Phenomenologies of Shock & Awe

dogdarthHalloween is a giant among giant holidays.  How big? Last year the US-based National Retail Council reported that 15% of American households would be putting their pets in costumes for the holiday.

While feasts for the dead are common around the world we in North America are relative newcomers. I recall, for instance, a time in the early 60s when my parents forbade us from partaking in candy-getting. By the early 70s me and my two sisters freely joined our contemporaries and many fructose-fuelled forays followed.

What exactly they were saving us from remained unclear. Was it the prospect of spontaneous devil worship while in nighttime proximity to all those witches and goblins? It could have been white slavery. I recall heated exchanges about this. My Mother told my sisters that a white slaver could – in broad daylight – inject a potion behind their knees and whisk them away. Then came her silent pursed lipped admonition: “What kind of latitude,” I imagined her scolding, “might they exercise late at night?”

windsorOr it could have been our own dire and thoroughly unredeemable poverty. While the folks put on a brave face we lived in the Projects for many years and stretching a dollar was a daily chore. Maybe giving away candy was just too expensive?

Today the institution of zcHalloween feels more like a case of societal delerium tremens than a celebration. En masse, we briefly withdraw from our addiction to complacency by costuming pitiful identities in frightfully risky garb and gorging ourselves with super-charged confections. Then the obedient servant dies, momentarily, to feast on his or her own flesh. You got it. One night each year we become Zombie Cannibals lurching forward like a pouty 14-year old having found nothing but tofu and almond milk in the refrigerator.

So, for us Westerners, Halloween may be less of a feast and more of a palate cleansing, a cultural detox where outward expressions of indulgence sooth inner expressions of insouciance. There is surely nothing hallowed about it. Neither do we reflect on those who have passed this veil of tears, nor do we visit cemeteries to lay wreaths. Instead we trod through the anonymizing darkness, gazing into skies lit with fireworks. We venture together into the gore of impossible human aloneness and engage familiar phenomenologies of shock and awe.

houseAnd so I struggle to pay attention. This year among the many things that drew me to death plain and simple was a lyrical invitation by a local radio station. The announcers solicited sinister songs from listeners. What a grand idea. Here lay an opportunity to produce a counterpoint to the tenor of terror by engaging a first person take on the past of a present tense. This is the choice I made.

lovitThe Ballad of Dwight Fry is a deranged little ditty that first appeared in 1971 with the release of Love it to Death. Unlike tracks such as Eighteen and Is it My Body, The Ballad of Dwight Fry overturns late-adolescent concerns with independence and sex by situating a long-suffering parent in an institutional circle of hell.

martin-agnes_previewNo doubt the inversion provided great pleasure for some listeners. For me, it engaged multiple anxieties about an as yet unconsidered future. “See my lonely mind unfold, I see it every day!” Indeed.

All-in-all, it takes Dwight about six-and-a-half minutes to creep from madness to murder. His journey begins with a child’s lament “Mommy, where’s Daddy, he’s been gone for so long,” ascends to a chilling and ineffectual plea for release, and concludes with sonic bi-polarity: inexplicably, searing anthemic guitar licks fade into a cover of Sun Arise, a tune by Rolf Harris of Tie Me Kangaroo Down fame?

Like Halloween, The Ballad of Dwight Fry, foreshadows disturbingly adult ends. It is an oddly positioned artifact whose gallows guitar and straitjacketed songlines tie into asylum seeking narratives of the time. As Frederick Wiseman’s Titicut Follies, Ken Kesey’s One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, and Lindsay Anderson’s O Lucky Man all show, madness and its keepers are equal opportunity employers.

DWThe Ballad of Dwight Fry is the perfect Halloween song for another reason. There really was a Dwight Freye. This song is a tribute to a thespian who appeared in spooky classics like Dracula, Frankenstein, and the Vampire Bat; a fella who was known among his Hollywood peers as The “Man with the 1,000 Watt Stare;” an actor who survived the death of silent films; and, the person who, in 1943, fatally infarcted while riding transit in Los Angeles.

My parents, for good reason, were wont to regularly warn me off drug use. Having lived through a catastrophic depression and a second world war they believed that clearheadedness  trumped cosmic insights when it came to bare knuckles and survival. I paid attention, somewhat.

My 13-year old brain paid much more attention to songs like the Ballad of Dwight Fry. teenIn the wee hours when American DJs would play this song – likely hoping to toss a detour sign on some poor soul’s hallucinogenic off-ramp – I was drawn closer to a world of mental illness and its manifest destinies. Its limitlessness drew me in and its purgatorial possibilities scared the crap out of me. More important than suggesting an uncertain future lay ahead, the Ballad of Dwight Fry showed me that the Monster, having gotten out from under the bed, now crawled beneath my skin.


The Economy and the Other

“[The Niquab’s] not by any means the biggest issue of this campaign. The biggest issue is the economy, but I think our position is widely understood and supported.”

Hon. Stephen Harper, 6 October, 2015

Silvia Pelissero - MagazineHow is it that during the last 60 days Canadian political discourse has shifted from “the economy” to “the other?”

On August 4th, 2015, Prime Minister, Stephen Harper kicked off his campaign by…

And now just 2 months later? Our Prime Minster proposes that if elected he would introduce dress code legislation for civil servants.

So what gives? Well, it’s an election – our 42nd – and teams of every political stripe will behave badly. Campaigning favours those who foment friction, sacrifice decency for expediency, and soothe the indigestion of lapdog constituencies with balms drawn from the public purse.

lapdog&cakeBut I sense something transformational at play. When Bill Clinton, in 1992, admonished “it’s the economy, stupid” he invoked a realpolitik with the American people that refocused their interest from a desert storm of externalities to domestic capacity for dominating the world’s economy.

imagesWould we be wrong to think that in 2015 the Conservative Party of Canada (CPC) is simply stealing a page from Clinton’s playbook? Yes. In 1992 the world was still pretending remnants of industrial civilization existed. Not so today.

In Canada, almost a quarter-century down the road “it’s the knowledge economy, stupid!” And among the political parties the CPC have effectively demonstrated how they have harnessed its capacity to divide and rule.

o-MUNIRA-ABUKAR-facebook-e1414215445225Each day a discursive leap takes us from economic prosperity to identity politics: a shift from party platforms of collective goal attainment to an Othering that conflates our economic well-being, e.g.,#TPPA, with a need to include only the right kind of Canadians. Manipulative and awful right? But maybe also a harbinger for a virtualpolitik that will do real damage to national decision-making down the road.

Seasoned politicos balk at this characterization. But while the punditry has rehearsed the art of vote getting over and again, they have rarely shone a light on micro-targeting, the algorithms behind precision voter analytics, and the strategic wins it yields. Screen-Shot-2013-10-29-at-4.47.50-PM-800x413#Elxn42 is a “live and do” experiment with disenfranchisement. It signals the re-alignment of cognitive boundaries and the altogether human disengagement that custom messaging invokes within our civil society.

What is being bred in our bones? First, isolation. We may rightly observe that Canadian community is being cut loose from the processes of participatory democracy. The CPC hates the public sphere. It pulls back its candidates from open debate in local fora and directs them to front stoops to privately persuade electors that lurking threats are more real than ever.

aa2cb579f75be189038a82f3257bee9cWe’re ultimately addressable. Our digital devices pretty much make us all cross-indexable, sortable, assignable and, importantly, predictable. The rattle and hum of big data analytics pinpoints preferences and constructs profiles.  Ask yourself this: how many pop-up screens or automated survey calls prompted your vote before election day?  What else? Many of us have accepted that a money value can be attached to any aspect of life. If we can be monetized then Others can be worthy of naught.

lingusBriefly, Alphonso Lingus wrote a brilliant little book suggesting that community exists in the unique nothingness that we share. For him a community of those who have nothing in common is resilient and vital. It resists the drone of incessantly repeatable cultural code assigned to us on our behalf. Lingus sees the fullness of life in the noisiness – the strangeness and the strangers – that appear and retreat from time to time.

The interweb of knowledge economy as practiced by the CPC specializes in Othering. It enables election narratives that construct virtuous avatars, imagine despicable threats, and incite ruthless trolls. Importantly, it places the “Other” outside civil society and targets segments of supporters to engage in unacceptable behaviour.

What can we do about it? Get noisy. Talk to each other. Engage in the flesh: see, smell, and feel the diversity that makes us a glorious community of free-thinking, beautiful beings. Then vote, so that in four or five years you can say, “it’s the polyphony, stupid!”

Subway Series (for Howard)

150918: Mets 5, Yankees 1; 150919: Yankees 5, Mets 0; 150920: Yankees 11, Mets 2

ph_citi_field_ext_night_480x200Behind the plate
A veteran starter

Conjures dog-time adagio
Against the jack rabbit allegro of his moundsman

Number two

Number one’s

A catcher and a pitcher
In a bandbox


making chin music

Leaned forward
They anticipate

Life in the hot corner
Just ahead


The control artist’s

Tossing aspirin tablets

In the show

Fêting Fatal Fantasies: How abnegating agency is assimilating abeyance

Who is playing the game?My inventive friend Tom placed Lawrence Kuhn’s ‘what if’ piece in front of me. It appears to be science and fiction. More or less the article asks if we, like Neo and Agent Smith, are pieces in a grand simulation, elements in a Gamer’s gambit?

While Kuhn ultimately rejects the idea that the earth’s population is the equivalent of Sim City for higher life forms he somehow feels beholden to acknowledge that the scenario does “seem to work.” I vouchsafe his existential position as a scientist and question his priorities: just where the heck is this guy’s head at?

Is Kuhn a proxy provocateur? A messenger for meta-magnitude tinkerers? Or is the fake fakes universe precept just more mental masturbation, an alien gambol, a human end run around a crowded conclusion: the earth is fucked.

It is lovely to think that somehow a race track has been created and that all of the actors at the track are infinitely malleable. Imagine that kind of endowment. A collective ‘we’, each with a bonnet to be lifted by one or more mechanics and messed with; a desire stroked, an excuse invented, a compassion curtailed, a notion enlivened.

Document4Ariana Page Russell DermatographiaHaving encoded us inside and out our betters become our bettors. Like the pygmy at the Bronx Zoo, we are an object of transactional interest, something to be placed, positioned and prodded.

And once we’re in play we gain access to a tiny war chest of inversions: Man Ray, Noire et Blanche, 1926, copyright man rayfight and flight, affability and insufferability, mania and quietude, curiosity and disinterest, ignorance and ambition. Whether we’re Dead or Alive we never ever really know where we’re located: on the rail, 2 furlongs behind, under the stands lighting a wick… Perhaps some gin-swilling poseur has abstracted our noesis and made dadism faceless after all.

What great fun the speculative worm hole presents. But is it reasonable at this climate-changing moment for the Scientiferatti to propose that our heart beating hamster wheel can be reduced to a mortal coil app for Others to shuffle? And if so, should we assume that when meta-multiversalist players roll the brontobytes there is – could be – even the slimmest possibility for us – nay, for just one of us – to influence positive change? Can we humans outwit the house? Might we register parsec level gains? Or is our due the simulacrumbs that fall from the table?

imagesIt may be that I discovered human agency too late in life. I adore the mystery that we’ve invested in being and becoming: a clumsy spiral of unintended consequences emanating from simple questions. “And you may find yourself living in a shotgun shack. And you may find yourself in another part of the world. And you may find yourself behind the wheel of a large automobile. And you may find yourself in a beautiful house, with a beautiful wife. And you may ask yourself-Well…How did I get here?” But in this particular ring of hell you may well not ask.

Gerhard Richter, Brigitte Bardot's lips, 1963The maw on our modern content hole is fabulously large. It’s a demand algorithm inviting polyglottalists to make shit up and an error-inducing dome of silence that tastes and replicates its own leavings. Kuhn’s academic authorities – you will note no philosophers in that gaggle – speculate about interventions by otherworldly civilizations with the same kind of reverence as biblical scholars who suggest a heavenly puppet master.

simulacrumI see a fascist inclination in both views.  Simulationism and creationism are stories that insist on  a higher form maintaining control. Us? Endless copies. No fixed address. No capacity to perturb.

Whether its for Gaming or Evangelizing, the Fundamentalists who advance these views share an overpowering nihilism. They let us off the hook. “To hell with the planet,” they seem to say, “the next level looks really cool, four horsemen and an apocalypse!”



Heat…for M

This Heat
(July 23, 2015)

This heat

Into the evening
At night
The moon orbits
Among icy stars

Into the morning
As sunrise
Single birds awake
In cool branches

Into the moment
After noon
Late July confesses
Between us

Into the water, the muck, the universe

This heat

Let’s Talk About Helmet Use – Sharing Safety Strategies with the Condom Crowd

Glory! The policy wonks at Statistics Canada have opened their 2013-14 data vaults and issued a pre-summer presser that highlights safety.  What’s most interesting about the Community Health Survey is how the data mine in Ottawa has serendipitously linked use of helmets by cyclists and use of condoms in the general population. First a quick summary:

Just Cyclists

  • 11.9M Cdns (12 or >) rode a bicycle
  • 42.5% say they always used a helmet
  • Compliance lowest among 18-19 yr olds (20.6%)


Everybody Else

  • 11.8M Cdns (15 to 49) had sex with 2 or more partners
  • 57.5% used a condom
  • Compliance highest among 15 to 19 yr olds (70.8%)


What does this data tell us?
Many young people routinely make good choices before having sex whereas many of those same young folk make poor choices when they hop on a bike.  It’s a little confusing. Unlike helmets, condom use is not mandated by law. Still there has been a consistent and widespread public health campaign (in the media, in schools, among families) that condom use – while only one of many strategies – is an easy and effective way to prevent procreation and sexually transmitted infections. Cultural messaging emphasizes that using a condom won’t make the wrong impression with the person you’re – er – trying to impress.

And despite medical evidence that wearing helmets is positively associated with injury prevention  (e.g. reducing brain trauma), the upsides of helmet use are hotly disputed. Judging from the data, parents neither believe that the helmet laws are legitimate, nor accept that their kids need to wear helmets. Only 37.5% of 12-17 yr olds said they always used a helmet when cycling. A stunning result considering that all Canadian provinces with the exception of Québec, Saskatchewan, and Newfoundland require helmet use for this age group.

Cultural messaging about helmet use seems to be governed by cosmetic rationale: talking points emphasize the impact of helmets on personal appearance. Aesthetics trump prevention! Simply put, helmet use is seen to be uncool. They muss your hair, collect perspiration, make your head look really big and, generally, fail to impress  colleagues, peers, and potential mates with whom you might share a condom one evening.

elasun-cyclingFrom a cycling point-of-view, these data tell us plenty about lifestyle choices. Presumptive measurements of risk based on individual helmet use disregard a key element of condom use. It’s not just an individual’s decision to wear one or not: couples share a common concern.

However the intimate social nexus that governs sexual engagement doesn’t exist for cyclists. Here we speak only about individuals and their right to choose one way or another, an approach that  excuses a panoply of road users from a public dialogue on cycling safety. The braggadocio of helmetlessness extinguishes factors like human error, congestion, road rage, blind spots, speed, and the multiple distractions that plague modern motorists. It reinforces a logic that crashes and their consequences should be assigned to individual cyclists.

On top of that there is no coordinated public health engagement with cycling safety (in the media, in schools, among family members) that rounds out preventive strategies when cycling in traffic. Ask yourself when was the last time you saw a commercial advertising a brand of helmets on a major media channel? Or for that matter, when was the last time your North American government released a well produced public service announcement like this one from the UK?

Looking at these Statscan survey results shouldn’t we wonder why our transportation safety choices are so naive, careless, adolescent even. Clearly, youth understand the relationship between unprotected sex and suffering: the consequences of sexually transmitted diseases or perhaps worse, pediatric parenthood.

conFrom an early age kids are taught how to fit rubbers on bananas, told where they can acquire condoms for free, and learn a range of safe sex practices to help them “love the one they’re with.”

And yet parents and the North American institutions that support their interests have neither associated helmet use with injury prevention, nor have they taken steps to augment physical protection with awareness measures and skills-based programs promoting safe cycling. As a result we’ve amplified helmet trash talking and – unlike our sexual educator friends – we’ve diminished our capacity to support a comprehensive approach  to cycling safety. Whether you put a prophylactic on your penis or your head the fact is that protection begins before you go for a ride.

Feedback (for Lydia Davis)

Under aged

at the Michigan Palace in dirty, beat up, downtown Detroit
Bagley and Cass, 1975





detroittwo men in tights
fighting loudly

Frank Marino, guitar God
Pining a wall of Marshall amps

Ted Nugent, Motor Citiot
Gaining on him

Two groins creasing
High boned hips

Stacked like humbuckers

Inner and outer space Ö Jackson Pollock's Blue Poles (Number 11, 1952)In the side box, a casual distance from the stage

Facing splinters of an exploded Gibson Byrdland guitar

My eyes widen
To hastening at my feet.

To perfect sweat
Drawn into piss-soaked carpet

To sweet backtalk
Swallowing some of all the noise and darkness

To hot headless shadows
knocking up

CadillacRanchThough I have no real memory of the show

Or how I crossed the border that evening

I do recall feeling
that they came

Reasonably close
to having empirical proof

That my generation
was capable of erotic love

And I saved      16_antistatik-morik
that scent

Taking Great Joy

A friend recently wrote “There really is great joy in everything provided one’s heart remains open to life’s possibilities.” It made me recall my brief stay at the UBC residences in summer 2011. The weather was exceptional. During evening walks I encountered pacific-softened breezes that would touch and skirt around the fabric of my body. The livin’ was easy.

My room was located in a large block of older residences that the university rented to itinerant workers – such as myself – and that accommodated camps and conventions held on or near campus. In close proximity to meeting rooms, sports  facilities, and nature trails, the place where I lived was a hub of international comings and goings. It was conspicuous and enjoyable precisely because of its ill-defined demography.

As my stay was coming to an end, an unanticipated and wholly wonderful event occurred. Hundreds of brown-robed Buddhist Nuns appeared. The volume of adherents was impressive and their appearance and disappearance into the many portals that the university offered made residential life feel a little like a video game . It was a blasterless version of Invasion of the Buddha-Snatchers accompanied by a soundtrack of multiple murmurings invoked by meandering dyads and triads of pleasant-faced people.

Although the nuns were clearly in the majority their presence was by no means hegemonic. This distinction fell to the gaggles of young men and women who emerged each evening from the Fir forested trails leading to and from Wreck Beach – a clothing optional strand situated within easy walking distance of the main campus.

For most of these folks evening wear appeared to be a requisite afterthought rather than a decision and their mostly beautifully tan bodies shouted at us like a Dianetics display in a Scientology storefront. “Look, we’ve gone clear” they seemed to say, “you can too!” But their meat bodies were mostly a little overwrought. Some were drunk. Others were stoned. Still others were sick from too much drink, weed, sun, and so forth. Thus too they were loud.

As dinner hour passed and the sun ceded east for west many yoda-like figurines featuring short-cropped hair and spectacled eyes, seamlessly merged with the sun-bleached and beach-breached blather of boys and girls – and former boys and girls for whom adulthood stood in shadowless light. One part of the dancehall sustained by protocol, the other gerrymandered by a barefoot pirate known for blunt touch.

Robert Johnson, while he stood alone at the Crossroads, is said to have sold his soul for a bottomless understanding of blues guitar. Had he stumbled across this crossroad – where Nuns co-mingled with Knowns – there mightn’t of been a King of the Delta Blues.

No ache of melancholy boiled in this collective belly. No misery, sorrow, gloom or despair crackled underfoot. Here lay the lotus on its dirty pond. Prayers asked and answered in the sweep and flow of human contact. Here, with debauchery saddled on a donkey, I sat in the stillness of thrilling contradictions, my heart opening to more of life’s possibilities. Not long afterward I wrote this poem.


She was a buddhist
A raw foodist
The crudest
And rudest

Whoever walked away from it all

A Hedonist
an Atavist

I saw her standing there about to fall

She was a nudist
A shootist
The loosest
And lewdest

Whoever had the dignity to crawl

She was a…

Whoever built and shopped in her own mall

She was a buddhist
A raw foodist
The crudest
And rudest

Whoever walked away from it all

Originally, I performed this as a song. This is how it sounds.

A Beastly Night of Poetry on #Saltspring

Webb-Phyllis-by-Diana-Hayes-805x1024ARTSbrett1Phyllis Webb spat blood. Brian Brett hissed at the sunset. Sandwiched between these two poetic powerhouses Lorraine Gane and Diana Hayes grounded 60+ audience members by unearthing selections from Webb’s vast new collection, Peacock Blue. The April 15th reading was hosted by the Salt Spring Island Library and sponsored the Association of Book Publishers of BC.

It was an evening of places and beasts. We watched as Brett’s ashes scattered then sank to the seafloor at Rebecca’s Spit, his “toxins and dioxins” building cities for his beloved from lumbering cedar. The centre-piece of his performance was a libretto for Yukon watersheds.

Brett takes us to a place “where stones are born,” where uranium conspicuously lazes amongst its cousins, and where He – a puny-handed shadow in a grizzly’s print – tracks Himself into a chain of previous inattentions: of fox to mink, moose to fox, wolf to moose. Oh woeful moose!

It is a simple truth that Phyllis Webb’s physicality is waning. Yet as she rounded the lectern and aimed herself in our direction out came a basso profundo of crimson vitality: “I am wearing absent-minded red/slippers and a red vest -/spots of blood…”

We sit with Webb in front of her radio, listening to Dracula recount disappointment. We regard Webb’s proximity to “14,000 rats and the citizens of Delft,/for the women of the world and their menses” and watch in awe as our soul of the universe stands “Breathing poppies. Thinking.”

The strength of her voice lifts us out of our chairs and onto a beach. Webb, who for many years held ‘deep-south’ Saltspring status, is intimately familiar with the eccentric and predictable comings and goings of this little community. They share the stage with her.

“Four swans in Fulford Harbour…” In a miracle of movement her words locate a creative, resilient space between wind and wing that resists being named as either. “Uprush of inspiration brush past the broken shell of my ear.” Indeed.