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July 2011

Three Things by and about Erik Satie

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#1. An odd and wonderful picture book:

Erik Satie is a very odd man who made very odd music: “like an old chant and wild tunes. . . mixed together.”

#2. A “pedestrian” theory about Erik Satie’s music: scholar Roger Shattuck believed that walking was “the source of Erik Satie’s sense of musical beat—the possibility of variation within repetition, the effect of boredom on the organism.” Day after day, Satie walked back and forth across the same landscape—10 kilometers from Arcueil to Paris—taking small deliberate steps, experiencing “the total observation of a very limited and narrow environment.”

#3. Some music.

What Are You Reading For?

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(André Kertész, “Fourth Avenue, New York, June 4, 1959”)

“I think the notion we can entice people into reading by having soundtracks or little animations is a category error. I just don’t think that’s why people who want to read want to read. You’re not going to persuade them on that basis.”
— British fantasy novelist China Miéville’s response
in a recent interview when asked about Book Apps.

Scarcity or Abundance?

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This past week, in the city I call home, the Mayor launched a frontal assault on everything I hold dear: libraries, arts funding, local parks, environmental programs, bicycle lanes, public transit, public health… $740 million in service cuts are being proposed. It doesn’t take a genius to know that these service cuts will primarily impact lower-income Torontonians who live in the city’s downtown core. If things weren’t so grim (scrap nutrition programs? privatize libraries?) I might laugh at the ridiculousness of it all.

The GOOD NEWS is that the people of Toronto are not about to let these vital services be dismantled without a BIG FIGHT. There have already been been petitions and numerous street protests from those who want a city that provides (abundantly) for all its citizens even if that means higher taxes.

The long-sighted among us know that scarcity thinking is a form of civic impoverishment. It makes us ungenerous, unwilling, and denies resources to those who need them most. As the brilliant and compassionate John Berger puts it: “The poverty of our century is unlike that of any other. It is not, as poverty was before, the result of natural scarcity, but of a set of priorities imposed upon the rest of the world by the rich.”

(Photo of John Berger by Jean Mohr)

I wish John Berger were mayor. I wish we had a civic leader who embraced abundance thinking. Until that happens, it’s up to us to protect what we have with generous hearts and willing hands.

To begin, please consider signing this petition at:

An Alien Image

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(“Space Babies, Jones Beach, New York, 1959” by George S. Zimbel.)

Remember when we had weather instead of climate? Remember Coppertone commercials and sunburned noses?

Waaaayyy back in the late 1970s, I remember my Grade Two teacher, Miss. L, sitting outside during recess with her DIY suntanning “device”—a.k.a. bristol board covered with tinfoil, folded into a giant “l_l” shape. She would balance the device on her upturned palms, slightly under her chin, and tilt her face towards the scorching sun. (Many years later, I would be suddenly reminded of Miss. L upon seeing a photograph of VIP observers, be-goggled and casually seated in Adirondack chairs, watching a nuclear explosion conducted at Enewetok Atoll in 1951.)

The moral: sometimes you have no idea what you’re getting into.

For more George S. Zimbel, check out “PHOTOGRAPHS OF CHILDREN,” which opens today (and runs to September 17th) at the Stephen Bulger Gallery in Toronto.

Hope you’re keeping cool wherever you are!

The Freedom of Fragments

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In 2008, Toronto artist Midi Onodera created a short video every day for the year and posted them on her website. I remember watching them regularly. They were unpretentious, insightful, often funny, sometimes starkly moving. It was like being fed a delectable box of bonbons—one by one—each to be savored for its simplicity, each one a delicious pause in the middle of the day.

Now all these daily movies have been collected in a DVD, available through Toronto’s Art Metropole. I attended the launch this past weekend and it was a spectacular and inspiring night of short talks and screenings of work spanning Midi’s 30-year career as a moving imagemaker.

“365 A Movie a Day” are short pieces (running between 30 and 60 seconds) originally designed for viewing on mobile devices. They are by nature intimate, meant for an audience of one. This is art that fits into the palm of your hand. Art that embraces the digital without sacrificing the human.

As I cycled home from Midi’s DVD launch, I found myself seeing the city through her eyes—vendors packing up boxes of ripe fruit in Chinatown, a wavy line of people waiting for seats at a popular Charcuterie, a ragtag band of musicians on the steps of a community centre singing “Trenchtown Rock”…and so it went, a string of moments.

I remember a very close friend once shared a quote from Derek Walcott that was a revelation for me: “Pray for a life without plot, a day without narrative.”
What I take from this: there is liberty in experiencing one’s life beyond the epic stories we tell ourselves.

In Midi’s diaristic collection, there is a freedom in fragments, which never fuse into an overarching “MOVIE,” which are never enlarged for dramatic purposes, but which simply stand as they are—beautiful molecules, rubbing against each other in infinite ways.

For more info about the DVD: art metropole

Getting Things Wrong

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When I read a novel, I am primarily interested in character development and narrative flow and beautiful sentences. Insofar as I read to “learn” it tends to be a non-empirical sort of learning. (I love fiction because it teaches me about otherwise unspoken dimensions of being human, of falling in love, of grappling with pain and joy and the rest of it.)

In other words, when I read a novel, I am seldom reading for “facts” and “accuracy.” If the story resonates and rings emotionally true, I don’t care if a character’s eyes change colour midway through the story or if the author has planted a bougainvillea where one would never grow.

Of course, there are some errors that will pop me right out of a story. Everyone has a personal threshold for what’s plausible. (If a writer describes a character using a smartphone and drinking a frappuccino in 1890, I might grow dubious.)

I recently sat on an arts jury where one woman’s bugbear was factual inaccuracy. She called this the “weight of water problem,” referring to a story she once read in which a character lifted a large fish tank and carried it across a room. The fish tank writer, my fellow jurist pointed out, had failed to recognize the impossibility of such a maneuver. “Water is simply too heavy!”

(This hawkeyed jurist went on to note countless errors in the manuscripts we reviewed, encountering each one as if it were a horrible little rock in her shoe.)

As a writer who has raised her share of editorial queries (“Could a plane in 1960 really have flown directly from London to Saigon? Did video cameras exist back then?) I am the last person to slag off other writers for getting it wrong. But, still, this recent encounter with a fact fetishist did make me stop and think. I am less concerned with what mistakes reveal about the author’s research efforts and commitment (this seems slightly punitive and schoolmarmish to me.) But I am concerned when mistakes break the narrative spell, when they make us aware of the wizard fumbling behind the curtain.

It seems to me that there is a sweet spot somewhere between being utterly untethered from reality and being too tied to the factual realm. I’ve read many books where a literal wrongness can have a figurative rightness (take most of Jeanette Winterson’s oeuvre).

Simply put, there is a time for factual vigilance and a time for a little factual slackerdom.

As Virginia Woolf once noted: “All my facts about lighthouses are wrong.”

The Glory of Overreaching

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You have three hours of unexpected childcare so you decide to head off to see Terrence Malick’s new film, The Tree of Life. You’ve heard a few polarizing reviews (“it’s pompous,” “it’s profound,” “it’s visual poetry,” “it looks like a bunch of Mac screensavers.”)

Everything you’ve heard is true and untrue. This film is ripe for parody. You are launched to the outermost boundaries of life (from atoms to galaxies). You move from holding your breath to scratching your head. There are moments so staggeringly earnest and ecclesiastical you actually laugh out loud. But nested inside it all is the most transporting and daring expression of boyhood and brotherly love you have ever experienced. Set in postwar, smalltown America, The Tree of Life is equal parts cruelty and tenderness, grief and rapture, dread and relief. It is a story composed of often-wordless scenes that seem to pass obliquely across the screen—mirroring the way memories enter consciousness, or the way boys move through the world (swinging on trees, running aslant, scanning things peripherally).

There is no question this is an imperfect work. You do not love the Christian tone but you do love how the non-secular stance opens up to the larger world and expands your perspective. You don’t love the heavy-handed coda but you do love the intimacy that arises when the shield of irony is eliminated.

In the end, you surrender to the film. Ambitious, epic, completely original, sometimes embarrassing, you feel like thanking Malick personally for his enormous audacity. When was the last time you were in the presence of a work that overreached to such a glorious extent? (God bless the artist who veers from well-trodden narrative routes, who risks the wrong-turn.)

The next day when someone asks you, “Did you like it?” You decide to shed any airs or distance, and answer honestly: “I loved it.”

Dust Portraits

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I don’t mind dust. I really don’t. Maybe this is a character flaw or maybe I just feel most comfortable when my surroundings are realistically messy. So much of life seems to be about presenting oneself as a polished human. Dust disrupts that illusion. Even the most put-together person has a dusty corner somewhere in his or her life. Just peer under that fancy sofa and you’ll be reassured.

I used to collect photographs of dust: dusty telephones, dusty chairs, dust clouds, etc. What I like about dust is that (when it falls) it’s egalitarian. The pictures I have show dust skimming myriad surfaces. Minuscule specks landing evenly. From high streets to factory neighborhoods, dust heeds no boundaries.

My friend, artist Cindy Mochizuki, enchanted me recently with her “Portraits of Dust.”

Here is what Cindy has to say about dust: “In that far region of wall meets closet meets forgotten mini dv cassette meets loose button meets crumpled receipt meets rusty penny meets old Xmas card from Auntie S, lives several generations of dust. I took the Swifter and securely fastened the Swifter Sweeper wet mopping cloths and swiped a whole flock of dust bunnies and other strange beasts into the dust pan. Because of the move, I am forcing myself to clean and throw out stuff thus witnessing the clumps and clumps of dust. It reminded me of the one afternoon when my dear friend S (who’s apartment in Toronto is as immaculate as a crystal palace with perfectly placed plants then bend into bows and such) came to decorate the apartment screaming in horror at the size of the dust bunnies. There they were hidden under beds, lined along the bottom of the heater, behind boxes unmoved for months. Goodbye dust! Bon voyage..but before you go I’ve drawn a family portrait of you all from memory….”

For those who love a dusty tome, I think you’ll enjoy the following: The Secret Life of Dust by Hannah Holmes, Dust: A History of The Small and The Invisible by Joseph A. Amato, and (the classic) Purity and Danger by Mary Douglas.