Sunday, October 31, 2010

Blessed Be on Samhain!

I’m taking a class in population geography. Because a big part of the class is demographics, the class exists in uncomfortable places. Native issues, multiculturism and the war on terror(which is code for war on Islam) routinely come up and we all get squeamish.

We would sit quietly and squeam like good Canadians, except my professor is really bombastic, and has no shame. He will, if you engage him, call you on everything. He will challenge, poke and dig at you. I started out thinking of him as my nemesis. And I felt he was a nemesis I couldn’t attack, because he is from Ghana and works for the department of Indian affairs. Yes, that fucking untouchable, from a politically correct viewpoint. So, as a good student who cares about my grades and the money I spend, I shut the hell up. Bazinga!

No, this ape never knows when to shut up, and I started arguing with him on line and in class. On the one hand, my voice encouraged the rest of the class to speak their own voices. On the other, that prof got past my neurotic feelings and engaged my brain. It had been sitting in a dusty corner, untouched for some time.

Fast-forward to the present and I am trying to find some way to segue this into a paste up from an online class dialogue. The professor had challenged a student who questioned whether we want to be embracing Islamic culture, and he challenged the idea that there is an Islamic culture. He suggested that Islam is a religion, not a culture. I’m only pasting my response because there is probably some kind of privacy violation otherwise, and really, it’s my blog, I don’t ever have a soapbox outside this space. So, clumsy segue:

“To be fair, Religion is a strong element in culture. I was raised atheist by lapsed catholics, but my parents unconsciously lived beliefs that would be considered catholic. When I listen to a stand-up comedian joke about catholicism, I relate, big time. More so, I was raised in a Christian culture. Christmas and Easter are high holidays in my national culture, but the biggest celebration in my own religion is Samhain. I recited the lords prayer every day in public school though it meant nothing to me, consciously. Of course, we also sang God Save the Queen, which meant even less. my daily bread was far more intrinsically meaningful than the queen. On the odd occasion that i have found myself in court, I was really confused as to why I should swear on a bible, and what did my swear mean if i was not Christian? I'm just lucky i wasn't afraid of the bible.

One quarter of the planets humans are Muslim, and Islamic cultures are nestled among other cultures. i.e nation based cultures, regional cultures, and cultures of immigrants. As a person who belongs to a minority religion, I always find it astonishing that people can so readily draw rigid lines between essentially similar religions. When I studied religion at Concordia University, years ago we referred to Judeo-Christian-Islamic religions as a type. And they aren't just similar; they share the many of the same source materials. Buddhism, Shinto, and Hinduism are far more "different" than Christianity and Islam. Native Indian religions and paganism are also much further away from Christianity than Islam is, and ironically have more history as being Canadian.

While all the "one god" religious cultures have been empirical, I'd have to say that Christianity holds the title for being the most aggressive and defensive. There is a bit in the bible about who should cast the first stone. Christian peoples and Muslim peoples routinely demonize each other despite the similarity of their values. What would the world look like if they joined together and opposed the military culture or the corporate culture?

That said, many Islamic cultures are pastoral and carry much better egalitarianism than our own culture. Perhaps "Islamic Culture" can bring something really meaningful to the table in Canada. One of the wisest men i have ever known ran a convenience store that actually stocked good food and fresh nuts and dates, not just soda pop and chocolate bars. He was from Iran and taught me a great deal about Persian culture and history and he had a gentle kindness that Ghandi would have envied. Unlike university, this education cost me nothing. His store was vandalized after a terrorist bombing in London. Trace the abstract cultural patterns in that.

Didn't mean to end on a bitter note. . . Joyous Samhain! Blessed be! (That is a religious freedom I enjoy in Canada)”

Thursday, October 28, 2010

Von Allan, Stargazer Launch and Signing!

A brief but exciting message.

Some of you may recall, a while back I reviewed a truly excellent graphic novel by Ottawa creator, Von Allan, “The Road To God Knows. . .

Well, Mr. Allan has a new book: Stargazer Volume 1: An Original All-Ages Graphic Novel

On Nov 07, from 4:00pm – to 7:00pm, everyone is invited to a launch and signing at Perfect Books, 258A Elgin Street, Ottawa, Ontario, Canada.

I haven’t yet read it; I’ll be picking up my copy next Thursday. A brief synopsis of Stargazer can be found here.

If you can’t wait, you can order Stargazer from Chapters, here. It does have wide distribution and you should be able to buy it from any self-respecting comic or book store.

Anywhoo, if you are in the Big O, the primate will see you there.

Saturday, October 23, 2010

Revisiting Fat Albert Again

I’m afraid I may have been a bit flippant during my love for Fat Albert, and in crafting my narrative, lost sight of some truths.

Fat Albert began as a one shot special for television in 1969. Its success led to a weekly series in 1972. Both these dates predate the grim depression the US fell under. The show continued off and on production until 1982, so did produce and air during that deep depression. But it took place in an economically depressed world that had nothing to do with global economics and everything to do with institutionalized racism.

But in a very Canadian way, I wrote about it in a colour blind way. Obviously, the Cosby kids were created in an attempt to include black America. It was unheard of in its time for devoting itself to a portrayal of black youth. The show had a heavy handed moralistic message about topics like staying in school, not lying and forgoing crime. Assumedly, in a non racist America, blacks were still more susceptible to the dark side than whites and required this kind of messaging.

That snark aside, the show was groundbreaking for depicting an inner city impoverished black experience. It isn’t simply the cast, when the Fat Albert kids visit the hospital, the staff is all black, when they encounter police, they encounter black police.

And the show took place in the inner city, a setting that was not a part of America’s mythology, outside of Dirty Harry. Its setting is the same space that in 2010 is the playgrounds for retiring baby boomers that buy condos and shuffle around from restaurants to comedy clubs. Today’s inner city is clean, expensive and well-policed.

But back in the seventies, that same boomer power sank all its money and civic policy into suburbs, and the city suffered badly, and a generation of underpaid visible minorities kept cities barely alive, while conveniently tax supporting the Disneyland that so many Americans recognise as their childhood.

Fat Albert took place in alley ways, in a garbage dump, in movie theatres that were tattered, in a poisonous river that was drying up. It featured kids whose clothes were ratty, who sometimes went barefoot. It featured Kids who were hungry. It centred on stories where kids had to be clever and hard working just to find dimes to go to the movies. Kids who rummaged in the garbage for recyclables, kids who built the things they needed from the dump, and kids who imaginatively built a world for themselves out of what they had at hand.

Long before the gas crunch hit America, Fat Albert portrayed a world that had always lived under austerity conditions.

I always like a point Dimitry Orlov makes when thinking about America. He says in America you feel ashamed if you are poor, whereas the reality for most people everywhere, throughout history is to be poor. He feels wealth has often blinded us to the strengths that exist in economic poverty. People are not islands; they exist within communities and rely on one another, they know one another. They learn and practice a great many skills, building things, fixing things, mending clothes, finding fuel, growing food. Stuff the wealthy westerner knows nothing about. When everyone is poor, the last thing on your mind is any notion of being embarrassed about it.

Rewatching Fat Albert, I was loving the time capsule of my own childhood, a childhood where you ran in the wild, where the community of children had to fumble their way through making rules and finding justice among themselves. My own childhood involved scavenging in the garbage for useful things and even profiting from salvaging electronics that could be repaired. My childhood played in ravines and sewage drains, growing its own mythology about places. My childhood treasured trading crumpled comic books, so we could increase the amount of stories we got to read.

But after my reverie, I just felt I’d left a bit unsaid, concerning Bill Cosby’s greatest contribution to culture.

Friday, October 22, 2010

Did your childhood teach you to deal with austerity?

The sun is drifting away and winter is on the horizon. This time of year always makes me nostalgic and frightened. There’s no conflict there: it’s a time of dying and blowing away so we think of things that are gone. And in Canada, it is the harbinger of the long human-lethal season. So naturally my thoughts turn to times gone by simply to avoid thinking about impending winter.

This moment’s nostalgia goes to a Saturday morning animated cartoon called Fat Albert. It was an early seventies creation of Bill Cosby’s back when he was a stand up comedian and long before America became comfortable with the Huxtables.

It’s very alien compared to today’s cartoons (not that I watch cartoons). It exists in a realistic context and that real world is poverty. Just try and sell that to a network, “hey, I’ve got a show about impoverished kids who muck about in a junkyard looking for ways to get by”. Just try and sell that, I dare you. But this show was born in the shadow of the oil embargo that strangled America and left it for dead for many years, you know, the years where America sacrificed its manufacturing industry to save banking profits. I don’t know why I bring that up since today’s children’s shows don’t reflect anything of reality.

You may not remember the day to day adventures of the Cosby kids, but you may remember the specials. There was the Christmas special, where our gang finds a homeless couple having a baby in the dump because they were evicted by their rich landlord. Holy Christian imagery aside, it was a holiday special about the plight of homeless people and detailed the horrific experience of a woman giving birth at a landfill. Then there was the Halloween special. Our gang loves this holiday because they don’t have to feel hungry (they tell us this). After braving a scary house and realising that the old witch is a nice old lady, our gang wanders home sated, feeling jubilant that they got to drink soda pop. So, no ipods, no Xboxes, no extra huge burger king meals, they have reached the pinnacle of childhood excess because they got to drink soda.

Day to day, the fat Albert gang need help in coping with the conundrums they face. Naturally, they get this from a wino who lives in a park, named Mudfoot. He is a recurring character who always helps the kids out. He’s sort of Yoda in ripped clothing with a bottle of wine.

The thing I find most fascinating is that their home base or headquarters is a garbage dump. In the show this is called a junk yard, because, assumedly once upon a time there were junk yards and not just landfills. Most opening shots in the show feature a hollowed out manufacturing city that pans into the dump. Fat Albert and the gang often repurpose the junk they find to facilitate their adventures. In the same fashion they finance several adventures through the activity of collecting bottles, cans and paper to sell to recycling.

In one episode they all want musical instruments. When all their cash gathering attempts fail they create instruments from the garbage they find in the junk yard. They form a band that provides musical interludes throughout the series.

We have to assume their parents have work, though it must pay abysmally considering the state of the kids. Parents are never around. These kids need to navigate the world and learn for themselves. Kinda like the kids in my neighbourhood so long ago. Kids are kids, but kids who are marched from violin class to playdate and back home are not kids Albert or i could relate to.

I think I must be getting old because I get these urges to recount tales of my childhood that seem magical to me and extinct in the modern context. I don’t think my nine year old would relate to Fat Albert the way I do. It’s almost too bad. The world is crumbling fast and I feel like the resourceful imaginative kids from Fat Albert, and Fat Albert’s time might fare better in an uncertain age where wealth dwindles and your violin and videogame skills don’t help you. The Fat Albert kids will cope better with austerity and the economic meltdown that is only just unfolding. hey hey hey.

Friday, October 15, 2010

If only anyone cared about the thoughts of scientists.

I made a strategic error recently that led me to being exposed to The Big Bang Theory. No, not the one that Hawkings popularized but the sitcom.

I made the mistake of leaving my bedroom on the night of the week that my evil yet retarded older sister comes over for dinner and she lectured me incessantly about a sitcom she enjoys. Fair enough, we are all entitled to rant about our passions to anyone who listens. I am the culprit for listening. Being successful in her rants, she deposited three seasons of said sitcom in my lap.

I immediately became stressed. The box clearly identified this tv show as being the responsibility of the same people who destroyed neurons with Two and a Half Men. Normally, like any other person, I respond well to warnings and would have avoided this product. But in this circumstance I still had to report back to a sibling on this unprecedented sharing.

Fast forward many hours, fuelled only by leftover pumpkin pie from thanksgiving(should I have just huffed the nitrous-oxide?). If I had any power in the television industry I would kill the laugh track, but that being said, this sitcom tickled me so much that even Elmo would have logged a sexual harassment complaint.

Currently, my grades are falling in school because I am on season 2 and I have begun to wonder, what is the extreme popularity of this show.

I saw an article in the Globe and Mail, citing Big Bang Theory as the most popular sitcom on Canadian networks ever(are there more nerds per capita in Canada?). For context, it beat Friends and Seinfeld, two shows I managed to miss and perhaps the reason why I still have enough neural power to type.

Thinking again of my possibly mentally disabled sister, I wondered what people actually see, what they laugh at, and why they laugh.

All the main characters are physicists who are obsessed with videogames(so, Doom bred the people who understand the universe?), and film franchise merchandise. I suppose this means the multitude of people who, without any academic ability, also play video games and watch superhero movies can feel related to the people who keep clean water running.

Despite holding most of the collective knowledge of mankind in their heads and being affiliated with prominent universities, the characters are explicitly demonstrated as completely unsuitable mates(take that, Revenge Of The Nerds!) even for their nerdy female counterparts--of which there is only one(despite the majority of university students and grads being women).

So, they are all titillated and concerned with a dippy blond girl who has come to California to make it in movies(wow, that’s a bold and unheard of move). She is employed as a waitress(who expected that twist?). Again, I guess everyone can relate to the breeding prospects in a culture where women revile men for so many reasons no one can keep track of them.

I guess I have answered my own question as to why we can all relate to the plights of ridiculously smart people. I do fear what it says about us as a species though. To recap, we might have resolved climate change issues, except the smartest people in the world can’t get laid and instead obsess over Boba Fett.

I would get around to saying something with semiotic and anthropological profoundness, but I need to watch another episode of BBT. My only other alternative is boning up on population geography for Monday's midterm. I take comfort that even though no one in their right mind would ever listen to a scientist we can all still laugh at them on tv.