Archive for the 'Self-Indulgent Nonsense' Category

Michael A. Charles is a jerk.

My name is Michael A. Charles. I have a blog: you’re reading it.

In all probability you arrived here, like most of my visitors, through a Google search. Most such visitors, I believe, skim only the first few lines of whichever article they land on, before clicking away in quest of less long-winded sources of information. If you are one of those visitors, no hard feelings, thanks for dropping by.

I’m grateful for my obscurity. I have little conviction that most of my arguments are true or, if true, useful, and a real fear that they might do someone harm. Nevertheless, some narcissistic mania compels me to share them. Luckily I’m boring enough that there’s little chance of their infecting too many strangers.

My boringness isn’t entirely accidental. I tend to deliberately avoid subjects that might have mainstream appeal. This is mostly defensive. If I ever became interesting enough to attract a wide readership, I might feel pressured to go on being interesting, which would involve a lot of hard work. As a habitual bore I can go on idly amusing myself, and the ten or a dozen people out there who share my esoteric interests, without feeling like I’ve let anybody down.

And yet some part of me wants to be noticed. Among my many posts about forgotten old books and movies you’ll sometimes find me blethering about hot-button political and social issues. Most of my blethering is, by online standards, fairly polite. Not coincidentally, it has been almost completely ignored. I’ve been lucky so far.

If you’re reading this on a computer you’ll notice in the right sidebar an automatically-generated selection of my most popular posts. (On a mobile device the list appears, I believe, at the bottom of the page.) This list varies from day to day, and from year to year, as different search queries cycle in and out of prominence, and as Google tunes its mysterious clockworks to elevate or deprecate certain responses to those queries. On quiet days a mere handful of visits is enough to raise a post into my top ten.

My most popular posts are generally pretty old. It takes a while, sometimes years, for a post to accumulate enough incoming links for Google to deem it worthy of a high ranking. As I write this – but not necessarily as you read it – one of my top posts concerns the science-fiction writer Peter Watts, whose novel Blindsight I commented on, quite favourably, almost a decade ago. This item regularly appears among my top ten, and has become a regular source of embarrassment to me.

You see, at the time I wrote it, it seemed a good idea to give that post the inflammatory and unkind title “Peter Watts is a jerk”.

If you read the whole thing you’ll find that it’s less about Watts’s abrasive personality (as exhibited in his blog; I’ve never met the man) than it is about how my awareness of his abrasive personality affected my response to his writing. (To wit: despite enjoying Blindsight a great deal, after ten years I still haven’t attempted to read another of his books.)

As when I occasionally refer to myself as a crank, I had in mind, when choosing that title, a certain light-hearted, even affectionate colouration to the word “jerk”. But I can’t blame readers for failing to detect the subtle undertones in a phrase which seems pretty black-and-white. The vast majority of those who see the title in a web search, or in the sidebar of my blog, will never click through to the essay. They’ll simply conclude that there is a guy named Peter Watts who is a jerk; or, if they’re more skeptical, that some random blogger, not necessarily reliable, thinks that some guy named Peter Watts is a jerk; or, if they happen to know already who Peter Watts is, that some random blogger is making a jerk of himself by hurling insults at a perfectly harmless Canadian sci-fi writer.

I wasn’t thinking about any of that a decade ago. I realized that my title was a little overbearing, yes, like a blinking neon sign on the side of a hotel; but I figured customers would forgive the sign once they got inside and saw how tasteful the lobby was. I didn’t consider the effect on passersby – how my blinking neon would contribute to the increasingly tacky and low-class appearance of the whole neighbourhood.

Granted, I didn’t kick off the descent into tackiness, and tearing down my sign will do little to reverse it. And if I did tear it down, the nature of advertising being what it is, I might get somewhat fewer customers. But do I really want the sort of customers who’d respond positively to such a vulgar inducement?

On the other hand, while we should certainly be cautious about blighting our neighbourhoods with eyesores, perhaps once they’re in place it’s better to let them stand, to commemorate the fashions and ideologies that erected them. I believe that there’s value in being constantly reminded that our notions of good taste change from decade to decade.

Besides, if we tear down yesterday’s blunders all at once, we’ll inevitably end up replacing them with a whole new set of blunders, which the next generation will have to deal with. Rather than demolishing our eyesores we should recontextualize them by gradually assembling around them new, hopefully more attractive structures that complement and soften their ugliness.

That’s what I’m trying to do here. I could go back into my archives and blot out my past misjudgements – but only at the risk of propagating my current misjudgements. Better to keep on adding to my cityscape, while hoping that the whole amounts to more than the sum of its ungainly parts.

I realize this seems an absurdly grandiose justification for not changing the title of an old blog post. And I’m not even finished! To abandon my elaborate metaphor, I don’t approve of people going into old webpages and editing away their mistakes to make themselves look better.

One of the things I hate about the internet is how it has not only muddled chronology (often it’s impossible to figure out when a webpage was published, let alone how often it’s been edited since then) but made chronology irrelevant by overwhelming us with the transient and immediate. While it’s a pain in the butt schlepping down to the library to scroll through old newspapers on microfilm, at least when you head home you know the contents of the spools will be in the same order when you resume your search tomorrow, or fifty years from now.

Whereas the modern-day spool-keepers shuffle their contents from day to day based on what other people are scrolling, what you’ve previously chosen to scroll, and what opinions the spool-keepers have determined should no longer be scrollable. Under these conditions it’s hard to reconstruct the arguments people were making as recently a decade ago. Most of us no longer bother to try. There are plenty of brand new controversies to get excited about today, and there’ll be a whole new set tomorrow.

Well, damn it, my contributions to the intellectual climate of 2010 might have been asinine and destructive. But I made them. Therefore I shall, as far as I’m able, preserve them under their original titles and at their original URLs, so that future internet historians can find them, read them, and shake their heads at what a jerk their author must have been.

M.

Red lentils.

A month or two back, on my way home from some errand, I stopped at the little Punjabi grocery store up the hill and filled up four clear plastic baggies with rice, turmeric, mung beans, and red lentils. I paid the total of three dollars or whatever it was, and since I was parked right outside, waved off the proprietor’s offer of a big bag to carry my purchases.

Of course I was about two steps out the door when the lentil baggie slipped from my fingers and burst open on the pavement. Managing to salvage about half the contents, I hunched back inside, leaking lentils, to see if I could score a replacement baggie. The proprietor hurried over to help me pour what I’d saved into a new baggie and to top it up with enough lentils to make up for what I’d lost. Then he gave me a big bag so the accident wouldn’t happen again.

Here’s the thing. I was too embarrased by my clumsiness to offer to pay for the replacement lentils. I’m pretty sure the proprietor would have waved it off – there was no way to separately weigh the extra lentils, and they were worth no more than twenty or thirty cents anyway – but rather than offer, I just mumbled thank-you and walked out red-faced, clutching my grocery bag with particular care. Exiting the store I noticed the heap of spilled lentils I’d left on the doorstep and I thought for a moment about offering to sweep it up, but did I? Nope. I drove home knowing that as far as that Punjabi guy was concerned I was just a big dumb klutz who let other people clean up his messes and who thought the world owed him free lentils.

I was reminded of this incident today when I picked up fenugreek (AKA kasuri methi) at the health food store nearby. The price was pretty fair – $1.99 for a pouch stuffed with more fenugreek than any sane cook could use in a year, more than I could fit into my one empty jar. As I tipped the excess straight into the organics bin I thought, I bet that Punjabi place would’ve had a more reasonably-sized pouch of fenugreek for sale. Of course I’ll never know, because I can never go back there again.

M.

My father, Roger Warner.

My father, Roger Warner, died last month in Calgary at the age of 67.

Being a self-effacing guy, he left explicit instructions that there be no memorial service, that his body be cremated as inexpensively as possible, and that his ashes be disposed of with no undue fuss. But he didn’t leave any instructions precluding the creation of this memorial website:

Roger Warner, 1946-2013.

I don’t have any illusions that the brief biography I’ve posted there, let alone the handful of his stories, poems, and articles, will find much of a readership. My father wasn’t a famous person. In the 1960s he was a DJ at several western Canadian radio stations, then an announcer at CHCH-TV in Hamilton. Subsequently he worked for various branches of government, writing speeches and managing public relations for low-profile ministers and ministries in Ottawa, Winnipeg, and Regina. In the 1980s he launched a general-interest newsmagazine in Saskatoon, Bailey’s Illustrated Monthly, serving as its editor and chief contributor. But Bailey’s put out only a handful of issues before folding. After some lean years freelancing in Vancouver in the 1990s, dad wound up running the marketing department at a small technical college in northern Alberta, where he spent the last decade or so of his working life.

Through his thirties and early forties he wrote stories and poetry in his spare time, always hoping to get something published someday, maybe a children’s book. But he didn’t finish much, only a few short pieces, which he rarely showed to anyone. By the time I was a teenager he’d largely given up fiction. Still, he was a big influence on me. My band was named after one of his poems. One of my songs is an abridged re-telling of a long-running bedtime story he improvised for me as a child. Another song, written for his sixtieth birthday, commemorates a comment he once made about looking in the mirror and being surprised to see his grandfather looking back at him.

Like my father, too often I’ll start writing without having any idea where I’m going, then abandon what I’ve written when my momentum runs out. Like my father, I’ve cultivated a reputation for imagination, but too often I shirk the labour required to actually be imaginative, concealing my laziness behind a patina of forced whimsy. Dad often repeated the aphorism that “no man is entirely useless, for he can always serve as a bad example”. As a former heavy smoker, drinker, and over-eater who at one point weighed over 500 lbs, he wished to serve as a bad example to me, and for the most part his example was scary enough to keep me from duplicating his mistakes. Of course in his humility, empathy, and utter lack of ill will toward anyone, he was much more valuable as a good example than he ever was as a bad. I can only hope to live up to the standard he set as a person. But at least I can try to exceed the standard he set as a writer, and when I die, leave behind something more than a slim folder of half-finished stories and poems.

M.

Sea Water Bliss voted off The Duo; other competitors somehow find the will to keep going.

Last night Andrew and I wrapped up our unsuccessful run in a battle-of-the-bands competition called The Duo, at Saskatoon’s Staqatto Lounge. I predicted in advance that we would be undone by the ’60s theme of Week Two, and that’s how it turned out.

We did Adelaide for Week One. We were pretty shaky, but good enough to get into the next round. (Actually, if we hadn’t entered into an ethically-dubious vote-sharing pact with another duo, we mightn’t have made it even that far.)

For Week Two we settled on the “Alabama Song” from Kurt Weill and Bertolt Brecht’s opera Mahogonny – not strictly a ’60s song, but it was covered by the Doors.

We had six days to learn the song and come up with an original arrangement, and it never quite came together. We might have crept through to the next round if we’d made another pact, or if we’d goaded a few more friends and relations to come out and vote for us. But if the 19 supporters we managed to corral for Week Two weren’t enough to save us from elimination, it’s not like we had some untapped reservoir of fans who might have buoyed us through subsequent weeks.

So it’s okay. These battle-of-the-bands and open-mike gigs are kind of a pain anyway. First you have to pester all your friends to schlep out and pay the $5 cover charge to support you. Then you sit around forever waiting for your turn to play. Then you lug your equipment onstage, set up, and do a hasty soundcheck, all for the chance to do one or two songs.

I’m not saying we deserve better. But there’s a reason Andrew and I have spent most of the last decade playing in his empty basement. We’ve never cared much for hanging around bars, making small-talk with fellow musicians.

Given the dearth of alternative venues in Saskatoon, we’re probably stuck in the basement for a while. Hopefully we can come up with a new project to keep us busy. My girlfriend Liz has been joining us on keyboards on a couple numbers; the expanded lineup debuted at a friend’s wedding party last weekend, to modest acclaim from the half-dozen small children in attendance. Now we just have to put together a whole set and find someplace that will let us play. Suggestions?

M.

PS. Now that we’re out of the running, I’m pulling for Jody and Kiera in The Duo. They’ve got the chops, and the good taste not to abuse them. Good luck, guys.

It’s 2011 and I’m still lazy.

David Mamet, in his 1996 collection of “Essays and Remembrances”, Make-Believe Town:

Writing, in my experience, consists of long periods of hanging out, punctuated by the fugue of remorse at the loss of one’s powers and wonder at occasional output in spite of that loss.

I hear, as do we all, of those people who spend eight to ten hours a day at their typewriters, and I think, has no one told them of the Nap?

I’m on “sabbatical”, which is what my employers and I agreed to call the six-month unpaid leave I negotiated in order to concentrate, I claimed, on “projects of my own”, which have so far amounted to four weeks of fuck all.

For the last few years I’ve been telling myself and my friends that when I was again free of the obligation to stare at a laptop screen for eight hours a day in the service of commerce, I would again have the energy to create: to make music, to write scripts, to craft animated short films. But I have no energy, none. Like David Mamet, I nap, I hang out, I regret the loss of my powers. But in contrast with Mamet, my inactivity has yet to be justified by the slightest manifestation of genius.

Last weekend I attended an opening at the Mendel Art Gallery and ran into an acquaintance, Andrei Feheregyhazi, a local filmmaker and animator of increasing renown. He described how in addition to his full-time day job he devotes four or five hours every evening, and twelve hours on Saturdays and Sundays, to working on his own projects.

I can’t imagine ever being that ambitious. Sometimes I wonder if there’s a chemical or hormonal imbalance that makes me incapable of working as hard as Andrei and people like him. Perhaps I’m just not getting enough protein, or zinc, or omega-3 fatty acids. A friend browbeat me into joining him at the gym three times a week, promising that it would boost my energy level, but after almost a month it has only left me more exhausted. I return from the gym around noon and crawl into bed for an hour or two.

It would be convenient to blame my inertness on a deficiency of nutrition or brain chemistry, but the plain fact is I’m lazy. Perhaps someday, by some chance, I’ll discover a mantra or a magic compound or a psychiatric cure that will restore me to vitality, but in the meantime I must overcome my laziness through old-fashioned dragging-my-ass-out-of-it.

M.

PS. Check out Andrei Feheregyhazi’s animated short films.

Caveat.

I used to be a leftist – not in any organized way, but in my heart. And often I would find myself getting angry when I read or heard something that contradicted the worldview I’d adopted.

Later I realized my anger didn’t come from being contradicted. It came from fear – fear that I was wrong, fear that I didn’t have the slightest whiff what I was talking about. Out of fear, I insulated myself from viewpoints that challenged what I believed.

Gradually I began to force myself to read those challenging viewpoints, and I began to doubt many of the things that I’d previously accepted as true. And I thought, “At last I can be honest with myself! I no longer have to fear being exposed to contrary opinions! I’m a free man!”

So here I am, a free man. Yet still I find myself getting angry. Still I find that I have to force myself to read and listen to opinions that cast my preconceptions into doubt. Still there’s this ever-present fear that I don’t have the slightest whiff what I’m talking about.

I don’t think there’s any escaping it, this fear. The world is complicated, and the human brain is just an oddly-shaped lump of permeable meat. Excepting a few geniuses, most of us can’t possibly memorize the blueprint of the whole structure of arguments and proofs that comprise a coherent philosophy. We select a few arguments that seem convincing to us, bolt them together as best we can, fill the gaps with putty, and hope that no-one pushes too hard on the seams.

I think we’d be better off, we’d abet fewer falsehoods, we’d spend less time being angry at each other, if we acknowledged our weaknesses. So I’ll do it right here: every time I express an opinion on this blog – whether it’s about something trivial, like the ending of the movie Splice, or something small but important, like whether a certain restaurant in Brooklyn is involved in sex trafficking, or something enormous but trivial, like who was primarily responsible for the Allied victory in World War II, I’m frightened that I’m wrong.

The internet sets a low bar for accuracy, and a lot of people stumble onto this site through Google searches, and some of them may see what I’ve written as authoritative. I hate to think that I’m misleading my visitors, so I strive to be thorough and truthful. But I abide by blogging standards of accuracy, not journalism standards. I have a full-time job. I can’t phone up sources to verify quotes. I don’t subscribe to Lexis-Nexis. I can’t afford to buy a whole book every time the few crucial pages I want to consult happen to be missing from the Google Books scan (which happens with exasperating frequency).

I’ve spent the last two days reading up on Rigoberta Menchú, the Guatemalan human rights activist and Nobel Peace Prize winner whose memoir I, Rigoberta Menchú was shown to contain several falsehoods and distortions. Specifically, I’ve been looking into the controversy surrounding the confrontation at the Spanish embassy in Guatemala City in 1980, in which the group of leftist protesters who’d occupied the embassy were killed, along with most of their hostages, during the assault by police.

I’ve been trying to compose a measured and comprehensive post on the topic, but I keep bumping against my awareness of my ignorance. I don’t speak Spanish, so I have to rely on Google Translate to help me interpret the documents; even some of the English-language resources I need are unavailable online or at my local library; and anyway, most importantly, what do I really have to contribute to the debate?

On the other hand, maybe I can help some poor chump who, like me, had his curiosity sparked by an article he read online, then was discouraged to discover, on investigating further, that most discussions of the topic are either distorted by ideology or buried in out-of-the-way corners of the internet. Maybe at least I can bring together the information I’ve gathered, and save the next chump the trouble of gathering it himself.

So I haven’t decided yet. Maybe I’ll throw out all my notes and keep my big yap shut. Or maybe I’ll post my conclusions in a few days, and take the risk, yet again, of being wrong.

M.

Who’s the asshole?

On my most recent visit to Las Vegas with my dad in February, we decided to go see Avatar at the theatre in the Palms Casino.

Like most Vegas casinos, the Palms takes up an entire city block and has multiple entrances. My dad is getting old and can’t walk very far, so I parked the van and asked him to wait while I undertook a solo walk-through to figure out which entrance was nearest the theatre box office. Then we drove around to that entrance so that I could let him out right at the door.

As we pulled up to the door a burly security guard shouted at me, “You can’t park there!”

I made some gestures through the windshield to indicate that I was just stopping for a moment.

“No stopping! Move the van!”

I rolled down the window and shouted back, “I’m just letting my dad out!”

Move the fucking van!

So I pulled the van forward another twenty yards and dropped my dad off not far from the door, an operation which took about twenty seconds. Then I drove around till I found a parking spot, parked, and walked to the entrance, where my dad was waiting for me on a bench.

To get to the door I had to walk right past the security guard. I resolved to ignore him, but as I went by, I noticed him giving me the “come here” gesture. I sighed and mentally prepared myself for an argument.

“The reason I can’t let anyone stop is because there’s an armored car parked over there,” he said. “Last week there was an armored car robbery and some civilians got caught in the crossfire. The policy is, we have to leave a clear escape route for the armored car. Alright?”

I grunted and walked on. “What did he say?” my dad asked. “Nothing,” I replied.

I was more frustrated by the security guard’s calm explanation than I had been by his yelling. As I saw it, my attempt to save my father a few steps had been thwarted by a rancorous fat Nazi of a security guard. Now I had to confront the reality that the security guard had just been enforcing a perfectly reasonable rule, and that I’d been the asshole, not him.

But was it fair of the security guard to turn me into the asshole? If your job requires you to yell at people for no apparent reason, you can expect them to yell back. I’m sure that’s unpleasant, and it must be a relief to be able to appease your conscience afterward by explaining to people why you were yelling. But for the people who got yelled at, all your explanation does is deny them an outlet for their irritation.

I think under the circumstances, the security guard would have been kinder not to try and justify himself. Rather than easing his conscience by turning me into the asshole, he should have just been the asshole. I would have found the experience far less unsettling if the security guard had glared at me, arms crossed, when I walked by. “Fuckin’ fat Nazi,” I would’ve muttered, and felt fine about myself.

***

A couple days ago, driving to work, I encountered a detour a half-block from my office. All westbound traffic on 33rd Street was forced to turn right. “Aha,” I thought, “I’ll just turn into the parking lot of this furniture store and cut across the road to my building.” But having turned into the parking lot, I discovered that the other exit was blocked and there was no way to cut across. Now I had to make a left-hand turn from the parking lot back into the flow of traffic, which with the extra congestion caused by the detour was nearly impossible. Finally a couple drivers stopped and waved me in, and I rejoined the diverted traffic flow.

So I followed the detour until I reached 33rd Street again, several blocks from my office in the opposite direction. And now I discovered to my annoyance that there was another roadblock which prevented me from turning left. Both routes to my workplace had been cut off.

Swearing at the idiocy of city workers, I manoeuvred around the barrier and drove down the empty street. As I neared my building I saw that yet another barrier had been erected directly in front of our parking lot. Some guys in orange vests jumped out and waved their arms angrily as I approached.

“This road is closed!” they shouted.

I rolled down the window. “I work right fucking there,” I shouted back.

After a little shouting back and forth one of the city workers dragged the barrier out my way. Just before I rolled up my window another guy, mistakenly assuming that I’d come from the west rather than the east, said in a lecturing tone, “Next time, follow the detour.”

I followed the fucking detour,” I growled, and peeled into the parking lot. Getting out of my car, I felt a little bad for swearing at these knuckleheads, and I started to hike back to explain to them that I’d lost my temper because their roadblocks had left no legitimate way to access my office.

But then I thought, why screw up their day? I’m strong enough to bear the burden. I’ll be the asshole.

I turned and went into my office.

M.


Michael A. Charles is a writer, animator, and musician currently living in the Vancouver area. He used to be the singer and guitarist for the band known as Sea Water Bliss.

You can find a selection of his cartoons, music videos, and ads on the Gallery page.

Michael isn't on LinkedIn or Facebook or Twitter and won't be on whatever comes along next. If you need to reach him here's his contact info.

Garson Hampfield, Crossword Inker