Friday, 28 March 2014

Things I learned during March Break

The corridors leading to the exhibits at the National
Gallery. It's a slow incline and is rarely this deserted.
March Break is usually pretty grim in Hades, but younger daughter gets two weeks off from her independent school.  We generally spend the first week catching up on movies, because the museums are crammed with kids from the regular school system -- usually in March Break day camps, so they're there under duress and often with not quite enough supervision. It can be a bit of a zoo.

In the second week, we hit the museums because Hades, being The National Capital, is rife with them. We found them well-attended (lots of university and school groups doing special tours and scavenger hunts), but less zoological.

Younger daughter has been snappish and short-tempered.  For the past five years, the catch-phrase in our household has been:  "Is it autism or adolescence?"  This year an exacerbating factor has been The Winter That Won't Leave.  The whole city has been in the doldrums for over a month.  We've actually had longer winters and colder winters, but this one has had a depressing persistent sameness that has worn everyone down.

Younger daughter seems to be in perpetual fear of another White Easter, like the one we had in 2008. Elder daughter flew off with her class to Europe between blizzards and enthusiastically described the turquoise waters off Cassis as I held the phone in my slackening hand and gazed out at the three-foot drifts on the deck.  Mind you, Easter was early that year and is not until late April this year, so we should be safe.  That's what I keep telling younger daughter.

Anyway, we must grasp what grace and beauty we can, even in the midst of this off-white (and downright dirty) limbo in which we find ourselves.  Keats tells me that all I need to know is that beauty and truth are one and the same, so here are things I've learned during March Break:

1.  John Ruskin, whom I knew superficially as a writer and critic, was one hell of a sketcher and watercolourist.  There's a visiting exhibit about him at the National Gallery of Canada this "spring".  Here's an overview of the exhibition, which focuses mainly on his architectural preservation work. The video excludes, alas, his amazing nature drawings and paintings.  I've dabbled in watercolour and know that the crispness and detail here ain't easy in that medium. The fellows here do natter on a bit; I'd just focus on the paintings and ignore the first couple of minutes. Ruskin was a photographer too -- did you know that?  In short, I went to the gallery feeling vaguely interested and came away stunned.  If you're in Ottawa before May 11th, do go see it!

2.  The 40 Part Motet art installation by artist Janet Cardiff has been to the National Gallery before, because  a)  it is amazing; and b)  the gallery has an actual historical chapel restored and reconstructed off the indoor garden which is the ideal space to set up forty individual speakers so you can wander around or sit in the centre of a flood of Thomas Tallis.  This video is in a less ideal space, but the roaming camera gives you an idea of how you can get close to the separate voices: 
However, that is not what I learned.

I've had a sore knee since before Christmas and am beginning to despair that it will ever entirely go away, so I had to sit down and rest while the Resident Fan Boy and younger daughter zoomed off to the Modern galleries. The motet is on repeat, of course and I gradually became aware that the babble in the Rideau Chapel was rather louder than it should be for the half a dozen people visiting at the time. I realized that the installation includes the conversation of the singers as they wait to begin. I got up and limped around the circle of speakers, hearing someone warming up, two baritones joking and shooting the breeze, etc. Then the singing began again, in small groups taking turns before all forty voices filled the chapel with tsunamis of sound.


3. The renaming of the Museum of Civilization which, as I've mentioned in a previous post, has annoyed elder daughter, has changed it not one whit.  We made it in to see a rather unimpressive exhibit called "Snow"(which is about snow), and I discovered I'd actually seen the IMAX film on Kenya before.  However, they have a wonderful new bistro, an extra balm to the spirit since the food in the downstairs cafeteria has been dropping precipitously in quality over the past few years.

4.  The Museum of Nature, a favourite of younger daughter's due to its beautifully renovated exhibits on wildlife, marine life, and dinosaurs (also its close proximity to the Elgin Street Diner), has actually quite a beautiful basement, featuring what they call a Stone Wall Gallery and a 3D theatre. In our past visits we've always used the upper floor washrooms, so this was a pleasant surprise.  We'll have to take in a film sometime.

5. I already knew from past experience, that sometimes one of the most interesting (and indeed devastating) exhibits can be hiding down the little corridor just behind the grim but clean washrooms beyond the Hall of Honour at the Canadian War Museum (another rather inexplicable favourite of younger daughter).  This time we were lucky to catch a tiny display devoted to Ansel Adams and Leonard Frank and their work recording the plight of Japanese-Americans (Adams) and Japanese-Canadians (Frank) -  when citizens of the USA and Canada were rounded up, dispossessed, and placed in internment camps because they or their ancestors happened to be Japanese.  I had long been familiar with the photography of Ansel Adams; I even attempted to replicate his famous photo of the church in Bodega, California when I was staying there the summer before the advent of elder daughter, but I was unfamiliar with this aspect of his work and knew nothing, I'm afraid, of Leonard Frank.  This was the last week of the display; I'm glad we saw it.  (And am even more hopping mad about the subject.)

6. Being close to the Bytowne Cinema, we have seen the collection of Oscar-nominated animated shorts in past year and enjoyed it again this year.  However, I've never seen the nominated short live-action films, and after seeing this batch, I'd like to do it again next year, though I really wish we could see these compilations before the awards ceremony.

Three of the films are about half an hour each, one is about fifteen minutes and one is about eight minutes. As with the feature films, it's difficult to say which one is "best", because it's very much an apple and oranges situation.

Helium, the Danish winner of the Oscar, is a gentle film about a children's hospice which I sat through dry-eyed until the very last image which hit me in the solar plexus and left me struggling for control while waiting for the next film.   The Voorman Problem (England) is one of the shorter films; it feels very much like something from The Twilight Zone and stars Martin Freeman as a psychologist confronting a prisoner who claims to be a deity.  Do I Have to Do Everything? is also very short, very funny and features a Finnish family struggling through disasters to get to a wedding.  The Spanish production That Wasn't Me was the hardest to stomach, being about child soldiers and serving up a graphic rape scene which I wasn't expecting, sitting there with my seventeen-year-old special needs daughter.

The film that continues to live with me is Just Before Losing Everything which takes a seemingly ordinary day in small-town France and gradually heightens the tension as a woman's break for safety from her abusive husband leads to and through her workplace.  The understated performances and the ambiguous ending are haunting, as is the knowledge that this is happening around the corner, every day.

So, while truth and beauty cannot removed the sting of a relentless winter, nor the heartbreak of a young girl who clearly didn't want to go back to school, I can only imagine how bleak March would have been without some helpings of food for the soul.

Perhaps it's better not to imagine it.

Friday, 28 February 2014

Wrapping myself in the flag

The sidewalk on Maitland Avenue this week.  And this was the sunny side.
Ah, February.  Don't let the door hit you on your way out.  The theme of this month seems to be entanglement with institutions, so why not end with another?

This morning, I got an email from the Ottawa Public library.  The "BiblioCommons Team" was informing me that my comment for the King Lear has been removed from public view.  Their flagging system, they told me, allows other users to identify inappropriate postings for speedy removal, while preserving everyone's ability to express themselves.  If a post is flagged by three different library users, it is automatically removed from public view.  They conceded that systems that depend on public participation are not perfect and a small percentage of content removed by flagging does not violate our Terms of Use.

All this alarmed me as I couldn't recall posting a comment on King Lear at the web site.  Had someone accessed my account and left an offensive message under my name?  I checked my account and there it was -- a comment on a DVD of King Lear, a Royal Shakespeare Company production starring Sir Ian McKellen.  It was a much shorter version of a post I'd written for this blog in 2009, which I'd submitted to the library's web site in 2011. The closest thing to an expletive in it was "oh my goodness", and it was a ringing endorsement of the interpretation.

I figured that since this comment was on the site, then it couldn't be the one that the BiblioCommons Team had removed.  I fired off an email, expressing my fears about being hacked.

No answer came, and I checked in during the day.  My comment was still there, but the date had been changed from January 2011 to today's date.  I figured that the comment had been removed, then reinstated when found to be innocuous.

Something, I know not what, made me check again in the late afternoon.  My comment, plus the only other comment on the page, had disappeared.  (The other person had made the observation that while they thought McKellen's performance was terrific, they preferred the 1953 version with Orson Welles.  Hardly inappropriate -- or am I missing something?)

Fortunately, the same something that had made me check had also nudged me into copying and pasting my comment while it was still online.  I fired off an email to OPL with my observations and the text of my "inappropriate" contribution, remarking that I'm here to learn.  Which is true, even I was being just a little snarky.

See, I fail to see how the deletion is "automatic" after three flaggings, if my comment remained online a good five hours after I received the email.  Surely someone in charge was in a position to read it.  I'm ticked, but heck, the longer version is still on my blog and no one has demanded that I remove it.  Yet.

On the up side, our passports arrived this week.  Whew.

You may have noticed (probably not) that I've done a NaBloPoMo-type month of daily posts, but, like December, failed to officially sign in to NaBloPoMo, as I've found it increasingly difficult to link my posts there.  I plan to try again in September.

Update:  The following Monday, I received an email from BiblioCommons:  ...nothing wrong with your comment - our apologies!  Looks like we made an error in matching your review of this production to another production of King Lear, which someone has objected to and flagged.  I would like to ask your patience while we sort this out. Our plan is to restore your review once we do. 

Thursday, 27 February 2014

Damsel in distress (write of passage number thirty)

Younger daughter had a curling lesson with her school out at the Nepean Sportsplex.  The last time we were here was about eleven years ago when the Assessment Kindergarten joined in a district special needs swim meet -- which came to an abrupt halt when someone defecated in the pool.  Good times.

Anyway, the curling had gone well enough, and we now had a long bus ride back to the city centre for younger daughter's voice lesson.  We hurried into seats near the back of the long articulated bus, and watched a host of Algonquin College students clamber on at the Transitway station.  During mid-winter in Hades, you can't see out of the mud-caked windows, so I settled into people-watching.

That's when I noticed the girl halfway down the bus, very young with hair piled carelessly on top in a loose bun.  She was clinging to one of the yellow rails near where the bus bends to turn corners, and there was something bereft about the way she held on while trying to check her phone.  She kept looking up and about, as if watching for someone she knew -- or searching for an avenue of escape.  Every now and then, she dabbed at her enormous eyes and swiped her nose with the back of her hand. Then she'd focus back on her phone before once again gazing about her with an air of quiet desperation.

Finally someone got off, and she sat down in one of the sideways seats.  The lady who would have been sitting next to her abruptly got up and moved to the area directly below where younger daughter and I were.  Puzzled, I gazed back to where the young girl was now perched.  Her posture looked less distressed and she was texting busily with an oddly alert air.

We got off, leaving her to travel east, taking her crisis with her, whatever it was.

Wednesday, 26 February 2014

Double feature

I've always tried to see a healthy percentage of Oscar-nominated films before the big ceremony, if only to give me enough knowledge to cheer or boo.  It was tough enough with five nominated films, but since they upped the maximum to ten, my percentages have been pretty dismal.

This year, nine films have been nominated.  I have no intention of seeing 12 Years a Slave (too squeamish), Gravity (too block-bustery and epic), Captain Phillips (ditto), or The Wolf of Wall Street. (Dubious entrepreneurs and scantily-dressed women? Again?  Give me a break.)  I missed an opportunity to see Nebraska a couple of weeks ago, due to rotten weather and too much else going on.  We saw Philomena over the Christmas break, and Her about ten days ago.

Yesterday was cold, but clear, and I had the chance to catch a morning screening of Dallas Buyers Club.

Rainbow Cinemas is a second-run franchise with half a dozen theatres in Ontario (four of which are in Toronto -- a place that loves its movies), and two in Saskatchewan.  The one in Ottawa is a little bleak, being in the lower level of the St Laurent Shopping Mall nestled between a business college and a fitness centre, but the staff is pleasant and the prices are reasonable.

Very reasonable yesterday, which turned out to be "$2.50 Tuesday".  This meant a rather better turn-out than one might expect for a 10 am show.  It also meant an older crowd, which included people turning up who might not ordinarily choose such a movie.

Dallas Buyers Club is based on a true story and as such, probably had very little to do with what actually happened.  This doesn't trouble me that much; most "true" films cannot afford to be that accurate, because they need to tell an entertaining story in a limited amount of time.  As it was, the film is longer than a lot of movies these days, just under two hours.  (Feels longer.)

Although the real Ron Woodroof was apparently not quite as tough and homophobic as portrayed by Matthew McConaughey, the film does capture the terror of AIDS in the eighties, when a diagnosis was an automatic death sentence, and AIDS patients were ostracized and feared.  I was a hospice volunteer in Victoria, and for the first few years that AIDS patients began being admitted, the true nature of their illness was not made public (although we volunteers were usually allowed to know), for fear of the janitorial staff refusing to clean their rooms.

Our "$2.50 Tuesdays" crowd had a touch of that eighties hostility.  It was, as I've mentioned, an older crowd and a couple of fellows apparently thought they were home watching television.  One guy kept saying, "Hurry up and die," and got into a shouting match with an elderly man who shouted "Asshole!" several times after him as he left the theatre which was odd, because the elderly man had been commenting throughout the film himself.

Leto with post-Felicity-and-Alias Garner
I managed to concentrate despite the interruptions.  I was more distracted by remembering Jennifer Garner and Jared Leto from their nineties television careers, to tell you the truth.
Leto in "My So-called Life" with Claire Danes

How did I feel about the flick? Well, if we're continuing to be truthful, I only went to see this because elder daughter requested it. I think it was well-done, but if actors are competent (and these were), is it really necessary to go through the frankly dangerous weight-changes to make us believe how sick they are?

On the whole, I was rather glad I'd only paid $2.50.

That evening, I was out at a cinema again, snatching my only opportunity to see at least one of the nominees for best foreign language film.  Besides, I had heard good things about The Great Beauty.

The Bytowne Cinema is a very different venue from Rainbow Cinemas.  It shows mainly art-house films and is a glorious old theatre with a huge screen and a balcony, if you please.  The clientele probably don't frequent the St Laurent Shopping Mall much either.

Then there was the film which was Italian.  Very Italian. The story -- if you can call it a story; it's really more a parade of beautiful images -- follows a fellow who has just celebrated turning 65 by having a large bacchanalia on a rooftop in Rome (his posh apartment overlooks the Coliseum, doncha know) and is now contemplating mortality when he's not having meals with friends or having sex with women.  Of course, this being an Italian film, the women are in their forties, rather than in their twenties as in a Hollywood production.

Mind you, it didn't help when I fell asleep and woke up in the middle of a funeral scene. (No, it wasn't due to boredom; I was just really comfortable.)  There was more than one possibility for the dear departed and I was further confused when one of these candidates turned up in the next scene, appeared to die, then didn't.  Then her father was being consoled a couple of scenes later.

And that was only halfway through the film.

Anyway, the cinematography was lovely; the music was evocative (Tavener, Gorecki, etc.).  My favourite bit was actually the ending credits, which play over the view from a boat moving steadily up (or down) the Tiber in the half-light of dawn (or dusk).

Then I got up and made my way home over the ice flows.

Tomorrow night, if it isn't too grim, I'm off to see American Hustle, which, if nothing else, will mean I've seen at least one performance in each nominated category.

Tuesday, 25 February 2014

What about me?

Whoops.  Nearly out of time again.

Here's a quintessentially eighties video by Belinda Metz. Fortunately, with a good dollop of humour: 

Monday, 24 February 2014

Straining at Nats

I was sitting at the table eating pancakes when I saw the low-heeled black pump appear around the corner.  It was several feet above the ground because younger daughter was attempting to see her feet in her dress shoes in the small mirror at face height in the hall, so she was balancing precariously on one foot halfway up the stairs, her knee drawn up at a sharp right angle.

This was the first indication I'd had that younger daughter planned to wear pumps for the singing competition that afternoon.

Low-heel pumps used to mean two-inch heels; three inches was considered quite "high".  These days,"high heels" mean six inches or more -- I tried on elder daughter's high school graduation shoes for all of two seconds before my arches screamed bloody murder -- and anything under four inches seem to count as low heels.

Anyway, younger daughter wore the pumps (about three inches for the heels, I'd say) for the first time at the Christmas recital with wearing practice and we haven't seen them since.

She had chosen the dress elder daughter had given her for Christmas -- a silky burgundy print from Forever 21, and looked charming with sparkly black stockings, so I held my peace.

NATS, (the National Association of Teachers of Singing) is the first voice competition of the season.  This was younger daughter's third time and this year she was in the "17 and under" category.  She was the last of nine singers.  As we waited out in the hall, I quietly scoped what other singers were wearing.  I did see quite a few pumps, usually with long dresses.

Each entrant had prepared three songs, to be sung in under eight minutes.  So we listened to twenty-four songs by the previous eight singers.  All of them in ballet flats, with the exception of the other girl who takes lessons with younger daughter's voice teacher, who was wearing rather old-fashioned black patent-leather sandals with a bit of heel to them.

Younger daughter finally took the stage, clumping to the piano rather like a little girl playing dress-up, but she found her place and stood confidently, without a wobble.

Unlike walking in her footwear, younger daughter has been preparing her song selections for the past couple of months, although she started learning "Sometimes I Feel Like a Motherless Child" last summer.

"Sorge il sol! Che fai tu?" is a spring song, a bit premature in Hades, but cheerful at least:  Younger daughter's rendition was quite urgent, the gist of the lyric being "The sun's up; get out and enjoy the flowers!"

I've been hearing "Sometimes I Feel Like a Motherless Child" pretty well every day all this month.  Much as I love listening to younger daughter sing, February and "Motherless Child" are a pretty lethal combination.  She sang with appropriate soul and sorrow.

The third song was "Jazz Man" by Benjamin Britten which is usually sung by children's choirs ("twenty children couldn't make as much noise"):  It's not an easy song, especially sung at breakneck speed.

The other singers, for the most part, had a more operatic sound, but I was pleased with the range of younger daughter's selections.  The adjudication notes were constructive and kind, praising the loveliness of her voice (it is, you know) and the expressiveness of her performance, and suggesting she not touch her hair and face so much.  (Bit of a tall order for someone on the autistic spectrum, but heck, if she can sing in French, German, or Italian…)

We recovered with a concert at the National Arts Centre with award-winning singer Denzal Sinclaire doing quite a bit of Nat King Cole material with other things he's known for thrown in for good measure, accompanied by the National Arts Centre Orchestra.  I wasn't familiar with Denzal Sinclaire, even though he has won all sorts of awards for his singing -- apparently Diana Krall and Michael Bublé are fans --and is an actor as well.

Younger daughter had a simply gorgeous time; he sang standards like "Mona Lisa" and jazzy numbers like "Route 66" and best of all, "When I Fall in Love", the song she chose when she was asked to be the soloist at a wedding a year and a half ago.  I was delighted to see one of my favourites on the play-list:  "Straighten Up and Fly Right".  I know it from a recording by Lyall Lovett, but had no idea that Nat King Cole wrote it and recorded it in 1943.  Here he is, singing it: 

There isn't much of Denzal Sinclaire singing Nat King Cole on YouTube, just a rather shaky video of "Nature Boy" (which I've always thought was one weird song), but he did sing "You and the Night and the Music" which gives you a good idea of his calibre:  

Oh, and younger daughter wore her snowboots to the concert.  Kiwanis season is in April.  I wonder if I can get her to practise walking in those heels before then.

Sunday, 23 February 2014

What would Judas do?

My Facebook pals have been posting a lot of those Buzzfeed personality quizzes lately. You know the ones: "Which Harry Potter character are you?" "Which Downton Abbey character are you?" "Which Beatle are you?" There are scores of them, perhaps hundreds.

This morning, a friend posted one called "Which of Jesus' disciples are you?"  Well, her husband is a Baptist minister, after all.

It is, like all the other quizzes, highly unscientific and rather random. But I took it anyway. Elder daughter had just come downstairs during a break in the highly touted gold medal game between the Canadian and Swedish hockey teams on the final day of the Sochi Winter Olympics which I've succeeded in ignoring almost completely this year.

The quiz results had informed me that I was Saint John, so I read out the profile and watched in bewilderment as elder daughter and the Resident Fan Boy hooted in hilarity.  While it's true that the paragraph ended with my comparison to a Golden Retriever puppy, I noted uneasily that their laughter had begun much earlier, with my description as being "kind and loving".

Actually, I was rather hurt.

However, the day was there to be got on with.  Canada won the hockey game.  (Rah-rah.)  There was a free access weekend at, and after a couple of hours of downloading records and doing laundry, I saw elder daughter's results on my Facebook wall.  She had come out at Judas Iscariot.  Not far above it, her updated status read:  "Hurt and disappointed."

I thought that was rather an extreme response to a silly quiz, and went upstairs to investigate, where I discovered it was, in fact, to do with an ongoing controversy at her university.  She is co-editor-in-chief of the magazine, and someone on the council had published an inflammatory criticism of the editors' decision to publish a letter -- which had been a public letter and which they had permission to publish.  On top of this, the person in question was someone who she considered a friend and who had not said a word to her on the matter for two weeks.  He's in second year, so I guess sophomoric behaviour is not such a great surprise.

I waited a little while before approaching her again.  In the meantime, she got supportive texts and Skype visits from Halifax.

I climbed the stairs and paused in her doorway.

"I just wondered if I should come with you to Halifax this evening.  Y'know, just so I can beat the stuffing out of this fellow.  No, I'll do it in a kind and loving way, rather in the style of a Golden Retriever puppy, which, as you know, I resemble just as much as you do Judas Iscariot…."

To my relief, she laughed.

Saturday, 22 February 2014

Whatever gets you through the month

We were on our way by bus to younger daughter's singing competition when elder daughter told me she wanted me to hear her current favourite song.  She put the ear-bud of her iPod into my left ear while I listened to it not knowing the artist, and pronounced it catchy and cheery.  I was rather astonished to learn it was by McFly.

All I really know about McFly is that they are a boy band and seem to have been particularly huge around five years ago.  They had a cameo appearance on a Doctor Who episode, doing an election spot for the diabolical Harold Saxon.  I frankly thought they weren't recording any more.

Evidently they are.  They're British, very pretty, and write sunshiny songs like this one, so I guess I can see why elder daughter, who is bogged down with editorial duties and graduation year assignments, would find this appealing.  Especially as I have spent February, a tough month at the best of times, listening to "Sometimes I Feel Like a Motherless Child".  I'll explain why tomorrow.

Friday, 21 February 2014

Eternity is now (the flip side)

Late August is half a year away.  It was in that season in 2008 that I wrote a post entitled "Eternity is Now", about holding on to a moment and seeing an eternity in it, even as it slips away.

Here, on the other side of the sun, February seems chockfull of moments that hang around without being asked.

Hades has been socked by a winter storm bringing freezing rain, followed by rain, soon to be followed (we're informed) by an arctic front with wind gusts up to 80 kilometres an hour.

Elder daughter, as you may recall, flew in from Halifax last night because the Halifax Biometrics Lab cannot take the required fingerprints for her British visa in time.  She was forced to set off into downtown Ottawa for the Visa Application Office, and took the accompanying snap from the bus stop at about 11 this morning.

The Resident Fan Boy had work and a medical appointment.  When he showed up at a hospital on the other side of the city for the latter, they had no record of it, even though they were the ones who had cancelled last week's appointment and rescheduled him.

Younger daughter and I remained holed up at home, school being cancelled, thankfully.  When I showed her this picture, (elder daughter had "instagrammed" it on Facebook) she wailed, "Will it be like this forever?"  I assured her it wouldn't, but didn't add that it will only seem that way.

Eternity is now.

Oh, and when elder daughter returned, it was without her passport.  The Visa Application Office was sorry, but they need it for now.  Like me, elder daughter uses her passport for ID, so getting on the plane for Halifax next Sunday should be fun....

Thursday, 20 February 2014


Yep, another day that has left me like a limp noodle.

When the powers that were pulled the plug on Bruce Springsteen and Paul McCartney in Hyde Park in 2012,  there was a hullabaloo from both sides:  those who couldn't believe this would be done to two ROCK LEGENDS, and those who said "Rules are Rules".  What I want to know is the crowd booing the cut-off, or are they yelling "Bruce-Bruce-Bruce!!"?