Monthly Archives: July 2011

On Ambition in Art

Few things bother me in art as much as naked, self-interested ambition. Artwork which is very clearly trying to its hardest to be Great and Important usually bores and wearies me. I can’t finish Jonathan Franzen novels because their prose so loudly screams, “I am trying to be a great writer”; I even have a hard time listening to Johannes Brahms’ First Symphony, because he worked on it for decades while possessed with a crippling fear of not being as good as Beethoven. The end result is a symphony which feels preoccupied, in every bar, with having cosmic significance and a sort of godlike emotional distance.

Which brings about the question: why did I like Havergal Brian’s “Gothic” Symphony? It is, after all, the longest symphony in the world, requiring a thousand performers; it begins in D minor and ends in E major. The composer quotes, on the score, a remark by Goethe’s Faust:

Wer immer strebend sich bemüht,
Den können wir erlösen.
(Whoever strives with all his might,
That man we can redeem.)

That’s an ambitious plan–and he does indeed strive with all his might, for an hour and 47 minutes. So: why did I like it?

It seems to me that the answer involves dissecting the word ambition. There is more than one kind of ambition, after all. One is the ambition to be heralded as great–to please the crowds, win the votes, to see the reviews where your name is ranked alongside Sondheim or Welles or Dickens. By all accounts, Havergal Brian was completely devoid of this trait. His talent for self-promotion was akin to Richard Wagner’s talent for modesty; when his music began to appear in concert halls as he aged into his 80s and 90s, he was as shocked as anyone else. Brian appears to have shown little or no interest in being known to be ‘great.’ If he had, his life would have been a crushing disappointment.

One more type of ambition is to fulfill your perceived destiny or mission in life. This is the person who, when young, assigns himself or herself a ‘role’ and tries to fill it. Think of America taking on the responsibility of global policeman, or Johannes Brahms being prematurely (and rather cruelly) declared the next Beethoven by critics. Brahms suffered oppressively under that weight until his mid-40s. Havergal Brian, self-taught from the age of 11 and never in the least bit popular, may not have felt this weight; if he did, it is unknown to me.

The young Johannes Brahms, before expectations of greatness forced him to achieve significant milestones in facial hair history.

Another type of ambition is to satisfy yourself–and for the true artist, this is the hardest feat of all. This, and purely this, was Havergal Brian’s aim; he wrote huge swathes of music for no other reason than to fill his own head with the sounds of imagination. He essentially wrote his Gothic Symphony for, as they say, the desk-drawer. And yet he spent eight years on the thing, and eventually demanded for it a thousand performers. This wasn’t to impose or irritate or be a thorn in stage managers’ sides: it was because it was his symphony, darn it, and nobody was ever going to play it so he was going to write it the way he darn well wanted to.

Yes, Havergal Brian’s Gothic Symphony is ambitious: it is gargantuan in size, kaleidoscopic in colors, totally idiosyncratic in style, impossible to approach on anything but its own terms. (As one audience member remarked, “You can’t say it’s good or it’s bad… it just is.”) But it isn’t that way to intentionally gain notoriety or lay a claim to greatness or fulfill its creator’s idea of his life-work. The Gothic Symphony is, at a creative level, about one supreme artist’s desire to use any means possible, however extravagant, to make a work which encompasses everything he wants to say and do. Nobody has to listen, really: it’s getting it off his chest that counts.

If the Gothic were a book, it would be Infinite Jest; if the Gothic were a film, it would be The Fall, or perhaps something by David Lynch or Charlie Kaufman.

There is a cross-section of ambition to examine, though. A type of ambition which can coincide with all those above is the need to say something. To get a message out to the audience is sometimes feels like an imperative. But one can feel this ambition while embodying any of the others: politicians, surely, feel a need not just to win but to make policy decisions; America has not just an ambition to police the world but to spread American values, too. There is ambition in a message’s vessel and ambition in the message itself.

The Gothic Symphony is likeable because its vessel is preposterously huge, its message multi-leveled–and its creator’s attempt to put the work before the world unimaginably indifferent. Havergal Brian was trying to communicate a lot of things in his symphony, but it pleased him simply that they were communicated; there didn’t need to be an audience. He felt, for eight years, a burning need to create this huge symphony, but felt no apparent need to ever hear it outside of his imagination.

What exactly is the Gothic trying to say? Interpretations are numerous. In the past few days, I’ve heard suggestions–man’s spirit is able to survive even the deepest gloom, human imperfection struggles to achieve divine perfection, recovery from World War I, a musical reconstruction of a Gothic cathedral, and of course that Goethe quote Brian wrote on the score: “Whoever strives with all his might, / That man we can redeem.” Certainly Havergal Brian struggled with all his might to create such an enormous work.

For me, as a would-be artist, though, the main message is presumably something the composer never intended: anyone can try to please crowds, or strive for greatness, or feel a sense of destiny. It takes real courage, discipline, strength, and daring to appoint only one judge of your life-work–and to be that judge yourself.

1876 - 1972

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Seeing the ‘Gothic’

William Havergal Brian’s Symphony No 1, the “Gothic,” is the largest music ever written. True, it’s not as long as Wagner’s operas, or John Cage’s 639-year-long organ piece “As Slow as Possible” in which tones are held using weights, but the Gothic Symphony is hard to argue against. It lasts very nearly two hours with nary a significant pause and no intermission. The performers are as follows: two complete symphony orchestras, a host of exotic instruments like the pedal clarinet, bass oboe, basset horn, oboe d’amore, bass trumpet, contrabass trombone, two each of tubas and euphoniums, 24 percussion players including six timpanists, two tambourines, a “thunder machine” and a “bird scare,” an organ, soprano, alto, tenor, bass, six adult choirs, three children’s choirs (near the end of the symphony the voices will sing 32 different parts at once), and four brass bands stashed away in different areas around and outside the concert hall, each with their own set of drums.

The Gothic Symphony has been performed, in full, six times. It has been recorded for CD just once, in 1989 by the Slovak Philharmonic and Slovak Radio Symphony Orchestras, who were hampered by the fact that some of the instruments required didn’t actually exist in Slovakia.

The most recent performance of the Gothic was on 17 July, 2011, before a sold-out crowd at Royal Albert Hall, London. Over one thousand performers were there. So was I.

Pictured: slightly under half (!) of the singers for the Gothic Symphony, from my vantage point in the front of the standing room.

I came expecting at best a loudly transcendent experience and at worst the ability to tell people I’d seen the world’s largest symphony. But–good lord–it was the concert of a lifetime.

The Gothic Symphony begins with a sort of thirteen-minute overture to warm the orchestra up; it starts with a theme that sounds rather unhappily like Mahler-meets-Jaws but then slides into a gorgeous melody for solo violin. And that’s when my expectations started to recalibrate themselves: this monster music is capable of extraordinary tenderness, sensitivity, even fragility. There were moments so still, so haunting, that I was afraid if I swallowed the BBC Radio microphones would hear it.

The second movement is a particularly moving funeral march, but not a dirge; it sort of bustles and screams and flails about in pain before a despairing transition to the third movement, vivace, which despite the marking took its time getting interesting.

Then, nine minutes in, all hell broke loose. And by “all hell,” I mean the xylophone. Havergal Brian inserts a 90-second-long xylophone solo, an absolutely MAD solo which begins with an interesting little tune, trades the spotlight with a couple other instruments, and then takes one extremely fast, trippy riff and repeats it over and over and over, while the entire rest of the orchestra sadistically eggs it on, a bit like an exhausted dancer trying to move faster and faster as the audience demands more. I had a clear view of the xylophonist and my eyes nearly popped out of my head in amazement. Click here to listen to the solo as played at the Prom. [The xylophonist is Chris Stock, principal percussionist to the BBC National Orchestra of Wales. My thanks to commenter Ferme84 for letting me know!] Then the orchestra cuts back in–a harrowing climax is reached–the lights go up–at the point of greatest crisis, the organ acts as a giant gear-shifter plunging the music into a terrifying new key–the hundreds of singers stand on cue–there is a pause of maybe a second, and then everyone begins to sing. The experience is pure magic.

Like Beethoven’s Ninth, Brian’s “Gothic” has a choral finale; however, this being the world’s biggest symphony, the choral finale is as long as all of Beethoven’s Ninth. Possibly the most astonishing part is the fifteen-minute long section devoted to “Judex crederis esse venturus”, just four words repeated over and over by everybody as the choir divides into smaller and smaller sections. In a way it was like watching tennis: singers across the hall from each other echoed lines as if in reply, and new appearances of “Judex” kept popping up everywhere, until a surprise clutch of trumpets revealed themselves up at the highest point of the Royal Albert Hall gallery, the four brass bands and percussion roared to life in the hall itself, and for the first time in my life music physically surrounded me. All this roared to an unspeakably glorious conclusion, drummers pounding away on three sides, trumpets and trombones blasting into both ear canals, all the eccentric percussion instruments (thunder machine, bird scare!) in action, one of the choir members near me singing so hard it looked like his teeth would fall out, every performer in the hall landing on the final chord all at once. As it all echoed into silence I turned and noticed a young man standing near me: his eyes wide as cupcakes, his mouth hanging open in a gigantic disbelieving grin. Up on stage, the mezzo-soprano Christine Rice felt the same way: an enormous uncontrollable smile tore across her face and she looked down, hand raised in vain to hide her teeth, unable to contain herself. We were all thinking the same thing: I can’t believe I heard that. I can’t believe this music exists.

And that wasn’t even the finale; there was over a half-hour to go. In it Havergal Brian brilliantly resurrected all the prior themes from the symphony: the Jaws tune, the xylophone solo, and others, and it suddenly became clear just how brilliant the structure had been. He assigns each motive its own instrument–one of the major ones is a rhythm for dueling timpanists–so that, in the finale, all can appear in congress as part of a mad explosion of sound. Not that mad explosions are the norm; there must be a solid twenty minutes of a cappella singing in the symphony, all of it achingly beautiful and some of it nearly medieval in its simplicity of harmony. So it is fitting that, after a final peroration of ferocious raw power from all the orchestra and extra brass, suddenly the music should give way to–what is this?–a quiet ending, the choir by themselves now, up in the clouds somewhere, with the final words (“…in aeternam”) fading off so heavenly into the dark.

Another pre-performance photo.

The audience was stunned, and many of the performers too. Conductor Martyn Brabbins silently asked for, and got, a half-minute of absolute quiet before the floodgates of applause finally broke. And floodgates they were: there was a deafening roar, foot-stomping, a flamboyantly gay man shouting “Marvelous!”, and yes, there were two slow-claps. The choir all applauded Brabbins, who very modestly turned and applauded the audience.

There are a great many levels of astonishment and excitement to register here, too many to really write about. The technical proficiency of the performance: the cymbal guy dropped one on the floor for an amusing crash, and the strings were pretty scrappy at the very beginning, but for most of the work I kept thinking, “shouldn’t this be sloppier? shouldn’t there be more mistakes?” Xylophonist Chris Stock: he ought to be given some sort of award for Best Proms Musician 2011. The absolute control of Martyn Brabbins: that only one conductor is needed is beyond me, but his style, which has been described as “anti-maestro,” didn’t just keep the ensemble together, it also presented the music in an extremely positive light.

The music itself: is the Gothic perfect? No. There are some dull stretches, and a few moments where I grew slightly impatient with the intrusion of new material bogging down the works; it probably doesn’t need to be 1 hour 47 minutes long (as it was Sunday night). But the grandness of the design–the unshakeable determination of the music to get from the starting point to the end–and the numerous passages, loud and quiet, of eye-popping white-hot inspiration–there are emotions and experiences and thrills here which cannot be heard or had anywhere else. I spent most of the symphony smiling in disbelief. The man next to me spent some of it in tears. It’s that kind of music.

So I came to the Gothic Symphony expecting to hear a lot of loudness, a lot of madness, and maybe a glint of genius. There was indeed loudness, and the symphony’s creator may indeed have been off his rocker. But it was excitingly easy to hear the other thing, too.

I didn't take this photo, but I'm in it somewhere at the very bottom, to the right of the conductor. Click to expand. The big orange doohickey behind the harps is the "bird scare," which apparently is pretty much a rotatable oil drum filled with metal objects.

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Traveler’s Remorse

This is a rare time of year when my friends are traveling more than I am. I’m stuck in London actually getting work done on my master’s thesis–thus the relative quiet on this blog–while one of my friends is off to visit family in Israel, another is packing for Hawaii, another is on his way to Istanbul, another just got back from Seville, and, if Facebook has not misled me, one more is in Pamplona, watching the notorious Running of the Bulls. True, I’m going to Spain, too, for a few days’ hiking at the end of the month, but all this traveling has me thinking about “traveler’s remorse.”

Traveler’s remorse is simple: you wonder if you spent your time going to the right places and doing the right things, and more importantly you worry that there’s so much left to do. In the words of the friend I’m traveling to Spain to meet, “I long ago resigned myself to the fact that there are many, many beautiful things in this world that I will be close to, but I won’t see…this time.”

Admittedly this is a fairly elitist regret to have. I feel a bit horrible thinking, “Darn it, I never went to Prague,” while friends might be fretting, “I haven’t left property governed by Rick Perry in seven months.” But, when you travel, and especially when you spend a year abroad, it’s an almost inevitable part of the end-game to look back and regret things. It feels silly but it’s hard to avoid.

I don’t actually regret going anywhere. My destinations this year–Morocco, Barcelona, Istanbul, Leiden, Antwerp, Yorkshire, Liverpool, Warsaw, and Krakow–have all been marvelous. In some places (Benelux especially) my only regret is not staying longer. But think of all the places unexplored!

Traveler’s remorse can be crippling. Another friend tells me that when she thinks of all the exciting places in the world she’ll never see, she gets appallingly depressed. I have a small stack of Rough Guides and they can make depressing reading, if you take that view. For example: there is apparently a small island town in Croatia called Rab which has not changed in 300 years, thanks to superb upkeep and an enlightened anti-modernization policy. Some of the streets are staircases, and they’re jam-packed with tiny shops selling fresh fish. Rab looks like this:

It's almost floating.

In America, of course, that would be a film set, or a specially-constructed resort built in 2006. But it is centuries old, has about 600 permanent residents, and sounds like paradise.

Only,what good does it do me to know about Rab? It’s just one more thing I’m going to miss.

But that is clearly the wrong attitude. Don’t feel bad about caving in to it occasionally. Traveler’s remorse is natural and inevitable; if you don’t feel it there’s something wrong with you. You should learn not to listen, because the remorse just gets in the way, but you should also learn not to hate the feeling. It happens.

What counts is having the right attitude. So I try to say, “some day I will come back to Europe and get a fresh chance at all this.” And then, of course, the right attitude is to make a list of all the great stuff I’m coming back to see. To wit:

– Lisboa and the wineries of Porto
– Sevilla, Cordoba, Granada, the Basque Country
– Avignon, Carcassone, Aix-en-Provence, Sisteron

Sisteron is one of those French mountain villages that looks like it shouldn't exist, like Peter Jackson blatantly made it up and stuck it in his movie using CGI.

– Edinburgh, Glasgow, Perth, a loch or two
– The Hay Festival in Hay-on-Wye and the cheese rolling in Gloucestershire
– A few days each in Brugge, Ghent, Utrecht, Gouda, Delft, Amsterdam
– Walking across Liechtenstein and San Marino end-to-end
– Tuscany in wintertime
– Trattorias and gelato shops in Rome
– An invitation to watch the proceedings of the first-ever legal divorce in Malta
– Dubrovnik

...though I'm not sure I could leave Dubrovnik.

– Graz, Salzburg, and a seat in the Musikverein, Vienna
– Getting lost in the Black Forest, where an eccentric Walmart customer once told me that young people could work on farms in exchange for room and board
– Prague, all of it, at least a week in Prague
– Getting my gloom on in the footsteps of Kurt Wallander, in Ystad, Sweden
– Bergen, Stavanger, and the Norwegian fjords
– A restaurant called DOMM in Lithuania at which, according to the Rough Guide, you “tuck into dishes that come with their own MP3 soundtrack or emerge from a cloud of smoke, as if in a magician’s act.” “This is a meal that you will remember for the rest of your life.” As long as they don’t kick you out for laughing at the absurdity of the whole thing.

And there’s stuff in London yet to do, too. Only recently I was re-alerted to the fact that I’ve never been to Hampstead Heath and only cursorily into Hyde Park. Plus, I’ve left some really obvious stuff off both of these lists: Windsor Castle, Oxford, Venice, Greece, and, uh… Paris.

No big deal.

Point is, Europe is big and amazing and full of so much great stuff that even Mark Twain couldn’t make fun of it all. (Note: the link provided is to the funniest, best, and most totally lovable travel book ever written, and if you don’t read it you’re a fool.) There’s a whole lifetime of things I want to come back some day and see. But it’s worth revisiting my friend’s definition of traveler’s remorse: “I long ago resigned myself to the fact that there are many, many beautiful things in this world that I will be close to, but I won’t see…this time.”

Ah, but next time: there’s no stopping us!

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Plus One to Google

As everyone you have ever met has told you already, Google and Facebook, two Internet behemoths, have now joined battle. If you want to read just one blog post about the new social network “Google+”, it should probably be another, more knowledgeable one. If you want to read my blog post about Google+, though, you’re in luck.

Google and Facebook may both be gigantic, probably overvalued, confusingly profitable, and designed by total geeks in California, but they’re really very different beasts. Facebook is a company with an absolutely dominant chokehold on one area: the online social network. It repels all attackers and has achieved the kind of iconic association with its product which is also enjoyed by, say, Kleenex or Xerox. Google, by contrast, is more like the Mongols: once it’s satisfied it has conquered one territory, it invades the next. Google figured it had the best search engine around, so it came up with an e-mail service. And then a photo service. And then a digital composite globe. And then it bought YouTube. And now–well, you wouldn’t expect that a company which once wanted to digitize every book in the world would get bored easily, but Google got bored again, and the result is Google+.

And it is nice. Boy, is it nice.

What’s good about Google+? For one thing:

I won't deny this.

But there’s more to it than that. For example: why are the comic characters desperate for “Not Facebook”? Is it just because they want to spurn a monopoly? Are they too cool to be on the same website as everyone else? No: Facebook is clunkily designed, it has tons of bugs (I have had a false “new message” blurb pop up every time I’ve logged in for the last two days), posts randomly disappear, all those random people you last saw 10 years ago turn up on your home page for no reason at all, and everyone seems to be playing Farmville or inviting you to join them on a ninja quest.

The problem, boiled down to its essence, is that Facebook’s monopoly had become so complete, so effortless, so iconic, that not even a really good but really unflattering feature film could bring it down–oh, and also so complete that it felt able to stop innovating. There have been a few cosmetic redesigns, presumably (based on the outcome) to make the site more annoying to look at, and several new features have been rolled out to corporate users so that Facebook can actually make money. But in terms of the end user experience, the only real innovation in about a year has been an annoying, un-color-coordinated new photo gallery screen.

In steps Google+. Google’s competitor to Facebook may be another corporate giant, but it does new and marvelous things.

The one everyone talks about is circles. Circles are brilliant: they assume that in the average human’s mind, there exists a map showing where friends fit in relation to one another, and how different groups of friends are laid out, and they let you plot that map onto your social network. (Or as a friend told me as he set up his account: “Wow, I’m thinking about this just as I would groups of friends.”) Here are my current circles:

The cut-off group name is "It's an American Baseball!" - named in honor of a Penn & Teller magic act. "Incoming" is for people who have added me to one of their groups, but haven't been added back.

Every time I write or say anything, post photos, or share a link, a little drop-down menu allows me to choose who to share it with. If it’s a story about baseball, I share it with the baseball fan group and then my sports-hating friends don’t have to bother with it. If it’s a bizarre YouTube video and/or self-referential Internet joke, I ship it off to the “cool kids.” And if I want to tell something to my dozen or so true, real-life friends but not my zillions of online acquaintances, I use the “Friends” tag. Groups can overlap. The fact that you can have a circle of random famous people, by the way, puts G+ in competition with Twitter.

I don’t know what circles other people put me in, and they ditto. So if I’m in Joe Dwyer’s “Stupid Bastards Added Me but I’m Ignoring the Hell Out of Them” circle, I’ll never find out. (Thought: Joe would be a dweeb in this case because he could just not add me back. But the point is, if you feel socially obligated to add someone but you don’t want to deal with them, you can handle that.)

You can VERY easily filter your stream (news feed) to show updates from just one circle. Right under the “Welcome” message you have a little list of potential streams from your different groups of friends. Click away.

There are other advantages which show a carefully thought-out product. Photo uploading is easier, though, like Facebook, Google claims distribution rights to your photography (!). Photo galleries can display all sorts of details about pictures (camera, lens settings, etc.). There is video chat–and up to 20 people can chat in the same videoconference. (Connect the dots: this means it’s possible for you to have a video chat with willing famous people.) A feature called “Sparks” basically reproduces Google News results for topics that interest you. An impressive privacy section actually lets you type in the name of any of your friends and view your own page the way those friends will see it. And speaking of privacy: if you so choose, friends will need your approval to tag you in photos, so all those embarrassing pictures you posed for last weekend needn’t ever be attributed to you.

The really brilliant feature, though, is only available if you’re also using Google’s mail, search, calendar, or other applications. Every single Google site now has a little black bar running across the top which instantly warns you if you’ve got an incoming message on G+, and which lets you read and reply to the message without leaving the page. In this example, I’m on Google Maps:

Please, someone, find this funny.

The same black bar gets you from any Google site to any other Google site via a single click. In other words, they’ve created a self-contained all-purpose digital Swiss Army knife. This tab has your e-mails. This tab has all your friends, sorted out the way you want them sorted out. This tab has your calendar, this one the shared Word file you’re collaborating on, this one the search engine…

There are two meaningful ways in which Facebook can’t compete with this. The first is obvious to anyone: Facebook doesn’t have all that cool stuff. Google has satellite maps of multiple celestial bodies. Facebook has “Farmville.” Google has a database of searchable books. Facebook has a mechanism to spraypaint graffiti on your friends’ walls. In other words, Facebook was content to dominate the social networking world without ever linking that world to anything else, except sales and ads.

The other way Facebook is caught in the dust is only obvious to people on Google+, but to us it’s blindingly obvious. Google+ was designed by people who actually have social lives. I’m sorry, but the evidence suggests Mark Zuckerberg & Co. are kind of losers. Their website is designed for people who want lots of information on that crush you never got the courage to talk to in 8th grade, for people who don’t care at all about filtering the hot blast of gossip, for people who don’t mind that the two basic settings are (a) talking with one person privately, and (b) sharing with everybody you’ve ever met.

So I’ve been enjoying Google+ so far. Yeah, the comic is right: it’s like Facebook, but it’s not Facebook, and that’s all I wanted. But the comic is wrong, too. Things go deeper than that. An essential part of the Facebook ethos is its almost willful ignorance of how real social groups function and how real friends interact. Google+ knows better.

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Canada Day in London

The Fourth of July went largely uncelebrated in London. A statue of Ronald Reagan was unveiled, a couple of bars had free drinks for people with US passports, and some friends and I grilled burgers and ate Oreos in a park. But there wasn’t a gigantic thousands-strong celebration of Americana, like you might have, for, say … Canada.

Whoa Canada!

Yes, Canada Day means all of Trafalgar Square is filled with thousands of people in red shirts, hockey jerseys, and Mountie uniforms with flag capes–

This is Canada's version of Chuck Norris.

–drinking Tim Horton’s coffee, eating donuts, playing street hockey, taking a free yoga class, listening to apparently famous Canadian bands, watching an extremely intoxicated man do the celebrity cooking class, partaking in Sleeman Honey Brown Ale while the non-natives get duped into drinking Molson Canadian because it says “Canadian” on it (note: I did not fall for this), and, afterwards, adjourning to London’s Canadian bar, which is decorated like a log cabin and the manager of which dresses in full hockey uniform, minus the skates.

The comparative lack of enthusiasm for American independence might be understandable: we spent years actually killing (fellow) Englishmen in order to gain our freedom, while the Canadians exited diplomatically, which is the way Canadians enter and exit everything. I can say fairly honestly, though, that I enjoyed Canada Day more than I probably would have liked a thousands-strong mob of Americans swilling Miller and waiting for rappers to take the stage.

Canada Day was a family-friendly event strangely devoid of children. There just weren’t kids around, even though the whole thing–guys on stilts, Mounties, curly fries, the street hockey tournament–seemed tailor-made for them. Is it possible that, rather than being cannily kid-friendly, Canada actually enjoys a level of cultural innocence that the States do not? I doubt it, still, but not very strongly: there is far less of a political assertion involved in saying “I am Canadian,” far less of a sense of intrusion. Everyone loves Canadians, and Canadians love themselves in a way which doesn’t strike the rest of the world as obnoxious. It feels corny, but is not, that hundreds of people would turn up in shirts with slogans like “I SAY EH.” It’s not corny, not because Canada is trapped in some sort of 1950s time warp, but because Canada is actually that wonderful.

Example: the organizers thought it would be good to inspire everybody with a good old-fashioned Canadian story of triumph over adversity. So they flew in the national women’s wheelchair basketball team. Mission accomplished:

Plain old wonderful.

At the opposite end of the human spectrum was a chef and minor celebrity from Food Network Canada, who will go unnamed here in case his boss googles his name to see what he’s been up to. The reason for this protective charity? Said chef was very, very, very drunk. His assigned topic was “boiled lobster atop a bed of finely-cut cabbage.” When we got in the tent he was teaching a girl how to shotgun a beer.

N.B. This is not a Canadian chef teaching a girl how to shotgun a beer. This is John Cusack teaching a girl how to shotgun a beer.

This celebrity chef (who, if you’d like some clues for tactical Googling, was once personal chef to Dan Aykroyd) made faces, talked slowly, remarked “There are a lot of beer cans around here…”, shouted to his assistant (whom he referred to by way of sexual synecdoche) to bring ingredients already on the table, informed us that he really digs this new trend of sexting, dropped a knife on his foot, and, oh yeah, burned the cabbage, so he set it on the backburner and figured nobody would notice.

An older woman in the audience, either oblivious to or predatorily aware of his drunkenness, spent the whole demonstration looking upon him with rapturous, flirtatious eyes and smiling coyly whenever he glanced her way. We’re pretty sure she had designs on him. Her reward: a really charming photograph.

Oh, is that his name on his shirt? Oops... I have no idea how that got there...

So Canada Day had everything. I was amused, I was fed, I was inspired…

One of the cooler photos I've taken.

…and I had a jolly good time. So take pride, Canada! And to the rest of you: we have some wonderful neighbors to the north. The least we can do is learn their anthem and steal their comedians. In the meantime, it may have not been a substitute for hot dogs and fireworks, but our hockey-loving friends put on a lovely celebration. I love Canada and I don’t care who knows it.

This guy feels the same way.

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Ten Things I Miss About America

10. Residential air-conditioning.

9. Talking to strangers. Let me clarify: talking to strangers does occur in the United Kingdom, but one of three factors must be present: (a) foreigners, (b) sexual tension, (c) alcohol. If you are on, say, a Tube car in the morning, you really have no excuse to talk to a stranger, and should either read something or look up, abstractedly, at the route map, as if you really need to read it again. Eye contact is not advised.

Obviously, not much has changed since Cyril Power painted this ninety years ago.

Once a visiting American friend of mine said, “Excuse me!” as she tried to get off the train. I was flabbergasted. I hadn’t even thought of that before.

8. Empty spaces. They have them outside London, too, but I don’t get to those so often.

7. Good guacamole. And fajitas. And mole sauce.

6. The self-righteous assurance you feel when you know, without a doubt, that one political party is The Bad Guy. Or is this a reason I don’t miss America?

5. That goofy sense of accomplishment you get when you drive across a state boundary.

4. Good book design. Hey, United Kingdom: what’s up with so many of your bestselling books being printed with big, ugly fonts that look like something from a 1990s website? It makes me think I’m in 8th grade again. I recently actually decided not to buy a book because the font was too irritating. And another thing: there’s a bizarre trend of stiff paperback covers that only open about a quarter-inch without bending. When you read these, there’s absolutely no possible way to avoid breaking the spine. What’s up with that? Why do you charge more for books if you’re so cheap about making them?

3. Being able to watch Comedy Central. Or, really, television in general. You may not know this, but all Comedy Central and NBC programming is blacked out in the United Kingdom. That means I have seen a combined total of zero Jon Stewart and Stephen T. Colbert programs since September 2010. Once it’s possible to track down these shows illegally, they’re out of the date and there is no longer much of a point. Keeping track of American life by reading from actual news sources has its advantages, but (especially with the New York Times now limiting free reading) there is no replacing the cable TV jokesters who somehow are more serious about American politics than most of our Congress.

2. Baseball.

This ball gets caught. Absurd athleticism credit: Roger "The Shark" Bernadina (currently the only major-leaguer from The Netherlands). Photo credit: my friend David Huzzard's blog, "Blown Save Win"

A really good baseball experience combines at least three of the preceding items on this list: good Mexican food (albeit at London prices), the self-righteous assurance that one of the teams is The Bad Guy, and a big, empty, symmetrical geometric green space. Baseball also adds serious leisure time and chess-like strategy. It’s the sport for people who want to plan several moves ahead, while also chatting for hours on end with the friends sitting next to them rather than jumping up and down endlessly screaming like their underpants are full of ice cubes.

And I miss baseball. I only get to enjoy it about once a week, when somebody (preferably my Washington Nationals) plays an afternoon game on the East Coast, which is the only way a major-league ballgame starts before midnight in London Town. When good fortune strikes I listen on the radio, to DC’s admittedly spectacular broadcast team of Charlie Slowes and Dave Jageler, who on an almost nightly basis have conversations like this:

Dave: Ross is at little league depth in right field.
Charlie: That’s how they played me in little league.
Dave: Are you disparaging your little league abilities, Charlie?
Charlie: That’s how they played me.
Dave: They didn’t just line everybody up across the infield?
(awkward pause)

Or Dave uttering gems like, “When was the last time the Nationals batted around in an inning? We’ll get our crack research staff on that… Charlie, look faster” or “We have signs around saying ‘Don’t feed the interns,’ kind of like at the zoo.” And then there’s the time when Dave found out Charlie was cheating on him.

So radio is a marvelous way to take in a ballgame, especially if the sun is just setting and you’ve got an upscale English ale on hand. But it’s nothing like being there.

1.

Burgers. Big, messy, anarchic, oh-so-tender burgers.

Well, and friends and family and my birthday-boy father and stuff. Happy Independence Day!

A special thank-you to Nathan of the Washington Nationals Fan Forum for uploading the radio clip.

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