Monthly Archives: August 2004

America’s recent history is woven into rock ‘n’ rol


‘Hello Cleveland.” Perhaps not everyone recognizes that line from the classic rock mockumentary This is Spinal Tap, though people often shout it when they enter Cleveland’s Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. But as they point out at the Hall, virtually everyone on Earth knows rock music. And not just here: NASA’s 1977 Explorer carried a Chuck Berry song. It may be only raucous roll. But as our museum guide rightly noted, it’s the one universal art form, and you can’t write a history of 20th-century culture without it. Including the transformation of race relations in America. One day it may even reach the beer industry.

Incredibly, a major brewery, which has since apologized, just released eight “legends of rock” beer cans each featuring a white person. Were they in a purple haze and hadn’t heard of Hendrix? Didn’t they know the first picture in the Hall is of the same Chuck Berry currently shouting “Hello Alpha Centauri” courtesy of NASA? That six of the first 10 inductees into the Hall were black, like so many of rock’s precursors it also honours?

Rock ‘n’ roll may mostly conjure up bobby-soxers rockin’ round the clock, hippies tripping to Joplin, or aimless rebellion, staged excess and slack-jawed morons interviewed about their mind-blowing wealth. Well, that and your first love. But there’s much, much more. The American military and professional sports are rightly credited with helping break down segregation, because solidarity with buddies under fire or heroes on the field is incompatible with despising them. But I think the less obvious role of rock and roll was ultimately more important. Continue reading

Buckeye ballots could beat Bush


It all comes down to Ohio. Whoever wins the Buckeye State will win the presidency. At least, no Democrat has reached the White House without it since 1960, and no Republican ever. Unfortunately it’s too close to call.

Ohio leads here by following. It doesn’t set trends; rather it is a microcosm of America, except in being only 2.1-per-cent Hispanic. It was settled by northerners and southerners. It has Appalachian counties. Yet the Midwest begins at the state capital, Columbus, a spread-out city with streets wide enough to turn a wagon around. Ohio’s economy suffered from the decline of manufacturing, but is being revitalized by services and higher-tech industry. And it is riddled with institutes of higher learning, from small elite schools to self-made Columbus State Community College (born humble Columbus Area Technician’s School in 1963, it now grants degrees and boasts 24,000 students from 125 countries), to vast public Ohio State University, home of the Buckeyes. Continue reading

Put this in your child’s PDA and co-ordinate it

Let’s see. What’s in my personal digital assistant (PDA, in case you live in an unwired cave) for today? Oh, right: “15:13 to 15:18:30: Go mad, in belated effort to keep up with world.” I put it in after reading in Wednesday’s National Post that PDAs are de rigueur for elementary school children. Oh, the sweet memories.

Also on my schedule: Try to figure out how a young child can even use, let alone need, such a thing. In my salad days (homemade dressing, real fat) starting school at 9:00 was, in some sense, on my schedule. But really it was on my parents’: “Morning. Drive kid to school by 9:00 or boot him out front door in time to walk there by 9:00.” I didn’t have any say in the matter, I didn’t have to keep track of it because they would remind me and anyway it wasn’t all that hard to remember. “What shall I do today? Oh yeah, go to school. Repeat until at least 18.”

Once there I went in a big door that didn’t change in ways I needed to keep track of on-line, entered my classroom, and did what the teacher told me to (or faked it) until he or she said it was time for recess at “half past ten” (10:30:00). Then we raced around outside until the teachers rang actual bells with wooden handles, metal bodies and clappers (not by clicking a mouse but with a vigorous shaking motion of that long thing that holds your thumb in place while you enter stuff in your PDA). Then we lined up, went back inside and did what the teacher told us until noon, went “home,” ate lunch cooked on a “stove,” went back to school when a parent said to, and stayed until the teacher said “Go home… please.” Continue reading

Happy thoughts won’t cure us

Oh boy. I can’t wait. No, not for another bronze medal. In less than a month, Paul Martin sits down with the premiers and reveals in front of the TV cameras his sure-fire secret plan to fix medicare for a generation. I do hope it’s not just “Think happy thoughts.”

Recent portents in the newspapers are not encouraging. First, a story in Monday’s Citizen said a study presented at this week’s Canadian Medical Association annual meeting called for a “culture of safety” to cut down on the thousands of medical errors that injure or kill patients every year. Well, it’s either that or incentives. I congratulate the medical profession for tackling a topic that, especially at first, can only bring them bad publicity. But now that it’s on the operating table, let’s think of ways to reward people who correct mistakes and punish those who conceal them. You know, the way private firms that acquire a reputation for sneakily putting people’s health at risk lose customers and go broke. Whereas in a state monopoly they, um, yes, well, gee this could be tricky. Hey. Let’s urge doctors to really, really care about people’s health. Yeah. That’s the ticket.

Another story in Monday’s Citizen started: “A major public education program is needed to encourage Canadians to donate their eggs or sperm to those requiring help creating a family now that payments are outlawed, say the authors of a Health Canada-commissioned study.” Well, it’s either that or incentives. Much as I hate to talk sense in the middle of a Canadian public policy discussion, if you were, say, urging people to recycle for the good of the planet and also paying them a nickel a pound for old glass, then you stopped paying them, would you get more glass, the same amount or less? Right. Everybody knows. Except the people in charge, like Dalton McGuinty. Continue reading

The Olympics should return to their pre-hype days

And they’re off. The Athens Olympics begin today (except soccer, which started earlier but doesn’t count as it’s so dull). Can I offer anyone a big old helping of wild celery?

I should like the Olympics more than I do. As a traditionalist I’m delighted that someone revived an old event after more than 1,500 years, instead of starting a new one that we have kept going for over a century since. I’m a bit sorry they dropped the parallel artistic competition that ran from 1906 to 1948 (I bet I could write a truly bad “Ode to a Shot put”) but glad they dropped my beloved golf.

You see, I fear the Olympics may be losing their way by not knowing what they are. I’m a bit worried about logistics, pollution and terrorism in Athens. But my larger concern is that the Games could get so hugely successful they topple over, leaving behind only the weathered legs of the Colossus of Lausanne. I think they should exist, and would flourish, if they held to one overriding purpose: a world championship for sports too obscure to have significant leagues of their own. Thus I would dump tennis, basketball and hockey. But I might add surfing. And I’d certainly bring back the tug-of-war. Continue reading

Canada’s great and not-so-good

While I was away for the weekend (you can’t leave some people unsupervised), Canada’s best and brightest gathered to ponder this weird “religion” thing for the first time in the Couchiching Conference’s 73 years. They even invited an adviser to U.S. President George W. Bush. Then they heckled him. How embarrassing is that?

Well, suppose a notable Canadian were invited to a gathering of right-wing American intellectuals (now you laugh), offered culturally radical views and were booed. Oh the fun we’d have calling Americans knuckle-dragging morons who can’t handle complexity or truth. But now the shoe’s on the other foot. Or hand.

I wasn’t at Couchiching; my invitation seems unaccountably to have been lost in the mail yet again. But evidently Richard Land, a senior official of the 16-million-member Southern Baptist Convention, was asked to advise President Bush to drop “this ridiculous idea” of amending the U.S. Constitution to define marriage as between one man and one woman. He replied, “If the compelling reason for same-sex marriage is you have a caring, loving relationship, how are you going to stop polygamy? If it is a caring, loving relationship, how are you going to stop consensual incest, between adults, brothers and sisters, if it is a consensual relationship?” And the crowd jeered. Continue reading

Paul Martin has yet to prove he’s our prime minister

Is Paul Martin the prime minister? The question might seem absurd; it says he is on government websites and if you pick up the newspaper it will say “Prime Minister Paul Martin” (or, in the National Post, “Paul Martin, the Prime Minister”). And I have no doubt he was prime minister prior to June 28 and for some time thereafter. But it is increasingly in doubt.

It may seem that the purpose of modern Canadian elections is to give supreme executive power in the form of the prime ministership to a particular individual and that Parliament has atrophied into a functional equivalent of the U.S. electoral college. But it is not so. The prime minister is not whoever got the most votes in the last election, or the leader of the party that elected the most MPs. It is whoever can reliably control Parliament. If anyone can.

A country must have a government; hence the medieval cry ,”The king is dead. Long live the king.” But our constitution knows nothing of the post of prime minister. Formal executive power resides in the Crown; the Privy Council is Her Majesty’s, not Mr. Martin’s. And our democracy was achieved not by the drastic American choice to elect the head of state but by the subtle development of a requirement that the Queen select as her “first minister” whoever dependably commands the allegiance of the Commons, that is, can routinely bring money bills to a vote and get them passed. Continue reading

The polite way to eat a hot dog

On the 100th anniversary of the World’s Fair in St. Louis in 1904 you will, I trust, forgive me for devouring a hot dog right in your face. Sorry, did you find it (b-r-a-a-p) rude of me to eat in front of you? Next I suppose you’ll be joining the Campaign for Courtesy. Gobble gluck munch. (Toss wrapper in street.)

I am reluctant to attack fast food because it has all the wrong enemies, from demagogic politicians to humourless academics to predatory lawyers. (I somehow misplaced a cartoon of a guy blaming tobacco companies for his cancer, liquor companies for his alcoholism, fast-food companies for his obesity, then sighing: “If only I’d been there to stop me.”) As for the documentary Supersize Me, I’d like to see someone eat three meals a day for a month in a fine French restaurant, say yes every time they offered dessert, and fit out the door at the end. Plus I enjoy a fat, juicy burger-and-fries combo every now and then. Still, let me tell you a tale.

When I was a teenager I thought I was cool partly because I wasn’t fussy about when or where I ate. Any illusion that I was cool melted decades ago, and any desire to be cool shortly thereafter, but somehow I retained a sneaky, persistent, unexamined admiration for my hardy, adaptable willingness to eat anywhere. Continue reading