Wednesday, 31 May 2017

That deadly piper

When I rose yesterday morning, there was a birthday reminder from one of my online calendars, and my heart lurched. It was the birthday of a recently deceased friend.

Two weeks ago, word came from a mutual friend that the poetry man had died two weeks before that. The length of time between his departure and its announcement in an email from the university department where he'd worked, the lack of an obituary, and the knowledge that the poetry man had battled depression for years all seem to indicate a suicide.

I felt punched, bruised, numbed. The only clues I had to my feelings on the matter were strange, intermittent leakages of tears as I fired off a brief and, I hope, compassionate email to his estranged wife, to let her know that I'd heard. She's someone I've known since adolescence, and it's entirely in her character to keep a discreet silence, shielding their vulnerable children.

Eventually, I moved to the bookshelves in the study, and pulled out a baggie of poems, sent to me, at my request, some time after we left for Ottawa, when I first learned that the poetry man wrote poems. I remember my relief when I first read them and realized that they were good.

The poetry man was a gracious fellow with a gentle, erudite Alabaman accent. Even before I knew he was a poet, I was always struck by his measured and lyrical way of speaking. He introduced me to the novels of William Faulkner, each one a challenge, each one not like any of the others.

While I may not have been quite as enthusiastic about Faulkner as he was, he and I did an appreciation for the Hooters. I sat up for a while, listening to a couple of my favourites, including this one, which turns out to be about suicide.

Surrender into the night,
Silently take my hand.
Nobody knows what's inside us,
Nobody understands.
They handed us down a dream,
To live in this lonely town.
But nobody hears the music,
Only the echo of a hollow sound.

Where do the children go,
Between the bright night and darkest day?
Where do the children go,
And who's that deadly piper who leads them away?

Together we make our way,
Passengers on a train.
Whisper a secret forever,
Promises in the rain. No, whoa...
We're leaving it all behind,
While castles are falling down.
We're going where no one can find us.
And if there's a heaven,
We'll find it somehow.


Sunday, 30 April 2017

Ideas are like stars

I've just had a significant birthday.  Or is it an insignificant one?  It leaves me with a zero at the end, anyway.

As an antidote, I pulled together songs that came out in a year that ended in "7".  For 1997, I chose "Ideas Are Like Stars" by Mary Chapin Carpenter, a song that, for me, doesn't belong so much to 1997, as it belongs to 2001, and my first winter in Hades.

I'd just acquired the CD A Place in the World, and younger daughter had just been "identified" as having Special Needs.  This song would come on, and I'd have to dive into the basement to smother my sobbing.

While searching for videos, I came across a new recording Mary Chapin Carpenter has made, with an orchestral score and choir.

Today Joseph is sitting alone, with occasional nods to the waitress
She tops off his cup while she's snapping her gum, making her rounds on the lunch shift
Counting out coins, he leaves them arranged, in neat lines and circles and arcs
She just stares at the tip that spells out her name and ideas are like stars

And yesterday pedaling down 4th Avenue, between the stalls and the bookshops
The sepia tones of a lost afternoon cradled a curio storefront
And inside the air was thick with the past, as the dust settled onto his heart
And here for a moment is every place in the world and ideas are like stars

They fall from the sky, they run round your head
They litter your sleep as they beckon
They'd teach you to fly without wires or thread
They promise if only you'd let them

For the language of longing never had words,
so how did you speak from your heart?
Yet here is a box that swears it has heard that ideas are like stars

Tonight Joseph stood out in the yard, as Debussy played from the kitchen
Celestial companions `til mornings first lark, shone overhead and he listened
And who was that shadow there by the gate, who was that there standing guard
It was only loneliness, and loneliness waits, and ideas are like stars
Ideas are like stars.

I've since learned that the Joseph in the song refers to American artist Joseph Cornell, and have found a video featuring the original 1996 recording, with images of Cornell's artwork.

Wednesday, 1 March 2017

Queues and pews

There's an Ottawa mentality about queuing and seating. Oh, I'm sure similar attitudes exist elsewhere, but here in Hades, it's just so damn noticeable.

Recently, the Resident Fan Boy, younger daughter, and I went to the first screening of the day at the Bytowne Cinema. We, and some others, were standing around in a scattered sort of semi-circle, waiting for the box office to open in about five minutes. An older lady asked me, "Is this the line?"
"No," I replied.
"Well," she said. "Maybe it's time to start one." And she actually reached out to nudge me into place.

I looked around in disbelief. I could see the staff dismantling the locks and setting out the signs. There were no more than ten people standing outside. Ignoring her, I moved toward the opening door, following those who had arrived before us and who weren't in line either.

The Resident Fan Boy and younger daughter went in to get our preferred seats, the ones on the left side of the left aisle. We've discovered from years of attending films at the Bytowne that our view is unimpeded, few people sit there, and it unlikely anyone will clamber over you to sit by the wall. They saved me a seat directly in front, while I fetched the popcorn.

Unfortunately, they'd chosen seats two rows behind Line-up Lady. This would normally be no problem because of the way the seats are staggered, I'd have a clear view over her right shoulder. After a few minutes, the film not having started, she got up, paused meaningfully by my seat and informed me that she was moving because the smell of popcorn made her ill. I cheerfully made sympathetic noises, because I find, on the whole, refusing to take the bait from someone who's annoyed with you for the egregious sin of eating popcorn in a cinema - just for an example - is far more satisfying in the long run.

So, a few days later, we arrived in good time for a performance by the guitar virtuosi Assad Brothers at Dominion-Chalmers United Church. The Resident Fan Boy, a veteran of many years of Chamberfest seating wars, hurried to the balcony where our season tickets are, and sat to the far left of our pew. The tickets give you the section, pew number, but no seat assignment, simply ending with the word "Pew", so, if you're early enough, you can stake out the part of the pew closest to the central view of the stage. The view is perfectly reasonable from other parts of the pew, but, hey, there has to be some perk for showing up early.

I put my coat on my spot and dashed off to the washroom, because the line-up at Intermission is a nightmare, especially with a sold-out audience. When I returned, I found another older lady standing by my coat and looking pointedly at it. Under her watchful gaze, I carefully rolled up my coat, stowed it under the pew, and took my place next to my husband, feeling somehow that I had broken some secret rule. She remained standing, as a couple established themselves at the other end of the pew. Eventually, a gentleman greeted her and they sat down.

Meanwhile, in front of us, another mini-drama was unfolding. A lady was trying to explain to the couple in front of us that she had reserved seating on the prized left end of the pew, that is, dead-centre in the front row of the balcony.

She was holding up a fairly sizeable plastic laminated square, which read: "Reserved". Apparently, the female half of the couple had been sitting on it. I watched as the reservation lady calmly and patiently explained the situation, apparently to no avail. The other lady was making sweeping gestures towards other parts of the balcony. Eventually, one of the volunteers joined the conversation, and the couple made room. Elder daughter explained to me later that the reservation lady is a major patron of Chamberfest; in fact, it is safe to say the concert was taking place thanks to her support. She has to claim and explain her reservation every damn time.

The concert eventually started after a bus-load of Montreal music students rumbled into the upper balcony pews about fifteen minutes after the show was due to start. The brothers rippled and nodded. I've never heard nor sensed such an intent audience.

This was my favourite, particularly the "Musette Rondeau", which is about at the 3:50 mark in this video.

From our pew, their bent legs made them look a bit like Muppets.

Tuesday, 28 February 2017

"Go home to your families!"

In mid-February, before I was felled by the flu and locked up inside for a week, I battled the mean streets of Hades -- well, mean sidewalks, actually. Oceans of colourless slush hemmed in by the berms which the city had failed to scrape away. Exhausted, damp, and chilled, I found myself on a twilight bus, checking my phone, like the other grey citizens of Ottawa. I saw bad news, and reacted in my early twenty-first century manner: I reposted it to Facebook, texted the Resident Fan Boy, and read the details at various news links on social media.

The lady next to me indicated that she'd like to get up.
"Oh, I'm getting out too," I assured her. "I'll just shut down my phone."
"I'm sorry, but I couldn't help noticing -- has Stuart McLean died?"

And we pulled our things together, sidling toward the exit, while talking of the Vinyl Café concerts we'd been to, and our favourite Dave and Morley stories. She said her parents would be especially upset; I told her the Resident Fan Boy had been a Stuart McLean fan since Morningside. She was probably a little too young to remember that far back.

I guess scenes like this were playing out across Canada on the evening of February 15th. By dinnertime, my expatriate friends were chiming in from the other sides of the globe.

I started listening to the tales about Dave and Morley when our daughters were tiny, and we couldn't get out much. The RFB and I attended our first Vinyl Café Christmas concert about twelve years ago. We spent that evening tucked up in the highest reaches of the upper balcony of the National Arts Centre, wrapped in the warm waves of laughter. After three or four years, we started taking our daughters along. Elder daughter love the stories; younger daughter loved the music. Since Ottawa was almost always the last stop of the tour, between 2003 and 2014, the Christmas show was our signal that the holiday was prepared for and truly beginning.

Stuart McLean was midway through the concert tour in 2015 when he learned he had melanoma. There was no Vinyl Café Christmas in Ottawa that year. In December 2016, the CBC stopped transmitting the Vinyl Café repeats. My heart sank a little then, but that mid-February phone flash still came as a shock. He was only 68. We had hoped for more Christmases, and more stories throughout the year.

One of the year-round features of the Vinyl Café programme on the radio was The Vinyl Café Story Exchange. The rules were simple. It had to be short, and it had to be true. Here's a story I'd always meant to share:

The week before the Christmas of 2005, the Resident Fan Boy and I attended the final Sunday matinée of the Vinyl Café season at the National Arts Centre. We were in Southam Hall, which is the largest of the four theatres that make up the complex. Before the Hall was renovated last summer, the rows in the orchestra section were lo-o-o-o-ong and curved, with no centre aisle. To add to the confusion, odd-numbered seats were all on the left, and even-numbers all on the right. The RFB and I attend several events at Southam Hall each year, so we took our seats by entering from the left aisle. Lots of people coming to the Vinyl Café, however, were from out-of-town, and/or rarely had a reason to come to the NAC.

Shortly before the show, a roly-poly lady entered our row from the left, and laboriously picked her way towards the centre, necessitating every one in her path to stand up and let her by.

A few seats beyond us, she stopped, quizzed a couple of people about their seats, and only then double-checked her ticket. It became clear from her body language that she was in the wrong row, marooned smack dab in the centre of the huge theatre.

By now, those of us who had risen to let her by were commenting on her predicament.

"Well," I remarked, "at least she's keeping going! Better than turning back and irritating the same people twice!"

"This is like a Bob and Morley story," declared the fellow sitting in front of us. He launched into an pitch-perfect Stuart McLean impression, complete with the trademark Stuart-stutter: "She was in the wrong row, so she-she-she just kept going! She-she didn't want to irritate the same people twice!"

We were all breaking up. The lady got to the very end of the row, way, way over on the right side of the concert hall, then had to circle back to the left side of the correct row, and get all those people to stand up to let her by.

The fellow in front kept up the monologue: "She-she-she finally made it to her seat. Ev-everybody applauded. She had no idea why!"

We all promptly broke into applause. The lady looked about her in bewilderment, as we dissolved into conspiratorial giggles.

That's what you could call a Canadian mean streak, I guess. It was about as mean as Stuart McLean ever got.

If you were there in person at a Vinyl Café Concert, Christmas or not, you got to hear the final line that never made it on the radio broadcast. The applause would just go on and on, until Stuart called out in mock-exasperation: "Go home to your families!"

That's just what I did, that frozen February evening.

Monday, 2 January 2017

Some years begin with a whimper

If "begin as you mean to continue" applies to years, I may be in trouble. I did try to begin 2017 with energy and motivation, but soon found myself wheezing, whimpering, and coughing in a corner of the living room, felled by the Resident Fan Boy's Christmas gift to me: a man-cold in all its phlegmy glory. He also gave me the DVD set of Wolf Hall, lest you think less of him.

As someone who hasn't really had a bad cold in over a year, I am out of practice with invalidism. I do wipe down surfaces with rubbing alcohol to excellent effect, but got trapped in our tiny front hall with four of the RFB's power sneezes, which, he insists, he is unable to contain.

Heaven help us if we're ever in hiding.

I'm deriving dubious comfort from this song from The Divine Comedy which was released in 1999, but, I believe, didn't chart in Britain until a decade later. It's about allergies, but I'm living with symptoms -- particularly those liquidy sneezes in the instrumental bridge.

Saturday, 31 December 2016

All Christmases are last Christmases

It's the seventh Day of Christmas, and I still haven't seen this year's Doctor Who Christmas special.

Part of the reason for this is that while the Resident Fan Boy was in the living room, sleeping during the transmission (he says he won't and always does), I was upstairs watching the production of Richard III that makes up The Hollow Crown, a rollicking holiday fun-fest of drownings, smotherings, decapitations, and general treachery, warfare and murder. Take that, Prince of Peace.

However, some hours earlier, after the family had opened their presents Christmas afternoon, I watched the 2014 and 2015 DW Christmas specials. I think I was the one who dropped off to sleep during the original broadcasts in past years, so they were practically new viewing for me, and they both, at some point, have the same message: every Christmas is a last Christmas. We gather together, as Clara said to the Doctor, never knowing whether this will be the last time; that's why we reach out to family and friends as the days draw shorter and darker.

I pondered on this, thinking about Demeter watching us in Hades via Skype as we opened our presents after lunch, as is our custom, the Resident Fan Boy being the son of an Anglican minister who couldn't join the family by the tree until the four Christmas Day services had taken place. Demeter is still with us; the RFB's father is long gone, his last Christmas being nearly twenty years ago.

I think I was still watching Doctor Who when elder daughter appeared and told me that George Michael had just died. George Michael had a big hit with a song called "Last Christmas"; it's one of my least favourite songs ever, but there is no question that he was a huge talent. This was demonstrated to me beyond a shadow of a doubt on an Easter weekend nearly twenty-five years ago, when I, nearly nine months pregnant, willed elder daughter to stay put until after my birthday, which was the following Wednesday. I lay quietly in our bedroom watching the Freddy Mercury Tribute Concert (Mercury had had his last Christmas a few months before), and George Michael nearly blew Wembley Stadium away with this song.

May the coming year, as uncertain as it may appear, be filled with wonderful firsts, and, if there must be lasts, may they be things with which you are glad to part.

Friday, 18 November 2016

"You don't understand my phrases"

As winter nights (and Donald Trump and his merry band) close in inexorably, I bury my head in art, drama, and music.

Recently, we went to see the New Zealand String Quartet (one of whom is actually a New Zealander) at the lovely Dominion-Chalmers United Church.

Younger daughter was furious, saying it would be too long and at night, but I felt her relaxing into a Haydn concerto, and stimming happily during a piece composed specifically for the NZSQ, which involved a playful popping bass-line (rather like that in "Somebody That I Used to Know"), and a lot of dramatic pauses to stretch on the part of the violinists.

The Resident Fan Boy and younger daughter made a quick exit during the intermission. Good thing -- the Schubert quintet that followed (with a guest cellist from the U of O faculty to make up the number) was lovely, but l-o-o-ong, especially when the regular cellist broke a string during the vigorous third movement, and had to vanish back stage for several moments.

I spent much of the time listening intently, of course, and following elder daughter's movements with my bird binoculars, as she slipped quietly into the darker recesses of the balcony to take snaps with my camera, to be published on social media -- part of her job as a communications and marketing specialist.

I recognized the second movement immediately, a summery, sleepy bit of beauty which brought out-of-focus green fields of tall grass to my mind's eye, and tried to remember which film this might have been. When I looked it up at home, I realized that it's the music that closes Conspiracy a dramatic, all-star imagining of the Wannsee Conference of 1942.

On Bank Street, largely and rather worryingly deserted at 10:30 on a Saturday evening, I searched for a bus stop where the shops weren't dark, and was accosted by a bag lady, who had a few conspiracy theories of her own. She even gave me the name of another lady who, she assured me, would tell me a different story.

"You don't understand my phrases," she said.

She was right, there.

Thursday, 17 November 2016


I'd been looking for a quieter and more comfortable place to wait while younger daughter has her morning voice lesson, and had noticed that the church puts out a welcome sign for the sanctuary at noon, so I slipped into the choir stalls because it was the only place with a bit of light, and I thought I might read for half an hour.

Eventually, I saw the lady bustling around, turning on the lights and putting the sandwich board on the sidewalk outside. Beyond her, I could see Elgin Street brimming with buses and cars, but the sanctuary itself was still.

I've sat in the choir stalls before, while waiting for younger daughter's turn to practise for recitals -- but never in the daytime and never this far back. The church is ringed with stained glass windows of various styles and vintages: the nineteenth century's idea of gothic, pre-Raphaelite imitations, even a bit of art-nouveau.

My eyes were drawn to two tiny windows across from my hiding place, high up with the midday light brightening them. I carry bird binoculars in my bag to avoid being caught short at shows in the larger venues at the National Arts Centre, so I drew them out, and focussed on the window directly opposite me.

The photo I've taken doesn't really do justice to the image of a grave little woman in loose blue clothes, accompanied by what looks like a corgi on a lead, the buildings of downtown Ottawa looking bleakly beautiful and distant, caught in an oval frame, and supplicating hands floating above her short-cropped head.

The neighbouring window seems also to be dedicated to the rather lonely-looking little lady, who died at the age of 48 nearly thirty years ago: "A much loved and devoted member of this parish". In the choir, perhaps? Likely, given the position of the windows.

Who remembers her now? I hope someone does.

Wednesday, 16 November 2016

Not wanting to know

Oh, but last week was balmy, fading away into evenings of gentle shades of mustard and rust. We didn't know Leonard Cohen was already dead.

Down by the Rideau River, the pathway seemed to glow in a deep aquamarine. It all reminded me, a little uncomfortably, of an evening eight years ago, which also happened to coincide with the American election.
I slipped off to the Bytowne Cinema for a movie, but returned too soon, so tuned into one of the few television channels not covering the events south of the border, before scooting off to bed early.

The next morning, I awoke at 5:26 and thought:  I don't know who won.  Let's keep it that way for another hour.

So I guess my heart knew.

In the coffee shop, a young fella told us that his American girlfriend had voted Libertarian in the advance polls, being a Bernie Sanders fan.  They're planning to immigrate.

"The Canadian Immigration web site has crashed!" he said, the air of someone delivering astonishing news.  I knew; I'd been standing in horror by the radio speakers in my bedroom.

A man fixing his coffee at the creamer and sweetener station by the door, looked up.
"Trump got in?"

He must have been the last person in Ottawa to know.

A couple of days later, the young fella was seated with his girlfriend in the coffee shop.  He recognized me but thought he'd seen me the day before.  I reminded him it had been the morning after the election.  His girlfriend was a bit taken aback that he'd been discussing her vote with strangers.

"I didn't vote for Trump," she muttered.

I decided it would be unkind to point out that, if she hadn't voted for Hillary Clinton, she had essentially voted for Trump.

Every morning, for the past week, I've woken up with a feeling similar to that when I first learned that younger daughter was special needs.  I feel depressed, trapped, and rather terrified about the future.

At the very least, I don't know how I will be able to face seeing and hearing the likes of Newt Gingrich and Ann Coulter in the media again.

I don't care to discuss the very worst.

Monday, 31 October 2016

Hallowe'en seventeen

This year, I decided to splurge and ordered up a deluxe carving kit with special scoopers, and awls and saws of delicate sizes for intricate stencil work. Here is what elder daughter, the Resident Fan Boy, and younger daughter produced after a couple of hours of diligent chiselling yesterday.
By 8:30, the candies were gone, snaffled up by scores of goblins ranging from wide-eyed and worried toddlers-in-arms to the usual large gangs of gangling teenagers. Having spent seventeen Hades Hallowe'ens, we knew to take the pumpkins in and turn off the porch lights to discourage even larger trick-or-treaters.

Looking uneasily to the south, I wonder if there's a metaphor in there somewhere.