are as easily moved to such feelings as they are: no one's more worried about their car being stolen than the car thief himself). They are the folks who live in the pleasant, middle-class suburbs of cosmopolitan cities like Toronto or Montreal, who vote, watch whatever they want on TV, write letters to the editor, and send their children to state-funded universities, enjoying every blessing of pluralist liberal democracy, but who then excitedly invite the loathsome likes of Riyadh Ul-Haq over from Britain to lecture in their mosques and community centres. Sheikh Ul-Haq says things like this:

On Jews:

“They’re all the same. The Jews don’t have to be in Israel to be like this. It doesn’t matter whether they’re in New York, Houston, St Louis, London, Birmingham, Bradford, Manchester. They’re all the same. They’ve monopolised everything: the Holocaust, God, money, interest, usury, the world economy, the media, political institutions...they monopolised tyranny and oppression as well. And injustice...May Allah give all Muslims, individuals and leaders, especially, and our governments the understanding and the sense to see through their propaganda, their, and deceit and to view them as they really are and thus treat them accordingly”. (http://www.timesonline.co.uk/tol/news/uk/article2402998.ece http://canadiancoalition.com/forum/messages/17082.shtml)

And of course, one only needs two or three minutes in a cab with a Muslim cabdriver, or a dip into any mosque, or a glance through a typical Muslim community newsletter, to encounter similar, if not identical, expressions of "hatred" and "contempt". I wonder if Maclean's, on behalf of everyone who cherishes liberal democracy, could countersue?

Even more bizarre is the fact that the whole point of Steyn's article - that the demographic trends indicate the inevitable, and relative speedy, Islamification of Europe - is not only acknowledged by innumerable Muslims, but serves as a source of exultation for them. Yet no doubt following out the tribal logic of sharia law itself, the CIC has one standard for Muslims, and quite another for non-Muslims like Steyn. So when Steyn says it, it's a human rights violation, but when a champion of Islamic terrorism says it, or your average Mohammed down at the mosque, it is absolutely fine.

Listen, for example, to Muhammad Abdel-Al, leader of the Palestinian terrorist group coalition (Islamic Jihad, Hamas, etc.), the Popular Resistance Committee. "In Europe", he says, "there is no need for war because if people keep on joining Islam in these countries then Islam will become the majority, which I think is the process that is taking place now, so there will not be any necessity to have war with [non-Muslims]". He adds that the rising popularity of the boy's name "Mohammed" in Britain is proof that Islam will "one day enter every house in Europe...Islam is on the rise and cannot be stopped no matter what your crusader governments do". (http://www.wnd.com/news/article.asp?ARTICLE_ID=59289)

This is just what Steyn said in his Maclean's article. It is the same thing said by Muslims from Bradford to Barrie. So why is it only a problem when Steyn says it?

Well, that's easy, isn't it? Because "believers" are good, and "unbelievers" - well, they deserve to die, and where they can't be made to die, they must be silenced. It's so simple. And since decapitation isn't currently permitted under Canadian law, a human rights commission will have to do in the meantime. The Koran rather speaks for itself:

"Remember thy Lord inspired the angels (with the message): 'I am with you: give firmness to the believers, I will instill terror into the hearts of the unbelievers, Smite ye above their necks and smite all their finger tips of them'."
(Koran 8:12)

"The only reward of those who make war upon Allah and His messenger and strive after corruption in the land will be that they will be killed or crucified, or have their hands and feet and alternate sides cut off, or will be expelled out of the land. Such will be their degradation in the world, and in the hereafter theirs will be an awful doom; Save those who repent before ye overpower them. For know that Allah is forgiving, merciful."
(Koran 5: 33-34)

"These twain (the believers and the disbelievers) are two opponents who contend concerning their Lord. But as for those who disbelieve, garments of fire will be cut out for them, boiling fluid will be poured down their heads. Whereby that which is in their bellies, and their skins too, will be melted; And for them are hooked rods of iron. Whenever, in their anguish, they would go forth from thence they are driven back therein and (it is said unto them): Taste the doom of burning." (Koran 22: 19-22).

Maclean's magazine, and Mark Steyn himself, ought to wear this suit as a badge of honour, simply because the Canadian Islamic Congress itself has a far less than honourable record in trying to rid the Canadian Muslim community of those who promote just the kind of "hatred" and "contempt" they claim to be so concerned about. In fact, it is quite easy to believe that CIC members are just as prone to refer to Jews as pigs, to secular democracy as illegitimate, to unbelievers as unworthy of respect or friendship, and to suicide bombers as "heroes", as are hundreds of others in their communities.

If the day ever comes that Canadians begin to view Muslims with "hatred" and "contempt", I predict it will have a lot less to do with Mark Steyn than with the ridiculous spectacle of self-appointed Islamic community leaders, whose theology appears to idealize a theocracy which would abolish civil rights, constantly complaining about how their civil rights are being violated - by magazine articles.

Both Steyn and Maclean's deserve kudos for furthering the discussion about Islam and the west; and if Canadian Muslim leaders believe that Steyn has gotten something wrong, I invite them to meet his comments with facts and logic, not a cowardly attempt at silencing him by running to a Human Rights Commission.

Tuesday, December 18, 2007

My Friend, the Shape-Shifting Reptilian, Part II

The truth is that I was uncharacteristically nervous. Maybe it was Hitler glowering at me from the opposite corner, or just the sheer unusualness of the situation, or maybe just the intimacy. But whatever it was, I was nervous.

I made a couple of little jokes and then, standing in the living room corner with everyone focusing on me, I rolled into an old Kinks song called "The Village Green", just me and my acoustic guitar. Knowing that journalist Mark Steyn, the guest of honor, was a big fan of Tin Pan Alley and Broadway tunes, I next played a song I wrote a few years ago called "Ain't It Grand", which sounds like a Gershwin or Cole Porter song. Lastly I played "She's So High", said thanks, and that was it.

Everyone was quite gracious, but I didn't think I'd done particularly well. It had been easier playing to 40,000 people every night on the Bryan Adams tour.

Anyway, I spent the rest of the night chatting with guests, including National Review writer John O'Sullivan, National Post editor Jonathan Kay, and writer Linda Frum. Finally, I fell into conversation with Lord Black and Mark Steyn. Actually, I fell into the role of observer of conversation between them, for Lord Black's daughter Alanna and I didn't say much...but Black and Steyn chatted at length about Australia, newspapers, and Lord Black's upcoming trial.

Yes....the trial. You see, Lord Black had already been charged by US prosecutors with fraud while serving as director of newspaper conglomerate Hollinger International. Black insisted then, as he later would in public, that he had done nothing wrong at all and that the whole case was a sham. He predicted aquittal, and it didn't seem like he was putting on a show.

Months later, Black's trial started in Chicago, and I watched fairly closely. It did seem that the prosecutors were on a trophy hunt, and that Black's lawyers pretty much sucked...and when the dust settled, Black was convicted on several counts. And just last week he was sentenced to six and a half years in federal prison.

The case is now on appeal, and it wouldn't surprise me if some, or even all, of the convictions were overturned. Whatever Black may or may not have done, I just have not been able to see how the evidence met the burden of proof. And as for the notorious removal of documents from the Hollinger office in Toronto - I simply can't understand, nor has anyone been able to explain to me, how Conrad Black could be convicted in a US court under US law and sent to a US prison for violating an Ontario judge's court order while he was in Canada.

And of course, there is something even more Shakespearean about Black's fall from the top of the business world into a cell in a Florida penitentiary.

During the tenure of Prime Minister of Jean Chretien and the Liberal Party, the Canadian Conservative Party was in disarray. To make a long story short, for years, the only real viable national opposition to the ruling Liberal Party was Conrad Black's newspaper, The National Post. And it was the Post which was at the forefront of critiquing - and exposing scandal in - the Canadian Liberal Party. Chretien - a mean, petty, miserable man - ended up hating the Post, and Black, for just those reasons.

So when the British government offered Black a seat in the House of Lords, Chretien decided to stick it to Black, and in unprecedented fashion - simply to wound Black personally - officially objected. The British government, respecting protocols, then withdrew the offer pending Black's adoption of British citizenship - something only possible if Black renounced his Canadian citizenship. So, that is what Black did. He was then made Lord Black of Crossharbour and given his seat in the upper chamber of the British parliament.

This would come back to haunt Black; having renounced his Canadian citizenship, he had no grounds once convicted to petition to serve his sentence in the much laxer Canadian prison system - after all, though he'd been born in Canada, he was no longer a Canadian. I presume he could petition to serve in the UK, but I haven't heard anything about this. Maybe the prisons there are worse than in America.

Black's case is now being sent to the appeals court; and that court will determine whether my friend, the shape-shifting reptilian from outer space, returns to the UK or Canada in freedom, or spends the next six years in a cell by himself. But regardless, he has I presume been largely ruined financially, as has his former company, Hollinger International - the shareholders of which the prosecutors ostensibly set out to "protect".

I really don't know if Black committed any crimes; but it is a very strange experience to have sat chatting with a man in his posh mansion, and then only months later, see him placed in prison. Perhaps it is that proximity which makes it easy for me to suspect that his conviction was unjust.

Saturday, December 8, 2007

My Friend, the Shape-Shifting Reptilian



No one mentioned it. No one, that I could tell, even looked at it. Yet it was there, in plain view of all the guests, at least five feet by seven feet, hanging inexplicably, insouciantly, on the wall of the great man's living room: a gigantic oil portrait of Adolf Hitler. And I wondered if the master of the house, when speaking, in tribute to his piece had dropped the common metaphor of "the elephant in the room" in favor of "the führer in the room". For certainly, the Hitler portrait had the same effect as the metaphorical elephant: everyone noticed it, everyone felt awkward about it, and everyone acted as if it did not exist.

The brooding visage of the führer stared out at a selection of Canada's elite: famous columnists, newspaper publishers, multi-millionaires, opinion-makers, etc. I had been invited to the party by Ezra Levant, publisher of the now defunct "Western Standard" magazine, a libertarian-conservative organ based in Calgary, Alberta. Ezra and I had met while doing television commentary for Global TV during Canada's last federal election, and kept in occasional email contact since. When I'd emailed him a few weeks earlier (in September of '06), he'd mentioned that Lord Conrad Black, international media baron, would be hosting a reception for columnist and author Mark Steyn (whose book "America Alone" had just come out) at his mansion in Toronto, though the event itself would be sponsored by the "Western Standard" magazine. And never loathe to pass up an opportunity for adventure, I accepted.

I surveyed the whole bizarre scene for a few more moments. I finally decided to take the plunge and mention the führer to someone. And since I only really knew Ezra - that meant Ezra.

"Ezra", I whispered. "Why is there a portrait of Hitler in here?"

Ezra whispered, without looking at me, "I don't know". And just as soon, someone new had approached Ezra, introduced himself, Ezra had smiled broadly and extended his hand, and they'd begun chatting. Ezra, shall we say, gave every impression of wanting to abide by "the code of silence" himself. Everyone did.

That left no one else to ask but Lord Black himself, who I'd only just been introduced to. I thought about it for a moment, but a sort of shyness overcame me. He was constantly surrounded by people, for one thing: to ask would require shoving my way in and then asking about what no one was supposed to even acknowledge, right in front of everyone - doing so would have changed the whole mood of the party - a party at which I already felt sort of out of place. (Scenes from Peter Sellers's "The Party" kept flashing through my mind...). Besides, I already felt pretty certain that the only possible thing Lord Black could say was, "we thought it was a wonderful piece of art". That is, the only answer I could imagine was sort of a non-answer which wouldn't really satisfy my curiosity anyway.

Of course, there was one other person I could have asked. Theoretically, anyway. Like some looping ghost, Lady Black - bone thin, pale, and dressed in black - would occasionally appear at the far side of the room, slip noiselessly through the crowds, making eye contact with no one, seemingly noticing no one, and then disappear again out the room exit opposite. A few minutes later, I'd see her again over on the far side of the room...and she would glide silently through the room again, and out. Needless to say, something about her demeanor made it clear she would have no interest in - well, even acknowledging my existence, let alone discussing the portrait.

Having resigned myself to not getting any answers that night, and standing there marveling at the fact that I was standing there marvelling at the fact I was standing there marvelling that I was actually there, another thought flitted through my mind: Conrad Black is a shape-shifting reptilian from outer space. I had long harbored a secret fascination with lunatic British conspiracy theorist David Icke, who claims - evidently in sincerity - amongst many other things, to have uncovered evidence that the world's ruling elite (not only Lord Black but Queen Elizabeth, George Bush Sr. and Jr., the Pope, etc.), are not actually human. According to Icke, they are reptiles from a different galaxy. Why don't they look like reptiles? That's easy, replies Icke: they have developed the ability to spontaneously change themselves - "shape shift" - into humans so as to cloak their true natures.

I approached Ezra again. "How do you think it would go over if I made a joke during my performance about how cool it was to finally meet a real shape-shifting reptilian?".

Ezra nearly spat out the white wine he was sipping. "Uh - not well", he said. "No one would know what you were talking about - except for Lord Black, and I doubt he'd find that particularly funny".

For a moment I wanted to raise my eyebrow and say suspiciously, "Why? Because...he really IS a shape-shifting reptilian from outer space?" But I could tell this was a serious occasion for Ezra - he was the publisher of the magazine sponsoring the whole do. And no doubt he was anxious to avoid any possibility of upsetting his host, or the guest of honor himself.

"Okay. I'll keep it normal", I said. Ezra looked very relieved. Just then, the spectral figure of Lady Black passed through us again...just as she had eight minutes before, and eight minutes before that: no eye contact, no word, nothing. Lord Black was still surrounded by people. Sometime tonight I'll have to chat with him, I thought. Just then, Ezra glanced at me inquiringly and tapped his watch. I nodded back, and made my way over to the corner near the fireplace, where I'd propped my guitar against the wall. It was time to play.

(To be continued...).

England, Part III

Ah yes...the summer trip.

Well, this is how it went.

First of all, I should mention that for years my dad has gone on trips to Europe and Britain. And often he has invited one or more of his kids to go with him.

So over the years, my dad's taken my little brother Brigham, all four of my sisters, my half-sister, my step-brother on trips - everyone, that is, but me. For some reason, he never did invite me. It seemed strange - several of the other kids were even invited two or three times.

I always found this bewildering. Even more bewildering than normal was that this past summer, he actually invited not just my half-sister again, but my two oldest sons to go with him on his forthcoming trip.

So...one day in early July, a few weeks prior to leaving, he stopped by our house. He started talking about the upcoming trip with our two sons.

"Our trip's going to be fantastic!", he said. He had come to drop something off, and Tracy, he, and I were standing outside his car, parked on the street in front of our house.

"How so?", I asked.

"It's going to be totally phenomenal. This TV show's bringing me to Germany - they've done all this research into our family tree, and they're going to be bringing me and the boys around to show us gravestones, meet long lost relatives, everything. It's going to be fabulous!".

There was a silence of a second or two - and then Tracy did something very uncharacteristic. She said, "I bet Tal would love to go".

That brought Dad up short. Silence.

"Maybe he could just fly over on his own somehow, and meet up with you in Germany".

More silence. One second...two seconds...three seconds...Dad seemed to struggle for words.

"Hm. Well. Uh...right. Yeah. Sure. He could do that", said Dad. He said a quick goodbye and then was gone.

Well, there it was - out in the open for the first time. And by his reaction I could tell that in fact there had been some sort of weird issue (and no, I didn't bother asking...).

A few days later, Dad called me.

"Okay. I told Jill (one of his employees) to book a ticket for you to come with us. I also invited Lorelei and Banna" (my sisters). "This will be good because, uh...I know you haven't come on any before. I have to go now".

Well, at least I was going to England and Germany with my two oldest sons, my two sisters, my half-sister, and my dad. And, we'd be going on the family history tour of a lifetime - and there'd be a video crew tagging along to document it.

I got an itinerary from Jill a few days later. Lorelei, Banna, and I - flying in from Alberta, Pennsylvania, and British Columbia, respectively - would all arrive at London's Heathrow Airport around noon, then make our way to the Holiday Inn Express in Earl's Court. After a few days in London, we'd take off for Germany. Who knew what kinds of adventures we'd have?

More later.

T.

The Amazing Adventures of "E"

"E" is definitely my most unusual child. Not that we aren't buddies. We are. (We sure should be after all the time I put in this year trying to "bond" with him). He's just a strange little kid in a lot of ways.

When E was three and four, for example, and should have been thrilled at finally learning how to communicate in English - like all other kids his age - he began switching mid-sentence from English into a bizarro nonsense language he seemed to be inventing all on his own. It sounded as though someone had recorded people in a pentecostal church speaking in tongues, and then sped it up on a tape recording - like Alvin and the Chipmunks speaking Romanian or something. So, conversations with E would be like this:

Me: "Hey E - would you like to go out to the park with us to play?"

E: "Yeah, we can play. We can play. Oooooh rabbalo dissamaw chapajoe dabby would be fun".

Me: "Were you just trying to say something?"

E: "I am saying we could bring chickasaw gobaa dibby dibby dibby lackaroe chickasaw".

Me: "E - will you speak English? What are you trying to say?"

E: "We could bring the ball".

Me: "Sure we can. Will you go put your shoes on?"

E: "Yeah. I like these shoes. When I run, they laloioiwe rickie chackamam."

Me to one of his older brothers: "What in the world is up with this kid?"

Older brother: "I don't know. We've all been trying to figure him out, but no one has any ideas...".

Well, my three oldest sons and I (E is the fourth oldest) finally named his weird language "Chickasaw", since that particular set of syllables seemed to pop out fairly regularly. (Funnily enough, I discovered later there is a Native tribe in Oklahoma called the Chickasaw). And we found the only way we could get E to stop responding to normal English questions in hyper-speed Chickasaw, was to actually ask him to speak in Chickasaw, after which, out of some combination of cussedness and shyness, he would stop the hyper-speed gibberish and always answer back in English. Unfortunately, there was no way that other people - like grocery store checkout clerks or nurses - could have any idea that they were talking to a kid who would alternately sound normal, and then like a Romanian chipmunk on cocaine, or how to get him to speak in English, leading to conversations like these:

Clerk: "WELL! What a cute little boy we have here! Would you like a sticker?"

E: "Uh huh - I have a sticker with glkjs oiugoiu berlozzokkie vhurl wer lrkla loiputs galaboo galaboo chickasaw on it".

Clerk (to me): "Uh - what did he say?"

Me: "No clue. He's, uh, he's kind of a different child-"

E: "Guess what? I can tralagkee gargar bingalwor off the slide."

Me: "That's enough, E. What do you say to this nice lady?"

E: "Thank you. And chickasaw chickasaw chickasaw".

The end finally came when we jumped into the van for a long family vacation down to California. Throughout the entire trip, the older boys and I kept up the requests for E to speak in Chickasaw. As predicted, he refused and only responded in perfectly good English. This went on, week after week, until by the end of the trip Chickasaw had joined Pictish, Thracian, and Ligurian as an extinct language - the only difference being that Chickasaw wasn't actually any sort of real language at all, only, seemingly, spontaneous rapid-fire bursts of sound.

At least...I think it wasn't a real language.

More later.

Tal

Wednesday, December 5, 2007

I'll NOT Have a Blue - blue blue blue - Christmas, thanks


This past year I read a fantastic little book entitled, "Brain and Culture: Neurobiology, Ideology, and Social Change", by Yale psychiatrist Bruce E. Wexler. Long story short is, Wexler shows that as our degree of neural plasticity decreases (with age), the more our resistance to environmental change increases. So, for example, immigrant children naturally are quite adaptable to their new environment, whereas their parents will try to refashion it so as to bring it into conformity with their long-since formed internal representations of "how the world should be" - representations which have developed deep roots in, and connections to, our senses of identity, meaning, "rightness" and "wrongness", aesthetics, etc. And predictably, those adults already existing in the environment will seek consonance between their internal representations and their observed surroundings by resisting the changes that newcomers try to make to it. In short, as we age, our physiology increasingly ensures that failure to achieve consonance between internal representations and environment will cause us greater and greater amounts of psychic and emotional pain.

Something like this dynamic, I presume, explains my instinctive reaction late last year when my wife casually mentioned that she was thinking of doing a "blue Christmas".

"What do you mean, a 'blue Christmas'?", I said, instantly on alert.

"It just means you use blue with white, instead of red or green or gold. I've been seeing it in all the magazines", she said.

"What?!"

"What's wrong with a 'blue Christmas'?", she asked.

Gee, I guess there's nothing wrong at all with a blue Christmas, just like there's 'nothing wrong' with sitting down to a giant platter of McDonald's cheeseburgers for Thanksgiving dinner, and nothing wrong with showing up in a clown suit for Veteran's/Remembrance Day ceremonies, and nothing wrong with devoting funeral eulogies to describing all the rotten, horrible things the deceased did while he was alive and why it's a good thing he finally died, and nothing wrong with replacing the American flag with a flag featuring a headshot of Britney Spears, and nothing wrong with handing out bags of dirty cat litter, instead of flowers, cards, and chocolates, on Valentine's Day...What do you MEAN 'what's wrong with a blue Christmas?'?!!!

No - actually I didn't say that. Of course, it did cross my mind - but only, for like, you know, a very short period of time. Instead, I said:

"Well, that is an idea...though it might not really feel like Christmas" (actually, I think it was more like, "Don't want no stinkin' blue Christmas...").

"Hm, maybe you're right", she said. Or should have said.

'Maybe' I'm right? I'm a lot more than 'maybe', honey. How'd you like it if I wanted a Goth Christmas, where we do the entire living in room in black, with fluorescent skulls and black lighting, with fake blood and skeletons everywhere? Come ON!

Instead, I replied, "Yeah, I think so. I like what we normally do".

"Okay".

And, I thought, naively, this would be the last time I'd ever have to think about a 'blue Christmas'...I'd even forgotten how 'neurally immalleable' I was. Silly me. For as it happened, amigos, I went out with my posse (my two little girls, 9 and 7, and my two youngest boys, 5 and 2) the other night to pick up some new Christmas tree lights (white mini-lights)....and what to my wondering eyes did appear....

but...

a bunch of boxes of exclusively BLUE Christmas tree lights.

I froze.

They're here.

For a second, I felt like grabbing the kids and yelling "ruuuuuunnnnnn!". Another possibility I thought of was for the camera to pull in super close to just get my eyes, and then pulling back quickly as I stared at the ceiling and let loose a primal howl of anguished rage and vengeance - then cue high-volume beating drums as I begin (slow-motion sequence) knocking all the blue lights off the shelves, jumping up to kick store employees in the face, then smash-cut to a camera in front of the store's big plate-glass window...all of a sudden I come running right through the window (still slow-mo), glass shattering everywhere, my kids running behind, strings of broken blue lights in hand, with a gang of hardward store employees, with fiendish looks on their faces, chasing behind...

Instead, I just bought the lights and left, grimly paraphrasing to myself the old Patrick Henry quote:

"I know what course others may take; but as for me, give me THE TRUE CHRISTMAS COLORS, or give me death!"

And that is just what we have - and it looks awesome.

Happily holding out against a rising tide of subversion,

Tal

Big Atheist Babies and Their Weird Christmas Hang-Ups...

Serious question: Is there anything more ridiculous than getting offended because someone says, "Merry Christmas"? Or sends you a Christmas card? Yet there is now a growing class of people out there - big atheist babies (we could call them "babs" for short) who will go out of their way to express how insulted they are when anyone "presumes" to use any word with the word "Christ" in it in greeting. Quite a number on principle won't even write the word "Christmas" anymore - only "Xmas" will do. This is incredibly silly. Just what we need - yet another class of eager victims! Yet another Stalin-esque purge of our linguistic impurities and thought crimes!

I'd like to suggest here that those who feel their certainty that there is no God compels them to shun the very word "Christmas", should - to be consistent - also get busy shunning the word "goodbye": it is, after all, a contraction of the words "God be with ye". And they should also be lobbying for its replacement by a "less offensive" version - like "Xbye". Are you starting to see how silly this is?

To all you babs out there: Yeah, I know Christianity ain't what it's supposed to be. I know it makes zero sense that Jesus begged himself in the Garden of Gethsemane to allow himself to not suffer, and then accused himself of "forsaking" himself while on the crucifixion cross. I also know it makes no sense that God created us destined to suffer excruciating pain for eternity unless we tortured and murdered him. I know the whole thing, when you think about it, seems, or is, totally nuts. Does that mean you can't even say the word "Christmas"? Hasn't "Christmas" in many ways gotten to the point where it has become more of a celebration of all that is good in humankind? Of mercy and generosity and gratitude? And isn't that what you'd really like Christmas to become anyway? And if so, wouldn't continuing to use the term "Christmas" when you mean something non-religious by it, actually help achieve what you most want - less focus on a Jewish reformer who died 2000 years ago, and whose legacy has been prostituted beyond precedent, and more on certain virtues?

Anyway - this weird hyper-preciousness about one's non-belief in God is just as irritating and unbecoming as hyper-preciousness about belief in God; and I suggest there are lot more important things to worry about than whether someone says "Merry Christmas" - or "Happy Hannukah" or "Merry Kwanzaa", for that matter. Who cares? It's almost like these guys are afraid that if someone says "Merry Christmas" to them, that they'll wind wake up the next morning chanting in tongues that the world's only 4000 years old and Noah really did bring two of every animal on his ark. Maybe they've been whipped into a paranoid frenzy by Dawkins's meme theory stuff ("I might catch Christianity!"). It's like a phobia or something.

Anyway, this is one non-believer sincerely wishing everyone out there a

very

merry

CHRISTmas


And to all the babs out there reading this:

Xbye!

Tal

Sunday, December 2, 2007

Mutating Mitt




Mitt Romney is pathetic.

While running for Massachusetts senator in 1994, and then for governor in 2002, Mitt Romney repeatedly announced his firm conviction that abortion had to be kept "safe and legal" in the United States, and vowed to do everything he could to ensure that it did (see here).

Romney even went so far as to reveal that "he became committed to legalized abortion after a relative died during an illegal abortion, and that the abortion made him see 'that regardless of one's beliefs about choice, you would hope it would be safe and legal'." (source: Boston Herald, 10/26/1994).

No wonder, then, that in 2002, he wrote the following in response to a National Abortion Rights Action League (NARAL) questionnaire:

“I respect and will protect a woman’s right to choose…Women should be free to choose based on their own beliefs, not mine and not the government’s.”

And he responded, in a signed statement, to a 2002 Planned Parenthood questionnaire in this way:

"Do you support the substance of the Supreme Court decision in Roe v. Wade? YES

"Do you support state funding of abortion services through Medicaid for low-income women? YES

"In 1998 the FDA approved the first packaging of emergency contraception, also known as the 'morning after pill'. Emergency contraception is a high dose combination of oral contraceptives that if taken within 72 hours of unprotected sex, can prevent a pregnancy from occurring. Do you support efforts to increase access to emergency contraception? YES
"


(Note that Romney didn't just support abortion - he thought it was fine to forcibly take money from citizens to pay for other people's abortions.)

And believe me, there is a lot more where this all came from...The truth is that Mitt Romney, from 2003 to 2007, was a boldly pro-choice governor. His own running mate, Kerry Healey, noted that there wasn't a "dime's worth of difference" between Romney's abortion position, and that of his NARAL-supported Democratic opponent Shannon O'Brien.

In short, throughout his 2002 campaign for Massachusetts governor and well into his term, Mitt Romney sounded exactly like Barbara Boxer on abortion.

As his term came to a close, however, and Romney began to prepare for his run at the GOP presidential nomination, he suddenly sounded exactly like Jerry Falwell on abortion; and today, at any Romney speech, with the kind of unblinking smile you can see on the face of anyone without a conscience or moral core, you will hear him announce that he is "firmly pro-life".

And you may also hear the story about how he changed his mind. According to Romney, he changed his mind about abortion rights upon hearing that stem cell research, of which he had been an enthusiastic public supporter for years ("I am in favor of stem cell research. I will work and fight for stem cell research"), required the termination of 14 day old embryos. But how could a guy who'd given speeches supporting stem cell research and promised to lobby Bush about it, not have known the most basic thing about it? It's absurd.

Even nuttier is the idea that using a clump of 14 day old stem cells for research moved Romney, whereas 35 years of dismembering and scorching to death tens of millions of fetuses, almost all of whom were well on their way to full viability (and some already beyond it), and then tossing their remains into the trash, never moved him at all. I mean, if that is true, Romney's an awfully weird guy. And if it's not true - well, what am I saying? Of course it's not true. What IS true is that if Romney had decided in 2004 to run for a second term as governor of Massachusetts instead of for the GOP nomination for president, he would still be "firmly pro-choice", and no one would have ever heard his ridiculous conversion story, since there wouldn't have been a "conversion" to begin with. Indeed, the only thing that Romney's career indicates he is truly "converted" to is saying or doing whatever it takes to satisfy a desire for wealth, status, and power. Not even his own religion's longstanding official position against abortion induced him to convert to being pro-life. No - it took his desire for more political power to do that.

Even more embarrassing is that Romney is still flip-flopping on this issue. Specifically, on his website clip and in at least one interview I know of, he says that he believes that states, not courts, should have jurisdiction over abortion. And he specifically objects to a "one size fits all" abortion law for the whole country. Yet just a few days ago during the CNN Republican debate, Romney announced that his preferred solution would NOT be to allow states to handle the issue, but rather, to have Congress make a single law prohibiting abortion except for in extreme cases!

Massachusetts Congressman Barney Frank sums up Romney this way:

"The real Romney is clearly an extraordinarily ambitious man with no perceivable political principle whatsover. He is the most intellectually dishonest human being in the history of politics.” (http://www.boston.com/partners/worldnow/necn/landingpage.html?clipId=1507003&topVideoCatNo=80780)

Romney must resent this kind of language, but I'm not sure who is more to blame for it than Romney himself. That's just what brazen flip-flopping on matters of life and death, merely for purposes of political expediency, does.

Pretty pathetic.

See ya

Tal

P.S. http://mitt-tv.mittromney.com/?showid=45852

Friday, November 30, 2007

The Election That Wasn't


On November 4, 2008, Americans will elect their next president. What better time for a refresher on the election process?

This is how American presidential elections work: Americans go to voting stations and cast their ballots for the candidate of their choice. Once they're done, all the votes are counted. The candidate with the greatest percentage of the people's votes becomes president-elect. And once he (or perhaps she) assumes office the following January, he will be under the obligation of legislating into existence the policy agenda he ran on - the one dealing with matters like unemployment, health care, abortion, defense, etc.

Oh wait - ha ha. Silly me. That's what tens of millions of Americans imagine, despite - or is it because of? - having gone through high school civics classes and "US Government 101"-type classes at college. What actually happens is this.

On election day, Americans visit polling stations in which they will be given a ballot containing the names of presidential candidates. The "voter" then selects his favourite - yet under the terms of the United States Constitution, this ballot has no legal standing whatsoever as a vote for president. Nor do the tens of millions of other votes have any such legal standing. What that means is that even if all 280 million Americans decided on election day to vote for the same candidate, under the supreme law of the United States, that 280,000,000 to zero landslide victory would have no legally-binding effect on who actually became the president of the United States. In short, by Constitutional design, the president of the United States is not, and never has been, elected by popular vote. Remember all those bumper stickers that say, "Your vote counts"? Mmmmmmmmmnot really. ("BUT WHAT ABOUT FLORIDA!!!?". My answer: exactly. What about Florida? It meant nothing in the end, and only through an act of illegality far more brazen than that alleged to have been committed by "Bush and his buddies on the Supreme Court", could it have been made to count).

Where were we? Oh yes.

There are, in fact, only 538 Americans whose votes for president count. They are the "electors" chosen by each state (in whichever way they like); it is they who comprise the "electoral college". And while those electors are often chosen or elected based on which presidential candidate they have pledged to vote for, the bald truth is that once those special electors are elected, they are free to vote for whomever they please on election day. So-called "faithless electors" - those electors who change their minds after being appointed or elected - may theoretically be punished or censured by the state for breaking their pledge. Yet it is an historical fact that while there have been a number of faithless electors over the years, none has ever been punished.

I believe that part of the frustration felt by many Americans over the results of the 2000 election was caused by ignorance of the fact that the popular vote is not legally binding on presidential election results. (It is even still quite common to hear people grouse that Bush "stole the election" because "most people voted against him". But of course, it is nothing new in American history that a candidate wins the electoral college while losing the popular vote, nor is it, in itself, evidence of anything shady).

Just one little example of how that can happen:

Say two candidates - Joe and Mike - are running for president in a two state country, which has a winner-take-all, electoral college system like the US.

The two states are Leftistan, with 1000 popular voters (and 10 electoral college votes), and Rightistan, with 900 popular voters (and 9 electoral college votes).

In Leftistan, 512 people vote for Joe, who therefore wins Leftistan and all ten of its electoral votes. (That is, 488 Leftistanians voted for Mike).

In Rightistan, however, 654 popular voters (out of 900) voted for Mike, making Mike the winner of that state.

Supposing that the electoral college electors reflected the popular votes in their respective states, then, Joe - having won Leftistan and its electoral college votes - would win the presidential election by a margin of ten electoral college votes, to Rightistan's nine.

Yet, who won the popular vote? In Leftistan, 488 voted for Mike, and in Rightistan, 654 did, making a total of 1,142 popular votes for Mike, compared to only 758 for the legal winner, Joe.

The last thing to mention is that the Constitution prescribes a fairly limited role to the president; that so many citizens continue to think of the president as some sort of super-legislator says more about the human need for feeling secure - an impulse toward deification, to put it in more extreme terms - than about the actual Constitution. The president's primary Constitutionally-defined job, in addition to being commander-in-chief (though even that role is relatively circumscribed) is to ensure that federal laws passed by Congress are enforced.

It is of course true that in a state absolutely bloated by bureaucracy, much of which is federal, the president can in effect change some policies; he need only sign an executive order or sign off on some new program or reshuffling, and the way that the latest self-righteous, democratically-unaccountable horde of control freaks unleashed by the executive branch goes about their tax-dollar-wasting projects may be tempered a bit. Other than that power - which to speak the truth, is a power which arguably he shouldn't even have to the extent he does now - the US president just doesn't have that much direct power over policy.

Now - just before people start feeling too upset - the United States did become the greatest superpower the world has ever known in under two centuries. And if we acknowledge that it was not some nation-wide divine endowment of greater intelligence, we must concede that at least some of that rise - and maybe most of it, or maybe even all of it - has to be attributable to the genius of the American system of government (and certainly, reading "The Federalist" is an awe-inspiring experience). But whether that rise has mostly to do with the way American government operates now, or is mostly attributable to the momentum gained during the 150 years of a much more limited, frugal, and aloof federal government, is a very good question...

Sunday, November 25, 2007

England, Part II

Back to England...

In my last post on this, I mentioned being accepted into UCL's MSc program in Cognitive and Decision Science. Perhaps I should back up a bit to explain how I even came to think of applying there.

Last spring, I applied for graduate study in the philosophy department at the University of Victoria, which is only about three hundred yards from my house. This was my thinking in doing so:

I have a BA in political science, specialization in political philosophy;

I want to study the mind/brain;

Studying the mind/brain is the province of psychology/cognitive (neuro)science;

There's no way I will be accepted directly into a psych or cog-sci graduate program with an undergraduate degree in political science;

But my political philosophy background would conceivably allow me to get into a philosophy MA program, where I could specialize in philosophy of mind;

And with an MA in philosophy of mind, I could conceivably get accepted into an MSc/PhD program in cognitive science;

Therefore, I get an MA in philosophy, specializing in philosophy of mind, at the University of Victoria, and then I apply to a cognitive science PhD program somewhere else: UC San Diego, Indiana, Johns Hopkins, Dartmouth, Rochester, or some university of lower status...who knows?


This seemed like a straightforward enough plan; after all, three years ago I applied for graduate study in philosophy at UVic and they accepted me at that time, so I didn't anticipate a problem now (I ended up not going then because it seemed like my music career was going to pick up again and I wanted to take advantage of those opportunities while I can).

So -

I emailed the (new) philosophy faculty graduate director and asked him if I could start in the fall. After speaking with the previous graduate director (who I had corresponded with three years earlier), he said that would be fine and asked me to send in my formal application, including a writing sample. In a follow-up email, I mentioned my BA in political science; imagine my surprise, after his initial informal acceptance and the fact that I was accepted formally three years ago, when the professor emailed me back and said he had not realized my BA was in poli-sci, and that this would pose a problem for my application. Hm.

Well, this surprised me a bit, but I felt my application was quite strong in other ways, and that ultimately, it would be clear we were a natural fit, and that I'd get in. My undergrad transcript showed A's in all of my political science/political philosophy classes, I am pretty sure that the recommendation letters from my political philosophy professors were quite glowing, my statement of purpose letter listed the many political philosophers whose works I had studied (Locke, Hobbes, Rousseau, Nietzche, Machiavelli, etc.), and I explained in detail the philosophy of mind issues I was now interested in exploring, with specific references to various proposals (Fodor's, Dennett's, Nagel's, Chalmers's, etc.). In addition, my writing sample, from what I could judge, was pretty good. Certainly it was the best I could do - it discussed a contradiction in Hume's thought which had caused much philosophical mischief over the past 250 years. (The first half of that contradiction was Hume's suggestion, via his much-vaunted "problem of induction", that science ultimately could not be defended as rational. To make a long story short, I went on to show how this argument of Hume's had spawned philosophical monsters like the accounts of science given by Kuhn and Popper, and had even come to serve as an easy starting point for the legitimation of political ideology, magic, etc.). Anyway, I thought my paper was pretty good. So, I sent my whole application package in and waited to hear back.

And...the new graduate director declined my application. He cited the fact I'd only ever had one undergrad class taught by a member of the philosophy department (my political philosophy classes were taught through the political science department). I was curious to know what he'd thought about my writing sample. He said only that it "showed some potential". (After all that thinkin' and readin'..."some potential", I confess, was quite deflating). I got my paper out and read it, and re-read it (like some mourning mommy ape retrieving her dead baby after it's fallen off a cliff, holding and petting it - "oo - OO - OOO? - OOOO! - - -ooooooooooooooooooooooooo"), looking for what might make it average (and making sad ape noises :P)...but I confess, no matter how many times I read over it, it just seemed pretty damn good to me. Indeed, I had a hard time imagining sometimes that typical applicants to graduate study at UVic were turning in better stuff. And sometimes, I almost wondered if he'd even actually read it.

The director did inform me that they would permit me to study the following year (while paying full tuition, mind you, whereas other graduate students get departmental stipends) providing I took eight undergraduate classes in philosophy - which he had selected - and got A- or higher in all of them. I had a look over the classes; I was disappointed that none of them had anything to do with what I was most eager to study. And when I went to register, most of them were totally full and had waiting lists (though later I heard they would wedge me in). But overall - I'm not really sure how to describe it - there was something about the whole thing that seemed sort of deflating or off-putting.

This all happened in late July; and wouldn't you know, that it was only a week or two later that I left for England to meet up with my dad and my two oldest sons, where I'd spend a few days in London, after which we would all fly over to Hamburg to begin a romp through the heart of Deutschland, accompanied by a film crew, director, and translator, on a quest to find our lost ancestors (the televion show made from this trip will air shortly. I'll include details in my next post. And, oh yes, I guess I should say something about the trip, too!).

Next time,

Tal

Monday, November 19, 2007

Movie Review: "Beowulf"


I saw "Beowulf" on Saturday night. Angelina Jolie as a sleazy "other woman" - who woulda thought?

AJ must have spent a lot of time tracking down and interviewing such women to try to "get inside their heads", reading old Strassberg acting manuals, contacting Joan Plowright to ask what "Larry" did to prepare for all those marvelous stage performances, and doing some serious meditation. The performance was, in a word, effortless.

Anthony Hopkins did his normal workman-like job (which we all imagine was "brilliant" because he got knighted, and "anyone who gets knighted must be brilliant, right?"). I don't know who played the Queen - the computer animation made her look like Robin Wright, but I'm so lazy, I can't even be bothered to go look it up right now. In any case, the queen was okay. So was the young chick. So was Beowulf.

Oh yeah - the story. Short version: Monster (Grendel) threatens community of Danes, Beowulf comes and kills the monster, displaces Sir Anthony as the community's king, is seduced by homewrecker, sires a new monster, and then dies killing it. Along the way, lots of head-chopping and "riotous drinking in the mead hall", etc.

Bottom line is, I thought it was pretty average. I actually preferred the "Beowulf and Grendel" movie that came out a couple of years ago starring Gerard Butler and Sarah Polley, even though it was pretty slow, and its budget was less than one/tenth that of Zemeckis's; and - shockingly - in that one, they just filmed real people in Iceland. (In fairness, though, this version will make way more money).

"Beowulf" Director Robert Zemeckis was great on "Back to the Future", absolutely STELLAR on "Forrest Gump", good on "Matchstick Men", but..."The Polar Express" was so bad, story-wise, it doesn't even deserve to be insulted on here, and "Beowulf" is pretty average. Personally, I wouldn't mind another stab at a Forrest Gump-scale epic by the talented screenwriter and director. Perhaps all the graphic hiddly-piddly distracts him and his team from locking in what made several of his other movies genuine classics: superb directing, superb acting, and a superb, airtight story.

I'll be waiting.

"More Comedy Jokes!"


Before I get back to this England thing, let me ask:

What happened to Steve Martin?

How do you go from being the world's funniest guy, to being one of the world's most embarrassingly unfunny B-movie actors? I'm sure the money's fantastic, but...why can't he just be funny, like, once a decade, just for old times sake? Robin Williams does that; he makes millions doing crap B-movies, but then, like every ten years, he does some high-profile stand-up and everyone laughs again - and forgives him for all the maudlin celluloid garbage he's done for the previous ten years (e.g., "Toys").

I know, I know - people move on, people mature. In fairness, it would probably be even more embarrassing for Steve Martin to come out, at the age of sixty, playing a banjo with an arrow through his head singing "put a live chicken in your underwear", than doing another one of his lousy movies, but that's the thing: he wouldn't have to do the insane stuff. He could just do....funny stuff. We could call it mature madcap: still rude and surreal, but not self-abasing. A lot of comedians have done it...but alas, Steve seems to feel more strongly about his novellas these days. Pity.

Pity, because no one could really touch Steve Martin in his 70's comedy heyday. Each television appearance seemed legendary (that there was no video recording at the time helped that sense, of course), the gags in "The Jerk" immediately saturated popular consciousness ("he hates these cans!" "You mean I'm gonna stay this color?!", "MA-RIE!!!", etc.), and the routines on his records were memorized, word-for-word, by millions of pubescent males ("got home from tour the other day...found out my cat had been embezzling from me..."...even to this day, I can recall entire passages from those records).

So, we had like six totally hilarious years from Steve - and then 25 plus years, and counting, of general mediocrity, some of which Steve helped write himself. And it makes you wonder how people can go from hilarious to...just okay, in so short a time...

One killer I think is when comedians stop doing what they did, and start trying to imbue their "work" with "importance", with "larger significance" - once what they do becomes didactic in some way. I think this is why the post-9/11 Phil Hendrie, for example (see http://www.philhendrieshow.com/) was never quite as funny as the pre-. It's like once comedians become self-conscious, once they begin worrying about the weight of their legacy, and being taken seriously, things go awry.

And what's really crazy is that if they'd only just stuck to what they did best - going for the comedy jugular regardless of any concern for "social significance" or "the underlying message" - they'd actually wind up with far more weight to their legacies. They would actually BE heroes. After all, the "underlying message" of any comedy is always the same: life is absurd, the end. And people who can describe that absurdity, show us even that it is far more absurd than we normally notice, skewer our pretensions and get us thinking in whole new ways, deserve all the praise we can give them - it ain't easy. It's a special gift, being able to make people laugh, and laugh loud and long. And there is something profound in itself about taking a step back and laughing with others about the strange farce that is life; in a weird sort of way, it helps make life seem all that more worthy and special and wonderful.

So, if there are any would-be comedians out there, do the human race a favour and just...do your thing. Make us all laugh together and stop trying to "teach" us or whatever.

And if, by some chance, Steve Martin ever reads this - could you just be funny, just once, again - for old times's sake, like in the good old days, before we all die? Maybe in return, we could promise to read one of your recent short stories...

That's fair, isn't it?

Saturday, November 3, 2007

It Begins...

England - that was disappointing. I just got back a few weeks ago after spending a month studying at the prestigious University College London.

You see...I've been interested in psychology ever since finding out - well, ever since finding out in late 2003 that I'd been wrong about everything that was most important to me in life; and on a whim last August, after finding the course during an internet search, I applied to the master's of science program at UCL in Cognitive and Decision Sciences, offered through the psychology department. And - they let me in! (By the way, my BA's in Political Science).

I was thrilled. Our plan was for me to start the course and find a rental home in my spare time for all of us to stay until spring, then fly everyone over; so on Sunday, September 23, I kissed everyone in Victoria goodbye and set off for Merry Olde on the adventure of a lifetime.

I landed at Heathrow the next morning, made my way to the room I'd found over the internet at the last minute (located in Forest Hill, in southeast London), dropped off my bags, and then made my way to UCL with no clue what to expect, not having set foot in a university classroom for fourteen years, let alone a graduate class in an unfamiliar environment. And that is how my month long adventure in England began.

More later.