Cape of Good Hope

Hello, my friends – time for another episode of Hard Truth and a Big Hug – this time I want to talk about some forgotten history, which might add some new perspective to struggles too often seen and felt only in the moment.

I also talk about a long series of misunderstandings of the new – especially scornful ideas of the previous establishment, that become adopted widely, even though that creates a social schism, and also means rejecting very useful contributions to social progress.

Few things feel more wasteful and frustrating to me, than generational misunderstanding – unless we can develop the ability to open our minds again, stop yelling (and snarking) so much, and create coalitions across wide gulfs of age, race, sexuality and social standing, we simply aren’t going to make it – but we won’t make solid unions out of lies, either.

I’m not a Christian, but I think the idea of original sin can be a positive tool, when applied to our humility. Every last one of us passes through ignorance, on the way to whatever knowledge and perspective we acquire in life. There were teachers along the way, who stand out. Being teachers to others, is how we honour them best. But we can’t reasonably expect to teach people who we don’t bother getting to know!  Respect is not optional here, but necessary.

Areas of total cluelessness – mental blind-spots, if you will, are no less universal than sin – error, likewise. When we start from that position of wide-open compassionate understanding, even for ourselves, we can learn fast, and sometimes do great things together.

Yes of course historically, such moments are NOT common, but they really DO happen (don’t even get me started about Syndicalism and the Suffragettes) – this is not aiming for a starry-eyed utopia, just expanding our sense of family, so that finally, we all have a chance to be and do our best.

More fun for everybody!
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My valentine – your smile

I decided to take this week off from podcasting (back next week, fear not) so that I could put together a silly little video for my true love (and wife) Catherine. The video is for a song I wrote for her and recorded almost twenty years ago, when she was at a different, also-difficult point in her life.

It can be very hard to watch someone you love, struggle with their response to new challenges. We can easily be tempted to try to use emotional pressure to make them do whatever we think (hope?) will best solve their dilemma.

But no matter how much you love someone, you cannot ever be the captain for their central life-quest – it has to come from them, in order to really work. (there’s more about this idea, in my book Structural Happiness)

Thing is, even if we can’t actually steer, and shouldn’t press (adding stress) – what we spouses really can do when our loved ones are facing a daunting challenge, is support, encourage, nourish, affirm, hug, kiss, challenge, stimulate, assist and cooperate.

Faithful sidekick is a good, practical and honourable role – and one which challenges and enables our partner to rise to their best, and also relieves us of the emotional burden of solving a thing which we, by definition, cannot.

It’s not easy, but it is complete and robust in a way that reservations and secrets do not allow.  We’ve always been that way – all-in – each doing our best to be a steady and reliable Sancho Panza for the other’s Quixote – no matter what sort of challenges have presented, by the hour, the year or the decade.

Still can’t imagine any other way to do it – or any other, I could do it with.

I’m also still very pleased about the basic message of the song:

Yes, it’s a bit of a tough patch – but we’re in it together, so it’s the best tough-patch in the world.

A small note about the images for the video. I have been taking much sharper photographs recently, but each of the images in this video is of a place which meant a lot to us. Sometimes a grand adventure, sometimes just a really great day. Plenty of memorable animal friends, too.

I wasn’t sure whether the images would have any resonance for others, until I realized that these snippets of warmth are exactly the common elements of every long-arc relationship – and that their specificity itself had a universality to it. In potentia, at any rate – I’ll let you judge the results yourself.

Cheers my friends – sincerely hope you enjoy it

PS – my sincere apologies to guitar players everywhere, (I just didn’t happen to have one of you handy).

PPS – I wrote this tune soon after taking up the bass (this is a P-Bass copy), and Bass is a truly wonderful instrumental perspective to write songs from. Unfortunately, there are physical demands and adaptations required, also – and as so often in the past, my enthusiasm FAR outstripped my acclimation. On this recording, every finger had a band-aid protecting a friction blister. Calluses began soon after.
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Doubt it very much

Here’s a much shorter podcast – again from a vintage essay which has held up rather well over the years.  Our own special in-house blend of funny, true and practical ideas.  Hope you enjoy it.

It is popular for us to think intelligence a key human attribute – almost like a mental toolkit which can help us realize our most important goals. It is also common to think that what we seek above all else is happiness in life.

But I’ve been studying smart people of many different types for many years now, and happiness does not actually seem to be common-to or easy-for these high-thinkers – nor to a great many of the rest of us, nowadays.

Could it be that part of the problem is that we’ve been thinking about thinking all wrong?

 

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Spadina by Night

Toronto has a lot of streets with their own particular flavour, I’ve mentioned Yonge St and Queen St many times, as their cultural significance and wonky charisma warrant, but you can’t even begin to understand Toronto at all without considering the character of Spadina. Not so much the Spadina Road part, north of Bloor, though this does includes a grand view from a lovely hilltop castle, several very nice (and pricey) residential neighbourhoods, and even a tiny tucked-away Spadina ‘village’, but the Spadina Avenue stretch, south of Bloor St – running toward (and more recently, all the way down to) the lakefront.

Spadina Avenue has hosted immigrants from many cultures, and includes a big piece of the University of Toronto – a sports complex and a range of residences all the way from the venerable to the modernist-grotesque.  The once glorious concentration of weird bookstores on Harbord started from Spadina Ave, too (still a few lonely holdouts).

The Daniels Building – originally (1875) Knox college – (Top Photo – click it, to see whole set in hi-res)

Spadina crescent splits the wide road around the lovely Daniels building – now part of the U of T faculty of architecture – but originally built to house fast-growing Knox college in 1875, a decade before it became part of the nifty multi-perspective (very Canadian compromise) union of colleges (and faiths) which set the historically progressive tone of the university as a whole. Around this crescent we also had a Waldorf school, The Scott Mission and the much missed Silver Dollar Room – and opposite, we still have the brutalist mental health complex formerly known too cutely as ARF, now renamed and blended with the lingeringly creepy Clarke institute.

South of College St, things really get going – with a big chunk of old Chinatown, a gateway also to the (amazingly) still bohemian – Kensington Market, a run of Queen W at it’s musical coolest (the Rivoli and the Horseshoe tavern, with the Cameron House, only a block away – all still active and vital) and in the old days, more musical fun down at King with The Cabana Room at the Spadina hotel – which survives as a building, but makes anyone who remembers what it once was, terribly sad.

Gwartzman’s

Gwartzman’s is the definition of an organic business. Opened in that exact spot in 1945 by Mr G, it was originally a fabric store. By the 1960s, the College and Spadina area was so full of artists who would stop in to ask him for canvas that he began to stock more and more, until it took over the back of his store. Then they started asking him for brushes, and then paints – and before too long the place had become Toronto’s finest discount art supply store.

The place feels like an old lighthouse to me. The commune in which I was raised included a huge number of artists – and I can remember tagging along with painters when I was a very young kid. It wasn’t all fancy and full of plastic point of sale displays from manufacturers (like Curry’s, even then). They had plain wooden shelving – but it was stuffed with so many different kinds of affordable art materials that you’d get a new idea for a project, every time you turned your head. Mister G scared me when I was little – always scowling – but every painter I knew swore by the place. Even back then, artists had to watch their expenses, if they wanted to be able to pay the rent and buy more materials.

When I got older and started shopping there myself, I found myself gradually convinced that he was actually representing a very important philosophical principle. No doubt wise enough that he did not expect it to be frequently understood, but still confident, I hope, that where it was, it would count.

He didn’t want to hear about your project, didn’t care about your theme, new technique or powerful inspiration. He simply was not ever going to give you a smile or an encouraging word – but he was going to help you in a very practical way, by making the completion of your project affordable – and wasn’t that a whole lot more important than an insincere pat on the back from a salesman, anyhow?

Old man Gwartzman has passed on – I picture him in heavenly robes, scowling as Leonardo sketches – but the store remains, run now by his kids and theirs, and it remains an essential stop for students and working creators. An enabling and inspiring Spadina art-force for seventy years.


Grossman’s

I must first mention a tidbit I gleaned from Historic Toronto (thank you, Doug). We really never notice it when we get inside, but if you look closely from outside, you do see the shape of a genuine architectural curiosity – one of only three original houses which remain on Spadina, from the early days when this lower part was also largely residential. That Mansard roof says fancy in any year (definitely premium stuff in 1884) The house was originally built for doctor John Ferguson, M.D. then traded between a number of doctors and also used as a private residence, right up until Grossman’s cafeteria opened, in 1952.

In 1957, Louis Grossman finally won a (very hard to get) liquor license – and Grossman’s Tavern has been thriving as a low-key unpretentious place to get inexpensively soused and hear live music, ever since.

It was sold by Grossman to the Louie family, (who still run it) back in the 1970s – and we owe them a lot for their determination to keep the place musical, instead of cashing-in on trends, or selling-out altogether for yet another glass tower.

I’ve heard many friends play it’s stage, and there is something sublime about its lack of fanciness. They are quite deliberately fighting any hint of gentrification – because they always want students and young people to be able to afford to come and enjoy the music – they know that developing the live music habit in youth is the only way to keep the scene itself vital – and I think they are not only absolutely right, but also real cultural contributors, for acting on their belief so steadfastly, all these years.


Goldman’s Digs

Lower Spadina’s early history was all bound up with the garment trade – which used to be a major industry for Toronto. I’ve been to dance-clubs, salons and art-studios which were wonderful, primarily because they were built originally to be hellish(ly productive) sweat shops. Large open spaces with hardwood floors and high (tin-tile!) ceilings, to allow room for suspended and outsize equipment.

Just a few blocks north of the old sweatshop behemoths (most of which have been renovated to modern standard, and some of which are quite lovely, architecturally) is a long run of mixed retail with two-floors of walk-up apartments above.  Cool brickwork, great big windows and hot-water radiator heating. Several of my friends have lived here in years past, right in the middle of things, ideal for non-drivers – and many waves of newcomers have found a home here, and then added a business or ten to the big chaotic mix.

I was surprised to come across a nifty historical plaque in front of this building (and it’s more garishly lit, and thus much less photogenic, twin). It seems that one of my all-time greatest heroes – Emma Goldman – who lived in Toronto several times, lived here through the winter of 1926-27.

She’s an important person for us all to remember for many reasons – but to me the main one is that she was branded a no-good radical by many – and yet she fought and organized for (and helped win) things like universal public education, the five-day work week, worker safety legislation, child labour laws and many other things which we now take for granted as basics of modern civilization (albeit, under threat once again, by unhinged and ultimately self-destructive corporatism).

Better still, she was an ANARCHIST. Determined to win more and more freedom for intelligent people to spontaneously create the social forms they thought best. Socialists too often rush to take full credit for labour organizing, and improvements in conditions for those at the bottom, without remembering their early, extremely energetic allies.

The fact that Goldman also published an incredible Anarchist magazine for many years (“Mother Earth” – well worth pursuing in reprint and anthology form) and also wrote a superb and exciting autobiography, (rather than let an idiot misunderstand and mangle her messages) means we can still imbibe full-strength draughts of this early genius of feminism, anarchy, workers rights and truly universal liberty.  I’ll have a look for some Toronto specific writing from her (she’s always a great read).  Be nice to better link her keen insights to our readings of early Toronto history.

Games

It might seem crazy to include this place in a piece about under-known and historic Spadina, but history is what these folks are all about, and if you have ever in your life enjoyed a video game, you’ll have a hard time not being charmed by this most unusual store.

In the downtown core, the last of the independent game stores have all closed down – rents on Yonge St are just too high now. Nothing but corporate chains left, and even those are struggling – bringing in more and more toys and branded merchandise, to try to keep revenues up.

Of course downloading of games has never been easier (and with current speeds and bandwidths, practical, also), but their other big problem was the constant-novelty trap. The newest console was always the most profitable – but this meant they shed loyal (but tech-lagging) customers every few years, as formats changed.

A & C does the thing that those stores never dared – they do have some new stuff, but they also have examples of all of the gems you remember fondly, from a particular long ago phase of your life – and this will surprise some non-gamers, but the fact is, these can have an enormous emotional impact. Key literature sometimes, helping us navigate a tricky reality, with an alternate in parallel.  And this on top of their simple nostalgic time-capsule associations.

You can go all the way back to Atari 800 cartridge games here (though that is mostly for the novelty, certainly not for playability or emotive depth). Best of all, younger players can investigate where the current rich gaming ecosystem came from – the whole of console evolution is laid out before them in one giant cornucopia-room. The giant steps in gaming innovation are not only fairly well-known, but genuinely revealing also about how we think, and what really entertains us best (far better stuff than the scoffers allow, by a long-shot).

I’ll never get over the first game that yelled at me for killing all the bad guys, cursed me for a bloodthirsty damned idiot, and made me feel ashamed of what I was sure only moments before, was a smashing victory! (Deus Ex is just one early example of genuine literature in gaming form – the later-game argument about philosophical theories of the novel as a form, that you have with an Algerian freedom fighter, deep in the ancient catacombs underneath Paris, completely blew my freakin’ mind)


Groceries

Spadina has long hosted some of the best Chinese restaurants and markets in the city. Vietnamese, Thai, Korean, Japanese and many other stores and restaurants also flourish here, helped greatly by the constant flow of foot-traffic.

I am reminded of these markets especially when we talk about plastic packaging and its environmental effects, in strident terms.

Yes, manufacturers really should (be made to) use less plastic packaging – but until they do – if we really mean it when we say we care, we should all be shopping in Chinatown and other similar markets, where you can consume no plastic over-packaging at all, for almost all of your groceries.

(And don’t even get me started about the superiority of proper loose tea).

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Nice and Mean

With/as flowers (top photo)

Hello, my friends – Podcast time once again.

There is a lot of talk about moral ideas these days – but we don’t often discuss the nature of the human creatures that think and feel these things. Surface-level judgement is fine, if we just want to enjoy and critique the view – but if we want to be able to build new things that will last, we need to think intelligently about underlying structure, also.

Today I’m looking at how strange some very obvious-seeming moral ideas – things like nice and mean – can actually be in practise. As usual, there are a few notions in here that may challenge, several chosen to amuse, some rare gems that I hope will be helpful for the humane understanding of others, and also fine stuff that might help some of my friends get off their own case, and discover more self-forgiveness.  An increasingly rare commodity in this cold-hearted moment.

We must remember – even when fully justified, outrage and pain simply do not create building blocks of growth, cooperation or understanding. Then again, pleasant jollying lying nonsense can be almost as alienating, whether well-intended or not.

In order to be real nice, – reliable, alive and helpful friends, allies, lovers and agents of change, we have to start with our eyes and hearts wide open.

True witness – learner’s mind.
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How To Do Anything

It’s all about the flight-hours (top photo)

I think “How to do anything” is one of the best short things I’ve ever written – holds up and has proven useful to many people for many years (and also provoked laughs from a great many art teachers).

Funny thing about distilling wisdom – it very rarely goes precisely to plan.

In this case I felt I had been a bit harsh with a young musical friend, and intended this essay – containing fine rare practical truths gathered from many sources – as both an apology and an encouragement.

He was quite delighted to get the essay, folded and tucked neatly into an envelope with the title in block capitals on the front and he thanked me sincerely. I then shared it with others, including teachers – and found it’s message welcome, albeit well outside the modern curriculum.

But I was a bit surprised when I was at my young friend’s studio a few years later, and saw the envelope taped neatly to the front of his computer.

“I keep it there for good luck, in case of emergency,” he said, “I figure if I get really stuck sometime I’ll read it, and I’m sure it’ll have the answer I need.”

I wasn’t at all offended – especially because I’d made the advice broad enough to apply to all of my art-friends, young and old (and me too, to be sure) and I’d already had lovely responses from many readers.

But I was certainly intrigued. Sometimes you think you’re creating a set of ordered thoughts, for tactical educational or motivational purposes, and then come back later and realize you actually made a magical talisman. Powerful because of your own emotional place, in another’s cosmos.

Anyhow – no I won’t always do politics – and yes, sometimes it’ll just be fun.

Here’s one of my greatest hits, read aloud for the first time, to prove it.

 

Every Trick They Know

There is no such thing as weather control (top photo)

Hello my friends – here’s the second episode of “Hard Truth and a Big Hug” – called – Every Trick They Know – an all new piece of political stand-up, exploring conspiracy theories and a few other odd conceptual tools that we seem to greatly enjoy arguing about – and also touching on important relevant hidden history several times along the way.

Again, you will find me naming a few familiar names – but not to be gossipy – only to note where damage was done, or lessons really ought to be learned.

Pretending that there is an infallibly correct way of thinking, an always right country, philosophy, rule-book, or even an ideal kind of human being, is one of the oldest dangers produced by humans in dense concentration.

But think about it – get any three people you know together, and you’ve already got a dozen modes of thought in the room, right? We aren’t even the same version of ourselves from day to day, but show different sides, and often use different kinds of solutions, depending on our mood and the sort of day(s) we’ve been having.

On a grand planetary scale, we are all being foolish – and I’m not soft-soaping anyone on that – but we aren’t so far from making it as we think. The big problem, as so often, is that the things making the necessary cooperation impossible, are in some of the areas where we’ve created intense false pride and willful blindness.

Such a perfect match to the territory, that it almost looks deliberate – so many precisely disabling and undermining passions, taken so close to heart.

It is hard to admit we need change – a big hit to our pride, in an already low moment – but I’m no longer smiling and nodding to excuse that difficulty. Either we have, find and build what it takes to become bigger than the sum of our weaknesses, or we really ought to stop calling ourselves political, or claiming to be serious about principles, society or the environment in any way at all.

That’s not being mean, either. Pretending that intentions are the same as true commitment is far crueller – because this punishes those rare and wonderful humane outliers who do sacrifice, show up and try anyhow – even when it really is futile, and thus deserve the sincerest thanks of all of us lazy buggers who mostly emote and talk – and even then, not always as helpfully as we might.
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What you can and cannot choose (Hard Truth and a Big Hug)

When the misses picks your safety gear (top photo)

My incredible wife has been through the wringer lately – after years of stoically facing down chronic health problems, she had a frightening acute crisis a few months ago – and things for us won’t ever be the same again. No one would choose to need oxygen therapy, or to make the common cold a life-threatening challenge – but we can choose how we take it, what we learn from it, and which part of ourselves leads the fight.

So far, we’ve expanded our ideas about kindness, generosity and gratitude, thanks to some truly extraordinary nurses. Catherine also ended up with a whole head-full of writing inspiration, thanks to the combination of boredom, good ears, and a somewhat surreal state of consciousness.

This mask, which Catherine got for me (and I have been wearing when out, ever since), is another example of a hard limit with curious new possibilities. Walking around masked like a bandit used to strike me as a vaguely anti-social habit (except where medical, where I applaud it fully) – thankfully, I’ve had a very different reception, since I began my public life as a giant teddy bear. I haven’t had this many spontaneous conversations with strangers since I was a teenager with silly hair, makeup and elaborate clubbing-costumery back in the 80s. Something about walking around in an overtly silly mode makes you far more approachable to strangers, and since I enjoy talking to new people, this has allowed for a lot of unexpected uplift, which neither of us had the energy to add to the mix ourselves.

It’s no surprise kids get a kick out of the giant teddy-bear – small eyes go very wide, and mom’s sleeves are tugged, insistently. Far more curiously, I’ve also had young women talking to me as if I could be presumed attractive and non-creepy, even with my face almost completely hidden, throughout our interchange. I find it extremely reassuring that a guy being silly and unashamed of it, is taken as such a mark of good character, by so many (whimsy isn’t trivial at all, but very precious stuff, to those who understand the value of a heart-balanced life). I even got invited to join a band one morning, while riding the subway down to see Catherine in the hospital, by an exceedingly hip fellow of about my age (already a vanishingly rare phenomenon), who enjoyed my asking (and then also knowing) about his unusual guitar, and my far-out ideas about music and the world. Instant simpatico – a lovely affirmation.

The main thing I now have to do, is look after Catherine and our household in general, in an intense and constant way. Being available for that, means working every freelance stream I can, selling every book I can assemble, modelling and writing, and also finding a few more chores that bring in the dosh.

When I had surgery several years ago, I left a large part of my body-shame behind forever, (strangers swabbing your nuts for weeks, will do that). I even got a direct benefit from the pain – because it helped me scale-down sciatica’s fearful constant pain, a couple of years later. This crisis in our home has made me feel less inhibited about speaking publicly than ever, hopefully permanently. I am a little tempted to take every bit of knowledge and insight I have gathered and use it cynically, as I step up to the metaphorical microphone. Targetted fulminations are so popular. But for very good reasons, I just can’t.

The most popular independent information media products of our time seem to be keyed into one universal human factor, most of all – even when their creators go to great lengths to say they don’t intend this. They make one group of people feel their anger is justified, their opponents are deliberately hateful and sub-human, and they are owed redress by society and life in general. There is even a deliberate attempt to distort the message for very intense but narrow appeal for these smaller groups, thanks to the dominance of the marketing concept “demographics.” To be clear – there are plenty of people who have reason for anger, have been ripped off, and are owed redress – one could even say the majority of the population of the earth can make some variation of this assertion, on reasonable grounds. Thing is, Catharsis is at best, an entertainment product, satisfying our emotional needs – and when we confuse it with debate and discussion, or worse, use it instead of them, we damage these important social tools.

I do have plenty of challenging things to say, and I’m not afraid to say them – but I’m not trying to make anyone or group feel like the righteous ‘good guys’ – too much hard evidence contradicts such assertions, in any case – nor am I out to demonize any large and sloppily defined group – I just insist on speaking up for ALL of the positions so easily silenced and excluded by those with situational power and influence. The realities that don’t ever make it into the sponsor-sanitized version.  Things repressed don’t go away – they gain the power of righteous indignation.  Way better to discuss EVERYTHING.

However, even given strange new freedom from fear, thanks to crisis, I find myself still bound by a limit which my heart has set, long ago. It has to be about love – even the angry parts (and those have to be clear, useful, and specific). Which explains how I’ve finally decided on the tone and approach for my podcast – and also the basic spirit of my upcoming story, Stymie and Toffel. I’m not interested in a narrative that doesn’t respect the kids coming up, facing unprecedented challenges, and instead glorifies those who created the mind-boggling problems that they must now face. I want to say things that help everyone find more real hope and common purpose – not fake smiles – rational hope.  It will probably sound harder, to those who are in greatest denial.

“The Magic Trick” the first episode of my podcast – Hard Truth and a Big Hug – has already appeared as a video – but since it was a discussion many appreciated, I thought it a good way to open up the channel. Tons more wide-ranging smart, funny and original content coming soon – stay tuned. (my long-pondered outlines collection runs into the hundreds, and grows far faster than I could ever hope to record)

 

Stand-up politics? Wacky sociology? Forbidden history? For plenty of all of these and more – stay tuned to “Hard Truth and a Big Hug”

I have also just posted a bonus on my podcast channel (Hard Truth and a Big Hug) which is part one of my upcoming story – Stymie and Toffel – a work of fiction. I explain these two wacky kids in the intro, and still better in the story itself, but briefly, I’m trying to write some uplifting things about life after our mass-consumerism party ends – an historical change which, much like my wife’s illness, most young people recognize is beyond their ability to change or avoid – the real question is, how do we deal?

My answer? With all the best things that we already have inside and are now – only a much keener awareness of the value of humane connection, and way less interest in the mere pursuit of stuff. A bit starker, harder contrast, but hopeful and warm, despite a host of new and unpredictable challenges.


Jacobson’s store – where Stymie and Toffel meet – Illustration by Andrew (Rewfoe) Foerster

 

 

I hope you enjoy the story, and the wacky kids at its centre, in particular. And yes, for those paying close attention, Francesca is already demanding her very own book in this same very familiar and yet surprising universe – no doubt soon to follow (Though Stymie and Toffel also have much more to tell me).

Thanks for all of your wonderful stimulus and inspiration, folks. Stay tuned for more challenging thoughts, unexpected laughs and big big hugs.

– Paul
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Solstice Seasonal Book Sale!

Hi Folks – firstly, I’d like to wish everyone a funky solstice.  Seems like a perfect time for a solstice book sale (special pricing for the chill months of Winter).  If you’re curious about the books, and what sort of themes I write about, please do check out the video below, in which I explain that clearly, and then read a little section from each of the books.

And while I’m mentioning the video – I’d love to know how many of my friends are into podcasts and audiobooks. I can produce higher quality pure-audio material, faster and more easily than video – plus, reactivating those dormant chops will also bring me closer to radio-worthiness, a skill-set (and high honour) that I’m trying to actively cultivate.

I love my wonderfully wide range of readers and listeners, and I don’t want to start leaving anyone out, who might or does enjoy what I have to offer.  If you find you listen to these readings and political standup vids while puttering, that would also be great to know – I can easily post FB and Youtube versions of audio programs to maintain full reach in all formats, use a simple image to front the audio “show” – but still save the bother (and bandwidth) of live video.

Honestly, I just keep thinking of the much-missed Mike Schnieder – the heart moving power of his smiling face and very personal readings.  I guess I feel a lingering duty of gratitude, to try to put some honest warmth into the big mix for others, as he did – if I can figure out how to mesh my own particular skills and insights with a correctly-calibrated megaphone (and/or kazoo).  ;o)

If you just want the facts of the sale – each of the individual books is discounted by five or six bucks Canadian – “Night Song for Cigar-Box Banjo” is on sale for 9.99 instead of 14.99, “Structural Happiness” is on sale for 11.99 instead of 16.99, “The Kind of Friend You Need” is on sale for 12.99 instead of 18.99 – and the set of all three books is discounted especially much – 29.99 – as compared to 50.97 at regular individual price, and even a full ten bucks discount, compared to the previous all-three books, special ‘bundle’ price.

Now I know my stand-ups tend to be political, my songs zany, and many of my posts and essays take a philosophical perspective of one sort or another – but my books all have one cluster of related themes at their root. There really should be one single word which covers every part of this big and important subject, but if there is, I don’t know it.

The parts are: compassion, love, gratitude, friendship, respect, curiosity, sincerity, sacrifice, humility and principle – doing well and caring. Finding strong principled reasons to grow our strength of heart – and keep up the life-long struggle to maximize our humane capacity. Standing still on this stuff is losing ground – surrendering to the cold grey lonely.

This essentially spiritual approach is also political, in a way – because we’ll need strong hearts and big compassion to face the huge ecological and economic challenges ahead. But aside from learning more kindness as we go, standing up for underdogs, wanting us humans to make it, and remembering that humility is as useful as willpower (the necessary balance, in fact) I am essentially agenda-free. These volumes can be read and enjoyed as stories of funny historical and creative eccentrics, for clues to individual happiness, or even for lessons about effective service to others, inspiration and art, and the costs of reckless vanity.

I’d have a much easier time explaining my books if I had a spiritual or cultural faction – but not only am I from a lost civilization, I am also determined to open communication wider as I go – which means helping people who don’t often see common understanding and priorities with others, realize that they’ve actually shared many values and feelings, all along.

There are definitely some hard-knocks lessons in the books – demanded by my own foolishness, almost always – much wisdom from a range of teachers official and otherwise – but most of all I’ve tried to capture an interesting selection of those difficult to define situations, from which we emerge forever changed.
Whether subtle, sublime or pithy in form, there’s still no better word for this life-quality than grace.

Cheers and a truly funky solstice to all my friends, old and new – and thanks so much for stopping by.

Hope you find light and delight in these Large Ess volumes (and the many more, yet to come).
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Early Rubens – scholarship and transformation

I caught a fantastic show at the Art Gallery of Ontario on Friday evening – and until January 05 2020, you can see it also (and if you can make it, you really should). Art students especially will bring much useful treasure and inspiration away from this interesting selection of important works.

The title of the show “Early Rubens” is just a bit funny – because the period of work represented is actually from the time he was age 32 to the time he was 44. This sounds like ‘early’ work for a guy who lived to be 63 years old – but the average lifespan of the time (as pointed out in a biography featuring his impressive diplomacy and espionage work) was only 35.

I suppose “Rubens after a family emergency brought him back to Antwerp from eight years of studies and work in Italy, where he was beloved, well rewarded, and could happily have stayed his whole life – thus causing him instead to synthesize Italian and Flemish styles, and go on to transform art for all time,” wouldn’t have fit so easily on the poster and ticket-stub. Still…

The flight of Lot and his family from Sodom (detail) – Top Photo – check out those hands!

As always – click the top photo to see the whole set in much prettier high-resolution

This scene of Lot fleeing from Sodom is familiar even to those who don’t read the bible, or have only passing knowledge. Lot’s misgivings here, and the daughters varying attitudes are fascinating (inheritance, and practical dutiful sacrifice?)


But this scene – Lot and his daughters – very much surprised me.

As explained in the card – “God destroyed the cities of Sodom and Gomorrah as punishment for the sinful behaviour of their citizens. Lot and his two daughters escaped and took refuge in a mountain cave. Convinced that no other men had survived, the young women decided to become pregnant by their father to sustain their lineage.”

They do go on to note Lot’s predatory leer in this depiction of the less told aftermath scene – but the creepy shift of agency to victim isn’t mentioned. As an outsider, one wonders – wait a minute, everyone in their old town was just killed en masse for being judged unacceptably sinful, and their first plan after escaping is incest? The old testament can be very dramatic – but it is often more opaque, than clear, inspiring and hopeful.


The tribute money – (Render unto Caesar)

A tiny observation on the place of this gem in Christianity – I know a few cynics who use this famous quote to say – this is why the Roman’s adopted Christianity in the first place – because Christ said – “pay your taxes.”   But there is still an important spiritual point here, which many outside Christianity would accept more easily, if it was coming from a trendy foreign figure or faith.

Money is a property of reality which will always be dominated by the state and the wealthy in combination. Matters of the soul are quite separate – and ought to be kept that way, to avoid contaminating integrity with desire.

Painting wise – I’ve been a huge fan of Rembrandt since I was little, this piece has the virtues I most adore – such specific characters and personalities – no fall back cliche ‘type or ‘tude’ so it was no surprise to learn that Rubens work was a huge influence on young Rembrandt, though they also made the point that Rubens was far more consistently successful.

Rubens early diplomatic (great-war prevention) work, happened almost spontaneously, because he was such a court favourite around Europe. Thanks to the popularity of his paintings, his curious observational mind was offered rare access which many others were denied outright.


The entombment

As thrilling as the beatitudes and manifested generosities can feel, even for outsiders, when encountered in the right state and moment (open minded and/or desperately needy), there is also plenty of heavy stuff to contemplate in the new testament. Betrayal and death itself – then life.

Dramatically speaking – the weight of the death beat helps give the transcendence which follows, a dynamic of rising power – lifting right over the greatest obstacle and fear of all – mortality – which scales everything else down to a more manageable size than it can sometimes feel.

Mary’s paleness in grief, approaching Christ’s own, feels appropriate and sort of beautiful – even as the others feel grief and shock in their own way.


The dreaming Silenus
(When drunk-dreaming, the satyr Silenus was prophetic – naturally, Bacchus was glad to help)

You only have to look at Rubens work to realize he has amazing technique – often imparting more life, narrative and attitude to a single hand, than lesser artists can breathe into an entire figure – and brilliant at materials rendering also – as here, the difference between silver and duller alloys.

He was also an intellectual, who soaked up knowledge everywhere he travelled worked and studied – so by this period he was able to offer scenes from the bible and classical Greek mythology with equal ease, richness and precision, as well as adding mythic dimension to the lives of comparatively boring royals, who often sought the prestige lift of his work.


Hero and Leander
(Leander would swim the straight to be with beautiful Hero every night – guided by her lantern. One night she fell asleep without lighting the lantern – he drowned – she jumped into the sea to join him forever)

Rubens stayed seven months on diplomatic assignment in Spain, working slowly to earn enough trust to carry out a peace mission. During this period, he spent much of his time in the royal gallery, painting his own copies of masterworks by Titian (who was a great and lasting influence), while the young Diego Velasquez watched (no doubt learning much).

The raising of the cross (oil sketch – detail)

Part of the AGO permanent collection – stolen twice since 1950, found in a garbage can, both times!

But this is the side of his work which most surprised me, and as impressive as the grand pieces in the show are, his studies are what will stay with me forever – their ideas and energy so fundamentally powerful.

Rubens is one of those great painters who is also outstanding when drawing, making ink-wash studies or oil sketches. He does not need colour and finishing detail to make his important points, and like Holbein (an early influence who he copied many times, while studying), we do not feel a lessening of intensity or a sloppiness of observation, even when he makes comparatively linear depictions of form, with straightforward light and proportions, often lulling us into the illusion of easiness – the subtle natural qualities of the gestures being underplayed by the overall mastery.


Samson and Delilah – pen and ink study

But of course – it is exactly when your fundamentals and subtle perceptions are ultra tight, that you can really go to town when you do make use of all available means to create dramatic effect – as this master of the Baroque did, like no one else in history. In his works we encounter figures tumbling into every kind of motion and repose – sometimes suspended off balance, just an instant before certain calamity, and sometimes so much at ease we despair of ever awaking them from their slumber (in common with the surly cherubim, presumably so assigned).


Samson and Delilah – Oil sketch

On his return to Antwerp in 1608, when this symbolic selection from his vast output began, he also got into designing prints (thanks to his friend Balthazar Moretus, who inherited an already great printing house, and was determined to make it much greater still, under his direction). This meant a very useful extra source of money, but also let him communicate with a far wider range of people than his royal and religious commissions ever could have allowed – encouraging him to reach ever further for understanding.


The capture of Samson – Oil sketch – astonishing energy – minimal means

Rubens was also one of the great early masters of the studio system – and before we assume that was a familiar modern kind of exploitation – one person with a famous name (and big contracts) exploiting others to do his work without getting any credit, it’s worth remembering how common it was to serve a challenging apprenticeship, as opposed to purely academic training, back then. For many, the only way into a skilled trade.


Daniel in the lions den – detail of sarcastic and anthropomorphic lions
(One of very few Rubens pieces which was done entirely in his own hand)

It is also worth remembering that one of his best “assistants” – who painted-in a lot of the surface, overtop of his layout drawings, guided by his oil-studies, only to have their best work ‘corrected’ by his finishing overpainting at the end, was Anthony Van Dyck – who Rubens called “The best of my pupils”.


St James the greater (Anthony Van Dyck – copied/interpreted from Rubens)

Like most artists, Rubens did some pieces which were intended for others from the start, and also did some which he kept for his own enjoyment, and to help inspire his students. His version of St James the greater is famous – austere and powerful – and it was kept hanging in his Antwerp studio for many years.

But for me, the most arresting and quietly powerful piece in the whole show was this – Van Dyck’s own copy and reinterpretation of his master’s work.

Private, very helpful missions to defuse war pressure between Spain and England would be a pretty great accomplishment, taken all on their own. But a master great enough to train a student who can kick their ass?

That may well be the highest level of artistic skill there is. One might almost call it a practical way of transcending artistic mortality.

Whichever way you take him – philosophically, diplomatically or artistically – Hats off to Rubens (clothes too, rather often, but then, he is awfully good with flesh, don’t you think?)
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