Dan Rubinstein

The Insecurities Project

Until air travel changed so dramatically last September, airport security gates were generally no-photo zones. Anyone snapping a picture while passing through the metal detector would likely be hit with a barrage of questions. Film confiscation, a strip search and a stern lecture wouldn't be out of the question, either. In today's heightened security climate, however, airline passengers are routinely asked by security personnel to prove that their cameras are indeed cameras. And the best way to do that -- especially if you're toting a manual camera -- is by taking a picture.

While chatting to several artist friends about how artists have been reacting to Sept. 11 and its violent aftermath with somber, "heavy" ideas, Isabelle Devos had an epiphany. The subject of airport security gate photos came up, and the Belgium-born visual artist became curious about what a cross-section of these pictures would reveal. So last fall, Devos bought a few newspaper ads and sent out a press release asking people to send her their unwanted airport snapshots. She got a smattering of local media coverage and received 10 submissions, one from as far away as Munich.

With a $6,000 grant in hand, Devos recently launched The Insecurities Project. She's interested in exploring one of the many changes in our security culture that's being unwittingly documented by people just doing what they're told.

"When exhibited," she writes on her Web site, "the final piece will create an intriguing record of one seemingly insignificant detail in our ever-changing world…. Throughout the gathering process, [I expect] to see patterns begin to emerge in the subject matter of the photos, giving shape to the project as it hurtles along."

Talking on the phone, Devos puts a more personal face on her intentions.

"It's sort of a stressful situation," she says about security checks. "Some people even have to remove their shoes! Normally, when you take a picture, you take a picture of something beautiful; a friend or family member. Now people have to take pictures when they don't really want to. You only have a second and you don't really have time to think. People have these unwanted photographs kicking around. I wondered if I collected them, what would I see?"

When Devos received her first batch of photos, she got pretty much the range of images she expected. One was a close-up shot of a guy in a blurry vest; it reminded her of the work of an out-of-focus painter she knows. There was another with a blurry figure in the foreground and a passerby in sharp focus in the background. Several depict bland airport interiors.

In addition to sending photos, either electronically or via snail mail, contributors are asked to say where they were traveling to and relate the circumstances behind the picture. Devos wants to blow up two dozen of the images she receives to two-feet by three-feet or three-by-four prints and curate an exhibit next year, an exhibit she thinks could travel to university galleries and public spaces throughout North America. She also intends to use the stories people send her as part of the show, and she's doing her own research into the terms "security" and "insecurity" -- even financial market "securities" -- which will help her create text as well.

Devos has a security gate photo of her own that may be part of the show. She took it in June, when she was taking her kids through the gate at the airport in Moncton, New Brunswick. Even though The Insecurities Project was underway, the moment snuck up on her and she didn't have a chance do anything devious or deliberate; she just snapped a shot of the line of travellers getting their bags checked.

"Someone said to me, 'You knew you were doing it,' but I still didn't have any time," she says. "I started laughing, because it hadn't even entered my mind until then. It was a nervous laugh."

Thinking that her unusual interest in airport security zone phone might spark concern from security officials, Devos half expects some kind of probing phone call or visit. For now, though, Devos is being left alone by the authorities to do her research and collect photos -- a process she considers artistic in and of itself.

"I don't really know what I'm going to get out of this," she says. "The theoretical/philosophical part of art, it comes to me only after the fact, even when I paint. The show will push its own way to where it wants to be. It's just a different take on all the heaviness since Sept. 11. It's just one of the little offshoots."

Dan Rubinstein is the news editor of Vue Weekly in Edmonton, Alberta. For more information about The Insecurities Project visit www.insecuritiesproject.com or contact Isabelle Devos at artist@insecuritiesproject.com.

Around the World in a Heady Daze

Brian Preston is not a pothead. Okay, he won’t say no to a puff if there’s a joint being passed around at a party. He might even buy an eighth once in a while. But Preston is not a pothead. He’s a middle-aged Canadian writer who latched on to a unique idea. Why not travel around the world seeking out, smoking and talking pot with people in far-flung countries, then write a book about it?

With a Rolling Stone article about Vancouver’s affinity for weed on his résumé, Preston pitched the picaresque book to Grove Press, a New York publisher with a history of battling the censors. (Grove Press has books like "Naked Lunch" and "Lady Chatterley’s Lover" on its résumé.) The publisher bit and Preston headed for Nepal with a cash advance and assurances they’d try to bail him out if he got busted.

After arriving in Nepal, he started literally living and breathing marijuana: smoking while meeting people, meeting people while smoking, smoking while writing. Two and a half years later, his first book, "Pot Planet: Adventures in Global Marijuana Culture," is available over the counter. (It’s also available online, but Preston thinks some people in the U.S. are reluctant to order it on the Internet because “there’s much more pot paranoia down there -- and rightly so.”)

Snickering aside -- and notwithstanding snide media potshots like “No kidding? I wrote a book?” which the revamped Saturday Night magazine used as a subhed for a recent article/excerpt by Preston, or the (positive) review on Salon.com punctuated with words like “dude!” -- Pot Planet is an engaging, entertaining read. But it’s more than a light-hearted and light-headed dope-themed travelogue.

Preston looks into the science of growing and plant genetics, the taste and “trip” concerns of connoisseurs, the politics and economics behind American’s War on Drugs, and he details the legalization and medicinal use battles being fought simultaneously on numerous fronts. He also smoked a hell of a lot of dope. And although it’s difficult to boil down his many discoveries into a single conclusion, Preston makes one concept perfectly clear: Pot isn’t nearly as dangerous as a lot of people want you to believe.

Doobie scoop

“With this book, I just dove right in,” Preston says over the phone from his home in Victoria, where he’s moved on to a novel and another nonfiction book project as the small budget “word-of-mouth, grassroots” publicity campaign behind Pot Planet starts heating up. Preston is telling me how much fun he had getting the scoop on various pro-pot communities, campaigns, organizations and businesses -- and hanging out with wake-and-bakers in a dozen different countries.

Other than getting hustled out of a few bucks in the chaotic streets of Morocco and losing his passport to a pickpocket during a ritualistic tug-of-war with an elephant in Cambodia, nothing really bad happened. Like your average marijuana buzz, the trip was pretty smooth. “I really liked Nepal and hiking in the hills with my Nepalese buddies,” he responds when asked for a highlight. “Sitting on mountaintops and pretending to be eagles. Very nice. Beautiful.”

In the countries he checked out -- Nepal, Thailand, Laos, Cambodia, Australia, England, the Netherlands, Switzerland, Spain, Morocco, Canada and the U.S. -- Preston was able to gain a certain intimacy with people by sharing the cannabis plant. In Nepal, when he approached five twentysomething guys smoking dope in a park, they pointed out the seedlings sprouting nearby where they flick their seeds. Preston jumped down from the platform they were sitting on for a look, leaving his backpack behind with the strangers -- and when he looked back at the Nepalese men, he saw that they noticed his trust. Almost instantly, there was a bond between foreigner and locals that otherwise might never have materialized.

Pot Planet focuses on these sorts of connections between like-minded people from diverse backgrounds, with marijuana acting merely as the subtext. “It couldn’t be totally about pot without readers getting bored,” says Preston. “Pot just gave me an excuse to get into things much deeper than the average tourist. In many countries, there’s an ‘us versus them’ thing, and once you get in, you’re part of the ‘us.’ As soon as you express your love of pot and are open to people, you’re in.

“That’s kind of the attitude I tried to keep going,” he continues. “And when you throw your lot in with people doing illegal things, you throw your whole lot in.... A lot of it had to do with openness and blindly stumbling around trying to find pot. People tend to know if you’re at their mercy, and you have to show you know it, too. You just surrender to it.”

A cool grass of milk

While being welcomed into the homes (and headspaces) of strangers makes for compelling copy, the politics and economics Preston explores are equally fascinating. Much of this material is anecdotal; in the Himalayan foothills of Nepal, for example, peasants grow cannabis as an appetite enhancer for cows -- a stark, sustainable contrast to our modern chemical and biotech farming methods. In Switzerland, it’s legal to sell, buy and possess pot -- you just aren’t allowed to smoke it. Other anecdotes are a tad more troubling: in England, contemplating the notion that marijuana is a “gateway” to harder drugs, Preston encounters a study revealing that there’s a link between getting busted for pot and more dangerous drugs like heroin and cocaine. “I met people in England who had never seen heroin until they were in jail for pot,” he says. Details like this help propel Preston towards his investigation of American and, by extension, global marijuana policies. Farmers in several developing countries have historically relied on cannabis cultivation to feed their families, but when the U.S. gave their governments millions of dollars to make pot illegal, it just created an underground, criminal market, inconveniencing impoverished farmers and driving up the price. In the U.S., where the massive law enforcement infrastructure swollen by booze prohibition shifted its focus to pot decades ago, the self-perpetuating fight against marijuana is responsible, to a large extent, for thousands of government and police jobs and millions of dollars in funding. Throw in Ronald Reagan’s blunt determination that there’s zero difference between hard and soft drugs, ongoing hypocrisy with alcohol and cigarettes being legal while pot is banned, plus a political climate in the U.S. in which any politician who appears “soft” on drugs can jeopardize his or her career... stir it all together and you get a status quo that sends otherwise law-abiding, taxpaying citizens to jail and ignores the potential benefits of a naturally-growing organism. “It’s very hard for governments to back up on this sort of thing,” Preston rationalizes. “They can’t say, ‘Oh, we were wrong and we’ve thrown a lot of innocent people in jail for 20 years.’” Even prison guards like pot, he reports: Not only does it drum up business for the prison-industrial complex, but dope smokers tend to be docile inmates.

A relaxed attitude towards drugs

Preston patiently heeds a longwinded question of mine about (a) John Ralston Saul’s observation that uncertainty is what makes us human, and (b) marijuana having the ability to stimulate un-empirical thinking, an openness to new ideas and, therefore, uncertainty. As far back as the 1950s, Preston says, pot was demonized by American politicians because it contradicted their nation’s nose-to-the-grindstone work ethic. “On an economic level,” he says, “when you look at what globalization is all about, everyone has to work harder and it’s the triumph of capitalism. Marijuana is the triumph of relaxing. It’s not about the dominant ideology of the world at the moment. As a matter of fact, it’s opposed to it. It’s about slowing down and reflecting about things.”

Let me repeat, here, my introductory disclaimer: Preston is not a pothead. He’s simply a libertarian who believes in personal responsibility and feels no addictive physical or mental aftermath to months of regular consumption. “The plant was a great pleasure for me at the time,” he says about getting lost in the haze of Pot Planet, which he considers his now-completed “duty” to the pot world. “But I put pot in perspective, which was kind of the point of the book.”

Preston makes a myriad of other points, too. He admires Dutch-style marijuana decriminalization, for instance, because it flies in the face of American anti-drug dogma, even though the Dutch are tired of American frat boys coming over to party and barfing in their canals. (In the Netherlands, curiously, pot usage rates are lower than in the U.S.) Preston also believes in the medicinal benefits of the plant, although he says giving the green light to medical use could create a new bureaucracy and mega-industry as big drug corporations start circling like sharks.

We need another Stone(d)wall

Regardless, Preston says more pot smokers need to stand up and be counted, as gays and lesbians did when they came out of their closet en masse and fought for their rights. He thinks it’s a shame that North American laws tend to penalize the poor kids caught with little baggies and seldom touch the middle-class white guys who can afford lawyers. He thinks it’s a bigger shame that the U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency has set up an office in Vancouver and continues to exert heavy pressure on Canadian politicians and police, even though the Supreme Court of Canada this fall will listen to discussions about recreational marijuana use rooted in philosopher John Stuart Mill’s concept that the individual is sovereign over his own person.

Ultimately, however, Preston does not endorse smoking your brains out and losing touch with the world. He’s for more meaningful toking. As he writes on the last page of the book, peace-lovers and fun-seekers should get out there and greet their foreign counterparts. “Roll one up and find the shared pleasure of the smoky communion,” he advises. “Then roll another one up for me.”

Pot Planet: Adventures in Global Marijuana Culture -- By Brian Preston • Grove Press • 289 pp. • $24.95

Canada Preps for G8 Summit

During a diplomatic junket to Italy last month, Canadian Prime Minister Jean Chretien joked to reporters that the mountain resort he selected as ground zero for next week's G8 Summit is guarded "from the back by mountains, from the front by a river, from the south by an Indian village and from the north by 500 bears." Chretien was exaggerating the enclave's fortifications. But not by much.

Kananaskis Village, an upscale hideaway in the Rockies, about an hour's drive west of Calgary in southwestern Alberta, is about as remote as Seattle and Genoa were accessible. There are grizzly bears and whitewater rivers and a First Nations reserve in the area. Yet world leaders won't be thrust unprotected into the middle of an untamed western wilderness. The security zone around Kananaskis will be patrolled by thousands of soldiers and Royal Canadian Mounted Police officers. And while they'll be there to hunt down rogue terrorists and stray anti-globalization activists, they probably won't mind using their night-vision goggles to fire potshots at the odd grizzly. After all, they don't want all that high-tech weaponry to go to waste.

Only one highway leads to the summit, a two-lane road heading south into the Kananaskis valley off the main east-west TransCanada thoroughfare. There are costs, of course, to such seclusion. With only 400 beds available on-site for the June 26 and 27 hoe-down, delegations from each of the member nations will have to be tiny; without bunks for his entire security and public relations entourage, there's talk that George W. Bush won't even be staying in Kananaskis. There's also a tremendous financial cost for Canada, which is spending an estimated $500 million to host its G8 brethren for two days -- about as much money as Canada has promised to dedicate to the much-ballyhooed New Partnership for Africa's Development, which has been assigned the awkward acronym NEPAD and is supposed to be the centerpiece of summit discussions.

There are many more delicious ironies and oddities to consider. At a pre-summit meeting of G8 environment ministers in the nearby resort town of Banff earlier this year, a draft of the final communiqué that was supposed to be written at the policy-setting mini-conference was leaked to media before the ministers even met. Meanwhile, at the same time as Canadian government officials were boasting of their consultations and cooperation with activists intending to target Kananaskis for peaceful protest, they were simultaneously working to undermine plans for a "solidarity village," a "festival of resistance" featuring big-name musicians and workshops that activist organizers believed would draw more than 10,000 people.

On the verge of signing a deal with the Stoney First Nation that would have permitted activists to camp out on the reserve where the road to Kananaskis meets the TransCanada, solidarity village organizers were surprised when Stoney leaders abruptly closed the door. Last week, news broke that the Stoney are being given $300,000 by the Canadian government for security, first aid and CPR courses ("capacity training," explained a government spokesperson) during the summit. "Now we know that the federal government paid to prevent G8 dissenters from being able to organize a peaceful response to the summit," reacted trade campaigner David Robbins of the left-leaning Council of Canadians.

Realizing that land near Kananaskis was at an insurmountable premium, activists shifted their efforts to Calgary, the oil capital of Canada -- a city with the distinction of being considered conservative in a province with the politics of Texas. Protest organizers, accordingly, weren't shocked when their requests for civic land on which to hold some sort of rally were promptly denied. Calgary Mayor Dave Bronconnier, affectionately called "Bronco" by a local tabloid, reminded activists that no political gatherings are allowed in city parks (even though, as many reports noted, Bronconnier recently kicked off his own leadership campaign with a picnic in a park). Still, no dice; that sort of logic doesn't work on a civic politician who, when asked about the right to express dissent, replied "The 1960s are over."

As of June 18, activists had yet to determine (or at least announce) a detailed course of action for protests in Kananaskis or Calgary. Organizers don't expect to see 10,000 people show up, but they think a few thousand are on their way. And without any officially-sanctioned meeting points, they're planning a couple of rallies and street theatre stunts, some unpredictable "snake" marches, maybe even an impromptu concert or two -- and they're warning, rather ominously, that there might be some "spillover" disorder on the streets of Calgary without a central gathering place.

"Every attempt at going through the proper channels was blocked," says Edmonton activist organizer Scott Harris, executive director of an NGO called the Alberta Council for Global Co-operation. "If they wanted the end result to be a non-confrontational protest, they haven't been very strategic. If they wanted some serious disarray and a chance for chaos, then they've accomplished that."

In other words, despite Chretien's crafty choice of location, this G8 summit could get ugly, because security officials have been stockpiling personnel, weapons and equipment and preparing for hats-and-bats riot response since Day One. Much of the estimated $500 million cost of the summit, in fact, is being spent on security, with nearly 1,400 Calgary police officers and colleagues from two dozen other forces across the country on duty (in addition to thousands of members of the Canadian armed forces).

There's also a no-fly zone over the summit which will be enforced and protected by fighter jets and surface-to-air missiles. A pair of brand new RG12 armoured military vehicles -- the ones favored by Middle Eastern riot squads -- were bought for $1.1 million by Calgary police. Hundreds of jail cells have been emptied should mass arrests be made and court rooms are being cleared for an onslaught of new charges, preemptive expenditures justified in the name of post-September 11 terrorism fear coupled with an insatiable desire to stop the so-called troublemakers.

That's right. The "t-word." Terrorism. Along with NEPAD and the catchall "strengthening global economic growth," it's one of three key prongs of the summit agenda. Those plans and Jean Chretien's desires for good news stories about helping Africa help itself aside, pundits now speculate that terrorism and the Middle East will dominate discussions. If that's the case, all talk of NEPAD will be relegated to being exactly what critics dismissed it as in the first place: "language [that] merely serves the interests of the G8 as it quells dissent to their neo-colonialist policies," according to the Anti-Capitalist Kananaskis club, or ACK.

NEPAD documents are full of phrases like "grassroots participation," and they were supposed to be drafted with input from African civil society groups. But Bayowa Adedeji, a member of a Nigerian NGO called the Centre for Human Rights Research and Development who's been in Calgary for the last three months, says until coming to Canada, people in his country had never even heard of NEPAD. "I think they want their multinationals to make more money, that's why they're embracing NEPAD," Adedeji says about the G8, a statement supported by a meeting in Dakar in mid-April intended to raise support and money for NEPAD that drew only 12 leaders from 54 African nations, plus 1,000 international businessmen from corporations like ExxonMobil, Microsoft and Coca-Cola.

One of dozens of different groups mobilizing for anti-G8 protests, ACK argues that "The global economic growth that the G8 serves to create is based on the exploitation of the majority of the world's peoples and the environment, for the profit and power of a few." It also has strong opinions on terrorism.

"The threat of terrorism is being used by G8 nations to militarize and oppress the world, under the guise of defending freedom," the organization says. "In the G8 countries themselves, people of colour are targeted by racist immigration and anti-terrorism legislation. Borders are becoming more militarized and new powers have been granted to governments to repress and control oppressed peoples and political movements."

For instance, the 10 speakers scheduled to come to Calgary for a June 21-25 counter-conference who didn't make it into Canada. And no, they weren't turned back by rivers or mountains, nor for fear of bears.

Maxim Overdrive

And you thought the folks behind Maxim were idiots.

Their ultra-popular "men's magazine" -- and I use both terms loosely -- is base, vacuous and, logically, sells like hotcakes. It's sort of like Playboy, only the models wear slightly more clothing and the articles aren't so brainy. (By "articles" I mean the words squeezed between all those hooter pictures) Maxim's publishers and editors have proven they're shrewd businesspeople. Since the British export arrived on this continent in 1997, its readership has swelled to 2.2 million per month and issues these days weigh in at nearly 300 ad-laden pages. After all, what could be more popular to young male readers and advertisers than sex, sports, beer and babes?

But this month, as the magazine celebrates its fifth birthday, it pulled off another marketing coup. A plan so simple it's brilliant. A plan that shows just how smart Maxim's staff is -- and how easily the mainstream media can be manipulated.

North American readers of Maxim's April issue, those who peer past Blade II's topless "Chilean stunner" Leonor Varela on the cover and don't get bogged down in the complex "Chill Your Chick" feature (a primer on turning "any girl into a beer-swilling, Super Bowl-watching strip joint junkie"), will notice the mag's city-of-the-year item. This year, Maxim picked New York City as the continent's top town. And Philadelphia. And Toronto. And Dallas. And nine other cities, hoping to boost sales by boosting the egos of its hometown-proud readers with 13 city-specific versions of the April issue.

Except Maxim made a boo-boo. Copies of the edition praising New York were shipped to Philly newsstands by mistake. Philadelphians were supposed to read about how "cool" the Liberty Bell is and why anyone disputing Philly's title as "The Greatest City on Earth" should "have a bite of this cheese-dipped knuckle sandwich." Instead, the typical resident of the City of Brotherly Love saw himself described as "a lard-ass with arteries packed as tight as a Colombian airline passenger's G.I. tract" living in "a glorified piss break between New York and D.C."

It wasn't just Eagles-eyed Philadelphians, though, who saw through the distribution screw up to the magazine's multi-tasking deception. The Detroit Free Press was suspicious and asked Maxim senior editor James Heidenry about its city's number one ranking. "It has a certain cachet," he replied reassuringly, "the same way a Coupe de Ville does." Asked outright if Detroit was just one of several cities singled out, Heidenry lied. "No," he said, "we love Detroit." When confronted by the Free Press a day later with evidence (the best thing about Detroit, the non-Detroit versions of the mag quipped, is that it's not quite Canada), Heidenry fessed up. "Like a guy juggling different girlfriends," he said with typical Maxim wit, "we told them all they were number one."

Denver newspapers, alas, weren't as swift as their Motor City counterparts. Denver Post columnist Bill Husted began his item about the Maxim feature with the line "Denver, you're the best" and quoted a chunk of the magazine's glowing description of the city: "Founded by rugged, leathery gold prospectors, populated by top snowboarders and easy-to-trap ski bunnies, and set like a gem into the majestic Rockies is a city that will literally take your breath away." He mentions that Maxim praised the Post's "journalist principles" and concludes his blurb by writing "let's be glad we're not one of the 12 Worst Cities On Earth: Boston, Chicago, Dallas, Detroit, LA, Miami, NYC, Philadelphia, Phoenix, San Francisco, Toronto, Washington, D.C. And Maxim has plenty of mean things to say about them." In a similar column that appeared the same day in the Rocky Mountain News, Husted's counterpart Penny Parker proudly noted that "it's the town's bounty of beauties and babe-watching opportunities that snagged Maxim's vote."

Does it matter to Maxim that they fooled some readers and newspapers while others caught on? Probably not. The adage that no press is bad press holds true here. Maxim knew that by singling out a city as the world's best, they'd get their name into the boosteristic local dailies and onto local newscasts. (Heck, if the Foundation for Plastic Bags Stuck in Trees picked New York as the top city for plastic bags stuck in trees, the Big Apple's press corps would be all over that story.) Maxim likely figured that if somebody discovered them courting 13 different girlfriends at the same time -- which they probably knew would happen sooner or later, or indeed hoped it would -- its image as a frat boy prankster, T&A glossy wouldn't suffer.

They're right. Those who despise Maxim can't possibly think any less of it. In fact, I kind of appreciate how they've exposed papers like the Denver Post, which are willing to repeat any praise their city gets, regardless of who it's coming from and what it's praising. The Post may be upset it was hustled by Maxim -- well, that's what you get! Because even Maxim knows we all like to be told we're number one.

Dan Rubinstein is the news editor at Vue Weekly in Edmonton, Alberta.

Big Brother Is Spell-checking You

A funny thing happened on the way to an article the other day. I was writing an innocuous story -- a feature about flying disc golf, no less -- and happened to mention Wal-Mart in a sentence describing the horror of suburban big box blight. Except, in my haste, I uncouthly typed "Walmart" by mistake. Thankfully, I was saved from sure embarrassment by the indispensable spell-checking function of my word processing program, Microsoft Word. It knew "Walmart" should in fact be "Wal-Mart" and clinically, confidently told me so.

Whew, I thought. Nearly had to flip open a phone book to make sure my copy was correct. But then I started to contemplate the ramifications of a proper corporate name being considered proper usage in what must be one of the world's most popular computer programs. I mean, they're overlooking the most important rule of Scrabble: No proper names! If Wal-Mart is now part of our official electronic lexicon, I wondered, then how many of its brand-name cousins have joined it?

So I conducted a little experiment. Type "cocacola" in Microsoft Word and you're informed that "Coca-Cola" is the only recommended replacement. Lower-case "coke," however, is okay; I suppose the word is so familiar to us that we needn't bother capitalizing it anymore. Lower-case "nike," on the other hand, is wrong. It should be "Nike," I'm told, or a slew of similar-sounding words, from "Nikka" to "nice" to "pike." Likewise, "pepsi" should be "Pepsi." But buried amongst the list of amusing suggestions, like "peeps" and "papoose," we're also told that "PepsiCo" is an acceptable English (United States) word.

Surveying the various brand names visible on items in my office, I decided to do some willy-nilly spell-checking. "Timexx," I discovered, is incorrect, but "Timex" is fine. "Toshiba," the company that makes the computer on which this rant is being composed, is in there, too. My basketballs aren't so fortunate. "Spalding" garners the suggested spellings "Spading," and though "Wilsonx" does net me "Wilson," that's likely because Wilson is also a popular name for people.

Leaving the confines of this room, I threw in a few more terms. "Prozac" is in the dictionary, as are "Sony," "Hitachi," "Mitsubishi" and "Honda." (So are "Chrysler" and "globalization," by the way.) Other finds: "Samsung" apparently doesn't measure up to its electronics-company brethren, nor does "JVC," but "IBM" is okay.

Feeling a bit overwhelmed? Relax with a "Gatorade" -- and with Word's help you'll never misspell this tasty, thirst-quenching beverage again.

Now this is where things get complicated, because International CorrectSpell by the INSO Corporation -- the standard spell-checker for Microsoft Word -- includes thousands of proper names. Countries, cities, people... they're all in there. We've been using these words for centuries. Brand names, by comparison, are a relatively recent phenomenon. Yet they've managed to quickly find their way into what's arguably the framework for much of the communicating western society does today. What gives?

To get to the bottom of this, I put in a call to the INSO Corporation. Apparently they recently changed their name to EBT. (In an unexpected display of modesty, neither INSO nor EBT is in the spell-checker lexicon.) And EBT, unfortunately, is currently in the processing of liquidating.

"Everyone's been terminated," the woman who answered the phone told me before giving me the number for Chicago-based IntraNet Solutions, which purchased much of EBT's software before it went under. Calls to that company's public relations staff didn't conjure up a willing interviewee, so I went to the top and hooked up with Microsoft spokesperson Mark Thomas.

"We don't view ourselves as dictionary makers or experts," he tells me over the phone from Seattle, "so we work with companies that are and license content from them. We find experts and work with them. We try to find the best people to supply our content." Microsoft staff do oversee initiatives like spell-checker development, Thomas says, to find the right "balance" of words and ensure that decisions are intelligent, smart and made in a responsible manner.

"I'm sure at some point there's a subjective line that says 'Wal-Mart is a big enough institution and is written about enough,'" he responds when asked specifically about the inclusions of corporate names in spell-checkers for Word (which is indeed the most popular word processing program in the world, he confirms). "It's a decision we make. A tool like spell-checking is something we've created with help from customers, from identifying their needs. They're designed to help people be more efficient, to be more productive, so they don't have to stop working." As for the ramifications of enshrining words like Wal-Mart in our lexicon, Thomas says, "I don't think we're looking at cultural annihilation. It's not going to overrun western civilization."

John Considine, an English professor who focuses on the cultural history of dictionaries, doesn't think we're heading towards cultural annihilation either. But Considine, an Oxford English Dictionary consultant and former OED contributing editor, isn't entirely comfortable with the Wal-Martization of our language. "I try to avoid describing any language phenomenon as troubling or sinister," he says, "but I certainly do wonder if this is at least potentially quite manipulative."

Historically, according to Considine, lexicographers have run into difficulties when attempting to include proper terms in dictionaries. The company that makes (and copyrighted) Velcro, for instance, didn't want its product in the dictionary; that would move them one step closer to losing their trademark on the product. But names of companies are different. "The fact that such words are now appearing in spell-checkers is very interesting and surprising," says Considine. "It's almost like product placement, isn't it? What I'd never thought of is, of course, a spell-checker is a kind of dictionary. I've always thought of dictionaries having print versions. I wonder if a spell-checker can be a more irresponsible kind of dictionary."

As for Microsoft spokesperson Mark Thomas's logic that spell-checkers are designed to help people write more efficiently (so they don't have to stop and look up the spelling of words) Considine says, "If somebody wanted to type without being interrupted, then they should turn the spell-checker off. With the spell-checker, you're a more passive language user."

It's at this point that I bounce a sci-fi scenario off Considine -- that one day, in the not-too-distant future, word processing programs might replace the word "cola" with "Coke," suggest "Evian" instead of "water" or recommend you type "Macintosh," not "computer." Considine pauses. I await his academic admonishment. "It's certainly not implausible science fiction," he says. "Spell-checkers can exert a lot of control over the usage of the person typing on the computer."

Now excuse me. Time to spell-check this column. Let's see how much survives.

The Other Gay Barebacking

Hank is torn. In theory, he should adore k. d. lang for coming out proudly and defiantly. But Hank, a gay cattle rancher, has other priorities. "I won't buy her CDs anymore because she stopped buying beef," he says. "I think she'd enjoy the rodeo, though."

Growing up in the central plains, Hank was a frequent rodeo competitor. That's what praire kids did. Bulls and bucking broncos were left in the pasture, however, when he ran off to college and grad school; he figured he'd become a city slicker.

Then, in 1992, Hank attended his first gay rodeo in San Antonio, Texas. "That was where I felt, 'Oh my god -- I'm not alone!' There's a whole community."

From delayed, hardscrabble origins in Reno, Nevada in 1976, the gay rodeo circuit has swelled into a flourishing North American tour with as many as two dozen stops in peak years. In mid-January, the Road Runner Regional Rodeo in Phoenix kicked off the 2001 calendar, which will feature 18 rodeos, including unlikely destinations like Salt Lake City and Little Rock as well as the seventh annual Canadian Rockies International Rodeo in Calgary -- the "international" dimension of the parent International Gay Rodeo Association.

A veteran of six rodeos, Hank (no last name, please) is already jacked about the upcoming hoe-downs. With their three-day schedule of dances, prime-rib-and-baked-potato dinners, concerts by country stars, total attendance approaching 2,000 and a full slate of traditional rodeo events -- from chute dogging to barrel racing, plus camp events like the wild drag race devised to encourage beginner participation -- the gay rodeo is a celebration of western heritage with an inclusive, machismo-free twist.

"There's such a sense of freedom," says Hank, 44, who refused to go to his boyfriend's aunt's wedding last summer ("maybe if it was her first wedding") because it was the same weekend as a rodeo. "I'd experienced that feeling before at the Gay Olympics," he continues, "but these are my people, people from a rural background who happen to be gay. If you're young, gay and rural you don't have to run off to the city and become a hairdresser."

To engage part-time, wanna-be cowboys, gay rodeos generally feature a wide range of events guaranteed not to cripple participants. (For instance, goat dressing, which involves, naturally, dressing a goat in a pair of jockey-style underwear.) But overall, with bucking half-ton bulls to be conquered, events are challenging enough for professionals. "It's not a sissy rodeo," says Robert (not his real name), a gay rodeo regular. "You've got to be tough. You're working with real live animals. There's danger in it -- I've seen quite a few people get injured and packed out."

Accordingly, the greater the danger, the greater the stakes. A handful of old school cowboys who make the gay rodeo rounds, travelling from the Southern Spurs Rodeo in Atlanta to the Sierra Stampede in Sacramento, earn a living from their winnings. Of course, they have to supplement earnings by competing in mainstream rodeos. But if there are closeted gay men playing in the NHL (and there are), then the pro rodeo world -- one of the 21st century's last bastions of machohood -- is certainly no exception.

For Robert, 37, the gay rodeo circuit has offered Stetson-capped salvation. Still dealing with his recent homosexual awakening, he's found community and acceptance on the tour -- and won some prize money, too. He almost broke into the Top 10 last year against some tough competition in Phoenix in January. Not bad for a guy who, as a teen, watched from the sidelines while friends and family members competed.

"It was very intimidating," he says about the traditional rodeo atmosphere he was surrounded by while growing up. "I didn't feel comfortable there. I had all the opportunities in the world ... my closest friends and neighbours rode rodeo, so it wasn't that I didn't have the right connections. I just didn't feel comfortable."

Two years ago, when he came out to his family, a lot of things changed for Robert. He began attempting to reconcile his rural background and demeanor with a sexual orientation considered (at least stereotypically) to be very urban. Support from his family helped -- after Robert explained that he was gay to his mother, his mom told his father, who surprised Robert by saying "nothing's changed. You're still the same person you were before. We accept you the same as we always did."

But there was still that disconcerting rural-urban hurdle to clear. And taking in his first gay rodeo after stumbling upon the scene through a friend has been a tremendous confidence booster for Robert.

"I'm more at ease with myself now," he says, reflecting on his fledgling stint on the tour, which began last year at the annual Las Vegas extravaganza. "I don't feel as intimidated by other people. I'm more sure of myself."

Though rural communities have a reputation for homophobia, Hank considers the countryside a tolerant environment. As long as you're a contributing member of society and rein in the outlandish behaviour, he says it's relatively easy to be a gay rancher. "I'm not going to walk down the road holding my boyfriend's hand and kissing him," he says, "but my neighbours don't walk down the road kissing their wives, either. People are accepting of you as long as you carry your own weight. Don't put rural people down. Most have satellite TVs and they get Will & Grace."

Of course, there have been a couple of homophobic incidents at gay rodeos. Some yahoo fired off a few rounds outside the Corona ranch in Phoenix a couple years back, according to Calgary rodeo director Kevin Murray, and organizers of a rodeo in Washington state's bible belt once received a telephone threat.

"It was a wonderful setting," laments Murray. "There were beautiful hills. But there might have been snipers in the hills." (Last year's Calgary rodeo also sparked some controversy: members of a Denver-based gay clog dancing troupe say they were harassed and denied entry into Canada by customs officers at the Sweetgrass border crossing after a vehicle search turned up wigs and female clothing that female impersonators planned to wear while performing at the rodeo.)

Yet those anecdotes are exceptions. Heck, at the inaugural Salt Lake City rodeo in Mormon-soaked Utah last year, the mayor served as the grand marshal and media coverage was positive. "If Salt Lake City can host a gay rodeo and be wildly successful, there's nowhere we can't go," says Doug Graff, the IGRA's California-based spokesperson, 1999's "Mr. Gay Rodeo" for fund-raising purposes, and a talented bull rider who'll be back in the saddle whenever his torn rotator cuff heals. "That's our mission,' he continues, "to support country-western heritage and lifestyle in the gay community.

"I can't tell you how many times I've gotten choked up about doing what we're doing and loving it so much," Graff adds, describing a transcendent moment in Albuquerque where a rider from Utah rode a bull that had never been tamed before with jaw-dropping grace and beauty.

With Bud Lite on board as a sponsor, gay rodeo is growing, another example of the mainstream world accepting the legitimacy of gay culture and the gay dollar. "We've worked with some major redneck stock contractors," says Graff, "but thank God for the almighty green dollar."

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