I don’t know what I like, but I know art


$10,000 please.

Gallery Parsnippy is delighted and positively damp with pleasure as we present new artistic works in our spring show.

“Zoltan’s Anvil” by Trevor Sproud – mixed media
Free at last, free at last, peanut-free at last. This is the visionary future conveyed in Sproud’s triumphant embrace via meta-whimsical nuance of a mixed retrovision, encapsulated in this stunning new piece: a jar of Planters dry-roasted peanuts embedded in an ant farm. The jar itself is filled with the shredded bits of vintage hockey cards, reminding the viewer of a more innocent time, now lost, or perhaps tossed in the trash during an impulsive basement purge, regrettably so, because those cards would be worth a fortune now. But can the past or the future truly be monetized? Obviously. The ants-as-community-as-proletariat are reminders that all those television extras one sees in restaurant scenes are talking to each other about their plans to give up acting and go back to sod farming.

“This Charming Ham” by Bill – installation free; shipping $25
Breaking away from the artistic compliance of his “Untitled #14” through “Untitled #26” (with the exception of “Untitled #23,” which defied expectations through its relentless self-assertion and strenuous use of photos cut out of an Abercrombie & Fitch catalogue), the mono-nomenclatured Bill – AKA the Wunderkind of Walla Walla – stretches gender politics and chastises conventional sexuality by standing in a bucket of veal wearing only sheer American Apparel leggings. Like, you can totally see everything. A challenge to feminism or a feminist challenge? Bill ain’t saying. Viewers are encouraged to express their thoughts in a guest book housed in a vintage phone booth emblazoned with the word “GROSS.” Yes.

“Artist of a Man as a Young Portrait” by Eric Broog – crayon and petroleum jelly on a shelf
Broog kindles an essence of himself through the forging of aspiration, artistic fortitude and a trust fund that just won’t quit, bringing them to exquisite heights in this latest piece wherein the nature of revelation is revealed as fraudulent. In other words: crayon and petroleum jelly on a shelf. Just like it says. The description becomes the work and the work becomes the description. As who doesn’t? Assumptions are made when we find that the crayon in question is burnt sienna, only to have those assumptions overturned when we find the petroleum jelly is the cheap Dollar Store kind. Broog’s sense of humour is once again brought to the fore when he stands behind viewers of this latest piece and laughs his head off.

“Ring” by Sylvia Shchmhidt – found plumbing
“The genocide of 6 million Jews reverberates through the metamorphosis of creativity, in the crying out of the hunted and the bloody hands of the hunter, except on Wednesdays, and only through the process of indelible certainty can the truth, as hearty as victory, as tribal as Africa, be taken out to a nice restaurant for brunch.” So writes Sylvia Shchmhidt in the text accompanying her latest work. And she does go on: “The iconography of bloodshed and the purity of the transcendence of the work itself ensure the audience that he/she/my friend Marcel are never going to manage their credit card debt any time soon.” Within this context, the audience is asked to observe closely – but not too closely; back up! – this latest installation: a pure white bathtub with a single piece of dental floss draped over the side.

“not very good” by Lillian-Jane Walker-Walker – watercolour on pizza box
The iconoclastic Walker-Walker challenges our preconceptions of art by turning in a painting that is dismal, bad and just plain ugly. We think it’s a puppy eating a jelly sandwich. Or it might be Helen Keller on a blind date. We can’t tell. Walker-Walker tackles with linebacker-like zeal the notion that art is a teachable talent, as the self-taught Walker-Walker knows only so well. By choosing to paint her latest piece with her left hand, all the while sustaining herself on a diet of white bread and Xanax, Walker-Walker becomes both the accused and jury, sinner and redeemer, Captain and Tennille.

“I Don’t Think So” by Awning Shaftlight – oil on canvas on fire
Time and substance as ephemeral entities. Art as material object. Lighter fluid as critic and catalyst. Flame as consumer. Smoke detector as a cry for attention in a jaded world. Fire department as an approach to understanding. Smoke inhalation as a health hazard. Insurance company as raised consciousness and premiums. That’s about it. [No longer on exhibit.]

Posted in Never Happened | Tagged , , , , , , , , | 41 Comments


imageThe strangest thing happened to me the other day. Well, maybe not the strangest thing. The strangest thing would be if a pie plate floated into the room and started singing show tunes in the voice of Abe Lincoln.

A strange thing happened to me the other day. I was sitting reading a book when I forgot how old I was. In fact, for a split second, I felt I was 25 again. It was an odd feeling, not quite an out-of-body experience, more like an out-of-library experience.

I was sitting in the Haskell Opera House between scenes during our rehearsal for QNEK’s Arsenic and Old Lace, which opens Friday, April 24, and that’s one shameless plug right there. I was sitting in one of the 110-year-old wooden seats, reading my book, when this sense of agelessness washed over me.

It wasn’t a déja-vu. It wasn’t a flashback either, because I had never read this book before, although this translation of the book itself is 20 years old – Dance, Dance, Dance by Haruki Murakami. But that can’t be it. When I read Dickens, I don’t feel negative-150 years old.

It’s hard to explain but, in reading this book (and some weird, parallel-universe-type things happen in this book, so I don’t write off being influenced by the bizzaro world seeping off the page), I felt like I could be reading at any time in my life. What I was doing at that moment was no different from what I was doing years ago in a two-bit Toronto apartment or what I’ll be doing years from now when I’m lauded for my contributions to the advancement of spaghetti sauce technology. (You gotta have a dream.)

Perhaps I shouldn’t be so surprised by the feeling. There are few things as unchanging over the course of one’s life as reading. Experience may colour what you gain from reading but the exercise itself remains essentially constant. Once you get the knack of it in childhood, reading becomes automatic. The eyes move back and forth, the fingers flick the pages, the lips blow the cookie crumbs out of the spine. Reading is reading.

Muscles may wither and bones may shrink, but inside, the brain processes reading as it always has, hopefully with no degradation until well into the latter years. Reading is automatic as wind, helping fancy take flight.

But why did it happen just then, at that moment? Perhaps it had something to do with the location, a theatre. The Haskell itself is over a century old, stubbornly sitting on the Canada-U.S. border, oblivious to the bureaucratic fussiness of our paranoid times. I was sitting in the U.S. The actors were on stage in Canada. It’s always been this way. Cherubs along the balcony grimaced patiently. Every step and movement was accompanied by a well-worn, comforting creak. It wouldn’t take too many alterations to this scene to imagine ourselves in the early 1900s. Only with less tuberculosis.

As I’ve mentioned before, I’m back to acting after half a lifetime away. Last fall I played the bad guy, a bit of a sinister stretch. This time it’s a comedy, and I play Dr. Einstein – twitchy, spineless, morally ambidextrous. Typecasting, really. He’s also a character about my own age. This is a change from acting in my youth. As young actors playing old men, we would apply wrinkles with eyeliner and grey our hair with talcum powder, releasing great puffs of smoke whenever we moved too quickly.

Now the wrinkles are real, the grey authentic. But when I’m on stage, I don’t feel my age. In fact, during rehearsals, I forget my age. I forget most everything (but hopefully not my lines). Acting offers a brief respite from the daily worries and stresses, the appointments and schedules, the bills, the aches and pains. Time stops moving for a little while. It’s quite astounding.

So maybe the combination of being in a stress-free bubble in a timeless venue while reading as I have done all my life – and maybe due to the tactile connection with words on paper, another argument against electronic books – perhaps the continuum of art and literature created for a split second some sort of wormhole where the past and present collided, with me, ageless, at its centre.

Or maybe I was just having a stroke.

Posted in It Really Did Happen!, Reading? Ugh! | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , | 38 Comments

Let a smile be your medicated umbrella

Garage Band is to music what Photoshop is to photography, namely a lot of people have it but few know how to really use it. I can think of a few other things we don’t use to their full capacity: the remote, microwave ovens, democracy.

I’ve been playing around with Garage Band a bit on my iPad but more in an exploratory way than in any serious, project-minded way. If Garage Band were a music store, I’d be playing “Smoke on the Water.”

My goal is to be able to create a blues instrumental for a song I’m writing called “Tea Drinkin’ Man.” And by “goal” I mean “thinking about without doing much work.” To achieve anything, I’d actually have to learn the program, and who has time for that? Reading the manual is for chumps!

But I did manage to create some doodly-doodly ambient music, which ended up serving just fine as background to the above bit of audio, a fake advertisement that originally aired on CBC Radio’s “Breakaway.”

As I’ve said before, I enjoy the things I can do with audio that I simply can’t pull off in print, like nudity. Just kidding, there’s no nudity. But if you want to hear what I mean, click the play button. No manual required.

Posted in Turn that radio on! | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , | 27 Comments

She couldn’t just get a T-shirt…

“Have you heard from your sister lately?” I asked James last week. He smiled sheepishly. “You’re not going to like it,” he said.

Jail, was my first thought. His Europe-jaunting sister Katie is in jail. Midnight Express, Turkish prison. Or even midnight prison, Turkish express. Or maybe she got married. To a Turkish prison guard. At midnight.

“What?” I asked.

“She got a tattoo,” said my son, whose track record for ratting out his sister remains unblemished.

It turns out a day or so prior, Katie had sent James a Snapchat of herself acquiring said tattoo. The accompanying caption read, “Sorry, Mom and Dad.”

Of course she got a tattoo. What 21-year-old North American white girl touring Europe isn’t going to get a tattoo? After all, when in Rome, tattoo as the Romans tattoo. Or maybe it was in Spain. I hope it was in Spain, because Spanish hepatitis is so much more chic than Italian hepatitis.

Sarcasm aside, I’m fine with this, though I have yet to see the tattoo. When I texted Katie to say we heard about the tattoo (her reply: “Aww crap”) and asked her to send a photo, she wrote back that it “doesn’t look good in pictures.” She would show us when she got home, she said.

Uh-oh. More mysteries. What could it be? I just hope it’s nothing too European, like a tattoo of unreliable plumbing.

I’m really not surprised. It seems more and more people sport a little ink these days, and for some time I’ve noticed more tattoos on women than men, possibly because I notice more women than men. (“Don’t worry, honey, I’m just looking at her tattoos.”)

This general impression bears out statistically. According to a New York Times article from a year ago, 47 percent of U.S. women under 35 have tattoos, compared with 25 percent of men in the same age group. I couldn’t find figures for Canadian men and women, but I expect Canadians have just as many tattoos, only they apologize for them more.

Why the difference by gender? Men, I suspect, tend to opt for tattoos that represent toughness and strength, and a lot of men simply can’t pull that off… What? What are you looking at?

Women, on the other hand, have more options. Their tattoos can be tough and life-affirming or they can be a kitten. Women are also more likely to get tattoos to mark milestones: births of children, turning 30, trips to Europe, keeping down that fifth daiquiri.

As tattoos go from being taboo to mainstream fashion accessory, we’ll be seeing more and more people in the 40-and-older age group getting them – in other words, successfully ruining tattoos for young people. Hey, it worked with Facebook.

With so many people getting tattoos, of course, the risk is that they become cliché, not just the notion of tattoos but the choices. For something that’s supposed to declare your individuality, they sure start to look the same after a while. I mean, you’ve seen 116 flaming skulls, you’ve seen them all.

As I think about marking my own milestone of 50 later this year, naturally I play the game “If I Were To Get A Tattoo…” And it’s not just where would I get a tattoo (answer: Fresno) but what would I get for a tattoo. Hypothetically, I think my tattoo would have to be something original, something that speaks of my personality, something that wouldn’t get me fired. I’ve thought long and hard about this for 20 seconds and have come up with the following ideas:

  • An owl representing the wisdom I have acquired over the years; it would be a tiny, tiny, tiny tattoo.
  • A mysterious Latin phrase, such as Ocularia mea , vidistis ?
  • A tattoo to celebrate my four children – a dollar bill with wings, perhaps.
  • The Chinese symbol for “Chinese symbol.”
  • I don’t think I could pull off the barbed wire around the bicep, so maybe chicken wire across the clavicle.
  • An inspirational quote, such as, “Pain Makes You Stronger, But I’d Rather Be A Happy Weakling, Thanks.”
  • A sandwich.
  • All the body parts from the board game Operation, which, like me, turns 50 this year and is annoying and stupid.

Of course, I won’t get a tattoo, unless I decide I need something to commemorate unfortunate life choices. Who knows? Maybe my daughter feels the same way. Maybe her tattoo reads, “I Regret This Tattoo.”

Posted in Family - whadya gonna do?, It Really Did Happen! | Tagged , , , , , , , , | 63 Comments

Basketball & Son

imageI’m watching basketball right now. There have been a couple of times in the past when I should have been writing but, you know, there was a basketball game on. So tonight I figured, why not watch this Toronto-Houston game and write. That’s good time-management, and exactly how my son James does his homework.

It’s possible, then, that I’m not fully paying attention as I write this; I might make a few errorballs. Airballs. Errors.

I love watching basketball. It’s been a long time since I’ve invested myself emotionally in televised sports. I used to be a big fan of baseball, an affection that survived the heartbreak of the ’86 Red Sox but left town when the Montreal Expos did.

As for me and hockey, that’s a long, conflicted history that I’ll save for another time or maybe a good therapist.

Meanwhile, we became a basketball family. All four of our children have played it, and two out of four have now played beyond high school. It’s their mother’s genes, trust me.

Boom! DeMar DeRozan slam dunk!

Child number three is sitting right here beside me, the one with the TV-homework skills. And eating skills. Constant eating. Also drinking litre after litre of water. This is what athletes do. He’ll be up to the bathroom twice in the night, probably. Such is the price of hydrated muscles and clean kidneys.

Good board!

I say things like that: “Good board!” “They need to penetrate the paint.” “Drive the lane!” These are expressions I’ve learned by watching the game. I understand, for instance, that you can say “shoot a three” but you don’t want to say “drop a deuce.” I know the game, but the intricacies of plays still tend to confound me. Sometimes when I’m listening to the commentators, all I hear is, “If your transition defence doesn’t draw the third defender a bath, then you have to swing like your mama don’t care in a man-to-man zone for three-point Times Roman, Charles Barkley, Charles Barkley, Charles Barkley.”

The Raptors are killing me with their turnovers.

James is good about setting me straight. Like right now I asked him what a two-guard is. I should know this, but bear in mind that much of my early basketball knowledge came from watching 10-year-olds, where the positions are essentially “everybody runs, everybody shoots.”

I like these evenings in front of the TV with my son. We’re both quiet men (except when we’re not) and we don’t share a lot of interests (besides food). I read and write. He reads and writes under duress. So sitting here, hanging out, making small comments about the game, James showing me something on his phone or laptop (tonight, what James Harden looks like without the beard; answer: huggable!), it’s nice. Plus the boy truly appreciates a good snack; the fourth-quarter leftover steak has just come out.

Big bucket!

I say “Big bucket!” too much.

But that really was a big bucket by DeRozan. 97-96 Toronto!

IMG_4895After years of going without, we subscribed to cable two years ago. It was James’s Christmas present so he could watch basketball and other sports. That’s when I started watching too. When James isn’t playing basketball, he’s training for it or watching it. He’s gotten tall and is getting big. This year, he started for a majority of the regular season games with the Champlain Cougars. Their announcer calls him James “Deadshot” Murray. His speciality is shooting beyond the arc (“beyond the arc”). I hold my breath when he shoots those.

He has one more year at Champlain and then who knows where basketball will take him. I hope it goes on; I love watching him play. Regardless, I appreciate where basketball has already taken him and his sisters so far, what it’s brought them: discipline and focus, a sense of fair play, friendship. I love that there is no fighting in basketball. I think basketball should be Canada’s game, but again, that’s a topic for another time.

Starting this summer, James will be sharing an apartment with his sister in Lennoxville. It’s time for him to move out, and not only because of our grocery bill. It’s just time.

I wonder if we’ll keep the cable. I wonder if I’ll keep watching basketball. I wonder if I’ll have someone to kibitz with on the couch. Hey, Abby, come here; lemme explain what a clear-path foul is…

Tonight, though, I made a little “Yes!” pump-and-jump on a defensive stop, and James chuckled at me. “Big stop!” Tonight, the Raptors beat the Rockets 99-96, Final Four this weekend, James’s provincials next weekend, and the playoffs are coming.

Tonight was a good night.

Posted in Family - whadya gonna do?, It Really Did Happen! | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 39 Comments

Vacation envy

My wife and I were discussing whether envy could be positive. She was of the mind that envy could be a motivator, that seeing what others have can spur ambition. I felt that the resentment inherent in envy undermined any positive outcome. After all, envy is one of the Seven Deadly Sins, not one of the Seven Really-Not-So-Bad Sins.

Studies have shown that social media can make people feel bad about themselves, and not just because they clicked on that post entitled, “She Dressed as a Stripper at an IODE Meeting And You Won’t Believe What Happened NEXT! But Then Again, You Might!”

The reason is envy. There you are, sitting in your boxers, eating leftover Kraft Dinner, when you stumble upon Facebook photos of friends frolicking in the tropical surf. They’re sipping vodka drinks piled with exotic fruit. And they’re not even wearing sunblock, because wherever they are, the sun is cancer-free.

You see that and you wonder, “Why can’t I be somewhere warm? Where’s my exotic fruit?”

I know several people who have escaped this relentless winter in this way. I don’t think I’m envious but I do wonder how they manage it. More to the point, I wonder why we can’t.

Deb and I make a decent income. Or at least I assume we do. Maybe I’m underpaid and don’t know it. It’s not like I can go up to my co-workers and say, “I make X-thousand. How much do you make?” It’s just not done. While we share almost everything about our lives these days, personal income is one of the bits of privacy we cling to. Why else do you think it was so titillating to learn, in the “Blurred Lines”/Marvin Gaye lawsuit, that this single song generated $16 million? $16 million! That’s X times more than I make a year!

Whether our income is above or below average, we nonetheless always seem to be just getting by. Without going into greater debt, there’s no way we can afford a getaway. Plus, the roof needs to be redone, the cars need repairs, the gutters are falling off, we need new kitchen counters, there’s tuition to pay, I need new glasses and probably a root canal, there are braces coming, and our ancient furnace – the furnace! It’s freezing sitting here in my boxers!

Just last week, we had two automatic withdrawals refused at the bank. The two companies that we owed the payment to charged us penalties, and the bank assessed us two service charges of $45 for non-sufficient funds. That’s right: the bank took money out of our account because there was no money to take out of our account.

I was thinking all this lying in bed Monday morning, the start of a week of vacation to coincide with Abby’s March break. Outside was snow and ice and unrelenting cold. There would be no frolicking this week, no exotic fruit. I wallowed. Wallowing is one of the Not-Very-Good-At-All Sins.

But once the sun came up and I got on with my day, I experienced the small thrill of knowing that I was lounging mid-morning while everyone around me was working. There’s something illicit about that, like faking a sick day. It felt a little like freezing time, but maybe that’s because I had just read a book about a man who can freeze time. Of course, he uses his power to remove women’s clothes, so maybe we should just forget I mentioned it, along with my reading habits.

There was something liberating in stopping what I was doing in the middle of the day and repairing a tuning post on Abby’s guitar. A little later on, I sat and played piano for a while, the first time in weeks. I ate a cupcake for lunch.

I realized that free time, not the destination, was the real vacation. Call it rationalization, but I could imagine myself in some tropical clime fretting about travel connections, what we were going to eat, what might eat us, what to tip, who to tip, worrying about our possessions, complaining about the (other) tourists, wondering what the cats were destroying back home.

Plus, I don’t even like exotic fruit that much.

I’m grateful to live in a solid house where everyone is healthy, eats well and sleeps soundly most nights. I’m grateful to live in a part of the world where, in the middle of a vacation day, I can put on my boots and go for a worry-free walk.

But just a quick one: it’s friggin’ cold out there!

Posted in It Really Did Happen! | Tagged , , , , , , , , , | 57 Comments

We could have died out there!

It was shortly after I said to Deb, “We should have brought a compass,” that I began to wonder who would eat whom.

Logically, it made sense that I would cannibalize my wife because, seriously, look at me. There’s no meat on these bones, hardly any sustenance whatsoever. I’m the watercress of human flesh. I would prolong her life by two days, three at best, and then we would both be dead, so really, what would be the point? It would make much more sense for me to eat my wife. Not that I’m in any way implying she’s a KFC Double Down…

It’s this kind of thinking that gets you nowhere – not with your marriage and not lost in the woods either.

And by “lost,” I mean “slightly disoriented in several acres of wooded area within the boundaries of our small town next to the snowmobile trail.”

But wait. Like Deb and I ended up doing, let me back up…

In an “if you can’t beat em, join em” mood during last weekend’s snowfall, Deb and I decided to go snowshoeing through the woods. It was my first chance to use the snowshoes my daughter bought me at an end-of-season sale. (Ha-ha! “End-of-season”… rich!)

We bundled up as light snow fell and headed down to the bike trail, quickly veering off into the woods, and by “woods” I mean “someone’s back yard.” At first we walked along an existing track but soon we broke our own trail in uncharted territory, and by “uncharted territory” I mean just north of the sewage plant.

This was my first time on snowshoes, so I’m not clear on the terminology, but we either mushed, shooshed, ploofed or snarfed around the woods for about an hour before finding ourselves at the snowmobile trail. We walked down the trail for a ways and then saw footsteps going off into the woods to our left. “Want to try this?” I asked Deb. “Sure,” she said.

Oh, how we would rue those words…

Not really. Calm down. It wasn’t that dramatic. But let’s continue…

Some time later, we passed the gravel pit and then we hit the snowmobile trail again. Wait a sec. If we had been walking straight through the woods, away from the snowmobile trail, how were we back at the snowmobile trail? And even though the gravel pit was right there, we couldn’t tell which side of the pit we were on. The safe thing to do would be to stay on the snowmobile trail. But which way? One way would take us home. The other way would take us to – gasp! – Beebe!

There was a third option. “I think it’s this way,” I said, and we headed further into the woods.

Soon our path came to a dead end.

It was then that I mentioned the wisdom of a compass and my thoughts first ran to cannibalism.

I knew we weren’t in any real danger, but still I could feel the delicate tendrils of panic tickling my stomach. Or maybe that was just the way my long johns were riding. Regardless, I could see how easily a person could get turned around in the woods. I mean real woods.

A few years ago, I read how a blindfolded person who tries to walk a straight line will, without visual clues, start to veer off in one direction or the other. Eventually the person will come full circle, and, if he walks long enough, in ever tighter circles.

I tried this experiment one winter in the big snowy field behind our house. I closed my eyes at one corner of the lot and began walking towards the opposite corner. I stopped when I walked into a tree.

But, sure enough, when I looked back at my path in the snow, what I thought was a straight line curved distinctly to the right.

So even though we were in a wooded area about the size of a down-scale amusement park, not knowing where we were, with no sense of direction, no cell phone, I knew this was a recipe for panic and circular walking. Soon night would fall, and there were animals in these woods. Deer, to be precise. But death by deer nibbles, that’s no way to go.

But here’s the nice thing about snowshoes: they leave footprints. Or shooshprints. “I think we should backtrack,” I said. So we did. Plus, I was starting to get hungry and, well, you know…

Considering the carefree spirit in which we had set off into the woods, I have to admit that backtracking felt like a defeat. But as the saying goes, better defeated than eated.

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