Monday, February 22, 2010

[opening excerpt of] Drafts 5 Through 8 in Chapter 6

Good social workers don’t share my fear of action and conflict. Some of them crave it. The best ones have a conflict switch that shuts down their own feelings so they can strategically dissect the heightened emotions of others. They have bagfuls of touchless tactics. They can throw bureaucracy at anger, they can speak in calm soothing tones that smother panicked screeching, and they can use just the right language to help a client accept the blame for his own problems.

It’s not that social workers don’t see the way society crushes people. But good ones know they can’t do shit about it, so they focus on the possible. With time, effort and smarts they can change how a client deals with the world.

I’m not a good social worker. I’ve been fleeing conflict since I was a child. I ran from family conflict to join my friends, and I ran even further away as soon as I got a student loan. I fled Nova Scotia, returned to the big city of my early childhood with saving-the-world dreams.

My sister flunked out of high school, remained at home and worked full time at the local paper mill. During my undergrad I studied a lot of Freud-babble about family and childhood, learned strategies, tactics and techniques for counselling people who had suffered family trauma, or were living in dysfunctional situations.

These theories fascinated me but I never related them to my own family. We students had been warned about our tendencies to self-diagnose, usually incorrectly, when learning about new disorders and behaviours. I hardly thought about my family at all. I put them out of my mind, barely kept in touch. And in the case of my sister, our adult relationship existed only through my mother’s updates. Michelle and my stepfather never bothered to talk after she moved to the US four years ago.

I thought about Michelle after the blackout, the next time I rode the TTC. I got on the bus and saw the usual waves of humanity.

I had promised myself I’d be more open to people when the power came back, but when I saw them all I was hit with agoraphobia. I sat down at the front, where you’re supposed to stand up for the elderly and disabled. I pulled out my sketchpad and sketched the lot of them, all hobbled together, like a comic book proof before the colour artist does his magic. For the thousandth time I wished for Michelle’s talent.

By the time I found Sarah snoring on the couch I had too many historical thoughts swirling in my head to bother with her. I went to bed and thought about Michelle some more. I thought about the girl she was, her genius of creation, with talents that far surpassed anything I could ever hope to achieve.

I’ve been drawing since I was a child. Once I entered the workforce I took classes every week. It kept my hands busy, scratched the itch that my computer keyboard gave me every day. I learned the techniques illustrators have used since the pencil was invented to create reasonably hand-drawn facsimiles of buildings and trees and faces. But I was more craftsman than artist.

Then there was Michelle. She could do what almost no one in human history could do. She could make something out of nothing. Those models she made as an early teen progressed from representations of places she’d seen in books to thin-air creations. She invented entire cities writ small. Tradition was just her starting point. It taught Michelle more about what was wrong with how we live than it did about rules and techniques for success. Michelle could revamp tradition and innovate on it, bring in new techniques from the atmosphere, spit on the gods and the ancestors and come away victorious. She was the greatest city planner and engineer in North America. At least on a model scale. Real life was a different story.

In real life Michelle taught English as a Second Language to immigrants in Portland. It was honourable work but it wasn’t exactly earth-moving, for a genius. I thought about it all night, until my stomach hurt. I called in sick in the morning.

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Wednesday, February 03, 2010

11 Favourite Albums I Got in 2009

Here are my 11 favourite albums from 2009. Mind you, these didn't necessarily come out last year, that's just when I got a hold of them. The bolded ones are the best of the best:

1) Tracy Chapman, Our Bright Future - The first half of this album features some really new sounds from her, almost like folk-lounge music. The second half is a bit of a let down but the first half carries it.

2) K’naan, Troubador - On the flipside, the second half of this album is really innovative hip hop with brilliant storytelling. The first half is a lot slicker than his first offering, and a bit plain. But the second half is worth the wait.

3) Luke Doucet, Blood’s Too Rich - Took a few listens to get into, but Luke's a phenomenal guitar player and his music is a tonne of fun.

4) Joel Plaskett, Three - Oh man this guy has a gift for catchy riffs and hooks, and this is his magnum opus - a trilogy detailing his departure from, exodus away, and return to Nova Scotia. Amazing backup vocals from some of the province's finast female vocalists, sweet harmonic blend.

5) Bop Ensemble, Between Trains - Saw this "Canadian folk music super group" at Stanfest. I'd never heard of any of the members, but they are indeed super. I guess they literally recorded this between trains, so it's got a good jam feel, yet the songwriting and talent of the performers gives it polish.

6) Brett Dennen, Hope for the Hopeless - My favourite musical discovery of the year is California's Brett Dennen, lovechild of Bob Dylan, Bob Marley and Ron Sexsmith. Highly political lyrics with a folkish reggae backbeat.

7) Rolling Stones, Let it Bleed - One of those classic albums you think maybe you should own, and then you hear it and you wonder how you lived without it.

8) Martha Wainwright, I Know You’re Married but I’ve Got Feelings Too - Raunchy folk-signer who is way better than her more famous brother.

9) Mary Margaret O’Hara, Miss America - Another classic you should really, really own.

10) Metric, Fantasies - I was surprised by this album, how good it is, kind of transports me to a funkier universe while I type my missives.

11) Cat Power, Jukebox - Powerful sultry vocals covering some great but mostly lesser known American country/folk/blues numbers from the last half century.


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