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The Secret (book)I had a dream the other night.  And for once it didn’t involve various breakaway attempts in some murky yet apparently significant hockey game (you know it was important if you wake up with a palpitating heart).  Instead, this dream had to do with a mountainous pile of books– the complete Massey Lectures series, in fact.  Considering the fact that I devote far more of my waking life to books as opposed to hockey, this was a welcome change in dream matter.

The bookish aspect of my dream has some grounding in reality, since I’ve occasionally thought about seeking out each individual Massey Lecture and piecing the collection together on my bookshelf.  Having already acquired the complete New Canadian Library through marriage (and having secured it by pre-nup),  the Massey Lectures seem like the next logical collection to amass.  The thing is that I like owning crisp books.  I don’t mind digging for dingy copies at used book stores, but I’d rather not own them or keep them for very long.  Unfortunately (for my highbrow tastes),  many of the Massey Lectures I’ve held in hand have been through the wash a few too many times.  So you can imagine my astonishment when, unexpectedly, I found myself staring down upon a copy of every single Massey Lecture ever given– each copy freshly printed, every spine yet uncracked.  I felt like a pirate gaping over some vast tangible loot; the stuff of wild imaginings suddenly made real.Bernie Lucht's blog comments on the Massey Lectures

Except for one thing.  All forty five books, to my uttermost consternation and jealousy, were piled high on the bed of the coolest kid from my second grade class.  I spent much of my primary school years trying desperately (and very much in vain) to match this classmate’s innate “cool factor.”  Now, here we were, as adults, standing in his childhood bedroom beholding the very definition, by nearly everyone’s standards, of “cool”:  a complete set of the Massey Lectures.  And they were his.  All his.

I managed to swallow my jealousy, but it burned like a shot of warm soju.  Stepping forward, I grazed my finger along a few copies, keenly interested in taking stock, but aware, also, that I shouldn’t feed his pride with demonstrable astonishment.  So I stood still and scanned the collection, as nonchalantly as possible.  Standing as such, I noticed a title I had never come across before:  Sokcho.  The subtitle was indiscernible.

I couldn’t believe that the topic of “Sokcho“, a relatively insignificant port city in northeastern Korea, was deemed interesting enough to garner the attention of Canadians for a four-part radio series and a book format to follow!  But I’ve been surprised before.  I promptly scooped up the book, intending to scan the back cover for its topical hook.  I couldn’t, however, get past the author’s name.  Apparently, Sokcho was penned by none other than the current Liberal opposition’s foreign affairs critic and former Ontario Premier, Bob Rae.

Bob RaeAt this point, thankfully, my critical thinking skills kicked in and undermined what had been, until Bob Rae’s unlikely appearance, a relatively logical dream sequence.  Well, sort of.  The reappearance of my childhood idol/nemesis isn’t really logical per se; mostly it just hints at a fairly serious inferiority complex on my part.

But that complex is not stopping me from starting in on a diligent and persistent pursuit of the complete Massey Lectures series the moment my feet return to Canadian soil.  If anything, it will provide the not-so-unconscious drive through the used bookstores of the nation.   I mean, at the very least, I’ve got to get it before he does!

“The Secret” by in touch

“The Lost Massey Lectures” from amazon.ca

“Bob Rae” by Chris Wattie/Reuters

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National Film Board of Canada logoI made a spectacular personal discovery a month ago.  And I say “personal” only because when I search the topic online it appears as though everyone else, from print media to the blogosphere,  is in-the-know.  I missed the press release, obviously.

But no matter, because this is the type of announcement that is, unlike most other current news stories, only getting progressively better and better.  Curious?

In January, the National Film Board of Canada launched an online screening room, effectively blowing the dust off 70 years of archived films.  Hundreds of experimental films,  animations, and Canada-focused documentaries are now available to stream, to share, to embed.  And more are added monthly.  It’s an incredible film and culture resource as well as a great way to ‘kill’ 10 minutes, or half an hour, or a whole evening.

For the NFB, this is mostly about brand awareness.  Their brand is damn good (over 5000 awards, including 12 Oscars) and many of their films have been widely influential; but popularly, the NFB remains relatively obscure.  Despite their films’ presence in public libraries, in classrooms, and in the past billings of every major film festival, Canadians seem passively aware of the institution and its legacy.

Which is what makes this offer so fantastic.  Prior to this online endeavoNFB Mediatheque stations on John St, Torontour, NFB films were really only accessible by VHS (though poorly distributed) or at the NFB’s mediatheque stations in Toronto.  This is to say that you had to seek out the films.  I mean, really them seek out.

During almost every trip I have made into Toronto over the past four years (say, two dozen downtown adventures), I have tried to carve out some time at the mediatheque booths.  I made it there three times.  The third time, only last summer, Colleen and I managed a record hour and a half at the self-service mini-theaters ($2 all-day access!), but really never got beyond the index.  We scrolled (and scrolled), managing only to write down titles we’d like to see…at some point…in the future…when we have more time.  We were, incidentally, in Toronto that day to submit our applications for an E2 working visa at the Korean consulate– a move that effectively rendered our “must see” list as obsolete as an all-access pass to the 2002 Toronto International Film Festival.  Alas.

Hence, my (our) excitement when I stumbled across a Walrus article detailing the new online screening room.  Hence our delight over the course of the last month as we’ve holed ourselves up in our Korean apartment with our laptop, our cable connection, and, now, our Canadian film archive.  We’ve forsaken society to spend evenings with the NFB; we’ve dined with the NFB; we’ve fallen asleep to the NFB; we’ve been late for work because of the NFB.

But enough now.  I want to share some with you. I had hopes of embedding the films into this post, but it appears that I am unable to do so on wordpress.com — which is an open-invitation (read: cry for help) to anyone tech-savvy enough to solve this problem.  Click on the photo image to access the film on the NFB site and click on the director’s name to access their bio on wikipedia.

Nostalgia:

The SweaterThe Sweater” by Sheldon Cohen, 1980, 10 min 21 s

Who remembers this classic rendering of Roch Carrier‘s “The Hockey Sweater”?

"Canada Vignettes: Log Driver's Waltz" by John Weldon

Canada Vignettes: Log Driver’s Waltz
By John Weldon, 1978, 3 min

A delightful staple from the Saturday morning cartoons of my childhood.

Honourable Mention:

The Big Snit by Richard Condie, 1985, 9 min 54 s
The Cat Came Back
by Cordell Barker, 1988, 7 min 39 s

Experimental:

"Neighbours" by Norman McLaren

Neighbours” by Norman McLaren, 1952, 8 min 6 s

McLaren, a pioneer of stop motion animation, takes a comic look at the escalating violence of neighbours in this Oscar-winning short. — see also McLaren’s A Chairy Tale, 1957, 9 min 54 s

"Very Nice, Very Nice" by Arthur LipsettVery Nice, Very Nice
by Arthur Lipsett, 1961, 6 min 59 s

Lipsett was an influential collage artist, piecing his films together from sound and audio scraps.  Read an overview of his life and work here — see also “21-87“, which influenced George Lucas’ concept of ‘The Force’.

Documentary:

The documentary technique, in Canada, has been widely used in all areas and aspects of art.  Some poets and critics have even gone so far as to claim that “documentary poetry” is a uniquely Canadian mode of writing.  However true that may (or may not) be, there can be little doubt that Canadian writers and filmmakers have lent considerable breadth and innovation to the field of documentary-making.  The NFB, itself, was first headed by the very man who coined the term ‘documentary’, John Grierson.  Under Grierson’s direction, the NFB began cataloguing the lives of ordinary Canadians, eventually also supplying the equipment and technical know-how to immigrant and First Nations communities so that they could represent themselves– a notable shift in perspective.  Here are a few recommendations:

Ted Baryluk's GroceryTed Baryluk’s Grocery
John Paskievich, Michael Mirus, 1982, 10 min 19 s

This fantastic, Genie Award-winning short on Ukrainian-Canadian Ted Baryluk’s Winnipeg Grocery store is visualized entirely of photographic images and narrated personally by Mr. Baryluk.

"Lonely Boy" by Wolf Koenig and Roman KroitorLonely Boy
Wolf Koenig, Roman Kroitor, 1962, 26 min 35 s

A highly influential, cinéma-vérité documentary on Paul Anka in his early teen-sensation days.  It’s also a nice reminder that Beatlemania didn’t create the swoon-screaming-female type.

Kanehsatake 270 Years of ResistanceKanehsatake 270 Years of Resistance
Alanis Obomsawin, 1993, 119 min 15 s

This feature-length documentary, centering on the Oka crisis in 1990, has won 18 international film awards.  Obomsawin filmed the armed-standoff from behind the barricades for the duration of the 78 day-long standoff.  In light of Ipperwash and Caledonia, make time to see this.

RiP! A Remix ManifestoRiP! A Remix Manifesto
Brett Gaylor, 2008, Chapter 1 (0f 13): 5 min 23 s

RiP! proves to the doubting crowd that the NFB remains bold and avant-guard. Here, Gaylor marshals an open-sourced afront to corporate media culture, creating a digital mash-up of culture to challenge current copyright laws.

Needless to say, the archive has a lot of depth.  The NFB’s “expert playlists” can help you categorize and navigate the archive.  I’d love for you to add your own film links in the comment section; there are a lot more NFB films that deserve mentioning (and many more still that I haven’t seen).  So please pass on the love and enjoy the viewing while you’re at it!

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White Pine Sentinel (photo by Geoff Martin)

White Pine Sentinel (photo by Geoff Martin)

Ever have those days when everyone about you screams forth your name and demands your undivided attention?  Ever have those days when you feel like no one speaks your language?  When the cacophony is so great you can’t hear yourself think?

There are a good many such days here in Korea.

Amidst all the noise (and I am, admittedly, often a contributor and/or instigator of it), there is an underlying awareness that silence will be all the sweeter when the noise has died, the children have fled, and I am alone in my classroom again.  Often, this is the only thing standing between my forced patience and my screaming “SHUT UP” in the faces of eight year olds.

To really know and value silence, to describe that splendid sense of relief when experienced, it is best to work from a negative definition.  Silence, then, is best described as not noise; it is the sheer absence of sound.  Much like John Milton’s assertion that what is Good is best defined against its opposite, Evil, so too are silence and noise co-dependents; two sides to the same coin, as the saying goes.  We depend on both to see our way and to strike a balance.  Without periods of near-deafening noise, silence would be stripped of its harbour-like quality.  In fact, silence, endured for too long, is its own kind of madness (think, Wilson, the volleyball).

A Veritable Wasteland (photo by an anonymous Haveman Brothers planter)

A Veritable Wasteland

One moment, in particular, stands out in my memory as the first time I experienced the tangible weight of silence.  To this day, four years on, that surreal moment remains my “safe place” (in psycho-speak); that place I imagine when I need to get away, to escape the chaos around me (ie. my classroom with twelve pairs of hands grasping at my shirt and an infinite number of vocal chords shouting out my name).

I spent the spring of 2005 working on a tree planting contract in Northern Ontario. We were flown into a veritable wasteland by helicopter and abandoned in an updraft of ash and dirt.  A forest fire had ravaged the landscape two years previous, churning on oxygen and engorging itself on combustible softwood and accumulated deadfall.  Our arrival, immediately following the spring thaw, meant that the natural color palate varied between off-yellow grasses and blackened soot.  It was lifeless in sight and post-apocalyptic in feel.  We pitched our tents against scattered outcroppings of Canadian Shield, beneath the wraith-like silhouettes of charred and limbless tree trunks– their exposed roots twisted about like fingers clawing from a grave.  A low, damp fog clung to the landscape, crawling up off the slender lake, cold as a corpse, and wrapping through the cleavage of two rounded hills in the distance.  The Dolly Partons, as the rock formations were affectionately called, dominated our view, poking up through the cloudy blanket, re-situating us whenever we were turned about.

This environment, dead to life below and blanketed in from above, would seem the best candidate for an uncanny, isolated silence.  And it would have been, had it not been for one small machine.

In the evenings, I was charged with maintaining the camp’s water system and electrical generator.  That generator, parked on a skid beneath a rotting, plywood A-frame, dominated camp-life.  It signaled our camp’s location while we were still two kilometers off; it pounded loud through our morning and evening meals; it threaded its way between every conversation, ceaselessly combating the rising decibels of our weary voices.  We lived under its full dominance of sound—because nothing was louder, we heard nothing else.  But as with all things constant, we grew somewhat accustomed to its grating, in that we ceased to really hear it– the irritation having shifted to our unconscious.

Andean Lamplight, Peru 2007 (photo by Geoff Martin)

Andean Lamplight, Peru 2007 (photo by Geoff Martin)

On the first night, I waited until the last voices floated through the darkness past the membrane of my tent, and then crawled out from my cocoon of fleece and goose-down.  I slipped through the door flap and stood beneath the full arch of a star-lit sky.  Casting my eyes down, I felt my way through the loose rock and dry twitch, laying out the beginnings of a worn pathway to the dining tent, the outhouse, and the still-hammering generator.

I stopped by the dining tent to see who might still be up.  A few toasted bodies were sitting in muffled silence about the woodstove, tilted bottles of Blue sticking up between their legs and resting against their gloved hands.

“I’m cutting power,” I called in to them.

They mumbled their acknowledgment through layers of wool. There was a slight shifting.  Their cigarettes flared red in the night, as they sucked in the evening’s last inhale and resigned themselves to abandoning the warmth of the fire for the cold of their tent.  The generator, ruling complete in the night against the lesser noises of a sleeping camp, now churned wildly, echoing loud off the rock face across the lake and resounding throughout the naked, treeless valley.

With the cold night air biting at my exposed hand, I hurried in a bundle to the A-frame and promptly flipped the switch, not wanting to delay my return to the pile of blankets within my tent.  The motor idled down, muttering as though beaten unfairly and too easily, before gasping out its last exhaustive breath and clanking, matter-of-factly, to its death.

In the sudden vacuum of noise, a deeper silence than any I had ever felt, washed in around me; thick, like corn syrup.  It caught me off guard.  I could hear nothing, as if my ears were stuffed tight with cotton balls; the usual noises of the night were ten kilometers off, at least. In the chambers of my ears there still echoed the pounding intensity of the generator’s whirling groan.  The sheer noise of it all, I began to worry, had permanently affected my ability to hear.

Though minutes seemed to have passed, sound finally began to creep forward with the slow lethargy of a sloth.  I heard the world infinitesimally; each strand of sound identifiable and unique: the sound of a single cricket beyond the A-frame; the scuff of my boot against cold dirt, as I stood back to look about; the crinkle of my jacket shell.

And gradually, each strand was overlaid by another equally unique sound.  Overlaid and cross-stitched, as if the world, though sundered, was now, piece by piece, being sutured back together: my sense of the aural universe expanding exponentially; concentric circles of noise and life pulsating out from the A-frame. The point of origin. The Absolute.  Like a rock tossed into a placid lake, the ripples of sound fanned out across the barren landscape, spilling forward through the undulations of terrain.  The single cricket’s call was now returned by a colossal wave of chirps.  Twitters of life, where none seemed to exist before, twisted out anew from the brittle charcoal and ash-strewn earth.  All appearances to the contrary, this place was very much alive– its root system stretching out, like the awakening of youth; its animal life microscopic but multiplying; its collective noise much louder than any mechanical roar.

Spruced Up (photo by Geoff Martin)

Spruced Up (photo by Geoff Martin)

I imagined myself the progenitor of it all; at the flip of the switch I could roll out sound like Aslan’s roar.  This pleasure in sound greatly outweighed the inconvenience of my nightly task.  In fact, I very quickly came to relish the act.  Each evening thereafter, I would rest my finger on the switch and then stop for a moment, filling the chamber of my head with the generator’s blaring rage, numbing myself so that the supreme absence of sound, and nature’s virtuoso chorus that followed after, might be all the greater, all the more incredible.  Although alone and without an audience, I would drop my finger with the showmanship and confidence of a magician with his wand.   Just as the generator sputtered through its final breath, I would suck in the cold air through my teeth, filling my lungs to capacity so that not even my breathing could disturb that saturated, soundless peace.  Silence, at last, would permeate the night.  Then, with my ears quickened to the pleasure of sound, I would stand straight and hear the wind off the lake, the sputtering hiss of gasoline in the funnel, the infinite chorus of insects.  I would drink in the palpable sound of a world created new.

The Creeping Advance of Green (photo by Geoff Martin)

Creeping Advance of Green (photo by Geoff Martin)

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So the markets are up again.  Huh.  Today’s Globe and Mail ran the headline, “Relieved Investors Lift Stocks Worldwide.”  Bolstered by the socialistic maneuver of bank buyouts and debt guarantees on the part of governments worldwide, investors have, seemingly, responded with giddy, capitalist glee, watching ecstatically as the squiggly electronic lines shot straight up.  “Hurrah” they must have squealed in unison, beneath the blinding glow of LCD monitors.  It must be a relief to know that though all may be beaten low and bloody in their own winner-takes-all game of marketeering, the rest of the body politic will be right there to help them out of their horrific mess, no matter the cost.

But, I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t a little bit relieved, too.

For two weeks now I’ve incorporated a visit to gocurrency.com into my daily routine.  After watching the Canadian value of my salary dip noticeably, attached as it is to the dead weight of the South Korean Won, I must say I was a tad worried.  I wasn’t helped by stories being circulated comparing the current crisis to the Asian market collapse ten years ago– a time when many Koreans supposedly donated their gold jewelry to the government coffers in order to avoid complete bankruptcy.

And yet, I can’t help but draw an analogy between the recent behaviour of The Market and that of a certain student of mine; she (who shall remain nameless) is incredibly bossy and ridiculously needy– a deadly combination.  She demands near constant attention and can flip emotions faster than most MacDonald’s employees can flip burgers.  At times she does play fair, to her credit, but, just as suddenly, she can revert to the sulkiest of moods for passing her by when asking a class question.  And yet, since English is a business here and she is a paying customer, I’m forced to pander, somewhat, to her bewildering immaturity.

Just the same, when the Invisible Hand of market control turned malicious The Invisible Handawhile back and burst this housing “bubble,” The Market, collectively, slumped its shoulders and began to pout.  The whine droned on for months, growing steadily louder, suggesting that a full-on, pre-teenage outburst was in store.  Money was bandied about in the hopes of appeasing the fulminating beast.  When that wasn’t enough, The Market screamed for full attention and, subsequently, crashed to the floor, throwing a tantrum such as has never been seen before.  So hard did its arms flail and so frantic did its legs kick that it knocked down some rather significant financial corporations.  The “show” was so ridiculous and far-reaching that even the American Congress attempted to pander the most abhorrent allowance ever: 700 billion dollars.  That’s a lot of lollipops for so greedy a child.

All might have been well, but then those beacons of ethical parenting stepped in, namely the hard-right conservatives, to question the morality (read: realpolitik) of the deal.  The Market, furious at such insolence, flipped over front-side in steely, aggressive anger and pounded fist to floor with such vigour that the reverberations crumbled even more lending corporations and threatened some public banks and other global institutions.  “Alright, alright,” screamed the free-market conservatives, “give the beast the damned 700 billion, anything to make it stop!”

The Market tilted its blood-shot eyes from the floor, momentarily appeased and, secretly, smiling mischievously.  With every expectant, nervous eye in the world cast upon it, The Market stood up and marched straight for the suicidal cliff.  Stopping at the edge, it turned and called for attention: investors bit their nails, homeowners clung to their mortgages like teddy bears, and faith returned to secular democracy as governments wobbled to their knees and prayed for re-election.  But faith and nail-biting were not to prevail. “700 billion is simply not enough,” The Market sneered in haughtily and turned around to jump, weeping all the while.

In North America, where everyone was demanding answers from their campaigning politicians, the Canadian front-runner (and now incumbent Prime Minister) suggested that this was a perfect opportunity for the public to buy into The Market’s scam and leap off the cliff together.  Interestingly enough, that’s sort of what happened.  The big movers and shakers of the world stepped forward and laid big, comforting, governmental hands on the shoulders of the bawling, suicidal Market.  “There, there,” they placated, “we’ll buy into all your problems. The tax payers will pick up your tab, no worries, but do please stop crying.”

And so they pandered, boosting confidence and hoisting The Market higher on their shoulders than they have ever lifted The Market since the 1930s.  “Hurrah,” they must have cheered.

The whole thing, I must say, stinks to high heaven.  In fact, if the Invisible Hand happens to have an accompanying Invisible Nose, it is probably retching, invisibly, right now.

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Canada is voting today and I am viewing the process, passively, from afar (a mail-in ballot was too late in coming), so I will offer as a comment the only thing I know with surety about this election:

I know, conclusively, who Margaret Atwood is NOT voting for!

Margaret Atwood

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