Thursday, November 27, 2008

the most blunderful time of the year...

The countdown is on. One day left to this week; three days left next week, and minimal teaching all around. (Minimal teaching, of course, means maximal marking. Bah humbug to that.) I'm always ground down this time of year; I let my job be more stressful than it should be, and I am so effing ready for a break I can taste it. I went to bed at 11 p.m. last night, and woke up around 7:30 this morning. It's now 4 in the afternoon, and I am exhausted. There's nothing left in this tank. Just air.

(As an illustration of my point, I just paused from writing this scintillating rumination on my life to go pick up some stuff from the print room here. Apparently, you actually need to send documents to the printer before they will be printed off. Where the heck is my telepathic printer?)

Don't get me wrong. I like my job. But I'm ready for a break right now. I'm ready for comfy clothes and healthy food that doesn't cost an arm and a leg, and time spent with a cat who has no sense of entitlement except when it comes to the Boyfriend's computer chair. I don't want to read more essays that misinterpret both texts and questions. I don't want to be as tired and frustrated as I am right now.

I'm hoping the quick trip home this weekend will refresh me. If not, maybe I will just sleep for the whole month of December.

Tuesday, November 25, 2008

Goodbye, yellow brick road...

I have lead a life that been largely untouched by death. In 27 years, I have lost only three family members, and no friends. Today changed that. A friend of mine went out for a run last night, had a heart attack, and died, at the age of 44 years.

I've known John for about four years now. We met at The Historic Site Which Shall Not Be Named, where he was working part time while teaching. I was working on my MA thesis project at the time, which he was quite interested in, as his background was in history. He shared my love for North Bay Rock City, having also attended Nipissing for the Bachelor of Education program. Our paths would cross at work several times over the next couple of months, and we grew to be friends outside of work as well.

John was always up for a good time. He loved to grab a pint at Cellarman's, or to stop by other people's houses, or welcome us into his home. The Possum Lounge, his cool, drafty attic, was a wonderful place to hang out, full of hockey memorabilia and souvenirs of John's life. He loved music, as well, recording and releasing his first CD, Highway 401 Tonight, this past year.

John had a very generous and kind heart. When I lost my first teaching job two years ago after the board restructured, he went out of his way to offer me supply days in his kindergarten classroom. Oh yeah--that's also the kind of guy that John was: the kind of guy who was quite happy to teach in the primary stream. When I went into his classroom, it was very apparent how much his students just adored him, ahnd with good reason: he made up songs just for them, and created a strong, nurturing class environment. I can't even imagine how his little ones are going to deal with this.

I think what makes this so hard to understand and to accept (aside from the part where I just plain don't know how to deal with it) is that John was at the peak of his existence. And sure, it's a cliche to say that someone "was taken to soon" or anything along those lines, but it does actually apply here. A few months ago, John met a woman and fell hard for her. They had just purchased a house together, and given their housewarming party four days ago. I saw them at the Historic Site over Thanskgiving, and their happiness was so complete that it was almost tangible. My heart breaks every time I think about what she is going through now.

How terrible to be taken away from this world just as everything comes together. It is difficult not be saddened by all the missed opportunities; the unfulfilled potential; the memories. But at the same time, I can't help but think--at least he was happy.

Take care, John. I hope you know how much your friendship meant to me.

Tuesday, November 11, 2008

Gears of War: 90 years since Armistice

"But it's not 'Lest We Forget', it's 'Lest We Remember.'"
--Alan Bennett, The History Boys

I'm a big fan of Alan Bennett's The History Boys, though sadly I have yet to see a stage production of it. For me, one of the most intriguing scenes in the movie deals with Irwin, the teacher, attempting to teach the boys about how the first and second World Wars fit into their views of history. The quotation above sticks in my mind for a variety of reasons, not least of which is that I am currently very interested in how we choose to commemorate and remember our dead.

My maternal great-grandfather fought in WWI; my paternal grandfather participated in WWII as a Royal Engineer, and saw action in both the European and Pacific theatres. Both were fortunate enough to survive. I do not take war lightly; I do not take lightly the sacrifices made, nor the people who are overseas right now--no matter how much I disagree with our role in Afghanistan. That said, I'm really unimpressed with a commercial put together by the Royal Canadian Mint to commemorate this year's Remembrance Day. The commercial in question is below:

This commercial bothers me because it approaches war from the perspective of a first person shooter video game, like Wolfenstein or Halo. War video games have always made me uncomfortable: I feel that they trivialize the sacrifices made by those fought and those who died. They simplify history into the lowest common denominator of GOOD (us) vs. BAD (them), and remove the humanity from history. Battles that real people fought in become simply obstacles to be defeated; levels to be conquered. There is no humanity in it anymore: it is simply entertainment and cinematics.

(I am aware of the various counterarguments here--movies as entertainment/glorification of war/propaganda; no real difference from non-war first person shooters; etc., but I will simply remind you that when watching a movie, or playing Halo, there is an additional level of fiction built in. You don't have to kill anyone simply watching Saving Private Ryan, and you don't have to kill anyone human in an FPS, which makes it much easier to disassociate yourself.)

Obviously, the Mint has chosen to portray this ad in this way for a particualr reason: they think it will appeal to a different audience. And to an extent, I think they're right--I was sure this was an ad for a video game, since it apes the conventions of video game trailers most expertly. The implied message, though, is what makes me so uncomfortable. In the video game world, war is a finite series of combats that have an infinite number of 'do overs' and 'save points'. If you die, well, just start over! If you stick to it long enough, by Geroge, you'll eventually beat the whole thing! And then you can put the CD back in its case, and leave it on a shelf, and forget all about it. There is no real sacrifice--not by the soldiers, not by those living in the war zone, not by those left at home. The actions of the gamer have no real consequences--unlike the soldier's. Even more than that, there is no aftermath. The war simply ends when you take out the game. There are no war reparations, no post traumatic stress disorder, and no real cost involved.

What a sad statement it is on us, that we have to interest people in remembrance in this way.

Wednesday, November 05, 2008

American Politics Through Canadian Eyes

I'm a pretty staunch Canadian nationalist, and I've spent a good portion of my life convincing myself that I don't care at all about what happens in the States. Obviously, as I've gotten older and my worldview has developed, I've realized how foolish that is, and I followed the 2008 presidential race pretty closely for someone who didn't even get to cast a ballot.

Canada just came through an election that few wanted, to the tune of $300 million, and it has been fascinating to contrast that process with what I've seen unfold in the US. We were sluggish and apathetic, lacking leadership in a time where it could have made all the difference. The status quo remains here. The Americans, by contrast, are fiery and energized. People care. Voter turn out was awesome, inspite of a million difficulties.

And Barack Obama was elected.

I watched the election coverage by myself, knitting away on a toddler sweater. The first few hours were so tense for me that I had to keep changing the channel every few minutes (perhaps CNN's Election Night in America music had something to do with this) but as more and more states went blue, I was able to relax and just enjoy. At 11 p.m., when CNN declared for Obama, I lost it. I cried. Watching the reactions of everyone gathered in Chicago, and in the studio, and in Ebenezer Baptist Church was truly awe inspiring.

John McCain's concession speech was very classy. I know some have expressed the idea that it was written by someone else, and not necessarily something he believed, but I think he did an excellent job of selling it. He behaved very graciously and spoke very eloquently. (Just out of curiosity, does his voice remind anyone else of Andy Rooney's?)

Obama's speech had me tearing up again. It served to showcase all of his best qualities, and again, watching the crowd's response to him was as heartwarming as actually watching him. I'm so happy his daughters get a puppy. His story about 106 year old Ann Nixon Cooper was especially strong. It is easier to believe in the future now. I have hope.

One of my more politically inclined friends told me a few months ago that Stephen Harper timed his election to avoid being conflated with the American election, in fear that an Obama victory might turn the tide against the Conservative Party here in Canada, and I have to say that I think he's probably right about that. (So, unfortunately, was Stephen Harper--I don't think Obama's victory would have done anything good for his party.)

Here's to the future, everyone. Regardless of your politics, let us believe that things can only get better from here.

Monday, November 03, 2008

4 Nights at the Palais Royale

As I was driving home from work tonight, I was reflecting on birthdays past. Last year's was pretty quiet, a quick trip down to Guelph to visit the boyfriend; the year before that was...well, messy but a lot of fun. In the long run, only a few of my birthdays really stick out in my mind in a really concrete way. And that's just well--it really is only another day, but with cake. (If you're lucky. There was no cake for me this year.)

There is one birthday that stands out from all of the others, though, and as I was driving home, I came to the realization that this is actually the tenth anniversary of that day.

The year was 1998. I was in grade twelve. Chretien was Prime Minister; Mike "the Knife" Harris had Ontario firmly in his grip. It was November, which is a threshold month in Ontario, neither autumn nor winter. But none of this mattered: It was my seventeenth birthday, and I was going to see my favourite band in concert for the first time.

Sloan defined my adolescence in a way that no other band could. Most of my friends hated them, often for the reasons that I liked them so much: strummy Beatles-esque guitars, earnest vocals, playful lyrics, warm production values. Of course, there was also the boys themselves. (It is strange to think that at the time, they were the age I am now.) The boys of Sloan were real: genuine, Canadian, and normal. Unlike the Backstreet Boys or Hanson or other boy bands that some of my friends adored, these were no poster boys--sure, I was head over heels for Patrick, but he was the kind of guy that you might serendipitously run into at the mall when shopping in Toronto, not some farflung matinee idol. (That did actually happen, and he was totally awesome about it.)

The other reason that Sloan was integral to me as an adolescent was because of their online presence. My introduction to Sloan via "The Lines You Amend" in 1996 (a song described by Rolling Stone as beginning like "The Ballad of John and Yoko" before morphing into a "likable hybrid of T. Rex and Crowded House"--srsly, you wonder why I love this band?) came at roughly the same time as my introduction to the internet. The early Sloan online community was a revelation to me: as socially awkward, nerdy, and unsure of myself as I was at that age, the Sloan Message Board was full of fine, kind, accepting people. No one online cared that I wasn't sure about drinking, or that I didn't want to do drugs, or that I liked school. In some ways, these relationships were often more satisfying than my real life friend: these people liked me for who I was. For the first time, I was able to forge an identity as part of a group that I felt secure in. As a result, ten years on I am unable to separate my love for the band/music from my love for the people that they connected me to: it is part and parcel of the experience for me.

So on that cool November day, my dad drove me and my friend Erin down to the Palais Royale, a converted dance hall right on the shores of Lake Ontario in Toronto. It had been a popular venue for big bands, once upon a time, and the floor was mounted on springs to move with the dancers. It was a truly magical venue.

Rufus Wainwright was the opening act, having just released his debut album, and his pop-opera sound was mesmerizing--especially "April Fools". His sister Martha performed with him wearing black pants with red pockets. It's strange what you remember after all this time.

My dad ditched us for the safety of the 19+ section, so we positioned ourselves on the Jay side of the stage, right in front of the speaker stack. On its technical merits, the concert wasn't anything spectacular. Sloan wasn't an especially tight live band at that time. Anything it lacked in technique, the show more than made up for in charm: the set list might have been taken right from my heart. And even now I have a hard time remembering another show that hit so many of my favourites.

After teh show, my dad found Erin and me, and we watched the roadies clean up the stage. When one of them got to the drumkit, he pantomimed throwing the drumsticks out into the crowd. My companions began to short, "Birthday girl! Birthday girl!" until he relented and handed half a drumstick to me.

I still have it, along with the letter Jay wrote to me one time, in a box in my parents' basement.

Sloan played four shows at the Palais Royale that week, which were collected and mixed into 4 Nights at the Palais Royale, a double live album. I bought it on its release date, six months later, and though tonight is the first night in years that I've listened to it, I couldn't ask for a better momento of that night.

I would go on to see Sloan some five or six times over the next few eyars. I would eventually meet all of them, and run a fansite for one. But as I got older, I grew up and away from the band. University and adulthood crept in, and Neil Finn/Crowded House became my defining soundtrack. (Ironically, the first time I would see the Finn in concert, it would be in that same Palais Royale.) Somewhere along the way, my world had changed.

The seventeen year old Rhiannon could hardly have imagined what her world would look like ten years later. The friend she loved most, enough to share this concert with, is someone I haven't spoken to in eight years. She dreamed desperately of owning a record player--I don't even own a CD player anymore. She dreamed even more desperately of having a date--I've just bought a house with my partner of four years. She went to so many shows, bought so many CDs--I've been to maybe two shows in the last year, haven't seen Sloan in five, and haven't bought a CD since January. I'm not as smart, as cool, or as indie as she thought she was. In the end, it's okay, though--I'm also a lot happier than I ever thought I could be, when I was seventeen.

Happy to me

27 is not off to a good start. It seems unjust to have to work an 8:30-5:30 day (even if I do get to meet with an old friend for lunch)--but the real injustice is that when I woke this morning, it was not to the sound of my alarm at 7:00, but to the sound of my cat vomitting all over my brand new duvet. At 5:30.

Now, I can hardly be mad at the poor little guy--today is a big day for him, too. He's six months old now, which means it is time for the big snip. He wasn't allowed to have any food after 8 p.m. last night, and I think his hunger drove him to have a nibble or two of the lone plant in our house. Or at least, that's what I'm assuming the bright green stain on my duvet was caused by. I sure hope it comes out.

Hallowe'en was a good time. The Professor McGonagall costume was a big hit, so I'm pretty sure that I will reprise it next year, and my evening costume came together pretty well considering I started it only three days before Hallowe'en and sewed the whole thing together myself. All things told, it was a very good time--lots of good, dancing fun, including "Rock Lobster" (no "American Boy" though, alas) and more than a few mini Oh Henry bars.

Caitlin and Mum are off to Nicaragua today for the annual medical mission--I'm wishing them blue skies and smooth sailing (flying) all the way down.