Monday, October 17, 2011

Heavy metal shop.

One of the tricky things about blogging is that it lets you stick every half-baked thought on the internet as they occur to you. That's a bit of a problem because we all (I assume) start things and then, for one reason or another, lose interest and let them fall by the wayside. Fine if you're just thinking about building a bookcase or taking up the banjo, but when you announce your intention to do so and then fail to follow through, it makes you look like a bit of a flake. Too much of that and the Internet's reputation as a meeting ground for serious, intelligent people with well-thought-out positions on things might be tarnished.

I've got a few threads that seem to have trailed off and I apologize for that. My series on the advisability of going to university kind of petered out because, well, I work in an office doing research on the Internet all day and it's tough to ramp up the motivation to do it some more once I get home. Plus it's depressing. Kids these days are really getting hosed.

My Back To The Future series is still going, and I'll be posting some more installments during the cold, dark, blogogenic nights of winter.

As for my ambition to learn some practical manual skills on my own, that's been tricky because I live in a smallish apartment without an obvious workshop area. I can't just haul an arc welder into the dining room, start mounting bottom brackets to angle iron and expect to still have a girlfriend tomorrow morning.

But I've taken some steps. Last week I started an oxy-acetylene welding course at Algonquin College. Community college is a wonderful thing--they offer night courses in all kinds of stuff, and some of it is quite useful. (I knew there had to be somewhere people go to learn to actually do things, since there seem to be things getting done all the time.)

So I'm learning to weld, and next semester I may take woodworking or electricity. It may be awhile before I actually do anything with it, but I'm starting.

Other than that, this summer I learned to sail. I'm hooked, to say the least. Even better, it's a skill and a hobby that fits very nicely into both the comfortable world I'm in now and the rapidly disintegrating one I suspect might be coming. Today I can be a leisurely sailing dork, spending a day on the water before retiring to the clubhouse for a martini or six; tomorrow, I can get busy smuggling penicillin from Hamilton to North Bay under the nose of Admiral Fungus Humungous and his postapocalyptic mutant lake pirates.

I'm all about transferable skills.

Saturday, October 15, 2011

Nostalgic for nostalgia.

Steve Jobs is dead, the leaves are falling and the global economy continues to lurch around looking for brains to eat. It's hard these days not to think of decline and decrepitude, entropy taking its toll, the world winding down.

This weekend I had to go out to St.-Laurent Shopping Centre with Sarah to pick up some mundane necessities. I note with some shock that gradually, without my noticing, and even in major cities with nominally thriving downtowns, many basic goods can no longer be had in the urban core. Expensive niche goods for affluent bobos have taken over much of the urban retail landscape, while getting a basic pair of pants requires a trip to at least the inner-ring suburbs.

Once we finished at the mall, we made a Logan's Run to the outside to hit a local second-hand store. The neighbourhood around St.-Laurent has seen better days, to put it charitably. At one point it was Ottawa's rural hinterland--there's an old French Catholic cemetery nearby where, among others, my great-great grandparents and Sir Wilfrid Laurier are buried--but the Development Fairy arrived just after World War II and waved her magic can of whoop-ass. Now St.-Laurent is a standard automotive kill zone with the strip malls, gas stations and other bric-a-brac clustered to take advantage of six lanes of passing car traffic.

We broke for lunch at Rockin' Johnny's, one of a local chain of 1950's-themed chrome replica diners. You've seen these places, or others like them, in every city on the continent. They started springing up as part of the wave of desperate Happy Days nostalgia that seized North America after the 1973 oil embargo and that, subsequently, everyone agreed to squint real hard and mistake for optimism throughout the Reagan years.

If you're in the restaurant business there's probably a decor kit you can buy, containing neon Coke signs, rock-and-roll '45's complete with pre-drilled screw holes, and framed shrines to patron saints Presley, Monroe and Dean. One phone call will summon a van with four nostalgia installers in immaculate white Maytag Man uniforms. With NASCAR pit crew efficiency, they will roll out a Wurlitzer jukebox, slap black-and-white checkerboard tile on the floor and chrome on everything else, and reupholster the booths from a ten-foot-wide roll of sparkle-infused vinyl.

The appeal of these places is obvious--a longing for the perceived simpler time of cheap gasoline and giant tailfins, gainful employment for high-school graduates and (not least, for its target baby boomer demographic just then starting to develop post-adolescent metabolisms) a time when you could wolf down a giant cheeseburger with fries and a litre of chocolate shake without spontaneously inflating like the driver-side airbag in your Chrysler K-car.

But now here's where it gets meta. Because what can you say about a nostalgia-themed place that makes you wistful for a time you could go to a nostalgia-themed place that looked convincingly new? When I was young, if you went to a fake reproduction of a 1950's diner, that fake 1950's diner looked like it was just built. That was the whole point. If you're in a 1950's diner and it looks like it's thirty years old, that means you're in at least the 1980's and who the hell needs that?

As it happens, this particular establishment was pretty grim.

Its once-shiny chrome exterior was coated with grime from sitting next to a six-lane arterial for twenty years.

The blinds were pulled down over all the windows. When we arrived at 4:30 on a Saturday afternoon, we were the only customers aside from a pair of babushkas nursing their coffee.

The table jukeboxes had red duct tape over the coin slots. Perhaps they were out of order, or maybe they were just trying to prevent any customers from denting the already-shaky ambience by cranking up The Eagles or Huey Lewis. The wall plaster bore the scars of decades of being whanged with the napkin dispenser.

The mandatory iconic James Dean poster had faded into the same suicide-blue colour as the walls:

Since we were the only actual customers, it was tricky trying to take pictures without being noticed by the staff. It's too bad because possibly the saddest element (I couldn't get a decent shot) was a clock over the counter, looking distinctly unfabulous with long-burnt-out neon lettering reading "The Fabulous '50's." In a similar vein, the menus sported the slogan "Bring Back Great Times and Great Food." Hey, kitten, you wanna bring me Johnny's Irony Burger with a side of pathos?

For all of this, it wasn't an unpleasant experience. Truth is beauty, even at its ugliest. I found it delightfully freaky to be in a place that so sharply illustrates the end of the rope we find ourselves at, where even our shrines to the golden age are battered, grimy and all but abandoned.