Dec 4/11

Culture vs Counter Culture

In its essence, a culture is a set of knowledge and skills that enables a human to survive a given context. You could argue it's what makes people different from animals, since human children need to be taught their culture in order to practice it; human culture is too complex to be instinctive.

A good illustration of culture is probably the Eskimos. They can survive in the Arctic, and have done so for thousands of years. However, your human from a temperate climate would probably not last long in the Arctic, because they're naive of the Eskimo culture.

The Eskimo example shows the life-and-death nature of culture. For tens of thousands of years, a human without culture simply couldn't survive. You could only get "cultured" by living among a tribe for your formative years. Hence, the habit of people to work and live in groups and copy each other's behaviour.

With modern technology came alternatives: you still had to have culture to survive, but more than one was available to choose from. An example might be the white Africans. They brought European culture to Africa and were able to synthesize it with what Africans taught them to make a new way of life. The white Africans are a very successful people (although I realize they vary from country to country). Their way of life depends much more on technology than the indigenous Blacks did, but the white Africans can sustain that technology, so their culture is viable - for the last few hundred years, anyway.

You could call the white African way of life a counter-culture: it's another way to survive in Africa that doesn't follow the "original" way. You can choose either one, if you have access to the right teachers.

In many people's minds, the term "counter-culture" probably conjures up visions of Ziggy Stardust or even Che Guevara. Both men did seek alternative ways of life to the dominant ways surrounding them. You could even argue both were successful. However, I think counter-culture could be illustrated with much more mundane examples. The modern non-nuclear family represents a counter-culture, for instance.

Now, to the man pictured right: Richard Simmons. He is a true icon of counter culture. Why, you might ask? The answer is obvious: while Americans have gotten sedentary and fat, Richard offers an alternative: doing his workouts and staying fit. Undeniably, Simmons' way is viable; most Americans would certainly be healthier if they followed Richard's prescription. So, why don't they?

Every counter-culture has icons or stereotypes associated with it. People generally choose a culture based on their ability to relate to - or picture themselves as - members of it. Most people can't imagine themselves being like Richard Simmons. He has the guts to make a better choice and stand out for it - and even get rich in the process.

By the way: I own a couple of his workout tapes. I think I'll go do one now. I think any true artist, really, is a member of a counter culture, and we should celebrate it. (Plus, my kids are making fun of me for being fat.)

Richard Simmons Home

Dec 5/11

I pity the foool
Who falls in love with you...

Cee Lo, articulate both in words and music (his vocals in "Forget You" are amazing), steps in wearing a sharp suit, "all growed up". Until then, his life has been one disaster after another, at the hands of a femme-fatale he loves but can't win.

Cee Lo, however, is a patient man - and like most patient people, time is on his side. He never gets the girl he so desperately wanted, but in the end he's happy he didn't.

"Forget You" is a gutsy song for three reasons. The first is its vocal difficulty (although for Mr. Green, it's probably not. He hits the high notes - like on the word fool in the quote above - with powerful sweetness).

Secondly, "Forget You" is a protest song. You don't get many of those nowadays - they're out of style. The general consensus today is "if you're on the wrong side of a situation it's your fault." To protest would be to admit fault, so few people do it.

Thirdly, and more pointedly, the song admits something else: that the guy was too poor to get the girl:

If I was richer,
I'd still be with you
Ain't that some sh*t...

Being poor is about the worst crime you can be guilty of in today's western culture. It's actually been that way for a long time - maybe since the early '90s. Cee-Lo brings that fact to the top of the pile, instead of leaving it shoved down at the bottom - and he points out how bogus it is.

American culture used to be based on the underdog beating everyone's expectations - by merit, no less - and coming out on top. We've lost that value now: it's about "always having been successful."

Well, not everyone's lost yet. Hopefully, with a few more patient, honest, talented points of view like Mr. Green's, America will begin to rise from the ebb it's in now and grow great again.

Cee Lo Green Home

Dec 6/11

Love You Forever by Robert Munsch is perhaps the most affecting book I've ever read. When my son was born, one of my students gave it as a present with the words: "It was my favourite book when I was a kid."

I was 32 years old and hadn't been around young kids ever in my life. I didn't realize the changes that were coming, or that I'd change. When I read Love You Forever to a baby less than two months old, Robert Munsch explained to me, in a mere 31 pages, what I had gained in becomimg a parent - and what I would eventually lose. I don't remember if my son went to sleep, but I know I was in tears by the end.

We read that book over and over again to our first son, then to both. In what seemed like a short time, both could retell the story from memory as you flipped the pages. Now, they wouldn't have to remember, because each could easily read it.

Kids have a powerful instinct about families and the stages of life. They understand how important it is that everyone has a place in a family, and is valued. I think Love You Forever is powerful because it points out parents' need to have a place in their children's lives. Although parents' roles are central at first, they eventually need to struggle to stay relevant as their children gain independence.

If you don't have it, buy it and read it to your children. You don't need to have children, though: you can just read it to yourself. Either way, you'll be in tears.

By the way, Munsch has written dozens of other books, and we have quite a few. Most of them are light-hearted. He was born in Pittsburgh, but now he's Canadian, eh? Here he is, in the grips of one of his stories.

Wikipedia was a source for this article: Robert Munsch and also Love You Forever.

Robert Munsch Home

Dec 7/11

I had a crush on Madonna when I was 13 and she was 26. It's probably one I never got over, though it's more reflective now.

If someone who didn't know Madonna asked me why she is special, I'd say it's one thing: her energy. Madonna was beautiful when she was young, but of course most young girls are beautiful. Her looks weren't exceptional. However, there was something natural about Madonna I always liked.

Madonna had some great songs. "Borderline" was my favourite, but probably not as big as "Like A Virgin" or "Material Girl" (where she looked fantastic in that orange dress).

By the mid 80s, Madonna had established a veritable empire even though I hadn't heard her name until 1983. She got a lot done in a hurry (her energy, again), and stayed with the direction pop music was heading.

Back in 1984, I saw Cyndi Lauper and Madonna as rivals for the number one pop diva of America. (See my blog entry on Cyndi Lauper.) I always thought Cyndi was cleverer than Madonna. Take Cyndi's "All Through the Night", for example: I can't think of a Madonna song to answer that. "She-Bop" is another example. Cyndi was more poetic; she could take the same song in a couple of different directions. I thought, as well, that Cyndi was able to cover topics that were less specific, but still very meaningful.

In the pop realm, however, Madonna outworked Cyndi. By the late 80s, Cyndi had gone the direction most artists do: her own way. Madonna stayed current, and kept the albums coming. She experimented with different looks and different styles of music. Madonna eventually helped define what "current" was - which is, in the pop culture, the ultimate prize.

In the video she made with Britney Spears - "Me Against the Music" - I thought Madonna showed she could still make a relevant, better-than-average contribution to the pop scene. I don't know what she's up to now, but perhaps she, too, has taken a personal direction, out of the orbit of pop.

"Borderline" - written by Reggie Lucas - was her finest work, from my point of view. It's about a person who's not in control of a relationship, and not sure where the borders are. Ironic, really, for a woman who's always seemed in control of her career, and who for years had significant control over the pop industry.

Wikipedia was a source for this article.

Madonna Home

Dec 8/11

I was at a judo tournament this past weekend with my wife and kids. I was never in judo, but my wife was when she was a girl. She signed the kids up for it last minute this past September. It was kind of a surprise to me, actually. Judge for yourself by the dialogue...

Jack, what do you think about putting our kids in judo?

Well, dear, I'm not against it, but they're in gymnastics already. Didn't you say one artistic activity and one physical one was the limit?

I don't remember her ever answering, but the "one and one" rule was her own, so I assumed she'd follow it.

A few days later...

I was downstairs with a client when I heard them getting into the van.

Diane, where are you going?

I'm taking the kids to judo.


Because I work while judo is on, I'd never seen them at it. The kids love it, though. Last Saturday we took them down to a city for their first judo tournament - in fact, their first ever tournament of any kind. They're seven and nine.

As I expected from their piano recitals and other events, I was much more nervous than they were. Watching my seven-year-old walk around the gym, all by himself, to face his first opponent - I was spellbound. So many people were watching him, and he looked so tiny on that big mat. He fought twice and lost both. My older son fought three times. He won his first one, then let his opponent win the other two.

I don't care about winning. Maintaining your composure in front of hundreds of strangers while someone's trying to defeat you - you've already won, if you can do that. I was so proud of my kids - and all the others, too, - for their casual attitude in the midst of what I felt was a daunting situation.

I think I've figured out why kids can be confident when they seemingly have no right to be. It's because a kid doesn't have a comfort zone the way an adult might. As an adult, you have a lot of control over your life. You have demands to meet, but you get to choose, to a great extent, how, where, and when to do that. Kids have to go to school, like it or not. They constantly have to face situations they can't control and can't retreat from. So to a kid, a new situation is the same old one: adapting.

As a kid, I was never courageous like mine are. As an adult, I remain reclusive. I'm so glad that (mainly because of my wife) my kids face society without the reservations I have.

This kid isn't mine, but he was at the tournament, too. He had a grim look about him sometimes, but he clearly was a veteran of the process - he's older than mine. He's drawn from memory. Every time I try to tweak a better finish on him, he starts not looking like I remember. That elf-like face with the mournful look in his eyes...that's what I remember. But don't worry; he was smiling sometimes too.

Kid(s), you done good.

Judo Kid Home