Tuesday, July 22, 2008

For the love of Derek

When I was a 17-year-old boy, PBS in Buffalo, WNED, played the BBC series I, Claudius. As a 15-year-old, I'd studied Latin for a year in grade 10, and the show lit up my Thursday nights to the point that, over 20 year later, I still remember it was Thursday nights. The central figure of the series, the fourth Roman emperor, Tiberius Claudius Drusus Nero Germanicus, was played by Derek Jacobi. I've admired him ever since. He played Nicodemus in The Secret of Nimh, a movie I also admired (and gave Wil Wheaton, famous as Wesley Crusher on ST:TNG and Gordie LaChance of Stand By Me, his start).

Lately, I've been renting the Cadfael (CAD-file) series from Zip.ca. Set in Shrewsbury, England near the Welsh border, in the 12th century, the stories are a sort of medieval CSI with the Benedictine monk Cadfael as the defender of the unjustly accused in a world of trial by water and the belief in witchcraft... a man more of our own day anachronistically condemned to live in the past. Cadfael is, of course, played by Derek Jacobi, the admired eponymous lead of I, Claudius. I would cross the street to see Derek Jacobi read the phone book. And pay for it, too.

Do yourself a favour and rent, if you can, the Cadfael series. And, relatedly, the semi-animated tale of the fictional construction of a catheral in medieval France, Catheral, which features the voice of this great thespian.

Monday, July 14, 2008

Much as I love cats,...

This morning a friend emailed me a link to the funniest thing I've seen in months. It's called Garfield Minus Garfield, and it is, as you might guess, the Garfield comic strip shorn of its eponymous character. The revised strip focuses exclusively on Jon Arbuckle, Garfield's human caregiver... except he has no one to care for. The strips are, of course, cherry-picked for their applicability, but even so, it's a revelation just how well the strips work, and on so many levels, without Garfield in them. Garfield is revealed as the ultimate Jar-Jar Binks of the "first" (fourth, actually, thank you very much) Star Wars movie... even more so than Jar-Jar. After all, the movie wasn't called Jar-Jar Wars, so he can be forgiven for being a superfluous, tacked-on element. That a character for whom a strip is actually named is proven likewise is more startling, and funnier in the extreme.

The guy who does the strip sets it up this way: "Who would have guessed that when you remove Garfield from the Garfield comic strips, the result is an even better comic about schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, and the empty desperation of modern life? Friends, meet Jon Arbuckle. Let’s laugh and learn with him on a journey deep into the tortured mind of an isolated young everyman as he fights a losing battle against loneliness in a quiet American suburb." (Apparently Jim Davis himself is okay with this, and even supportive of it; if that's true, it's certainly a feather in his cap. One's left to wonder if he's recognized the gold in his own strip that he keeps insisting on debasing by adding the iron pyrite of that lump of a cat who has to get in the last word and grind the joke into the dust... After all, he created these, and then buried them under Garfield's kitty litter. The site's author has merely revealed for us what was already there, underneath the dross.)

Trying not to laugh out loud at some of these is a real challenge. Check out these examples. They seem to come in about three varieties... the ones that are hilariously absurd...

...the ones that are oddly, hauntingly poignant...

...and the ones that are like spending the afternoon visiting your senile grampa in the home...

Strolling through the heightened dementia of Garfield Minus Garfield makes for a fun afternoon. Go treat yourself. :)

Sunday, July 13, 2008

Summer utmost

I’ve spent a few summers now indulging in wilderness hiking and skinny-dipping in lush river valleys outside the city, but I think the experience yesterday was probably singular.

P-Doug picked me up at my place around 10 or so and we headed out on the 401 to the west end to ply the roads that follow the Humber, our river of choice, northwest into its still untamed upper reaches. I’m told that the Humber once, millennia ago, drained Lake Huron directly into Lake Ontario, but those days and water levels are long gone and today the Humber is a humbler river of a more manageable human scale. Where we were headed, a little pocket Eden we’ve come to refer to as “Otterwa”, for lack of a real name, the river twists and bends in a deep valley with a flood plain, alternating between runs a few inches deep over stones unfriendly to canoe bottoms and broad, silt-bottomed pools of chest-deep water.

Heading in, the forest floor, carpeted in russet pine needles, was bone dry under my bare feet. I remember thinking how little it would take, just the drop of a match or someone’s cigarette butt, to potentially send the place up. Neither one of us is a smoker, so it wouldn’t be us. The way in we take alternates several times between forest and clearing (one of which is perennially marked by the places deer have flattened sleeping) before the final forested slope down into the valley, where a brief, knee-deep marsh finally yields up the river.

P-Doug stepped into the river first and pronounced it cool, but warmer than our last visit. He also thought that it was higher. I’m dubious, myself; it seems to me that the river is higher in his estimation every time but I have yet to see pairs of animals making their way into the ark, or even water that reaches my shoulders while I’m standing in it. Still, in the absence of any empirical measure, it remains a subjective estimation, so I’m not prepared to say he was mistaken. Anyway, it seemed the same to me.

We waded to our usual landing, where I set my backpack in the ferns and stripped, wading back into the water more fully since there was now nothing to get wet but my skin. P-Doug set his things on the bank and did likewise. The water was cool, but not shocking. It really only took a few moments to get adjusted. The current runs down the landing side of the river, but on the far side (ironically, the side from which we’d actually come down), the bend and other elements have created a pool out of the current where the water moves very slowly and a number of fallen trees have created good places to sit immersed in the water. That’s how I enjoy being there. P-Doug’s strategy is more to find the courage to dunk to the neck and simply remain immersed that way.

The minnows who live in the river were uncharacteristically ravenous for the first 15 minutes or so. They always crowd in to pluck whatever it is they eat off your skin... more a kiss than a bite... but yesterday they swarmed around me in their dozens, some of them as long as my hand and as thick as two fingers, darting it to poke at my legs, my arms, my sides. Not really that much of an annoyance (unless they nibble someplace unmentionable). But it was a little unnerving and so I began sweeping them away, closing my fists quickly to suggest snapping jaws. I don't know if that was enough to dissuade them or whether they just decided there wasn't anything particularly tasty sticking to me, but they buggered off and left me alone after that.

We did what we always do while there… talk about cultural things (movies, mostly), historical moments, political trends… all while indulging in the great luxury of being bare outdoors, in the sun, among the trees, in the water. Primal and natural. At various times we each remarked how privileged we were, but when you think about it, a little over a century before it was absolutely nothing out of the ordinary. It’s how things were on hot summer days. How did we come to lose that, forget that?

We were there for hours, really. Over time the water warmed noticeably until it was, in truth, verging on a temperature I really could characterize as “warm”. Around that time, I noticed a thick, broad natural plank of wood – God only knows the size of the ancient fallen tree that yielded it – poking from the bank behind me like a bunk. I cleared it off and reclined on it with my back and head pressed to the bank, a firm root system holding the earth and plants above me like a canopy. P-Doug decided it would make a good shot and retrieved his camera from the landing to record my languid pose.

The upper landing that we usually sun on to dry off has, this year, been colonized by the most annoying stinging nettles. So eventually I went exploring up river to see if there were any other landings to stretch out on. I did find a couple, clear and only dotted with ferns, but they were in the shade. Seemed like anything that had sun also had the nettles. At one spot where I came ashore, I noticed a wooden plaque nailed to a tree, with an arrow pointing to the river carved and painted onto it. It was weathered and had been there a long time, but it surprised me. It was obviously meant to mark a trail of some kind, or indicate something to someone at some point. Intriguing. Sadly, I’d set off without anything, and I didn’t have my camera with me to take a picture. It was simply, as P-Doug has referred to such technology-deficient incidents, a “Zen moment”. I stepped back into the watery highway to return and report.

When I got back to the pool and the landing, he wasn’t there. There’s a tree just downstream with a large overhang that exactly hid him from view. He’d seen me returning, though, and called out. He was at the marl bank, about a minute downstream from the pool. I waded down there and climbed up. The really active part of the marl bank is roughly the size of a bathtub, and he was laid back on it, half immersed, and covered in grey marl except for his head. I sat on the firmer bank where the marl had dried, and watched as dozens of spiders came running out, black-bodied with huge abdomens so white I thought they must have been egg sacs. They seemed to be able to skate over the wet marl with no trouble at all. After a while I started to notice the clay under my heels was getting wet and soft, and when I began to peddle my feet against the clay, within minutes it had completely transformed into the same thick soup that P-Doug was lying back in. Soon I was sitting flat with my legs buried in the stuff up the knees. It was amazing.

We’d had intermittent sun all the four hours or so we were there but by this time, somewhere about three o’clock, the overcast had been established for around an hour and we began to hear the rumble of thunder. We lingered, indulging ourselves, until prolonged rolls made it clear we were due for a downpour. We pulled out of the marl and washed in the river and began to wade back to the landing just as the first raindrops began to fall. In the minute or so it took us to get back there, the downpour was on. Since we were already wet and naked, P-Doug suggested we trek back to the road that way and spare our dry clothes as long as we could. With any luck, the rain would be over by the time we reached the road. I tucked our clothes into my backpack and we left the river, climbing up out of the valley into the woods.

The rain was really coming down. By the time we got back to the field the deer sleep in, it was coming down in buckets. And it was warm. Warmer than the water of the river. I’ll never forget the image of P-Doug, naked, wandering through a field of waist-deep grass with his arms outstretched to delight in the falling rain.

The same pine needle flooring I’d thought so dry hours before was now verging on mucky and slippery under my feet. My forest fire fears were assuaged. When we were within five yards of the road or so, we decided to dress as minimally as we could, and so we just pulled on our shorts. At least our shirts would remain dry. As we did so, I said to him that it had to have been the most ambitious nude hike we’d yet undertaken; most of a mile up and down hills through forest, brush, and field.

Bare chested, we stepped onto the road. For me it was an interesting sensation because the normally blistering summer blacktop was merely comfortably warm under my feet, cooled by the rain, steaming and extremely pleasant to walk on. Three or four cars passed us on the ten-minute walk back to the car. As we drove away, pub-bound, P-Doug observed that the thing that made the place so wonderful was the childlike freedom it bestows… to swim and wander the place naked, sit on tree limbs, play in the clay with abandon. I remarked that there was nothing like that in my own youth… that I’d had to progress well into adulthood to achieve it. Strange irony.

Sunday, July 06, 2008

Remember Meech?

Actually, I think this political cartoon by Steve Nease from July 24, 1992, was prompted by the second round of constitutional talks that led the country nowhere good and came within a hair of shattering Confederation a few years in 1995 later when Quebec held its second referendum on quitting Canada. I've always found this cartoon a laugh, but really, Mulroney and his "roll of the dice" were nothing to laugh about.

Friday, July 04, 2008

The future ain't what it used to be

Canada will join U.S. by 2010, futurists say
(Toronto Star, July 23, 1992)

WASHINGTON (CP) - Quebec will separate from Canada in 1996 and the other provinces will join the United States by the year 2010, predicts the U.S. World Future Society.

"There are no longer any economic reasons to force Quebec to stay in Canada," write group members Marvin Cetron and Owen Davies in a book called Crystal Globe, which makes sweeping predictions about the world's future.

In a chapter titled "55 United States and Quebec," the Washington-based non-profit research group forecasts that after Quebec leaves Canada in 1996, the four Atlantic provinces will join the U.S. as a single state.

Later, the authors say, Ontario will be admitted to the U.S. as a state and the Western provinces, which will have more in common with their southern neighbors, will form two more states.

The book also predicts Cuban leader Fidel Castro will join the Western powers, Israel will give up the occupied territories to make peace in the Middle East and Japanese economic might will decline rapidly.

The concept of a bilingual, bi-cultural Canada will fall apart, the authors predict, because English Canada is not prepared to five Quebec any more powers, he collapse of the Meech Lake constitutional accord in 1990 is cited as a case in point.

Giving Quebec a veto over the rest of Canada is "a privilege that 20 million Canadians are not ready to give."

Redrawing the country into four or five semi-autonomous zones isn't expected either, the group says, because Quebec and Ontario would dominate and that would be opposed by the West and the Atlantic provinces.

An independent Quebec would be as affluent and populous as Switzerland, and three times as large, the book points out. And the new country would have no problem negotiating a free trade deal of its own with the United States.

Thursday, July 03, 2008

Seen of late in three dimensions...

Cross your eyes a little and put yourself in the scene...