Saturday, February 23, 2013

When it sucks to speak French

News this week of the incomparable Office de la Langue Francaise citing an Italian restaurant for having too many 'pastas' on their menu, and a CBC poll finding that more than one quarter of anglos don't feel welcome in Quebec. Well, here's my two cents and it can be summed up in seven words:

It sucks to speak French in Montreal. 

I was born and have lived my whole life in Montreal. I learned French in elementary and high-school. When so many of my friends were leaving the province I chose to stay. I went to graduate school in Geneva, in part to improve my French. I have made my home here, and raised a family of four children here. I make my living here. I speak French quite fluently. I write French quite well too. I estimate that between and 20 and 30 per cent of my day is spent communicating in French. When I go to court (for business reasons) I insist on testifying in French. In fact, I enjoy speaking and writing in French. The problem is that speaking French in Montreal is often an experience that sucks, and that’s why more people don’t do it, or resent making the effort. It sucks for a number of reasons.

The first reason is common sense psychology. People hate being forced to do anything. The natural tendency is resistance, regardless of what it is. This rule applies to most things, especially something as personal as what language you must communicate in. The laws associated with discouraging the use of languages other than French mainly serves to make non-Francophones feel attacked and instinctively resist. 

The second reason is, of course, political. Speaking French has become a political act. For many it represents political aspirations of self-determination. For me, and I suspect many like me, the political undertones have the effect of draining the act of speaking French of its inherent beauty and enjoyment. Speaking French does not and should not have to be a political act.

The third reason is snobbery. The moment an Anglophone speaks French to a bilingual Francophone who recognizes their accent, they respond in English. I’m not sure this is done out of courtesy, or with good intentions. I think it’s most often done to show superiority ie. that they speak English better than you can speak French. My sense is that for some reason Francophones have a bizarre intolerance for grammatical error and poor accents. It’s as if it grates on their nerves. I wish they would learn from Anglophones to accept the occasional mangling of their language. It’s one of the reasons people gravitate to speaking English. It’s a welcoming, open, non-judgmental, forgiving language. English speakers naturally give non-native speakers a wide berth to communicate in English. It’s part of the attraction of speaking English.

My suggestion to the government and to Francophone Quebeckers is simple; don’t make it suck to speak French in Montreal. Highlight all the positives about the language, its inherent beauty, its rich cultural heritage, how fun it can be to learn, read, speak and write. Francophones should encourage people to speak French at every opportunity, with their neighbours, in the street, when they go shopping, or take public transportation. They should let Anglophones speak, even making mistakes, and when spoken to in French only answer in French. Instead of paying language cops to enforce discouraging laws the government should spend money on trumpeting these sorts of positive messages in ads, that speaking French is a point of great pride for Montrealers, and not just as Quebeckers, but as Canadians.

Monday, February 18, 2013

Halbman Steals Home on Radio Shalom 1650 AM CJRS

In case you didn't get the chance to hear the live broadcast, the interview with me on Radio Shalom with venerable host Stan Asher can now be downloaded here.

Thursday, February 14, 2013

Remembering Ezra

For some February 14th is Valentine's Day. For me and my family it's Dad's birthday. My brother Randy created this beautiful video tribute from archival footage of dad doing what he loved doing most. I think he is still doing it right now, and forever more. 

Monday, February 11, 2013

Halbman on Radio-Shalom

If you happen to be near a radio (or sitting in front of your computer for live stream) you can catch me on Radio-Shalom this coming Wednesday, Feb. 13th at 3:00 with host Stan Asher on the dial at 1650 AM in Montreal talking about Halbman Steals Home and other stuff.

Sunday, February 10, 2013

HuskHusk by Corey Redekop

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Zombies are hip. They're in now, the way vampires were in 15 minutes ago. What is it about the undead that appeals to us? Gamers know how prominently zombies figure in today's culture. As the last time I played a video game it was on an Atari console, I was utterly oblivious. It was serendipitous that the charms of a video game called Call of Duty: Black Ops 2 were revealed to me by a work colleague's 14 year old son who is an aficionado. In BO2 the player finds him/herself in a post-apocalyptic world populated by killer zombies wanting to feast on his flesh. Fortunately, each player is armed to the teeth with every imaginable weapon and a potentially endless supply of ammunition. The result is a never ending orgy of gory carnage. My young friend's revelation completely altered my view of the novel Husk by Corey Redekop. I already felt that Husk was one of the most enjoyable novels I'd read in a while. Using exuberant prose, a satirical viewpoint and darkly sly humour, Redekop makes a devastating statement on modern consumer society along the lines of the classic B-movie "Dawn of the Dead" (my era) in which zombies invade a shopping mall. I get the point that consumer/entertainment culture subsumes and mesmerizes us into a self-indulgent stupor, driving an innately self-destructive instinct that morphs us into insensate, ravenous sub/superhumans. But I had no idea that there was something else going on in Husk, an altogether more subversive ambition. By flipping the perspective around and taking the zombie's point of view, making him a thinking, feeling, sympathetic being, and doing it in a writing style that is vibrant and lively, Redekop is ironically transforming the sense-deadening, ultra-violent culture of the screen that obsesses millions upon millions of mostly young men into something that approaches art. Sheldon, or 'Shel' as he likes to be called (ha ha) is a gay zombie with a heart. We know this from the first pages when he awakens mid-autopsy, his organs removed from the cavern of his body, and after ripping the arms off the attendant and getting ready to flee, hesitates to retrieve his blood-pump from the floor; he may not physically need it, but he won't leave it behind. Husk is a also scathing satire of the celebrity industry that feeds the pop-culture meat-grinder; shlock-producing directors and manipulative agents, 'reality' tv that isn't real, and talk shows that are dysfunctional freak-shows. This, as it turns out, works to the advantage of a zombie actor trying to resuscitate a moribund career. Redekop is a smart, prodigiously talented prose stylist. He takes gleeky (geeky + glee) delight in describing biological matters, for instance, exactly how the zombie who has no functioning organs, whose veins are filled with formaldehyde and whose muscles should be useless atrophied slabs, manages to move, speak, eat and defecate. And that's another of the many pleasures in reading this novel; Reading about someone whose basic bodily functions provide a challenge reminds us that we are feeling, breathing, flesh and blood beings who can rejoice in the miracle of our bodily capacities. I know this doesn't sound like much of an insight, but part of Redekop's literary achievement is to show how we've lost touch with our essential physical selves in a world in which so much of our time is spent in our own headspace, in front of a screen, in the realm of virtual reality, or subsumed in glossy celebrity image-based media. Maybe pop-culture is ultra violent and sexually charged precisely because we so desperately crave genuine physical experience, the ultimate irony. My one gripe with the novel is the ending. While Redekop brilliantly walks the fine line between high art/low culture for most of the novel, in the concluding sections he succumbs to self-indulgence with a climax that matches Black Ops 2 for absurd over-the-top grotesqueness. The core of the story, Sheldon and the fascinating questions he raises about human frailty and the nature of consciousness, gets lost in a torrent of horrorshow violence mimicking a CGI-generated movie.

One last note. My Amazon-ordered copy arrived with inconsistent print quality, some pages were faded. Fortunately, the publisher offers a digital copy free with proof of purchase of a print copy. For a guy like me whose eyes aren't what they used to be and who reads by a dubious bedside light, the ability to enlarge font is a godsend. 

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