Grand Old Party makes a grand old mistake

As we discussed last week, the evening of August 28th, 2008 marked a historic moment in American history, as Barack Obama delivered his acceptance speech for the Democratic presidential nomination. An overcrowded football stadium in Denver, along with 40 million viewers across the country, watched the junior senator from Illinois outline his plan for rebuilding a fragmented nation that has suffered from severe cynicism and cultural disunity over the past eight years. The very next morning, Republican John McCain announced his running mate at the rally in Ohio. Onlookers were puzzled, and the media didn‘t know what to make of the story.

The choice was an unexpected one. Most political insiders had made their assessments of potential candidates and settled on a few safe choices, such as former Governor of Massachusetts Mitt Romney. Out of sheer political desperation, the campaign selected the rookie Governor from Alaska (and one-time beauty queen) Sarah Palin.

A relative newcomer to the national stage, Sarah Palin was a well-known figure in her home state. Her career began with a brief stint as a sports broadcaster; from there, she claimed victory as the mayor of Wasilla, Alaska, a small town with roughly 8,500 residents. Local notoriety inspired her to run for governor, and she landed the gubernatorial position in 2006. So far, her political ideology and unusually large household (five kids) has attracted more attention than her executive experience. She touts herself as a staunch social conservative; opposed to abortion in any circumstance, against sex education and a proponent of abstinence-only programs. Furthermore, she believes Creationism should be taught alongside Evolution in science classes, and is reluctant to attribute global warming to human activity. In other words, she’s an ideal poster child for the extreme right-wing.

The first several days of campaigning have been a whirlwind, as scandal after scandal has been revealed. Aside from her out-of-touch social conservatism, Sarah Palin is currently under investigation in Alaska for unethical use of executive power. She’s had ties to the corrupt senator Ted Stevens in the past, and her lack of experience has sent accusations flying. The icing on the cake, however, was the revelation that her 17-year old daughter is five months pregnant.

Sarah Palin’s selection exposes three weaknesses in the McCain campaign. First, McCain has struggled to solidify support from the ultra-conservative base of the party. Though his selection was hardly reasonable, Palin was meant to reassure voters that McCain would be their “pro-life” warrior through thick and thin. Next, his team has done a terrible job of investigating this woman and her personal life. No one is criticizing her choice to have five children, but when you base your career on religious values and your teenage daughter gets pregnant, your ability to help run the country (let alone your own family) must be addressed. The last weakness involves the media, for allowing the right-wing to get away with such blatant hypocrisy. Imagine if one of Barack Obama’s daughters were to get pregnant at 17; would the Republican reaction be just as tepid? The media would have a field day, and he’d most likely be stripped of his nomination. John McCain may boast about putting the country first, but this move reveals it’s always the same old politics.

Sex ed program gets turned on

If your degree just isn’t doing it for you anymore, don’t despair. This fall, U of T introduces the fi rst sexual diversity studies graduate program in Canada.

Students who want a Master’s or Ph.D in SDS have to register in one of the 25 Arts and Science departments associated with the program.

“The time is now for a program like this,” said Scott Rayter, Acting Director of the Mark S. Bonham Center for Sexual Diversity. The SDS centre was initially self funded with donations as its primary source of revenue. It’s now funded by University College and the Faculty of Arts and Sciences.

“The university recognized student demand and innovation in the field by quite a number of faculty and wanted to be leading the way in promoting and advancing the area of Sexual Diversity Studies,” Rayter said.

So far 12 graduate students have signed up, including the renowned Canadian filmmaker John Greyson. They’ll study issues ranging from queer theatre in Canada to contemporary gay identity in China, sexuality and colonialism, and sex education in the school curriculum.

“One of the huge attractions of the program is that it encourages you to range widely across the university,” Greyson said. “Your coursework and the work you do with faculty could include someone in Humanities, someone in English and someone in Drama Studies, as I’m doing, and someone in physics.”

The scholarly support that the program offers is another huge benefit, added Greyson, whose research is usually solitary work. U of T was recently named by MediaCorp as one of Canada’s top 25 diversity employers for 2008.

For Rayter, the creation of the new graduate program in SDS shows that U of T is “putting its money where its mouth is.”

Victory is mine… almost

Another school year has begun, and with it comes the requisite frosh mania. A very long five years ago, the first week of school was frightening, with its uncertainty and newness. While opting out of frosh activities (I am not a fan of icebreaker games), I still felt like every other new student: a very small fish in a huge pond—actually, more like an ocean. Eventually I became comfortable at U of T and familiar with all its workings. I also became progressively irritated with the frosh hype, which seemed more and more futile as the years went on. Now, in my last year (or rather, the sequel to my last year), Frosh Week is completely unbearable. Technically, I shouldn’t have to experience it—I should have graduated by now. I am one of those special individuals who decided to take a fifth year to finish their undergraduate degree. Yes, I am a “victory lapper”.

The term “victory lapper” troubles me, since we all know it’s just a euphemism for “lazy-ass student with no direction who wishes to avoid real responsibility for as long as possible.” At least, for me it is. At this point, the novelty of school, and especially first week hysteria, has completely worn off. I feel as though I’ve gained all I can from the university experience (from a non-educational perspective, of course!) and want to make year as painless and quickly as possible. As an experienced student, I have no desire to make friends or to get involved with school activities. All I want to do is go to class, get the most out of it, and then go home. This year I’m strictly business.

Any reminder of the start of yet another year is quite tedious. So tedious, in fact, that I wish I could take a long nap and wake up in the middle of October on some random Tuesday. I apologize to all those fresh-faced, bright eyed froshies who are excited to start their university careers, but I can’t wait for the first week excitement to go away (been there, done that, gained the freshman fifteen). Five years after my first year (and back to my normal weight), the prospect of enduring another full year of university makes me wish I had graduated last year with my friends. I assume there are many fifth-years who can commiserate. And it’s probably easy to pick us out on campus: we’re the ones with the sullen expressions and worn-out faces, the ones who look impossibly tired, rolling our eyes at the sight of any sign of frosh mania. Especially the purple guys—you know who you are.

Let’s play small ball

In a famous Nike commercial, pitching greats Tom Glavine and Greg Maddux, jealous of Mark McGwire’s batting scores, abandon the mound and try to hone their skills at the plate. After many desperate attempts, they finally hit one out of the park. During a congratulatory high-five, they concluded that “chicks dig the long ball.”

Perhaps Glavine and Maddux would have revised this conclusion if they had attended the Varsity Blues’ season opener last Thursday in Scarborough. The game against the Laurier Golden Hawks proved that in baseball, it’s not the long ball but the little things that count.

“It was a very unusual game,” said Blues’ head coach Dan Lang after his team’s 10-4 loss to the Golden Hawks. “Sometimes [by looking at the score] you can really figure out what kind of game it was—but not this one.”

Things got unusual beginning in the third on an offensive interference by Laurier catcher Chris Pittaway. After a single by first basemen, Curtis Young, baserunner Pittaway collided with a Blues’ fielder and was called out at second.

The next inning saw another rare interference when Laurier’s Andrew Stevens was hit with a batted ball while running from first to second.

“You know, if you came to every game for five years you wouldn’t see that again,” Coach Lang said of the multiple interferences. Yet these interferences proved meaningless as the game remained scoreless into the 6th—when things began to get really wild.

The 6th inning saw Toronto put a dent in the scoreboard by gaining three runs against the Golden Hawks. However, like the rest of the game, there was nothing typical about the way the runs were scored.

After a series of walks and hits by pitches, Toronto loaded the bases. With Phillip McColl at bat for the Blues, the first two runs of the inning were scored on consecutive wild pitches. The third run was scored by Blues’ star outfielder Pat Janssen after McColl reached first on an error by Laurier’s second baseman Scott Mahn.

These fielding and pitching errors meant that while Toronto was up by three runs, they still had no RBIs to show for it.

Janssen ended Toronto’s hitting futility in the 8th inning with an RBI single after a lead-off walk by Chris Papalia and a double by Chris Dahiroc. However, this fourth and final run for the Blues came too late as Laurier had taken the lead after scoring seven runs in the top half of the inning.

While the Blues’ Nick Cunjak, pitching in relief, got the loss and gave up four earned runs, Coach Lang was quick to defend his talented pitching staff. “We got six innings, scoreless pitching, that’s got to say something…and then when [Laurier] started scoring runs it was on really odd things,” he said. “[For example,] we had these two little balls in the infield, hit off the end of the bat—they only hit the ball about 20 feet. The pitchers were doing very, very well—it’s just hard balls to get to.”

Coach Lang insisted that he doesn’t want the game’s oddities and the 10-4 loss to affect his team. “The first thing to tell [the team] is to put this game behind them.”

However, the Blues will still take something away. With the interferences, the wild pitches, and the pesky little hits by Laurier, the Blues will stop “digging the long ball” and focus on the small things. In preparation for the rest of the season, Coach Lang said, “We won’t bat at all [next practice]. What we’re going to do is field bunts. [We need to learn] what we’re going to do about these short balls. We’re going to spend two hours working on those little things.”

Look for the Blues to perfect their game when they head to St. Catharines to battle the Brock Badgers on Sept 9.

What’s the story, former glory?

Isn’t it a little early for an onrush of ’90s nostalgia? Six months ago it was an ill-fated Spice Girls reunion, currently it’s a revamped version of 90210, and it appears that Virgin Festival has hopped aboard the flannel express.

After 2007’s progressive and exciting lineup that included Bjork, Arctic Monkeys, and M.I.A., organizers seem to have looked back in time when planning this year’s festival, summoning old heroes like Oasis and the Foo Fighters to headline alongside more youthful bands like Bloc Party and MGMT.

The principal theme of the festival appears to be the new British invasion, with the Modfather Paul Weller leading the charge of NME-approved acts like the Kooks, The Fratellis, and The Pigeon Detectives.

Altogether, the festival lineup seems to inspire warm and fuzzy feelings in the present, but would have been an absolute blockbuster ten years ago.

DAY 1

As a large-scale music festival reliant on ferry service to transport over 30,000 people on and off the mainland in 48 hours, Toronto’s Virgin Festival could easily turn into a logistical nightmare. Thankfully, all major catastrophes (like those of 2006, when the rickety media and VIP boat began taking on water in the middle of Lake Ontario) were avoided, and Saturday was blessed with warm, sunny weather.

This year’s throwback vibe was in full swing upon my arrival, as the recently reunited DC punk veterans Shudder to Think got the festivities rolling on one of the three side stages. The band can be forgiven if their performance was a little tame—they are, after all, pushing 40. Elsewhere, local classic rockers Flash Lightnin’ looked slightly out of place on the Oh Henry stage, which is a far cry from the Dakota Tavern where they built their sizable reputation. In the midst of a barrage of their southern-fried, 70s-style tunes, singer Darren Glover made light of the shameless corporate sponsorship by demanding what he assumed would be free chocolate bars.

Over at the main stage, The Constantines came out strong with old favourite “Nighttime Anytime.” The rocking set by the Guelph five-piece injected some life into the subdued main stage crowd, as singer Bryan Webb described ferocious new single “Hard Feelings” as “a song about doing it with your wife, I’m sure some of you know what I’m talking about.”

The lengthy delay before the side stage appearance by British space rock outfit Spiritualized threw off the day’s schedule off track, but Jason Pierce finally emerged to lead his band through a triumphant rendition of classic 1992 single “Shine A Light,” ascending into a slow, echoey jam that edged past the 10-minute mark. Regrettably, there wasn’t time to enjoy much else, and my sprint across the festival grounds ended just as Brooklyn’s MGMT took to the stage.

As if on cue, the assembled crowd reached for their joints simultaneously, and the main stage vibe morphed from subdued anticipation into one giant contact high. With a set list designed as a rising action, folk-inflected gems like “The Youth” and “Pieces of What” gave way to “Time to Pretend” and “Electric Feel,” a double-shot of up-tempo highlights that succeeded in moving the feet of sluggish stoners.

Unlike last year, I actually managed to find food conveniently set up in back of the media tent. Those of us fortunate enough to have media passes were entitled to a meal ticket good for one buffet-style roast beef dinner. Surprisingly tasty for music festival fare.

Feeling refreshed and full, I was quickly driven from the main stage by the cock-rock annoyance of Florida’s Against Me!, who have got to be one of the few remaining bands punctuated by an exclamation mark, now that Panic at the Disco famously ditched theirs.

I was recently dumbfounded to learn that SPIN Magazine named Against Me!’s New Wave as the best album of 2007, ahead of such luminaries as Arcade Fire, Kanye West and Radiohead, though I’ll say that they definitely deserve earworm of the year for cringe-worthy singles “Stop” and “Thrash Unreal.”

If the prime demographic for this year’s Virgin Festival is a bizarre combination of hard-rocking stoners and Union Jack-toting Anglophiles, then The Fratellis were doing their best to hold up the Britpop end. I arrived just in time for their breakthrough single “Flathead,” or more specifically, the ‘ba-da-ba-da’ nonsense that made them iTunes commercial megastars. It may be a featherweight hook, but they’ve managed to make quite a career out of 30 transcendent seconds.

The congregation for Wintersleep was the largest I’ve seen for a side stage act in three years of V Fest, evidence that the quality of talent recruited for the side stages has narrowed the gap between stages considerably. A music lover could presumably spend their whole day avoiding the main stage and still leave fairly satisfied, and I heard that the 100 fans who stuck around for The Kooks were treated to a thrillingly intimate set.

Everyone else had taken off to see Bloc Party, for whom expectations were huge. A number of gear issues marred their sunset timeslot, and singer Kele Okereke couldn’t get a dependable sound out of his instrument despite the guitar techs scrambling around his feet. After several appearances by the drum tech, it was clear something was wrong, and Bloc Party weren’t pleased.

They met the adversity with the distinct air of indifference, phoning in a collection of tracks off their only well-received album to date, 2005’s Silent Alarm. Okereke made a quick reference to what seems destined to be his band’s next mediocre record, Intimacy, which is due for an October release, not that we were treated to any new songs. The band even opted to forgo their only memorable songs of the past two years, “I Still Remember” and the electro-charged one-off single “Flux.” When Bloc Party excused themselves after a scant 40 minutes, the crowd was left in a lull of appalled disbelief. Very disappointing.

I took refuge in the VIP area, which, thanks to a large, multi-level wooden deck to the left of the stage, finally offered decent sightlines. To my right I witnessed a few brave souls climb an adjacent tree in an effort to secure a better view for headliners The Foo Fighters, and my thoughts turned to a consideration of Dave Grohl’s legacy.

The man fronts one of the most consistently bankable acts in rock n’ roll, yet I often need reminding he was in Nirvana. Even at the ripe old age of 39, Grohl is as energetic a frontman as you’re likely to find among veterans, with a mane of long hair that was definitely grown out with head-banging solos in mind.

He castigated concert-goers who were seeing the band for the first time (“Where have you been for 14 years?”) and gave a shout out to a seven-year old kid hoisted on his parent’s shoulders.

The day’s highlights came in the form of two old favourites, each slowed down to tug properly on the heartstrings. An acoustic version of “My Hero,” with piano and string accompaniment, got the crowd singing, while Grohl’s pensive solo rendition of his masterpiece, “Everlong,” was exactly the kind of chilling moment large-scale festivals are destined to provide.

By the time Grohl cracked open a Coors Light, the party was in full swing. “Monkey Wrench,” “The Pretender,” and “Best of Me” ended VFest’s first day with a mammoth hit parade that was nothing short of triumphant.

DAY 2

The unthinkable almost happened. After lousy weather marred such anticipated events as Kanye West’s Glow in the Dark Tour, Warped Tour, and the Rogers Picnic, Virgin Festival almost fell victim to Toronto’s record-setting ‘Summer of Rain,’ escaping by a thread as storm clouds passed by on Sunday afternoon. The ground was damp, but we were spared a Glastonbury-esque mudfest and the show went on as planned.

Just as I stepped off the ferry, the dormant sun emerged just in time for Sebastien Grainger and the Mountains. I suppose ‘Les Montagnes’ simply wasn’t accessible enough for an American audience, and with a new record set to drop in October, Grainger is evidently pulling out all the stops for a second shot at fame. However, songs like “Kid Party” are a far cry from his Death From Above 1979 days, lacking the originality that made them one of Toronto’s most buzzed-about bands of the decade. The new material consists of rollicking, melodic rock n’ roll tunes of the mold that has been ubiquitous since the Rolling Stones. Not that Grainger and his mates aren’t tight—bassist Nick Sewell anchors a strong group of instrumentalists, but even seeing the former DFA drummer lying on floor shredding isn’t enough to make up for the lack of personality in his material.

The Weakerthans’ set opened slower than expected with the mournful “Bigfoot!,” but it wasn’t long before they were all smiles, busting out recent singles “Tournament of Hearts” and “Civil Twilight,” introduced respectively as “a song about curling” and “a song about bus drivers.” Old favourites like “The Reasons” off 2003’s Reconstruction Site got the crowd moving, and the band paused before exiting to take a picture of the crowd, which must be one of the biggest that the underrated indie rockers have ever played.

A lack of must-see talent on the side stages (read: the snooze-worthy Matt Costa and the positively dreadful Yoav) meant that more time could be reserved to stake out a good spot in anticipation of Oasis. Hanging back was the easier option, mainly because I wasn’t in the mood to fight through throngs of drunken jocks clad in a random assortment of soccer jerseys.

Silversun Pickups are a band who fit in with the throwback theme—they’re a young band with a strong imprint of mid-90s grunge all over them. They’ve got all the right elements – a dirty misfit of a frontman, a female bassist, and the kind of angsty, distorted guitar riffs that would probably have scored them a SPIN cover back in 1995. The subdued crowd seemed to wait and wait for “Lazy Eye,” which the band milked to the best of their ability, stretching both the intro and outro into a reverb-washed mass of self-indulgence.

I’ll pause here to mention that V Fest’s famed text message ticker was a massive disappointment this year, which I blame on its Motorola sponsor. The font was so big that only two words fit on the screen at once, testing my patience all weekend. It might be a tiny detail, but somehow it wears on you if it’s not perfect.

For a band that has not had a hit record in North America for at least seven years, the resurrected Stereophonics boasted a surprising number of dedicated British ex-pats belting out the words to “Have A Nice Day” and the media hate-on “Mr. Writer.” Why can’t Stereophonics break through? Maybe we’re just a superficial continent—after all, the bandmembers were famously judged by London’s XFM to be among the ugliest men in rock n’ roll. They closed with “Dakota,” a song that was a contender for single of the year across the pond, but failed to make much of an impact over here.

Paul Weller was next. If you have absolutely no idea who he is, don’t fret—I overheard a photographer in the media tent claim that “Paul Weller is older than my father.” The platinum-coiffed former frontman of British ‘70s rockers The Jam emerged clad in a black American Apparel henley top and promptly ripped through a series of tunes off his latest solo effort, ˆ. The undisputed highlight was The Jam’s classic “Town Called Malice,” revamping the ubiquitous Bo Diddley/Iggy Pop’s “Lust For Life” guitar riff. By this point, Union Jacks, St. George’s crosses, and even a Brazilian flag were raised high, and the scene was set for the headliners.

The media tent was buzzing at 7 p.m. with the news that Oasis had barred nearly all photographers for their set. I suppose we shouldn’t have been surprised—their prima donna reputation precedes them. By now, Oasis’ schtick is familiar to everyone. Whether you love or hate them, they’ve successfully made the transition to legends, and Liam Gallagher’s trademark sunglasses and arrogant center stage pose (head tilted back, looking down his nose at his adoring public), is now world famous.

The recent rush of retroactive praise for Oasis’ debut album Definitely, Maybe seems to have reached the band, as their set consisted mainly of standards like “Rock N’ Roll Star” and “Cigarettes & Alcohol.”

They found time for the Liam-penned “Songbird” before disaster struck. A senseless fan rushed the stage and a scuffle ensued before he was taken down by security guards. When the band dropped their instruments and fled without a word, it appeared that V Fest had ended on a sudden and tragic note.

After a few minutes of stunned and confused silence, a stage handler approached the mic and begged the crowd for five minutes of patience, promising the show would go on. I may be of little faith, but I was convinced that it was all over, and the “infamous Toronto stage-charging debacle” would go down as the latest page in Oasis’ dramatic history.

But it was not to be. Led by songwriter and guitarist Noel Gallagher, who took over during Liam’s conspicuous absence, the band re-emerged and soldiered on. Liam appeared at the side stage unscathed, leading us through “Wonderwall” and a few select cuts. Noel took back the lead vocal for an emotional acoustic take on personal favourite “Don’t Look Back In Anger.”

I suppose we were lucky that Oasis didn’t simply mumble profanities and hop on their tour bus, yet regrettably, their post-scuffle effort seemed half-hearted. As they closed with a cover of The Beatles’ “I Am the Walrus,” the mood seemed to be one of relief rather than exuberance. Virgin Festival managed to avoid a riot, but the theme of reliving past glories had reared its ugly head. Without so much as a brawl when the drama went down, the tense atmosphere lacked a climax. Instead, we reached an apathetic compromise. It’s the type of maturity that only comes with age. While the years may have caught up with us, the song remains the same.

Film festival rolls on

Now that the stars have touched down in our fair city, the annual celeb stalking season can begin in earnest. But it’s not all glitz and glamour—there are some genuinely surprising films making waves, from faded action star documentaries to Bollywood musicals. There’s only a week left until the action dies down, so check out The Varsity’s second installment of TIFF reviews and get your tickets while you can!

ASHES OF TIME REDUX – (Wong Kar Wai)

Available for years only as a blurry bootleg, Wong Kar Wai has retooled his 1994 martial arts saga Ashes of Time for its premiere North American theatrical release. Yet “martial arts saga” is a misleading description of the film, whose Sammo Hung-choreographed battles are choppy and impressionistic. Ashes of Time is a meditation on loss, loneliness, and memory more in line with the dreamy sensibility of Wong’s other films than with the Crouching Tiger and Hero comparisons its marketing campaign would like to make. Structurally challenging and narratively dense, even by Wong’s standards, the film reveals many layers on repeat viewings. Wong’s extraordinary visual sense and his evocative creation of mood should win over first-timers as well. The redux version is seven minutes shorter than the original, featuring enhanced sound and a spiffy opening credits sequence. These changes are hardly essential, but it sure is nice to see Christopher Doyle’s sumptuous cinematography on the big screen in full, restored splendor.

Rating: VVVVV

THE BROTHERS BLOOM – (Rian Johnson)

Rian Johnson, writer-director of Brick, goes in a completely different direction for his anticipated sophomore follow-up: a breezy and colourful comedy that’s one of the most crowd-pleasing of this year’s hot-tickets. Mark Ruffalo and Adrien Brody are orphaned brothers who become the best con men in the business, but when a reluctant Brody is convinced to take on one last job, he falls in love with their target, an heiress shut-in played with warmth by Rachel Weisz. The first half of The Brothers Bloom is quirky, deadpan comedy in the vein of Wes Anderson, while the second grows increasingly emotional. Despite this serious turn, The Brothers Bloom is a lot of fun thanks to Johnson’s bright visual style and the likeability of the cast (which also includes Rinko Kikuchi, Robbie Coltrane, and Maximilian Schell).

Rating: VVVv

JCVD – (Mabrouk El Mechri)

With every film festival comes a few curveballs, and here’s a sentence I never thought I’d write: Jean-Claude Van Damme gives a great performance. In JCVD, the most buzzed-about entry in Colin Geddes’ Midnight Madness line-up, he plays himself, a washed-up action star that unwittingly stumbles into a post office robbery. While JCVD holds big laughs, it transcends its ironic premise by becoming a comedy that actually works as drama. Director El Mechri doesn’t look down on Van Damme; instead, he creates a film that is sympathetic to “the Muscles from Brussels” through his personal and professional ups-and-downs. In one extraordinary scene, Van Damme delivers an improvised monologue straight into the camera about the pitfalls of fame. Who knew that the guy from Bloodsport could be so nakedly self-confessional?

Rating: VVVVv

SINGH IS KINNG – (Anees Bazmee)

Whenever I admit that I indulge in Bollywood cinema, I’m usually met with strange looks and questioning of my filmic credentials. So from now on, I’m going to direct all uninitiated cinephiles to Singh is Kinng, an utterly insane piece of Indian populist filmmaking that crams oodles of senseless fun into its twoa-and-a-half-hour running time. Singh is Kinng (arguably the best title of all time—I rate it ahead of Bela Lugosi Meets a Brooklyn Gorilla) follows the adventures of Happy Singh (Akshay Kumar), a goofy hick who implausibly becomes the king of an Australian gang. Hard-boiled action, unspeakably broad comedy, sloppy sentimentality, and lavish musical numbers co-exist in a distinctly Bollywood fashion. Singh is Kinng is both ridiculous and utterly irresistible.

Rating: VVV

Fear factor

Fear is a hard-wired human emotion that, when functioning efficiently, produces a lifesaving reaction to life’s mishaps. While fear is helpful in dealing with catastrophy, it often induces debilitating inaction, ranging from “exam blank” to psychiatric disorders such as generalized and social anxiety.

Anxiety disorders affect over two million Canadians each year, inhibiting their ability to function in the world. In the eyes of a person suffering from social anxiety, a routine trip to the grocery store can seem threatening due to an irrational fear of being ridiculed by others. Treatments, such as systematic desensitization behavioral therapy, exist for treating anxiety disorders such as this. In this form of therapy, patients work with a psychiatrist to become exposed little by little to their anxiety triggers. The hope is that eventually they will be able to manage their fear while completely exposed. However, fear-renewal can prevent patients from transferring their therapeutic improvements from the context of their therapist’s office. Fear-renewal occurs when a patient who initially learns to overcome their anxiety in one context suddenly encounters their past fear in a different context, reviving the old fear response once again.

Improving the understanding of fear-renewal is critical to strengthening therapies aimed at anxiety disorders. Fortunately, an article recently published in the journal Nature provides a new biological perspective.

Lead researcher Dr. Cyril Herry and his team from the Friedrich Miescher Institute for Biomedical Research in Switzerland set out to determine which, if any, neuronal circuits in the brain instigate fear-renewal. To investigate this question, the team employed an army of mice, each one fitted with electrodes in their basal amygdala. This almond-shaped portion of the brain was chosen because previous research suggested it was important in the mediation of both fear and fear-renewal.

The team conditioned fear into the mice via both loud noises and mild shocks, and then desensitized them to such treatments. The researchers were able to produce fear-renewal responses by placing the mice in new contexts and reintroducing the old fear-inducing noises and shocks. With help from the implanted electrodes and subsequent behavioral and brain analyses, the researchers pinpointed two groups of nuclei in the amygdala responsible for modulating fear-renewal responses. When these nuclei fire, their neuronal circuits connected to other parts of the brain instigate renewal of fear.

“Our data show that the [basal amygdala] contains distinct populations of neurons for which activity is oppositely correlated with high and low fear behaviour,” the researchers wrote. “Our findings are consistent with the idea that in mammals, as in invertebrates, switches between appropriate behavioural states can be driven by discrete neuronal circuits. It may be a general principle of the functional micro-architecture of the nervous system in diverse species, that circuits mediating switches between distinct behavioural states are located in close anatomical proximity thereby allowing for local interactions.”

With the mapping of the neuronal circuits responsible for fear-renewal complete, the researchers can determine how to best modulate them in order to prevent context-dependent fears from reoccurring. In the future, a drug may be able to tip the balance of activity between the neuronal circuits in order to help prevent fear-renewal and treat anxiety disorders.

Monosodium Glutamate

Monosodium glutamate, more commonly known as MSG, is used as a taste enhancer. It was isolated in 1907, used primarily by Japanese corporations. Pure MSG has an appearance of white crystalline powder and dissociates into positively charged sodium ions and negatively charged glutamate ions in water. MSG is the sodium salt of glutamate and has a similar flavouring function as glutamic acid, a naturally occurring amino acid. MSG is low in sodium and contains a third of the sodium found in regular table salt. In fact, incorporating MSG into cooking can reduce the amount of table salt added by 20 to 40 per cent.

MSG is said to have a “fifth taste,” independent of bitter, sweet, salty, and sour. It is called “umami” in Japan and is described by North Americans as savoury. It is sold under several names, such as Ajinomoto, Vetsin, and Accent. Commercial MSG is generated by the fermentation of sugar cane, starch, sugar beets, or molasses, much like the processes used to produce beer or vinegar. MSG is found in canned products, frozen dinners, fast food, instant noodles, and many condiments.

The body treats MSG similarily to natural glutamate. The average American consumes about 11 grams of glutamate per day from natural protein sources and less than one gram of glutamate per day from MSG. In contrast, the body creates about 50 grams of glutamate daily as a vital component of its metabolism.

The American College of Allergy, Asthma, and Immunology has stated that MSG is not an allergen. In addition, The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) have classified MSG as “generally recognized as safe.” A review of glutamate safety sponsored by the FDA in 1995 reaffirmed the safety of MSG when consumed at levels used in cooking and food manufacturing. There is no evidence to suggest that MSG contributes to long-term health problems. Nevertheless, the FDA did acknowledge that some people may have short-term reactions to MSG, known as MSG symptom complex. Symptoms may include headache, flushing, sweating, and heart palpitations.