Tuesday, October 28, 2008

No Really, How Can't I Be of Service?

This is probably my favourite scene from just about any movie I've ever watched. In 1969, "Five Easy Pieces" was partially an attack against the rules of a dysfunctional society that was plundering its people into a violent conflict overseas, and a call to a young generation to stand up to the opressiveness of parents, professors, and the establishment, otherwise know as "The Man. In 2008, it looks more like a reality tv show. In the past few weeks, a number of friends and I have been astonished by the bad service we are experiencing in restaurants. In particular, staff who ignore people waiting patiently to order, waiters who act dismissively towards parents and their children, and dolts at front counter receptionist positions - lucky enough to have a job in my opinion - who feel the need to cross examine visitors as if they are B-movies actors in a legal thriller that isn't too thrilling.

Here are some examples: On Saturday, my wife, son and I, accompanied by two other couples and their children, went to the Pointe-A-Caillere museum to see an exhibit on the history of Halloween. A pile of propagandistic rubble at its best - the opening film on the history of Montreal paints a ridiculously rosy picture of aboriginal/French relations - the Museum features one restaurant on the top floor. Anxious for our children to eat, we walked the four flights only to be greeted by an obnoxious waiter who smugly told us that we had not stumbled upon a cafeteria. The other parents - respectable, humanitarian professorial types - were well above the comments that lowly me was prepared to make. I place my hand on the waiter's shoulder, and politely told him to have a good life, since he clearly had not had one up to this point. I left in triumph.

As luck would have it, it took only twenty-four hours to be ignored at a take out spot in my neighbourhood, where a father and son combination rudely pushed in front of me, and were served after I had been waiting for about ten minutes while the owner answered his phone. Frustrated, I swore angrily at the staff, slammed the menu on the table, stormed out, and closed the door with enough fury to lift customer's heads from their Pad Thai and Kung Pao chicken. I guess I will be placing phone orders with an ambiguous accent for the next little while. I reacted like a spoiled child, but I am quite frustrated with type of service that had poor Jack in such a rage two generations ago. People are worried about a lot of things these days - the economy being a major preoccupation. Still, with restaurant attendance dwindling, each customer should be seen as a valuable commodity not worth pissing off!

I managed to hold my temper yesterday, as I was dropping off an application for a job for my wife. The receptionist, possibly on some heavy medication I hope I am never prescribed, proceeded to lecture me on where I was (Where the hell are you lady, Mars?), but I politely told her that I was aware of the address and merely wanted to penetrate the fortress like barriers preventing me from seeing the Area Personnel Officer. Trust me, if they hired her, there isn't that much need for security. Christ, I sound like such as asshole right now, so maybe I had best move on with my day.

Monday, October 20, 2008

Death of a Canadian Icon


This past weekend was a somewhat morbid one. I was shocked to learn of the death of the son of a local used bookstore owner. Fit and healthy looking, he died reputedly of a heart attack, but rumours persist that something more suspicious is afloat. He was only 52, and seemingly in good shape otherwise. Drugs could have been involved, a lifestyle I could associate with NDG, but not with a guy who was slim and rode a neat bike. I also learned of the death of another 52year old, Frank Kerr, A.K.A Frankie Venom, of the Canadian punk band, Teenage Head. I only saw them live once, at a Concordia University beer bash in the mid 80's, long after they had seemingly missed the boat to punk superstardom. I remember there being about fifty people left after five bands had performed on the sixth floor cafeteria, and I was likely nursing a warm beer and some sort of personal insecurity. For some odd reason I was also wearing a fedora, and our rather poor slam dancing skills(as moshing was known then) aroused the ire of the local Concordia press. Still, it was a great show, and Venom was the consumate performer, putting as much energy into a gig in front of a small bunch of posers as he would have on Queen St. in Toronto.

There were a lot of rumours surrounding Head's failure to break into a major market, but they could have been as much heresay as the stories I hear about the guy from the bookstore. One had them missing a big concert because of a major car accident, that would have exposed them to a larger audience. Another told of their reluctance to change their name to "The Teenage Heads" to avoid the sexual connotation of the original name and allow them to break into the American market. Both are likely apocryphal to a degree. Punk music was never mainstream in the late 1970's, even if aging vocal proponents of it talk endlessly about its influence on popular culture. Essentially, these are the young rock critics of student newspapers then who have grown up and still find music meaningful to them. I love it, and hope to send my son to an artsy elementary school with parents of kids just like this. Those who didn't care then, and bought albums by Foreigner and Michael Jackson, still don't care about music now and are hence, silent. You don't see them writing books or blogging about the relative merits of the Ramones minimalism or the world music perogatives of The Talking Heads. Besides, influences are much easier to see in retrospect, right? Still, the death of someone I would emulate in the privacy of my air guitar/vocalist fantasies is a reminder that time passes in the most obvious of ways. To be fair, the band was more "punk" in attitude than in style. The Chuck Berry guitar riffs and party hard lyrics were as common to a typical bar band as the long feathered hair of the guitarist and bass player. Pub Rock is more of an appropriate name, referring to the music from England that laid to rest the notion that fifty-seven musicians needed to appear on one track to make a song worth listening to.

Anyway, Enjoy:

Friday, October 17, 2008

Ahhh Teamwork!

My group of advisors and assistants, minus the man behind the cellphone camera. We are a very diverse group, albeit all white, which has only dawned on me as I write this. Nonetheless, we have managed to put aside ideological differences to create a team that works extremely well together through periods of frequent change and tremendous amounts of stress. We also collectively have demons too intense to discuss in this arena, but it has left us with a collective compassion for each other and the students we serve. Sometimes, there are glitches however. Recently, my boss asked us to support one of my colleagues for a remunerative university award. She is an incredible person. Her life has not been easy, as she has had a number of parenting challenges many people would, if given the chance, completely avoid. Without providing too many details, I need only look at the number of abandoned children with disabilties in the halfway houses in my neighbourhood who have grown to become abandoned adults. In any case, I have worked with her for ten years and she has been an incredibly hardworking, efficient, and reliable person who has often taught her superiors the rigours of their jobs without ever complaining. In fact, she rarely complains about anything, even though there are times when I am well aware that things piss her off.

Having said this, my reaction to my boss' e-mail - albeit after a long day and only four hours of sleep - was less than stellar. In the comfort an isolation of my own home, I pouted, brooded, and plotted my annual escape to a mythical job and place that would offer me esteem and satisfaction. It didn't last. By the following morning I was feeling better and wrote a passionate letter which I hope will help her beat the other nominees. The question remains, why did I react that way? An interesting article, one of several citing Management theorist Robert Vecchio, ties it into self-esteem. Knowing that I have the reputation as a great academic advisor who is loved by his students should be enough, no? Well it seems like it cuts a little deeper. My salary is meets the average for a university educated man in Quebec, but many people make a lot more money and I am frequently reminded of this by friends and family. I am forever battling the "potential monster" that pegged me as a genius with an unlimited future at around the age of five, when I declined an invitation to finger paint on newspaper, preferring instead to read the articles. Somewhere the brain train stopped and I am not sitting in a legal office with a six figure salary, or sipping cocktails with a trophy wife in Maui. However, I love what I do and am lucky to be working in a great environment with great people. Maybe it's time others stopped associating potential with monetary value that results from jobs traditonally associated with success. It would save a lot of my students disappointment when they do not get into law or medical school, and would push a lot more intelligent, creative people into "average" professions. I hope my colleage wins the award, and I hope I can also look more at the positive aspects of my life in the future. I have alot to be thankful for.

Tuesday, October 14, 2008

Voting Day

I tried to explain the concept of voting to my son on the Metro platform this morning. I explained that as the heads of the household, a mother and father make decisions about things that will affect their children. I then explained that Canada, a concept Jake is gradually learning through exposure to subtle but warm indoctrination from programs like Kids CBC, also requires someone to make decisions from everyone in the country, like a king. He knows the concept of kings, as they have the absolute power that four years olds covet. Tonight he will have a view of how the process takes place when he follows me into the voting booth in a church in NDG that has had its share of denominations as the demographics of the neighbourhood have changed somewhat. I expect him to be intensely bored, but will try to inject some humour into the old proceeding.

At least the campaign was relatively civil. Down South, things are starting to become rather ugly. The Republican party, behind in every poll with one month to go before the election, are using the race card in a very subtle, but ugly way. Knowing that a large number of Americans hold prejudicial views on race that simmer just below the surface of a society committed to brother- and sisterhood, using every possible reference to associate Barack Obama with people of the same skin colour who have carried out objectionable acts is a reckless and nasty replay of the old "red menace" politics of the 1950's. Using his middle name - Hussein - as an indication that he really comes from "somewhere else" panders to the xenophobia implicit in American politics, most recently since the events of September 11, 2001. It's all pretty disgusting, and given a legacy of racial tension and violence associated with it, the Republican candidates are clearly willing to sacrifice social peace to extend the reign of their "kingdom" a little longer. Imagine what will happen if this tone continues in the campaign and the Democrats win by a small margin? Will there be an angry backlast amongst voters ressentful that their country was taken away from them? One hopes not.

Cynics could tell me that since all candidates in the current Canadian election are white and Christian, no such rhetoric is possible. They could also point out the animosity between French and English over the past century and beyond. Still, there was a dignity in the discourse over the past campaign that never ventured beyond the political, and even in the course of history, a candidate's personal life and affiliations have only been used if they were relevant to statements they may have made about the economy or their political integrity. Pierre Elliot Trudeau at the height of linguistic tensions was never called more than a bicultural person letting his English side dominate. One could also argue that the comments made by Jacques Parizeau after the 1995 Referendum on Quebec sovereingty were similary volatile. It seems innocent compared to what we are hearing today from Sarah Palin and John McCain, especially in the context of the relatively low body count due to political rhetoric in Canadian history.

As I sit here impatiently waiting for my boss to finish voting - the polls opened at 9:30 - I am thankful for the inconvenience, and thankful that neither of us, nor the people in our riding, will be casting a ballot out of hate for the the colour of someone's skin.

Saturday, October 11, 2008

Regrets, I've Had a Few....

Montreal, 1936. In the far corner of this gathering of the Montreal Russian Jewish community sit my grandparents, refugees from the hell of Czarist Russia thirty years earlier. My father's parents were a mystery to me. I never knew my grandmother, as she died before my parents even met. I knew she was an actress in the Yiddish Theatre, spinning tales of betrayal, tragedy, and exaggerated pathos amidst the smell of salami and hard boiled eggs in a building brimming with what was then a vibrant language for people starting a new life in North America. My dad made his debut at the age of one, urinating on stage and therefore literally making a local splash on the theatrical scene. My grandfather died when I was two, so there are no memories of me bouncing on his knee, something apparently he delighted in doing. Small and tempestuous, he was at various times a Communist, a grocery store owner, and a dry cleaner who specialized in "French Pressing", which usually required my father to take customers' clothing out the back door to another shop for better service. His legendary temper apparently cost his uncle a finger, and my father almost his life. Still, they seemed to make the transition to a new life in Canada with the same hardships as their peers, and my dad would speak of them fondly.

As I sit here writing this, my mom is visiting, talking eloquently about "Ghost Town" and the newest Woody Allen film, interest rates, and the passage of time, pretty much covering all four topics simultaneously. An hour ago it was the life of Jesus, and why a vote for the NDP is a wasted one. At eighty years of age, she is still sharp and lucid, articulate and intellectually curious, and I expect her to be around for a while yet. I'm lucky to have her. She has also taken to writing poetry, reflecting on a life unadventurous, but virtuous. A true performer like the mother-in-law she never met, she will always remain an enigma to me, keeping her real feelings hidden, and only allowing them to surface in times of great joy or anger. Living in Montreal during the Depression and suffering through both poverty and prejudice left her with an unwillingness to talk about the past, volunteering only the odd, angry snippet of a young person dealing with a lot of uncertainty and anger.

I often wonder how my son Jake will one day speak of me. I wonder if he will remember the jokes I tell him, the endless piggybacks I have given and the awful fast food meals shared. I hope he won't remember the volatile temper and criticism that he has already experienced at the age of four. I am not a saint. As I stumble upon old friends and family on Facebook, I realize that a lot of bridges have been burned, in some cases irreparably, owning more to impulsive behavior and immature folly than true maliciousness. I was a jerk for a good part of my life, selfish and self-centred, caring little about anyone who would not be useful fuel for my endless vanity and insecurity.

Age has mellowed me somewhat, and the fact that I have a job that requires me to help people has made me realize the importance of charity and self-sacrifice. I can't get the "lost years" back, but there are many more to look forward to, and I hope to be around when Jake introduces me to his first love interest, has his first beer with me (mopping up small stains with his sleeve as I do), and decides to parade me to his employers one day as the cute, raunchy old fool that taught him to tie his shoes, shake after a pee, and flirt harmlessly with the opposite sex.

Monday, October 6, 2008

Crazy Eights

Tomorrow will mark the eight anniversary of my marriage. As I sit here typing with my son Jake seeking my attention, it is clear that I have much to be thankful for.

It hasn't been easy. Both of us are headstrong and stubborn, opinionated, and damaged to the extent that the chips we carry on our respective narrow shoulders will be there indefinitely. We have had joyous moments and have also left bars in separate cabs, vowing never to speak to one another again. And this was after seeing a joyous, romantic film, designed to inspire what a student once called "The precoital, seductive, mating, coupling dance." There has been great conversation amidst wine and candles, and loud arguments soaked in beer and garnished with the sight of two fourtysomethings dualling verbally in their underwear. Still, we will celebrate our eighth in traditional bronze and lace tomorrow, and will recount hopefully the best of times instead of the worst. Marriage and fatherhood are huge commitments and I have not always been up to the task emotionally. To my credit, I have changed a thousand diapers and have been knee deep in everything from snow to vomit and shit. I worked two jobs at one time, forsaking my business casual clothes for the uniform of a bookstore clerk, humbly answer questions about mediocre authors and selling bad romance novels to pleasant but lonely people. I have read stories, given baths, and watched hours of children's television programming aimed at primitive preschool Id-driven philosophy and geared to satisfy governments who want to leave no child behind. Still, I realize I could be a better husband and father. I wish I made more money and had fewer tantrums. I wish I could listen to my wife a little more and not provide advice she may not want in the first place.

I guess I am a product of my time, a man not raised to be loyal to King, Country, or even the company I work for. Raised during the "me generation", I have spent years worshipping at my own alter, seeking nirvana at the expense of the other monks around me. I am not alone. I am surrounded my many who are divorced or still single, holding their ideal mate to standards they would not ever meet themselves.
I see them in cafes, copping free internet time while their lattes cool, hoping their chat buddy is really only thirty-five, has no current attachment, and whose "few extra pounds" does not mean they need two seats on a flight. I hear stories of dating nightmares and boyfriends more concerned about the size of their pectoral muscles than imagining their significant other romantically naked in the moonlight. I see little sacrifice and a lot of self-justification, with an entire culture of magazines and films set to capitalize on those lonely people who need to be reinforced that their choice to go solo can be hip and cool, and will not lead them to be found ultimately sprawled dead on a couch surrounded by two dozen well-fed, indifferent cats in a filthy apartment.

I guess it all comes down to a willingness to abandon the status quo. Two people can remain perpetually interesting to one another if they allow themselves to grow and take on new challenges. In the past few months I have started this blog, lost seventeen pounds, and am learning how to juggle plates, albeit not successfully. I am watching my son learn how to swim and understand the rudimentary rules of music. My wife for her part is planning to return to school and has made a short film. It may not cut down on taxi cab rides and beer runs at the depanneur, but the ensuing conversation, once sobriety reappears, will be certainly more interesting.

Friday, October 3, 2008

A Tale of Two Borders

Like most Canadians, it is difficult to follow a homegrown election campaign in the same year as a simultaneous American one. Like most people with a remote control, I spent yesterday evening switching between the American Vice Presidential debate and our very own, and before the theatre of it became horribly dull, I made a few curious observations.

At one point, while flipping channels rapidly like a late night seeker of dull talk shows, competitive poker or sexy infomercials, I almost convinced myself that all seven participants were in the same room, although this was clearly impossible for more than geographic reasons. Canadians don't handle sloganeering well. Could you imagine Elizabeth May talking about "Joe Six Pack" or being a "soccer mom"? Or imagine Jack Layton or Stephen Harper prattling on in an evangelical tone like Joe Biden, endlessly self-serving while showing their artifically whitened teeth like a cornered zoo animal protecting his food? No, we do things differently here. Canada is a place for the ironic, where no one is caught up in a nationalistic vision so Canadian that it would allow them to sound corny or unselfconsciously vapid. Jack Layton sounded committed if slightly obnoxious, Stephane Dion was hesitant but earnest and professorial, and Gilles Duceppe was like the unwanted relative who married out of his faith and has to come to a family dinner during a religious holiday. The newcomer, Ms. May, was truly refreshing, asking pointed questions and seeming to like the political process she knows she is barely part of. Mr. Harper was to his credit, as consistently calculating as he always is - chiding the others about spending too much money like the head of a household wondering why his credit card is at its limit. The roundtable discussion last night was really more reminiscent of a heated chat among Political Science undergraduates at a university cafeteria, save for the absence of coffee stains, trendy clothing, muffin crumbs, and ideology.

Down South it's another story. The two Vice Presidential candidates delivered their sermons with enough zeal to inspire mass conversions or speaking in tongues, while curiously not saying anything substantial. "Where's the Beef", I thought, remembering a failed campaign slogan from the past. Joe Biden gnashed his teeth to avoid looking like an intellectual bully, surpressing every attempt to appear condescending towards his opponent. For her part, Sarah Palin, head unencumbered of any silly confusing things like ideas, stuck to her pronounciation of world leader's names brilliantly, casting the odd "Would ya do me?" wink at an audience she was aiming to appeal to or bring around to the GOP. While both surely benefitted from the exposure - the Democrat avoiding hyberbole and the Republican avoiding looking horribly dumb, it served more to reassure convinced voters that somebody will do something sometime somewhere, and not to worry. The undecided voter likely went to bed still confused, wondering why nothing remotely ressembling a political platform was revealed in either case. At least both countries have something in common.

Wednesday, October 1, 2008

Kiss and Tell

Maxime Bernier was not the best Minister of Foreign Affairs Canada has produced. This, despite a relatively good education and resume. His endless series of blunders - whether in Afghanistan, Haiti, or Italy - served to remind non Quebec Canadians of his limited scope on world affairs, and how a good suit and pleasant manner is not a replacement for tact and diplomacy. Something had to be done. Firing him would of course, humiliate Quebec, and serve to remind non-Federalists that Francophones are not taken seriously as a contentious force on the Canadian political scence. This would further alientate them and give grist to the Sovereigntist mill, and worse, might cost Prime Minister Harper a chance at a majority government. Enter Julie Couillard:

A self made woman and former biker from the tough Ville Emard section of Montreal, Julie was the love of Mr. Bernier's life for a short while. She was no doubt drawn to his power and good looks, he seemed to be drawn to her low cut dresses and the fact she was the kind of woman his mother would have warned him about. When their relationship ended, it was revealed that he had left top secret documents in their apartment - likely under well-thumbed copies of Harley Davidson magazines and Ici - and he was forced to resign. A convenient escape and far more appealing to the local electorate. Certainly the thought of a Quebec man being undone by love was in keeping with our concept of "Joie de Vivre", and far less embarassing than the revelation that a Quebec education, no matter how good, cannot prepare someone for the post of Foreign Affairs when they have been brought up thinking Dollard Des Ormeaux was a more important historical figure than George Washington.

Now miss Couillard is launching a literary career with her first book, "My Story". Rushed to publication before the October 14th election, this junk is a thinly disguised ploy by the opposition parties to further undermine the chances of a Conservative majority. It won't serve to do much more than tittilate those who would otherwise spend their $29,99 on a bad romance movie and greasy popcorn. In the greater sense, it illustrates the notion that if literature is art, perhaps the Tory policy of keeping real artists starving will undermine them just a little bit more.