Friday, September 30, 2011

Irshad Manji: Ijtihad

"Courage is not the absence of fear. It is the recognition that some things are more important than fear."
Irshad Manji is anything but predictable. A Muslim who supports same-sex marriage, she consistently finds herself on the outside of her faith. She was in Edmonton last week as part of LitFest appearing at the historic Garneau Theatre where she was interviewed by the Edmonton Journal's Sheila Pratt and fielded questions from the audience.

Manji was promoting her recent book, Allah, Liberty & Love: The Courage to Reconcile Faith and Freedom, and doing what she does best - upset expectations and provoke critical awareness around issues of moral courage and changing the world. At the heart of her endeavour is the concept of Ijtihad (pronounced “ij-tee-had”), which she defines as "Islam’s own tradition of independent thinking" that gave the world "inventions from the astrolabe to the university."

She also spoke eloquently about the Moral Courage Project she directs at New York University and of the need for individuals, in Bobby Kennedy's words:
" brave the disapproval of their fellows, the censure of their colleagues, the wrath of their society. Moral courage is a rarer commodity than bravery in battle or great intelligence. Yet it is the one essential, vital quality for those who seek to change a world that yields most painfully to change."
Manji practices what she preaches - she condemns dogma wherever it surfaces and praises some unlikely practitioners of moral courage like New Jersey Republican Governor Chris Christie, who dismissed sharia law fearmongering, and Starbucks' CEO Howard Shultz for challenging his fellow CEOs and politicians to put citizenship above partisanship.

But most provocative is her activism within the Muslim community. She enlisted Dr. Khaleel Mohammad, an iman and professor of religious studies, to interpret/translate a verse in the Koran in support of interfaith couples. It has since been translated into 20 languages. As a result, she risks harm, even death - earlier this year she collapsed from exhaustion and for the entire duration of her Edmonton appearance two police officers stood silently on either side of the stage keeping eye out for any wingnut who might cause trouble.

Monday, September 26, 2011

R.E.M.: Young And Full Of Grace

"File Under Water"~ written on the spine of Reckoning
When R.E.M. swept onto the scene in the early 80s - June 28, 1984, to be exact - they embodied a hybrid of hippie and punk that was pure exhilaration, the jump-up-kick-your-ass-with-your-heels kind of bliss. It was the Commodore Ballroom, Granville Street, Vancouver, in the days when $20 would get a kid from the suburbs a baggie of Sensimilla that could be rolled into a few submarine fatties. I was 16, had just finished grade 11 at Semiahmoo Senior Secondary in White Rock, and was spending my days listening to Reckoning, along with the Smith's debut, in the plush, shag-carpeted environs of my family living room.

With my older brother’s cream coloured Ibanez wedged tightly between my left arm and lap, I strum-whipped “Pretty Persuasion” with the same frenetic acuity Pete Townshend displayed in concert a few years before at that concrete abyss known as Seattle’s Kingdome.

I was ready to happen and R.E.M. provided lift off. Now the Commodore serves alcohol, and as a lad of merely 16 I was three years shy of the legal limit. But I refused to let that be an obstacle. I invited along my secret weapon: a large friend, as huge as a Samoan wrestler. Steve was bad-ass, so much so he was the first in all of Surrey to drive an orange, Russian-made Lada as a way of protesting western imperialism. He could also look ten years older and meaner than any one I’d ever seen.

When we finally got to the Commodore and climbed the red carpet to the hallowed entrance, no questions were dare asked. It was my first time ever inside the fabled ballroom and R.E.M. provided the purpose and soundtrack to that sacred right of passage. Sadly, I don’t have a set list, but I do remember many of these songs played the night before in Seattle’s Music Hall:
Moral Kiosk / Driver 8 / Catapult / Hyena / Camera / Pilgrimage / Talk About The Passion / Seven Chinese Brothers / So. Central Rain / Pretty Persuasion / Gardening At Night / 9-9 / Windout / Old Man Kensey / Radio Free Europe / Little America
encore 1: Sitting Still / Burning Down / Pale Blue Eyes / 1,000,000
encore 2: So You Want To Be A Rock'n'Roll Star / Carnival Of Sorts (Boxcars)
I also seem to recall “Femme Fatale” and “No Fun”, but that could be the beer and smoke. It was the beginning of a long and beautiful relationship that continued until last week when they dropped the curtain. I was at the gym, my iPod on random when “I Believe” kicked in. I thought to myself, “Damn, this is a fine song...good lyrics too.”
I Believe

When I was young and full of grace
And spirited - a rattlesnake
When I was young and fever fell
My spirit, I will not tell
You're on your honor not to tell

I believe in coyotes and time as an abstract
Explain the change, the difference between
What you want and what you need, there's the key,
Your adventure for today, what do you do
Between the horns of the day?

I believe my shirt is wearing thin
And change is what I believe in

When I was young and give and take
And foolish said my fool awake
When I was young and fever fell
My spirit, I will not tell
You're on your honor, on your honor
Trust in your calling, make sure your calling's true
Think of others, the others think of you
Silly rule golden words make, practice, practice makes perfect,
Perfect is a fault, and fault lines change

I believe my humor's wearing thin
And change is what I believe in
I believe my shirt is wearing thin
And change is what I believe in

(repeat chorus)

When I was young and full of grace
As spirited a rattlesnake
When I was young and fever fell
My spirit, I will not tell
You're on your honor, on your honor
I believe in example
I believe my throat hurts
Example is the checker to the key

I believe my humor's wearing thin
And I believe the poles are shifting

I got home, read the news and took a deep breath...for change is what I believe in.

Thursday, September 22, 2011

Gloria Anzaldúa: La Frontera

"To survive the Borderlands
you must live sin fronteras
be a crossroads."
~ Gloria Anzaldúa
Borders surround us, beginning where flesh meets air and continuing through the ether to divide high from low, night from day, good from bad. For some, the border is a natural state of being, an in-between ambiguity where absolutes don't fully exist and possibilities are endless. Gloria Anzaldúa made her home there and flourished for a brief time before dying of diabetes complications in 2004 at age 61.

Anzaldúa left behind an electrifying book - Borderlands/La Frontera (1987) - part memoir, part manifesto, written in prose and poetry, but in the end it's truly "sin fronteras," or borderless. Anzaldúa seizes the opportunity to fully express her concept of "the new Mestiza," which involves embracing of all the contradictions and multitudes that reside within from her identity as a self-described, "chicana dyke-feminist, tejana patlache poet, writer, and cultural theorist."

U.S.-Mexico border, the place “where the Third World grates against the first and bleeds.” ~ Gloria Anzaldúa
Anzaldúa grew up along the Tex-Mex border in the impoverished Rio Grande Valley and eventually received her MA from the University of Texas. Like other visionary works such as Arthur Rimbaud's A Season In Hell or Dark Night of the Soul by St. John of the Cross, Borderlands/La Frontera is an exhilarating and demanding read, but when finished it never lets go. One for the ages.

Sunday, September 18, 2011

Live in Edmonton: The Junior Boys

"People have commented that I make Canadian records and I sort of embrace that to the extent that I like to make records that have a lot of empty space in them." ~ Jeremy Greenspan
My first gig in Edmonton turned out to be at the Starlite Room last week where Canadian wunderkinds, the Junior Boys, electrified the capacity crowd. The trio's suave take on synthpop made for a good show, even if it was somewhat brief and a bit monochromatic. The Starlite is a small venue, about the same size as the old Town Pump in Vancouver, but that didn't hamper the throbbing beats and synth-splashes from sizzling off the stage like hot neon crystals.

Like fellow Canuck Dan Bejar of Destroyer, lead singer Jeremy Greenspan is a crooner. He clearly revels in vamping and primping around the stage as he switches from guitar to synth, then back to his mic. Vocally reminiscent of such 80s bands as OMD and Spandau Ballet, the band's overall aesthetic is sleek and contemporary - think Ariel Pink without the trash.

Throughout the 80 minute performance, I kept hoping for a burst of colour to spill over the crowd, but sadly the Starlite remained dull and flat. Maybe next time throw a little champagne in with the sizzle, fellas...

Wednesday, September 14, 2011

Eco-Pirate: Paul Watson

“The fact is that we live in an extremely violent culture, and we all justify violence if it’s for what we believe in.”~ Paul Watson
Some do what they can, others do what they must. Paul Watson belongs to the latter category. He's spent his entire adult life dedicated to saving whales, dolphins, seals and other marine life as a vocation and a compulsion. He's had no choice. Fanaticism has come naturally while most others shun it as something reserved for extremists or - yikes! - terrorists. In fact, Watson has endured despite being saddled with every pejorative, including "Eco-Pirate."

Trish Dolman, director of Eco-Pirate, succeeds in creating a film that adds to Watson's mystique as a valiant warrior and while sympathetic in its portrayal, it's not biased. The film explores the bitter and apparently ongoing resentments that erupted between Watson and Greenpeace, particularly Patrick Moore, when founder Bob Hunter stepped down in 1979. One of the film's most moving scenes involves Hunter's daughter, Emily, and Watson scattering Bob's ashes while on a table-top iceberg in Antarctica.

Greenpeace founder Bob Hunter (1941–2005)
The rupture between Watson and Greenpeace had to do with differences over what methods to employ for achieving the best results, the old "ends justifying the means" conundrum. Watson is described by Moore as a rogue, an irresponsible megalomaniac who was undermining Greenpeace's Gandhian mandate of non-violence. Watson counters that the proof is in the pudding - he has consistently reached his goals while Greenpeace has largely failed in its founding mission. The break propelled Watson to form the Sea Shepherd Conservation Society in 1978, which has recently spearheaded campaigns against Japanese whaling in Antarctica. Much of the film's best footage is taken from this expedition in 2010.

Watson is the genuine article, someone worth admiring if only because he lives his passion. That it involves defending those who can't defend themselves makes him all the more worthy of support.

Saturday, September 10, 2011

9/11: Ten Years On

Sunrise from Mount Nemrut, Turkey (photos by Yewco)
"We have entered the third millennium through a gate of fire. If today, after the horror of 11 September, we see better, and we see further — we will realize that humanity is indivisible." ~ Kofi Annan
There's always nostalgia around anniversaries, but "ten" has to be the mother of them all. Nostalgia, as MSNBC "ranter" Touré points out, is generally a wish to relive happy moments, so the media blitz around the tenth anniversary of 9/11 has felt strange. Too much of it seems like a perverse attraction, a rubber-necking impulse to view all the carnage and experience a titillating thrill from a safe distance.

Beirut, Lebanon
On a personal level, it provides a moment to look back over my own life since 9/11. I felt like I was hurled onto a deeper level of understanding by the events as I watched them unfold from my apartment in the Mid-Levels of Hong Kong on that humid evening. Like many others, I thought it was a movie, a remix of Orson Welles' "War of the Worlds" played out for our specular, digital age. I soon realized it wasn't a farce or the new Batman flick; it was a genuine tragedy, but one that I first thought was a mistake, an accident. At the same moment I also felt that it was too much of a freak occurrence to simply be a plane crash. Then came the second plane. Now it was obvious something more sinister was at stake, that I was witnessing a horror that would shift the paradigm of our age. I stayed up all night looking for answers. Then more planes crashed until it finally seemed over for that day at least.

Pelkor Chode Monastery - Tibet
I had recently started my MA in Applied Linguistics that week and had just returned home from a night class at Hong Kong University when I switched on CNN. 9/11 would eventually play a huge role in determining my thesis. With the support of a beneficent advisor (thanks Phil), I chose to explore the trajectory of my own family - specifically my dad's side as a Sons of Freedom Doukhobor. As a young teen, he was able to escape their influences and carve out a life of his own in the broader, Anglo community. His younger brother, Harry, was not so fortunate. His life ended in 1962 at 17 when he blew himself up in the backseat of a '58 Chevy while preparing a bomb for the post office in Kinnaird, B.C.

With Dad in Vancouver
Those unfamiliar with the Freedomite Doukhobors are probably aghast and confused. It's a long story, recognizable to most multi-ethnic cultures where one world meets another and is forced to choose between assimilation or demise. For a short time in B.C., Harry and the Freedomites refused either and they fought what eventually became a losing battle. The RCMP records state Harry died while "on a terroristic mission" and I was determined to research the circumstances that led to such a verdict. Had the events of 9/11 not occurred, I never would have felt compelled to do so. It has now expanded into a novel I'm writing based on Harry's life. In retrospect, 9/11 made me see "better" and "further" into the truth that MLK once described as humanity's "inescapable network of mutuality."

Krestova Cemetery, last resting place of Harry Kootnikoff, 1944-1962. (photo: Doukhobor Genealogy Website)

Tuesday, September 06, 2011

In Between Days: Summer of 2011

"These were the woods the river and sea
Where a boy
In the listening
Summertime of the dead whispered the truth of his joy
To the trees and the stones and the fish in the tide.
And the mystery
Sang alive
Still in the water and singingbirds." - Dylan Thomas
This summer was my 44th year to heaven, to paraphrase Dylan Thomas, and it involved a huge shake-up in my life. After 11 years of living in Hong Kong, I came home to Canada to embark on a new adventure. But first Yuko and I had to return to Vancouver and load up a Uhaul with all our stuff from Hong Kong, along with some old junk I'd left behind in storage.

July and August were truly "in between days" waiting for new beginnings to take flight while biding our time visiting family and friends in White Rock...

(With Dad in White Rock)
(with Mum, brother Rob, his kids and friend, Genna,)
We also did a bit of horseback riding in Pemberton....

Checked in with Emily Carr in Victoria...

Soaked up the gorgeous sunset...

Made it to the summit of Whistler with our lovely guide and friend, Miyuki...

and jumped out of a plane for my birthday...

As Dylan Thomas wrote:
"O may my heart's truth
Still be sung
On this high hill in a year's turning."
Oob-Schadoo-Beh! Here's the Cure from 1985:

Thursday, September 01, 2011

The Incompleat Pogo: Walt Kelly

"Don't take life so serious, son. It ain't nohow permanent."
I've just dug up my childhood copy of The Incompleat Pogo by Walt Kelly from a box in storage. It's faded and dog-eared, but otherwise perfectly readable considering it's from 1954. According to my mum, it belonged to one of my uncles, but when I opened the cover it read:
I must have scrawled that in pencil when I was 5 or 6 years old. I had pretty good taste for one of "nature's little screechers," as Kelly would say.

Kelly worked with Disney for a while before going rogue and launching his Pogo comic strip in The New York Star in 1948. Pogo is a possum living in Okefenokee Swamp with all his critter friends communicating in a peculiar dialect known as "swamp-speak." Kelly was a master of language, a born humourist and a brilliant satirist. He's been compared to everyone from Lewis Carroll and James Joyce to Aesop. Not one to shy away from politics, Kelly would say he was against "the extreme Right, the extreme Left, and the extreme Middle." He poked fun at the Ku Klux Klan (The Kluck Klams):

And also lampooned Senator Joseph McCarthy (Simple J. Malarkey) at a time when he wielded enough power to ruin careers:

Here's a song Kelly wrote and sang called, "Go Go Pogo":

Go Go Pogo

As Maine go o so Pogo go Key Largo,
Otsego to Frisco go to Fargo,
Okeefenokee playin', possum on a Pogo,
Stick around and see the show

Go over Land alive a band o' jive will blow go Pogo,
I go you go who go to go pollyvoo go,
From Caravan Diego, Waco and Oswego,
Tweedle de he go she go we go me go Pogo.

Atascadero, Wheeler, Barrow, Someplace in Mexico,
Delaware, Ohio and you don't need the text to go.
Wheeling, West Virginia, With everything that's in ya,
Down the line you'll see the shine from Oregon to Caroline.

Oh, eenie Meenie Minie Kokomo go Pogo
Tishimingo, sing those lingo, whistling go.
Shamokin to Hoboken,
Chenango to Chicongo,
it's golly, I go goo goo going go go Pogo.