balls in tubes

The children were taken into a grey room and told to sit at a round, grey table. The table was low and had small, child-sized chairs around it. From the table's centre rose a clear plastic cylinder, inaccessible and full of colourful balls: reds, greens, oranges, blues and yellows. It was so tall that even if a child had climbed onto the table and stretched out on tippy-toe they wouldn't have reached the top. One by one the children's mothers were taken out of the room by doctors, and without paper or crayons the children were left to their thoughts about plastic balls, life, death and the inevitable collapse of empires.


Tanya Tagaq and the Polaris Prize

A woman growled at me last night
gnashed and stomped and thrashed
and left my skin buzzing
all my hair alive
my heart in my throat
and when she was done I cried.

I don't know why or what for
but I felt it building while she sang
and secretly craved the release.

If I felt like lying to sound noble, I would say it was the names that did it.
Of the missing and murdered
aboriginal women
that streamed
behind her.
But I don't.

There isn't
a reason,
a thing,
my brain can attach to
to analyze.

I just cried
because of art and beauty
and a human embodying herself
and knowing where she's from
knowing knowledge of a different kind
and being fully realized

growl the fuck on.


Depending on how you want to divide a life, most of my childhood was spent in a big brick farmhouse outside Keady, Ontario; a 30 minute drive from Owen Sound. We had a barn and 200 acres and three ponds. The house also had a single story addition off one side. Maybe built as a granny flat or for the itinerant farm labour of an older era, we used it for laundry, an extra washroom and a spare bedroom.

I spent a lot of time in that bedroom, because it's where the computer was and the computer was my therapist. Not that I knew it at the time. At the time I would walk through the enclosed but unheated cement porch that connected the flat to the house, get what warmth I could from the electric baseboard heaters and boot up Minesweeper, a game where you use numbers as clues to flag hidden mines and avoid detonation. I would lose hours trying to beat previous best times at beginner and intermediate, or just try to finish at all on the expert setting.

It wasn't a real challenge though, best times were about lucky first clicks and a well set-up random board. Instead it was just about being soothed by mindless repetition. Click click click. The game was so in the moment and instantaneous that I didn't need to think about anything else. I had a goal and I had to stay focused or I would never find the 10 mines on the beginner setting in under 8 seconds. That my dad and brother moved to BC didn't matter. That the family's plan to follow was cancelled because my parents were divorcing didn't matter. That we were selling the farm and some of us were moving into Owen Sound didn't matter. That we had to give away Tara, the family dog, because city life would be absolute shit for one of the best groundhog hunters in the world didn't matter. No sadness, just focused clicking.

My feet and hands got cold in that room. I used to think I had poor circulation, and maybe I do, but I was also just sitting in a cold room away from my family at the far end of my house, only moving one finger for hours on end.

The computer wasn't just about Minesweeper, though. There were moments in my childhood when I felt our family was at the cutting edge of technology, like when we got a new computer featuring a CD ROM drive. I was 11 or thereabouts and I remember being asked out of science class at school by the librarian once to help fix one of the school's new computers. Just having a CD ROM at home imbued me with preternatural knowledge about futuretech that the adult desperately needed. I was unable to help.

Of course if you have a drive, you need some discs and amongst the two or three we had there was Encarta, Microsoft's attempt to capture the world's knowledge in one digitized encyclopaedia. When you put Encarta in the drive and closed the tray it would buzz to life and its opening screen would appear, a collage of famous images and people laid together, their borders fuzzed and melded. A few moments later an audio montage would begin, tinny and thin from the computer's speakers. I have a dream would melt into Beethoven and some drums before Inuit throat singing bled out from the ether.

I knew what it was and I knew I didn't like it. The singing scared the shit out of me and made the cold porch between me and my home yawn longer, darker and colder. Two women from far away in space and time in a sweaty fire-lit place faced one another and made these noises while an endless night full of endless white and endless dark howled outside their igloo. A child's imagination mashed with snippets of The Twilight Zone, forced to confront humanity in a raw form, humans connecting with humans unmediated. I had removed myself to this bedroom so the messy stuff, the complex interplay between people that can't be planned out ahead of time, but only experienced and responded to in real time, couldn't force itself upon me.

Although, at the time, I didn't think all that. I just thought it was creepy.


I was in Montreal a few years ago, and, dating a gardener at the time, Montreal Botanical Garden was on the itinerary. Maybe it was because of all the plants, maybe it was because I was uncomfortable in the relationship and hadn't recognized it yet, but at some point during the day I smoked too much and became very tired. Lounging on the benches while my girlfriend pilfered tobacco seeds - shhh - eventually got to be too much on a sunny day so I needed to find some shade.

The First Nations Garden is one of many sub areas in the larger complex and it is well shaded with lots of trees and has a cool, literally and figuratively, interpretation centre too. Fortunately for me and my life that was, unbeknownst to me, leading to today when I would write this blog post, there were some Inuit throat singers performing.

It was warm, there were people all around and I had nothing to fear! Also, that I was looking at the source of the singing, the singers themselves, inevitably humanized the moment. Child-me understood Inuit throat singing vaguely, as part of a hodgepodge of aboriginal spiritual beliefs. Whatever the specific practices of the different nations and peoples they were all just communing with dead ancestors and the spirit world because that's what they had always done. As I said before, sweaty faces in a fire-lit lodge, full of who knows what sinister and mysterious meaning. Whether I thought it consciously or not, my imagination led me into mental traps that understood throat singing as part of culture frozen and dead in the past, romantically removing its agency, preventing it from having any valid role to play in the present and future.

That day in Montreal, however, I could see that throat singing, like so many other kinds of performance and art, wasn't just about lost relics or ancient traditions, but about connecting with who was in front of you. Experiencing the now with whoever is there to share it. The women faced each other, holding one another's arms (although that part of the memory is a bit hazy, so apologies if that is an impossibility) and they started to sing. Back and forth, modulating and experimenting with noises and sounds, and improvising. They were coming up with stuff on the spot, playing off what they heard from the person they were facing and eventually, I realized, trying with all their might to get the other person to crack up, break the song and break out laughing. It was a moment of pure joy under the leafy green trees on a hot and sunny early September day.


A moment's research on Wikipedia tells me Inuit throat singing is generally a duet, or a performed contest between women. And, Tanya Tagaq, as a solo performer, is singled out as a non-traditional use of the form. And I'm willing to bet, incorporating a 40 person choir, drums and and electrified violin for a performance in a space originally built by the Eaton family as a restaurant in a fancy department store might also be considered "non-traditional", but fuck it all if that isn't the brilliance of life.

Ever-changing and inevitably moving forward, moment to moment, until we're all done. 


Tanya Tagaq's performance. Around 3:18:30 for the full introduction.

And as a final aside, I watched the gala in its entirety today as I was writing this and I enjoyed it. The slightly anarchic vibe is the internet stream gives off seems fun.


A car commercial

A man in the backyard of his modernist house, shorts and shirt, relaxed of a sort. Everything is rectangles and moulded concrete, the blue of the pool set off by neatly shorn grass and surrounded by a tall hedge. He appears strong, muscled, thick and broad, surveying his property and wonders, Why do we work so hard? For stuff? He talks of Europeans taking August off, August!, stopping for a leisurely café after work, enjoying life. But not America. America is hustle, and so the man moves bravely, resolutely, with solid strides.

Inside the house, more rectangles, grey, wood, space, opulence made to look like a factory perhaps. America is high-fiving your child who sits on the couch with a tablet with a sibling beside her entranced by paper of all things. America doesn't need cafés or August, just more hard work. The rest of the world is free to judge, because those idiots hate stuff and none of them were the Wright brothers, Bill Gates, Les Paul or Ali.

We're in the kitchen now, rectangles, and there's the wife with a hand off, it's a go-go household after all, and the moon. It's our moon, America's moon.

The man changes into a suit and is at his car, it's a Cadillac, it's electric and it's a just reward for hard work. "Work hard, create your own luck and you gotta believe anything is possible," except taking August off. If you think that's possible you're a fool, and probably foreign. "As for all the stuff, that's the upside of only taking two weeks off in August, n'est pas?" WINK.
The commercial is a wonder, usurping decades of anti-consumerist rhetoric and revelling in it. Stuff for the sake of stuff, owning for the sake of ownership, and being able to one up the Joneses without the slightest hint of self-consciousness. Define yourself through possession and keep striving because enough is just a rest, a chance to gather strength before launching to the next enough. Oh, and it's downright unAmerican to think otherwise.

And the ad is for an electric car of all things!

People like to buy stuff, it's undeniably fun. There are colours and smells and a sense of satisfaction, not to mention the incredibly powerful self-narratives that can grow around the regular use of the most inane household item. Try to write off consumption and you risk looking like a judgemental wiener and wrong, because the last few centuries seem to suggest it has staying power. But consumption can be depressing too, like when you're told about the environmental or social damage our desire to buy the latest cellphone might be causing. Or the unsatisfying and empty existence you find for yourself once you've climbed aboard the status treadmill (apparently it's also called the hedonic treadmill, but calling it that sounds like you were so busy not buying stuff you had to read the dictionary to fill your time).

On all fronts this commercial just says, yeah, I've heard about hedonism, isn't it great? Want to come over later? We're going to make fun of Europeans, murder August and burn it on a pyre of the stuff we don't want anymore.

That's what it says!!!

This is the point in the writing where I've said some things, really just summarized a commercial and added the bare minimum of commentary, and although I want to write more I'm going to walk away ... in just a few paragraphs, right after I make an ass (maybe?) of myself trying to extrapolate. Here goes:

The car commercials I'm used to tend to have a car driving down a pretty road, maybe there's some cool music. If there's an underlying message it's that this truck makes you a man, or fuel efficiency makes you green. Instead this ad feels like it's defending a way of life.

It's saying, remember World War II? Which we won. And the Cold War? Which we also won. Out loud it's saying, the Wright brothers, Bill Gates, Les Paul, Ali and the moon, but we know what it's really saying. The commercial is also saying, we won the wars by living the right way, working hard and buying stuff. That's how we did it then and that's how we're going to keep doing it, because we're the best! The commercial doesn't want you to stress about economic shifts, the environment, monetized politics or collapsing international relations. It wants to distract from an uncertain future by looking back and reminding people that it's all good. What we're doing is fine, don't ask.

I'm not saying all those bad things are as bad as the most ardent evangelists claim; even attempting to argue that would take at least 6 blogs. And as a person who likes the odd piece of stuff, I probably just wear the same cardigan for longer than most, I don't want to come across as judgemental. Heck, I even like the commercial and have watched it a bunch. I'm just saying, that's what it's saying.

I saw the commercial while I was visiting LA, a weird place full of delusion and cars. Everyone is going to be famous and they all just need to drive across town to an audition all the time to make that happen. To do that day after day requires the kind of gung-ho, I'm-the-best attitude this commercial exudes, and it also requires a place that won't be crushingly depressing when the dream doesn't work out on the first couple hundred days. LA might be the ultimate post-modern city, where every day is like the one before and every place is no place, and it's also a pretty great city, in part because of its weather. The light and the ocean/desert air makes everything you do in a day feel indulgent yet productive. My first three days there I napped at least an hour every afternoon and I've never felt so accomplished.

This commercial is like how LA's weather lets you deal with what might actually be a pretty pointless life. It's easy and it feels good and lets you think everything is going to work out fine. You just need to keep doing what you've been doing, working hard and taking two weeks off in August. Remember, you're the best. Sure it might be the start of a century long mega-drought, but you've been living beyond your aquatic means since forever, so who cares. The sun is shining, the surfing looks good and more stuff.

Fuck August.


I Bought You Russia

We shot this thing in October 2012. Do you remember October 2012? It was a long time ago. But the movie is finally done and now on the internet.

Just in time for Sochi!