Monday, November 30, 2009

Being sick sucks

There is almost nothing worse as a teacher than being sick; it's so much more work to be sick than to go in and teach. In the midst of your illness, you have to come up with activities that your class can do that you are not needed for and explain to someone else how you want them done. This often means not getting the full rest you need, since a significant portion of your time is spent working from home. Then, when you return, which is often not at 100% anyway, you have to spend time reviewing information and catching up on the time you've lost. It's no wonder that many teachers get sick during the breaks in the school year; we don't have time to get sick while school is in session. This is now my third extended illness in my internship and first three years of teaching. They have happened at different times - mid-October, late November, mid-December - but the circumstances are much the same, likely demonstrating that my body just needs some rest. In my first year, I missed an entire week due to some mystery illness that different doctors could not diagnose and tried to solve by prescribing several medications. I was back at work for a week before I was back to full capacity, and that included resting from everything else in my life. This time, my mystery illness has morphed from a cold-sinus-head thing to a throat thing to a generally icky and weak feeling. I'm not vomiting-sick, but I'm certainly not good enough to go back to work. It's one of those illnesses that a doctor would not know what to do with except to say to get rest and drink fluids. And although I have been trying to rest by watching some TV, much of time I have spent at home in the past three days has been focussed on preparing materials for a substitute. So the cycle continues, until I'm good enough to get back to work; even then, I'll probably take another week to get back to full speed. I hate being sick.

Sunday, November 29, 2009

13th Man heartbreak

The Riders experienced a new level of losing today. After dominating the highly favoured Alouettes for three quarters, they succumbed to pressure in the fourth and put the Als in place to win it, only two points behind. And then, with a miss on the game-winning field goal by Montreal's Damon Duval, the Riders took the worst penalty possible: too many men on the field. Duval did not miss the re-kick, and out of the jaws of victory came crushing defeat. I'm still stunned hours later. I don't remember many times when I've experienced such a devastating loss. I barely remember the Kings beating the Leafs in Game 7 of the 1993 Western Conference Finals, and all of the other Leaf losses were not this disheartening. The Riders were blown out in the 1997 Grey Cup, and for most of my life have not been in position to win. Perhaps the only comparable feeling was in the 2003 Western Final, when Riders kicker Paul McCallum missed a 17-yard chip shot field goal that would have put the Riders in the Grey Cup. But to lose on the last play of the championship game by your own undoing is the worst way to lose possible. But I am still very proud of the Riders and what they accomplished this year: they established winning as a habit rather than a happenstance, and they were transformed into one of the top teams in the CFL. It is the beginning of a legacy, and they will want it even more next year. Until then, I can find some small solace in the cosmic irony that the "13th man" - a moniker attached to the overzealous Rider fans who have consistently caused problems for opponents all year - ended up being their undoing in a literal sense. Thanks for a great season, boys; you can finish the job next year.

Thursday, November 26, 2009

Blasts from the past

I have had the good fortune in the last week to have had several unexpected re-acquaintances on Facebook. Not the "hey, I haven't talked to this person in a little while, and I'm glad I can keep in touch with them online" kind - the "where did this come from - I haven't talked to you since Grade 7" kind. It's really interesting reconnecting with people after so long; I had almost thought that in the internet age it was not possible for this kind of interaction to happen, but I was wrong. It has made me think about how we share memories, and how memories of people are formed in community; for some of these people, the last thing they heard of me was 7, or 10, or 15 years ago, and that perception of me then still influences how they see me now. The funny thing is that as much as sometimes I think I have changed, I know there's a lot to me that's the same, and it's very interesting to engage on a familiar level with people who aren't really familiar with "me", even though they know "me". The whole construction of "me" is really making me think particularly about my online identity and how people see me with their predispositions from the past. And I know this kind of deconstruction and self-analysis will continue in the next eight or so months leading up to my 10-year reunion, including the odd coincidence that the first graduation for a school at which I am employed at the time of graduation will be exactly ten years - to the day - after my own high school graduation. It's all making me very reflective, and it's a lot of fun to have these blasts from the past entering my present - just as I know will happen in my future with my students. "Hey, remember me?" That's when I'll be glad to have a near person-perfect memory.

Tuesday, November 24, 2009

Green is the colour

The Roughriders are going to the Grey Cup! For the second time in three years! This is completely uncharted territory for any fan born since 1976, the end of the last great Riders team. In the past three-plus decades, most of the team's success has come unexpectedly and without precedent or antecedent; in fact, most of the past three decades has been spent by Rider fans remembering Robo-kicker in the 1989 Grey Cup. But what is interesting about the team now is that success is not a strange idea; on the contrary, it is coming to be expected. For the first time I can remember, I have been confident from the beginning of the season that the Riders would make the Grey Cup, and that they were one of the best teams in the league. Even in 2007, there was not the same anticipation for victory - at least, until Winnipeg QB Kevin Glenn was injured before the big game; even then, the doomsayers in Saskatchewan still expected the worst. Despite the recent win, this current team is not really connected to that one: aside from the offensive line, most of the team's key positions have changed, including the entire receiving corps and starting quarterback. This team is young, but they play like veterans and they expect to win - and do not underestimate the power of the Canadian contingent on the team, who have dreamed of winning a Grey Cup since their peewee football days. It's mindboggling that this team is primarily under the age of 27, which may mean that this year is the beginning of a Rider dynasty, in which victory is expected rather than fortunate happenstance. I obviously hope that the Green and White win on Sunday, but I will understand if they don't, up against a veteran Montreal team. But should they lose, it will make the Riders even hungrier to win next year. Either way, the 97th Grey Cup is going to be a great game, and I am particularly excited about seeing the "Sea of Green" in Calgary. Go Riders!

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

My biggest musical gaps

I tend to try to be as complete as I can when I decide to investigate an artist. I will often listen to an entire discography to get a sense of the artist's strengths (and limitations), going back to debut albums and early EPs. If an artist captures my attention, I work at trying to assemble their entire catalogue - including rare or limited edition songs (at least digital versions). Unfortunately, there are far too many artists for me to follow fully, and I have some gaps in my collection. This is partially due to the fact that some of my years with my greatest buying power (2001-2004) were devoted to the Christian music scene...why oh why did I ever think Kutless was the pinnacle of music? But I digress. Of course, I am one of those silly antiquated people who like buying physical discs, and I don't agree with the practice of downloading music without paying for it. So here is my list for the day: the artists for whom I should own albums (or in some cases, more albums) and who I am rightfully embarassed not to. The constituents of my top category are especially egregious for a self-professed elitist such as myself, so without further adieu...

Category E: The hardcore hang-ons. Much of the music I listened to for the first half of the decade was hard rock and hardcore - "loud angry music". My tastes have diversified, which is why I own only one album each by As I Lay Dying and Killswitch Engage, despite the fact that I love what they do musically and lyrically.

Category D: The indie-rock latecomers. It has only been in the past five or so years that my tastes have begun to encompass more indie-alternative-rock, so each of these artists are sparsely represented in my collection.
The National - granted, I only discovered them in 2007 (along with the rest of the world), but their previous material is so good that I should own it (especially Alligator.
The Decemberists - another group I had let go under the radar until this year's The Hazards of Love. It's really a shame that I don't own The Crane Wife, one of the best albums of the decade.
Copeland - I own their most commercially successful album - 2005's In Motion, but they have three other studio albums and a collection of b-sides that I don't own.

Category C: The folk-pop troubadours. My dalliance with folk (or folk-pop) is even less short-lived than my affair with indie-alternative, but I should still own albums by these artists.
Feist - The Canadian songstress has only two albums, but they're both so good that I should own them.
Iron & Wine - Sam Beam has a great charm about his music. I don't know why I don't own any of it.
Sufjan Stevens - Sure, I own Illinois and The Avalanche, but that's only a start to experiencing his work.

Category B: The alternative all-stars. Bands with completely unique sounds that are completely missing from my music.
Sigur Ros - 2005's Takk was hopeful, mournful, reflective, and yearning; and 2008's With A Buzz... (English title) is perfectly poppy.
mewithoutYou - Aaron Weiss is weird, and I love it. Four albums, and I own none. I am the worse for this.
The White Stripes - Jack and Meg have been doing their thing for a decade now, and I still don't even own Elephant.

Category A: The unforgiveables. This is like not having watched The Godfather. Which I still haven't. Dang.
Beach Boys - I can't believe I don't own any Beach Boys. Not even a Greatest Hits. Neither do I own Smile. I'm ashamed.
Simon and Garfunkel - So many to choose from. Just not in my collection. Although I did own Graceland on tape for a while - that should count for something.
Bob Dylan - I have really grown to enjoy Bob's work. I just always pass on purchasing his albums, even when they're cheap. I don't really know why.

There you have it: proof that I cannot yet be a true elitist. Of course, all that I need to overcome this problem is time, money, and a liberal attitude toward copyright law. Too bad I'll have to work through this the hard way; but Christmas and my birthday are coming up soon...

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Reviews: Switchfoot and Relient K

As I have been listening to the most recent releases from Switchfoot (Hello Hurricane) and Relient K (Forget and Not Slow Down), it has struck me how similar the two bands really are. Consider the following facts:
Both bands have a similar career length and output in albums (Relient K has fewer albums, but more EPs). The primary song writers for each band (Jon Foreman and Matthew Thiessen respectively) are well-respected, and have each had some success with side projects. Both bands have a very devoted fanbase in the Christian music scene, but they have also had mainstream crossover success on a major label with a breakout album - Switchfoot's The Beautiful Letdown in 2003 and Relient K's mmhmm in 2004 - only to now again pursue distribution on a smaller label with more direct input. And both bands are operating at a high level several years after that breakthrough (the fourth album for each), though still not equalling its commercial or critical success. Let's break the new albums down more.

Switchfoot, Hello Hurricane: The seventh studio release from the San Diego quintet finds the group in a familiar yet foreign position. Their deal with Columbia expired with 2006's commerically disappointing Oh, Gravity!, and they have spent three years figuring out the next step. In the meantime, lead singer Jon Foreman recorded and released four introspective EPs centred around the seasons, as well as a side project called Fiction Family with Sean Watkins of Nickel Creek, and the band gathered itself for a new chapter. Hello Hurricane seemed that it would be the proof of who Switchfoot is, and whether they were on the downside of their career or not. The album does clearly present the identity of the band, but its limitations are also clear. Switchfoot, without a huge change in their lives, is what it will be; fortunately, it is mostly for the better and not the worse. In true 'Foot fashion, the album gravitates between uptempo pop-rock tracks ("Needle and Haystack Life", "Hello Hurricane"), hard-edged rock tracks (lead single "Mess of Me", "Free", "Bullet Soul", "The Sound") and reflective slower ballads ("Always", "Enough To Let Me Go"). It is a balance that is immediately familiar to fans of the band, as it has been reflected on their last six albums, but there does seem to be a renewed sense of identity in this album: when Foreman emphatically declares that "this is the sound" (ironically, perhaps, as a follow-up to 2005's Nothing Is Sound)), he seems to believe it. I do see a parallel to Bono's encouragements for the listener to meet him in the sound on No Line on the Horizon, and judging from Switchfoot's history (referencing Rattle and Hum in "Gone"), it may be an intentional nod to their musical aspirations. There are a few songs here with gravitas (particularly "Always", "Bullet Soul" - which features some almost-screams from Foreman - and "Enough To Let Me Go"), and the songs all fit easily into the Switchfoot canon while still maintaining an identity as an album. Hello Hurricane is a worthy addition to Switchfoot's work, and a good album; it's not great, but it does not need to be - it is what it is, and maybe Foreman's best work can now be featured elsewhere.

Relient K, Forget and Not Slow Down: The upstart pop-punkers have now become older and wiser, and they are settling into musical middle age well. In the past decade, Thiessen and company have moved from comic teen angst ("My Girlfriend") and comic goofiness ("I'm Lion-O") through the loss and gain of love to this album: a occasionally silly, sometimes somber reflection on life in the midst of living. It is one of the band's most well-paced albums, with instrumental intros and outros serving as spaces between several tracks, and it seems that they have "grown up" as a band. It should be no surprise that the band members are mostly now in their late twenties, and their lives are settling down; so their music seems to have settled into a comfortable pattern. They are not stale by any means; they are simply confident in who they are and what they are doing, much like their real-life friends in Switchfoot. This new album includes much of the same kind of uptempo music and wordplay as former efforts, with some standout tracks ("I Don't Need A Soul" and "Therapy"). It is a solid addition to RK's collection, and a fun and meaningful album. Like Switchfoot, RK is at a point in their career when they are consistently producing music at a high level, and sometimes it can be difficult to find the value in that.

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Coens: the collaborators

The Coens are known for their use of certain actors in their films over and over again. Many actors have risen to prominence simply through their involvement with the Coens. Here are my favourite Coen collaborators:

5. Jon Polito (Miller's Crossing, Barton Fink, The Hudsucker Proxy, The Big Lebowski, The Man Who Wasn't There): Polito has become the epitome of the greasy gruff-voiced little man. He comes and goes in small roles, but he is always memorable. When the Coens allow him to run the show in Miller's Crossing, he demands attention. One of the best cameo experts out there.
Best role: Johnny Caspar, Miller's Crossing

4. Frances McDormand (Blood Simple, Raising Arizona, Miller's Crossing, Fargo, The Man Who Wasn't There, Burn After Reading): Joel's wife has proven repeatedly that she can do drama and comedy. She has some of the best facial expressions of any working actress, and she is very versatile.
Best role: Marge Gunderson, Fargo

3. Steve Buscemi (Miller's Crossing, Barton Fink, The Hudsucker Proxy, Fargo, The Big Lebowski, Paris je t'aime): Buscemi owes his career to the Coens; without them, he may not have been part of Tarantino's Reservoir Dogs...and then he'd be just another "hey it's that guy!" guys. He looks like someone you might meet on the street, but whose neuroses should keep you away. He is still a comic genius - even when he's not allowed to say anything.
Best role: Carl Showalter, Fargo

2. John Goodman (Raising Arizona, Barton Fink, The Big Lebowski, O Brother, Where Art Thou?): The thundering Goodman is a powerful presence, and he commands attention when he appears in a film. Sobchak is still one of the greatest characters not only in a Coen film, but in comedy in general in recent memory. No one can take charge of a room - and a movie - like Goodman. I'm looking forward to their next collaboration.
Best role: Walter Sobchak, The Big Lebowski

1. John Turturro (Miller's Crossing, Barton Fink, The Big Lebowski and O Brother, Where Art Thou?): Turturro's ability to blend in and simultaneously create unique characters is mesmerizing. He tends to err on the side of the neurotic, but then a character like Jesus Quintana comes out of nowhere. And I can even forgive him for his involvement in Transformers, as long as it helps him afford to keep making movies with the Coens.
Best role: Barton Fink, Barton Fink

Saturday, November 07, 2009

Review: The Men Who Stare At Goats

The idea seems absurd: that the U.S. Military used paranormal research to develop psychic spies near the end of the Cold War. But the viewer is warned that "more of this is true than you would believe", setting up the tension that occasionally awkwardly presents itself in this war-farce-comedy-drama.
Rookie director Grant Heslov's adaptation of journalist Jon Ronson's book about the U.S. Army's foray into psychic research is certainly far-fetched: the idea that a developed nation would seek to create "Jedi warrior monks" who could phase through walls, psychically find war criminals, and telekinetically kill goats is ridiculous, but it's just believable enough to be true. Heslov plays on this tension at the fringes of human ability and consciousness throughout the film, as the revelations of the activities of the "New Earth Army" become stranger and yet paradoxically more believable.
The cast has been one of the selling points in advertising, and is certainly the one of the strengths of the film. George Clooney deadpans his way through explaining his psychic powers; Jeff Bridges channels his inner hippie and imagines what The Dude might have been like if he had gone to Iraq; Kevin Spacey sneers and menaces his way under an unfortunate mustache in an underused role; and Ewan MacGregor is unfortunately underused as the protagonist reporter, Bob Wilton. It's not entirely MacGregor's fault, though; Heslov uses a tried and tired device, a reporter who discovers bit by bit that this department of the army exists.
The story is slightly disjointed, switching from a narrative in 2003 Iraq to flashbacks that tell the story of the New Earth Army from its inception in 1980. "Project Jedi" begins hopefully enough by ex-Vietnam Vet Bill Django (Bridges), a convert to new age philosophy, and experiences some early success with top psychic Lyn Cassady (Clooney). Unfortunately, Django's vision of a peaceful force intended to prevent war is soon manipulated by an opportunistic officer named Larry Hooper (Spacey), and the lament and final conflict of the film are set. As expected, the stories of all of these characters again intersect in the film's final act, which also demonstrates the intersection of the fantastical and real.
The film works best when it is firmly tongue-in-cheek, particularly in the early flashback sequences. There are several hilarious moments, and Clooney's deadpan and Bridges' overaccepting of the premise are necessary to the success of these flashbacks. But these moments are bookended by uncomfortable brushes with reality: kidnappers in Iraq; rival American security companies competing for Iraqi dollars using guerilla tactics; examples of musical psychological torture used in Guantanamo and Abu Ghraib. It is clear that Heslov is trying to bring the point to the viewer about what happens when "psychic" become "psychological", but the tension does not always do justice to the current reality. This is not Good Morning Vietnam or Full Metal Jacket; the real is not quite real enough here, and not treated with the same respect as it is in those films. Some of the laughs in Goats are more nervous than hilarious. It may have worked more effectively to not bring the story into the "present" (ie. Iraq); but a simple narrative may also not have worked (like Charlie Wilson's War). Heslov's attempt to have a satirical examination of war, with an awareness of social conscience, does not always work, but it does also make its point.
With that all said, The Men Who Stare At Goats is a very funny movie, and it does have a sense of purpose. It asks questions about themes of belief, faith, identity, and meaning, and it never gets too preachy or uncomfortable. Perhaps that sense of discomfort is supposed to be there, and that is where the movie finds its success; but perhaps, like its titular animals, we are not quite sure what to think and we should just follow the herd. The movie is both too ironic and not ironic enough, and I think in that tension it just might find its success.

Wednesday, November 04, 2009

I remember...

I remember cutting out poppies from red, green, and black construction paper in primary school. I remember hearing the Last Post every year and feeling the notes seep into my soul. I remember asking the teacher organizing the service if I could be one of the emcees when I was in Grade 11 simply because I wanted to be a part of the culture of honour in Remembrance Day. It is perhaps one of the most meaningful observations on the calendar for me, and it disturbs me more and more each year how much November 11 is encroached upon by the crass commercialism of Christmas and the tatters of Halloween. It is not just a day off; it is a day for reflection, and solemnity, and honouring those who have made it possible for us to live as we do. I remember being assigned to do the Remembrance Day service in my first year of teaching; I was incredibly nervous. I was not sure how to do it well, and the staff was full of teachers near retirement; why me? I guided my class through it, and I was relieved when one of the last-year teachers came to me and said, "Well done, Turner." I remember being offended that my school did not do a Remembrance Day program last year; I did not find out in time to change it. So this year I have again taken on the task of planning the service. It is a new challenge in a K-12 school to make it meaningful for as many people as possible. Our service will be traditional, but appropriate; something to build on for next year, I suppose. The most important part is that we will remember, together.

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