November 25, 2005

An Ode to Ms Mitchell

Here I am, trying to do the last paper for my English Lit course -- of course, I do so at Tree's on Granville -- and just when I was about to quit in frustration, the mic stand & speakers go up and it's acoustic singer girls!

Annie Becker comes up first, typical coffee shop singer-songwriter, Feist-esque vocals and understated guitar -- she opens with a bouncy version of The Way You Look Tonight. Nicely done, I think; I don't usually hear versions of that one that aren't mostly melancholy.

They haven't started yet, but Carly Jepsen and Che Dorval are up next. Nothing gets me out of a funk like a gal and a guitar. :D I need to go home and play me some Joni Mitchell.

November 19, 2005

Mandatory Potter geek-out

Okay, okay. I've mentioned my Potterhead status before. I'm not proud of it, but there it is.

Keeping in line with it, then, the wife and I hit Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire tonight. Here's what I thought:

spoiler alert

I've been less than impressed with the first three installments, so tonight's viewing of Goblet of Fire came as a pleasant surprise. Thanks to a useful change of director, improved acting chops in our group of child actors, and some merciful edits to keep JK Rowling's many rabid fans on their toes, it's by far the most entertaining of the series.

Case in point: The opening 20 minutes of the film wisely leave out a lot of the detail that deserves to be "book only" material. The book's playful approach to the Quidditch World Cup, for example, would have been pointless on film; better to give that screen time to the darker stuff to come.

Ditto, the elimination of the house elf liberation thing. In the book, Hermione spends a lot of time and effort trying to free Hogwart's many house elves from servitude. Director Mike Newell and screenwriter Steve Kloves, recognising that globe-eyed Dobby was the Jar Jar Binks of Potter movie number three, cleverly decided to write that entire storyline out, using another of this book’s shady characters to pick up the mysterious slack.

One addition to the first task in the tournament is especially likeable. Chase scenes are easier to do on celluloid than paper, and this is no different. As the Hungarian Horntail claws his way to Harry, many in the cinema were joyfully on the edges of their seats. This picture also answers a question many readers have had since book four came out: how can the tournament spectators see the contestants when they're under water or in a giant hedge maze? (The answer: they can't. Wizard spectator sports seem strangely to lean toward large gatherings of people just hanging out until a winner pops up out of the ground.)

The bad guys have precious little to do in this film, but shine when they get the spotlight. Ralph Fiennes, as He Who Must Not Be Named himself, hisses with glee during his closeup scene with Radcliffe. He’s appropriately nasty, and obviously had a tonne of fun despite acting with only a serpent’s slits in place of his nose. Radcliffe, for his part, holds fairly well with the Oscar-winner. (If only Michael Gambon was as up to snuff, now that the original Dumbledore, Richard Harris, has passed on. Gambon is too twitchy to pull off the master wizard, who for all his outward bumbling should seem unflappable.)

The biggest beef is just that; there's too much beef! These 14-year-old boys sure have big arms! They'd better make the next two films pretty quick-like if they want to get Harry through his sixth year before a full beard sets in.

November 13, 2005

Walmart -- devil's advocation vs blind optimism

My positionally waffling comment on Briana's Walmart post was so long I decided to post it here, too.

Background: Briana, as always, spots the best blog stuff. She got this via Susie Bright: Walmart has fired an employee named Kirby for his reply to a right-wing Christian woman's complaint over the company's change from "Merry Christmas" to "Happy Holidays".

Kirby took the time to write this Bible-thumper a response that explained, rightly, how the Christian holiday was originally a mishmash of other faiths' traditions:

"The colors associated with Christmas red-and-white are actually a representation of the amanita muscaria mushroom," he wrote her. "Santa is borrowed from the Caucuses, mistletoe from the Celts, yule log from the Goths, the time from the Visigoth and the tree from the worship of Baal. It is a wide, wide world."

There are some interesting comments on both Susie's and Briana's blogsites. Most of them label Walmart as pure evil; I share the sentiment, but have a few bits of 'for the sake of argument' opinion to share, too.

First, my court-mandated Devil’s Advocate work. Walmart makes a big effort to employ those who can’t gete decent work elsewhere: mentally and physically challenged, seniors, teens. Also, from what I understand, their starting wages are higher than, say, Subway or McDonald’s (which, to be fair, also offers some people half-decent career opportunities, should they stay on past the typical high school years-tour). There's a young gentleman I've worked with at Douglas College who is, for lack of nicer terms, a little bit slow. He's nice enough, but due to a congenital condition, his social skills are left a little bit wanting, and his appearance is best described as "a defeated sigh, personified". This young man was slowly cycling deeper and deeper into a clinical depression until he got a job at Walmart -- for the first time in his life, he was given responsibility, a chance to challenge himself, and the structure within which he could achieve some career aspirations. Walmart, to risk trite exaggeration, probably saved his life.

As for big box stores taking away from community, I wholeheartedly agree — they’re a special sickness that people in future classes will scoff at when they study our times. However, I feel the same way about shopping malls, and those proliferate like cockroaches throughout the downtown area. When I walk through a shopping mall, I get jittery fluorescent lighting, ceaseless marketing stimuli, and the same stores selling the same stuff regardless of which mall I visit.

Here lies the great hypocrisy of the “upward-thinking” academics who eschew Walmart. They scoff at fast-food franchises and turn their nose from Walmart or Zellers. On the other hand, they make regular trips to Pacific Centre or one of its sister facilities. Why not boycott shopping malls, strip malls, and while we're at it, the upscale chain restaurants, too?

I honestly feel that the biggest crime these big companies commit — usually American, although working for a Korean-owned company I see it’s not limited to the Yanks — is that they have a complete lack of human compassion involved in their treatment of employees, the community and, I know it sounds strange, the competition.

Sure, I talked about the less-fortunate getting jobs; however, it seems this is a business ploy rather than a genuine attempt to help the community. Think about it -- who would appreciate a repetitive job for years at a time (thus reducing training budgets) at a relatively low long-term wage more than mentally challenged people? Just going from studies here, seniors are often just happy to have a job that gets them out of the house and in contact with others. Employers who hire people from marginalised groups get government handouts to do so -- not to mention the tax benefits of being involved in these communities.

Back to the inspiration for all of this discussion: This person who wrote about Christmas got fired, not for speaking the truth, but for not towing the company line. However, what this person actually did was use their studies to justify a marketing call. From what I can see, the response wasn’t rude or condescending, so much as educated and explanatory. Walmart let the employee go for being well-versed enough to explain their corporate strategy in a way that wasn’t dumbed down — Walmart’s reason is just, “to bring all cultures into the store.” This guy was actually trying to share something Walmart doesn’t want employees, and most important, customers, to have: knowledge.

Customers seem to get a good deal, at first. As one person has suggested, Walmart offers quality brand names at discounted prices. They offer free RV parking, discounted pharmaceuticals to seniors, even some regionally made goods to a wider audience. Until, that is, the competition shuts down.

The pattern is well-documented: a Walmart builds in a location (most often a smaller community) amid local furore and dispute. A short period of boycott is ended when shoppers discover the deeply slashed prices and “special treatment”. Local stores are driven out of business by Walmart’s sheer volume and deep pockets. (The big box store, in fact, utilises many loss leaders — that is, products sold below the store’s cost — to bring customers through the door; small shops just can’t compete.) Once all comers have been dispatched, Walmart starts to increase their prices and decrease their special services. With no other stores in operation, and none likely to risk head-to-head competition in the future, Walmart is now free to do what they will with their now-captive consumer base.

The consumers, of course, have no recourse. They’ve dug their own grave: they’ve ruined their own local economy and lost the option of competitive pricing by turning away their loyalty from the old, smaller shops; they’ve essentially aided the corporate giant in establishing a monopoly, and now must pay for it, literally, through higher prices and limited choices.

(For those of you who don't feel like doing the reading or social activism necessary to get more information, there's now a convenient, left-wing movie you can watch! Wal-Mart: The High Cost of Low Prices is available on DVD for $13 US, or, hilariously, you can attend a screening hosted by the same COPE-majority Vancouver city council, for the low price of $20 Cdn!!!)

As for East Vancouver, I’m of a split mind on this one: while city council delivered a blow to Walmart (which companies like this need once in a while, methinks), they did so at the cost of the giant’s concessions. The new big box would have been the most ecologically-friendly Walmart in the chain, and a blueprint for future, better-designed stores. If only all the shopping malls were green-roofed and charity-supporting, for example. Also, as Briana suggests, East Van could use a few more jobs for locals.

And what many people aren’t asking: if Walmart couldn’t get approval, why is the biggest Costco in Canada being built in Yaletown?

November 10, 2005

Root canal, yay!

Today I had my first root canal.

The process itself wasn't exactly painful -- they shot my lower jaw up with about sixty-eight needles -- but now I'm nursing a horrible migraine trying to get through my classical studies lecture.

Yowza, does taking a work hoe to the pulp of a tooth ever smite a guy!

November 6, 2005

Apotropaicism unleashed!

A while ago, largely due to my full-fledged double membership in the Word Nerd Club (TM) and Grammar Geek Association (TM), I started referring to my word power as Old Man River.

Okay, maybe a little background is necessary here. I teach English to foreign students, and many of them seem to think that if they work hard enough, they'll simply memorise enough words to become fluent. They come to Canada, lists of words clutched tightly in their fists, desperately trying to access vocabulary in their brains, computer style, to devise wholly incomprehensible sentences.

Asian students, especially, are taught foreign languages in their public school systems the same way they're taught mathematics. They insist upon formulae, beg for repetition, find solace in rote. It's like the method my secondary school used for French -- which by the way failed miserably: the only thing I can say is, "Les pamplemousses sont sur la table," and trust me, you just don't have a lot of true, contextual opportunities to work "The grapefruit are on the table" into conversation. Rote is almost completely eschewed in favour of more natural, conversational methods nowadays.

All the things we don't do to learn our native tongues, for some reason, have almost total sway in English as a Foreign Language study overseas today.

So I try to explain to my students that language acquisition isn't formulaic at all. It's organic, unpredictable, even sporadic. It's reliant upon experience rather than repetition; it thrives in a varying environment, rather than a stale, predictable one.

I give them examples of my own situation. I'm a native speaker, a writer, a wordsmith. Still, I encounter new phrases, idiomatic expressions and jargon on a daily basis. I'm a stickler for appropriate usage, and hate to see lazy spelling and incorrect punctuation. I can't stand it when people mix up affect and effect, confuse its and it's, or misspell definitely. (There is NOT an 'a' in that word, okay? It comes from finite, not finate!!!) Anyway, I ask my students, do these things mean I can spell diarrhoea without a dictionary? Most definitely not. (See? No 'a' anywhere in there!)

Case in point: I came across the word apotropaic the other day, and could only guess what it meant: "While many people focus on the ancient Greeks offering animals to the gods for apotropaic reasons, few realise that the bits offered for sacrifice were in fact the worst cuts of meat."

Turns out it's an adjective (okay, I guessed that) that according to better dictionaries means, "designed to ward off, or deter, evil; giving the owner or bearer good luck." So anyone with a favourite sweater, first date underwear, or a particularly sentimental piece of jewellery: they've in their hands an item with apotropaic properties.

So, Old Man River, you ask? What does a barrel-chested black man singing slowly have to do with this post? Well, my vocabularly is a little like Old Man River; no matter how many words I get, there's always another to conquer. There's no standing still here folks; you gotta keep on keepin' on, right? Thus, with the addition of things like apotropaic, my word power, here poorly equated to the Showboat showstopper, just keeps rollin' along.

Pronunciation: ah-paw-tro-PAY-ic -- enjoy, my friends, and I hope you will, literally, spread the word!

November 2, 2005

I'm so predictable

Okay, I admit it: I've got a thing for the Sterling Shoe girl. There's something about the catlike construction of her face, or maybe the fact that she's plastered all over every bus in the city. Either way, it's as embarrassing as a massive zit on the end of your nose the day of a big date, or crying out the wrong name at just the wrong moment.