Wednesday, September 24, 2014

This blog still exists

It seems odd to think that this blog has been around for 7 years, limping along, a post here and there, lately reflecting not much more than a profound desire to avoid writing.  Of course we know why- there's a dissertation to be written!

In any event, writing at all has proven difficult.  And indeed, when one looks across the infinite horizon of the virtual landscape, there are moribund blogs everywhere.  So maybe it isn't just me.

I also know that people have moved on, to Facebook, to twitter, etc.  There are places where essays are also read and shared (metafiler is a good example), but blogging, that medium that "forced" newspapers to add comment sections to the bottoms of their articles, to the benefit of no one, now seems to have been a passing fad, consigned to the dustbin of internet history.

Instead we have sites like, uh, Medium, which is basically a blog, but it was created by one of the founders of twitter, and it's somehow new.

Does this seem like I'm complaining?  Why do I only ever write about writing?

Or about Toronto?  For years I've had a pet theory about Toronto mayoralty races since Toronto was amalgamated in 1998, and the current race, which I'm thankfully out of the country for, is a chance for this theory to really shine.  So I'm going to put it out there, in part because one of Olivia Chow's former advisors, Warren Kinsella, is asking this very question.

I call it the "Underdog Theory".  It's a pretty simple theory, but I've never seen anyone else write about it, and it's so far been a nearly universal predictor of who will become the next Mayor of Toronto.

Here goes:   About a year (or even earlier) before the actual election,  journalists in Toronto begin to create "buzz" about the next big candidate (if there's no incumbent mayor).  This buzz is amplified by polling firms, who take the conjecture of the media, and ask people who they might vote for, and also by the people who might want to be mayor.  This person, for the purposes of my theory, I've named the "consensus candidate".  By this I mean that person who, long before most people are thinking seriously about the election, and before anyone could even reasonably consider running, has been chosen by the media as the front runner.

 So for example, before the 1998 and 2003 elections, the frontrunner a year out was Barbara Hall.  After David Miller decided to step down, the consensus front runner was George Smitherman.  Do you notice anything about these frontrunners?  They never win.

Who wins?  Well, it seems to be the person who somehow bucks the consensus.  What's interesting about this is that it doesn't seem to have much to do with ideology - David Miller won mainly by being the lone candidate to campaign again the island airport, and Rob Ford won mainly because he represented an outsider looking into City Council.

So this is to me what makes this current race pretty interesting.  Firstly, we have an incumbent (or had I should say now).  But I think that, given everything that went on, including the fact that his powers were stripped from him, the current race was functioning effectively as one without an incumbent.

Now if anyone is actually reading this, and has bothered to stay with me so far, let's look at the consensus candidate from a year ago - Olivia Chow.  Does everyone remember all the stories about how polls showed that only Chow could beat Rob Ford at the polls?  When I saw this, my first reaction to it was "uh-oh".

I reacted this way for two reasons - firstly, at the time I thought this time might be the race that refutes my pet theory, and that would bruise my ego.  Secondly, I thought to myself, well if she's isn't going to win, who will, and the odds are that person is going to be awful.

So here we are a month out, and guess what?  Olivia Chow has basically disappeared from the race, and could sink to Joe Pantalone levels of support, and John Tory, who lost to Rob Ford, has come from below to steal the race from her, although as I've argued, she was screwed the day everyone said she would be the one to win!

But then Rob Ford got cancer, and his brother stepped in.  I cannot help but look at Doug Ford and see him as the new underdog, especially here in the bucolic splendour of Wolfenbüttel! 

Here's the thing - John Tory has been leading for some time now, and Doug Ford, whether or not deserves it, can pretty much count on all of Rob Ford's support.  What remains to be seen is whether or not the huge group of people who voted for Rob Ford but never admitted it to people (a tendency which, given the whole crack scandal, is strangely literary in its foreshadowing...) are prepared to switch their votes from Tory to Doug Ford.

Honestly, I don't know.  But now that I have finally had the courage to state my pet theory, I look forward to its refutation.  Mainly because the thing that seems really clear to me, if my theory is actually operating (somewhere) in the hive mind of the Toronto voting public, it's that the race for mayor has nothing to do with governance, or ideology. 

It's about something else.  I still haven't found a way to articulate what that else is, but it seems to have less to do with politics, and more to do with anxiety about "elites".  But I've already gone on too long.

With any luck, the next time I write on the blog won't be six months from now! 






Friday, March 28, 2014

A blast from the past!

Maybe because it's near my birthday, and I'm feeling both old and nostalgic, but this post from Metafilter about being a tuba player is a nice reminder of both why I loved playing the tuba but also why I gave it up. 

Thursday, February 13, 2014

Friday, November 08, 2013

Running is Cheap

I clicked on this expecting to be angered (is that not that the main reason we read anything on the Internet?), but it instead confirmed something I wish I'd said out loud a long time ago!

A long time ago, I wrote a nice post  about getting back into running.  Unfortunately, right after that post, I injured myself, or aggravated some long-term problem in my knee, or something, which put me off running for long time.

But I started running again this summer, and again, it is so strange to be a runner now, having been a runner over 20 years ago, and how everyone who runs now has all kinds of crazy gear, like belts with water bottles attached - who on earth needs one of those to go out jogging for 3km?  I recall seeing this one woman every morning, running very slowly and deliberately, with three small, completely filled water bottles.  Perhaps it would have been easier for her to run if she weren't carrying 10lbs in water on her?

This was something I remember very clearly after I ran that race 5 years ago.  Cheering people on the finish line, and watching people come in 20 minutes after me, wearing hundred of dollars of running "equipment", like special tights, and those crazy watches that tell yo everything about your run, and all I could think to myself was "this did not really do much for you".

Maybe that sounds unfair, but it is so easy to buy professionalism these days - to feel like you are with the pros.  It's like Guitar Hero - it very much gives you the feeling of playing a guitar, but please do not tell me (as many do) that it's the same as actually playing a guitar.  It isn't, and it's kind of insulting to all the people who spend day after day practising.

I am not really in a position to brag about my own discipline and amazing practicing techniques, but I know well enough to know that buying stuff isn't a replacement for taking the time to learn something, that's the attitudes that link jokes about is really more about commodification than it is about enjoyment or exercise.

Friday, October 25, 2013

Margaret Wente: Ace Concern Troll

Why did I read Margaret Wente's recent column on David Gilmour?

I don't even know why I'm writing about this, except that I a) wrote about both of them recently, and b) I am, in my own pathetic way, as bad as everyone else on the Internet (forgive me, Jonathan Franzen!).  I also promise not to write about her again at least until next year.

To be charitable to her, her column points something out that nearly everyone else has ignored.  She is nearly the only person who has pointed out that Gilmour is not a tenured professor.  Rather, he is (like me, actually, as well as many of my friends) a part-time sessional instructor at U of T, specifically, with Victoria College.

I suspect one of the reasons this was lost in the shuffle was because the impression one gets from the initial Hazlitt interview was that the U of T begged to give him a 100k+ per year tenured position because he's a "natural teacher". The reality is that he's making about $7,000 per course, at least until his contract runs out...

Besides that, her column is phoned-in trash about how men are a disadvantaged minority on campuses.  The following is a character study in complete bullshit being passed off as conventional wisdom:
Frankly, I was surprised and glad to learn that there remains one small testosterone-safe zone at U of T (although I guess it’s not safe any more). As anyone who’s set foot on campus in the past 30 years ought to know, courses in guy-guy writers are vastly outnumbered by courses in women writers, queer writers, black writers, colonial writers, postcolonial writers, Canadian writers, indigenous writers, Caribbean, African, Asian and South Asian writers, and various sub- and sub-subsets of the above. But if you’re interested in Hemingway, good luck. No wonder male students are all but extinct in the humanities.
I know that the Globe and Mail, like many other news organizations, has had to tighten its belt, but couldn't anyone have googled the U of T's English Department's course listings?  A cursory glance at the course outlines shows that there are plenty of the supposed "guy-guy" writers, like Philip Roth, getting taught at U of T.

The problem, and this is maybe what Wente missed when her overworked, unpaid intern, who had spent 30 seconds "researching" her column after picking up Wente's Pumpkin Spice Latte, is that a lot of the "guy-guy" writers that Gilmour mentioned just fall under the category of "American Fiction of the 20th Century".  In other words, their maleness is not pointed out because it remains the category against which everything else is judged. 

Indeed, Hemingway might be the only major white male author for whom I could not find a course listing.  However, there's a fourth year seminar for that darling of the feminist left, Ezra Pound.

This brings up an important point.  Maybe we do need to spell this kind of stuff out - English 324 should be called "Modern, mainly white, male poets up to 1960" so that men too can also wear the burden of their identity the way Margaret Wente so casually diminishes the identities of everyone in her laundry list of courses.

But the line that really sticks in my craw is the last one "No wonder male students are all but extinct in the humanities." Seriously?  Men aren't drawn to the humanities because they don't get to read books by male authors?  So then what are all these women doing reading Milton? Penis Envy?  And what the hell do I have in common with Milton anyway, beyond my gender and my skin colour?  None of what she writes makes any sense!

In conclusion, I will never write about anything she writes ever again.  Sorry to have troubled you.

New York City Opera

Here is a very nice obituary for it by Tim Page.

Having never lived in New York, I cannot really imagine what it would be like to lose something like this.  We remain, in Canada, relatively lucky that, despite an (allegedly) crack-smoking mayor here in Toronto,and a Prime Minister bent on returning Canada to its fur trade roots by narrowing our economy to resource extraction, we have managed, somehow, to retain most of our arts organizations.

Even if the Canadian Opera Company pisses me off, and it has lately, I don't know what the cultural life of the city would be like without it.

A very sad state of affairs.

Thursday, September 26, 2013

David Gilmour

I see David Gilmour all the time.

He used to host a program on CBC Newsworld called On The Arts.  I used to watch it a lot, in part because it was almost the only thing on TV that had much to do with the arts, even though "arts" usually meant film and literature reviews, and not much music, which was what I was actually interested in.

But I do remember a few things about the show and his attitude, things that stuck with me for some reason. Firstly, he had a really combative interview with Brad Pitt over Fight Club.  It was interesting because everyone was looking at the movie as "culture jamming" and Gilmour was taking him to task because he felt that a big Hollywood production was incapable of culture jamming in the way the marketing of the movie implied.

I liked it because after years of watching these publicity "interviews" I thought it was unusual for the interviewer to actually call a celebrity out on what they thought was bullshit.  It also made me question what Fight Club was about, and made me realise that I had completely bought into the marketing of the film as being equivalent to the effect of the film.

I also remember him often saying that he didn't like Shakespeare because "he's boring".

***

When I first moved to Toronto, I lived at Bloor and Brunswick, pretty much the heart of the Annex neighborhood here in Toronto.  I saw David Gilmour a lot there.  Then I moved away and didn't see him around much.

When I started doing grad school at the University of Toronto, I started seeing him again.  He's one of those funny people in one's city life where, even though you don't really know him, he always seems to be around the same places as you.  I go to a cheese shop in Kensington, and he's there.  I grab lunch at Victoria College, and he's there.  I can't avoid him.

I don't really know him.  But until yesterday at least, I really quite admired him, mainly because of this article he wrote about Tolstoy.  This is one of my all-time favourite articles about a writer.  I don't know why I liked it so much back in the day, but I did, and it made me go out and buy War and Peace.  And oddly enough, the last time I saw him, which is usually at least once a week, he was going up Yonge street, and I mentioned to my girlfriend that I might go and tell him how much I loved that Tolstoy article in the Walrus.

But now I feel ashamed to admit that.

***

Why, you are asking, because you do not have an rss feed reader?  Because of this.  He has since kind of apologized, but the thing that really comes out of that interview is the fact that he seems to utterly lack charity.

This is ironic because the Tolstoy article is all about coming around to Tolstoy, about imagining that he would hate it, and then reading it, and realising how wonderful it was.  It was that joy of discovery that really affected me in a positive way, and I can imagine that if he can come across that way in a classroom, it would be very inspiring.

But I cannot help but think now that his Tolstoy article was a work of fiction more than a work of memoir, as he seems completely incapable of understanding how his remarks might be interpreted as deeply, deeply uncharitable to women, or to nearly anyone.  This interview makes his experience of Tolstoy sound impossible.

***

I want to contrast Gilmour's controversy with the one I wrote last week about Jonathan Franzen.  Both are causing a lot of controversy, but I was surprised by how much of the Franzen controversy surrounded what he wrote about women, and also by how differently I read those passages.

They are both middle-aged white men (I am also perilously close to that demographic) but where I see Gilmour blind to his own uh, blind spots, I read in Franzen a self-deprecating moment that, perhaps having been a young man myself, I could identify with that ingrained youthful sexism where, even if you are a "nice guy", you still somehow believe that your grand gestures should be acknowledged as signs of greatness (and virility), and when they aren't, it really offends your ego.  Never mind that she may have her own feelings and thoughts on this, and have different wants and needs.

And I look back on some of those moments, and I feel badly about them, and I hope to talk to my son about those things in a way where he doesn't find himself in those kinds of situations of being angry with yourself, and with the world, because you cannot control whether or not people are attracted to you or not.  A lot of other critics read him as just being straight up sexist, and I don't agree with that at all.  But then perhaps people will imagine that my saying what I just did is sexist.  And then I suppose it's true that there is no space for conversation on the Internet, and Franzen is right again!

Anyway, I suppose my point is that where I thought many critics were uncharitable to Franzen, it seems pretty clear to me that Gilmour lacks that charity towards others. They are being compared to each other (right now on the Internet!) as symbols for creepy/irrelevant old dude power, when it seems pretty clear to me that, at least from the standpoint of women, they are coming at things from wildly different perspectives. It is also true that they are older white dudes.

But as it stands, I think it will be kind of awkward seeing David Gilmour around (I know I will!) and I don't know if that bizarre familiarity will lead me to feel sorry for him, or kind of pissed off that he managed to poison my nuanced and thoughtful admiration (as you can see from above) of him.




Friday, September 20, 2013

Craig Davidson

One of those lucky few (ha ha) to have a sidebar link from my prestigious blog is the Canadian author Craig Davidson.

I'm not actually sure how I encountered his work, although, I think it was from this, where he savages a review of a book on the old literary site the Danforth Review.  (The exchange is actually kind of funny...)

Anyway, it led me to his blog, which honestly, has been one of the funniest things I've ever read.  If you look watch this recent CBC interview, the interviewer mentions that the men always wound up smelling like doughnuts, and I can't help but think he is referring to an old blog post about his dad working at the Ridpath Sugar Factory, which had me in tears.   It looks like that post has long since vanished, so it will only live in my heart (and mind) as some of the funniest stuff I've ever read.  That being said, he's still very, very funny!

What's great about his blog is how different it is from his work as a novelist, but taken together they show a wonderful and convincing range on his part.  I'm really happy to see that he's doing so well, with one of his books turned into a movie, and the latest one on the Giller longlist.

I actually ran into him once, at a bar called Pauper's here in Toronto, and I (unsuccessfully) tried to get him a job!  That was years ago, but nevertheless I'm going to pick up his book, which will be strange given how much I hate Canadian fiction, but it seems like the least I can do for all the entertainment he has given me over the years.  If nothing else I have a table leg that needs balancing.

Seriously though, I would urge you to check out his blog and buy his book!

Thursday, September 19, 2013

Post-Orchestras

A few weeks ago, via the blog Sounds and Fury, an article on how America’s orchestra’s are in crisis. I have been debating whether or not to write on it, in part because it reads to me like something that is right in the overall conclusion but wrong in the details. So like many articles that come across my virtual desk, I was planning on just ignoring it. Also, is this really a classical music blog? I guess it is, with a smattering of terrible posts on Rob Ford...

Anyway, I was going to ignore it, but then it popped up on Metafilter. And the comments there really annoyed me, as they often do on Metafilter. (I do really like Metafilter, by the way!) Perhaps because so much of the bile directed toward classical music is the same straw man that I have written about many, many times before, that it’s hopelessly elitist and inaccessible to “average” people, and that if only classical music were MARKETED appropriately, we wouldn’t have these problems. I think this is completely wrong.

There are a bunch of insightful comments too, about maybe the fact that it’s become increasingly unaffordable to play or learn classical music, or any music for that matter, as Public schools have increasingly purged their schools of viable arts programs. That might actually be a huge reason for it, but the whole “classical music needs to be accessible, and this elitist jerk just wants to push regular people out of the classical music halls” is something I’ve been accused of a million times.

I am even writing this knowing full well that the very idea of a "crisis" in orchestras has been shown to be a very old trope by classical music bloggers far more involved and insightful than I am.  But hey, no one can stop me!

Perhaps before you read what I write, you should read the New Republic article.

Done? OK.

I’d like to propose the possibility that the article actually does something really good. In looking at outreach as something that has cost a lot of money but yielded almost nothing in return, it has exposed a strain in North American classical music culture that has been there since I got into classical music in the early 90’s.

But hey, while we’re in the 1990’s, how about I describe, for the benefit of my audience, what growing up in Calgary Alberta in the late 80’s and early 90’s felt like from the perspective of a budding classical musician. I don’t really know if there was any outreach or those kinds of things when I was a kid. I never attended a classical music concert until high school, and I never took piano lessons as a kid. So how did I wind up getting a BA in music?

***

I had taken band throughout junior high, and although I enjoyed it, the idea of becoming a professional music never occurred to me, especially as a tuba player. I enjoyed sitting at the back of the band, playing away, but seriously, who thinks about becoming a professional tuba player?. My first week of high school, that all changed. The high school band had a retreat out at a farm the first weekend of September, and we were treated to a concert by a local brass quintet, followed by a clinic.
So here I met this professional tuba player. And he was perhaps, the most infectiously excited and hilarious person I had ever met in my life. By the end of our lesson with him, I wanted to take tuba lessons, and within a pretty short period of time, say 4 months, I had stopped listening to pop music and was spending most of my time ducking out of school to see free organ concerts and listening to Bach.

But when I look back on this, and I peel away the layers of “my life”, it’s not hard to see that there was a pretty robust infrastructure (sorry, not sure how else to describe it) that supported my ability to pursue classical music.

For example, I rented a brand new professional level Yamaha Bb tuba from the Calgary Board of Education, and I think it cost about $100 per year. Can you imagine? Can you possibly imagine, in this day and age, that not only would a local board of education rent out their own instruments, but that they would heavily subsidize a student’s ability to play it? Here in Toronto, they were talking about getting rid of all the part-time music teachers!

***

So this New Republic article. Here’s the thing. When I was growing up, in Alberta, it was pretty easy to be a classical musician and not be rich. Yes, there were lots of rich kids doing it too, I met a lot of them, but there were tons of incredibly talented kids who came from relatively poor backgrounds. We all somehow found this music, and we loved it, and we were supported in it. By the government...

Philip Kennicott’s point, at least to me, isn’t that all these pop musicians should get off his lawn, but that the classical music industry one day decided that instead of just being happy with what it had, classical music needed to “grow” its audience. So what does it do? It alienates the very people who paid the bills in the first place, and then blames the decline on some ridiculous notion of inaccessibility.

Pointing to my own education, I never once felt shamed or degraded showing up to a classical music concert as a teenager, dressed rather poorly. In fact, as a student, they had $10 rush tickets in Calgary.

What Philip Kennicott is describing is the same affliction that plagues most non-profit organizations, from hospitals to universities. It’s that they are administered by people who fundamentally believe that the only way in which to gauge the health of any organization is whether or not it’s growing.

In other words, even non-profit organizations must somehow conform to the logic of capital, even if it doesn’t make any sense. They have to find new audiences, but what does even mean? In my case, it was having a school system that made it easy (and cheap) to get really involved in music, and then a broader community that behaved the same way.

I feel as though so much of what one reads about classical music these days is a self-fulfilling prophecy, that we need to find new audiences, when in reality, and this is likely how it’s always been, the audiences will find them.

***

And I say this having just read Musical Toronto to see that French CBC is replacing their Saturday afternoon opera broadcasts with a pop show.

Anyone familiar with my blog knows how I feel about what happened to CBC Radio 2, and I don't really bother speaking about it anymore because I haven't listened to Radio 2 in nearly 3 years. But what's going on with the CBC is part and parcel of this perverse need to "grow" arts organizations and find new audiences whether they need them or not.

What's especially awful in the classical music realm is that this always seems to be a zero-sum game. At the CBC, they realised that the only way to gain a new audience was by completely destroying their old one. Hiring Ben Heppner to host Saturday Afternoon at the Opera might look like a coup, but when they cannot even afford to record performances of operas in Canada, it smacks more as an attempt to cover up the fact that they've gotten rid of everything else. CBC is now trying to do "outreach" by bringing in a big name in the hopes that it will improve ratings for them.

They are also going to start having ads on Radio 2. What can I say? It just reminds me of that episode of the Simpsons where Lisa sees into the future and Marge is in bed and says "You know, Fox turned into a hardcore sex channel so gradually, I didn't even notice."

***.

But what do all these digressions have to do with the aforementioned article? Well, I guess I'm trying to get across the idea that there's so much more to the waning popularity of classical music than marketing. How about actually teaching kids music in schools, or making it cheap and easy to learn music in a community? 

And maybe it's going to be really bad for a while, because there's been an entire generation here in North America who have grown up in very different circumstances than I did, and it's entirely possible that for them, none of this is worth saving. But the reality is, it's not their fault, it's ours.

Perhaps this is my concern with where writers like Alex Ross point out that there are far more new music groups out there now than 30 years ago, or Lisa Hirsch suggests that there is likely no crisis in "classical" music, the one thing that is difficult to avoid is that even if there are a lot of ensembles out there, how many of those people are making any money at it, and if they are, is it anywhere near a living wage?  And if we don't teach music to kids anymore, or price it out of their range, who is going to listen to it?

I think I'll end here because this piece is bad and digressive enough as it is!

Wednesday, September 18, 2013

One Language to Rule us all!

Here's a depressing (albeit anecdotal) read.  It's about how native English speakers, who also fluently speak another language like German or Korean, have discovered that Germans or Koreans are actually insulted when an English speaker speaks to them in their native language.

As a Canadian, I have become somewhat accustomed to going to Montreal and finding it nearly impossible to speak French with anyone.  I am bilingual, having spent my entire school life in French immersion, but it's obvious that I was not brought up in Quebec, and so I've found it a challenge to speak French in Montreal.

Outside of Montreal it's a completely different story, but it used to really frustrate me to have to speak English to Quebecois who could barely do so, just because they were offended by the fact that I could speak their language, and my French was much better than their English.  This kind of suspicion, I think, is part of what's motivating the PQ's recent decision to ban religious symbols from public spaces.  But this was the mid-1990's, the height of the Separatist fervor and the 1995 referendum, and so I chalked it up to that.

As for Germany, my experience has usually been pretty positive.  People will respond to me in English when I begin speaking with them, but I usually think they are doing this as a courtesy, because when I respond again in German, they respond in German.  Most people I encountered in Germany seemed somewhat relieved that they didn't have to speak English, in part because although nearly everyone speaks it, it's easier (for all of us!) to converse in one's native tongue.  Often people seemed relieved to be able to speak German instead of English.  I might not have felt relieved, but that was my problem!

But there is a larger issue here, one that is raised in the post.  I was speaking to some Medievalist friends yesterday, and they noted that the language requirements in their department have been watered down over the years, because students are not coming to the program with much in the way of foreign languages.  We lament this, but the fact that Universities are closing down their language departments and schools no longer teach Latin means that it's quite likely, even in Canada where everyone "learns" French, to have a student population who has had no meaningful exposure to a second language, where it's messed up their brain a bit and made it soft for learning other languages.

I think this is a really big issue for those of us in the North American Humanities - it's not just that people (maybe) don't want to speak with us in anything but English when we are abroad, it's that really learning a bunch of languages, when you are a native English speaker, is a cost you do not have to bear, because you can always rely on English anyway.