Wednesday, June 29, 2011

Held hostage

OK, the postal strike: seems like it's been going on for months now, though  I don't know how long exactly. It began as "rotating" strikes, meaning your town could be hit at random. So who cares about a bunch of whining postal workers demanding to be paid more just for walking around?

I'm not directly involved in this mess, except to suffer the frustrating consequences, so the above statement is likely unfair, not to mention uninformed. All I know is that the NDP held the country hostage on the weekend, conducting a strange thing called a filibuster, which seems to be a cross between filberts (nuts!) and a Peanut Buster Parfait.

This went on for 146 hours or something, who cares how long, and people compared NDP leader Jack Layton to Jimmy Stewart in Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, where he filibustered his brains out to the point of collapse. (Unlike Layton, Stewart was a legendary talent who could pull it off and actually make the whole thing entertaining.) Finally the Conservative government ordered everybody back to work, and supposedly by Tuesday the mail would "flow" again.

From my standpoint, it wasn't exactly "flow". Two pieces of mail eeked through, both of them things that looked like bills (with windows) but actually weren't: advertising's way of making us think, gee whiz, look at this! It must be important.

Why did the posties deliver these things first? They looked at them and saw windows and said, gee whiz, look at this! etc. etc.

I have a tendency to ferret out books for one cent on These are brand new books, some of which have only been out for a couple of years. No one believes me when I tell them about this, though they're easy to find in the New and Used section. I think the problem, besides the fact that for some reason I seem to have zero credibility, is that no one wants anything "used": it makes people think of stale old Salvation Army bins reeking of someone else's armpits.

Literally, I had five books in the pipeline, a record number, when everything came to a screeching halt. Four were from Amazon, but one of them was a review copy for a piece I was assigned to write for the Edmonton Journal, which has now (in the lovely parlance of journalism) been "killed". I also have a free-floating cheque from the Journal for a piece I wrote for them in April. I honestly wonder if I'll ever see it.

I keep thinking about all those thousands, maybe millions of pieces of mail from all across the country that are now in that no-man's-land called the Dead Letter Office. I remember as a school child being threatened that if I didn't get the postage or the address exactly right, that's where my letter would end up, a T. S. Eliot-esque wasteland of correspondence from which there was no return. 

I think this whole bound-and-gagged feeling is stirring up resentment from a strike about ten years ago, infinitely worse than this one or any one I can even think of. It was a bus strike in Vancouver, the usual thing where the Union wanted a 5,000% increase or something like that. 

Since buses are primarily used by senior citizens, people in wheelchairs, the mentally challenged, blind people with golden retrievers, and teenagers, nothing was done for weeks. And weeks. And weeks.

There were a few letters to the editor about this, but the "issue" was so pallid and public interest so non-existent that the strike wore on for a month. Then.  . . two months.

Then, three. Then it became apparent that the month of August was even more useless for trucking around the lame, the halt and the blind than the month of July or June or May, because after all, everyone goes on holiday in August, don't they? For a whole month, at least.

If you don't have the means to go on holiday, if you're on a pension or a fixed income, why then. . . And if you're a bus driver, for heaven's sake, don't you deserve a break?

Irreparable damage was done by this strike, most of it invisible and unheard. Elderly people were unable to get to their medical appointments. People with mental challenges couldn't make their speech therapy sessions, and fell back. Mothers with small babies had to stay home on pitilessly rainy days and listen to them scream and scream and scream. The teenaged kids hitchhiked or sat behind older kids on motorbikes or just drove without a license. No danger there: they're just kids.

This strike was not even remotely addressed until September, when the workforce began to need bus service again. I mean, regular people. Working people, the kind that earn a living wage. None of those embarrassing folk who have to get around on the Loser Cruiser.

Yes, this thing went on for an incredible FOUR months, and this in a major Canadian city that constantly congratulates itself on being "world-class", a city that blathers away about "carbon footprints" and the "greener" alternative.

Such as, public transit.

I don't know, in all the years I've taken transit, not one person has praised me for being "greener". When people find out I use the bus, I get an "ohhhhh", a downward-inflected "ohhhhh" which expresses a sort of embarrassment tinged with pity, as if I've just told them I have bleeding hemorrhoids.

It's OK to pay lip service to transit. Or even to have the odd car-less day, covered eagerly by the news cameras to show the country how environmentally responsible we are in Vancouver. We lead the entire country, in fact!  But as for actually not driving. . .

As one of those mentally-compromised old ladies who regularly use the bus, I felt the lack of it keenly. But I also felt something else. Marginalized. Shunted aside. Powerless. I didn't even have a voice in this. I was shouting into a vacuum.

This stirs up stuff in me, you know? Because somehow, that just seems to be the story of my whole frigging life.

This postal strike didn't drag on for four months, but the only reason it went as long as it did was because of the sort of people who still rely on the mail: old people waiting for their pension cheques, charities mailing out those little guilt-inducing packages in hope of a donation, and people like me, waiting in vain for their piddly little, useless, unimportant review copies so they can get to work again.

It somehow just sounds all too familiar. If you're powerless, you can all too easily be held hostage. 

Monday, June 27, 2011

OWN up, Oprah!

This is the Daily Schedule for OWN.

Want to find OWN in your area? Check our channel listing.

6:00 pm Ryan & Tatum: the O'Neals

7:00 pm The Healthy Gourmet

7:30 pm Eat Yourself Sexy

8:00 pm The Cupcake Girls

8:30 pm The Cupcake Girls

9:00 pm Season 25: Oprah Behind the Scenes

10:00 pm Finding Sarah: From Royalty to the Real World

11:00 pm Ryan & Tatum: the O'Neals

12:30 pm Everyday Food
1:00 am The Locator
1:30 am Why Not with Shania Twain
3:00 am The Right Fit
3:30 am Breathing Space Yoga
4:00 am Smart Cookies
4:30 am Dollars and Sense with Alison Griffiths
5:00 am Maxed Out
5:30 am Maxed Out
6:00 am The Shopping Bags
6:30 am The Shopping Bags
7:00 am Tosca: Flexing at 49
7:30 am Remedy Me!
8:00 am Mystery Diagnosis
9:00 am Becoming Chaz
11:00 am Big Voice
11:30 am Big Voice
12:00 pm Ryan & Tatum: the O'Neals
1:00 pm Season 25: Oprah Behind the Scenes
2:00 pm Finding Sarah: From Royalty to the Real World
3:00 pm Ghostly Encounters
3:30 pm Ghostly Encounters
4:00 pm Psychic Investigators
4:30 pm Psychic Investigators
5:00 pm Rescue Mediums
5:30 pm Rescue Mediums
6:00 pm Breaking Down the Bars
7:00 pm Dark Waters of Crime
8:00 pm The Devil You Know
9:00 pm Ghostly Encounters
9:30 pm Ghostly Encounters
10:00 pm The Locator
10:30 pm The Locator
11:00 pm Cristina Ferrare's Big Bowl of Love
11:30 pm Annabel Langbein: The Free Range Cook

You've got to "own" this, Oprah: your new network is bad. Real bad. It's bad because it's boring. The pallid programming is a real disappointment. And I really wanted to like it, or at least keep on tuning in for a while. But every time I do, it slips downhill a little more.

Oprah has bombed before, most notably with her ego-driven masterwork Beloved, which in spite of her aggressive media-blitz and constant insistence that "this is my Schindler's List" turned out to be an indecipherable mess. In a desperate attempt to recapture those fine and fizzy days of The Color Purple (for which she deservedly won an Oscar nomination), she plunked herself down in the middle of a confusing tangle of a movie, surrealism mixed with violence and a side of racial injustice. It had to sell, didn't it?

No, it didn't.  This sent her into a depression worse than the one she suffered when, after starving herself on an appalling and dangerous liquid diet, all the excess weight came back, and then some.

I get peevish about Winfrey because she began with what looked like real integrity and altruism. But over the years, her fans became sycophants. They cheered insanely and wept when she walked onstage. It was as if she couldn't make a wrong move.

But this new network of hers is a bow-wow. I was amazed at how many quasi-supernatural shows there are, along with the inevitable Gayle King talk show, and reality programs with has-been celebs like Ryan and Tatum O'Neill (who spend the hour taking nasty jabs at each other) and Sarah Ferguson, who insists she's a "victim" of the journalist who outed her for agreeing to sell her ex-husband to the press.

They trapped her! Fooled her! How dare they! So now she's all depressed and hates herself, trying to gain our sympathy in spite of being a felon, at least until the last episode when she is required to make a dramatic turnaround.

I wanted to like Lisa Ling and Our America, and I watched all of them to give it a chance, but it too is pallid and lacks muscle, insight and conviction. If Oprah really chose these programs, and surely to God she must have at least okayed them, she showed a stunning lack of insight/foresight. Ling's show seems to deal exclusively with gender and sexuality issues, as in "pray the gay away" and men going to Third World countries to find (or purchase) "brides".

Her mushy style of journalism is one of the main problems. Ling should stop all the hand-holding and drop the concerned, furrowed brow, which makes her as annoying as that psychologist on Hoarders, whatever her name is, the one who always seems to wear a look of terrible anxiety mixed with practiced compassion.

I can't see into the future - thank God - but my feeling is that this network might just tank. It won't hurt the Big O financially - nothing could - but Kitty Kelley's bombshell book Oprah reveals how hypersensitive the queen of talk TV is to any kind of failure. That is why she spent an entire episode facing the camera and making excuses about her weight gain, then drowning out her guest, the author of Women, Food and God (who barely got a word in about her book) by blathering on and on about how the book was an "epiphany" for her (though I certainly don't see her getting any thinner).

I've written about Oprah before, and I suppose she must count as one of my perennial obsessions. Maybe this is why I have five followers, because my blog is just as boring as OWN! Seriously, I'm  being this tough on her because over the years, her astonishing vanity and habit of rolling around in material wealth has just escalated and escalated, until it dragged her entire audience into the vortex. For the first time since she bailed on her famous book club due to weak ratings, people began to get turned off.

The worst show on OWN (so far) is a behind-the-scenes look at the final season of the show, in which Oprah reveals her frightening diva-hood in all its queasy glory. Her producers tiptoe around her and run into back rooms to sob if she's unhappy with what they've done. In a spectacular instance of passing the buck, she recently canned the CEO of OWN, temporarily replacing her with some guy from Discovery Health (the pallid non-network that OWN supposedly replaced).

Why does this annoy me so much? When a woman has this much influence, she should stop the self-aggrandisement, the constant public insistence of how much good she is doing, and actually do some good. We don't want to see a freakish Ryan O'Neill, his face turned into a rubber mask by bad plastic surgery, throwing poison darts at his (so-called) bitch of a daughter, while his (so-called) bitch of a daughter snaps and snarls about her heartless Dad. This is enlightenment? It's not even entertainment. If you're going to throw the Christians to the lions, which reality TV seems to do, let's not make them stuffy lions from the Walmart.

And more cupcakes we do not need. I don't know how anyone can squeeze a whole show out of a cupcake (or a cookie, for that matter). OK then, enough grousing about what's wrong: so what would I like to see? I love to watch Dateline, 20-20 and 48 Hours, simply because a few times per season they do something fascinating, even riveting. But even the rest of the time, they're still watchable. So there's room for some tough, hard-edged reporting on something besides cross-dressing. Think Diane Sawyer. Think Greta van Susteren. Think, even, Nancy Grace! Awful as she can be, she cuts through the bullshit every time. OK, not these people specifically, but surely there's someone out there who's NOT a name, or not yet, who can do this (for didn't someone take a chance on Oprah herself, a long time ago?)

And in case you think I'm completely against the supernatural, I'm not. I have had plenty of scalp-crawling experiences myself, including my strange walk in the woods from a few posts ago where I found a bridge lying on the grass.  But I have a suggestion here. If Oprah must indulge her apparent craving for the paranormal, why not present decent biographies (where did they go, by the way? Didn't there used to be a real biography channel, now taken over by retreads of Hoarders?) about such fascinating figures as psychic healer Edgar Cayce, theosophy founder Madame Blavatsky, and the Fox sisters, pioneers of spiritualism? But nobody wants to learn anything: they want to one-up each other with creepy-crawly stories so their hair stands on end in a sort of cheap psychic orgasm.

Even one show about the supernatural may be too much, but please don't show the same episode four times in 24 hours. These programs are completely unwatchable, and about as entertaining as a stoned Ouija-board session with a bunch of 14-year-old girls.

Limit the cooking shows to one or two chefs who really have some talent, maybe undiscovered talent.
Get someone other than Gayle King to host your flagship talk show. Hiring your girl friend/platonic life partner doesn't guarantee a quality program.

And can't you see the conflict between shows like The Healthy Gourmet with other programs that focus solely on cookies and cupcakes? I'm sorry, but you can't have it both ways. It's as schizophrenic as women's magazines, in which the latest diet craze appears right next to glossy photos of devil's food cake with an inch of icing.

If you add up OWN programming so far, it's pretty insulting to the women it's supposed to cater to. Oprah must assume we love to see:

(a) people with narcissistic personality disorder playing out their nasty little domestic wars,

(b) high-profile celebrities (Sarah??) plummeting into bankruptcy and disgrace due to their own selfish stupidity,

(c) shows obsessed with dieting, fitness and nutrition, and

(d) shows about cupcakes.

OK den, I guess I've had my say. Oprah does not cope well with public failure, so if her new network continues to limp along, I can see her doing one of two things: scrapping all the current programming and starting from scratch, or scrapping the entire enterprise. Even the boring shows on Discovery Health don't repeat the same pallid ghost story four times in one day.

Sunday, June 26, 2011

Whenever I walk in a London street

Whenever I walk in a London street,
I'm ever so careful to watch my feet;

And I keep in the squares,
And the masses of bears,

Who wait at the corners all ready to eat
The sillies who tread on the lines of the street

Go back to their lairs,
And I say to them, "Bears,

Just look how I'm walking in all the squares!"

Christopher Robin Milne

Saturday, June 25, 2011

The Wolf and the Little Nun: a Faery Tale

That Hieronymus Bosch, what a kidder. In trying to find images for my last post (which, by the way, I photographed myself, so don't make any stupid comments), I found this. I can only look at Bosch a little piece at a time, for the horror of his dark world disturbs me too much. I remember reading a remarkable book called Leap by Terry Tempest Williams, a Mormon writer who decided to analyze and decipher the hidden meanings in Bosch's masterpiece, The Garden of Delights. When I first saw it, I thought, OK then, if this is delight, I'd like to see purgatory!

This little detail of one of his paintings, I don't know which one, just caught me. I isolated the figure of the nun (for surely that's a nun) who might be doing one of several things: holding her hands up in surrender, keeping the wolf at bay, or gesturing it forward.

In the foreground, a wolf ravages a figure that I at first thought was female, but upon closer inspection is a man. He appears to be offering little resistance (i.e. he is either caressing the wolf, or half-heartedly pushing it away, though his hand looks red and mangled.) The wolf has a knife weirdly stuck through the skin on its back. 

But this other bit, the wolf and the little nun: I had to isolate her and do my usual color invert and see what happened. Most of the time this doesn't do anything but make a picture look weird, but once in a while (as with my very ordinary amateur paintings), something unexpected pops out.

Bosch was a subtle fellow, and he may have known something about the negative of a picture, even if such a thing did not remotely exist in his time. For who do we see when the painting is inverted?

It's all too strange, too strange to be comprehended. I'm glad I didn't know the fellow.

(Postscript, from the next day: Jesus! If this really is supposed to be The Man, he's in the classic pose of crucifixion. All that's missing is the cross. That Bosch. Such a kidder.)

Friday, June 24, 2011

The bridge on the grass

This has been boiling around inside of me for this whole day, and I have no idea why. I tried to write about it once before, in a blog I abandoned after an attack by a so-called blog-mate. It was the day I took off into the woods.

I remember the date, May 1, 2005, because my father-in-law had just died and I had just returned from a soul-shredding trip back east for his funeral. I had nothing left in me, but was in that wild, I've-got-to-get-out-of-here state that always makes me slam the door behind me and travel.

On foot. I went off into the woods, and around here that means I went down the street and turned left, but these were public spaces, dog paths, old-lady-jogging places, and I needed far more surcease, more refuge. I needed to get away from the whole damn human race.

I kept walking, and once more turned left.

I was on a bridge. I was aware that a year or so ago, there was no bridge here, never had been. I had a vague memory of someone building one. Why? It led to nowhere.

Or had I tried it once, and found the rough path over the bumpety old tree-roots just too creepy and uncomfortable? I was on that path, and soon borne up by the rushing of streams.

These were hissing, shisshing, fish-and-glitter streams that rushed through my ear canals and rattled the tiny tympani behind them as if gushing through my skull. Suddenly I had the sense of smell of a horse, and, snorting, lifted my head.

The path led ever on. It twisted and wrenched. I was aware of civilization not far away, as if I could even see houses and hear lawnmowers through the cedars. But it couldn't be so, for these woods were primeval, pulling me deeper in. My feet were in a state of hypnosis. I could not refuse.

I went over bridge after bridge. Where had this path been all my life, I wondered  -  inaccessible to the dogwalkers, the granny-runners. Sealed off, yet here. One stream roared like traffic in a tunnel. It was awful, and I sped on.

As if pursued. But look. Here was the place I always turned back. Or not? I had never been on this path, so how could I remember turning back?  My scalp was electric. Beyond this twist lay the place of the faeries.

I can't describe how each tree seemed inhabited, not by a human or a squirrel but by its own fleshwood-spirit. I can't explain how each tree seethed, how burls swelled like pregnancies, wood cancer that somehow popped out of the symmetry of the trunk and made it look hideously deformed.

Then I stopped at the sight of a massive, salmon-coloured stump, the fleshy remains of a huge fallen cedar. It seemed to hum and swarm with life. I wondered where the tree had fallen, and when. And the sound it must have made, and what pushed it over. The tree-flesh seemed vital yet, not grey but livid red, full of ant-tunnels and probably housing one of those termite queens the size of a rat.

I walked beside a huge gully. I have always hated the word gully, it's ugly and hollow and hellish. I remember when I was about two or three, it could be my first memory, falling down into a gully in Delhi where my grandmother lived, and my sister, who was about 15 at the time, bending over me and saying, "Are you wounded?"

My feet slipped in spongy moss and slime. It was a pleasant day, but I was menaced. Something veered and eered. I could not see it. I turned around quickly, and it vanished.

Now strong cords pulled me, whipcords snaking out from under the ground to yank my feet out from under me. I burst into a clearing, and -

I stopped, then stepped, as cautiously as Pocohontas. The ground sank and groaned under me, giving way with each step and leaving a dark depression.  I stopped uncertainly and looked up and all around me.

I stood in an exact circle of tall cedars. I lifted my head and felt a crackling charge of energy whizzing clockwise around and around me. I chanted some sort of prayer that I wish I could remember now, something about my father-in-law. My temporal awareness had burned away like fog.

As I stood in the electrocharged circle I noticed a squirrel violently frisking its tail, jerkily making its way toward me. But it did not stop. It crept and stopped, crept and stopped until it was only a foot away from me. Then another squirrel appeared, and began to creep towards me. They sat up on their hind legs with their tails jerking and their beady eyes glistening in the sun, waiting.

I walked. Huge fallen logs, roots of trees just jutting up in the air: how had they been uprooted? Why were all these trees laughing at me? Then I saw or felt with my foot the weathered slat of an old ladder. Or something like it.

But it wasn't a ladder. It was a bridge. It was a bridge that lay flat on the grass. And it went on and on. I stepped on it and began to walk.

Perhaps the ground wasn't level here. But it was. Perhaps the ground was marshy here. But it wasn't. This thing was, it just was. I wobbled along on the rickety old slats, cursing the fucking little gnome who had put this bizarre useless thing here just to freak me out and make my hair stand on end.

Then. Then I did see something, a minor gully ahead of me where the ground fell away. But the rickety little bridge remained level. Like a horse stepping on a live power line, I jumped back.

Had I walked on it, I surely would have tumbled in.

This was some booby-trap set by a vindictive fairy tale witch, some Tenniel nightmare ink-drawing designed to scare the living shit out of innocent children. I wheeled and ran. And ran and ran, and it was a good thing that no bear ran after me. Everything unspooled and unreeled and unhappened, so that by the time I got home again, I was not even sure any of it had been real.

But I went back a few days later. I had to know. Yes. It was all there. I noticed a humming and a cracking. A subtle sizzling in the air, something that I picked up with the tip of my nose.

This was once a place deep, deep in the black-green uterine core of British Columbia, before the white man came and ripped the hell out of it, as he continues to do. It was a place where you had better not go, not even if you were aboriginal and knew the danger. The place of Goldilocks and Little Red Riding Hood and the Handless Maiden and all those other sweet children who started out innocent, but ended up lost and devoured.

Don't go there. Don't go there, my girl. This is a place of enchantment, but in the archaic sense, the faerie chant seducing you with coils of magic that will never set you free.

All is changed, changed utterly. I go to that place sometimes still, and like a soft drink left out too long in the sun, most of the fizz has gone out of it. But the trees are still murmuring to themselves, nasty little things they don't want me to hear

One day I realized the weird wooden bridge on the grass was gone: just gone, and then I wondered if I had imagined it. So I decided to go a little farther, clambered down and up that gully, and kept going.

A few minutes later, I had no idea where I was.

This was a profound disorientation. I couldn't turn in any direction. The view behind me was even more unfamiliar than the view in front of me. Panic crept up my scalp and I started running, desperately running. Like a hunger, like a thirst, like a stab of unbearable desire, I needed something, anything that looked familiar.

I ran until my lungs ached, and then: I burst out. Burst out of the forest, as if the forest had an actual door. I found myself on a road, a main road, paved, travelled, but completely unfamiliar. I had no idea how I would ever get home.

I walked and walked. I didn't have the nerve to flag a car down. Then I saw something. A bus stop. But I had nothing with me. I wriggled my hands into the pockets of my jeans and came up with a frayed yellow bus ticket that had probably gone through the wash.

I waited and waited. A bus came, a bus I had never heard of before, but it had to take me somewhere, somewhere familiar, somewhere in the civilized world! I made myself look normal, or hoped I did, and got on. I had the thought that I should have some sort of passport, to take me from one mode of being to the next.

I went home to recover, then as I was getting ready for bed I discovered a small bulge in my jeans pocket. I took it out and turned it over. It was a small stone in the exact size and shape of a cat's paw: neat toes and pads on one side, smooth elegance on the other. I didn't remember picking it up. For some reason I put several coats of nail polish on it. I have it still in a case with my jewelry, a bizarre trinket that wouldn't mean a thing to anyone else.