Friday, July 31, 2009

The first step is admitting you have a problem

Hello, my name is Christopher, and I am an addict.

I am addicted to Moleskine journals and notebooks. My shelves groan with them.

It is a problem I've had for some time now. Whenever I am at Chapters, I am drawn like a satellite to a gravity well to the Moleskine display. If I can make it out of the store without purchasing a new one, it is a victory of willpower. Alas, those times are the exception to the rule. If bookies were to lay odds, you could make a tidy profit betting that I make it out moleskine-free, but I would encourage you not to risk your money like that.

If only the things weren't so bloody useful in addition to being aethetically pleasing I might stand a better chance. I have a pocket-sized notebook I carry everywhere with me, a hardcover journal into which goes the miscellany of my days, a hardcover reporter's notebook that I use exclusively for teaching, a handful of larger cardboard-covered notebooks for research notes, and a slew of the smaller cardboard-covered ones because, well, I just really like them.

They say the first step to recovery is admitting you have a problem. Is there anyone else out there with this pernicious addiction? Perhaps we can help each other.

Thursday, July 30, 2009

Happy birthday to Zachary!

As I have joked in the past, my brother and his wife have concentrated the birthdays of their children at the end of July for the sake of efficient parties. Or perhaps there's something about November that ... no, I just don't care to speculate.

Anyway, five days after Morganmas, was now have Zachmas! My nephew Zachary, pictured above, is two years old today. And if I didn't already love Zach enough, there's the added bonus for my entertainment that he seems to be my brother reincarnated, right down to his distinctive shock of platinum blond hair.

And why, you ask, is this entertaining for me? Because Matthew was a particularly energetic and rambunctious child who ran my parents ragged and took particular pleasure in tormenting his elder sibling (i.e. me). He still does, come to think of it. Over Christmas Matt and I went out for a beer and he regaled me, in an exasperated tone of voice, with Zach's newfound game--making Morgan wail. Morgan, who loves to read, will often perch on the couch with a book open in her lap, and this draws Zach like a bee to honey. He runs up, grabs the book from Morgan, and with a mischievous grin, holds the book just out of reach as Morgan howls and grabs for it. (Keep in mind, this kid is all of two years old).

Matt told me me this, and other stories much like it, with the air of a father looking at the prospect of playing diplomat for the next sixteen to twenty years (we can only assume this torment will reach a fever pitch with the onset of adolescence). Trying to keep the grin of schadenfreude off my face, I mumbled something about chickens coming home to roost. Morgan, I feel your pain.

For all that, Zach is an amazingly affectionate and sweet kid. He is now always smiling and inquisitive, which is a bit of a change from his first few months of life, when he constantly wore what I came to think of as the Zach look--an expression of resigned bewilderment at the world in which he found himself.

Now the world is an amazing and wonderful place, with many trains to watch (he loves trains) and a serious sister to torment. Happy birthday, little guy -- your uncle loves you.

Wednesday, July 29, 2009

Weekly wisdom

“You should try everything in life once, except incest and Morris dancing.”

—Arnold Bax

Tuesday, July 28, 2009

A constitutional question

So it has been suggested that the media backlash against Lou Dobbs’ ill-advised support of the “birther” conspiracy theory—that Obama was not in fact born in Hawaii and is therefore not a natural-born American—will go to great lengths to subdue the movement, as high-profile endorsements will likely be scarce now. I’m skeptical, but here’s hoping.

Instead, I have a constitutional question. I read this article in this morning arguing that the law prohibiting American citizens born elsewhere from being president should be repealed by a constitutional amendment. It makes a good case, but what makes me curious is that the law specifically excludes the President and Vice President, with nothing said about the rest of the line of succession. If both the President and Vice President die or are unable to govern, then the Speaker of the House becomes president; after Speaker, the President pro tempore of the Senate, then Secretary of State, Secretary of the Treasury, Secretary of Defense, Attorney General … then from there on down through the cabinet.

There are no laws prohibiting U.S. citizens who immigrated from elsewhere from being elected or named to any of the positions listed above. So my question is this: if a catastrophe occurred that eliminated a chunk of the line of succession (if the Capitol Building was bombed during the State of the Union, say) leaving the Secretary of Education as the next in line, would that person be legally able to assume the office of the President if he or she was not a natural-born U.S. citizen?

As a postscript to all this, the Salon article points out that the two categories of “natural-born” citizenry are “to be born on U.S. soil, to U.S. citizens or foreign nationals” and “to be born to one or more U.S. citizen parents abroad.” Huh. So unless the birthers want to challenge Obama’s mother’s citizenship, their argument is kind of moot, no?

Monday, July 27, 2009

Supplemental zombie post

After my post a few days ago about my forays this summer into reading zombie fiction, I was reminded by my friend Jen Hale (aka Nikki Stafford) of the novel Pontypool Changes Everything by Canadian author Tony Burgess. I read it when it first came out (1998), and while it didn’t resonate with me then as much as it would now in the mild zombie obsession I seem to have fallen into, it was both a harrowing and fascinating read. Pontypool, for those unfamiliar with southern Ontario geography, is a small town northeast of Toronto about two-thirds of the way to Peterborough, and it is the site for Burgess’ zombie outbreak.

(Point of serendipitous trivia: not long before I read the novel, a guy I’d worked with had purchased a house in Pontypool, opting for a long commute into T.O. in exchange for the affordable property. Many discussions at work ensued about the general loveliness of the town, I think as much for him to convince himself as for anything else. This all was the first I’d ever heard of Pontypool, so when the novel came out I felt a little thrill of being in the know. Small victories, yes).

William S. Burroughs notoriously called language “a virus from outer space” and Burgess’ novel takes this to heart and makes the infection linguistic—that is to say, it spread by way of language. Something slipped inside the mind when an infected word was heard, and those infected lost the ability to make meaning, repeating random words and phrases over and over until they finally went mad, attacking non-infected people and trying to eat through their mouths to get at their words.

Or something to that effect. It’s been eleven years since I read it, and I loaned my copy to the guy I worked with so he could better imagine a zombie pandemic outside his door.

More recently however, Canadian filmmaker Bruce McDonald—he of Highway 61 and Hard Core Logo—teamed up with Tony Burgess and adapted the novel to film. The result, Pontypool, was featured at last year’s Toronto International Film Festival and garnered a significant amount of critical acclaim. After reading Jen’s comments apropos of my zombie fiction post, I dropped by Blockbuster this past weekend on the off chance that they had the DVD. And much to my surprise, they did (only two copies, but that’s pretty big for Blockbuster).

Burgess, who wrote the screenplay, has changed the setting and the characters. While the novel is something of a horrific picaresque for protagonist Les Reardon through a town that has become a killing zone, Pontypool is a deeply claustrophobic experience, set entirely in a radio station in a church basement. There are very few characters, limited principally to the disk jockey, producer and assistant producer—a trio who listen to early morning reports come in of inexplicable violence and try to make sense of it all. There is a nod here to Orson Welles’ War of the Worlds, though in reverse, as the three of them are uncertain of whether a hoax is being played.
We don’t actually see the zombies until well into the film. The assistant producer becomes infected, and the requisite invasion of the small space does happen, but only a good three-quarters of the way in (and does not unfold at all in the typical way). For the most part, we experience the pandemic as the three main characters do—we hear it all unfolding as the jumbled and confused reports come in over the phone, and this works to make the entire experience a whole lot creepier.

This motif of listening, besides being deeply disturbing, also works very nicely in terms of Burgess’ innovative re-imagination of the zombie narrative. Language is the site of infection, and in making the protagonist a down-at-the-heels shock jock named Grant Mazzy (played by Steve McHattie, one of those brilliant but innocuous character actors Canada seems so adept at producing), who finds himself working in a small-town church basement because he’s managed to piss off all his former employers, the film gives itself a powerful thematic fulcrum. Talk is Mazzy’s raison d’ĂȘtre, and he drops references to semiotics and linguistic theory casually into the rants his producer angrily tries to curtail. McHattie’s embittered Mazzy is endearing but also evocative of the anger and alienation that marks the phenomenon of talk radio. When it becomes apparent that the spoken word is the infection’s vector, Mazzy has to weigh the dangers of talking on the air against the imperative to get the word out.

(I was reminded, obscurely, of the protagonist of Kurt Vonnegut’s Mother Night, an American expatriate in Germany during the rise of Nazism, who is encouraged by the OSS to accept a job offer as a propagandist for Goebels on the radio—his contact would give him coded phrases to embed in anti-Jewish tirades that would communicate key intelligence to the Allies. But neither the fact of his espionage, nor that he did not believe any of what he broadcast, can balance the very real impact of his words. As his father-in-law, a devout Nazi, sourly tells him at the end of the war, “I always knew you were a spy. But I didn’t care, because in the end everything you said helped us.”)

Beyond the fact that Pontypool is an extremely taut, terrifying and intelligent film, what interests me is that it represents a continuation of the trend of appropriating the zombie genre into more subtle and nuanced productions. It seems that if the 1980s was the cyborg decade and the 90s the era of the disaster film, the ’oughts are turning into the decade of the zombies. Beyond the slicker and larger-budget films like Dawn of the Dead 2004, I am Legend, Quarantine, the Resident Evil films, and George Romero’s own Land of the Dead, we’re seeing some very intelligent and innovative takes on the genre like 28 Days Later and Pontypool, as well as sharp satire like Shaun of the Dead. I was also turned on to a great little British mini-series called Dead Set in which the only survivors of a zombie pandemic are the contestants on Big Brother. And there’s a film version of World War Z in the works—let’s hope it continues the trend.

So, the question I want to throw out to my readers is what does it mean to have a genre traditionally so emphatically lodged in the B-movie category become fodder for sharp, intelligent and even innovative filmmaking? What kind of cultural preoccupations does this reflect?

Saturday, July 25, 2009

Happy birthday Miss Morgan!

The end of July has three anniversaries of significance for me: the births of my beloved niece and nephew, and my move out to Newfoundland. That was four years ago, which to me seems at the very bizarre, if not unbelievable. That also, incidentally, means that this blog is celebrating its fourth birthday, as I started it as a means of keeping friends and family updated on my comings, goings, thoughts, and maunderings.

And one of the very first posts -- and the first of any import -- was four years ago today to announce the even more unbelievable fact that my younger brother Matthew had reproduced and helped bring a beautiful baby girl into the world.

As much as I love my life here in St. John's, as much as I have grown comfortably into it, it is a hard thing to know that I am mostly not around to see my niece Morgan, and her brother Zach who followed her two years later, growing up. The frequent pictures Matt and Michelle post to Facebook at least allow a sense of continuit -- I get to see them getting older -- but it's no substitute for being there.

So happy birthday Morgan -- your Uncle Chris sends you the best wishes on this day and all his love, and wishes he could be there to watch you run Grandpa ragged with your incredibly complexly imagined games (I once stood in for Grandpa while he cooked dinner ... alas, Miss Morgan made it quite clear that I was but a poor substitute).

For those who have followed this blog, let me tell you that Morgan is an incredibly smart and articulate four-year-old, with a mind and a perspective that never fails to startle. If you want a good snapshot, this is one of the best:

If you think she looks like a pint-sized Cecil B. DeMille giving direction, you're not alone. Here she gives her grandfather very specific instructions about what he is to do while she goes and takes care of something.

That's Morgan in a nutshell. She has very clear ideas of how the world should work.

And to recap the last four years:

Thursday, July 23, 2009

Conspiracy theory du jour

I will, eventually, be getting back to my series of posts about conspiracy theory and the paranoid style, so here's a short one courtesy of everyone's favourite immigration expert, CNN's Lou Dobbs.

Dobbs has finally gone to the zoo. He is embracing the cause of the "birthers," that small but determined group of conspiracists who believe that Barack Obama was not actually born in the United States and therefore is not actually president. This in spite of the fact that the authenticity of Obama's Hawaii birth certificate has been verfied again and again and again--but then of course, each new independent confirmation merely adds to the evidence of a massive conspiracy to cover up the truth.

With Lou Dobbs' tacit endorsement of the birthers' claims, they have gained what is in conspiracy-land the brass ring--official recognition from a prominent media source, who by merely mentioning their cause lends it legitimacy.

Many have expressed dismay and surprise at Dobbs' endorsement of this fringe group, but frankly I'm hardly shocked. Dobbs has been a vociferous opponent of anything resembling amnesty for illegal immigrants and has devoted large chunks of airtime to denouncing immigration of both the legal and illegal varieties. I think that the very idea that the president is effectively an illegal immigrant has tripped something deep in the primal sectors of his brain.

To sum up the absurdity of it all however, I leave it to the master:

Wednesday, July 22, 2009

Weekly wisdom

"I also don't trust Caribou anymore. They're out there, on the tundra, waiting ... Something's going down. I'm right about this."
--Joss Whedon

Tuesday, July 21, 2009

Summer reading, parte the firste: Chronicling the zombocalypse

I have something of an odd fascination for the zombie sub-genre: odd, because I find the whole thing fascinating, but of all horror genres it is the one that is the most deeply disturbing. As I’ve confessed on this blog before, I’m a wimp where scary movies are concerned, but most of them only affect me for the time it takes to watch them. Zombie films however fill me with a lingering dread that makes me lose sleep for days after. Even a comedy like Shaun of the Dead had me awake—not fearing the oddly-situated shadows in the corner, but spinning out in my head the post-apocalyptic narrative that is the basis of most zombie films. Where would I go? What would I do? Who would be left? What do I have in the house that I could use as a weapon?

Perhaps that is the true horror of it. Most apocalyptic films are essentially about purging, and ultimately about hope—the survivors find themselves in a suddenly depopulated world that they may then rebuild. The disaster or plague of the zombie genre however dictates that the “purged” population doesn’t go away. The dead remain, and want to turn you into one of them.

I recently did a guest lecture for MUN’s interdisciplinary humanities Master’s program, in a class about the grotesque. I settled on the theme of excess as my focus, and assigned readings by Georges Bataille and Julia Kristeva, as well as the prologue to Don DeLillo’s magnificent novel Underworld, which has a lovely sequence involving Pieter Breughel’s painting “The Triumph of Death.” As I started writing the lecture, I found myself using the Breughel painting—which features the dead returning to torment the living—as a springboard into a lengthy riff about zombie films. After about an hour of feverishly working through my thoughts, I reread what I had and fired off an email to the professor running the class asking if she could, in addition to the readings I’d assigned, ask the class to watch a zombie film. Any film would do.

This was back in May. I was in London, ON at the time, returning to St. John’s in June. And having incorporated zombies into my guest lecture, I felt now justified—for research purposes, of course—in buying several books I’d noticed. One was a collection of short fiction titled The Living Dead that included a whole bunch of fantasy/horror luminaries (Neil Gaiman, George R. R. Martin, Clive Barker, Stephen King); the second was The Zombie Survival Guide by Max Brooks, which I’d heard good things about; and the last was World War Z, also by Max Brooks, which is a novel about the “zombie war” as chronicled in a series of “interviews” with survivors ten years after the fact.

The Living Dead was an interesting collection, uneven as these anthologies tend to be but including some entertaining and even innovative takes on the genre. The Zombie Survival Guide can be found in most bookstores’ humour section, but there is very little that is tongue-in-cheek about it: it addresses its subject very seriously, and in the process becomes a novel by other means—predicated on the assumption of the existence of a zombie virus (called “solanum”), it details both the steps to take to defend oneself, and provides a series of narratives chronicling historical outbreaks.

But it is the third book, World War Z, that took me by surprise. Brooks is very obviously someone who has spent a lot of time working through this particular thought experiment, and where he applies it to practical issues of survival in the Guide, he asks in World War Z what a genuine zombie pandemic would look like, how people and nations would respond, and how they might ultimately fight back.

All of this might sound (to non-enthusiasts) rather juvenile or frivolous, but Brooks accomplishes something remarkable in this novel. It is surprisingly thoughtful, rigorously imagined (and obviously extremely well researched), and like all great dystopian fiction, provides a substantive critique of the present. The novel is structured around a series of “interviews” with people around the world (its subtitle is “An Oral History of the Zombie War”), and moves from the initial outbreak to the ensuing “Great Panic,” to nations’ and people’s belated recognition of the threat and the subsequent steps taken, to the war fought against the undead, and the aftermath.

One of the things I loved about this novel is that it filled in a lot of the holes usually left by zombie films, such as the medical details of the virus and its effect; the lifespan of zombies (this one always bothers me, because if the whole thing is infection rather than sorcery, how long can a reanimated corpse “survive” before it literally rots away to nothing? According the Z, three to four years—shorter if it is in a damp climate, longer if in a hot and dry one); the effect of cold (below zero, they freeze solid in Brooks’ imagining, leading to one harrowing account where people flee to northern Canada, only to suffer the privation of the Canadian winter); and finally—and this is the novel’s greatest strength—how do people on a large scale deal? Most zombie narratives involve small, besieged groups of people. Here we go global, and Brooks’ “interviews” tell us the stories, among others, of a Chinese doctor who first encounters the infection; an Israeli intelligence officer who first recognizes the threat; an astronaut stranded on the International Space Station and who witnesses the events of the zombie war from space; an American pilot downed in the midst of infected territory; a soldier in the vanguard of the force that fights back. And that’s just a sample.

The novel is wide-ranging in its accounts, as the list I just offers indicates, and provides some intresting curiosities, like the use of medieval castles in Europe as refuges, or the (really rather horrifying) tale of fighting the undead in the Paris catacombs. There’s the story of the “K-9” corps, and the use of trained dogs as scouts and lures. There is also the story of a Chinese nuclear submarine, which offers a glimpse as well of the attempts by thousands of people to escape to the sea, with varying success.

Overall? Great summer reading. I recommend it even to non-enthusiasts. Also, as a side note: Max Brooks is the son of Mel Brooks and Anne Bancroft. Interesting.

***Postscript: As you can see, I link to a second blog on which, two years ago, I started writing, for fun, a zombie screenplay set in St. John's and on MUN campus. To date it has exactly one instalment, the prologue, posted. I haven't abandoned it, but I am reluctant to add more posts until I can reliably post regularly. To that end, I haven't stopped writing it (well, I did for a while, but have returned to it), I'm just not going to post anything new until I've got a substantial number of pages in the can. So stay tuned.

Monday, July 20, 2009

Summer reading

During my recent long silence on this blog, I conceived of numerous posts, all of which (obviously) didn’t make it to the stage of actual composition. Some of them are now past their prime and so won’t see the light of day; some I’m still toying with writing; and some may emerge in heavily modified fashion. We’ll see.

The most frequently thought posts over the last few months have been of the “what I’m reading now” variety. As anyone who knows me well will attest, I am a reading junky. I always have been, for that matter; Lockett family lore says that when I was very young, I was anxious to learn to read, and pestered my parents with the repeated question of when?? When will I learn to read? To which they always said: “Grade One. You’ll learn to read in Grade One.” So after my first day of Grade One I came home sulky and just generally pissed off …. because, as I said accusingly to my parents, they hadn’t taught me to read. (For the record, I have no memory of this. It is however a story my mother has told many times).

I’ve always been an omnivorous reader. I devoured whatever I got my hands on as a kid. Fiction, sure, but I partly identify my grade school years by what my obsession at the time was: Grade One was dinosaurs; Grade Two, insects; Grade Three, World War II; Grade Four, private detectives; Grade Five, Ancient Egypt. And so on.

When I started university, I unconsciously started focusing my reading, limiting myself to “literature”—a rather pretentious affectation in which it only felt worthwhile to me to read that which felt like it had some sort of artistic imprimatur. What knocked me out of that headspace was Annie Dillard’s beautiful Thoreau-esque memoir Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, which details a year she spent living in a cabin in the woods. Dillard’s meditations on nature and self, rendered in stunning prose, were augmented with facts, anecdotes, and curiosities from the various books she read over that year—most of which were notably un-literary and included entomological studies, medical memoirs, encyclopedias, natural history, and science journals. Reading Dillard’s fascination with seemingly and often obscure facts made me miss my own previously omnivorous reading habits.

I’m happy to say I’ve gone back to that, and will often as not buy bed-time reading from the history or politics section of the bookstore as from fiction. Anything to feed the addiction.

Seriously: reading is an addiction, which while contributing a great deal to my career choice and making a large portion of that job easier, can also hamstring things a bit. To wit: my insatiable need for reading material doesn’t necessarily extend to my professional obligation to keep up on the most recent scholarship, literature, or teaching material. Often it does (usually in reverse order of the three categories just listed), but often enough I have to fight upstream against the desire to pick up a book I’m reading for pleasure in order to sit down with one I’m reading for work. This is especially true during the summer months, when warm weather and a comfortable seat out in my sunny backyard make one less inclined to read a sheaf of peer-reviewed articles than a nice chunky novel.

During the summer, of course, I’m also playing catch-up. Ever since I first started university, during the school year I keep a running list of books I want to read but don’t have time to get to. Come summer, I’d work my way through the list, with the usual expected diversions in the form of spontaneous additions to the list (usually occurring during impulse buys at the bookstore when picking up titles from the main list). That much hasn’t changed.

So, the long and short of it is that I have, since May, read a significant number of books—some for research purposes, some for pleasure, and a few in that indeterminate space between that makes me love my job. Given that we still have over a month of summer left (I count the end as Labour Day, not September 20), I will devote a series of blog posts between now and then to talking about some of the standouts on the 2009 summer list.

Thursday, July 09, 2009

Robert McNamara, 1916-2009

It is, I suppose, a testament to the impact Robert McNamara had during his tenure as Secretary of Defense between 1961-68 that his death has not been eclipsed, like almost every other story in the last week’s news cycle, by that of Michael Jackson.

Indeed, there has been a significant amount of discussion about McNamara’s legacy, with a lot less forgiveness for his failings than one tends to see in eulogies for major figures. His death has opened a lot of old wounds. It has served in part as a reminder to the post-Vietnam generations of just how traumatizing that conflict was. While some commentators have offered McNamara’s later-in-life contrition for his mistakes as a mitigating element—contrasting his honesty and willingness to admit error with the bloody-mindedness of the Cheney-Rumsfeld-Wolfowitz troika—at least as many have said there can be no forgiveness for the primary architect of the Vietnam War.

For me, as for many of those who have written about McNamara this past week, the irreducible sticking-point, the element that no amount of contrition can efface, is not that he admitted he was entirely wrong about Vietnam. It’s that he admitted he knew he was wrong about Vietnam as early as 1964—that he looked at the war and realized it could never be won the way it was being fought. And he then proceeded to be silent as the conflict deepened and tens of thousands of Americans and millions of Vietnamese died.

Nor was this a man given to timidity or who blushed in the face of authority. If there is any aspect of his legacy that could serve to balance Vietnam, it was that he stared down the Joint Chiefs during Kennedy’s presidency. He arrived in his office at the Pentagon in 1961 and found himself faced with perhaps the most hawkish American military command in history, and who were, we now know, seriously considering a preemptive nuclear strike on the Soviet Union, and who tried to use the Cuban missile crisis to manipulate the Kennedy Administration into war.

That someone with the stones to stare down the Joint Chiefs would keep silent about what he recognized as a futile and useless war is baffling, and ultimately that is what is unforgivable.

I’ve been reading Thomas Ricks’ book Fiasco, which is about the buildup to the war in Iraq and the series of mistakes, blunders, misapprehensions, and sheer bloody-mindedness on the part of the civilian leadership and some parts of the military that led to, well, the fiasco that Iraq for the most part has been. Reading what has been written about McNamara and the legacy of Vietnam, it is discouraging to see the same sort of mistakes made, in many cases willfully so. McNamara, one of Kennedy’s “best and the brightest” is an example for history of how sometimes the brightest aren’t always the best.

Tuesday, July 07, 2009

Weekly wisdom

"A life, Jimmy, you know what that is? It's the shit that happens while you're waiting for moments that never come."

--Det. Lester Freamon (The Wire)

Some thoughts on politics and craziness

On the heels of my post on Sarah Palin yesterday, I am compelled to wonder aloud: what is going on with U.S. governors?

I used to have a theory that batshit insane people in politics tended to concentrate themselves at the mayoral level—that mayor was about the highest office you could hold before craziness became an impediment to moving up the political ladder.

I arrived at this theory through the serendipitous conjunction of three things I saw/heard in the space of a day or two a while back: (1) New Orleans mayor Ray Nagin’s notorious “chocolate city” speech; (2) Rick Mercer’s “Canada’s Craziest Mayor” contest; and (3) former St. John’s mayor Andy Wells haranguing City Council. This serendipity got me thinking: sure, there are lots of batshit insane people in the U.S. House of Representatives as well as a couple of wingnuts who get elected to our own House of Commons, but there seems to be a definite tendency towards loopiness in mayors.

One is tempted to dismiss the wingnuttery that surfaces in legislative politics for the reason that it tends to have less affect; the vagaries of day-to-day life, however, are far more influenced by municipal considerations, so one would think we’d be more concerned to have mentally stable mayors. Crazy-ass congressmen or members of parliament can spout off with little effect at the level of parking tickets or property taxes, but we still seem to elect—consistently, and repeatedly—municipal chief executives whom I wouldn’t trust to house-sit for me.

Seriously, I think—or used to think—that there was something about the nature of the job of mayor that allowed (or even encouraged) not just the election of narcissistic, sociopathic, paranoid, bellicose and/or reality-challenged individuals, but their re-election again and again (for some reason, Mel Lastman springs to mind here). Honestly, I think this deserves serious study. What is it about the office of mayor? Is it something to do with the parochial nature of municipal politics that enables this phenomenon? Is the talent pool at the municipal level simply that shallow? Is it a combination of limited voter turnout and pay-to-play politics? Or is it a tendency to look at mayors less as leaders than mascots, so that we see their insanity as endearing rather than worrisome?

At any rate, this was my theory, and while I think it still holds water, I’ve been watching in horrified fascination as a string of U.S. governors prove that you can be batshit insane at the gubernatorial level as well. If there is any cause for befuddlement these days, it’s that Arnold Schwartzenegger has emerged as a model of stable, moderate, reasonable governance while numerous governors in states-not-California (which further compounds the weirdness—if you figured on a crazy governor, you’d think California would be the ideal place for it) have been proving themselves booby-hatch-worthy. Nor is this limited to Republicans, given that Exhibits A and B—Rod Blagojevich and Eliot Spitzer—are both Democrats. Blago I would have thought took the cake—you weren’t likely to find another person so narcissistic and politically tone-deaf as the chief executive of a major state. An aberration, many said, a product of the morass that is Illinois politics.

And then along came Mark Sanford. Where to even begin?

He just doesn’t stop—he’s like the Energizer Bunny of crazy. What should really have been an open-and-shut adultery scandal, his “Appalachian Trail” disappearance notwithstanding, has turned into the Saga of Sanford’s Great Love. You know, when members of your own administration start saying loudly and publicly that you should really just shut up, you have to wonder how far from the fold you have wandered.

And in a turn almost beautiful for its symmetry, the governor staying in office when his resignation seems a no-brainer is followed by the governor who suddenly resigns with eighteen months remaining in her term, presumably as a scandal pre-emption. If you haven’t seen or listened to Sarah Palin’s goodbye speech, by the way, you should:

It’s a veritable classic of Palinese, filled with the kind of contradictory sentiments, elliptical allusions and logical cul-de-sacs that make George W. Bush seem like Cicero by comparison. (For a great parsing of the speech’s absurdities, see Maureen Dowd’s column in it). Perfect, really, for her departing word—though as I said yesterday, it’s unlikely to be her last. The big question for me is is: who’s next? And will it be another Republican presidential hopeful? And come 2012, will Mark Sanford still be holding forth on the saga of his Great Love? My bet is for yes.

**EXTRA CREDIT ASSIGNMENT: Is Sarah Palin’s gubernatorial craziness merely an extension of her mayoral craziness, or is there a qualitative difference between the two? Discuss.

Monday, July 06, 2009

Oh Sarah Barracuda, we hardly knew ye

I must admit to a profound ambivalence about Sarah Palin’s surprising retirement last Friday, though it proceeds at least in part from entirely selfish reasons—namely, I’ll miss having her around on the national stage as an object of ridicule. That being said, perhaps it’s all for the best … she did, after all, make it a little too easy.

In all seriousness however, I am genuinely ambivalent, because on one hand I’m relieved that the Palin saga, surely one of the most discouraging in recent history for anyone desiring high-minded political discourse, finally looks to be ending. On the other hand, her departure removes a singular embodiment of intellectually bankrupt nativist conservatism that would, I think, have ultimately hamstrung the Republicans for years to come and finally mobilized thinking conservatives to reimagine the Republican brand—the first eventuality benefiting liberal-left politics in the States, the latter benefiting the country overall. I have to believe that this will happen anyway, but Palin made for a useful galvanizing figure on this front.

Of course, her abrupt departure has fuelled all sorts of speculation about what she’s up to. I think we can safely say that this isn’t the first step in setting up a 2012 run for the presidency, for the simple reason that William Kristol claims that it is. Given that pretty much everything Kristol has claimed, declared and predicted over the last seven years has been not just wrong but exactly wrong, I think we can safely say any remaining presidential aspirations on Palin’s part are a non-starter.

(As an aside: never mind Kristol’s consistent wrongness on everything from Iraq to the 2008 presidential campaign, his bafflingly stubborn cheerleading of Palin even to the present moment dictates that he has to surrender the moniker “prominent conservative intellectual.” Being wrong is forgivable, but why would someone ostensibly valuing intellect and intelligence so consistently champion someone epitomizing the opposite of that? To quote Milan Kundera, he’s acting as the brilliant ally of his own gravediggers).

So we all now wait for the other shoe to drop. I’m putting my money on an ethics scandal—the good word seems to be that this investigation into the awarding of contracts in exchange for favours (specifically, the building of her house) is going to blow up into something big, and she’s getting out to get ahead of the story. Or perhaps she’ll get a talk show. Either way, I suspect she won't be out of the public eye much, so my ambivalence about her departure is probably premature.

Sunday, July 05, 2009

Sometimes, it really is just magical

One of the things I’ve really come to love about living in St. John’s is the way this city, and in particular the landscape, finds new ways to stop me in my tracks with an unexpected vista. It happens fairly frequently: I’ll be driving, lost in my thoughts, and turn a corner to see that the sun, the snow, the fog, the rain, the sea, or whatever combination of elements are tag-teaming it that day, have transformed the landscape into something approaching the sublime.

This weekend it has been the fog—thick, living fog that has settled on Signal Hill and the Narrows and which sends twisting shreds on the wind up the length of the harbour. I spent yesterday afternoon reading at Atlantic Place, looking out through its huge harbourside windows at this amorphous, shifting wall of white rolling up and down Signal Hill. I kicked myself for not having my camera on me, but my mother—who daily checks St. John’s weathercams and is more conversant in the local weather than I am—sent me the above image, and I thought I’d share it with all you.

The half-dozen or so of you who still check up on this humble blog in the hopes I might overcome my laziness and start posting again, anyway. Sorry about that. I let these long patches without posting pass, and in the last two months I’ve given thought to discontinuing it, especially considering that it’s my browser homepage and so every time I fire up the internets I’m reminded of my laziness of late.

I’ve decided to keep on, however, even though I probably have a rather tiny readership at this point. I would miss the blog .... and besides which, I use it as my portal for the sites I read on a regular basis.

So I’ll be back, and I’ll try not to let so much time lapse again.