"Europe slid over the edge of a cliff."

I’ve just finished reading book number three (in a planned series of four) about WWII: A Short History of World War II by (my uncle) James Stokesbury. Having covered the rise of fascism through the 1930s and the emergence of Nazism in particular, I used Jim’s book to refresh my memory of both the sequence and the context of the battles. I was reminded of two key things:

  1. Had Britain and France stood more firm in the face of Hitler’s aggression prior to his invasion of Czechoslovakia, and had it come to a fight, Germany would have been well outnumbered. France alone has one million men and superiority in both tanks and aircraft. The British had no army to speak of, but their navy was far stronger than Germany’s. The Czech army was nearly the equal (in number, anyway) of Germany’s. However, Chamberlain seemed determined to avoid a war — though with The Somme and Ypres barely twenty years behind them, you could scarcely blame the British for that — and he gave over the Sudetenland. The French had convinced themselves of two things: that defense would win the day (hence their commitment to the Maginot Line), and that they were badly outnumbered by the Germans.
  2. As a Canadian I’ve seen such a Canada-America-Britain-centric view of the war, and view of who won it, that I sometimes forget who actually won the war against Germany: Russia. It was Russia who swallowed up great swaths of the German army while Britain and America made plans, and while Vichy France collaborated. It was Russia who lost more soldiers in a single battle — the siege of Stalingrad — then did the U.S. in the entire war, and whose civilian dead numbered in the tens of millions. It was Russia who eventually took Berlin. And it was Russia, of course, who would not have even been in the fight had Hitler not broken his non-aggression pact with Stalin. As the book says, “Hitler’s choice may well have been the single most important political decision of the twentieth century.”

Given that, and given the bias my education has had toward the western allied powers, I’m altering my four-book plan. I’ve begun reading something which should give me a much closer look at the Russian side of the war called A Writer At War: A Soviet Journalist with the Red Army 1941-1945 by Vasily Grossman. The battle of Stalingrad alone fascinates me, as it might have been the singular turning point of the war in Europe, but if the reviews I’ve read are any indication it should be worthwhile. Grossman was one of the few writers who didn’t simply act as a mouthpiece for Stalin, and the carnage inherent in this phase of the war, so often glossed over, should come out.

Latitude

We needed that.

About a year ago Nellie’s boss gave her a gift card for all her hard work on a particular project. The gift card was from North 44, long considered one of the best restaurants in Toronto, so we were pretty excited about going. However, delays, other priorities and more work kept interfering with our plans to go. It wasn’t until last night that we finally used our card, and it couldn’t have come at a better time: we needed a night to enjoy ourselves and stop thinking about work for a few hours.

I don’t know how I’ve lived here for twelve years and not eaten at North 44, considering I’d made multiple visits to Mark McEwan’s other restaurants Bymark and One. Toronto Life magazine still considers it one of the ten best in the city (#7 to be exact), and it was perfect. I’ve had more impressive meals, certainly, but last night it was precisely what we needed: excellent, uncomplicated food in a relaxed but elegant room. Here’s what graced our forks as we moaned and swooned:

Nellie

  • Chandon Brut from California
  • Red and green pear salad with endive, blue goat cheese, pine nuts and sherry vinaigrette / Sancerre, Domaine du Carrou 2008, Dominique Roger from France
  • 10 oz. U.S.D.A. prime strip / Cabernet Sauvignon, Mantra 2004 from Sonoma
  • Four cheeses / Port sampler:  1 oz each of Taylors 10 year, 20 year & late bottled vintage

Dan

  • Butternut squash ravioli with oxtail ragout and sage / Glass of Cave Spring Riesling 2007 from Niagara
  • 12 oz. U.S.D.A. Rib Eye / Cabernet Sauvignon, Mantra 2004 from Sonoma
  • Chocolate hazelnut terrine caramel fleur de sel moux, soft brownie, crisp orange tuile / Lilly Pilly “Noble Blend” 2006 dessert wine from Australia

It was all of it as good as it sounds. The card’s donors had picked North 44 specifically because, at the time of its’ giving, the only meat Nellie or I would eat was fish. The fish selection was certainly impressive, but we both craved a steak, and it was among the best I’ve ever had. The Cab Sauv we shared with it was equally spectacular. We rolled out of there very full, and very happy.

We decided to keep pressing our luck with the wine, and headed for reds bistro. A side note: it was the most pleasant cab ride we’d ever had in Toronto. The cab was immaculate. Soft classical music played. The driver was polite, quiet and wore a shirt and vest. It kind of freaked me out. I kind of wanted to put him on full-time retainer.

Anyway, we got to reds and let them know we wanted to try some interesting wine. For my part, I wanted to stick to Ontario wines. The staff was more than happy to oblige, and here’s what they gave us. Note that Nellie’s second wine was the same as my first. She had a sip of mine and loved it so much that she ordered a full glass.

Danelle

  • David Trager 2002 Verdelho
  • Peninsula Ridge 2007 Fume Blanc
  • Fontodi 2006 Chianti Classico

Dan

  • Peninsula Ridge 2007 Fume Blanc
  • Norman Hardie Pinot Noir
  • Peninsula Ridge 2007 Meritage

We wrapped up the evening will some ill-advised single-malt whisky (Oban for me, Cragganmore for her) and even donated some money to the bartender’s Movember moustache fund-raising efforts. A fun night, and a tasty one as well.

After such a luxurious evening we just couldn’t go through with our plan to spend the whole day back in the office, so we slept in and lay about. Tomorrow we’ll work the full day, but we needed these 36 hours badly.

My favourite songs of the year so far (IV)

As of August I’d picked off my 18 favourite songs of the year so far:

  • neko case . middle cyclone
  • von bondies . chancer
  • dan auerbach . heartbroken, in disrepair
  • john frusciante . unreachable
  • heartless bastards . be so happy
  • and you will know us by the trail of dead . ascending
  • and you will know us by the trail of dead . fields of coal
  • ume . the conductor
  • thermals . when i died
  • william elliott whitmore . old devils
  • yeah yeah yeahs . heads will roll
  • japandroids . heart sweats
  • great lake swimmers . still
  • rural alberta advantage . the dethbridge in lethbridge
  • antlers . two
  • antlers . kettering
  • lightning dust . i knew
  • now, now every children . everyone you know

Five more have made the grade:

  • wye oak . tattoo
  • wye oak . mary is mary
  • drummer . mature fantasy
  • drummer . diamonds to shake
  • xx . crystalised

I suppose this means my ‘best songs of 2009’ list won’t really be a surprise when I post it in December.

7 hours and 4 minutes I can't get back

Last weekend I had an urge to watch a big, dumb, loud movie. I didn’t get to fulfill it (I watched Enemy At The Gates, which was big and loud, but not so much with the dumb), so last night I suggested we see what was sure to be the very epitome of big, loud and dumb. And man, did 2012 (imdb | rotten tomatoes) deliver. It was ridiculous, poorly scripted, badly acted end-of-days porn. Did it look stunning? Absolutely. Did it carry you along to the point that you barely notice 2.5 hours have gone by? Yup. Did we roll our eyes so far back in our heads that we could give the chair-kickers behind us the stinkeye? Oui. Entertaining, sure, but I would have hated myself if we’d actually spent money on tickets.

Oh, and avoid the Yonge/Dundas AMC on a weekend night. It’s like a stupid kid bomb went off in there.

I’m not sure what to say about Drag Me To Hell (imdb | rotten tomatoes) except that I’m just not a Sam Raimi horror fan. I didn’t like the Evil Deads or Army of Darkness, probably because I didn’t see them as a teen. I never found it scary, and I didn’t find it funny either…at least not how they intended it. I’m amazed that it holds a 92% on Rotten Tomatoes, but I guess I shouldn’t be. There’s a lot of nostalgic Raimi love out there.

Finally, just now, Nellie and I watched a documentary that we nearly scheduled during this year’s film festival: King’s Ransom (imdb) by Peter Berg. I’m glad now that we didn’t. There was nothing there I didn’t already know, and I don’t know much emotional insight you can get out of your subject when you’re about to tee off.

To make my shit movie weekend complete, Nellie wants us to watch Red Dawn (imdb | rotten tomatoes) tonight. She claims it’s a classic, but her criteria for such a designation is that a) it came out in the 80s, and b) she liked it.

Right here what we've had is a good thing and it will last

Friday night Nellie and I went to see The Rural Alberta Advantage (site | myspace) at Lee’s Palace with Joe and Sheila (who must be gold member frequent RAA concert miles collectors by now). I’d heard loads about their shows, as they play Toronto a lot, but decided I had to experience it for myself.

Because of a birthday dinner we were late getting up to Lee’s and showed up at the tail end of the set by second opener Bahamas (myspace), just in time for a singalong cover of “Purple Rain”, which I did not see coming from a guy wearing a mesh-back Larvacide hat.

Then, the main event. As I said, I’d already heard about RAA shows: even more rapid-fire than their album, with a surplus of sweat and emotion. The benefit of actually being there, though, is the little extras: understanding how it is that Paul Banwatt’s drum sound is so tight, seeing all the blood rush to singer Nils Edenloff’s face and neck as he wailed through some of the more challenging choruses, realizing how Amy Cole makes accent and harmony core to the songs instead of just adding bells and whistles.

Of course they ran the table on Hometowns, but played some new stuff as well. There was even a cover of the Littlest Hobo theme song, cementing my assertion last month that they’re the most Canadian band playing today. The set was short, but I was still sweaty and happy when they closed with The Dethbridge in Lethbridge after an hour or so. I also somehow found myself missing Alberta terribly, even though I’ve only been there twice. I came home and started flipping through travel books about Peter Lougheed Provincial Park and mapping the route to Frank, AB.

Great show, great time. I feel more Canadian now than I did when I woke up Friday morning.

[all linked photos by Chromewaves, who I finally met on Friday and thanked, essentially for being my personal radio station for several years]

"[I]t's become a destination for over-drinking."

Last year I commented on a Dooney’s Cafe article about the decline of a great Toronto neighbourhood: The Annex. The article was focused on the strip of Bloor between Spadina and Bathurst, and about how banal it had become.

Really, what’s happened to that piece of Bloor is studentification (admittedly, that’s not a word, but it’s as valid as “un-gentrification”) which had been fairly constrained to the Madison in years past. Like it or not, U of T is getting a retail ghetto, and Bloor Street from the JCC to Honest Ed’s is it. I don’t have a particular problem with this — neighbourhoods change all the time, and every time the people lived there before turn up their noses at the interlopers — except that blandness should never be something for a neighbourhood to aspire to.

It seems, though, that the strip of Bloor is becoming somewhat more violent, with a recent shooting outside the Brunswick House and a stabbing in one of the omnipresent sushi joints.  This past weekend the Globe and Mail collected opinions from some prominent residents on the spate of violence. A sample:

“I walked up to Bloor and Brunswick and saw a guy lying in a pool of blood in a café doorway. All the people eating and drinking on the patio of Future Bakery just carried on like this was entirely normal. It used to be the most violence you’d see around here was when two professors would argue over which NDP candidate to support, but there was a rape and a murder in the alley near my house last year.”

The Brunny seems to be the target of most of the anger, even if only city councilor Adam Vaughan calls it out by name. Deservedly so: it’s a little piece of clubland transported up to a neighbourhood which should have more character.

It’s a little sad for me. This used to be our neighbourhood, more or less, and we’d visit it often. By the sound of things it’s gone from being bland (which is a shame) to bring rather dangerous (which is tragic). I haven’t been up on that strip since Hot Docs in May, but I’ll be able to check it out up close this weekend. We’re seeing the Rural Alberta Advantage at Lee’s Palace Friday.

So here’s the question: just how badly stabbed would I have to be not to walk down to Spadina and get a scoop of roasted marshmallow from Greg’s?

Things I learned this weekend

  • Nellie’s vacations are always bittersweet for me. As an introvert I love the alone time, but I always miss her too.
  • Two years after I saw Once for the first time, I watched it again. Still just as amazing. The scene in the music store where he teaches her “Falling Slowly” gave me chills, just like it did the first time.
  • The city of Toronto is holding a design contest for a revamped north building at St. Lawrence Market. Good. I love the farmer’s market on Saturdays, but that building is both hideous and a logistical nightmare.
  • Eighteen pound cats do not enjoy falling into bathtubs full of water. They enjoy it even less when their owner takes too long drying them off because he’s nearly strained a rib muscle from laughing.
  • The Santa Claus parade seems ridiculously out of place when it’s foggy and 14 degrees. Oh, and fucking November.
  • That said, I’m excited that Swiss Chalet has the festive special up and running already.
  • There are few three-word sentences in moviedom as cool as “Gregor fucked us.”
  • If I ever own a house I’m going to make my living room into a replica of Cumbrae’s, complete with butchers and bags — bags, people — of pulled pork.
  • My team was teh suck last night (except for Carey Price) and hasn’t been very good at all this year.

Donna and Zack and Josh and Noel and Leonard and Nathan and Scott and Todd and Claire Awesome List, Great Job!

Already the ‘best of the decade’ lists have started flying on the intertubes. So far The Onion’s list of the best TV shows from the past ten years has interested me the most. There’s a lot of quality programming there. And Nellie’s seen goddamned near all of it. (Thanks to Chromewaves for alerting me to the list)

Shows Nellie and I have both watched
1. The Wire (HBO, 2002-08)
2. The Sopranos (HBO, 1999-2007)
3. Arrested Development (Fox, 2003-06)
5. Mad Men (AMC, 2007-present)
7. The Office UK (BBC 2, 2001-03)
9. Deadwood (HBO, 2004-06)
10. The Shield (FX, 2002-08)
11. The Office US (NBC, 2005-present)
12. Battlestar Galactica (SciFi 2004-09)
13. 30 Rock (NBC 2006-present)
15. Veronica Mars (UPN/The CW, 2004-07)
16. Friday Night Lights (NBC, 2006-present)
22. Six Feet Under (HBO, 2001-05)
30. The West Wing (NBC, 1999-2006)

7 of the top 10. That’s pretty good, no?

Shows Nellie’s watched but I haven’t
4. Freaks And Geeks (NBC, 1999-2000)
8. Lost (ABC, 2004-present)
17. Firefly (Fox, 2002-2003)
18. How I Met Your Mother (CBS, 2005-present)
19. Big Love (HBO, 2006-present)
23. Undeclared (Fox, 2001-02)
24. Dexter (Showtime 2006-present)
25. Buffy The Vampire Slayer (The WB/UPN, 1997-2003)

Look at Nellie: 9 of the top 10 and 22 for 30 overall. Nice! Also, I should point out that she’s watched Buffy so many times on DVD that I’ve probably seen the entire series, or at least heard it all from another room. The only show on that list I feel like I’m missing out on is Dexter, and — again, by osmosis — I feel I’ve seen quite a bit of it. Lost bugs the shit out of me, How I Met Your Mother is disqualified for using a laugh track and Big Love…well, Bill Paxton and Jeanne Tripplehorne creep me the hell out, so you do the math.

Shows neither of us have watched
6. Breaking Bad (AMC, 2008-present)
14. Futurama (Fox, 1999-2003)
20. Tim And Eric Awesome Show, Great Job! (Cartoon Network, 2007-present)
21. Curb Your Enthusiasm (HBO, 2000-present)
26. The Venture Bros. (Cartoon Network, 2003-present)
27. Flight Of The Conchords (HBO, 2007-2009)
28. Eastbound & Down (HBO, 2009-present)
29. Wonder Showzen (MTV2, 2005-06)

We actually watched the first few episodes of Eastbound & Down but just stopped watching for some reason. I would say that Breaking Bad is the next on my list of must-watch shows. I hate Larry David so I’ll never watch Curb. And until I read this list I had never even heard of The Venture Brothers.

By the way, an interesting side note about that list: the share of each network. I guess it shouldn’t surprise me that HBO has 8 of the top 30 spots, or that ABC and CBS rated one fewer than either AMC or the Cartoon Network. NBC, for all their recent trouble, scores 5 on the list. Also interesting that Fox had 4 shows on the list, but it killed 3 of them prematurely.

Scarce heard amid the guns below

As readers of this blog would know, I’ve been trying over the last couple of years to gain a better understanding of the two world wars. While I often marvel at the spectacle of war, the notion of it makes me sick…old men sending young men to die for ridiculous ends, equating war-making with jingoistic patriotism, etc.  My attempt to understand it has already given me a better sense of how and why these wars unfolded, but what I’ve read has been a historical look back. I had little appreciation for what it must have felt like to a soldier. I count myself very fortunate that I’ve never been in or in any way near a war zone.

Our recent trip to France helped me get some of that perspective. The ground at Vimy still torn up from shelling. The long, exposed run at Juno Beach with nothing between you and a German bunker but luck and prayer. The trenches at Beaumont-Hamel, with enemies almost impossibly close together. In each of these places I stopped, tried to put myself in the place of a soldier, and each time felt nervous, even frightened. I actually got physically tense. I tried to imagine myself running up that beach or climbing the firing steps, and I’d get a lump in my throat. I kept thinking to myself, how could anyone do this? How could someone charge with shells exploding around and tracers whizzing past? Just typing this now the memory is still vivid, and the lump has come back.

Whatever atrocities are committed by front-line soldiers — and those atrocities are many — it’s not their choice to be there. The tragic, unfair, unholy situation in which they find themselves spurs some to evil, some to heroism, but most simply — incredibly — to bravery. Those are who we saw buried by the thousands in the valley of the Somme this summer, and whose names were etched on the side of the Vimy memorial. Those are who we remember today.

An allied cemetery just south of Arras, on the way to Beaumont-Hamel, one of many we saw driving through the Somme valley. Mainly British and Australian, but we found Canadians there as well. Most markers had no name or nationality, and simply read A Soldier of the Great War, Known Unto God.
Serre Road Cemetery No. 2. An allied cemetery just south of Arras, on the way to Beaumont-Hamel, one of many we saw driving through the Somme valley. Mainly British and Australian, but we found Canadians there as well. Most markers had no name or nationality, and simply read 'A Soldier of the Great War, Known Unto God'.

Rage, rage against the dying of the idealized past

I used to love reading the newspaper. For years I had the Globe and Mail, and then the Toronto Star, delivered to my home. I’d read it on the subway, or on my couch, and feel I was reading something important. Five years ago, the Globe pissed me off by charging me twice to read the same content, and I canceled my subscription out of protest. Shortly thereafter I began reading the Star, but once newspapers rolled out RSS feeds I basically threw the paper versions over for this more efficient (and more environmentally friendly) method.

I read this as my own example of how mainstream media was dying, though not already dead, as ‘new’ media liked to claim. It caught my attention, then, that NPR’s Intelligence Squared podcast dealt with the statement “Good riddance to mainstream media” last week. For those of you who haven’t heard NPR’s Oxford-style debates before, the debate is book-ended by audience votes for or against the proposition, and whoever changes the most minds during the debate (according to the audience poll) is declared the winner. Now, forgive the spoiler (as if any of you are going to sit through it!) but those against the proposition win the day. In my opinion this had less to do with the efficacy of anyone’s argument and more to do with the phrasing of the proposition.

I’ll explain: I’d wager that, apart from investors in blog networks, no one wants the mainstream media to collapse and disappear. In fact, most people probably just don’t care. Few, then, would vote for a proposition that sounds rather gleeful about the demise of mainstream media.

Even then, the nays might have won it on a low blow, as those backed into a corner sometimes throw. Again, I’ll explain: the classic tactic of any industry which finds itself under siege is to ignore the facts and appeal to emotion. Think of the music industry: there was no debate about one medium (the CD) being superior to the other (the MP3), and there was certainly no attempt to produce profit by matching supply to the obvious demand; instead, sensing a threat to their existing business model, they wept for the poor artist starving now that he was deprived of album royalties. That was, of course, horseshit, but that’s the tactic: obfuscate by tugging at the heartstrings. Likewise opponents of gay marriage (who purport to defend the very fabric of society), gun ownership lobbies (“You couldn’t be more wrong, Lisa. If I didn’t have this gun, the King of England could just walk in here any time he wants, and start shoving you around.”) and union organizers (who still cast their negotiations as Dickensian urchins struggling under the boot of wealthy land barons).

In this case the MSM tries to equate their business model — print, newsrooms, and on on — with the moral righteousness of pure journalism. Kill newspapers, they say, and you’ll lose the Woodwards and Bernsteins and Murrows of the world who expose corruption and tweak our collective conscience. Leaving aside for a moment the false sanctity of journalism this supposes, there’s a gaping logical flaw in their argument. Just because the mainstream media is where journalistic triumphs have tended to happen, does not prove that only the mainstream media that can produce beneficial journalism.

This notion did float up during the podcast — someone arguing for the proposition did say that no one would debate that journalism is good — but it didn’t garner much discussion, probably because the ‘no’ side benefits from marrying the ‘how’ and the ‘what’. Would should have been debated was the probably longevity of the ‘how’, but it became — as such debates often do — a discussion on the merits of the ‘what’. If the proposition is that the MSM is no longer the most viable model for journalism, but the MSM successfully convinces people that they are journalism, the inferred extension of this is that the end of the MSM equals the end of journalism. It’s a logical fallacy, but an effective tool.

This deceptive tool is usually wrapped up in the banner of tradition or ‘way of life’. Five to ten years from now we’ll be listening to the auto industry explain that conservation and urbanization make us drive less, and driving is synonymous with freedom, and therefore environmentalism is killing freedom.