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Archive for May, 2011

When people want to ‘get to know you’, often times a question they ask is “what kind of music do you like”?’

My hands-down all-time favourite is Harlem music from the 20s, 30s and 40s.

To me, Harlem music is Billie Holiday, Louis Armstrong, Duke Ellington and Cab Calloway.

It’s Willie “The Lion” Smith, Jelly Roll Morton and Fats Waller. Harlem jazz is the music of zoot suits, speakeasies and the Savoy Ballroom, of rent parties and the Cotton Club.

The Harlem jazz and blues style captures the mood and feel of that place and time. It was to a large extent THE sound of the 20s and its influence spread into the 30s and 40s.  It is the music that speaks of life, hardship, broken hearts, and unrequited love. It is filled with good times and memorable characters… Minnie the Moocher, the Viper, Sophisticated Ladies and Satin Dolls.

At its best, the music can stop your heart and lift your spirit. Does anything get better than that?

As Thomas “Fats” Waller would say, “One never knows… do one?”

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RENTED FINGERS: (best read aloud while listening to Harlem Nocturne playing quietly in the background)

My fingers don’t work sometimes, resulting in typos which, goodness knows, I would never have made in my younger days when the old digits were in mid-season form.

When the situation gets too grim, when even teenagers begin to comment on my poor spelling and grammatical errors, I sometimes break down and confess with a heavy heart – hell, I can barely bring myself to say it – that I am using rented fingers.

That it should come to this, as the old saying goes.

You see, I’ve been at the keyboard virtually every day and every night since that dark rainy afternoon when I went online for the first time.

The year was 1994 and I remember it like it was yesterday. Kurt Cobain and Richard Nixon logged off for good. The World Series was canceled because of a Major League baseball players strike. And oh yeah, the Masters Tournament was won by some 18-year-old kid by the name of Tiger Woods.

At the time, I was convinced I was the last person on earth to log on. I gave in to social pressure… sue me. I broke down, got my hands on a 486 and took that cyber-ramp onto the information superhighway. Hell, I was just a kid. Got an account with Compu$erve and there was no looking back. Hammering away at the keys night and day, year after year. I laughed in the face of carpal tunnel syndrome. Repetitive strain injury? Hah!

That was a little over 17 years and a lifetime ago. And now… well, it would be idle to deny that I could even hope to keep up with my writing workload without some ‘performance enhancers’ from the dealers down in Blogtown. You’ve driven by the place, trying not to see the pale burnt-out geeks holding up, heaven save them, hand-written signs, “Will build Websites for Food”. Yeah, I go to Blogtown. I go to get my spare parts from a seedy little back-alley appendage dealer – Digits ‘R’ Us (You Give Us the Cash – We Give You the Finger!). They promise you the moon.. for a price. Fix you up with a couple of perky pointers, a thumb… maybe a pinky. Give you a dream… and the extremities with which to grab onto it. Yeah, they’ll give you a hand, alright. Pun intended. Regular bunch of palm artists. Before you know it, they’ve bled you white and you find yourself begging for hand-outs. From there, it’s straight to the old 5-finger discounts. Nice town.

Still, I keep tap-tap-tapping away until I can’t stand the pain anymore, massaging what’s left of my hands, all the while looking over my shoulder at the new kids, the hot doggers  who can pull off a 36-hour straight online chat without so much as a twinge and never ring Godwin’s Bell [1], not even once, damn them all to hell.

So here I am, still at the keyboard, still staring into a big flat screen monitor, still banging out a rant here, a pithy passage there…

What else can I do? Throw up my hands?

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Ring Godwin’s Bell: A phrase I first started using in the  late 90s in reference to Godwin’s Law, which law states that the longer an internet discussion or debate continues, the more likely it is that one of the participants will make a reference to Hitler, the Nazis or the Holocaust. Whenever someone fulfills Godwin’s Law, a bell goes off in my mind, not unlike the ringside bell one hears at boxing matches. Ringing Godwin’s bell is, to me, both proof of and a warning against the Reductio ad Hitlerium form.

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No Whining on the Yacht!

Grousing about the cost of maintaining three Jags, the Land Rover AND the Lexus?  Grumbling that the imported Italian Alba White Truffles are sub-par? Griping that the Prestige Cuvée Champagne is a bit flat?

Oh, Muffin… you poor darling!

Attention! Attention! This is the Captain speaking. No whining on the yacht!

This means you. Yes, you! The one about to bellyache about how unnecessarily crowded it was at that secret exclusively-private invitation-only crashers-will-be-summarily-shot Cannes première.

Merely registering disappointment is not, in and off itself, offensive. Far be it from me to impose an outright ban on complaining. Heaven forfend. Kvetching, even kvetching with vigour, is human nature’s little pressure valve. Without it, we’d plotz from sheer frustration.

Run of the mill whingeing is one thing but I’m afraid I must take a firm stance when people within earshot are beaking-off about what an ordeal it is putting up with the day-to-day trials of being rich or even merely well-off.

It’s unseemly. Stop it. Now.

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Those who know me well also know that each week, from approximately 15 – 20 minutes before sunset Friday evening until roughly 40 – 45 minutes after sunset Saturday night, I go into what those near and dear to me refer to as Total Jew Lock Down (aka TJLD).

So, not only am I the Kosher Samurai, I am also the Shomer Shabbos Samurai! [1]

Like the laws of keeping kosher, the laws of keeping the Sabbath are, to the beginner, numerous and complex. Like so many new things, it’s not all that hard once you get used to it. Becoming shomer Shabbes, like keeping kosher, is life-altering for the person who decides to take on that obligation. But that’s not what I really want to discuss right now.

What I find interesting and what I want to focus on in this piece is the effect Total Jew Lock Down has on the gentile or non-observant Jewish relatives, friends, colleagues and acquaintances of the shomer Shabbes person. [2] Very often, their reaction follows certain “stages”, not unlike the Kübler-Ross Model of Denial, Anger, Bargaining, Depression and Acceptance as set out in her 1969 book, On Death and Dying.

Here are my own personal Five Stages of Dealing with the Sabbath Observant Jew.

Wilful Blindness:  Some will simply choose not to deal with the situation by pretending it’s not there. They will set an appointment, event, etc, on a Friday night or Saturday and then be shocked… shocked… when you say that you can’t make it. “Why on earth not?” they will ask with stunned surprise. When you start to explain for the tenth or twentieth time, they will become terribly confused. A kind of blank expression will overtake their faces. Their eyes will glaze over. It is during the Wilful Blindness stage that you will receive repeated and increasingly frustrated or alarmed messages on your voicemail on Friday night and Saturday wondering why you aren’t replying. This can go on for months.

Exasperation:  Eventually, the Wilfully Blind move to the next stage and display annoyance, frustration and impatience. While almost never reaching the point of outright Anger, petulance is common and hissy fits have been known to occur. Exasperation is often combined with broad hints that you are being selfish, unkind and unreasonable. Passive-aggressive tactics are widely used during this phase. It’s also during this stage that you are most likely be labelled a ‘fanatic’ and there are whispers that you are ‘exhibiting cult-like behaviour.’

Haggling: When it becomes clear that displays of Exasperation have no effect, the move to Haggling is swift and smooth. Trying to take the supposed ‘high road’ of reasonable negotiation, the Haggler will present all sorts of creative alternative ways to ‘get around’ the Sabbath. When met with the inevitable rejection, the Haggler will often give an innocent blink and ask for the reason why their compromises are being rebuffed . It is important to appreciate that the Haggler almost never cares what the actual reason is. They are not inviting you to give a dissertation on why you cannot manually turn off a lamp on Friday night but it is OK to set an electrical timer to have the lamp automatically turn off on Friday night. The point is to get you to cave in to their request that you stop being shomer Shabbes, at least insofar as it affects them.

Petulance: At this stage, the Haggler more or less gives up but simply cannot let go of the irritation.  The attitude, albeit not usually put in blunt terms, is ‘I can’t discuss this subject with you because there’s no reasoning with an extremist!’ Passive-aggressive tactics put in a return engagement. There is an enticing mention of a get-together of old friends at that darling new bistro downtown… “but of course, we can’t do it Saturday when everyone ELSE is available, heaven forbid!” Rolling eyes, shaking heads, sullen looks and heavy sighs abound. Pouting is lifted to an art form.

Resignation: Hard as it may be to believe at times, few people can stay in the Petulance stage forever. They either terminate the friendship or resign themselves to the fact there there’s not a heck of a lot to do other than go along with things. Phone calls, emails and text messages appear with less frequency on Sabbath and eventually stop altogether. When there is a message on the voicemail, it goes something like, “Hi, it’s me. I know you won’t get this message until tonight but call me after Shabbos, OK?”

I’ve been extremely lucky. When I became more and more observant over the years, people were curious and didn’t really understand it all but were quite accepting and even supportive. I think deep down they like the idea of someone standing by their beliefs and principles, no matter what. They don’t need or even want an explanation as to why I do what I do. They just like to put things in the right mental slot.

I think a fine example occurred a few years ago on a late Friday afternoon. Several of my friends and colleagues and I were at a cafe patio enjoying a social get-together after a long day’s work. I looked at my watch. It was getting late and I needed to get home before Sabbath began. I finished my Diet Coke, got up announced my departure with a cheery “Well, folks. I gotta go. G-d said!” As I gathered my things, I noticed a colleague asking one of my non-Jewish friends, “G-d said?” She merely smiled at the colleague, nodded and replied, “It’s a Jew thing!”

And that’s all that was needed, really.

Or as Elisabeth Kübler-Ross might have exclaimed, “Acceptance!”

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[1]  For the over 99.7% of people in Canada and the U.S. who aren’t observant Jews, shomer Shabbos or shomer Shabbat (שומר שבת) is the term for one who observes the commandments (and Talmudic/rabbinic interpretations associated therewith) concerning the Jewish Sabbath. Those of you familiar with the movie The Big Lebowski will recall a scene where John Goodman expresses himself with a certain degree of warmth about not being able to compete in a bowling tournament scheduled for Saturday because he is shomer Shabbos. These commandments also apply, with some variations and modifications, to the 13 biblically mandated Jewish holy days of the year, for example Rosh HaShana, Yom Kippur and Passover, to name a few. Whether it’s for Sabbath or the Holy Days, my friends simply refer to it as Total Jew Lock Down.

[2] For the purposes of this piece, I am presuming that the relatives, friends, colleagues and acquaintances of the shomer Shabbes person are not themselves Orthodox Jews or, at least, not as observant as the shomer Shabbes person. An interesting phenomenon is that sometimes those most resistant to the Sabbath observant are Jews who are not themselves shomer Shabbes. Example, two friends from childhood, both growing up Reform or Conservative. As adults, one of the friends decides to become observant and live an Orthodox Jewish life. Of all of the people the newly-observant Jew knows, the non-Orthodox Jewish friend (as well as non-observant family members) may very well put up the most resistance. It is unlikely that Catholic, Protestant or agnostic friend will kick up as much of a fuss as the non-observant friends or family.

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My first (and best) spouse [1] has inspired many things in me over the years, not least of which is Japanese poetry, specifically Haiku.

Now, before you get the wrong idea, I don’t mean actual Haiku in actual Japanese.

Example:

古池や 蛙飛込む 水の音

Old pond – a frog leaps in – the water’s sound

[Matsuo Bashō, (1644 – 1694)]

Now, that’s the genuine article!

For the purposes of this piece, what I mean when I talk about the Haiku I write is… ‘my feeble attempt at English-language poems that follow the 5-7-5 meter of Haiku’.

I do have some standards aside from the 5-7-5 thing. For instance, each line must stand on its own.

Example (with apologies to Bruce Cockburn):

Rain rings trashcan bells

My alleyway cathedral

It follows the proper 5-7 meter. Each line is a self-contained thought or image. Related but separate. It receives the Samurai Hechsher of Approval.

What I cannot have is one 12-beat line split into a 5-beat line and a 7-beat line (or vice versa). That’s cheating.

Example (with apologies to Anonymous):

Jack and Jill went up the hill

To fetch a bucket

While this one follows the proper 7-5 meter, the second line is not a separate thought. While the first line can stand on its own, the second line is merely an extension or continuation of first line. It gets the ignominious Bushido Buzzer (i.e. All we can do is place a wakizashi in front of it and ask that it die with dignity).

Also, Haiku often, but not always, makes some kind of seasonal reference, direct or implied. I try to do this as often as I can, unless forcing a seasonal reference would be too contrived or simply not fulfill the idea that inspired the Haiku in the first place.

Real Japanese Haiku written in Japanese has many more rules than the few I impose upon myself. In fact, what drives some people to distraction about writing Haiku, even in English, is all of its rigid requirements. And yet, it is this very rigidity that I love. It forces me to concentrate and select words and meters that fit the strict Haiku template.

Anyway…..

Here are some examples of Haiku inspired by the above-mentioned former spouse:

*

Raven in winter

Perfect blend of black and white

Dark ghost in the snow

*

Coloured umbrellas

Faceless figures walk through the snow

The Shrine as witness

*

Ink and water mix

Brush drifts across the paper

Sumi-e artwork

*

Orange gold and blue

Sudden flashes of autumn

A winter surprise

*

Although my first spouse and I went our separate ways about 30 years ago, we still keep in touch and write to each other… and I still catch myself writing down a few ideas and snippets, carving and shaping then into proper form and creating, I hope, something pleasurable. I forward the better ones off by email. So far, no complaints… or applications for restraning orders.

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[1] When I was a young rōnin, I was for several years in a relationship and living with an even younger partner. While I did not fully appreciate it at the time, we were in a common-law marriage. This person is, therefore, my ‘first spouse’, as opposed to the person I legally married (then legally divorced) many years later. My children, Exhibits One and Two, were tendered into evidence during the second marriage.

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What is it about a vampyre? [1]

And I don’t mean the modern cheesy pop-ripoffs one sees cluttering the television and movie screens and littering the bookstore shelves.

I mean the honest to goodness real-McCoy genuine article gothic-literature bloodsucking sexy undead fangs-in-the-neck predator by whom we are both attracted and repulsed.

There is a more-than-usual modern-day fixation on vampyres even though they go back a long time.

Not that I’m against more vampyre-awareness in modern culture. I’m for it, of course.

OK, maybe not the Twilight series Edward-and-Bella teen-angst fad…

but as a general rule, yes, I’m for it.

Vampyres, to my mind, must be dangerous.

Gorgeous and sexy, yes… that is the bait…

but cold vicious killers…

…especially when it comes time for them to get down to business.

Another quality of the classic vampyre is that it is generally a solitary hunter. The loneliness of the centuries-old predator. Always on the prowl, always just out of sight, hiding in shadows, watching, waiting.

Times change, styles change, clothes change, societies change…

but the vampyre at its core, in its essence, remains the same. A monster.

How then to explain my lifelong infatuation with vampyres? Ever since I knew what vampyres were, I was fascinated by them.  I’m pretty sure I was aware of the character Dracula (as portrayed by Bela Lugosi) from an early age.

Other kids had normal crushes on television characters. My first TV crush was Morticia Addams. I was 9 years old when The Addams Family television show premiered.

I’ve been smitten with her ever since.

I’m afraid that I fancy myself a bit of a vampyre snob. Though I try not to project it too much, a self-satisfied feeling of superiority comes over me as I observe the most recent ‘vampire obsession’ in our modern culture. I’m like the person who enjoyed a particularly delightful vintage long before it became “popular”. I sneer when I walk by the banks of modern vampyre fiction. To me, Anne Rice, bless her little homoerotic-obsessed heart, is an upstart. The HBO series, True Blood, is a campy bit of fun and I do enjoy it.. but it’s not anything to be taken seriously.

To put it in gastronomic terms, True Blood and most of the other manifestations of the present ‘vampire craze’ are cheeseburgers. Definitely fun and popular and people never get tired of them. But it’s not exactly haute cuisine, is it? The present ‘vampire craze’ is rather like that charming little restaurant you discovered decades ago which suddenly became ‘popular’, expanded to take on more and ever-voracious customers, franchised itself across the country and, as a result, was completely ruined. And you mourn over its demise and your loss.

No. The vampyre… as opposed to the vampire… is my dark love. My cold undead paramour. My lifelong infatuation.

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[1] I prefer to spell it vampyre instead of the more traditional ‘vampire’. It looks cooler that way to me and, when it comes down to it, there’s not a lot of things cooler than a vampyre… literally or figuratively.

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This spring has been cold, damp and overcast with almost no sunshine. Until today, the temperature has rarely gone above 15C (60F) and is often quite a bit lower than that. People have been complaining for two months now how miserable the weather has been and how they yearn for sunshine and warm weather.

So far, this has been my Dream Spring.

I dislike warm weather. I despise hot weather. Mugginess drives me to distraction. I detest bright days. I literally can’t stand the feel of sunlight on my skin. Spending days on end sunbathing on some tropical island is my idea of Hell. Suffice it to say that I am in no hurry for “nice weather” to arrive.

A few days ago, it was heavily overcast and quite gloomy during the day. Everything had this wonderful monochrome quality, like an old black and white photograph or film noire. The temperature was around 12 – 14C (about 54 – 58F) and there was a gentle breeze. While not raining or misting, it was rather damp. If every day of the year could be like that, I’d be one happy little camper! I could wear a shirt and sweater, maybe even a jacket, and not feel uncomfortably warm. I wouldn’t have to squint at a bright sky or have to wear sunglasses at all times. And my skin wouldn’t feel like it wanted to peel off of my face and arms. Most of all, I wouldn’t have to perspire like Albert Brooks in Broadcast News.

Some people have suggested that I should move to another part of the world. I suspect a few of these suggestions had little to do with my ‘warm, sunny weather’ issues. Northern Ireland, Northern Scotland, especially the Outer Hebrides, have all received honourable mention. Northern Siberia – a somewhat less honourable mention.

One might think that someone like me would prefer the winter months. Sadly, I hate snow and ice about as much as I hate sunshine and warm weather. In fact, a sunny winter day is in may ways worse. I get the sunlight directly from above and I get it reflected off of that repellent white blanket that clutters up so much of the ground in January and February. And say what you will about rain, at least you don’t have to shovel it… or so I tell people when they register disbelief at my aversion to the fluffy winter wonderland stuff.

Don’t get me wrong. I don’t mind snow as a kind of general abstract concept. It looks very nice on Yuletide greeting cards. I resent having to deal with snow. I don’t care to shovel it, walk through it or drive on it. As for ice, unless one is a hockey player, figure skater or a Zamboni driver I don’t see the need for so much ice. Ice in a glass of Diet Coke? Absolutely! Wouldn’t dream of being without it. But is it really necessary to have it coat or rather encrust practically everything for two or three months of the year?

Back to my Dream Spring. In my little corner of The Great White North (or as it’s been lately, The Great Wet North), we don’t really have much of a spring. Usually, there is one last winter snowstorm in April and then we go directly into summer. But this year, for the first time since I started noticing, we not only have a spring,  so far we have The Perfect Spring.

It may very well be the last of its kind in my lifetime, so suck it up, princesses! Pack up your Seasonal Affective Disorder in your old kit-bag and smile, smile, smile!

You’ll all be kvetching about the heat and humidity soon enough, believe me!

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