Friday, June 26, 2009

'Twas the night before Taiwan...

It's really happening. I'm leaving the continent for the first time. I don't know why it has taken me this long; perhaps a side-effect of my upraising, or the commitment I have had to camp ministry; certainly not from a lack of opportunity. We are 5 hours into our journey and 31 away from our destination: it's a long haul, but with a huge payoff - five weeks in Taipei. We are heading to the airport in 4.5 hours to take the first leg of our flight (to San Francisco), and it has been a surprisingly smooth process so far - especially so, according to my much-travelled wife. Really, what this means is that in about 31 hours I will see the world differently and have a paradigm shift in my life. It's a disconcerting yet invigorating proposition, since I do not know how it (I) will turn out on the other side. I am excited for the experience, though I have had difficulty knowing why because it is something entirely foreign to me; my personality is such that it is difficult for me to quantify and qualify things that are new to me. Nevertheless, I am excited to change, and I am interested in seeing how I perceive my changes and how others (you!) observe the changes in me through this experience. The next time I write in this forum, I will be a changed person. That's a weird thought. But aside from the meta-quasi-existential reflections on my existence, Taiwan will be fun, and there will be great food. Yum.

Tuesday, June 23, 2009

Last day of school

And so another milestone passes silently...the last day of teaching of my first full year of teaching. (It is my second year overall, but I taught only until the end of April last year and subbed for May and June...much different.) I have been fortunate enough to have time to end well over the past week: my classroom files are organized, my grades are in, and I am a few short staff meeting days away from summer vacation. For the first time, I am not making a transition over the summer - I am not moving, switching jobs, or getting married; I am living in the same place, with the same person (obviously) returning to the same school, and teaching five of the same seven subjects, all of which fall within my training. As a result, unlike previous last days of school, today feels almost anti-climactic in a refreshing way. I have worked very hard over the past ten months, and though I have made many mistakes along the way, I have done my job with as much ability and integrity as I could have. So despite the fact that today is not a life-changing day, it is a life-affirming day, and it is good. Perhaps I will take the time to relax tonight and re-engage in one of my favourite end of school rituals from my youth - watching the 1992Tiny Toons classic How I Spent My Summer Vacation. It never gets old.

Friday, June 19, 2009

A novel idea

You know how some people can tell the state of their life by how clean their house is? I can tell from what I am reading. After a discussion with a friend recently, I decided to go through the list of books I have read since Christmas, a span of six months. Here is my list, with 22 books in all:

The Tipping Point (Malcolm Gladwell, 2000); Searching For God Knows What (Donald Miller, 2004); How Far Can We Go? (Perrault and Salkeld, 2009); Outliers (Malcolm Gladwell, 2008); Kill Your Idols (DeRogatis and Carrilloo, eds., 2004); Why We're Not Emergent (DeYoung and Kluck, 2008); Generation X (Douglas Coupland, 1991); Everything Bad Is Good For You (Steven Johnson, 2005); Your Movie Sucks (Roger Ebert, 2007); Perfect From Now On (John Sellers, 2007); Downtown Owl (Chuck Klosterman, 2008); Hiding in Plain Sight (Mark Buchanan, 2007); The Shack (William P. Young, 2007); Chuck Klosterman IV (Chuck Klosterman, 2006); Watchmen (Alan Moore, 1987); The Kraken Wakes (John Wyndham, 1953); Killing Yourself To Live (Chuck Klosterman, 2005); This Is Your Brain On Music (Daniel J. Levitin, 2006); The Know-It-All (A.J. Jacobs, 2004); The Year of Living Biblically (A.J. Jacobs, 2007); Sex, Drugs, and Cocoa Puffs (Chuck Klosterman, 2004); Soul Cravings (Erwin McManus, 2006).

Here's the breakdown: 6 on pop culture (movies, music), due mainly to my discovery of Chuck Klosterman; 6 on cultural analysis which often use pop cultural examples, 4 of which were written by either A.J. Jacobs or Malcolm Gladwell, whose writing makes me, well, glad; 6 about faith, one of which was a novel, one of which was a critical text of a cultural phenomenon, and one of which was all about sex; and 4 novels, 2 of which were sci-fi and 3 of which had significant pop culture overtones. I am pleased to observe that I have kept a pace of just under a book each week, which was one of my goals this year, but there is an interesting trend in my recent reading. The overwhelmingly obvious conclusion is that I have spent a lot of time in this culture in the past six months. Perhaps that is a derivative of my teaching social studies and focussing on the world around me; perhaps it is indicative of a pattern of what is available at the library nearest to me. Whatever the reason, I have a relative dearth of novels in the past six months, particularly of the "classic" kind. I need to address this problem over the summer, so I think I will set a goal for myself; for each non-fiction book I read, which have tended to come from the realm of (pop) culture analysis or faith recently, I will try to read a novel. They may not be long novels - I have a stack of about ten short classic sci-fi novels by authors like John Wyndham, J.G. Ballard, and Richard Matheson waiting for me - but they must be novels. My plan is to start with Joseph Heller's Catch-22 and to decide where to go from there. I am also hoping to get at least one new Shakespeare play read over the summer - perhaps King Lear, the most gaping hole in my reading of the Bard. Any suggestions for good summer reading?

Monday, June 15, 2009

Back on the Sunset Strip

We just finished watching through the one and only season of the 2006-2007 Aaron Sorkin show Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip. I watched it in its original season and lamented its early demise, so I was glad to relive many of my favourite moments from the series: the Matt-Danny bromance; the Christmas episode; Nevada Day; the Disaster Show. At times, the show did become slightly self-involved (as Sorkin's work tends to on occasion), and it did descend into schmaltz and romantic nonsense on occasion, but for the most part, it was a witty, fast-paced, exciting ride. The show may have, in fact, been too witty for its own good; sly references to Molière, Rinsberg, and Dalton Trumbo may have placed them firmly outside of the realm of most viewers. (As an aside, in looking through my blog archives, I found a link to this flowchart that comically outlines this problem.) I think the biggest problem of the show is that it did not earn its audience, and it became an easy target for critics since it was failing. Some critics went so far as to pronounce it the "worst new drama" of that year; it was not the best, but it certainly was not the worst. It was also subject to a glut of other new programs on the same network - including Heroes, Friday Night Lights, 30 Rock - all of which achieved a level of commercial or critical success that Studio 60 did not match. Had it been released a year earlier - or a year later, when it could have dealt with the impending writer's strike - it might have found an audience; similarly, had it been shelved at mid-season, allowed to find an audience on DVD, and started up with a second season in the fall, it may have survived. We were fortunate to have as many episodes as we did, though the budget-cutting was evident in the last few episodes - several of which were written to be absent key members of the cast or were written with limited sets in mind. Short-lived though it was, and though it certainly had many more stories to tell, Studio 60 provided some great laughs, some poignant moments, some interesting reflections on the nature of entertainment, a window into the minds behind a sketch comedy show, and a great bromance; what else can you ask for?

Thursday, June 11, 2009

Mini-reviews: Alternative rock edition

The Decemberists, The Hazards of Love - The alt-folk-pseudo-funk-pre-metal-goth-rock-over-hyphenated-college-rock-favourites The Decemberists are back with a new album. This album deals with the saga of a woman named Margaret and people in her life. It is an exercise in determining perspective, but singer Colin Meloy usually makes it clear which voice he is using. The album uses motifs to represent each character, and it is a musically interesting journey. The Decemberists may be over-hyphenated, but they're not over-hyped. One of my favourite albums of the year.

As Cities Burn, Hell or High Water - ACB started as a hardcore act with the occasional acoustic song; they moved to be more introspective with their sophomore release, Come Now, Sleep, which emphasized their softer side while still retaining hardcore elements. Their third release has stripped away almost all instrumentation; the result is an intensely personal album that loses all pretense and comes across as honest and open. Hell or High Water showcases the band's songwriting ability, and rightfully so - songs have always been their strength, and that talent transcends genre. Hell or High Water is a very well-written and performed album, and it is fast becoming a personal favourite for the year.

mewithoutYou, It's All Crazy! It's All False! It's All A Dream! It's Alright - mewithoutYou have always pushed boundaries and perceptions, and Aaron Weiss can be just strange at times, so it should come as no surprise that the band's most recent album continues to stretch listeners. The sound is more toned down from previous efforts - less "angsty", if you will - but the format is still there: Weiss' talk-singing recitatif overlaying the spastic yet intense instrumentation of the band. The unique combination works yet again, and Weiss' poetry is the better for it. On this album, he has drawn inspiration from the Psalms and the writings of a Sufi mystic; if that seems odd, it is, but Weiss makes it work, and makes his faith and his roots evident. Some cynics might see a closing song named "Allah, Allah, Allah" as an oxymoron for a supposedly "Christian" band, but the message is clear: God (by whichever name you call Him) works in everything and everyone, including bands like mewithoutYou. This is rumoured to be their final release, which would be disappointing, as it is among their best work.

Monday, June 08, 2009

Outliers

I just finished reading Malcolm Gladwell's most recent book, Outliers, in which he uses case studies to prove his thesis about success: the myth of the self-made man pulling himself up by his bootstraps is, well, a myth. He uses myriad examples to make his point, including Korean pilots, southern gentlemen, Jewish lawyers in New York, software billionaires, Canadian hockey players, grade 5 students in the Bronx, and his own family history; each point is slightly different, but it all comes down to one fact: success for "outliers" - people outside the norm - is a predictable product of a combination of skill (which is often a product of...), hard work, and circumstance, whether time, place, or cultural background. It is a fascinating read, and it made me wonder about the factors that have influenced my success. For example, if I were to become a successful writer (or well-known blogger), it could well be argued that one of the reasons I was able to achieve that level of success was because of the time in which I was born - the early 1980s. I turned 17 at the turn of the century, the time when most areas of Saskatchewan got high-speed internet, and access to tools for writing became much easier. If I had been born a few years earlier, I may have already been moving on a different career path; a few years later, I may not have been able to use the tools appropriately or been an early-enough adopter to warrant attention. Similarly, my birth year and possible career location may result in heightened opportunities for me in the field of education. In theory, most baby boomers will be retiring between 2015 and 2030. Many boomers have been serving in positions of authority in school divisions in Saskatchewan since 1990, and teachers have been waiting for them to get out of the system. The time when I am most likely to pursue a further career in education - likely as an administrator - is somewhere in my mid-30s to mid-40s, which should line up perfectly with the end of the employment of the boom. When the cultural traits of the previous generation, Gen X, are factored in (a distrust of authority and lack of willingness to look toward others as compared to the millennials), it is possible that I will be set up perfectly to become an administrator in Saskatchewan in fifteen to twenty years. My possible success would be directly linked to my age and location. It could also be argued that my focus on academics might in part be a product of my dad's back injury. Had he not injured himself when I was six, I may have pursued more athletics and taken a different path in life. It's a question that will really only be able to be answered when I achieve some level of recognizable success (though being married and having a permanent teaching position is certainly the beginning of success), and I am glad that Gladwell has made me think about it.

Wednesday, June 03, 2009

Kill your idols

I am currently finishing a collection of essays entitled Kill Your Idols, in which the authors seek to dismantle the culture of praise feigned on famous albums by rock critics. The collection starts with the Beatles (Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band, and proceeds to rip through many of the most famous albums of the past forty years: Beach Boys' Pet Sounds, the Rolling Stones' Exile on Main St., The Who's Tommy, U2's The Joshua Tree, Nirvana's Nevermind, Radiohead's OK Computer, and the most recent entry, Wilco's Yankee Hotel Foxtrot. It's a valuable exercise, as editors Jim DeRogatis and Carmél Carrillo have sought to include a wide variety of styles and opinions, including many points of view that would seem to conflict with one another (ie essayists who would disagree with other essays). The book has made me consider my perspective on the accepted rock canon, and how some of these albums have achieved an almost mythical status because of the influence of a small group of writers. After reading this book, I was inspired to think about some of the accepted members of this canon, and I decided to make a list of the artists I just don't "get". I understand that they have an appeal and there has been a cultural impact, but I just don't get the whole cult that surrounds the artist. Here are my top 3, right now.

1. Bruce Springsteen. Maybe it's because I'm not American, but I've never really understood the appeal of the Boss. I like some of his work - 1982's Nebraska has some great songs - but most of what I know is cheesy horn-driven power pop that splashes itself with "good ol' boy" patriotism. He put on a great set at the Super Bowl, but I just don't get him.

2. The Rolling Stones. I know that the whole "British bad boy" image propelled them through the 60s, and that they have crafted some of the most recognizable and popular three-chord rock progressions to come from the 1960s and 1970s. But they haven't written many (any?) great songs in almost thirty years, and they're still going. I don't even really understand the appeal of the reeling Jagger swagger or the semi-conscious burn-out guitar of Keith Richards.

3. Arcade Fire. I have a few friends who are absolutely obsessed with Win Butler and company, and I tried to listen to them. I tried. And it didn't stick. Funeral was a bit of a mish-mash of mostly unidentifiable songs, and Neon Bible's faux 80s sound did not lend itself to memorable hooks.

Monday, June 01, 2009

Review: Up

The prognosticators were unsure of the possibility of success for Pixar's new feature, Up. They thought that Pixar might have lost its way, and that despite immense commercial and critical success that perhaps the animation studio had finally gone too far. I wrote a blog post about this in April, in which I predicted that Up would continue the success of Pixar, and that these prognosticators would be proven wrong. I'm glad to say that I was right. Not only has Up had a significant opening, but most of the major critics have given the film perfect or close to perfect scores. And I'm glad to agree with them. With Up, director and writer Pete Docter has given us a tale for the ages, and he has again expanded our imaginations.
Up tells the tale of Carl Fredericksen, a grizzled 78-year-old codger (appropriately voiced by the gravelly Ed Asner) and his journey to Paradise Falls, Venezuela, in which he intends to honour his deceased wife, Ellie. Along the way, he grudgingly collects some travelling companions - a 9-year-old Wilderness Explorer named Russell, a talking dog named Dug, and an exotic beast named Kevin. If it sounds unbelievable, it is, especially because they make the journey in Carl's house, which is suspended by thousands of helium balloons.
The film is visually stunning, from the house flying through the skies to the visuals of Paradise Falls to the inside of a 1930s airship. But the film is also hilarious, as the presences of Russell and Dug provide both intentional and incidental comedy.
But the film is really about relationship: Carl and Russell, Carl and Ellie, Russell and Kevin and Dug. Carl also has to face his beliefs about his hero, and he has to sort out what he believes about his life's purpose and direction. Though the relationship between Carl and Russell is ostensibly the film's centerpiece, the most poignant relationship is between Carl and his wife, Ellie. The film spends time showing their relationship from onset to finale, and Ellie is a constant presence throughout the film. I think it would take a steely composure to not be at least a little teary-eyed at several points during the film.
Up is a great film - perhaps Pixar's best - a visually and emotionally compelling tale of a man, a boy, a dog, and a tropical bird. It is a must-see film - just bring a handkerchief.

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