Thursday, April 26, 2012

Attack of the Killer Bookstores!

The empty business space at 2964 Bloor Street W is awaiting its next occupant, whoever that that may be, there’s no sign as of yet, both literally and figuratively speaking, only row after row of dingy, yellowed pages of old newspapers taped up on the insides of the windows to block any sight into the unit. Old news covering up an empty present. Taped in front of the newspapers are a few single sheet’s with a goodbye message written in large font and multiple exclamation points. Something like, “Thanks for the memories!!!” A brief goodbye to all and no one in particular.

Once this limbo period is over and a new tenant sets up shop, my scorn will be directed to a tangible enemy, my anger focused, because you and me both know it will be a nail salon or a Tim Horton’s, or a Second Cup, or a Starbuck’s. Surely nothing of much substance…a wicker basket store, or a mattress emporium; or a novelty store like Hell Toupee, or Bong Voyage. Fuck me sideways.

The place I’m referring to is, of course, The Book Mark; Toronto’s oldest independent bookstore. In the black since 1965 and now an empty unit. Already old news, too, but what else would you expect? There’s record breaking temperatures and daily instalments of trial porn to take up ink and web space, (in the GTA, it was the Shafia trial, currently it is the Tori Stafford trial, to give you a frame of reference).

Give us beans! Give us cell-phones! Give us the ability to summarize our current thoughts in 140 characters or less and electronically transfer them, in pixelated codes onto screens, accessible to the masses at the touch of a button. Yes! Nothing but Yeses! We’re making a connection here. I can feel it!

According to an article I read in The Star, the Book Mark ultimately had to shut their doors because of a crushing rent increase--around 25% for the bean counters out there. I also spoke with who I presumed was the owner shortly before they closed for good and she confirmed as much. Now it’s gone. Thanks for the memories. The rent increases are a common theme. Aside from The Book Mark, the other independent store up the street in the Bloor West Village, Book City, is now in the process of closing. A rent increase is also cited. The For Lease sign is up as well as signs offering 40% off most books. The out of business sale has been going on for over a month now and there’s not much left except receding shelves with bargain bin 1980’s hardcover books about 16th century Italian castles. In Italian. Obviously, the book business has been in a precarious state for many years and it appears as though the rent increases proved to be the straw that broke the camel’s back. That damn camel couldn’t take all the extra $20 bills stacked upon his hump.

There’s something sad about a store that you’ve frequented for years closing down. Any future memories knocked off the table by the careless swipe of a God’s hand. No one’s ever happy about it, and we all collectively sigh, accord the tragedy a moment of thoughtful remorse, and resolve to get on with things. “Such a shame, really,”… or…”I wish I bought more books,”…they say. It’s true. I heard two strangers conversing as I walked by. But what can you do, really? One person is so powerless to obstruct powerful business forces, we just get swept up with the wave and our attention is buoyed by another distraction. Life goes on, as it always seems to do.

When an ethereal magical place like a bookstore closes down, a little piece of your soul dies along with it. All of these wonderful stories and facts that self-reflect the human experience back at us. We gaze into the mirror of our collective selves dumbfounded with astonishment. Is this what we’re really like? A frame of reference develops from which we can form sound judgements. I’m not in Afghanistan or Iraq but I can be taken there and learn more about the conflict by reading an embedded journalists account than I would by reading the scroll at the bottom of CNN. A bookstore radiates and glows, a pulsating plasma orb, breathing life and illuminating the dank crevices burrowed deep within each of us. A good book informs us, gives us a chance to glean an understanding out of the madness and fury of the noise of modern existence. It’s the closest thing we have to magic, to time travel. Hell, it is time travel. And now time travel is going out of business? Now it has to diversify to stay in the game?

Chapters now gives over a sizeable chunk of it’s floor space to knick-knacky type stuff, an array of auxiliary crap like coffee, and decorative picture frames. I don’t blame the Chapters brass, they gotta do what they gotta do to survive. If staying in business means selling canned soup, then so be it. But still, it’s strange to go to the pet store and buy a case of beer; it’s a desperate move.

If it’s done properly, the written word can be the most electrifying and important cultural artifact we have. All those TV shows, those movies you love, from blockbuster Hollywood schlock like The Hunger Games, Lord of the Rings, The Notebook, Harry Potter, down to scantly viewed indie gems, originate in book form. That’s where it all fucking comes from, man. Oh, you like the movie American Psycho--Book! Oh, you like Brokeback Mountain--Book! Oh, you like The Shining--Book! Oh, you like Trainspotting--Book!

Books are the endless well from which we draw inspiration as a culture. The human imagination will always be the most valuable, truly renewable resource and it‘s being taken for granted. Do you understand the words coming out of my mouth!?

A common complaint in the death of independent stores is that all the leftover business and local culture is funnelled into the evil corporations and they’re able to further monopolize the business and mould it into devious shapes. But how can you hate Chapters with a burning passion? The book business is so fragile that one imagines Chapters could be next in line to shackle up their doors. It’s just a BIG independent store. It’s not like I can’t get any book I’ve wanted to, no matter what the subject matter (and as you can imagine, my literary interests do not lean towards Danielle Steele). In fact, I’ve had to go to Chapters to order certain books because the independent stores can’t even order them from their suppliers, never mind actually having them in stock. I used to take that hit like a champ. For example: the book I really want is in stock at Chapters but I’ll still order it from the independent store and wait 1-2 weeks to, in my own little way, support the team. In the last year, I’ve simply started going over to Chapters to order my books because it is, and I hate to say it…more fun…in a sad way…a sad humans-are-useless-in-a-high-tech-world kind of way. The people at Book City and The Book Mark had antiquated computers and it took them forever to find the book I was looking for. If there was, by chance, a nice looking woman behind the counter then I would go back, but the retail book world is full of Hayden Planetarium’s for the most part.

Chapters has multiple docking stations with computers so that you can type up the book you want to buy and see if any copies are in the store. If the book isn’t in stock you can order it by following the few easy steps until finally a green slip is printed out which you take to the cash register and prepay or pay at the kiosk with a credit card. 1-2 weeks later you get your option of a call or an email notifying the book’s safe arrival. Humans are erased from the equation. But, one thing that annoys the ever-living shit out of me at Chapters is how prevalent the staff is. It’s like vacationing in Mexico. They’re always wandering around without seemingly much to do except engage customers in queries. “Did you find what you were looking for?” Clearly, I’m walking towards one of the computers to find what I’m looking for. I don’t need you! As soon as I get ten feet into enemy territory and dart off in the direction of the first available computer, without fail a peppy employee approaches and asks if I need help. The question is just plain weirdly ambiguous. I can’t help but think they’re asking me something deeply philosophical, or at the very least, medically inquisitive… “Do you need help with something?” Lady, do you have a few hours?

It would seem obvious that if I’m plopping down my bag at the docking station to search for a book, then I don’t need to be asked if I need help. Miss, the computer is going to help me. Why do businesses insist on approaching the customer (especially when there are computers to do helping?) Let us come to you. I’ll ask you when I need help. It’s very condescending when you get down to it. We, the customers, are so forlorn and incompetent, like that as soon as we enter a store we must immediately be offered professional help.

It will be interesting to see how the profits are divided when they figure out the eside of things. This is a crucial time in the fledgling ebook industry, the pieces are falling but it’s tough to make out just what kind of puzzle it will be. The book world, for the most part, has always had an all access code for unlimited downloading: the library card. The maelstrom of the book world must adapt like any other business. Business evolution is such a relentlessly turbulent beast, but it’s always moving forward, incapable of pithy human considerations, onward to conquer all that is feasible, gobble it all up, even as the troops come out of the trenches and are mowed down. Human life is the collateral damage of progress. It’s a capitalist clusterfuck. If you want to play around the pool you’re going to get wet. So instead of trying to save the independent bookstores, why don’t they adapt? Small bookstores should think creatively to stay afloat: hold readings, art events--switch it up. Here’s an idea for the struggling independent bookstores: One night a week hire attractive young women to work cash and stock shelves--and here’s the kicker--they must dress like librarians…in a porno. Miniskirt, glasses, cleavage--turning sin into sales!

These shops should participate more in the community. I mean, why do people even go to independent stores in the first place? In past generations people would flock to the independent stores because of the refined selection they offered that was unavailable at the mass market locations. But there has been no book I’ve ordered in the last five years that Book City had that Chapters didn’t. The populace will not support independent stores just for the sake of supporting independent stores. They have to offer up something different, some other angle. At this point, most are just small scale Chapter’s--of course they’re destined to the wastelands. When small companies clone the big boys it doesn’t usually work. It’s a dog shit eat dog shit world. If you’re not offering up something the bigger guys aren’t than prepare to be squashed like a bug in the ground. A little shop can’t compete with multiple docking hubs!

One day, in the not so distant future, our parents will upload all of the necessary written information to be a successful adult from into their newborns’ fragile egg-shell brains, like synching an ipod (technologists still have to conduct further research because they don‘t quite know where the usb cables will connect to in humans, but one can narrow it down to a few ports).

Parents won’t have to even bother reading to their children at night (raising kids is sooo boring, I know) or even encouraging them to read on their own. Consider the benefits of the free time: More laundry can get done. More status updates to be posted while the infant sleeps peacefully in it’s crib, dreaming baby babble dreams of nanotechnology and dematerialization and iHELMETS and iFAMILIES.

Our individual lives are passing comets in the night sky; spotlights faintly illuminating a vacuous spaceland for a handful of awestruck spectators to bear witness to all of it’s ragged glory, but the cold hard destiny is that life passes as soon as it is created. Your life is a lighter without any juice. A useless spark and then hello darkness. It’s Chapter’s Eleven. So why are you reading this?

Monday, April 9, 2012

What A Sorry State

About a year ago there was a terrible catastrophe on the east coast of Japan. No, it wasn’t Godzilla, but a massive tsunami caused by an underwater earthquake; a disaster of epic proportions. Surely I, like many others, watched the raw POV footage over and over as coastal towns were engulfed by a wave of death. I can still hear the sound of twisting metal that was never intended to twist that way, locals fleeing to higher ground, some not running fast enough and casually absorbed by the invading blob. Though I don’t speak Japanese fluently, screams of horror are a universal language. In times of tragedy one knows exactly what foreign people are saying from behind the camera. It’s the same thing we’d all say if we witnessed someone washed up by a tsunami: Holy Shit! . . . Fuck, this is crazy! . . . Oh my God! . . .  Run! . . . Led Zeppelin Rules! . . .

But this isn’t what I want to focus on here. I want to focus on the real issue in the grand scheme of things--the bigger (in a fascistic oppression of the population through language to manipulate thought kind of way) disaster: The firing of the Aflac Duck voice, narrated by the inimitable comic Gilbert Gottfried. Gottfried was sacked for his cringe inducing one-liners posted on Twitter mere hours after the tragedy. Well, comedy is all about timing. Gilbert wasn’t fired for his jokes, though. Or the timing of them. If he adroitly dropped lurid lines of scatological humour in a comedy club in North Dakota, or between friends (if Gilbert has any, that is), or even at a private boardroom meeting between Aflac marketing executives, there would be no problem. The reason for his firing wasn’t the cruel sentiment of the jokes in the (ahem) wake of a national tragedy, but the dissemination of the jokes instantaneously to a huge audience. And Twitter is the king of that kingdom. If enough people have access to a message, a small handful is going to get pissed off and make a lot of noise about it, no matter what the message is. Comedy is low-hanging fruit in the professional outrage game.

Maybe it was the quick turnaround, or the severity of the jokes, or a combination thereof that caused Aflac brass to give in to the pressure and drop the hammer on the man who’s voice has simultaneously entertained and annoyed us for decades.

For a short time the issue reached a fever pitch in the media. At its apex, it reached bizarre postmodern proportions: Gottfried’s insensitive tweets about the tragedy of the tsunami had become bigger news than the tragedy of the tsunami itself. It’s like photographing people who are photographing the most photographed barn in the world. Now, some of the jokes weren’t very good at all—mere throwaway’s. As long as we’re alive and events are happening, whether on a personal or global scale, there will be an endless well of comedy to draw from. That is both a comedy fact and a scientific fact. 

A few jokes stirred a chuckle out of me, which you can read out loud or in your head in your best Gilbert Gottfried voice . . .

I fucked a girl in Japan. She screamed, ‘I feel the earth move and I’m getting wet.’”

 My book Rubber Balls and Liquor was released in Japan. It’s making quite a splash.”

Okay . . . finally . . .

Japan called me. They said ‘Maybe those jokes are a hit in the US, but over here they’re all sinking.’”

What puzzles and troubles me about the upper echelons of Aflac, and by extension, the people at the top of corporate culture in general, is that Gilbert has been known for the last thirty years as a comic who is by far one of the most abrasive out there on the national and international comedy scene. Anyone who has a passing interest in comedy knows this. Gilbert’s always the first to go there. He’s a too soon guy. Nothing is out of bounds. I’ve busted many guts watching him perform at roasts. Gilbert blurts things out like a crazy old Jew with Asperger’s.

What did a multi-national insurance company like Aflac expect out of Gilbert Gottfried when he was hired back in 2000? That by lending his voice as a shill, gussied up as a goofy duck, all of sudden his past material is, (ahem, again) washed away? I certainly would not buy insurance from Aflac--clearly, they don’t do diligent research on their animated mascots. The left hand doesn’t know what the right is doing. The only thing these Aflac Asshats heard was Gilbert’s unique, yet recognizable voice--a nasal, gravely whine, though grating, is definitely unforgettable. Did they know that Gilbert is a dirty comic and figure that no one will care? He’s the parrot in Alladin for Christ’s sake! Surely before making a comic your mascot there is a vetting process to check out a funny man’s entire catalogue to see if he’s suitable to represent your company, or at the very least, what his angle of attack is. A cornerstone of GG’s schtick is to say outrageous, shocking jokes at all times, especially right after a tragedy when the snake’s venom is at most potent. Umm . . . hello? That’s Gilbert Gottfried in a nutshell. Three weeks after 9/11 at the Friar’s Club in New York, he was the first notable comic to very publicly say a 9/11 joke. Something about trying to catch a plane, but it had to make a stop at the Empire State Building first. Whatever. It’s Gilbert, not the president, it’s what he does. He didn’t get swept up in a shit storm like the Japanese tsunami, the 9/11 fallout was more like a shit sprinkle. No matter what you say, 9/11 is old news and you can joke about it and get away with it, too. Time heals physical and psychic wounds. The tsunami in Japan is now old news, too, but it most definitely was not just days after the tsunami. The wound is still raw. There is a week or so period where jokes or any making light of are totally off limits in the media, a window where outrage grows, and then blossoms once some comedian jokes about the tragedy.

A mitigating factor that is difficult to ignore is that Aflac is the largest life insurer of Japanese citizens. You can’t deny the jokes landed too close to home, like two nuclear bombs. The usage of words in and out themselves, is meaningless. Intent and context are king. It’s like playing violent video games doesn’t actually lead to real life violence. That’s the easy way out. It’s the Blame Game and a lot of people sit down at the table.    

is compromised when there’s a personal affront involved. If it’s about someone else, well fuck ’em, it’s right there, immortalized in the Charter of Rights & Freedoms goddamnit! Maybe I have no soul but I found it even funnier in a twisted way when I learned that Aflac does most of it’s business in Japan. It adds so many levels of intrigue to the jokes and to Gilbert himself. Did Gilbert know most of the business was centred in Japan? Did he just not care? Did he think it would roll of their shoulders?

On firing Gilbert as the Aflac Duck, the chief marketing officer stated, “Gilbert’s recent comments about the crisis in Japan were lacking in humor and certainly don’t reflect the thoughts and feelings of anyone at Aflac.”

I can’t begin to tell you how many things are wrong and misguided about this statement. First of all, there was about ten jokes that Gilbert tweeted and the three that I have reprinted are actually pretty funny, so the marketing guy is wrong on the lacking in humour part. Secondly, doesn’t it go without saying that the comments don’t reflect the thoughts and feelings of anyone at Aflac? Does the public assume Aflac employees are so morally bankrupt at their cores? Do we need to be reminded they don’t seriously endorse jokes about people dying horrible deaths, crushed by debris, drowning in fetid slew water, their cities and possessions wiped away by an angry planet?  

What comes next is a phenomenon, that although is not new, is more prevalent now than ever before in the media. The forced apology. And so Gilbert breaks gives in. Let the healing begin! I don’t even have to reprint the apology because you know exactly how it goes. I’m sorry if my remarks offended…blah blah blah, doot-doota-doot-doo . . . DOO-DOO. Even after his empty apology, Aflac still fired him. Never mind how disingenuous an apology originating from outside the speaker is in the first place, but coming from Gilbert, it’s even more uproarious. An apology for some Twitter jokes coming from Gilbert has about as much sincerity and warmth as Terry Schiavo.        

These forced apologies light up the media landscape like fireflies, and it’s been pretty bright out there lately. Today, as I write this, it’s Mike Milbury, a hockey analyst/commentator apologizing for his ‘Punk’ rant on Sidney Crosby. Breaking news: Crosby’s camp has rejected the apology from Mr. Mulbury. Somebody call a Wahhhmbulance.

How will we ever go on in the face of such injustice!?

What is insidious about these forced-from-the-outside apologies is that they undermine the very foundation that genuine apologies are based on. It’s the crying wolf effect. Genuine apologies are supposed to come from within; a growing and learning process whereby wrongs are righted and sins are atoned for.  

True apologies don’t penetrate, they defecate.

An apology is supposed to be an expression of remorse for a perceived wrong. It’s also supposed to originate organically from the speaker if it is to retain any integrity. These principles have been usurped by a minority of interweb humanoids that want to build a brand, a public narrative to garner attention and credibility. The FA is now used in the media as a weapon, the lash of a whip made out of the tongues of the infidels, to inflict the sting of the public at large, whoever that is. The pressure from this small minority out there in the ether make the heads  force apologies out of their investments. And so we hear Rush Limbaugh, or Don Imus, or Dean Blundell light up the ‘On Air’ sign, and in a sombre tone, profess their sincerest of condolences; that they regret their momentary lapse of reason. Well hoo-fucking-rah.

Consider if you will Rush Limbaugh’s ‘Nappy headed ho’s’ comment, and the subsequent FA. When it really comes down to brass taxes, the comment is pretty benign. Not even that insulting even if you’re part of the group being insulted. Find any black female college basketball player and she’ll tell you she’s had far worse verbosity slung at her than, ‘Nappy headed ho.’ I’ll leave it up to you to come up with a few examples.

You can be outraged and annoyed at Rush Limbaugh for his comments. You have your right to be offended. But if you don’t like what Rush says than just do what I’ve been doing the whole time during the FA debacles: Don’t listen. Just turn the dial. Rush is only on my radar because of all the coverage, the incessant media clips by all the local affiliates that are regurgitating his offensive comments and apologies. Warning . . . this may be offensive to some viewers . . . but here you go folks, we’ll play it for you anyways, over and over, and vicariously re-offend you.

It’s the mark of a truly selfish and hubristic person to take offence to something and then endlessly whine about it, and more importantly, demand consequences. I’m occasionally offended by pundits/entertainers and their nutty ideas (mainly because the hordes who lap it up can’t distinguish the performance from the actual human being playing the character). But I would never want them silenced or taken off the air. For example, I don’t like Ann Coulter. I think she’s smart as well as an opportunistic, contrarian shill that doesn’t believe the things she says and writes, but does it because of her agenda and to get a rise out of liberals and to keep her brand relevant. She wants power and capital. She wants a voice. I can’t blame her. But here’s how a reasonable, intelligent human deals with this particular offense: Either (a) ignore her completely, or (b) postulate using reason and logic why you don’t agree with them and leave it at that. Hope other humans can relate. Hence unprofessional think pieces like this. I don’t want Ann Coulter fired or silenced. I’m not that narcissistic and selfish to try and impose my will on you plebeians! I realize lots of people are entertained by her, and agree with the gist of her politics. I have respect, which is something that is sorely lacking in our internet culture.  

Ironically, all these people who are outraged by the comments that give birth to the FA’s don’t even listen to the entertainers they’re outraged by. But they know damn well that YOU shouldn’t be subjected to the aural filth, either. They have a worldview they want to impose on you. The folks who are outraged only hear about the outrageous comments because they hear it re-filtered through the news that they do listen to. They don’t even listen to Rush Limbaugh or Howard Stern in the first place, but once they’re exposed to the tip, gigantic, imaginary icebergs naturally form underneath the surface. It’s a big bad world out there and rather than being constantly critical and questioning the foundations of our worldy outlooks, we paint ourselves into a corner and then defend that corner as the right way, the just way. Just turn the dial.

Why would you, if you were so mortally offended by a rape joke, or Don Imus insinuating a woman is a slut because she wants the state to pay for her birth control, be satisfied with a simple, short, forced apology? Apparently, this “I’m sorry, I apologize,” fire extinguisher is usually sufficient to put out the raging inferno of outrage. That’s all you wanted!? An ‘I’m sorry?’ That is the only demand from the kidnapper’s!? Come on Imus, all you have to do is give a sweet little remorseful show of humility, just get on your knees for a minute or two and then get back up, wipe off your mouth with the back of your hand, and carry on entertaining. If I’m truly offended by a comment/joke/person/group/etc., I sure as hell wouldn’t be assuaged by a simple apology, even if it did originate from the offender and not their bosses. The healing process would take time. The relationship may never be the same.

Speaking of Don Imus’s recent FA for calling Sarah Fluke a slut for wanting the state to cover her birth control, why is the abortion issue flaring up again in the States like a bad case of genital warts?

Look at the new law in Texas that forces doctors to perform an invasive, humiliating, intra-vaginal exam on women, accompanied by a patronizing lecture before they can have an abortion. Under the new state policy, a woman seeking an abortion must first be subjected to an ultrasound probe inserted into her vagina. Then comes the weird part . . . “She is then forced to look at the ultrasound image of the unborn fetus and listen to its heartbeat while the doctor points out the parts of the body.” Then the woman signs a document, and is sent home to wait twenty four hours before the abortion is performed.  Wha? Come again? This is legal humiliation and state sanctioned abuse. Does the state of Texas think women who get abortions are she-devils with spinning heads, frothing at the mouth, salivating in hungry anticipation of the unformed morsel being sucked out of their vagina? Can I take it home and eat it, doc? Clearly, women want to kill, kill, kill! They enjoy killing the babies inside them.

I don’t even have a pussy and it makes me throw up a little in my mouth. Hey law man, how exactly does forcing a doctor to waste his time pointing out body parts prevent abortions? I’d like to apply to be the speechwriter for the scripted rant that the doctors go through . . . “These are the hands that will one day pull triggers . . . and these are the lips that will one day suck on crack pipes…”

I’m no law expert or politician, but one sure fire way to not prevent abortions is cutting state funding to Planned Parenthood by some 66%, which Texas did in 2011. This law is ultimately benefiting only a select few perverted doctors who are consumed by unnecessary-pre-abortion-intra-vaginal-probing fetishes. Who cares? A fetus isn’t cute at one month anyways, just a gooey mass of nascent semi-formed life matter. Maybe you can make out a toe or two. Big shit. It isn’t going to pay the hydro bill. 

If you want to know how sexist any law on abortion is, imagine if the situation was reversed: After nine months of gestating, babies come out of a man’s grossly oversized and bloated penis, cock veins painfully extended to backyard hose proportions, the pregnant penis resembling a snake with a freshly eaten mouse.

Checking in for dinner at the in-law’s place you give in to the ceaseless prodding from the glowing grandparents-to-be, and whip out your pregnant cock so the whole extended clan, little Patrick too, can marvel at the bulging life inside it. Mom-in-law puts an ear to your shaft and exclaims proudly to no one in particular, “I think I felt a kick!”

The next morning, on a stroll through the park, other parents with their kids in tow notice the sizeable bulge in your Levi’s 501 Preggers©, and a gaggle of moms giggle to each other, hands over mouth’s, afraid to actually ask, only whispering cupped conspiratorial messages into each other’s ears, “Is he pregnant or just big?

Can you imagine a government passing laws forcing all pregnant men to go through invasive procedures prior to the abortions of their unwanted cock-babies? Not in this lifetime, pal.