‘Geek Chic’

I’m not the best one to ask about the whole Jock-vs-Nerd thing.  I certainly knew about it as a teenager–heck, I’d read my dad’s old magazines from the 50s and see the ads aimed at the “98-pound weakling” and how he should muscle up so he wouldn’t get sand kicked in his face at the beach–and I very much enjoyed the movie Revenge of the Nerds when it came out in 1984.

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I went to an art and music high school, you see, and things were very different there.  With so many odd creative types around, I guess the fellas on the football team (and we did have one, full of preppie guys who listened to Phil Collins) and their cheerleader girlfriends knew there were just as many of us as there were of them, so we all lived in peaceful co-existence.  In fact, I even remember going to a few parties at jock houses and, when other jocks from other schools showed up and started to make fun of us, our jocks stepped in to defend us: “Hey, these guys are okay, leave them alone.”

Well, I do remember one kid, actually.  He wasn’t in the art program and he wasn’t into sports.  He was a real dyed-in-the-wool nerd.  Small, messy, socially awkward, and so into computers he could write programs from scratch (he once wrote me something that made random colourful lines and patterns that looked much like today’s screensavers, but in 1984 and on an Apple IIe).  This little guy, let’s call him Norbert, once stood up to do a book report and called the characters “carbon-based lifeforms” after he’d decided he’d said their names too many times. Norbert didn’t have many friends and I’d often see him sitting alone in the cafeteria while I’d be sitting with my group of cool, artsy New Wave friends.  But because it was a pretty accepting school, no one would be throwing things at him and I seem to remember most of us who shared classes with him would at least nod hello.

It’s to guys like that–and to the gals who collected programs on floppy disks rather then friends–that I’d like to dedicate these episodes of Where Cool Came From.  Quarantined in the computer room, these kids had a tough teen-hood, but are, today, the ones occupying the top echelons of Google and Apple.  Or they’re the mad scientists who’ll one day discover a way end our dependency on oil, or find a cure for cancer.

So here’s to the nerd, the geek, the dork and the outcast.  Your time in the spotlight has come…not that you noticed or give a crap anyway ;-)

Yours in coolness,

DLeB

Video Games

My oldest brother grew up in the late-1960s, when pinball was king.  I remember him telling me how cool pinball was and how much skill it took to master each machine, and how much I’d love it when I grew up.  By the time I was about 8-years-old, he was working full-time but still living at home, and he purchased a couple of used pinball machines–one was “Magic Circle” (1965) and the other was “Atlantis” (1975)–and put them in our somewhat unfinished basement.

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So, as a family, we had our own private arcade, and I’m sure I earned my captain’s wings with the amount of hours I logged on those machines…but, the thing is, I found them kind of boring.  Even as a little kid, I knew gravity was doing more than I was to influence the outcome.  Yeah, the graphics and lights were nice (there were graphics of cute gypsy women on Magic Circle) but, had you asked me if I wanted to be a “Pinball Wizard” I probably would’ve said no and hopped on my bicycle.

But then, in late-1979/1980, EVERYTHING CHANGED.  While Space Invaders came out in 1978, it was in 1980 that, in my opinion, the Golden Age of video games began.  Pac Man, Asteroids, Defender and Centipede all came out then, and I was suddenly very interested when I got an invitation to go the arcade.  And because my brother would hand me a $10 roll of quarters, he and I would be there a long, long time.

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For a while, I ate Pac Man cereal (yes, it was a thing), read books and magazines on how to beat the games and waited for the movie Tron to come out.  I was also the proud owner of an Intellivision system at home (even though all my friends had Atari!).  It’s safe to say I was a video-kid in the video age, and long before Max Headroom showed up (look him up!).

But by the time arcades died out in the mid-80s and home systems got better graphics, I was in my teens and more interested in hair gel, record-shopping and girls.  I just didn’t think about video games anymore.  And other than a brief flirtation with the original Sim City when I got my first home computer in the early-1990s, I didn’t have time to indulge, even though, by the 2000s, graphics were getting to the point where it was hard to tell them from live-action movies.  I was building a career in radio and print and, sadly, my schedule was full.

But that original love of arcades and videogaming never left me.  Not only have I fantasized about purchasing my favourite game from 1980, Defender, one day, I’ve always been curious as to how today’s games are made.  That’s not to mention the fascinating early history of interactive video….so join me as we explore the past, present and future of videogames on Where COOL Came From.

Yours in Coolness,

DLeB

(and my apologies to all you pinball lovers out there)

Graffiti

It was only two feet long and probably took all of 10 seconds to create, but I sweated over the graffiti tag on my backyard fence for days.

This was a number of years ago, when I lived in a suburban backsplit that backed onto a commercial street. The tag was on the public side of my fence, but I still felt my private space had been violated. I was so angry, in fact, that as soon as I could, I matched the fence colour and rushed out to buy cover-up paint; when I realized the colour worked for other fences along the street, I took a walk with my can and brush and painted out every other tag I could in an act of vigilante justice.

I didn’t want to live in a place that looked like the title sequence of Welcome Back, Kotter, and I still don’t.

But at the risk of contradicting myself, let me also state that I like graffiti: I think it’s a highly expressive, bold art form that adds an interesting layer to the shared sociological experiment we call the big city. And my big city, Toronto, has plenty of it.

I didn’t notice graffiti in Toronto until the late-1980s or early-1990s, so I was surprised to learn in Toronto Graffiti: The Human Behind the Wall (compiled, edited and self-published by Yvette Farkas) that there were a few pioneers working as early as 1981. The book’s interview subjects all agree that “Ren,” a Parkdale-based painter, is the graffiti grand-daddy. Now “retired” for over a decade, he remembers finding himself so alone in those early years he “felt like a reject… it’s so meaningless but I’d still keep doing it.” By the 1990s, however, there were many crews, often amicably swapping members.

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While some “graff” artists were self-taught, many were Ontario College of Art students (now OCAD-U), as evidenced by reproductions of pencil sketches and photographs of sculpture in the book. And, contrary to what you might expect, many are female and the scene isn’t necessarily tied to hip hop music, since many interviewees associate themselves with the punk movement. It’s interesting, too, to learn of motivation–while some are obviously attracted to the criminal element, others hope to do meaningful work that will delight onlookers by transforming grey, forgotten parts of the city–and of the gradual transition from a covert form of communication to something looser and, at times, even humorous.

Take a walk along Toronto’s famous “Graffiti Alley” near Queen St. West and Bathurst (Google Maps can point you there!) and see for yourself how fun and silly it can be. And should you find yourself a little west of there, at Bellwoods Ave., travel north to the yellow-painted brick building at No. 65 and head east along the alley beside it. There, an OCAD-U graduate who goes by the pen-name “Elicser Elliot” taught me how to do a “piece,” for Where Cool Came From’s amazing three-part look at street art (Google him, by the way, his portraits will blow you away!).

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Despite being given permission, doing that piece felt cool and dangerous; I guess I can now partially understand what was going through the mind of the person who tagged my fence all those years ago. Maybe that person now paints on canvas. Maybe they do both!

It’s a weird time for graffiti: Partially out of the shadows, there’s tension between artists who remain underground (and illegal), and those who see nothing wrong in doing demonstrations at swanky corporate events or by helping companies with interior design; we’ve all been to a restaurant that has a commissioned piece inside, right? Does a piece in a restaurant devalue the art form?

And what about those artists who’ve left the street for the art gallery? Join us on WCCF and we’ll explore these questions together.

Yours in Coolness,

DLeB

 

Cities – Urbanius exilius artistus

Urbanius exilius artistus – Easily recognized by their odd manner of dress and intense gaze, the species more commonly known as the “urban artist” prefers burrowing into spaces that are large, cheap and formerly industrial.  Co-habitation with sub-species (such as Urbanius dancerius or Playwriterii dramatis) is common, but the urban artist will seek isolation when necessary.  In recent years, habitats of this gentle creature are being threatened by Yuppibus gentrificatillius.

Perhaps it’s a by-product of being a huge and successful city.  Perhaps it’s because artists are visionaries, seeing beauty in spaces that others cannot.  Perhaps it is corporate greed.

Whatever the reason, it’s clear that in Toronto and other big cities, artists are in constant exile.  Just as their communities begin to pulse and thrive, external forces slowly dismantle them.  Upscale galleries replace grittier artist-run affairs; coffee shops come to cater to gallery-goers; funky boutiques fill neighbouring buildings in an effort to create ‘destination’ shopping.  Finally, the old, crumbling buildings that house artists for pennies a square foot are sold to developers and converted to lofts or, worse, torn down for new construction.

Driven from 1960s hippie-haven Yorkville, Toronto artists moved south down Yonge St. and ended up at the first Queen West near Spadina (and the accompanying garment district to the south) by the late-1970s and 80s.  Next, it was Queen to Bathurst, then as far as Ossington.  Ten years ago, they leapfrogged over the Dufferin underpass to Parkdale (now called West Queen West) and spread north to Sorauren Ave. near High Park and Dundas West in the Junction.  Some went gone east to Leslieville’s factories on Carlaw.  But have you seen these areas today?  Condos, condos, condos.

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Glass artist/restorer John Wilcox is so frustrated after having been chased from four different spaces since the mid-1980s that he’s planning to orchestrate the next move himself.  When he leaves his current digs at 500 Keele St., it’ll be for the lake breezes, streetcar line and “stock of smaller 60s buildings” in Long Branch, New Toronto or Mimico, where he can afford to buy his own shop.

“By chance or survival, being an artist also means being resourceful and adaptable,” says Ric Santon, a painter and co-owner of Parts Gallery in Leslieville.  He agrees that those areas are a logical choice and, as a result, will experience an influx of artists over the next decade; some of the artists he represents have already made this move.  Going east, Mr. Santon suggests a likely destination will be the O’Connor Dr. strip in East York, since it too has ingredients he considers crucial:  “I believe any neighbourhood that at one time relied on light manufacturing and warehousing and is accessible to public transit is a readymade artist colony.”

But how far will artists go for large, bright, cheap studio space?  Will they stick to the romance of subway and streetcar lines or will they board buses, too?  Many have already left Toronto for Hamilton, a smaller, post-industrial city a 45-minute drive away, but chalk full of old buildings needing new uses.  They won’t go as far as the sticks, will they?!

Tune in to our Cities webisodes  to find out.

Yours in Coolness,

DLeB

The Modern Gent

At some point between grades 10 and 11, I switched from concert T-shirts to what I now consider grown-up clothing.

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It was the middle-1980s and I, like many other kids of my generation, was influenced by the music videos I saw on television.  These were the days of “New Wave,” “Mod,” and “New Romantic” music, and scenes of guys wearing (oversized) suit jackets, peg-legged pants, short hair (at least on the sides) and 1950s-inspired skinny ties were everywhere on MTV and Muchmusic.

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And because I didn’t have the budget to shop for new stuff, I became a regular at thrift stores; this, of course, worked out well because the clothes of the 50s and 60s were just 25 years old then, and soon my closet was well-stocked with enough outfits to rival that of David Bowie’s…well, not really, but that’s when I started playing “dress-up” to imitate my heroes.

And speaking of “dress-up,” I’ve always thought that that’s how most people feel when they first put on something they’re not used to wearing.  If you’re a construction worker, and you put on a suit to go to a wedding, you feel a little out of your element, or like you’re playing a role.  I sure felt like that when I started wearing suit jackets to high school, or beat-up brogues on my feet rather than running shoes.

But the thing is, after years of wearing something, it ceases to be a costume and becomes YOU.  Once you forget you’re wearing it, once you don’t think everyone is staring at you (because they probably aren’t!), it’s no longer a “look.”  It’s just clothing.

And where does all of this lead us?  Well, WCCF is taking a fun look at the “recent” trends in men’s grooming; specifically, we’re looking at how men are taking more time in choosing their wardrobe, whether that’s thinking about pocket squares or having their pants hemmed by a tailor (rather than letting the sidewalk, er, ‘trim’ their pants to the correct length), and how some of this new “dandy-ism” still looks a little foreign to some of us.  We’re also looking at those big lumberjack beards a lot of guys are currently rocking, and we’re asking if these are just a fad that’ll blow over, or do they have staying-power?

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Well, it all depends.  For some fellas, wearing well-constructed clothes is something they’ve always done, or maybe they did it in high school (like I did) and after a decade or more of wearing more casual stuff, have come back into the fold.  Some guys have always played with facial hair, and a big beard is just a bolder statement of their follicular obsession.  For these guys, there is no bandwagon—they’re just doing what feels right.

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Other guys, well, they’ll absorb what they see in ads, on television and on the street, and decide to join the party.  Are they posers?  Some are…and in a few months or a few years, they’ll feel as if it was all a little bit of dress-up and go back to what’s comfortable.  Others will find a new love and adopt that look, whatever it is, for their whole lives.

So join us as we separate the boys from the men, the fashionable from the fanatics, and the well-groomed from the just plain messy, on Where Cool Came From.

Yours in Coolness,

DLeB

Retro Leisure Sports

For most of my life, I’ve tried to avoid playing sports.  Yeah, as an 8- or 10-year-old I threw around a football with other kids on my street, played street hockey and rode my BMX bike like a stunt-driver, but I hated gym class and I tried to use my asthma as an excuse as much as possible.

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I wasn’t a ‘joiner’ for team sports in high school, either, even though I was told as a stocky 13-year-old that I’d be perfect for the football team. Oh, and there was this one time, while working at a branch of our public library in my teens, that my co-workers and I formed a baseball team and played other branches…but baseball doesn’t really count, you know?  There’s a lot of standing around with only short bursts of athleticism in baseball.

The result is I’ve gone through life wondering if I’ve missed out on something. Sports are so important to our culture, after all, and I know plenty of people who devote quite a lot of time and money to perfect their game, whatever game they choose.  I know that people are nuts about collecting sports paraphernalia, too.  On top of all that, the sense of community that sporting and leisure activities create is wonderful, and we need to strengthen our communities, don’t we?  That’s not to mention the exercise you get, which is something I could use, since walking is about all I do on a regular basis.

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Since I’ve always been more of an artsy, quirky kinda guy (and a retro-dork), I thought it might be COOL to see if there is a sport out there that speaks to me.  A lot of ‘new’ sports gaining popularity are really old sports that our grandparents played, but twisted just a little to re-invent them, and I like that notion of everything old is new again.

So: To bowl or not to bowl?  And what’s up with flying knives?  Fishing can’t be cool again, can it?

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We’re about to find out, on Where COOL Came From. Season 2 premieres this Friday, beginning with Retro Leisure Sports!

Yours in coolness,

DLeB

Watch Part 3 of ‘Searching for 1955′

And with this, you’ve seen all three parts of our search. The conclusion to our original web mini-series is live! Tune in –>http://www.wherecoolcamefrom.com/video/searching-for-1955-part-3/

Did we find 1955 – 1965? In many ways, no, we didn’t: We found the archeological remains. A special era depends upon a unique set of conditions that will probably never assemble themselves in the same way again.

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But that doesn’t mean the spirit of that time is lost. You can see it alive in the eyes of those kids I talked to at the Drive-In, or the preservationists who fight to save pieces of “Googie” architecture when it’s threatened.

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I think people like Elon Musk, with his desire to change the world with sustainable technology, or companies like Apple, who make technology friendly and simple to use, would fit right into that Magic Decade, too.

Anyone, really, who isn’t afraid of the future, who believes that technology can be used for good rather than evil, and, on a less earth-shattering note, dresses up a little and believes that manners still have a place in society…THEY help to keep that era alive also.

And, upon reflection, I’ve decided I don’t really want to go and live permanently in 1955 – 1965. It’s a nice place to visit, but the twenty-first century is pretty freakin’ cool too.

Yours in Coolness,

Dave LeBlanc

 

 

 

Watch Searching for 1955 part 2 now!

Hey cool friends,

Part two of Dave’s journey into the past (and then back to the present) airs today -http://www.wherecoolcamefrom.com/video/searching-for-1955-part-2/

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If we can turn to the look of the past for comfort, why can’t we do the same with the Magic Decade?

During the magic decade, many middle class folk were dreaming big for the future. So to understand this past, we need to understand ‘the future’.

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“Tomorrow can be a wonderful age. Our scientists today are opening the doors of the Space Age to achievements that will benefit our children and generations to come. . .The Tomorrowland attractions have been designed to give you an opportunity to participate in adventures that are a living blueprint of our future. Right when we do Tommorrowland, it will be out dated.” Walt Disney.

Tune in and let us know what you think! Oh, and don’t forget, the epic conclusion of ‘Searching for 1955′ premieres next Thursday!

Searching for 1955 premieres today!

Hey cool friends,

We’re thrilled to premiere part 1 of our documentary “Searching for 1955″.  http://www.wherecoolcamefrom.com/video/searching-for-1955/

Dave LeBlanc is a man obsessed by that post-war era of mass consumption and exuberant belief in progress between 1955 and 1965 known as “The Magic Decade”…at least his particular version of it.  Dave chooses to live like the Love and Beads Generation never happened, he’s a walking Don Draper wannabe long before Mad Men ever hit the airwaves.  

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But sometimes he wonders…is his obsession with the mid-century, that time of optimistic futurism, based on reality?  What about the Cold War and the dark shadow cast by the atomic bomb?  Is that why everyone was drinking cocktails and smoking like chimneys?  

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Leaving his carefully constructed lifestyle in the suburbs behind he goes on a journey to discover the truth, were things really better, more ‘authentic’ in the “good old days?  Or is the Mid-Century a time best forgotten?  Can he find out:  what happened to yesterday’s tomorrow?

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