Wednesday, November 11, 2009

A Remembrance Day call for a change to army culture

Remembrance Day is a day to think about war, and I have been, although not in the way pop culture seems to encourage these days. I do not fetishize war or worship soldiers as heroes. When yet another young man (or woman, but usually man) comes home in a flag-draped casket, it doesn't make my heart swell with patriotic pride. Quite the opposite, if anything.

What I was thinking about was Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). Soldiers lucky enough to return alive often suffer from it. There is growing recognition of this problem, but the focus tends to be on getting soldiers treatment once they get back home. And that shouldn't surprise anyone. The army is a well-honed system that was created to do one thing only: maximize kills. An important part of this is desensitization. Soldiers are trained to see the enemy, whoever that may be at a given time, as less than human. Disregarding the humanity of the enemy means discarding some of one's own humanity. This is inevitable. One can't become desensitized in one area and remain sensitive in others. Therefore, the army is a culture where nobody is allowed to have feelings.

This produces an efficient army, an array of killing machines. It also produces an environment where PTSD becomes entrenched. After all, a soldier who has suffered through a traumatic experience is not free to talk it over and have a good cry. He has to pretend to be strong, "masculine" and unaffected. The feelings that cannot be expressed have but one place to go: into the body, where they manifest as physical problems, behaviour disorders, flashbacks and nightmares.

Rather than concentrating entirely on dealing with the damage once the soldier has come home and the disorder has had time to become well-established, wouldn't it be nice if some measures were taken to prevent PTSD while the soldiers are still in the field?

Of course, when you're at war, there's no way to prevent traumatic events from occurring. What could be prevented is the blocking of expression. If, following a traumatic event, soldiers were free to express themselves as needed--not only with therapists but with each other--there might be less occurrence or severity of PTSD.

Clearly, this would take a major change to army culture, if not to our culture as a whole. I say it's high time for such a change. We haven't had an appreciable and permanent change in our cultural attitudes towards war since the days of the Roman empire. All we've done is come up with better chemicals and machinery for wreaking mayhem. Not much of an accomplishment.

So I say, let's start changing culture, including army culture. The time is late and the need is desperate. And if it leads to a loss of killing efficiency, so be it. There's something worse than not being stronger than everybody else, and that's being stronger than everybody else, at such a cost. Death may well be preferable.

Links of Interest

Broken Heroes

This documentary by the CBC News show The Fifth Estate looks at three soldiers recently returned from Afghanistan and suffering from PTSD. You can watch the entire documentary online, see clips of each soldier's interview, or read transcripts of all three interviews.

Operational Stress Injury Social Support (OSISS)

A support network founded by Lt.-Col. Stéphane Grenier, one of the soldiers interviewed in Broken Heroes.

Saturday, October 3, 2009

Dr. Horrible Wins Hugo

Back in February, I complained that the brilliant short musical comedy Dr. Horrible's Sing-Along Blog was shut out of the Oscars. So I am very pleased to report that the film has at last gotten the recognition it deserved. It won a Hugo for Best Dramatic Presentation - Short Form.

The Hugos are presented yearly at Worldcom, an enormous SF convention that takes place at a different location each year. This year, it was in Montreal, Quebec. According to Locus Magazine, Colin Harris accepted the award on behalf of Joss Whedon and the other creators.

But who is Colin Harris? He does not appear to be any relation to Neil Patrick Harris, who played the title role. Airlock Alpha describes Colin Harris as a "prominent fan." On the other hand, a commenter to says he's a past WorldCon co-chair.

Hmm, I guess Joss Whedon and the gang were pretty convinced they wouldn't win. The only person they sent to pick up the award was someone who had nothing to do with the actual making of the film.

This unfortunate lack of self-confidence was also displayed in the acceptance speech that Harris read. "Hugo, you need to get your act together, man.... You must have too many categories if we win one of them" (Source: Locus, Sept. 2009).

Enough of this modesty, false or otherwise! At a time when most movies are soulless reworkings of last year's movie, Dr. Horrible's Sing-Along Blog was a lone gem shining out of a pile of Hollywood garbage. Yes, it deserved that award. It wouldn't have beaten out two Dr. Who episodes otherwise. (In case you're wondering, not only doctors were nominated, although they did top the heap. Other nominees were Battlestar Galactica and Lost episodes.)

Take heart, Dr. Horrible. At least Hugo respects you.

Scoop! The True Nature of Fredericton Bus Station's "Shuttle Service"

As this is not a news blog and I am not a reporter, I never expected that I'd ever be able to scoop the local papers. But the improbable has happened, and quite by accident. All I did was make a phone call. Amazingly, I've even scooped Charles LeBlanc.

It's big news in Fredericton that the bus terminal has been forced to move from its handy downtown location to some awkward spot in an industrial park. Indeed, there has been widespread anger and protesting. It's no secret that this has happened because Irving owns the land that the bus terminal was on, just as Irving owns a frightening percentage of New Brunswick soil, and they booted Acadian Bus off the spot so that they can build a parking garage. But this post is not about the ugliness of replacing a bus station with a parking garage at a time when everyone is supposed to be so keenly aware of the need to slow climate change. It's not about the weakness of every level of government in this province and how they let the Irvings do whatever they want and never lift a finger to stop them. Believe me, I could do a long and heated rant about that if I wanted to. But that's not what this post is about.

It's about the alleged shuttle service. Both the CBC and The Daily Gleaner reported that for the first two weeks of the move, there would be a shuttle service to take passengers to the new location. Sounds good, but nobody reporting the story gave any details about this shuttle service and when it would run.

So I phoned the bus terminal and asked, "When does the shuttle bus run?"

There was silence. I elaborated on the fact that there was supposed to be (as I'd understood it) a shuttle bus to take people from the old location to the new.

"There's no shuttle bus," said the man on the phone.

"Oh, because they said on the news that there was--"

"What there is," he explained, "is two guys with a van, and they're there for people who show up downtown and didn't know we'd moved."

In other words, there isn't a shuttle service. If you're aware that the station moved--which you will be if you heard about the "shuttle service" in the first place--that van's not for you. Oh, maybe they'll be nice and give you a ride anyway. After all, New Brunswickers are nice people, and besides, it's got to be boring sitting there in a van all day. They'll want something to do. But it's not for you. No, it's for the probably-nonexistent person who lives under a rock and never gets news or talks to anybody and consequently heard nothing about the move.

You heard it here first. Great reportage, CBC and Gleaner!

If you enjoyed this bit of mockery aimed at our fine institutions of journalism, you may also appreciate my short post on a CBC host's musical difficulties.

Monday, September 28, 2009

Recipe: Vivian's Spinach Dip From Scratch

This recipe came about because I wanted to make spinach dip for a barbecue. Spinach dip is usually made with dried soup, but after I bought a packet, I read the ingredients, which I've gotten into the habit of doing these days, and was put off by the presence of monosodium glutamate, disodium guanylate, disodium inosinate and sulfites. (For more information on some of these chemicals, see my earlier blog entry on food additives.)

I decided it would be an interesting challenge to create my own, soup-mix-free dip. And here it is. You can replace the goat yoghurt with standard cow yoghurt or the more traditional sour cream, but I find that the goat yoghurt imparts an unusual and delicious flavour to the dip. It is also easier to digest (for humans, that is) than cow dairy and lower in fat than sour cream.

  • 1 1/4 cup goat yoghurt (or 1 cup thick sour cream)
  • 10 oz spinach
  • 1 cup mayonnaise
  • 1 clove garlic, minced or put through press
  • 1/4 cup onion, finely chopped
  • 1 cup red bell pepper, chopped
  • 4 oz water chestnuts, chopped (optional)
  • 1/4 tsp salt, or to taste
  • Freshly-ground pepper to taste
  • 1 large round bread (optional)

Line a colander with cheese cloth and put the yoghurt into it. Place the colander in the sink or a bowl and leave for an hour to strain. If you are using thick sour cream, skip this step.

If you are using fresh spinach, tear off stems (unless it's baby spinach, in which case you can get away with leaving the stems on). Wash and leave some of the water on. Cook until wilted--a couple of minutes on the stove top, or ten to fifteen minutes in a preheated solar oven*. If you're using frozen spinach, thaw. Either way, squeeze out excess water and chop.

Mix the sour cream and mayonnaise together in a bowl. Add garlic, onion, red pepper, water chestnuts, salt and pepper and mix well. Blend spinach into mixture. Chill for a couple of hours.

If you are using a bread bowl, prepare it just before serving so the bread won't get soggy. Slice the top off and cut or scoop out the inside, leaving walls of reasonable thickness, at least an inch I'd say. Spoon dip into hollowed-out bread. Cut up the leftover bread (from the top and inside) to use for dipping.

If you're not using a bread bowl, serve the dip in an ordinary bowl with tortilla chips, crackers, pita chips, toast points or... anything you want, really.

If you try this recipe, please let me know what you think by posting a comment. If you think the version with dried soup in it is better, feel free to let me know that too.

*We bought a solar oven this summer. I am thoroughly enamoured of it and yes, I used it to cook the spinach for this dip. The brand we bought is Sun Oven, but as that's the only type of solar oven I've ever used, I'm not going to advocate it over other brands. The Sport Solar Oven looks good too. It is more basic as well as cheaper, and the reflector is sold separately. If you want to make your own solar oven, you can find oodles of directions on the Internet.

Thursday, September 3, 2009

A message from prot?

Here's a curious piece of synchronicity. While we were in Grand Manan, we paid a visit to the local library and James found a copy of K-PAX. Remember the K-PAX movie, about a guy in a mental hospital who calls himself "prot" and insists he's an alien from the planet K-PAX? Well, it was a novel first. In New Brunswick we have this nifty system where all the libraries are on one network, and we can use our cards anywhere in the province, so James checked the book out of the library.

In the movie, prot says he's returning to K-PAX on July 27. In the original book, the date is August 17. It's repeated several times: pyschiatrist Gene Brewer (who just happens to have the same name as the author) has very little time because of this cut-off date, August 17. Well, take a look at this slip, from the library book, and see what the return date was.

Coincidence? What are the odds? No my friends, this is a message. Prot lives! See you on K-PAX.

Monday, August 24, 2009

A Book Club Gone Bad

I have a bit of a dilemma. I'm sort of a member of a science fiction book club. It's a pitiful, limping creature and always has been. Only four or five people show up with any regularity, which would be fine if everyone read the books. They don't. I have gone to meetings where it was revealed that not a single person actually read the book. This is a common enough occurrence that our (for want of a better word) leader has taken to sending out mass emails saying, "The book we're pretending to read this month is ...."

Then too, there's the time that I showed up for a meeting and no one else did, as far as I could determine. I waited for half an hour and wandered throughout the place before giving up and leaving. It turned out later that there had in fact been a meeting, though I never worked out how the others managed to give me the slip. I found the experience disheartening, so much so that I haven't been to a meeting since, though I keep meaning to go. In fact, I have continued to think of myself as a member of the book club. I'm simply a member who hasn't shown up at a meeting in a while. I obtain the assigned books and don't read them, or I read a couple of chapters and lose interest. Because (and here's another problem I have with the book club) the books chosen represent a very particular taste, which I don't happen to share. The themes are either military, online gaming or space opera (a subcategory of military, come to think of it). The field of interest is so narrow that I think I can pinpoint exactly who is making the recommendations. This is not a good thing. A book club should represent as many literary tastes as there are people in the book club. That is, in fact, the advantage and perhaps even the whole point of a book club: the opportunity to experience a range of tastes, and read books you'd never pick up in the normal course of events.

Well, I'm certainly picking up books I'd never touch in the normal course of events, but they're all the same! And I don't like them. And the person who's making the choices is not experiencing anything new.

None of that is good. The lackadaisical nature of the club--not good. Book suggestions coming from only one, or at most two, of the members--not good. Said suggestions being consistently contrary to my personal taste--not good, at least for me. And yet none of those things is the reason why I am now saying to myself that it may be time to throw in the towel and drop out of the club for real. Because on top of all that, it seems that this one person (or at most two people) who is supplying us with all our reading material is not terribly discerning in terms of literary quality.

To put it another way, the latest book is pure cheese.

When I first held it in my hand and looked at its cover art, which consisted of space ships shooting at each other, I groaned and thought, "Not another bloody space opera!" Which was a bit unfair of me, since I hadn't bothered to read the previous one (New Space Opera, in case you're interested). That being the case, I decided to give it a chance. After all, I reminded myself, book clubs are all about being exposed to new reading material, and I am being so exposed, even if certain other people in the group are not. Let me then benefit. Let me open my mind.

So I began to read. The story is certainly action-packed, though convoluted as hell, what with all the faster-than-light travel through multiple dimensions. I read a lot of sentences twice, trying to figure out what was going on. Still, the captain of the ship is a woman, which is nice--it reminds me of Captain Janeway. The concepts are kind of interesting, and it certainly isn't boring. It begins with an enemy attack and hasn't slowed down for a moment. It is, in fact, paced like a short story, which is odd. But what really got my literary spidey-sense tingling was the second sentence of Chapter Three: "Fifty-three sleepless hours might explain her gaunt, hollowed cheeks, but not the ghosts behind her eyes."

Ghosts? Behind her eyes, of all places?

And things did not improve from there. Five pages later, I reached the paragraphs that stopped me in my tracks.

His face was blank for an instant, and then understanding flared.

"Of course." Life returned to his eyes--the blazing life of a man who has accepted the inevitability of something far worse than his own death and then been shown a possible way to avert it after all--and suppressed excitement lent his voice vibrancy as he nodded jerkily. "Of course!"

--from The Apocalypse Troll by David Weber

I shouldn't have to explain why this is terrible writing, but the sad fact is that this guy's a bestselling author, so I probably do. Note the melodrama, the pumping up of rhetoric in a flailing attempt to artificially excite the reader. Good writers know better. They know that if the story is exciting, they don't have to do anything extra to wring a response out of the reader. Not this writer. He follows up the flaring understanding with life--blazing life! Hallelujah! Also note that the character's voice is vibrating while he's nodding jerkily. This is quite amusing, as it was explained earlier in the book just how serious a problem conflicting harmonics can be when you're hopping dimensions in order to travel faster than light: "If a ship hit the wall just wrong or with the slightest harmonic in her translation field, she simply disappeared. She went acoherent, spread over a multitude of dimensions and forever unable to reconstitute herself..." I should think similar difficulties await the man who nods jerkily while his voice vibrates. Perhaps his head would explode.

Anyway, that's where I reached my limit. I'm sorry, but I'm not devoting hours of my life to swimming through such Cheez Whiz.

When did this happen? When did it become OK to publicly read and shamelessly tout crappy fiction, even to the point of suggesting it as a book club selection? Is this Stephanie Meyer's fault? Or did it begin earlier, without my noticing? Maybe Dan Brown is to blame? John Grisham? Danielle Steel? Sidney Sheldon? Should we have a line-up? Whodunit?

What ever happened to the good old days when reading crap was a private, guilty pleasure? Maybe they never existed and I only imagined them? Do book clubs read Harlequin Romances these days? Have I asked enough questions by now?

In any case, I realize that I'm beaten. I was going to show up at the next meeting and suggest Pandemonium by Daryl Gregory, which Locus selected as one of the best first novels of 2008. But it seems so hopeless. The book is not even a mass-market paperback. It's a trade paperback, and therefore more expensive. I've already been told that price is a concern. On top of that, it contains no gaming, space ships or bombs. Just noncorporeal demons and excellent writing. No one's going to be interested in that. Why bang my head against a wall? With or without harmonics in my translation field?

That's how I feel right now anyway. Perhaps later, as I consider the possibility that I could help these literary innocents discover good writing, my hope will revive, much as hope revived for the crew of the TNS Defender. And when that happens, life will reignite in my eyes--blazing life. My excitement, which I will be suppressing for some unexplained reason, will lend my voice vibrancy and I will nod jerkily. And then my head will explode.

Friday, July 24, 2009

Fredericton's Architectural Atrocities: A Tour

Founded in 1783, New Brunswick's capital city is replete with beautiful old architecture of a range of periods and styles, from Georgian to Victorian and beyond. When people and places are fortunate enough to have an abundance of something, there is a tendency to take it for granted. The scars of this attitude are visible all over Fredericton, where few people think anything of busting a hole in the side of a grand old home, church or other building so that they can put up some tasteless but convenient addition.

That is why I am proud to offer the only tour of Fredericton's Really Bad Architectural Decisions available either online or off. At the end of the post, you will find a map of this walking tour, suitable for printing, so that if you are ever in Fredericton, you can get the full experience. In the meantime, I hope you enjoy this virtual tour.

King's Place is a good spot to begin, as it is right in the centre of downtown, and all the buses stop there. Let's gather at the side door, where the pharmacy is located, and begin to walk south down York Street.

Crossing Brunswick Street and York Street, the first notable piece of architecture we come to is the Brunswick Street United Baptist Church. I believe this would be considered an example of Gothic revival. You can see that it has a tower so tall that I couldn't fit it in the picture. It's not my favorite--that would be St. Paul's United Church, just a short way down the street--but it's still quite an attractive church.

However, keep walking, and you will soon see that something odd is attached to it.

It's not a terrible piece of architecture in itself. It bears some slight resemblance to York House next door (not shown here because it's not part of the tour, but if you want to see a picture of it, click on the link). The one thing it does not resemble, in any way whatsoever, is the church to which it is attached. Not that I think that would make it OK. Putting an addition on a lovely old church is tasteless and wrong, period. But if you're going to do it, the least you can do is make some effort to make it match. That was not done here. Indeed, it appears to be part of this church's tradition to show utter disregard for historical structures. That building next door I just mentioned, York House? They wanted to tear it down, and the city had to buy it to prevent that happening.

Let us move on from this unfortunate church. At the next corner, look across George Street and you will see my favorite church in Fredericton: St. Paul's United Church. It is quite similar to the Baptist Church, and I don't know why I like it so much better. I just do.

According to the plaque out front, St. Paul's was built in 1886 (in the same time period as the Baptist Church, which was built in 1883) and is "a fine example of High Victorian Gothic Revival architecture." Indeed it is. Unfortunately, that's not the only thing it's an example of, as you'll see if you continue down York Street:

Here we can at least say that some effort was made to make the addition match its host. Although the new structure's windows are rectangular in contrast to the original church's arched windows, and it has the flat-roofed stumpiness of all additions, the stonework is similar. Still, there is no getting around the fact that the effect is not at all what the architects of the original church had in mind. Earlier on, I mentioned the tall towers that are a feature of this kind of church. These, the pointed arches, and other features of a Gothic-style church are meant to draw the eye upward, towards God. Stick a stumpy thing on the church's side and the effect is much diminished. Further, Gothic churches like this are constructed in the form of a cross. The addition interferes with that effect.

Still, it could be worse. And later in the tour, it will be.

Continuing down York Street, we come to Charlotte Street. Turn right and walk down Charlotte for a block. You will see many nice old houses, and if you take care to look between the houses, you will see many additions. Here's an entertaining example from the corner of York and Charlotte. Usually, additions are at least the same colour as the host house. Not so here, and that's not the only odd thing. There is a tree in the way, but if you look closely, you will see that although the addition has a sloping roof, the wall at the edge of the sidewalk is rectangular. It's a false front, like something out of a frontier town. Just plain weird.

Now we come to Westmorland Street, and our final church. (I didn't mean to squash all the churches to the front of the tour; it just worked out that way.)

On the right in the photo below is St. Anne's Chapel of Ease, which dates back to 1847. Like the other two churches, it is an example of Gothic Revival, though because it is a chapel, it lacks the towers and cruciform structure we saw earlier. You can't see the stained glass windows from the outside, as they are covered, but they are visible on the inside and are beautiful, as is the rest of the interiour. Do go inside if you get the chance. There are free tours on offer during the summer.

On the left is the Christ Church Parish Church, built in 1962. It is not beautiful. It does have a tower, which looks something like an electrical pylon. Well, there's no help for that, is there? The congregation grew too big for the old chapel, so a new church had to be built. And it would never be beautiful like the old one because, let's face it, we are living through an architectural dark age. So what could they have done differently?

Here's what: they could have made the new church a completely separate structure. In fact, the new church is attached to the old chapel. If you look closely at the photo, you will see the walkway that connects them, making the new church a kind of immensely bloated addition.

There's no way to do something like that without damaging the old structure. From the inside of the chapel, you can see that one of the stained glass windows has been shortened from the bottom to make room for the door to the addition. The bottom of the window is gone, and the chapel has been diminished--in a small way, perhaps, but diminished nonetheless. And all to permit people to walk between the two buildings without going outdoors. One would think this was done because of our cold winters, but the old chapel isn't even heated! What was the point, then? Why did they do it?

I suspect because it never crossed their minds to do otherwise. Additions are a way of life in Fredericton, and therefore are seldom recognized as the acts of vandalism they so often are.

Continue up Westmorland Street, and turn right at the next corner. We are back on George Street, which like Charlotte Street has many fine old houses with strange additions. I particularly like Number 329. It's a great example of the Serial Additions Phenomenon.

An addition is generally smaller than whatever it is attached to, so when there is more than one addition, you can get a sort of regressive effect, as here. The last and shortest thing you can see at the end is probably a deck, or a fence around the backyard.

Crossing at York Street, we're back at St. Paul's United Church. This time, we're passing it on the other side, and you can see that the addition is large enough to stick out quite a bit at this end as well.

We now have a couple of long blocks to walk before we get to the next notable addition, so have a look around at all the old houses on George Street, and their peculiar additions.

Once across St. John, we come at last to 734 George Street. At first glance, it's a stately Georgian-style home. But wait, what is that puke-coloured stripy thing on the side?

No. Can it be? It is! Somebody took a nice old brick house and attached a garage on one side, and some sort of other thing on the other, and painted them... green and red with amber trim! And to top it off, there are those triangular... I guess decorative elements, for lack of a better word, coming off the eaves.

These structures don't even look good on their own, much less stuck on the house. The tastelessness is breathtaking. It's so bad, it's almost good, in a sick sort of way.

This house went on sale a few years ago. The owner was so proud of what he'd done to it that his asking price was half a million. I recall that it was on the market for some time. The best part of this was the picture on MLS of the back view of the house, with its horrible yet hilarious addition. I emailed the link to my family and we all laughed our heads off.

On the front of the house is a plaque. Here is what it says:

The Rectory 1829
This Georgian residence, built by St. Anne's Parish Church for the rector, was the home of the famous literary Roberts family.

This is when the laughter dies. This house is a heritage site, and the city still let the previous owner do this to it. It's disgraceful, but apparently rich people can do whatever the hell they want.

Let's have a moment of silence and retrace our steps a little bit. Back to St. John, turn left, walk to the end of the block and turn left again. Now we're at the other end of the block, and can get a little glimpse of the back end of the house, in between Numbers 719 and 729. (Yes, they're consecutive. Don't ask me why they're numbered that way; ask the city.)

I wish I'd had the foresight to save that MLS picture, but I didn't. This is the best I can currently do to show you the magnitude of the addition. You can see the top, but the bottom is obscured by a hedge. Perhaps in the winter I will be able to obtain a better picture. Still, look at those two tower/dormer-window things jutting up, remember the two other pieces you saw before, and keep in mind that they are all connected. No kidding, that's one big monster, stuck on the back and wrapping around like a parasite feeding off 734 George Street.

Let's move on. I can't say "the worst is yet to come," because that was pretty bad, but the next one is pretty bad too. It's hard to say which is worse.

Continuing down Charlotte Street, we come at the next corner to Church Street. You'll spot the next site as soon as we round the corner; it's hard to miss. Right across the street is one of Fredericton's most beautiful houses.

811 Charlotte Street was built in 1895, in a style called Queen Anne. Look at the trim on the eaves and the veranda. It makes me happy just to look at it. I've been inside, and the interior is even more spectacular.

However, when we turn left and walk up Church Street, we see this.

This irregular, boxy affair with its ridges, inexplicable window configuration and overall unwholesome appearance would be ugly all on its own. It becomes all the more hideous when you realize it's attached to 811 Charlotte Street.

811 Charlotte Street currently houses the University of New Brunswick's Renaissance College. Prior to that, it was a student residence with 21 beds. Since it would be difficult to fit 21 beds into one house, the addition must have been built at that time. It is remarkable that something that ugly could have been built in 1949, the year that the house became a residence, but the conclusion is inescapable. The architect responsible should be thoroughly ashamed.

Fortunately, we have a bit of a stroll to get to the next site in the tour. That will give me the opportunity to calm down. Proceed North on Charlotte Street for another two blocks, past Christ Church Cathedral on Brunswick Street, make a left at King and a right at St. John. This will bring us in view of the Fredericton Playhouse at the corner of Queen's Street.

Although it is, for the most part, a reasonably attractive building, the Playhouse is not a heritage site, having been built as recently as 1964. So we don't have to feel too bad about the fact that it has a great bloody rainbow-striped box sticking out of its roof, and we can enjoy a hearty laugh at its expense. The box was added in 1972. It is a fly tower, a space used to house draperies, lights, set pieces and other equipment that can be lowered into place when in use, and raised back up into the tower afterwards. It sounds quite useful, but again, could they not have tried to come up with something that would match, at least a little, the original building? Instead of making the Playhouse look like a nest for a giant bird that laid a square Easter egg?

I once saw the Playhouse addition figured in a pamphlet on Fredericton's outdoor art. That's right, folks, somebody thought the rainbow box was art! Or pretended to.

Speaking of boxes, we have one more stop, so let's turn left on Queen Street and walk three blocks, to where Queen intersects with Carleton. Across Queen Street you will see another heritage building.

This lovely old structure dates from 1881. The original part is Second Empire style. The addition is Modern Brick Box style. Back in the 19th century, this was the Post Office and Customs House. In 1970, it became the New Brunswick Sports Hall of Fame. That date sounds about right for the brick box. Let's take a closer look at it.

As you can see, it has an attractive crest right in the middle, as well as some lettering that reads "NB Sports Hall of Fame" in both official languages. That was a clever touch. Without the crest, anyone who looked at this addition would immediately think, "Why is there a brick box sticking out of the side of this nice old building?" But with the crest, your eye tends to glide on by. It takes time and many viewings, preferably from different angles, before you become aware that, crest or no crest, you are seeing a graceless brick box sticking out of a heritage structure, and that this involved making a hole in the side of the building and eliminating the windows that used to be there. You become aware that this damage, so cavalierly done, probably can never be undone. The architectural tumour is inoperable.

On that cheery note, this is the end of the tour. If you'd like to return to the spot where we started, you can either continue on Queen Street until York Street, then make a left and walk one more block, or you can turn left here, onto Carleton. Which way is better depends on which post-tour beverage you'd rather ingest. If you'd like something with whipped cream and drizzled chocolate, there's a Starbucks in King's Place at the Carleton-Street end. If you'd prefer an actual coffee, I recommend taking the York Street route. That way, you can get a good coffee at Read's magazine store, right across the street from King's Place.

Enjoy the rest of your day.

And here, as promised, is my walking tour map. Be sure to change your print setting to Landscape before printing.

Friday, July 3, 2009

Healthy Songs

In my last entry, I presented an Honourable Mention list of songs that were a little bit off, and yet were not messed up enough to make the Dysfunctional Top Ten list. In this entry, I will finally get a little more positive and attempt to present, for contrast, a few healthy songs.

If it's so easy to dip into the pool of top 40 hits and come up with a whole whack of songs depicting dysfunctional relationships, how hard can it be to come up with a decent list of songs depicting functional, healthy relationships?

Very hard. Part of the difficulty is that there are, let's face it, way more songs about unhappy relationships than the contrary. Then too, just because a song is about a happy relationship, does that automatically make it a healthy song? Or is it just as probable that it's a load of sap?

Take Honey by Bobby Goldsboro. If one takes the lyrics at face value, the relationship was a happy one before poor Honey kicked the bucket. The same could be said for Having My Baby by Paul Anka. Apparently this couple is delighted to be starting a family. The trouble is, both these songs stink to high heaven. Especially Honey. Here's a sampling of lyrics for your delectation: "She was always young at heart/Kinda dumb and and kinda smart, I loved her so." What can one say about that but, "Oh my God?" Words can never encompass the wretchedness. And then, "One day while I was not at home/When she was there and all alone/The angels came" (Source: Bobby Goldsboro lyrics - Honey @ Why bother waterboarding prisoners? Just play them Honey over and over again. They'll tell you anything.

And Having My Baby is little better. Check this out: "The need inside you/I see it showing/Whoa, the seed inside you/Baby, do you feel it growing?" (Source: Paul Anka Lyrics, You're Having My Baby Lyrics @ Help!

So those songs are definitely out of the running, as is anything else of excessive sappiness or outright badness. A couple of other possibilities I came up with were Danny's Song by Kenny Loggins and Hey There Delilah by Plain White T's. Danny's Song is a pleasant, easy-listening depiction of a fellow who's in love and eager to start a family with his beloved, but who has the decency not to brag about his seed growing in her. Here's the chorus:

And even though we ain't got money,
I'm so in love with you, honey,
And everything will bring a chain of love.
And in the morning, when I rise,
You bring a tear of joy to my eyes
And tell me everything is gonna be all right.
(Source: Loggins & Messina Lyrics - Danny's Song @

That's nice, but it is veering dangerously in the direction of sappiness with the line about "a tear of joy." That's exaggerated. Maybe if you have a reunion with your beloved after a long separation, you'll cry tears of joy, but not if you see her every day. Can you imagine getting up every morning and crying tears of joy? Come on.

I also don't care for the line, "Think I'm gonna have a son." That strikes me as sexist. A loving father wouldn't care about the gender of his child. What if he has a daughter? Will he be able to hide his disappointment from her?

As for Hey There Delilah, it's a song about a musician who's a thousand miles away from his love, Delilah. He tells her:

Hey there Delilah
Don't you worry about the distance
I'm right there if you get lonely
Give this song another listen
Close your eyes
Listen to my voice, it's my disguise
I'm by your side
(Source: Plain White T's Lyrics - Hey There Delila @

I find the song moving, but all the same, it depicts a long-distance relationship. It's easy to idealize someone when you're a thousand miles away from them. If these two were to get their wish and be able to live together, who knows if the relationship would survive? It has not yet been tested.

An interesting fact about Hey There Delilah is that the song was not even written about a real-life relationship. The woman in question, an athlete, was already spoken for, but that did not stop the song writer from turning his crush into a musical fantasy (Source: Hey There Delila - Wikipedia: Inspiration for song).

So if Danny's Song and Hey There Delilah don't really belong on my list of healthy-relationship songs, what does? Well, it's a very short list. In fact, it's a "list" of one.

Lovely Day

This song, by R&B singer Bill Withers, hit the charts in 1977 and has gotten plenty of airplay ever since (Source: Lovely Day (song) - Wikipedia). It has been covered several times, and was even used in a Gap ad. There's no sap here, and not even any detail about the couple's life together. All he has to say is that when he's not feeling well, for example that "the day that lies ahead of me/Seems impossible to face/And someone else instead of me/Always seems to know the way..."

Then I look at you
And the world's all right with me
Just one look at you
And I know it's gonna be
A lovely day
(Source: Bill Withers - Lovely Day Lyrics @

And that's the way love is, really. It's not about pain. It's not about suffering for the sake of your love. It's not about being "strong enough" to put up with your partner's insanity. Love is supposed to make you happy, and when you're in a healthy, genuinely loving relationship, seeing your beloved really does make you feel better, in just the way Withers describes. Trust me, I know. After many years of dysfunctional relationships, I now know. Withers describes it better, more simply and more accurately, than anything Shakespeare ever wrote in his plays and sonnets, or anything that Cyrano de Bergerac ever called up to Roxanne in her balcony as he hid in the shadows below. (What a dysfunctional relationship that was!) There will always be a place in my heart for Lovely Day.

Tuesday, June 30, 2009

More Dysfunctional Songs: Honourable Mention for Weirdness

Back in May, I presented my top ten countdown of popular music's most dysfunctional songs, as scientifically determined by the fact that I remembered hearing them on the radio, and thought the relationships they described sounded ever so messed up.

At the end of the countdown, I rashly promised to do a follow-up post presenting some Honourable Mentions, as well as a few, rare healthy songs. A promise is a promise, so here we go.

The criteria for my Dysfunctional Top Ten were:

  1. The songs had to be big hits--popular enough to have been in high rotation on the radio, and preferably to still be heard on the radio from time to time;
  2. The lyrics of the song had to scream dysfunction, either displaying an unhealthy attitude towards romantic relationships (like Love Hurts), or outright describing an unhealthy relationship (like Wonderful Tonight or Beth).

Well, the following songs certainly hit the big time in the real world, but are not quite screwed up enough to hit the dysfunctional big time. They don't scream dysfunction, but they do whisper or murmur it. Their attitude towards relationships may not be disastrous, but it is peculiar.

Like You'll Never See Me Again

This song, a hit in 2008, was written and performed by Alicia Keys (Source: Like You'll Never See Me Again - Wikipedia). This is the same Alicia Keys who came out with A Woman's Worth in 2002, a song that contains the line, "a real woman knows a real man always comes first." How fabulously retro and sexist! She may not have made the Dysfunctional Top Ten list, but if she keeps this up, perhaps she can look forward to some kind of Dysfunctional Lifetime Achievement Award.

But on to the song at hand. Keys doesn't want to be taken for granted in a romantic relationship. Who does? As she says, "Lord knows another day is not really guaranteed." So here's the formula she imposes upon her lover:

Every time you hold me
Hold me like it is the last time
Every time you kiss me
Kiss me like you'll never see me again

Aw, isn't that romantic? No, it's awful, as you will realize if you stop to think about what it would be like to actually live that way. Every time you touched the person that you love, you would have to pretend that you're never going to see them again. Imagining it as thoroughly as possible, even believing it at least for a brief period of time, would be the only way you could obey the injunction to "hold me like it is the last time." But if you could manage this, it would make you terribly sad. The more you love the person, the sadder it would make you to imagine that you're about to lose them.

If indeed, the time you have with someone is limited and another day is not really guaranteed, then you should be enjoying your time with that person rather than getting all weepy over the thought of losing them. Ironically, by not wanting to waste or take for granted the time that she and her lover have, Keys guarantees that she and her lover will waste that time, by being sad about something that hasn't happened yet. Isn't that a stupid thing to do? Songs like this should come with a warning label: "Don't try this at home."

I Touch Myself

This song was released by Australian band The DiVinyls in 1991 (Source: I Touch Myself - Wikipedia), and is the song for which they are most remembered. If you don't remember it from its airplay and video, you may be familiar with it through the movie Austin Powers: International Man of Mystery; It's featured in the scene in which Austin seduces the fembots.

Like Cruel to Be Kind, which made number 3 in my Dysfunctional Top Ten list, it suggests a domination-submission relationship. This is also true for the next Honourable Mention song. However, while the protagonist in Cruel to Be Kind was suffering, the ladies in these two offerings appear to be quite enjoying themselves. This makes their relationships good (clean?) fun rather than dysfunctional, hence their appearance in the Honourable Mention list rather than in the Top Ten.

The singer makes a number of interesting declarations to the object of her affection. "When I'm feeling down/I want you above me," she says in the first verse. Hmm. In the second verse: "You are the one who makes me come running," like a puppy dog, one presumes. The third verse is worth quoting in its entirety:

I close my eyes and see you before me
I think I would die if you were to ignore me
A fool could see just how much I adore you
I'd get down on my knees, I'd do anything for you

Of course she'd get down on her knees; that's her job, as a submissive. The first couple of lines of that verse are a little more worrisome. Seeing him before her when she closes her eyes suggests an unhealthy degree of obsession. And anyone with such a desperate need of attention that she feels she'd die if her lover ignored her has serious self-esteem problems. Still, these could be just lines that are part of the role she has to play, similar to "Yes, Master." After all, she knows how to take care of herself when he's not around:

I don't want anybody else
When I think about you I touch myself
Oh I don't want anybody else oh no oh no oh no
(Lyrics source: I Touch Myself Lyrics - DiVinyls @

Yes, she's enjoying herself, all right.

Perhaps because the DiVinyls were a one-hit wonder, at least outside of their native Australia, there is a lot of misinformation on the Internet about this song. Many, many lyrics sites attribute the song to Blondie. Duh, Blondie broke up in '82 (Source: Blondie (band) - Wikipedia). How could they be responsible for a 90's hit? This is one of those pernicious Internet myths, similar to the one that attributes the song Bitch to Alanis Morrisette. (It was Meredith Brooks.) And that's not the only thing they get wrong; several turn the line "You are the one who makes me come running," into "You are the one who makes me happy honey." Good grief, that doesn't even scan.

That's why I want to recognize for a job well done. While zillions of other sites simply copy content from each other, thus ensuring that the same mistakes and even in some cases the same typos proliferate all over the Internet, this site took the trouble to get the lyrics right. Good job, guys.

Because the Night

This song has gone through a number of reincarnations. Bruce Springsteen wrote the original version, but was not happy with it. He gave it to Patti Smith, who reworked the lyrics and had a hit with it in 1978. Then 10,000 Manics covered it in 1993 (Source: Because the Night - Wikipedia). It is their version that gets the most airplay these days.

The song was always erotic, but Smith made it more so. Springsteen saw fit to dilute the eroticism with lines like, "I work all day out in the hot sun." (Who cares, eh?) Smith replaced that with, "Desire is hunger is the fire I breathe/Love is a banquet on which we feed."

She also added some kinkiness. Springsteen's chorus began, "Come on now, try and understand/The way I feel when I'm in your hands." Patti Smith kept that for the first refrain of the chorus, but for the second refrain, she changed it to "Come on now, try and understand/The way I feel under your command."

The sentiment apparently resonated with Natalie Merchant. When 10,000 Maniacs performed the song, she sang "under your command" in both refrains.

Stating that you are "under the command" of your lover falls comfortably into the realm of kinky. Not that there's anything wrong with that. As long as it's all between consenting adults, knock yourself out (though not literally). But it's a pity, I think, that Smith had to spoil this song for the karaoke crowd. It's embarrassing to get up there and sing about how you feel under somebody's command. I know karaoke didn't exist in 1978, but still. It's a great song, and I think it would be nice if vanilla people could enjoy it too, and even sing along, without discomfort.

But she's a strange one, our Patti Smith. Here are a few lyrics from her version of Jimmy Hendrix's Hey Joe:

Honey, the way you play guitar makes me feel so
Makes me feel so masochistic
The way you go down low, deep into the neck
And I would do anything and Patty Hearst
(Source: Patti Smith Lyrics - Hey Joe @

That's about all I have to say about dysfunctional songs. Coming soon: compiling a list of healthy songs. Can it be done? We will see.

Wednesday, June 10, 2009

Is CBC Information Morning Host Terry Seguin Tone-Deaf?

Here's one for my fellow New Brunswickers:

As you may know, Bon Jovi will be playing in Moncton on June 27. CBC Radio in New Brunswick is offering a chance to win tickets. To be eligible to win, fans must record themselves "rocking out to the famed band's songs," as the web site puts it.

Well, this morning on CBC radio, host Terry Seguin played one of the entries, and it wasn't pretty. The "singers" showed themselves incapable of staying on tune for longer than ten seconds at a stretch. It was good for a laugh, but not good in any other way.

When it was over, Seguin said something like, "Wow. Not only are young people listening to the show... they hit all the high notes."

Terry! Dude! Not only didn't they hit the high notes... or the low notes... they failed to hit many of the in-between notes.

I see two possibilities. Either Seguin was just being nice, or he has the musical appreciation abilities of a rock.

Which do you think it is? Brunswickians, please weigh in on this important issue by adding a comment to this blog post. Anyone can comment, even anonymously. We look forward to hearing what you have to say.

Friday, June 5, 2009

Recipe: Vivian's Very Easy Vegan Paté


  • 8 oz soft tofu (about 1 ½ cups cubed)
  • ½ cup peanut butter
  • 1 clove garlic
  • ½ tsp salt

Put tofu in a bowl and mash. Stir in peanut butter. Mince garlic or put through a garlic press and add to mixture along with salt. Blend well.

Refrigerate several hours or overnight. Spread on toast or crackers.

I invented this all by myself, so please give feedback. I think it tastes a bit like chopped liver--good chopped liver, like you'd get at Snowdon Deli in Montreal, only less fatty. Maybe it would be good with fried onions.

Monday, May 25, 2009

Dysfunctional Top Ten, Part 2

Time to continue the countdown I began in my last post, Dysfunctional Top Ten, Part 1.

Number 5: When You're in Love with a Beautiful Woman

This song was recorded in 1978 by Dr. Hook and the Medicine Show, and became a hit one year later. It was not, however, written by any of the band members but by Evan Stevens, about whom I am unable to find out anything (Source: When You're in Love with a Beautiful Woman - Wikipedia). Thematically, it's similar to Number 6 in this countdown, When a Man Loves a Woman, and so it's appropriate that they fall so close together in the list. Both songs assert that falling in love with a woman is something of a disaster for a man. The major difference is that Stevens is more specific: beautiful women are the problem. Still, did Percy Sledge experience his agony by falling in love with a plain woman? Certainly not. It is alleged that Sledge wrote the song after his girlfriend left him to pursue a modelling career (Source: Percy Sledge - Wikipedia).

It appears that some men get a little confused about the difference between love and lust. Stevens and Sledge, and perhaps also Eric Clapton (back at Number 8), would have done well to get clearer on the point. It could have saved them some pain.

Indeed, the protagonist of this song is suffering a good deal, even more than the protagonist of When a Man Loves a Woman. Neither of them can trust their women, but this guy can't even trust his friends, as he tells us: "When you're in love with a beautiful woman/You watch your friends." Why? Because:

Everybody wants her, everybody loves her
everybody wants to take your baby home (Source: When You're in Love with a Beautiful Woman @ Gunther W. Anderson's Home Page.)

He can't trust his lover. He can't trust his friends--which means, really, that he has no friends. He can't seem to trust anybody--a very unhappy position to be in.

Number 4: Beth

This ballad, released in 1976, was not a typical KISS offering, yet it became their biggest hit (source: Beth (song) - Wikipedia). Beth is another loving sufferer. Her man spends his time playing rock and roll with his bandmates while she sits at home all alone. The lyrics tell the story from the musician's point of view, as one might expect:

Beth, I hear you calling
But I can't come home right now
Me and the boys are playing
And we just can't find the sound
Just a few more hours
And I'll be right home to you
I think I hear them calling
Oh Beth, what can I do?
(Source: KISS - Beth Lyrics @
The tone of the song is mournful and pitying, but I think the subtext is nevertheless detectable: Beth is a pain in the butt. The musician wants to get on with work on the sound and she won't stop phoning up and whining at him. It's quite clear where her man wants to spend the bulk of his time, and it's not with her. Indeed, by the end of the song, he breaks the promise he made in the first verse: "Beth, I know you're lonely/And I hope you'll be all right/'Cause me and the boys will be playing/All night."

One wonders about the legitimacy of Beth's complaint. We only hear his side of the story, after all. Perhaps he really is gone so often, and puts so little energy into the relationship, that it is fair for her to complain that "our house just ain't a home." On the other hand, perhaps she's too clingy and needy. Doesn't she have any friends and hobbies of her own?

What's certain is that mutual feeling is lacking. The musician simply isn't interested in spending as much time with Beth as she would like him to. Further, he's willing to lie about it. He puts her off saying he'll only be a few more hours, but ends up spending the entire night away. His promises are casually broken, her feelings not important. Surely this relationship is doomed.

Number 3: Cruel to Be Kind

This song was Nick Lowe's biggest hit, peaking at number 12 on UK, US, Canadian and Australian charts in 1979 (Source: Nick Lowe - Wikipedia). I find it frankly kinky in a way reminiscent of 10,000 Maniacs' take on Because the Night (about which more later). I might have left it off the list if I felt it simply portrayed some kind of sadomasochistic roleplaying, which may take place within a functioning relationship. However, the consensuality of the torment is in doubt.

The protagonist declares himself mystified by his love's behaviour. "You say your love is bona fide/But that don't coincide/With the things that you do." Further, "I pick myself up off the ground/To have you knock me back down/Again and again..." But the chorus is where it gets interesting. When he asks her to be nice, or to explain herself, she says:

You gotta be
Cruel to be kind
In the right measure
Cruel to be kind
It's a very good sign
Cruel to be kind
Means that I love you
Baby, you gotta be cruel to be kind
(Source: Cruel to Be Kind lyrics @
It doesn't sound like a good situation that this fellow finds himself in, and yet he almost appears to be enjoying himself. The song is a bouncy, infectious little number. Still, it can't be good for his self-esteem to be knocked down again and again, whether literally or figuratively, and he does profess to confusion and to being at his wit's end. So I'm going to assume this activity is not consensual, and award Cruel to Be Kind the Number 3 slot.

Number 2: Lovefool

At this point, you may be wondering if dysfunctional relationships are a thing of the past. After all, the most recent song I've mentioned so far was recorded in 1982 (Sexual Healing). Don't I wish! If there are more neurotic songs in ancient than in recent history, it's because ancient history is a lot longer than recent history. So fear not; these next two songs are more recent--and they top the list! Maybe we're getting more dysfunctional rather than less, or at least more willing to sing openly about it.

Another interesting thing about these two most recent songs is that they are both sung and written (or co-written) by women. All the previous selections were written by men. Female dysfunction is at last coming to the fore. You go, girl! To a shrink, as quickly as possible.

In this strange, very unfeminist piece of work recorded in 1996 by Swedish band The Cardigans (source: Lovefool - Wikipedia), the protagonist cries, prays and begs her increasingly disinterested boyfriend to: "Love me love me/Say that you love me/Fool me fool me/Go on and fool me/Love me love me/Pretend that you love me/Leave me leave me/Just say that you need me."

Her mother is, quite rightly, concerned: "Mother tells me I shouldn't bother/That I ought to stick to another/Man, a man that surely deserves me, but/I think you do." She appears to be saying that her boyfriend is better and more worthy of respect than she is. After all, he deserves to have her despite the fact that... he doesn't really want her that much. She, on the other hand, does not deserve the opportunity to find someone better (an opportunity she is unlikely to have if she can't let go of this guy).

It's all a bit convoluted, and to find a clearer truth, we need to look beyond what the lyrics are, on the surface, saying. She is afraid to leave him. Most probably, she is terrified to be alone, afraid that she will cease to exist without someone to see her reflection in. So she clings to him no matter what, even to the point of losing her grip on reality. She begs for the opportunity to live in a dream world, where she can pretend she is loved when she really isn't. Even that is better than the alternative.

When you lose your grip on reality, you begin the dangerous slide into insanity, and that appears to be happening here. Although she declares in the chorus "Leave me, leave me/Just say that you need me," she concludes in the second verse, "I don't care if you really care/As long as you don't go." So, leave... but don't leave. No wonder she also declares in the second verse, "Reason will not lead to solution/I will end up lost in confusion" (Source: The Cardigans - Lovefool lyrics - Lyrics on Demand). You already are, honey.

It is interesting to note that her mother, although wanting to help, does not appear to have a better conception of a healthy relationship than her daughter does. Consider that mother says she should, "stick to another man." What does this mean? Usually, "stick to" is a colloquialism meaning to stay with what you currently have. But this woman doesn't have another man. If she did, she'd be comfortable letting go of the one who no longer loves her, knowing that she wouldn't have to experience the terror of being alone, even temporarily. The fact that she clings so desperately to the current disinterested man indicates that there is no one else.

So what does her mother mean? The only possibility left, as far as I can see, is the more literal meaning of the word: find another man and stick to him, cling to him, glue herself to him. Mother does not see the clinging and terrible neediness as a problem, only the choice of target. But then, if mother had been capable of modelling a healthy relationship for her daughter, she wouldn't be in this position. We get our conception of relationships from the earliest relationship we witness: that between our parents. If our parents had a dysfunctional relationship, we are liable to waste years of our lives duplicating the sort of relationship we witnessed. In short, we are screwed, as is this unfortunate creature.

Number 1: Strong Enough

This Sheryl Crow single hit number 5 in the US in 1995. It has since been covered by Cher, among others (maybe because she couldn't resist covering a song by an artist with a name so similar to hers?) and the Dixie Chicks have performed it live. Travis Tritt, whoever that is, recorded an answering song, Strong Enough to Be Your Man. God help him. (Source: Strong Enough (Sheryl Crow song) - Wikipedia.)

This song takes a little time to get into its dysfunctional stride. The first couple of verses seem not so unreasonable: "God, I feel like hell tonight/Tears of rage I cannot fight" and "Nothing's true and nothing's right/so let me be alone tonight." Fair enough--she's having a really bad day. Everybody has those from time to time.

But things deteriorate from there. "I have a face I cannot show/I make the rules up as I go." And worse: "When I've shown you that I just don't care..." Don't care about what? Presumably the man himself. What else could this refer to? And then the chorus: in spite of all this, "Are you strong enough to be my man?"

This is so wrong on so many levels. First and foremost is the implication that a strong man will stay with a woman who treats him like crap. (Maybe "do you have low enough self-esteem to be my man" didn't scan well enough?) Then there's this plea: "Lie to me/I promise I'll believe/Lie to me/But please don't leave." That makes two songs that frame lying as a positive thing, something that allows the relationship to keep limping on instead of getting a decent burial. This is actually a first-rate portrayal of how people behave in dysfunctional relationships: there is little openness or honesty. Instead, anything that allows the status quo to continue is embraced, being it lying to your partner or to yourself.

And as if that isn't enough, she attacks his manhood! Later in the song, the refrain changes to, "Are you man enough to be my man?" She is saying that if he leaves her, despite the fact that she's inconsistent and crazy-making ("I make the rules up as I go") and has shown him that she doesn't care, not only is he weak, he's not a real man. Whoa, talk about manipulative! And certainly, immature people in dysfunctional relationships are manipulative. They basically have to be, because once they've given up on honest, open communication, they have no other way to get their needs met.

On a side note, the site where I looked up the lyrics allows comments, and the first comment claims that this song refers to Sheryl Crow's trials with breast cancer. According to commenter kooki, "she's asking her boyfriend if he is strong enough to understand what she's going trhough" [sic]. I say, bullshit. It's plausible if you look only at the first two verses, but beyond that the theory falls apart. What about "Lie to me/I promise I'll believe"? What about "I've shown you that I just don't care"? How does that fit in with cancer?

It doesn't. Furthermore, while Sheryl Crow was diagnosed with breast cancer fairly recently--in 2006 (see Wildflower section of Sheryl Crow - Wikipedia)--Strong Enough came out in 1994. So, nice theory, and self-serving for any Sheryl Crow fan, but... totally wrong. Sorry.

If this and other comments are any indication, fans do sense that there is something about these lyrics that is not entirely kosher. There are several attempts to explain away or gloss over the troubling aspects of the song. Some of them are quite amusing, and not just for the bad grammar and spelling, so if you've got a little extra time, you might want to read a few. See Sheryl Crow - Strong Enough lyrics @

While the other songs in my list are dysfunctional in just one way, Sheryl Crow serves up a smorgasbord of immaturity and messedupedness in this wonderfully multilayered paean to relationship dysfunctionality. For this, Strong Enough is the hands-down winner.

So that's it for the dysfunctional countdown. Readers, if you see yourself in any of these songs, I hope you will take action. Remember that, whatever Sheryl Crow might say, sometimes the strongest thing you can do... is leave.

Coming Up: Later, I hope to have an Honorable Mention section, and perhaps a list of all those wife-beating songs I ended up leaving out of this list. I would also like to present a list of healthy songs, as contrast. Unfortunately, it will be much shorter. I don't expect to even have ten. So stay tuned for more song discussion.

Saturday, May 16, 2009

Dysfunctional Top Ten, Part 1

Do you ever listen to a popular love song, perhaps something that's in heavy rotation on the radio, and think, wow, that is messed up?

OK, maybe you don't, but I do. Popular songs often portray, if not celebrate, remarkably immature, neurotic and generally dysfunctional attitudes toward romantic love and relationships. I have long thought it would be fun to compile a Dysfunctional Top Ten list. Well, I finally got around to it.

In order for a song to make the list, I decided, it must be both dysfunctional and a big hit, something that was, and preferably still is, played over and over again on the radio. That helped narrow the field; there may be lots of incredibly screwed-up, obscure songs out there--in fact, I know there are, having listened to Black Flag--but I didn't have to worry about them. If it wasn't something that most people have heard on the radio, it didn't count.

Even with these criteria, I ran into problems. At one point, it appeared that songs about beating or killing women would dominate the list. There are a lot of such songs, and some of them are extremely popular. Granted that beating your wife or girlfriend is dysfunctional, and killing her even more so, I didn't want such extreme stuff to take attention away from the subtler, more everyday ways that people make their relationships miserable.

What to do? I toyed with the idea of selecting just one song to represent all the musical wife-beating. But that didn't work out. For one thing, how do you choose between Run For Your Life by The Beatles and Only Women Bleed by Alice Cooper? Any such selection could only be arbitrary. For another, where would it go in the list? If I put such a song anywhere other than first place, I would be guilty of minimizing such abuse. But if I made it number one, I would have the same problem as before, with showy wife-beating taking attention away from everyday neurosis.

I decided that wife-beating deserves its very own category. Perhaps later I'll do a separate post devoted to the Battering Top Ten, if I feel like it. I make no promises. Anyway, this is why there are no wife-beating songs in the list. And now, on to the songs.

Number 10: Love Hurts

I'll 'fess up--this song may be dysfunctional, but I love it. What a great ballad. Still, it clearly was not inspired by a happy, healthy relationship.

I've always thought of this as a Nazareth song, so I got a surprise when I looked it up on Wikipedia and discovered that it was first recorded by The Everly Brothers in 1960. That's 15 years before Nazareth did their version. Apparently I'm not the only one who loves it--Wikipedia's list of covers of Love Hurts is so extensive they had to use a table to hold it, a table that extends over four screens. (See Love Hurts - Wikipedia.)

Most people have been through bad relationships at some point in their lives, and can identify with the lyrics: "Love is like a cloud/It holds a lot of rain" and "Love is like a flame/It burns you when it's hot." Sure, sometimes it's like that. However, in the bridge, the protagonist denies that it can ever be otherwise. "Some fools rave on happiness/Blissfulness, togetherness/Some folks fool themselves I guess/But they're not fooling me," he says, and then concludes, "Love is just a lie/Made to make you blue." (Source: Love Hurts lyrics @

To claim that love hurts in certain situations, with certain partners, is fair and accurate. To claim that love can never make you happy, that it is in fact a lie, earns you a place in the Pantheon of Dysfunction.

Number 9: Why Do Fools Fall In Love?

This song was first recorded way back in 1956 by Frankie Lymon and the Teenagers, but has been covered by multiple artists since then, including Diana Ross, who covered it in 1981. (Source: Why Do Fools Fall in Love (song) - Wikipedia)

The song asks, essentially, since we can take it as understood that love can only be a bad thing, why are people stupid enough to get into it? This question, why do fools fall in love, is juxtaposed with questions about things that can be taken for granted: Why do birds sing so gay? Why does the rain fall from up above? The implication is that the foolishness of falling in love is as much an incontrovertible fact of life as the birds singing and the rain falling. (See Why Do Fools Fall in Love lyrics @

It's this attitude that earns this song the Number 9 spot. Why Do Fools Fall In Love? and Love Hurts have a similar message, but at least in Love Hurts, the protagonist makes a case for his conclusions. The second verse of Love Hurts begins, "I'm young, I know/But even so/I know a thing or two/I learned from you." His condemnation of love is based on his own experience. That makes Love Hurts a notch less dysfunctional than Why Do Fools Fall in Love?, a song that not only doesn't make a case but never considers the possibility that anyone might see things otherwise.

Number 8: Wonderful Tonight

Ooh, I'm going to get in trouble now. So many people love this song and think it's sooo romantic. And it's Eric Clapton. How dare I criticize the guitar god? Well, I don't care. This song is a train wreck.

The first verse is largely about the woman's appearance and her attention to it: "She's wondering what clothes to wear/She puts on her makeup/Brushes her long blond hair." After all that, she asks him, "Do I look all right?" like an insecure child seeking validation for her existence. Yes, he assures her, "You look wonderful tonight." And that's what it's all about, as the second verse reveals: "We go to a party/Everyone turns to see/This beautiful lady/Walking around with me." He's already focused laserlike on her looks in the first verse, and now he returns to her looks in the second verse and states it flat out: she's beautiful. Can there be any question of this man's priorities? He's with this woman because she's beautiful. No doubt he loves looking at her--he appears to be watching her intently in verse one as she fixes herself up--but he also loves knowing that other people are looking, seeing him with his delicious little trophy wife draped over his arm. There's no indication that anything else matters.

I think it's interesting that we know only one specific thing about her appearance: she's got long blond hair. That's important. Blond hair is highly valued in our society, especially on women's heads. If she had brown hair, she wouldn't have the same cachet. I wouldn't be surprised if he dumped a brunette to go out with her.

The bridge goes, "I feel wonderful/Because I see the love light in your eyes," (pardon me while I puke,) "And the wonder of it all/Is that you just don't realize/How much I love you." (Source: Wonderful Tonight lyrics @ Well of course she doesn't. For one thing, she's terribly insecure, as her question in verse one made clear. For another, he doesn't love her, he loves her looks, and she probably senses that.

Songs that come right out and knock love are, to my mind, less dysfunctional than songs that describe or celebrate troubled relationships with no apparent awareness of how dysfunctional they are. For its chilling portrayal of a shallow, status-seeking man and his beautiful but desperately insecure wife, this song earns the eighth spot.

Number 7: Sexual Healing

I didn't plan for Wonderful Tonight and Sexual Healing to come out next to each other, but I'm happy they did, because they both make me twitch with revulsion. Sexual Healing is a song about a guy who won't let his lover get a good night's sleep because he "needs" to get laid.

But let him speak for himself: "Get up, Get up, Get up, Get up, let's make love tonight/Wake up, Wake up, Wake up, Wake up, 'cause you do it right." These lyrics make me want to yell, "Leave her alone, dammit! She's sleeping!" Has it ever crossed his mind that maybe his lover doesn't want to be roused in the middle of the night for sex, that maybe she'd rather sleep?

Apparently not. It's all about him. "Baby, I'm hot just like an oven/I need some lovin'." He's got a keen awareness of his own needs, as the lyrics make clear. He goes on to add that when he's not feeling well--say that "blue tears are falling," or his "emotional stability is leaving" him--he knows he can get relief from her and her services. "If you don't know the thing you're dealing/Oh, I can tell you darling that's it's sexual healing."

I'm sure I read somewhere, although I'm not sure where, that the mark of a sexual addict is that instead of learning to deal with his problems, he escapes them by seeking sex. He doesn't care particularly who it's with (although if he's got a steady lover, that's obviously convenient), he doesn't care about connecting emotionally with his sexual object, he cares about getting his fix and making his feelings go away. Gaye describes this grasping, selfish stance so well: "You're my medicine/Open up and let me in" (Ugh!)

I knew most of this song's lyrics, certainly enough to disgust me, but reading them in their entirety has been illuminating. Apparently I missed a bit of ad lib about masturbation. The sites are divided on whether he says, "Please don't procrastinate/'Cause I may have to masturbate" (Sexual Healing lyrics @ or "Please don't procrastinate/It's not good to masturbate" (Sexual Healing lyrics @ If it's the latter, Sexual Healing should be higher up in the Top Ten list. (What's wrong with masturbation? Any man who wakes his woman up from a sound sleep demanding sex needs to become better acquainted with it.) If it's the former, it fits in well with the overall selfishness displayed throughout the song.

But enough. If I read any more of Gaye's lyrics, I'll have to go take a shower. Let's move on.

Number 6: When a Man Loves a Woman

I guess this is a classic. One comes across it often. When I looked it up on Wikipedia, I was surprised to find out how old it is. It was first recorded in 1966 by Percy Sledge. (See When a Man Loves a Woman (song) - Wikipedia). It has been covered by several artists, including Montreal-based singer Luba. What was she thinking? I wondered at the time.

I hate this song. What a negative portrayal, not only of love but of women. "When a man loves a woman... she can bring him such misery," he tells us. According to this song, nothing could be a bigger disaster for a man than to fall in love with a woman. He won't be able to keep his mind on anything, he'll spend his last dime, sleep out in the rain... sounds like a good argument for turning gay, doesn't it?

After all, Sledge assures us, all that abuse and badness is only going one way. "When a man loves a woman, he can do no wrong... he can never own some other girl." (Source: When a Man Loves a Woman lyrics @ Own? I assume he means sleep with. A man in love, he appears to be claiming, is incapable of cheating. This should come as quite a surprise to the many cheated-on wives who have had to listen to that old chestnut, "It didn't mean anything."

Personally, I find the song misogynist, if subtly so. Unlike Led Zeppelin, Sledge didn't go in for starkly condemnatory statements like, "The soul of a woman was created below" (from Dazed and Confused). But the message is clear that falling in love means that the man--that saintly man who is incapable of doing wrong--is going to be used, abused and cheated on. Not a glowing endorsement of women as a gender. Also interesting is the use of the word "own" in relation to women (or "girls") and its suggestion that sex puts a woman in a one-down position.

Still, it's got a good tune, one that a powerful singer can have some fun with, as Luba did. This probably accounts in large part for its staying power.

Oh my goodness, I'm only halfway through and I've topped 2000 words. That's enough for now. Look for the other half of my dysfunctional countdown in a few days.

Sunday, May 3, 2009

Can You Believe It? Chemicals in Canned Foods

As fear is de rigeur these days--fear of terrorism, fear of disease, etc.--and swine flu is the illness du jour, James decided that we should stock up on a lot of canned food and bottled water in order to be prepared for any upcoming pandemics that may bring civilization to a crashing halt.

I don't buy a lot of canned food, and this shopping trip reminded me why. Many canned foods that are not desserts have sugar in them, in flagrant disregard of common sense and the obesity epidemic. It is also disheartening to see that high-fructose corn syrup has crept north across the border and is insinuating itself into more and more prepared foods, though studies show it destabilizes your blood sugar levels and encourages weight gain even more than plain table sugar does.

But it was the raft of mysterious chemicals in the cans that really made an impression on me. Actually, the worst offender didn't come in a can but in a jar. We happened to wander into the multicultural section of the supermarket. I saw they had gefilte fish, which made me come over all nostalgic. Gefilte fish was no big deal when I lived in Montreal, but here, Jewish things, edible or otherwise, are harder to come by. So I got a jar of Manischewitz Gefilte Fish. I picked that brand because it was the only one without sugar, but it turned out to be an unfortunate choice. There are worse things than refined sugar. I know that now.

It should have been good. How can you go wrong with carp, mullet, whitefish and pike? All tasty fish, or at least hairdos of the 70's. But it had an unpleasant, metallic taste, like a thallium patty. What could have imparted such a disgusting flavour? It wasn't the fish. It couldn't have been the onion or the egg whites. It probably wasn't the monosodium glutamate; sometimes I get a reaction to MSG, but I've never noticed that it had a taste. But it could have been the sodium hexametaphosphate. Or perhaps the sodium tripolyphosphate.

If my hair falls out, I'll let you know.

Manischewitz wasn't the only offender. Most of the canned foods we bought had some kind of laboratory oddity in them. I thought it would be interesting to round up all the chemicals in all the canned and bottled foods we bought and find out more about them. So here they are, in alphabetical order.

Chemicals in Cans

Autolyzed Yeast Extract
In No Name Chicken Stew. A flavour enhancer similar to MSG, which is also in No Name Chicken Stew. Why do they need the same thing twice? They must not have a lot of confidence in their stew. According to Wise Geek, autolyzed yeast is created by adding salt to yeast, which causes the yeast to digest itself[1]. Some sort of undisclosed further processing creates the final product. Autolyzed yeast extract is chemically similar to MSG and may therefore produce similar symptoms.
Calcium Chloride
In canned tomatoes, all brands I've checked. Used to keep canned vegetables firm. Disconcertingly, it's the same stuff they put on the road to melt ice in winter. Can be an irritant, though presumably in larger quantities than one finds in canned food. Considered safe.[2]
Citric Acid
In Aylmer's Canned Tomatoes. Naturally occurring in fruits and vegetables, especially citrus fruits. Added to foods as a flavouring and preservative[3]. My can of tomatoes explains that citric acid is an acidulant. Acidulants, also called acidity regulators, change or maintain the PH balance of foods[4]. This is a bit confusing. Tomatoes are acidic on their own. Why do they need an acid added to them? Could they lose acidity otherwise? Anyway, no safety concerns there.
Disodium EDTA
In Unico Bean Medley. EDTA is short for ethylene diamine tetraacetic acid. Now there's a mouthful. One study shows that sufficient quantities of the stuff cause negative effects in rats. All rats dosed with the rat equivalent of 500 mg died within nine days[5]. And 500 mg is not all that much. Vitamin C comes in 500 mg pills. The study concludes that "because of its effect on calcium, the use of disodium EDTA as a food additive is not recommended" [6]. Oh dear. Perhaps the bean medleys will have to go back to the store. The study adds that calcium disodium EDTA is safer than plain old disodium EDTA. That's good, because I just noticed it's in my mayonnaise.

The Health Canada Food Additive Dictionary explains that disodium EDTA is a sequestering agent[7]. Sequestering agents "combine with metallic elements in food, thereby preventing their taking part in reactions leading to colour or flavour deterioration"[8]. So though it does bad things to blood calcium levels, at least if you're a rat, disodium EDTA is permitted in our food so that our canned beans will stay pretty. Uh, yeah. That's worth it. Not.

Granted, this is quite an old study. But I can't find anything more up to date. There's surprisingly little information out there about disodium EDTA as a food additive.
Monosodium Glutamate (MSG)
In No Name Chicken Stew, all Campbell's Soups, and Manischewitz Gefilte Fish. A sodium salt of glutamic acid. Glutamic acid occurs naturally in seaweed and was traditionally used in Asian cooking. MSG is added to foods as a flavour enhancer[9]. Although it is considered safe, in sufficient quantities it can cause a reaction known as MSG symptom complex or--more colourfully--Chinese restaurant syndrome[10]. I have experienced that myself. I get a weird, itchy feeling in my throat. Other people get headaches. Asthmatics may experience temporary worsening of their asthmatic symptoms[11]. I have only had problems in Chinese restaurants; presumably the amount found in some restaurant dishes is larger than in canned food. I suspect that the original seaweed extract caused fewer problems than the MSG cooked up in labs, but progress marches on.
Sodium Hexametaphosphate
In Manischewitz Gefilte Fish. This is another sequestering agent (see Disodium EDTA). Its Wikipedia entry claims it can cause chest pain, and in sufficient amounts, pancreatic cancer, but the citations are missing[12]. According to Cosmetic Database, there are a number of concerns regarding this chemical: it is persistent and "bioaccumulative," which means that it builds up in your body tissues[13]. As well, studies in animals show that it affects the brain and nervous system in high doses [14].
Sodium Tripolyphosphate
In Manischewitz Gefilte Fish. Used as a preservative in meats and fish. It is also added to soaps and detergents to improve their cleansing ability![15] Polyphosphates are irritating to the skin and may induce metabolic acidosis[16]. Which, by the way, can be fatal.
In No Name Chicken Stew. The specific type of sulfite was not mentioned; the ingredient listing simply said "sulfites (in potatoes)." Sulfites are used as a preservative. In some cases, they just make the food look prettier. If you've ever seen dried apricots in a health food store, you've probably noticed that they are dark brown, in contrast to supermarket apricots, which remain bright orange. That's because the health-food apricots have no sulfites in them. They still taste good though.

Sulfites occur naturally in wine and some foods. Yet they are a health concern. They can cause headaches, skin irritation and breathing difficulty[17]. Asthmatics are at greater risk of having a reaction to sulfites, a reaction that can sometimes be fatal[18].

Bon appétit!

Notable Exceptions

Having gone on at length about the additives in canned food, some benign and some scary, I feel it's only to fair to mention that some of the canned food we bought had no chemicals in it at all. If you prefer your food unadulterated, here are some products to watch for.

  1. I have to hand it to Blue Menu. They really do make healthy products without unnecessary additives. Their soups are free of MSG and their canned beans contain nothing but beans, water and salt, in constrast to Unico's beans with their rat-sickening disodium EDTA. Furthermore, Blue Menu's canned corn kernels contain no added sugar. Yet they still taste sweet, probably because they come from good quality corn.
  2. A can of Del Monte's Pineapple Chunks contains nothing but pineapple chunks and pineapple juice.
  3. President's Choice Just Apples "Appletreet" consists of little individual plastic cups of applesauce. It's not canned food per se, but it is similar to canned food, being sealed in airtight containers, and does indeed contain just apples. Too bad about the silly name though.
  4. NATUR Peanut Butter comes in a glass jar and consists of nothing but ground peanuts. Unlike most peanut butters, NATUR contains no hydrogenated oil.


  1. ^
  2. ^
  3. ^
  4. ^
  5. ^
  6. ^ Ibid.
  7. ^
  8. ^
  9. ^
  10. ^
  11. ^ Ibid.
  12. ^
  13. ^
  14. ^ Ibid.
  15. ^
  16. ^
  17. ^
  18. ^ Ibid.