Monday, May 30, 2011

Canucks: Don't Blow It

Canadians love hockey so much we put it on our money along with a quote to rival scripture for its spiritual resonance:
"Les hivers de mon enfance étaient des saisons longues, longues. Nous vivions en trois lieux: l'école, l'église et la patinoire; mais la vraie vie était sur la patinoire."
It's from Roch Carrier's The Hockey Sweater (Le Chandail de Hockey) and translates as:
"The winters of my childhood were long, long seasons. We lived in three places - the school, the church and the skating rink - but our real life was on the skating rink."
It's been said that the test for Canadian citizenship involves only two simple questions:

A. Who is this man?
B. What did he do? **

We take our game seriously and always without exception support our own when up against an American team for the Stanley Cup. But recently there's been a lot of trash-talk about how the Vancouver Canucks aren't "Canada's team" because they've got fewer Canadians (14) and more Americans (5) than the Boston Bruins (16/1), or because Vancouver has "more Starbucks than Tim Hortons, more sushi than chicken noodle." This is either a maniacal form of denial similar to a tea bagger laughing at Canada's "inferior" health care system, or a sadly transparent attempt to manufacture a controversy. Or perhaps it has something to do with "Deadmonton" being nothing more than a half-way house for wingnuts who lacked the fortitude to make the rest of the journey over the Rockies.

Whatever is driving the narrative, it's small beer. My main concern is Canuck fever. I don't mean the kind that has people tattooing Johnny Canuck on their foreheads or painting their toenails blue and green. Canuck fever is a wicked affliction that sucks the life out of great hockey players. I've watched some of the best succumb to its cruel lethargy and disappear into a malaise of what might have been. Yes, Vancouver is known as "Lotusland" and it's a locale that all too often has left our teams dazed and confused. But this year, I've got a feeling things have finally changed...

(** Answers:
A. Paul Henderson
B. Shook the world)

Thursday, May 26, 2011

The Zen Of Bob Dylan: Dig Yourself

"To study the Way is to study the self
To study the self is to forget the self
To forget the self is to allow the ten thousand things to flow"
~ Dōgen

"You're invisible now, you've got no secrets to conceal" ~ Bob Dylan
We don't celebrate "birthdays" in our home. A day is too short to cram all the festivities into twenty-four hours, so we like to carry on for a while and celebrate "birthweeks." This makes it easier when you live as far away from family as I do and suddenly realize mum's birthday is just around the corner. When you have a week there's still enough time to make that purchase and toss the treasure into the post. So it is with Bob Dylan. Although his "birthday" was technically on May 24th, Bobfest is still happening around here.

After reading all the tributes this week and reflecting a bit, I've realized too many really old people are being asked to recall things they no longer have a friggin' clue about. The best one can do is question all the authorities and crown yourself king. That's what Bob is all about, anyway. After years of sifting through his songs, the one golden nugget of wisdom that keeps being revealed is: "Dig Yourself."

Included among the many articles washing up in this week's flood is Ron Rosenbaum's premise that Bob's scathing sarcasm is rooted not in the backwoods of old, weird America, but in the black humour of urban comedians like Lenny Bruce:
"But I think if you want to place Dylan in a cultural landscape, it is more accurately located in the urban "Black Humor" movement of the late '50s and early '60s: Lenny Bruce, Mort Sahl, Ralph Ellison, Joseph Heller and Catch-22, Terry Southern and the Dr. Strangelove script, Burroughs, Mailer."
Bob once sang that Lenny Bruce was "the brother that you never had" and like him, Bob is a natural provocateur. He agitates, Zen-like, by pointing to the world that exists right at the end of our noses:

"Let me tell you the truth. The truth is, 'what is.' And 'what should be' is a fantasy, a terrible, terrible lie that someone gave the people long ago." ~ Lenny Bruce
Over at Rolling Stone, Bono proclaims "Like A Rolling Stone" the greatest-ever Bob song, citing this verse as his personal favourite:
"You never turned around to see the frowns
On the jugglers and the clowns
When they all did tricks for you
You never understood that it ain't no good
You shouldn't let other people get your kicks for you"
Nothing wrong with that - in other words, dig yourself. But my favourite line has always been:
"You're invisible now, you've got no secrets to conceal"
That's as free as free can be, minus any thread of fear, self-consciousness or game-face. With nothing to hold you back, you can do anything without caring that anyone is looking...or at least that's how you feel. Imagine if you did that right now - got up and walked into the street wearing (or not wearing) whatever you felt like. Feel like singing? A little jig, maybe? Do it, let 10,000 things flow anywhere, anytime. The line has always been identified in my mind with William Blake, the Zen-bard and craftsman behind such masterworks as "Glad Day":

As the Zen master Dōgen wrote almost a millennium ago, you've got to lose yourself to be found. So, Happy Glad Week, Bob. Here's a video collage of our trip to India, remixed and shared with love:

Sunday, May 22, 2011

Fleet Foxes: Living The Questions

"...the point is, to live everything. Live the questions now." ~ Rainer Maria Rilke
Living the questions requires faith in the process, a belief that the journey is enough in and of itself. Rilke passed that advice on to 19-year-old Franz Kappus over a hundred years ago and Letters to a Young Poet has survived as a testament to the idealism of youth ever since. Seattle-based band Fleet Foxes have taken that legacy to heart and their new album - Helplessness Blues - is a heroic affirmation of Rilke's wisdom.

"I was raised up believin'
I was somehow unique
Like a snowflake, distinct among snowflakes
Unique in each way you can see

And now after some thinkin'
I'd say I'd rather be
A functioning cog in some great machinery
Serving something beyond me

But I don't, I don't know what that will be
I'll get back to you someday
Soon you will see"

As Lisa Simpson might say, "it is very cromulent," but all that earnestness about snowflakes made my toes curl and my upper lip sneer at first. Then at 0:45, when the guitars fire up and the vocals take flight, it all clicks into place and my heart responds as it usually does when confronted with something beautiful and pure. This is devotional music celebrating life's wonder and while some of the lyrics may despair ("Montezuma"), the power of the execution raises it from any mire of futility.

There's not one note of irony or cynicism to be found in this cornucopia of bliss and the lyrics on Helplessness Blues manage to avoid cloyingly naive or simplistic platitudes. Unlike other bands mining similar territory like Mumford & Sons or Midlake, Fleet Foxes display a richer melodic palette and a greater lyrical prowess on such songs as "Battery Kinzie" and "Bedouin Dress." As with Simon & Garfunkel's classic "Song For the Asking" or "America," the songs speak to a larger sense of being:

Tomorrow is Bob Dylan's 70th birthday and it's fitting that lead singer/songwriter Robin Pecknold has cited him, along with Joni Mitchell and Graham Nash, as a major influence. Pecknold's writing bears some resemblance to Dylan in that it privileges the confessional speaker, but the music soars cathedral-like and harmonious, bringing to mind the collective art of Crosby, Stills & Nash or the Hollies.

This is a band with huge aspirations and vision, but don't expect any answers; as a Celtic Sufi once sang, "be satisfied not to read in between the lines."

Wednesday, May 18, 2011

Erik Prince: Onward Christian Soldiers

"I'm an American working for America" - Erik Prince
The Security Industrial Complex of the USA is getting stronger everyday, thanks to the Obama administration. Just when you thought the mercenary torturers and assassins known as Blackwater might have gone the way of Kid Rock and Ed Hardy lids, they spring up in the deserts of the United Arab Emirates reincarnated as Reflex Responses (R2). Erik Prince, a former Navy Seal and the Crusader in Chief of R2, has made explicit his policy not to hire any Muslims because those folks are so darn unreliable they won't kill their own fellow Muslims. Prince has been working with the Crown Prince of Abu Dhabi to set up his band of lawless renegades in the Muslim state for a cool US$529 million. What a patriot!

According to the New York Times and Jeremy Scahill, R2 has been hired by the UAE to help with security in the wake of the Arab Spring, which means part of their task will include crushing any democratic uprisings or demonstrations that might occur. The contractors are mainly Colombian and will receive up to US$150 a day. This represents a huge raise from US$34, the amount they were earning back when they were really dumb and rampaging through Iraq killing innocent civilians and getting away with it, thanks to the Obama administration.

These goons make Rambo look like Justin Bieber as they shred the law into coleslaw. As he has done in the past, Prince is again likely breaking the law by training foreign nationals without the authorization of the US State Department. But not to worry - Obama has got him covered. His administration is doing the unthinkable - normalizing Bush’s worst breaches of international law.

President Obama & the Crown Prince of Abu Dhabi, April 26, 2011
Part of R2's remit may include Iran, situated just across the Persian Gulf and the Strait of Hormuz. Nothing like a Christian Crusade tucked inside the Trojan horse of the UAE to deliver peace to the Middle East. Unless of course, your industry is the US Security Industrial Complex and your interest is creating a demand for your services. Get your war on.

Sunday, May 15, 2011

Michel Houellebecq: Poète Maudit

"Don't pin your hopes or pin your dreams, to misanthropes or guys like me" - "It's A Wonderful Lie," Paul Westerberg
You know you're in the presence of great literature when you find yourself agreeing with the author that humanity is a vile species worthy of extinction. If you begin to feel a bit uneasy, a little awkward as though the author has been observing you without you knowing, that's also a good sign. Michel Houellebecq's 1998 novel, Atomised (Les Particules élémentaires in French) did that to me.

In lurid detail, Atomised tells the story of two brothers, both irredeemable scums in their own individually unique way, as they bump from one "relationship" to another. The one trait brothers Bruno and Michel share is a detached isolation from their fellow beings. They're like indifferent particles floating through society concerned more about freedom than anything resembling responsibility. Their only reason to be is to serve the self, no matter what that entails:
"An animal's sense of self emerges through physical pain, but individuality in human society only attains true self-consciousness by the intermediary of mendacity, with which it is sometimes confused." (89)
If the moment we lie to others is the moment our true self-consciousness is born, then we are indeed doomed.

Bug-Eyed Earl
Houellebecq's misanthropy is fascinating because it clearly emanates from a reactionary impulse. He loathes humanity for its failure to adhere to traditional values that offer moral certitude like organized religion and community. Throughout Atmomised I felt the icy hand of good, old fashioned Catholic admonition scoffing at the characters. But I suppose behind every misanthrope there cowers a failed philanthropist:
"Tenderness is a deeper instinct than seduction which is why it is so difficult to give up hope." (61)

Both reactionaries and progressives would be hard pressed to argue with the novel's central theme, however. Houellebecq identifies the symptom of our disease in his title, which in English is both a sociological term and a buzzword for alienation and disempowerment. Ironically, British Prime Minister David Cameron mentioned "atomised society" in reference to a lack of community:
"We're collapsing into an atomised society, stripped of the local bonds of association which help tie us together."
Meanwhile, Noam Chomsky frequently uses it as a way of labeling efforts to delegitimize democracy and government:
"What's holding us back is the last century of intense efforts to atomize people, to drive them towards the superficial things in life, like consumption. You have to fabricate consumers. You have to make people hate governments. The mentality that's been fostered is that there is this alien force out there -- the government -- that's stealing your hard-earned money."

Whatever you may think about Houellebecq, he's definitely on to something...

"As the last members of this species are extinguished, we think it just to render this last tribute to humanity, a homage which itself will one day disappear, buried beneath the sands of time. It is necessary that this tribute be made, if only once." (379)

Tuesday, May 10, 2011

Noam Chomsky: Unwanted Truth

"It is the responsibility of intellectuals to speak the truth and expose lies" - Noam Chomsky
Noam Chomsky scares the shit out of conservatives and liberals alike because he's equally critical of power no matter who holds it. Chomsky is an intellectual, not a journalist or some political hack with an agenda. It's not surprising to see flaccid-minded scribes quaking in the wake of his pronouncements - Chomsky requires too much work, too much research and real thinking.

"The Gnome"
That's why it's disappointing to see writers I respect like Andrew Sullivan and Christopher Hitchens dismissing Chomsky's recent article about the death of Usama bin Laden as though it were written by some paranoid fanatic. They try hard to paint him as a conspiratorial wacko bent on following narratives down rabbit holes, but nothing could be further from the truth. Chomsky instills fear because he serves facts, not opinions. They can't argue that bin Laden was never subjected to due process - it's a fact - so they resort to ad-hominem attacks against Chomsky's intellectual integrity.

Here's the nugget that really irks them:
"We might ask ourselves how we would be reacting if Iraqi commandos landed at George W. Bush’s compound, assassinated him, and dumped his body in the Atlantic. Uncontroversially, his crimes vastly exceed bin Laden’s, and he is not a “suspect” but uncontroversially the 'decider'..."
Chomsky has gone on record about the heinous acts of 9/11 and in no way suggests the U.S. deserved them, as Hitchens surreptitiously claims. He's also repeatedly rejected the loony conspiracies that some invisible force like the Grand Elders of Zion was behind the attacks.

His use of "uncontroversially" is in reference to the evidence at hand. Facts are, by definition, uncontroversial...or at least they were BFN (Before Fox News). It's an irrefutable fact that bin Laden was never convicted for 9/11. It's not inconsistent to state this and also believe he and al-Qaeda were responsible, as I personally do. But Chomsky's logic is as cold as it is unforgiving; if the U.S. is a nation of laws, there can't be any exceptions, as Glenn Greenwald explains. To kill bin Laden without due process is to logically accept the same for those on your own side. In other words, "Live by the sword, die by the sword." Below is Chomsky on the "validity" of the 9/11 "truthers":

Saturday, May 07, 2011

Canada From Hong Kong: Harper's Victory

"Home", as E.T. knew, can be a very distant star. Canada is my true home although I haven't really lived there for longer than a year since 1995. I was in Vancouver for three months in 2003 and for a year in 1998. I try to return regularly, but family visits are a far cry from settling in.

Watching Canada from the heel of China in Hong Kong over the past decade hasn't proven to be too noteworthy. Admittedly, I've been more involved in issues related to China and Asia, but apart from last year's Vancouver Olympics, NHL games and the odd Nickelback award Canada hasn't mattered that much in the press. Sorry to folks like Andrew Potter, but something you soon figure out when living abroad is you have to go out of your way to hear how Canada might be making an impact internationally. Strangely, the images and impressions that do pop up are like moments encased in amber, fossils pointing to some otherworldly existence.

Trudeau in Alpha Flight
It wasn't always this way, however. While standing before the Maronite Cathedral in Jdeydeh, the Christian quarter in Aleppo, Syria, I struck up a conversation with a local gentleman. When he heard I was from Canada, he started raving about "Pierre Elliott Trudeau." This was in 2008. Here in Hong Kong, not a week passes that someone doesn't mention Canada's "other language" or a relative living in Richmond or Toronto as a reference to Canada's diversity and multiculturalism, policies all associated with Trudeau.

Needless to say, Stephen Harper doesn't come up, nor do any of his "policies", not even his infamous mistake of supporting the U.S. invasion of Iraq. Harper did briefly make headlines here by not attending the 2008 Beijing Olympics. Cool, I thought, until he said it had nothing to do with politics. Then there was the G20 Summit in Toronto last year. When it erupted, Canada looked just like any other country with a hard-on for "security" rather than democracy. Oh, and then there was that young Chinese guy caught in Vancouver with a wrinkled, silicone mask after trying to impersonate an old man from Hong Kong. Now, that was big news.

That's it. Not much else registers around here, which is why I worry about what a Harper majority means as I make my way back. International impressions of Canada haven't progressed much since the 1970s, and in some instances have actually regressed. I've a feeling Harper doesn't really care...and that's not the place I call "home."

Monday, May 02, 2011

Ding-Dong! Munchkins Celebrate

"I've never wished a man dead, but I have read some obituaries with great pleasure." - Mark Twain
"Ding-dong! The Witch is Dead!" chant the little people of Oz, reveling in the death of the wicked asshat, Usama bin-Laden. At this point, almost ten years after the 9/11 attacks, that's how it looks - only little people from a little land would take such joy in the demise of a depraved paper tiger. At least his death has succeeded in helping the U.S. get its war back on and in revealing a carny tribalism at the festering heart of the American project.

Like the Wizard of Oz, bin-Laden was an illusion, a spectacle designed to simplify the genuine tragedy of 9/11. His death now serves to distract a nation from its decline and ramp up Obama's 2012 re-election campaign. It's no surprise that within only a few hours of bin-Laden's death, the focus turned to Obama's poll numbers.

"I thoroughly disapprove of duels. If a man should challenge me, I would take him kindly and forgivingly by the hand and lead him to a quiet retired spot and kill him."
Like Mark Twain, I too take pleasure in the death of a bad man, especially one who started the fight. But the pleasure isn't ostentatious or designed as a spectacle for public consumption - it's a somber and private one to be experienced away from the herd.