Electrifying the past

One night when I was 14, I was doing my homework at the desk in the downstairs basement of my parents’ house. My transistor radio was playing, but I wasn’t paying close attention. The radio station was playing far too much Chicago and Elton John, for my liking, and not nearly enough Eric Clapton or Bob Dylan.

Suddenly, guitars kicked in, and a woman started singing, her voice mildly eerie and like no vocal performance I had ever heard, “True Thomas sat on Huntleigh bank / When he espied a lady may.” I strained for the words for a few stanzas, and then a rock beat struck up in utter contrast, “Harp and carp, come along with me, Thomas the Rhymer…”

At the time, I had never heard of Thomas of Ercildoune, aka Thomas the Rhymer, the Scottish prophet who met the Queen of Elfland and was carried off to her realm for seven years. I hadn’t even heard of Steeleye Span. But the arrangement and the words haunted me, and eventually – this being pre-Internet – I realized what I was hearing was a modern version of a seven hundred year old song.

This continuity of culture fascinated me. Folk purists claimed to be outraged by Steeleye Span’s efforts in this direction, but as am adolescent raised on stories of King Arthur and Robin Hood who was trying to reconcile these interests with modern politics, I was entranced. I became a lifelong fan of Steeleye Span, and to this day, songs that modernize old songs are among my favorites.

I remember, for example, just before twilight at the Vancouver Folk Festival hearing Oysterband doing a rocked up version of “Hal-an-tow,” the centuries old Morris dance. I played it for Paul Zimmer, one of the SCA founders, a few weeks later, and I remember him doubling over, his laughter ringing out like a cannon shot when he heard the refrain, “Summer is a-coming in / And winter’s gone away.” A harpist from Denver condemned it as sacrilege and an affront to her ears, which only made Paul and I laugh harder.

Years later, Oysterband, in its “Ragged Kingdom” collaboration with June Tabor, would do much the same with “The Bonny Bunch of Roses,” converting the conversation between Napoleon’s son and widow about the dangers of England from a slow harp arrangementd into a magic altogether quicker and more electrified. Again it was condemned by the purists, and overwhelmed the open-minded.

Over the years, there have been other updated songs that have enticed me, among them: Pete Morton’s acapella, punk-tinged version of “Tam Lin,” Tom Lewis’s setting of Rudyard Kipling poems to music, and Loreena McKennitt’s similar treatments of “The Lady of Shallot,” “The Stolen Child” and “The Highwayman.” There was even the Corries’ tongue-in-cheek explanation of how they were restoring “Ghost Riders in the Sky” to its original Scottish form – which was really the story of a modern bar fight described as a Western brawl.

What all these songs have in common is the idea that the past is still alive, and still worth knowing. I am very far from a conservative, but in our era of throwaway culture, something pleases me about this assumption.

Several weeks ago, I bought myself the Christmas present of a Fiio X7 portable stereo. Since then, I have raved about the quality of the sound to the point that old friends are surely contemplating crouching behind hedges and trees when they see me coming.

My one complaint is how the screen gathers finger print smears. The X7 is packaged with a protective film, but I have yet to apply one of those films without air bubbles I cannot remove. I much prefer a glass screen protector, which are sold separately. I have one for the music player I carry on the bus and Skytrain, and it is far preferable than a protective film.

On Amazon.com, the American site, a glass protector for the X7 screen costs $11. Allowing for exchange on the Canadian dollar and extra postage, I would be willing to pay about $20 for it. However, on Amazon.ca, the Canadian site, the same glass protector sells for $69, plus $17 shipping – about four times a reasonable price. Apparently, the glass protector is being sold by a third party that is using its monopoly to set outrageous price.

After paying for the X7 and Bluetooth speakers, I suppose I shouldn’t complain about aother $87. But I dislike being taken advantage of, and I determined to see if I could do better.

My first thought was to buy from the American Amazon site. But the postage to Canada was unacceptably high. Somehow I balked at paying more for shipping than for the glass protector itself.

Feeling stubborn, I contacted DISAGU, the company that had made the glass protector for my about-town music player. It didn’t make one for the X7, but its representative said that, if I send the dimensions, they would start to. Moreover, they would send me a free one.

At the same time, I contacted Fiio, the manufacturer of the X7. I explained the price difference on the two Amazon sites, and asked if the Canadian price was a mistake. The Fiio representative replied that her company could do nothing, since the price was set by a reseller. However, she also gave me the address of Aliexpress, a Chinese site that sold the glass cover for $10US and shipped free world wide.

Suddenly, I had two solutions. Naturally, I was pleased to save money, but what pleased me more was that I had stood up to consumer exploitation. I’m going to remember this small incident and the lesson that I can never know what might happen if I stand up for myself, and complain to the right people.

The last few years of Trish’s life, she was on disability, and increasingly bedridden. Although I work from home, her situation caused few problems, except for one thing – she wanted to play music, and music — at least with words — distracts me when I write. As a compromise, I bought her a music player, and soon bought one for myself to use when I was on the bus or Skytrain. The only problem was, no player of the time could hold more than about one-fifth of nine hundred albums. So an ambition was born: to have all our music digitized and accessible from a single, portable source.

For the first decade of the millennium, the goal was barely possible. For a while, I thought of using a dedicated netbook, but that was not as convenient as a music player.

More importantly, the goal faced several problems. I had not thrown out any music I had bought since high school, and I am one of those who still buys music as a way of supporting artists I admire. For years, concerts and the Vancouver Folk Festival had been a major form of socialization for us, and over the years we had accumulated an unlikely collection of vinyl records, cassettes, and CDs. Our stereo needed four components just so we play it all. In order to access them from one device, I would need to digitize all my albums. In addition, I would need to divide the albums into tracks to take full advantage of them.

However, digitizing is easier to talk about than to do. A CD can be ripped in about five minutes, but records and cassettes have to be recorded while playing, and divided into tracks manually. The process is tedious, so after quickly digitizing the CDs, I tackled the records and cassettes in starts and stops. In fact, I don’t expect to finish it until near the end of 2017, partly because I changed my mind partway through and decided that, for many artists, I wanted high quality sound, not the standard MP3 file size – even though, because I was using the Ogg Vorbis format, my files were higher quality than most of the ones I could find online.

The second obstacle is that the memory for music players – that is, the size of micro SD cards – increased slowly. Trish had been two years dead before about two-thirds of our music could fit on a micro SD card, and that meant swapping music out several times a week since I wanted variety.

The problem was finally solved when micro SD cards with 128 megabytes were released a couple of years ago, but most music players were not equipped to handle the files that cards of this size could hold. Many had a limit to their list of tracks that was far below the size of the cards. The only way to view all my files was to use the view of the memory, and that meant there was no way to play them in the order they appeared on the album. Most of the time, I listen to music by album, on the grounds that how musicians arrange albums is part of the experience they want their audience to have, so this was a problem.

This last barrier fell when I needed to replace my music player, and accidentally discovered the Fiio line of music players – or, more accurately, of portable stereos. When I bought the entry level X1 in October 2016, it had solved this final problem while producing sound that was far superior to that of other music players. The X1 gave me a music player to use outside the townhouse, but I soon decided that I wanted the top of the line X7 for use around the home. The X7 had even better sound than the X1, solved all my problems, and was even set up to stream music from the Internet when WiFi was turned on.

Accordingly, after several weeks of resisting the temptation, I bought an X7 as a Christmas present for myself. My biggest problem now is to decide whether to stay with a single Bluetooth speaker, or to buy at least one more. I may just carry the speaker with me into the kitchen or living room so that I can position it to give me the best sound.

I only wish Trish could have heard this solution. Being of the same generation as I am, she would be amazed at a music system that weighed about 1200 grams and could be held in one hand. Better still, she would have loved having all our music in one source as much as I do.

I have spent the last few months in the grip of an enthusiasm. At my age, I am proud I can still have an enthusiasm, because it proves that I have kept a youthful engagement with the world well into middle-age, but it is one I would have thought unlikely when I was a boy. It is, of all things, an enthusiasm for the Fiio line of music players – or, as I prefer to think of them, portable stereos.

I learned about music the hard way, by myself, with lots of false leads and blind alleys. My family is not musical, and my elementary school music teacher, who wanted to be a professional musician, was only interested in encouraging students who had already taken music lessons. When the transfer to high school allowed me drop music, I did so without hesitation. The only reason I was even attempting to play the trombone was that it could be rented to own cheaply.

I started high school so profoundly ignorant that I might have grown up to be a life-long hater of music. I definitely took years to develop any knowledge; I was in my twenties, for example, before I could tell the difference between a sharp and a flat, and when I learned, I was profoundly excited.

Yet free from the humiliation of the band, I started discovering music first. As a would-be writer, I gravitated naturally to songwriters: first Simon and Garfunkel, and later Bob Dylan. Other explorations, such as the work of all the Beatles after the band broke up, including Yoko Ono, did not last, being less fortunate.

Still, by the time I started university, I was a compulsive music listener. I developed a taste for folk rock, and I still remember being down in the basement bedroom in my parents’ house, listening to Steeleye Span singing “Thomas the Rhymer” on my cheap transistor, absolutely delighted that a song seven hundred years old had been transformed into a modern hit.

Throughout my marriage, the Vancouver Folk Festival and later the Rogue Folk Club were the main part of our socializing. I can still remember the first time I heard Stan Rogers, Loreena McKennitt and Oysterband, and over the years we bought hundreds of records, cassettes and CDs (people bought albums in my youth, and I still do, as a way of supporting artists I appreciate). Usually at the folk festival we bought cassettes, because they were less likely to warp in the summer sun.

Over the last seven years, I have been slowing digitalizing my music collection. Usually, I made files of medium quality, reasoning that, since I would often be listening to the digital files on public transit, high quality files would be largely wasted on me. I looked forward to the day when all my music would be available from the same source, envisioning first a dedicated laptop and later a music player with enough memory to hold 12,000 tracks or so.

As SD micro cards became larger, I was nearing that goal when my Sansa Fuze music player needed to be replaced. I bought a Sansa Clip, but the manufacturer had lapsed from their former standards. My new player especially seemed to dislike my Ogg Vorbis files, refusing to recognize some and only playing others at a whisper.

According to my research, the Fiio X1 should perform better. I had noticed it when searching for a new player, but it seemed unusually large and clunky. I especially disliked the arrangement of four buttons at the corners of the scroll wheel – an example of poor design if there ever was one. But if it could let me play my files in the way I wanted, I was prepared to put up with the appearance. I did wonder, though, if the X1 would burst the seams of my pocket.

My reluctance vanished the first time I tried the X1. Even my average quality files sounded better on it. As for the high quality ones – have you heard the expression “wall of sound”? It refers to arrangements full of orchestration, each instrument interacting with the others in complex and interesting ways. That was what I heard on the X1. I even heard subtleties I had never heard on music players from other manufacturers.

That was when I realized why Fiio products were so much larger than other music players. They weren’t just music players. They were portable stereos, and, as far as miniaturization has progressed, their DAC (Digital Analog Converters) and headphone amplifiers could still only be made so small. The Fiio product line did not consist of oversized music players, but stereo systems that were as small as our current technology allowed.

As a lover of both excellence and music, I bored everyone in hearing about this discovery. Before long, I began planning to re-record some of my digitized music with the highest quality possible. I also decided I wanted an X7, Fiio’s top of the line product, for use at home. Unfortunately, my editors were slow in paying at the time, and I knew I had to wait.

Finally, in the last week before Christmas, payments started rolling in. One morning, I was just debating whether I could afford an X7 when I received a cheque for almost exactly the amount I needed.

This, I told myself, was obviously kismet. Within moments, I had placed my order. Miraculously, in the middle of the holiday season, it arrived the next day.

I had read the universally enthusiastic reviews of the X7, so I knew what to expect. Still, having been impressed already by the X1, I doubted there was much room for any improvement.

I couldn’t have been more wrong. As superior as the X1 was to music players from other manufacturers, so the X7 was to the X1. The wall of sound had become a tsunami, and I have happily spent the last few days rediscovering my music. Once or twice, I have even mistaken a detail I could only detect on the X7 for a sound behind me or in the next room.

This was not just music; this was the kind of revelation that produces fanatics. The interface, the construction, the sound and everything else about the X7 has a quiet quality that I both respect and enjoy immensely.

I already listen regularly to music, but already I suspect I will be listening to a lot more. It sounds like advertising hype, but I really do feel like I have rediscovered music — including many old favorites — all over again because of my purchases.

I first became aware of the work of Heiltsuk artist Kc Hall’s when I saw a tattoo he designed on Facebook. Instantly, I put him on the short list of young artists I wished to buy from.

It was not just the graffiti style. These days, half the newer artists seem to playing with similar styles, and, while I like the idea of First Nations artists doing something new, many graffiti-inspired works frankly seem to me tiresome and lacking inspiration.

However, Hall’s work is not like that. I could tell at once that he was well-grounded in traditional work. Later, I was not at all surprised to learn that he had designed the vests given to the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge when they visited recently (an assignment for which he drew some sharp criticism from those who imagine that artists share the politics of their patrons), because his graffiti style – or styles, I should say, to be more exact – show a knowledge of tradition that is often missing from modernist works. Unlike many working in similar styles, Hall knows what he is playing with in h is modern work.

So, although Hall seems incredibly busy, both with canvases and tattoo designs, last summer I commissioned a work from him and took it home from the Starbucks at New Westminster station after a pleasant talk about local art punctuated by the arriving and departing Skytrains.

After some discussion, Hall painted “Happy Mess,” a colorful canvas that breaks just about every traditional aspect imaginable. To start with, it is not confined to a primary color of black and a secondary red, with perhaps a third blue. Nor is it symmetrical, as most First Nations designs are, nor even a hint of a formline.

Instead, as the title indicates, the painting is a collection of random traditional elements spill across the page at an angle. Only an analytical eye is likely to notice that it is a series of interlocking triangles, with objects at each angle, subtly structuring the apparent randomness.

The objects themselves are often traditional. The rectangles with faces are borrowed from Chilkat weaving, while the hat is a traditional cedar one, painted with what looks like a traditional black raven. Meanwhile, the central part of the painting appears to be primarily a view up a pole from directly beneath, but also doubles as the fin of a killer whale with the blowhole transformed into what could almost be the Rolling Stones’ lip logo, and is held together by  what looks like a buttoned collar halfway up. And among these elements are arrows of two different sizes that would be more at home in a flow chart. There is even a stylized black blob, as if the artist left an accident uncorrected.

Add the cartoon clouds, and the overall impression is of an artist having fun with forms. The result is completely different from almost anything else in my collection, yet, because Hall knows the traditions he plays with, one that still manages to fit with the paintings around it. I have considered one day commissioning a traditional piece from Hall to hang beside it, but, until I do, it hangs at the entrance to my living room, where it never fails to get a reaction from my visitors.


The masculine trap

To anyone who tries to observe accurately, men are clearly the privileged gender. However, this observation is likely to generate a hostile response from certain types of men, because they do not feel privileged. They have heard their right to privilege questioned, and seen their privilege somewhat diminished in the last few decades. The diminishment does not go nearly as far as it should, so far as I am concerned, but, because their privilege forms a major part of their identity, the change is resented out of all proportion to its effect. To far too many men, being male is a major part of their identity, which is particularly difficult because the traditional roles no longer work.

In the last century, traditional masculinity took two blows it has never recovered from. First, in North America and Europe, two generations were decimated several times over and warped by the loss of millions of men in the two World Wars. Some of the survivors returned home handicapped or suffering trauma, others eager to put their experiences behind them and become an economic success.

Neither of these attitudes made many of the survivors ideal role models for their children. As a result, several generations of men had to re-invent masculinity for themselves.

Lacking examples, many stalled in adolescence, which is often a time of exaggerated and over-simplified gender roles. Instead of learning responsibility for their dependents, the use of their physical strength for others, or any of the other expectations that could sometimes make the traditional masculine roles acceptable, they focused on the superficial – swearing, drinking, watching sports, and domination without responsibility.

In particular, as adolescents often do, they developed a negative identity, defining themselves primarily as not being women. A negative identity is always a shaky basis for anyone’s sense of self, but what made this identity particularly unstable was that the necessities of war time had also caused women’s roles to change as they actively helped the war efforts. The result was that the basis for many men’s identities shifted. Add the reduction of domestic work due to automation, and the liberalization of many laws, and by the 1960s, many women realized they no longer needed to depend on men.

Since male identity depended on a disappearing view of women, the change in the female gender role suddenly left many men with no sense of who they were – a problem that many men still struggle with today. Rather than adjusting to the changes, they prefer to lament them, evoking a view of traditional masculine roles that the men of the past would probably openly despise. Rather than learning from the example of feminists and starting to examine their own roles, they obsessively blamed women for destroying their sense of identity.

Those men who escaped these dead ends have done so mainly by building identities that are not based on their gender. Their senses of themselves are based on their accomplishments or sense of ethics. Rather than viewing themselves primarily as men, like feminists before them, such men have struggled to identify themselves as humans first, and to consider their biological sex as a detail only relevant in one part of their lives. Unlike the Men’s Rights Activists, they have tried to develop an adult sense of themselves, one that is self-contained and not dependent on women’s roles.

There are many advantages to this new definition of masculinity, not least of which is the possibility of actual friendships with women. However, to men who invested so much in a distortion of the past and in not being women, this new definition is unacceptable. They call men who adopt it effeminate, as though the old insult has any power over those whose identity is self-contained. The truth is, they have too much invested in their confusion and resentment to move beyond it into anything healthier.

They would rather condemn or attack, and assert their own psychosis than consider any other alternative – and, unfortunately, there is no easy way to make them re-evaluate themselves. A few learn flexibility as they realize that their wives and daughters benefit from feminism, but for the most part, they continue the confusion and the hurt by passing their perceptions on to other generations, condemning their own sons to a distorted and corrupt perception of themselves, ensuring that their self-inflicted misery will continue.

The Naming of Names

Last Friday, I attended the VCon novel-writing workshop. I came looking for encouragement, and found it in the comments of the two professional writers, Eileen Kernaghan and Robert Sawyer. Many of the negative comments could be disregarded as a sign of careless reading, although, Sawyer, to my embarrassment as an ex-English teacher, pointed out at least two places where I should have used the subjunctive.

However, the comment that I have mulled over the most was Sawyer’s complaint about the main character’s name. In reviewing a couple of entries to the workshop, he mentioned a dislike of invented names like Luke Skywalker. I am thinking about the comment because I at least partly agree with him, but changing a character’s name is a serious step. To my poetry-trained year, changing the character’s name means changing their personality as well, which can require a complete revision of the manuscript.

On the one hand, I dislike the surnames often borrowed from role-playing games, especially from elvish characters. Often these names show either a lack of imagination, such as (to invent an example on the spot) Inglorion Far-Traveler, or (to invent another quick example) an embarrassing attempt to sound mystical and exotic, such as Glorfindel StarDweller. My character’s name fits neither category – or so I believe – so I am not exactly pleased to have it lumped in with them. Yet considering that Sawyer is a successful, better than average professional writer, I want to think twice before disregarding his criticism – always keeping in mind that one writer’s opinion of your work can sometimes mean no more than they would done things differently.

On the other hand, invented or obscure names are used by many writers. Charles Dickens, for example, had Uriah Heep, Oliver Twist, Whackford Squeers and dozens of others. Thomas Hard had Tess of the D’Ubervilles. Stephen King had Dolores Claiborne. And if you include semi-allegorical names, like Mrs. Malaprop, the examples jump from the dozens to the hundreds. From these examples, I conclude that unusual names are acceptable in popular literature, and are even more so in fantasy and at least sometimes in science fiction. Granted, though, they may not be to everybody’s taste.

I have considered some alternative names, and found one or two that seem acceptable to me. All the same, I am glad to be some ways from a second draft, so I have time to think more about the issue.