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Monday, September 26, 2005

Through a Glass, Angrily

Portrait of the Blahger as a Young Man

Saturday night I drove Sylvia down to Julio's Barrio on Whyte Avenue for her friend Norma's birthday party. As I was preparing to turn right onto Whyte from Calgary Trail South, I heard a distant banging from my left. Sylvia was talking, so I was distracted, trying to pay attention to what she was saying while also figuring out what was making the noise.

I glanced to my left and saw a young guy in his early twenties sitting in the front passenger seat of an old, grey subcompact; it had "4 Sale" signs crudely painted all over its surface, including the windows. The young man was banging on his window, and he was looking right at me with an intensely angry expression on his face. I was confused, looked away to answer a question from Sylvia, all the while trying to focus on my driving.

The banging got louder and I looked over again; the young man was practically foaming at the mouth with rage, his face twisted and bright red. I reached for the button that would have rolled my window down, but the light turned green and the car sped off, and I was free to make my turn onto Whyte. I found a spot to park, escorted Sylvia to the restaurant, and returned to my car to ponder over what, exactly, had happened to spark the other man's rage. Finding no answers, I drove home.

The incident reminded me of a similar case of unprovoked aggression, one that happened to me a couple of years ago. It was Canada Day, and I decided to check out the fireworks show, parking my vehicle on Jasper Avenue and walking down to Ezio Farone park. The fireworks were fine, and I started the walk back to my car, along with thousands of other people.

But shortly after I began my return journey, a dark-haired young man started taunting me with insults too base to justify repeating here. He was accompanied by a small cluster of like-minded friends, who pitched in on the abuse to varying degrees. They definitely wanted to start a fight, but I was too disgusted and angry to rise to the bait; I just told them that their behaviour was appalling, and that they should know better.

Looking back, I think I should have been scared, but there were plenty of people around; I could have called for help if I really needed it. But I wasn't even thinking in those terms; I was offended.

They followed me for a few blocks, trying out various forms of insult, and I started to feel very sad and sorry for them. An awful attitude, I know, to feel superior, but in that moment I did, and I immediately started to feel guilty about it. I tried to empathize, to understand the vulnerability that would lead someone to hurl abuse at a stranger.

Maybe I did begin to understand at the end, because by the time the crowd thinned out and we were alone, the ringleader shook my hand and told me "no hard feelings." Maybe it was his turn to feel superior; who knows?

Like many kids, I was a victim of bullying, though thankfully those days are far in the past. Those experiences left a powerful impression on me. What drives someone to attack a stranger, when the violence isn't in the cause of sheer survival? I can't imagine the kind of mentality it takes to behave that way. Is it a form of mental illness? Or are some people simply badly socialized?

I don't know. But I wish I could have made the guy in the car feel better.

Monday, September 19, 2005

Earl vs. the Flying Saucers

At the office today we had a short conversation about restaurant service, and the different expectations of customers. Some people seem to expect a lot from servers, and I can understand that attitude to an extent; no matter what the job, you should always strive to do your best.

But when it comes to food service workers, I'm always pleasantly surprised when the servers are friendly and competent. Frankly, given their wages and low social status, I'm very surprised that they don't spit in our food out of spite, and yet most servers do their very best to put on a smile no matter how much they hate their job.

So give your server, pizza delivery person, or clerk a break. They don't get them very often. And besides, you never know when they could be vaporized by aliens.

Thursday, September 15, 2005

Rewriting Future History: Theodore Judson's Fitzpatrick's War

Cover of the mass-market paperback edition of Fitzpatrick's War (2005)

Fitzpatrick’s War, the first novel by Theodore Judson, takes the form of a memoir, also named Fitzpatrick’s War, now being republished in its second edition in the year (very much of our Lord) 2591. The memoir’s author, one Sir Robert Bruce, venerable and guilt-ridden former officer of the world-spanning Yukon Confederacy, has put pen to paper to set the record of his master Fitzpatrick’s conquests straight.

In the book-within-a-book, Bruce relates the eventful years of his youth, from his teenage years as a common solider fighting on the Mexican frontier through his meeting with future conqueror Isaac Fitzpatrick and the war they waged together against a nearly helpless world.

Bruce’s story is compelling enough, with its futuristic and yet somehow nostalgic tales of war waged with steam-powered jet aircraft, zeppelins, and “firesticks,” which seem to be some sort of portable napalm that melts terrain and enemy alike into glass. Bruce’s world overflows with treachery, intrigue, male bonding, beautiful women, mad scientists, snappy uniforms, exotic but gallant Noble Savages; if "Tarzan" and "John Carter of Mars" creator Edgar Rice Burroughs were alive today, he may have written something quite like this…with one important difference: he would not have included the editorial notes that give the memoir its vital context.

As we are told in the “Introduction to the Annotated Edition,” this version of Fitzpatrick’s War is being published on the fiftieth anniversary of the first edition – not to bring a celebrated work back into print, but to expose the memoir as a treacherous lie. For the editor of Bruce’s work puts himself firmly on the side of orthodoxy in a decades-long controversy over the veracity of Bruce’s claims. In the world of 2591, Fitzpatrick is venerated, his short rule a Golden Age, his war the high point of an empire’s proud history. Bruce’s work calls this version of history into question, and since it’s too late to suppress the book, it must at least be smeared as a pack of lies.

This unusual construction means that the book has two audiences: the audience of the real world of 2005, who read a rousing SF adventure story, and the imaginary audience of 2591, reading a controversial historical record, engaged in a one-way “conversation” with the work’s editor, named only once as “Ro.” We, the audience of reality, are invited, indeed almost forced, by this construction to consider the reactions of the fictional reader, the one constantly assured and patronized by the editor, the one who must perhaps read the book, if not in hiding, than at least with a sense of a man reading a comic book on a subway: embarrassed, guilty pleasure.

The book raises a number of interesting issues, most especially the power that publishers have over authors. Thanks to the ever present editor’s footnotes, we are constantly reminded that “this passage was not included in the 2541 edition,” or “Bruce is obviously lying here; see Gerald, page 541.” And yet, the essential, terrible truth of Bruce’s account is all too clear to any but the dullest reader: not only was Fitzpatrick’s global war an unjust atrocity, a holocaust, the reader himself must be aware that he is living in a repressive, if not wholly bleak, society. We are even led to wonder whether this 2591 edition is truly the unexpurgated text or if, as in the 2541 edition, several passages have been Bowdlerized or outright omitted?

Or is this, in fact, the editor’s true purpose? While the text is studded with footnotes that constantly call into question Bruce’s character, a deeper reading reveals that the mysterious Ro may, in fact, be playing a very dangerous and subversive game. Bruce’s account is permeated with the ring of truth, since Bruce himself is merciless with regards to his own weaknesses and his participation in Fitzpatrick’s peerless atrocities. His love for his wife Charlotte, his empathy for the Chinese, Indian and African citizens he encounters while at war (whom in his neo-Victorian culture are seen as subhuman), his attempts to mitigate the effects of Fitzpatrick’s war, his loyalty to his friends and even his inevitable, justified betrayal of Fitzpatrick all encourage the reader – both of 2005 and 2491 – to see Bruce’s record as true. The editor’s constant attacks on Bruce’s text become more and more transparent and serving of the current ruling regime with every page.

Therefore it is reasonable to wonder if the anonymous editor is in fact using Bruce’s text as a tool, a means of forcing his fellow citizens to question their sanitized view of history. In the Introduction, the editor states,

“When it became generally known among my colleagues at St. Matthew’s University that I was preparing a new edition of the liar’s book, the Lord Dean of the History and Other Literatures Department took me aside one day during afternoon tea and asked me man to man, ‘Look here, Ro, do you really need to be blowing new cinders into old holocausts?’

Therefore, let me declare before I sojourn too far in res I most certainly do not accept the whole or any part of Bruce’s account as Historic fact. Unlike real Historians, Bruce consistently strives for sensation and does not instruct his readers in virtue.”

A very telling passage, for it reveals that the role of history itself has been subverted in this culture; its purpose is to uphold virtue, presumably those virtues held in esteem by the current ruling class.

Ro continues:

“Why then, as the freshman in the famous anecdote demands, should we read this book? The answer of course is that just as Plato taught us that pleasure comes from having known pain, and as St. Augustine demonstrate (sic) that redemption arises from knowing sin, the great philosopher and Historian Murrey has shown that knowing truth comes from being familiar with lies; indeed, truth could not exist without its opposite…

Even novice scholars must start with the premise that there are certain master thinkers who cannot be challenged, but only appreciated and, in rare instances, improved upon. Therefore, by confronting Bruce’s outlandish exaggerations we can discern the excellence of the accepted accounts of Fitzpatrick’s life.”

Ro is taking great pains to explain why he has undertaken what is obviously seen as a dubious enterprise, one questioned by his academic peers. He doth protest too much, it seems, and it is in the book’s afterword that Ro’s true purpose can be divined. Ro rants for a time about Bruce’s supposed lies, and yet he gives the final word to the account of a humble fisherman, Edward Tolde, who knew Sir Robert and his family in their later years and told his story to a magazine writer named Cather.

“I think I only need to quote the simple fisherman as he speaks in the article to give us an accurate picture of what sort of man Bruce was. I will conclude my commentary with what Tolde said to Cather, which speaks for itself:

Sir Robert was a peculiar sort of chap in the village, sir. I mean to say, he was more approachable and kinder to people than you would think a man of his position would be. He had his general’s pension when he was old, and he and his wife always sent off a portion of what they got each month to an orphanage in Grand Harbor or else they gave it to anybody in the village they thought needed some help.”

The fisherman goes on to relate how the aged Bruce saved some Nipponese sailors from a lynching, and details some of his “scandalous” behaviour with his wife – scandalous in that he was known to dance with her or kiss her palms in public, lewd and unseemly acts in the Yukon Confederacy. It is a wholly sympathetic portrait, completely undermining all Ro’s words, cementing in the readers’ minds the truth of Bruce’s account.

So in the end, we are left to wonder: is the world of 2491 so repressive that Ro actually believes every word he writes about Bruce, without irony, unaware that some of his readers (at least the “real” readers of 2005) will be compelled to take a viewpoint to which he is ostensibly opposed? Am I, as one of those readers of 2005, merely imprinting my cultural mores on the imaginary editor?

Or is there reason to hope that the world of 2491 is at last beginning to change, to question its own history? Is Ro a fundamentally honest historian, bringing a controversial work back into the public eye in the only way he can, given the restrictions of his time?

Only one thing is certain: history, yet again, has been written by the winners. But it can be rewritten, the truth brought back to the fore, if some of those winners can follow the dictates of their conscience.

A Little-Known "Reserve Activation Clause"

...or in other words, Captain sir, they drafted me.

That is, Sean drafted me to pick winners in his NFL Death Metal challenge, a no-holds-barred grudge match to see who has the best NFL football acumen. Sean battles In the Now's Liam Johnstone (who is not Stone Cold Steve Austin), while I, with my dearth of football knowledge, serve as a "control factor," to use Sean's terms.

Well, I made my picks, and what they may lack in accuracy, I hope they make up for in humour. And even if they don't, Sean's blog has several new and very funny posts, well worth reading, particularly the Comments sections. Sean is using comment spam as a source of ribald (to put it mildly) wit, with excellent results.

So for some off-site Blahg-style Earlisms and the inimitable mirth only Sean can bring you, visit Sean's blog now!

Monday, September 12, 2005

The True Secret of Rich Corinthian Leather

Remember those old car commericals in which Richardo Montalban extolled the virtues of the car's "rich Corinthian leather?"

Well, check out this string of comments on Sean's blog. Click above, on the title of this blog posting, and all will be revealed.

Thursday, September 08, 2005

The Strange Case of Mr. Woods and the Bubblegum Trap, or, An Evening with the Flagpole Impalers

What Gummed Up Earl's Works

I knew that opening the trash can was a mistake, but I had a receipt to throw away. So I flipped open the lid, and POW - buckets of bubble gum exploded into my face, leaving me stunned. The circus music that normally plays over and over in my head was suddenly replaced by George Harrison's "What is Life," and it seemed oh-so-appropriate - what is life? Life is when the garbage spits buckets of bubble gum in your face.

And yet, that was only the beginning of my troubles.


The sinister visage of...EYE-GORE!

Little is known of Eye-Gore, Cyclopean Triple Amputee. Though, like many residents of Earth-69, he possesses paranormal abilities, Eye-Gore has yet to choose a side in the neverending battle between Chaos and Order. (However, he is known to have a somewhat adversarial relationship with ORDER stalwart Rock Savage.)

Wooed by both sides for his incredible combat skills and iron constitution, Eye-Gore is a man to watch, and could tip the balance between good and evil.

Tuesday, September 06, 2005

I Axe You

Like me, you've probably seen commercials for those "body sprays" for men, Axe and Tag and Zap and Moo and whatever. In the ads, a good-looking guy tries out the product in a store or sprays it on before going out, and suddenly gorgeous, often scantily-clad women leap upon him, sexually enraged, hormones throbbing, too warm for his form to control themselves.

So it occurred to me: what happens if you spray a female with one of these sprays? Do buxom, scantily-clad, sex-crazed vixens suddenly pop out of the woodwork for some impromptu, unrestrained Sapphic action?

If so, I'm buying a can or two.

Monday, September 05, 2005

Bring Me the Head of Earl J. Woods

Over the weekend, Colin, Mike, Pete and I went over to Jeff's place to watch some movies. First, we watched Appleseed, a beautiful but somewhat sterile anime; then, Star Wars; and then...Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia.

One of these things is not like the others...

I brought it over, because a), the awesome title, and b), it was directed by Sam Peckinpah, director of The Wild Bunch, perhaps the last great western until Clint Eastwood revived the genre with Unforgiven. (Peckinpah also directed Convoy, a byproduct of the CB radio craze of the late 70s, but nobody's perfect.)

The film's pace is...somewhat slower than modern audiences are accustomed to. In fact, it's fair to say that the film consists of many scenes of the bartender and his girlfriend talking (with many pauses) and driving along dusty Mexican roads, punctuated by the occasional gunfight. At one point Kris Kristofferson, playing a biker, attempts to rape the protagonist's girlfriend, and even that scene is so measured and laid back that Pete exclaimed, "Jesus Christ! They can't even make a rape dramatic!"

It's a fair criticism, and we started skimming the film at about the halfway point, watching the final scene only to see how it ended. But I watched the film properly yesterday, front to back, and I discovered that even though the film is far from Peckinpah's best, it does have something important to say about violence. At one point the protagonist, a bartender who digs up Alfredo Garcia's head for the promise of a ten thousand dollar cash payout, demands to know why the head is so important.

"Sixteen people have died for this," he screams, genuinely anguished, even though some of those people were thugs who were trying to kill him. And later on, when he has the chance to take home a cool million for the head, he turns down the money and metes out brutal justice instead...and then, at the last minute, goes back for the money, and of course is gunned down in the end.

The irony is this: Alfredo's head was wanted so badly because he impregnated, out of wedlock, the daughter of a rich Mexican crime boss. The mobster wants him Garcia killed, but Garcia dies in a car accident before a single bounty hunter can collect. Of course the mobster isn't told this, and the bloodbath over the corpse ensues, and twenty five people die for nothing by the film's end. The bartender loses his girlfriend, his self-respect, and his life, all for the prospect of a lousy ten thousand dollars...and even when that reward climbs to a million, he hardly seems to care, and indeed seems pretty fatalistic about his prospects when he takes the cash.

What I find interesting is that Peckinpah, who's been called a fascist, a misogynist, and a glorifier of violence, made such a point of showing how stupid the whole affair is. The lone voice of reason, the bartender's sympathetic prostitute girlfriend, is dragged along for the ride, trying to talk her man out of his folly, but of course she fails and dies at the hands of rival bounty hunters. We aren't shown how she's killed; it happens off camera, which is unusual for Peckinpah, who has been criticized for his depictions of casual violence against women. (Watch Straw Dogs for perhaps the most horriflying example, and even in Alfredo Garcia, women are slapped around for the most minor of offences - one is even knocked unconscious for no reason at all.) The prostitute even appears somewhat saintly in her shallow grave, which is appropriate since she's the only sympathetic character in the movie.

The film ends, as several Peckinpah films do, with a massacre that leaves scores of dead, the good, the bad and the innocent alike; the final image is that of a machine gun barrel, blasting away at the audience, perhaps Peckinpah's not-so-subtle critique of his fans, who come, after all, for the bloodshed. (I don't excuse myself from this crowd; violence may be the lazy writer's most versatile and dependable tool, but there's a reason for that: it's exciting.)

I have to wonder what Peckinpah would think of today's hyperviolent films, in which scores of people are blasted to atoms by aliens, crushed beneath tidal waves, or obliterated by unstoppable serial killers from beyond the grave, without a single thought given to the lives of the disposable characters. At least Peckinpah's sacrificial lambs usually had a bit of backstory, even if it consisted of only a costume choice or a single line of dialogue, to make us care about the characters as human beings, rather than meat for a cinematic abbatoir.

I'm not trying to excuse Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia - it's not a great film, or even a good one - but I think it is important as part of Peckinpah's body of work, and unlike many of today's exploitation pictures, it at least tries to make the viewer think a little. The 70s were good for that.