Sunday, 28 August 2016

Close calls and the Clash

People have asked me about my summer holiday. I don't think of steeple chases as being holidays. This year's Victoria visit ended in the same tempo as the previous five weeks, that is, manufactured calm stretched over panic.

Having packed on the afternoon of the day before my departure, I noticed an email alert from Air Canada, warning of severe thunderstorms forecast for Toronto and Hades -- my exact route home.  Sitting in Demeter's dining room, I was hit by an avalanche of flashbacks from August 2003.

That was the year the Resident Fan Boy returned to Hades before us, because we'd begun the trip visiting the RFB's cousins in Alberta.  So, on that fateful August morning,  I arrived at Victoria International airport, marshalling twelve-year-old elder daughter and seven-year-old younger daughter, and thinking for three.  The check-in agent offered to switch our tickets from a route through Toronto to a transfer at Vancouver to a direct flight to Ottawa, which would land us in Hades a full hour earlier.  I considered my Virgo husband, all set to meet us at the airport, and refused.

After the long flight to Toronto, I comforted myself and younger daughter with the prospect of seeing the RFB in an hour or so.  Our flight to Hades was scheduled to leave at 4:10 pm, and we boarded at 3:50 pm, so we didn't see the lights go out.

The first indication that we had a problem was when the pilot told us we were unable to disconnect from the boarding tunnel.  The next was when the flight attendants started handing out ice cream bars.  A lady with a cell phone across the aisle informed us that it was the whole American north-east, plus Ontario.  After over an hour, we were told to get out, reclaim our luggage, and re-book.  We descended the escalator into hell.  (My grandmother always said that hell would be like an airport.)

Crowds of flustered people pressed up against dimly-lit luggage carousels.  Backed-up toilets (electronic flushers).  Rows of locked luggage trolleys (electronic release mechanisms).  Piles of pet-carriers containing yelping and dehydrated animals.  Huge line-ups to pay phones, because in 2003, not that many people had cell phones.

I didn't know where to go first.  Where would I take the girls for the night?  How could I explain this to younger daughter, who was begging to be taken "home to Ottawa, to see Daddy"?

It became increasingly clear that our luggage was not going to appear, especially when the generator for the carousel broke down after a couple of hours.  A young man showed me how to use my credit card in the pay phone, and a lady, noticing younger daughter's distress, let me in the line ahead of her.  I called the RFB, but he was waiting for us at the airport in Ottawa, and our answering machine, being electric, didn't work.

Fortunately, I had my address book with me and desperately put a call through to friends in Etobicoke.  Unfortunately, their elder daughter was home.  A nice girl, but not that swift on the uptake:
"Oh hi!  We're having a black-out!"
"Yes, I know.  We're at the airport..."
"Yeah?  Where ya going?"
My heart sank.
"Nowhere.  The planes are grounded."
"Man!  I hadn't thought of that!"
I'll bet, I thought, glancing at the long line-up behind me.  I could hear her father asking who it was.  He was there in twenty minutes, even with no working traffic lights, by which time an announcement informed us that ticketed luggage would be forwarded to the appropriate airport.  This left us in the clothes in which we were standing, but with the books, tapes and toys in our carry-on luggage.  In those days before liquid restrictions, I also had cosmetics and saline solution for my contact lenses.

Younger daughter was beside herself. She clutched my hand from the rear seat of the van, nearly twisting my arm out of its socket.  However, as we entered the dimly-lit hall of our friends' condo building, she turned and asked:  "Are we into Toronto?"  (We had stayed here for a visit during March Break the year before.)  One bowl of melted strawberry short-cake ice cream, and she was much better!

Later, as my exhausted daughters slept, I opened the blinds, got back into bed, and gazed out at a pitch-black city, listening to CBC radio on the headphones of my Walkman, trying not to fret about how I would get the girls home.  The voices on the radio were describing how clear the stars were, but all I could see were clouds of mosquitoes just beyond the screens.

The next morning, I tried to reach the bus depot, and the phone was answered by an agent in Alberta. I tried to reach my travel agent and Air Canada -- nothing but voice mail and busy signals.  I finally phoned Via Rail, let it ring more than two minutes, then got through to book train tickets.  I learned the Resident Fan Boy had managed to book plane tickets.  I thought of the hell we'd left the night before - nothing in the news reports indicated that anything had changed - and decided to chance the train.

Our hosts, who had given up their bed to us, tried to convince us to stay, but I had the overwhelming feeling that I had to get younger daughter home somehow.  They relented and packed an enormous care package of cookies, fruit, peanut butter sandwiches, several cartons of apple juice, and bottles of water.  I wondered how on earth I'd manage to cart this along with our carry-on luggage.

At 11 am, Union Station in downtown Toronto was steamy and crowded.  The line-up at our gate turned out to be for the 9:30 am train.  They told me to expect the 12:35 train at 1:45.  Then 2 pm.  Then 2:30.  Elder daughter had assumed the task of checking the notice board, walking the length of the station and reporting back.

I rationed out food to the girls with each delay, buying myself time and giving silent and fervent thanks for the heavy bag of goodies as it became lighter and lighter. I used my new credit card skill to phone the RFB every couple of hours, as my hopes dwindled.  With each passing hour, I wondered desperately if I should find a bus to the airport.  Which would get us home quicker?  Staying here as the trains were steadily delayed, or setting up camp at the airport where, the radio told me, the computers had completely broken down?

"I have a Clash song playing in my head," I told a fellow mum, who was attempting to shepherd half a dozen teenagers back to Windsor. She grinned broadly and began to growl:  "Da-duh-duh, duh-duh, duh-duh DA!  Should I stay or should I go?"
"If I go, it could be trouble!"  I sang back.
"If I stay, it could be double!" We were both dancing now.  I think we embarrassed the teenagers.

At 3:30, they told us our train was cancelled, and that we would be hooked up with the next train to Ottawa. That's the closest I came to breaking down completely.

At 5 pm, I stumbled up the steps to the train platform and a guard said that this coach was for First Class. Maybe it was the sight of two bedraggled little girls that convinced him to allow us into the railcar -- air-conditioned, comfortable and spacious with, glory be, a food cart with reasonably fresh food.

The train took two hours to reach the Toronto city limits, ordinarily a twenty-minute trip, but rail switches had to be done by hand. Out the window, we saw Lake Ontario and lush fields with butterflies and dragonflies having no trouble keeping pace with the train.

During the seven-hour train ride (usually four hours), we did puzzles, listened to story tapes and the CBC, read books, ate, drank, and chatted with our neighbouring passengers, all from Toronto: an elderly lady determined to attend a wedding, and a mum and her two daughters who had decided to sweat the wait for a family visit to Carp -- I thought they were all very nice, but nuts, but didn't say so, of course!

Younger daughter dozed off, there was a blood-red moon on the horizon, and we stopped off-line to let a luxury American passenger train pass. We could see the fancy lamps in the sleeper cars.

The Resident Fan Boy was waiting for us at the station when we arrived after midnight, some forty hours after getting up to go to the Victoria airport. People jumped the tracks to head for the parking lot; the VIA employees wisely decided to overlook this. Younger daughter wrapped herself firmly around her dad, and we returned by taxi to our stuffy house. The power was back, but air-conditioning was forbidden.  The following day, Resident Fan Boy found our suitcases amongst the hundreds at the airport, because I'd tied gaily-coloured ribbons to the handles.  No one asked him for ID.

All this flashed through my skull in August 2016, prodding me to re-book my flight -- to a 6 am departure the next morning.  I said my goodbyes to Demeter before going to bed, rose at 2:45 am to finish last-minute packing and call a cab at 3:30 am to ensure arrival at Victoria airport at 4:30 am.  My cabbie grew up in Belleville, one of the towns we passed through on that slow train ride thirteen years ago.  He loves Victoria, has no desire to return to Ontario.

Sadly, neither did I.

Pat Bay Highway was like a country road at that hour and I arrived early.  The plane had been described as going to Ottawa, but had a stop in Toronto, descending through thunderheads.  I had to leave the plane, wait in the lobby and then queue with my ID and boarding pass to get back on.

The threatened thunderstorms never materialized.

Saturday, 27 August 2016

Those days are over

I am working on a longer post -- which will probably be less interesting than this cover of one of my least favourite Police songs. (Oh, don't get cross; it's a fine song, but I don't happen to care for it.) I think what really makes this version work is the fabulous back-up:

Friday, 26 August 2016

A last hip shot

Sorry, running out of time today, but I can't resist this last call-out for the Tragically Hip from Mclean's Magazine, who had videographers on the west coast of Canada (Vancouver Commodore Ballroom - long a favourite venue for Canadian bands), on the east coast of Canada (the Grand Parade by Halifax Harbour -- the Hip's final tour didn't go any farther east than Ottawa),  in the Prairies (if Calgary can be considered near the prairies, they're practically in the foothills of the Rockies), in a Toronto venue long associated with the Hip, in a small town that shares its name with a classic Hip song, and in the town square of the Hip's hometown of Kingston, because everyone couldn't fit into the arena where the concert was held.

The crowd is predominantly white, and in the 30-50 age range, but those are Hip fans for ya.  It's still pretty darn touching.

Thursday, 25 August 2016

This is only a test

So at the tail-end of my Double Leo Sister's surprise visit with her family, I was sitting in a Greek restaurant, feeling fortunate to have survived the three days with no emotional explosions. (Oh, there were explosions, but none directed at me, so I was all right, Jack.)

The painting below caught my eye, and I stared at it for a few minutes in disbelief, before asking the Jolly Not-So-Green Giant Brother-in-law if I were seeing what I thought I was seeing.

I want you to look at the painting before scrolling down. What do you see? Go on, I'll wait:


My brother-in-law told me it was a blue door and two shuttered windows on a house of sand-coloured brick set into a courtyard.

I saw three dangling Tardises -- or what ever the plural of TARDIS is.

I sent the photo to the Resident Fan Boy in Hades. You can probably guess what he saw.

Wednesday, 24 August 2016

Classes of classical

Elder daughter has now been working for a small but major arts group in Hades for the past five months, and has survived her first music festival with them. Part of her job is keeping the social media posts for the organization fresh and interesting. Heck, I'm hooked! This appeared on Twitter and Facebook today.

I particularly enjoy the stand-off between Beethoven and Mozart over who represents "classical" (we were taught in Music Appreciation that Beethoven straddles Classical and Romantic) -- and I love the bit where John Cage's silence is blotted out by Claude Debussy.

Tuesday, 23 August 2016

Mixed media

The neigbourhood surrounding our not-quite-fallen-through house-sit is full of surprises. Our house-sitting hosts have downsized from a large hilltop home near a golf-course to what looks like, at first glance, a carport. It isn't; it's a perfectly charming three-bedroom bungalow with plenty of space, the sort of house that would suit us perfectly. However, I do think it used to be the garage for the enormous house next door; there are steps cut into the volcanic rock leading up to the mansion -- although now the steps go nowhere.

A walk down the street takes me past typical suburban constructions, then all of a sudden, I find myself just outside a metal fence festooned with "PRIVATE" and other equally welcoming signs. Several motorcycles line the curb at this point.

I blink and I'm by the meticulously kept gardens of modest duplexes which feature ancient lawn ornaments. I'll bet these people love living cheek-by-jowl with Hell's Angels types.

I turn the corner and descend a steep hill without sidewalks, taking me past the local park with an ancient and doomed willow. Dead ahead are the bouquets of artificial flowers marking the spot where a musician died trying to cross Hillside Road a few days before my arrival in Victoria this year.

The neighbourhood is so tangled and labyrinthine that it's possible to approach the house-sit by no less than five different routes. At night, I choose the best-lit one, scuttling past the condo where a friend lived briefly a decade or so ago, and peeking in the window of an old rangy house where students are partying -- sedately.

But one August afternoon, I'm coming from the mall, meandering up the hill through a cluster of smaller houses. No one is about, except for the occasional car. I'm listening to the padding of my footsteps when I hear ominous snuffling grunts that appear to be overtaking me quickly from behind. I barely have the time to register a brief, resigned thought of Oh gawd, no, when there's a puff of dust directly ahead of me and a large dog hurls itself at the chain-link fence, followed immediately by a slightly smaller dog in full snarl.

Dazed, I swallow my heart, and despite the protective barrier separating me from those two powerful sets of jaws, cross to the other side of the street and hurry on.

But not too quickly. I don't want to seem any more like prey than I obviously am.

Monday, 22 August 2016

"Have a nice life."

Some years ago, I ran into my ex-boyfriend.  We'd been having a friendly chat, so I was startled when, as he walked off, he said, "Have a nice life."  I realized I would never see him again.

On Saturday evening, I joined eleven million other Canadians - that's roughly a third of the country, folks - in watching a dying man's final concert. As massively morbid as that sounds, there were many moments of joy, of poignancy and even awkwardness.

 Of course, that was a Tragically Hip concert at the best of times.

This wasn't the best of times. Gordon Downie, the Hip's lead singer, was diagnosed with terminal brain cancer not long ago. This follows hard on the heels of the farewell concert for John Mann, the lead singer of The Spirit of the West, who is heading down the long road of early onset Alzheimer's. The Hip are huge in Canada, so they too decided to embark on a 15-concert farewell tour, starting in Victoria on July 22nd, passing through Hades on August 18th, and finishing in their hometown of Kingston, Ontario on Saturday night.

Demand for tickets was so high that the CBC actually put aside three hours of prime Olympic Games broadcast time - on the last full day of competition, if you please - and broadcast the concert via television, radio and the Internet.

I'm not even a "Hip-head", but you can't live in Canada and be unaware of their music.  I first heard them through Much Music, of course, back in the late eighties when they played driving rock and mostly appealed to adolescent and post-adolescent boys.  As Downie himself commented between songs Saturday night, the "girls" finally started following the Hip in the mid-nineties and, indeed, the first Hip song I recall even liking was the wistful and regretful "Ahead by a Century".  This is also the one song the Resident Fan Boy recognizes -- and he thought it was by some English group because of the cricket reference.

With illusions of some day
Casting a golden light
No dress rehearsal
This is our life.

The Tragically Hip have been described, maybe several times too often, as the quintessential Canadian band, especially over the past few weeks as CBC Radio has been playing hours of Hip music and Hip-related interviews.  Rush fans might contest the "most Canadian band" thing, but frankly, the appeal of Rush has always eluded me.  Geddy Lee, Rush's lead singer, said on yet another CBC Hip-related interview that most people might argue that Bobcaygeon is the most Canadian song (it isn't - that's so Ontario), but he thought that "Fifty Mission Cap" was.  An odd choice, considering that Canadians never had a fifty mission cap, to the best of my knowledge.  When the song opened the concert, the RFB and I looked at each other in bemusement.  Like most of Gordon Downie's songs, the lyrics are a bit obscure and you have to look them up on some web site like A Museum After Dark to know what the hell he's going on about.

You won't be surprised to learn that I disagree with Geddy Lee.  I think the most Canadian song ever is indeed a Hip Song:
Like "Fifty Mission Cap", "Fireworks" also references hockey, in this case, the hockey moment that every Canadian above the age of thirty-five remembers - Paul Henderson's goal at the 1972 Summit Series. However, it also features a girl who doesn't "give a f*&% about hockey" (sister!), and mentions the dreaded Canadian Fitness Programme that made P.E. a hell on earth for kids attending school between 1970 and 1990.

So, I, the non-Hip-head, remained entranced in my chair throughout three sets and three encores, with the growing realization that these songs were being performed for the last time.

Among other things, Downie sang about a cholera epidemic, Hugh MacLennan, the mysterious disappearance of a member of the Group of Seven, the sinking of the Bismarck, and the wrongful conviction and imprisonment of David Milgaard.  He even cornered the Prime Minister of Canada about Attawapiskat and the continuing crisis with the First Nations.

Each song sounded like a finale, but I looked at the Resident Fan Boy and shook my head.  "He hasn't sung 'Locked in the Trunk of a Car' or 'Ahead by a Century' yet."

Finally, Rob Barker started an unfamiliar acoustic solo with a familiar rhythm that segued into the unmistakeable opening chords.

Here's how it sounded in Edmonton, about three weeks before that.

However, Kingston is the hometown of the Hip and with this song, as with all songs that last evening, the crowd sang along, and as the instruments took over, Downie had a last communion with the crowd, who eagerly and almost desperately reached out to him. The sound quality in the video below, taken near the stage in Kingston, is not as clear as the CBC broadcast, but this gives you some indication of the atmosphere, and why so many people across Canada were crying.

Not long before this, Gordon Downie told the audience to "have a nice life".

When a Canadian says that, you know it's goodbye for good.

Sunday, 21 August 2016

Saturday, 20 August 2016

Things you never see in Hades these days

I saw this on the way to my morning art class. I never see classic Volkswagens in Ottawa; the weather must have dissolved them into piles of brown rust.