Archive for January, 2011

Farewell, brother

By David Parkinson

Thirty-nine years old with a wife and four young children, gone in an instant. All that lay ahead, all we could have said and done and shared is torn apart and finished for all time. Nothing left but fond memories and aching. I love you, Darnell. Goodbye.

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Shelter turns to retreat

By David Parkinson

Dilapidation. Cracks appear in the surface. So far, the wall retains its integrity...

There are not only wrong answers, there are also wrong questions, and these wrong questions are ideology.
(Slavoj Žižek)

Walls are for making distinctions in the physical world. On one side of the wall: warmth; on the other side: cold and wet. One one side: freedom; on the other: captivity. One side: mine; other side: yours. Walls also make divisions in the worlds inside our heads. Sometimes these are useful ones and sometimes harmful. We’re dualists through cultural indoctrination, talented at cutting the world with knives that split things in two. The more we cut the more we end up with fragments of what was once whole. Love/hate, good/bad, rich/poor, friend/enemy, and so on. We fall in love with these simplistic pieces of the world, to the point where they mean more to us than the real world — if we can even tell what it means anymore for the world to be real.

The amazing wealth we possess has allowed us to build strong, thick, high walls between us, and between the human and the non-human world. We have become adept at insulating ourselves from traditional human challenges: the need to shelter from the elements, to feed ourselves, to live together in communities with a high degree of interdependence. We have achieved the luxury of choosing our means of solving these problems, and of doing so as a matter of individual choice. We do not hunt or gather as a collective, nor do we travel together or live together in any meaningful way. Our wealth has allowed us to exile children and old people from the family home, since they interfere with the main business of living. And almost everything we do is mediated by money or other technologies.

It doesn’t take a conspiracy to deform human society to the point where we have become almost entirely dependent on forces beyond anyone’s control for the provision of our basic needs. There are no shadowy figures pulling the strings from behind the scenes. The incredible wealth derived from our plunder of the planet’s resources, all of which has been made possible by the exploitation of fossil fuels, has concentrated power in corporate hands. At the same time, there has been such an excess that it could be spread around, so nation-states (especially those in Europe and North America) could afford to liberalize the distribution of the surplus. Public education, the right to vote, houses, cars, travel, retirement, health care — there has been so much wealth that elites could afford to let go of enough of it to ensure widespread participation in and support for the rules of the game. Nothing nefarious in all that; just pure calculation of costs and benefits.

Now it feels as though the system is cracking. The kleptocracy that was always winked at (if we bothered to acknowledge it at all) is coming out into the open. Cynicism is spreading, as is fear of what the future holds. (Right now we can still afford to call it ‘nervousness’.) The walls we had the luxury to build during the good times are starting to look less like containers to hold the good times in, and more like barriers that keep us separated at the time when we need to start re-learning the ancient arts of collective effort.

Our political class wants us to imagine that the good times are heading our way again. Perhaps they’re right, although it’s hard to imagine how, once you read all the symptoms and their interconnectedness. If it were in the interests of our elected leaders to be frank with us, that would be a different business altogether. As it is, we’re on our own and getting more so everyday. We can choose to work our way out of this walled-in predicament, but it’s going to take constant effort after a recognition that separation and isolation are neither natural nor useful.

And yet — each step we take in the direction of collaboration and collective risk-sharing seems to take forever, as though we’re swimming against a strong current. (We are.) Maybe the best we can hope for is to be ready for the idea of sharing and working together, so that when historical forces make it inevitable we’ll be able to snap into action quickly. Of course, the only real way to get used to working together is by doing so; and we might as well be working together on creating the structures that will become more important to the community as the economy declines, the cost of fuel rises, and jobs become scarcer and worse-paying. These changes will disproportionately affect people at the low end; the ones who are already close to the edge with chaotic lives and few resources. One horrifying aspect of our walled-in individualistic culture is that we do not need to see these people and their situation for what it really is. Our lovely things and our annual winter getaways don’t have to seem connected to the desperate struggles of our own neighbours, since we can always tell ourselves that it must be their fault for living the way they do.

The first task is to understand that the way things are is not inevitable. Next is to understand that they are not the result of some gigantic conspiracy against which we are powerless. Lastly, we need to accept that there is a great deal we can all do, in many small ways, to create connections among people, to attack isolation, to see over the walls we’ve let grow up around us.

To learn about one way that we can start to build common tools for working together and overcoming our separateness, come out at 6:00 PM on Wednesday February 9 to the United Church Hall at 6932 Crofton St. in Powell River to hear Carol Murray talk about cooperatives: what they can do and how to create them. Carol is the Director of Co-op Development at the BC Co-operative Association. This event is sponsored by Skookum Food Provisioners’ Cooperative, and will start off with food at 6:00 PM and a presentation at 7:00 PM.

Electric music for the mind and body

By David Parkinson

Formless, random, unpredictable... what forces are driving the raindrops into this pattern and no other?

Things continue to be busy. 2011 looks like being the year when a number of projects come to some kind of fruition, although we’ll see just how many new projects pop up this year. There is a sense of ferment and rapid change starting to settle in. Oddly, I find myself feeling like something of an old-timer around here now, although I’ve only been in Powell River for just over four years. So much has changed in those four years, and I wonder if others feel that the pace of change is becoming a little wild. Undoubtedly there are whole swathes of the local culture which feel much as they always have done; but when it comes to food, community organizing, and independent media, the landscape is changing almost daily.

I have always felt as though Powell River was an exciting place to come to as an outsider because so much of the terrain was wide open and waiting for more voices, more hands, more heads to come together and start plotting the ways forward. There was enough tabula rasa for everyone to scribble on. But enough stuff started up to find a way to get involved quickly. This sense of potential appears to increase as we fill in ever more unclaimed areas and continue to define the region we want to live in. This has been going on for as long as people have lived in this area, and will continue as long as there are people here. It might only be the egoism of the moment to think that more is happening now than in the past. (And yet that’s how it feels.)

We had another great public meeting of CJMP FM yesterday evening, and once again we saw many new faces. New arrivals to Powell River are gravitating to the community radio station just as I did when we moved here — people who really understand the power of community radio to unleash creative energy and bring people together. Some of these people bring the skills and experience that a startup community station desperately needs: fundraising, publicity, engineering, broadcasting, and so on. We’re accumulating a hard-working gang of people who are up for anything. It’s brilliant.

Towards the end of the meeting, as we were breaking up into smaller groups to talk and plot, we listened to two of our programmers broadcasting live, for the first time in well over a year. After so many months of computer-generated programming, it was incredible to hear our friends’ voices coming out of the radio. This thing is coming back fast. Hang on tight.

Along with over a dozen other local folks, I have submitted a program proposal and I hope to be on the airwaves soon. My show, provisionally titled The Unending Subtleties of River Power, will be going out sometime on Saturday afternoon. I had all kinds of ideas for shows I wanted to present, but in the end I decided to present a weekly program of — as I described it in my program proposal — “beautiful sounds from the middle distance where structure breaks down without disappearing altogether.”

What I want to spend my time (and yours) investigating is the blurry frontier of music which occupies itself more with texture than with rhythm and melody. I’m fascinated with this area, which we might call “ambient” or “experimental” or various other adjectives without really touching on what’s so intriguing. The reason I’m fascinated with this whole unnamed zone is that music which is structurally abstract but still somewhat melodic or ‘pleasant-sounding’, however we define that, is usually considered really out-there or difficult or boring. I struggle to understand why this is.

Most people seem capable of appreciating abstract visual art for its inherent qualities of colour, arrangement, optical effects, and so on. We acknowledge that there is something uncouth about demanding that a work of art tell a story or otherwise depict something easily recognizable; in the case of music, the mainstream is still stuck on fixed rhythm, repetitive melody, predictable modes of harmony, and narrative content. Some of these might be missing from some songs, but once we start stripping away too much of these structural elements we begin to feel anxious. I don’t know why this should be, but I want to spend some time out on these edges where we start to feel the loss of structure. The best part is that I know enough about what’s out there to be reasonably sure that there will be listeners who will be happy to travel there with me once a week.

Projects like this illustrate perfectly the value of community-owned not-for-profit media. If I pitched this program to one of our local dispensers of commercialized radio waves, they’d laugh me out of their offices. It wouldn’t appeal to enough people to make it interesting to their advertisers and therefore would get exactly zero seconds on the airwaves. The commercial clampdown on popular taste is similar to our first-past-the-post voting system: winner takes all and second place might as well be nothing. In commercial radio the name of the game is to claim the maximum amount of listeners by optimizing and standardizing your programming for the greatest overall appeal. Anyone who craves other sounds can suck it up or turn it off.

I’m excited because we now have a venue for niche media like this and like many of the other programs being proposed. It’s no sign of failure to have a constrained area of musical content or to stray from the standard sound of the radio station — because special-interest programming still serves a part of the listening audience which deserves to have its own shows, and because there will be no standard sound. That idea goes nowhere and attracts no real interest. It’s a pale imitation of the commercial model, only without the fat paycheques and snazzy gear.

The time we’re moving into is one which calls into question many of the foundations of our society. (Or so I hope.) Anyone who is sick of being fed the same old dreck might find that the position of lonely crank will become more respectable, as it becomes harder and harder to maintain faith in institutions which serve no real purpose aside from siphoning money out of communities and reducing us all to the position of consumers of the culture we ought to be creating. And there are so many creative artistic types around here…

Tongue-tied

By David Parkinson

Drenched boughs and dark skies.

How can I tell what I think till I see what I say?
(E.M. Forster, 1927, Aspects of the Novel, ch. 5)

After a few weeks of vacation spent out east, coming back to the wet coast and settling back into the regular routine feels a little bit like going from zero to six thousand in a few seconds. 2011 is getting started quickly and shows early signs of being a very busy and (I hope) productive year, with all kinds of old projects coming around again and new ones popping up through the coming months.

While I was in — mostly near — Toronto, I felt at a loss to explain to people what it is I do out here. Toronto, being the financial capital of Canada and a city which rewards industry with wealth and all the accoutrements of the good life, is obsessed with money: where it comes from; who has it; who paid how much for what; who deserves it and who doesn’t. Like all true obsessives, the average Torontonian does not even realize that the conversation excludes whole areas of interest to people who might be slipping or have already slipped through the cracks of the econocentric universe which is all their instruments can see. It’s a place where it is good to have money, better to have sacks of money, impossible to have too much money. Most cities I have lived in suffer from this forgivable affliction, but nowhere to the same degree as Toronto.

So, when the conversation turns — as it always does, and right briskly too — to talk of “what one does”, then I can feel myself about to fumble the ball. Compared to my contemporaries, or older people who came up through the fast-disappearing model of the full education and consistent career, “what I do” sounds pretty half-assed. I don’t think anyone walks away with much grasp on it, and that sometimes makes me wonder whether I do. The only way to make it sound sensible would be to back the conversation up to the starting line and rework the first principles on which we base our notion of the life well lived (or whatever it is we’re trying to get at when we talk with each other about what we do). And, sadly, these conversations generally don’t leave much space open for disruptive tactics on that scale. So I spend more time hearing about what others do, and there’s nothing really bad about that. Listening is a civilized skill — you can tell that’s so because it’s rarely done well.

Within these confines, I’m left explaining that I work about twelve hours per week, plus odd little bits here and there, now and then. The nature and importance of my work is also hard to convey without peeling away a huge amount of comfortable assumptions and common wisdom about our food system — and more broadly about the constellation of social forces that we might call ‘capitalism’ for want of a better word. So yeah, I tinker in a desultory way around the edges of the food system, which we can all agree has some shortcomings but is otherwise A-OK and in no danger of letting us down anytime soon. If the person I’m talking to is already clued-in about the underlying flaws in this system, then we get a free ticket to a more interesting conversation; if not, the ticket is for a much longer one, and one that might leave one or both of us feeling pummeled.

If I were a more confrontational person I might relish the chance to get in there and mix it up a little; play hell with people’s cherished beliefs; that sort of thing. But I think that there’s no point opening up a huge yawning chasm in the middle of a conversation which is really, after all, not much more than the human equivalent of what dogs do when they meet. There must be dogs who think that they are so much more than the first sniff would indicate; I hope they have an outlet for their frustrations. (Dogs with blogs?)

Occasionally I get a chance to go far enough below the surface of the conversation that interesting vistas open up. This is rare. Generally a longer conversation will veer away from talk of what one does into areas recognized to be safer and more conducive to happy chattings: TV, movies, those damn kids and their iWhatevers, and so on ad tædium. (Nausea would be too exciting, really.) It takes either plenty of time to plumb these depths and get on to something more honest and relevant or the mutual will to stop one’s ears against the siren song of trivia and easy segues from one superficiality to the next. We want to blurt and absorb data at a high rate of transfer and then move on to something else. Else is where we live.

The real problem, though, is not me, or my friends, family, and acquaintances, or people who live in Toronto. This conversational stuckness is a microcosm of the pervasive muting of human expression in a time when anti-human — more like ahuman or dyshuman — values have seeped into every corner of the once-human world. The whole thing hangs together: we have nothing to say because we have so little time because we’re all stretched thin and running around doing crazy counterproductive things in the name of making ends meet. And having so little time to stop and reflect on the situation lets it perpetuate itself, grow stronger, and shut out ever more dialogue and the work of finding our ways out. It’s a positive feedback loop irising out on human potential, a long low drone of making things happen without really knowing why or caring.

How can we expect anyone, let alone everyone, to find time to think up or talk though a way out of the impasse? To see that there might be other ways to organize one’s life to make room for goal-less activities? Or ones whose goals are less selfish than those we’re supposed to honour with our labour? Each conversation that ends in a blur of pop-culture stupefaction represents a missed opportunity to go somewhere only humans can go; worse, it capitulates to the very forces of ill thinking that we, as humans, ought to be on our guard against around the clock, eight days a week, from cradle to grave, Α to Ω, big bang to heat death.

Terence McKenna, one of the last century’s most unflinching observers of the human predicament, was fond of saying that culture is not your friend. What he meant by this was that culture is the sum of all of the beliefs, myths, and orthodoxies that add up to create the human situation in all its good and bad aspects. Unless we work vigilantly, constantly to unpack these stories and ask ourselves why these and not others, we have no power to break away and find better ways to live. For McKenna, the work of counteracting culture’s tendency to normalize the intolerable was the highest human calling — and one that was within everyone’s reach, no matter their situation. Buddhists would agree, although their chosen techniques are quite different from McKenna’s.

Sometimes the best way to attack this challenge is through conversation with our fellow humans, although one of the pernicious effects of the culture we struggle against is the numbing of our ability to talk about what matters. We need to break free of what binds us before we can even see it. And so culture’s work continues stealthily, locking us up in an invisible jail, unaware that escape is necessary let alone possible. Anyway, it’s not like it’s uncomfortable here: we have TV and all mod cons, it’s warm and there’s plenty of food. Why cause trouble? (Although sometimes late at night it sounds like someone’s screaming out there. I wonder what that’s about?)

For me, the brightest hope in this region is our resurgent community radio station. I want to see this medium unlock the pent-up human expression that has forgotten that it needs an outlet and remind people that we’re not just consumer units in a world that makes less sense every day. Radio is not about using garbage corporate music to sell crap to robots. It’s not for making us stupider. It’s not for making people sound like shameless buffoons. It should be about us expressing our humanity: our confusion, despair, joy, rage, gratitude, bliss, compassion, and all the other real qualities of humanity that we find hard to express and may have have forgotten that we ought to be expressing.


Post facto

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