Tuesday, 28 December 2010

Dammit, I want these....

...but I can't have em...

Isn't that always the way? (David Tennant is even cute when he's chubby, isn't he?)

Sunday, 26 December 2010

Of burning babes and gin-haired strangers

Well, here it is, the Second Day of Christmas, otherwise known as Boxing Day, but we eschew that questionable Canadian tradition of braving the box stores for bargains and plan to spend the day treasuring our love offerings.

I could, if I chose, indulge in a David Tennant frenzy. Not only is the Space Channel showing a marathon of Doctor Who specials (which, until this evening's Canadian premiere of Matt Smith's first Christmas special are all "Tennanted"), but I got a Tennantude of wonders: People Like Us, the wincingly funny mockumentary from Chris Langham (before he, rightly or wrongly, became a pariah); A CD of Shakespeare's sonnets (DT being among the readers) and an audiobook version of How to Treat a Dragon's Curse by Cressida Cowell, narrated by you-know-Who.

However I also received not one, but two books with 366 poems each, one for each day of a leap year. Eagerly I opened one to see the poem for December 25.

Yikes:

As I in hoary winter’s night stood shivering in the snow,
Surprised I was with sudden heat which made my heart to glow ;
And lifting up a fearful eye to view what fire was near,
A pretty babe all burning bright did in the air appear ;
Who, scorchéd with excessive heat, such floods of tears did shed
As though his floods should quench his flames which with his tears were fed.
Alas, quoth he, but newly born in fiery heats I fry,
Yet none approach to warm their hearts or feel my fire but I !
My faultless breast the furnace is, the fuel wounding thorns,
Love is the fire, and sighs the smoke, the ashes shame and scorns ;
The fuel justice layeth on, and mercy blows the coals,
The metal in this furnace wrought are men’s defiléd souls,
For which, as now on fire I am to work them to their good,
So will I melt into a bath to wash them in my blood.
With this he vanished out of sight and swiftly shrunk away,
And straight I calléd unto mind that it was Christmas day.


Evidently a poem for one with Catholic tastes, this one is by Robert Southwell, priest, something like sixth cousin to William Shakespeare. Southwell was eventually imprisoned, subject to a variety of tortures by Richard Topcliffe (sadist, rapist, and Member of Parliament) then, of course, butchered on the gallows in that delightful Elizabethan way. He was canonized in 1970.

A little shaken, I turned to the other anthology, and for Christmas Day, found a poem better suited to December 28, but which also fits in spookily with nativity by Peter Anderson, the play I saw at the National Arts Centre earlier this week:

Who's that knocking on the window,
Who's that standing at the door,
What are all those presents
Lying on the kitchen floor?

Who is the smiling stranger
With hair as white as gin,
What is he doing with the children
And who could have let him in?

Why has he rubies on his fingers,
A cold, cold crown on his head,
Why, when he caws his carol,
Does the salty snow run red?

Why does he ferry my fireside
As a spider on a thread,
His fingers made of fuses
And his tongue of gingerbread?

Why does the world before him
Melt in a million suns,
Why do his yellow, yearning eyes
Burn like saffron buns?

Watch where he comes walking
Out of the Christmas flame,
Dancing, double-talking:

Herod is his name.


This poem, by Charles Causley, was written during a Cold War Christmas and bears marks of the Flanders and Swan ditty "Twenty Tons of TNT" (even though that may have been written later):

Children have no need of sharing;
At each new nativity
Come the ghostly Magi bearing
Twenty tons of TNT


I discovered that Causley's poem has been put to music by folk-musician A Show of Hands. There's a YouTube video set to this. I'm not a great fan of anime, but it's the clearest recording I could find:



So, as usual, even in the glowing haven of Christmas, the world will keep barging in. Well, never mind, this family is wrapping itself up in the Twelve Days of Christmas. I'm off to ferry the out-of-town presents down to their rightful place under the Christmas tree, where we'll gradually enjoy them until January 5th.

Take that, you gin-haired stranger.

Friday, 24 December 2010

In "havenly" peace

I've always seen Christmas as a dark but brightly lit harbour, and the old year as a stately ship (or at least a ferry boat), slowly drawing in to the quay. This past week, I've felt the engines change, and despite the Christmas flurry around us, a drifting sensation as we close on the safety of land, if only for a brief time before we get shoved back out to sea in January.

Christmas in Hades has much of the same comforting familiarity as anywhere else, I suppose, providing you do, in fact, take comfort in Christmas. Last Sunday, we were enveloped in the warmth and laughter of the annual Vinyl Café Christmas concert. I looked down from our loge upon a theatre jam-packed with pullover-wearing university types of all ages, and once again felt myself swept away by the performance of Matt Andersen who sang "People Get Ready" and "Silent Night" (and I'm not even that enamoured of "Silent Night"). John Sheard played "The Rocking Carol" and "O Little Town of Bethlehem" (the English version) and I was assailed by memories of Sunday School at the Unitarian Church of Edmonton. Actually, we sang another song to the tune of the latter:
The children of far-distant lands
With joyful song we greet
Hold out to us your friendly hands
Our circle to complete.
Around the world, so very wide,
Our circle it shall be
Goodwill and friendship need no tide
Nor ships to cross the sea.


As the week has passed, I saw the same sort of things you probably see as you have walked out these last days before Christmas: a family with one young blond girl in flowered snow boots carrying the potted poinsettia; two women sitting in a cafeteria, talking intently with the gift bags they've exchanged resting by their feet; a large blond dog trotting in and out of the traffic jam on Beechwood Avenue.

Wait -- you don't usually see that last item? Yes, I thought it was odd, too. I was on my way to the post office when I saw the dog and heard the frantic woman in pursuit: "Puppy! Here, puppy!" He gave her a "You talkin' to me?" look and continued to wend his way between the cars, some of which were impatiently trying to move. She followed, increasingly frantic: "Puppy! Puppy!"

Hmmn, I thought. She doesn't know his name. He trotted up the opposite sidewalk, very quickly, without actually running (he was very large), and the woman called ahead to a man waiting at the walk signal. I saw him duck, but the dog reappeared, now smack in the middle of the intersection of St Patrick and the Vanier Parkway which has a record of being one of the five most dangerous intersections in Ottawa. Another man appeared, clutching a red leash, and after some heart-stopping circling the dog managed to get to the traffic island on the far side, next to the Saint Patrick bridge, then loped toward the cycling path that follows the Rideau River, where he could theoretically proceed relatively unimpeded along the edge of Vanier, clear to Riverside. There was a car parked near the traffic light, bearing a sign reading "Pet Care Cab". I had the sinking feeling that this dog was being kenneled for the holiday and had escaped his caregivers. Yikes. It's one thing to lose your own dog, but someone else's dog...

May you never lose your dog. Or someone else's dog. May young children bring you love offerings and may you share a meal with an old friend. Most of all, may you find yourself in the warm and comforting dark of this holiday harbour, in the company of those who love you.

Merry Christmas.

Thursday, 23 December 2010

Birth and death

So I'd noticed there was a Tuesday matinée for nativity at the National Arts Centre this week, and the Resident Fan and I took gross advantage of younger daughter's student status and between that and my subscription discount, got three tickets for the price of one. In the front row.

Browsing through his programme, RFB asked me what a "production dramaturg" was. I glanced over my shoulder and noticed Peter Hinton, the artistic director of the NAC, wandering through the aisles, clutching his coffee mug and making small talk which seems to have been his habit since taking over the position. I hopped up and waylaid him and he said she was a person that kinda drew every aspect of the production together. I guess it's something like one step out from being the director. He said it was an interesting question, but I bet he says that to all the theatre patrons.

Back in my seat, I glanced over to the seats rising to our right and noticed a really pregnant lady. I didn't want to stare, so quickly averted my eyes. Peter Hinton did his usual quick intro to the play, asked the audience to turn off cell phones and unwrap their candy now and got a huge round of applause for forbidding texting and blogging during the show. He then strolled out a side door, mug in hand, and I briefly wondered where he'd go before I heard raised voices a few feet to my right.

Two ushers were loudly questioning the really really pregnant lady and her husband about their tickets, and they said the box office had lost them and the ushers said that was shame but there was no room in the theatre. And the play had begun.

It was exactly what I'd hoped it would be, for younger daughter's sake: a musical, animals, about Christmas. We launched into a modern slant on a medieval mystery play with shepherds complaining in verse, a trio of angels doo-wopping in the background, and songs ranging in style from bossa nova to Stephenish Sondheimish, pulled off by a rather frighteningly talented cast. One of the shepherds, just for an example, was Diane D'Aquila who, among other things, created the role of Elizabeth I in Elizabeth Rex. Many of the other actors in a sizeable cast (even when doubling and tripling up on roles) had CVs that resembled encyclopedia entries, and, oh look... there was Peter Hinton. I learned later that for the final week of the run, he'd taken over the roles for Marcel Jeannin (another fabulous actor, by the way) who'd had to bow out for personal reasons.

The guy who seemed to be having the most fun was Réjean Cournoyer (one of the lengthier CVs) who was playing Herod as something like a cross between Captain Hook and J. Pierpont Finch. And then. And then the play veers from slapstick and camp into medieval mystery territory again with the slaughter of the innocents. The Angel of Death stalks the stage, and Herod turns into that most terrifying thing of all, the pragmatic politician, sending those who did his dirty work from the banquet to the place of execution. The heart-broken mothers sing the dissonant harmonies of the Coventry Carol. Because Christmas has myrrh in it. Christmas also has loss.With the enraged Herod sprawled dead beside the banquet table, we were back into the spirit slapstick and pantomime with the "Coyote Christmas, which I suspect was a separate play at some point. Three starving coyotes invaded the audience, looking for something to chomp. They debated over the five-year-old sitting next to the Resident Fan Boy (a modern kid who didn't seem the least bit frightened by the prospect of being eaten by coyotes), before figuring out the audience was comprised of humans and not sheep. So, as you can imagine, when the angel told them about the Lamb of God, they got the completely wrong idea. In the mayhem that followed, younger daughter, the RFB and I had to keep pulling our feet in to avoid tripping up the Holy Family in hot pursuit of three coyotes tossing Baby Jesus like a football.

It turns out for the best though. (How else could you conclude a Christmas play?) When the Roman soldier (Peter Hinton again) comes looking for a baby to impale, the coyotes continue to insist they've got a lamb, and Jesus is saved. The joyful musical finale was complete when the lady who'd been about to be tossed out the theatre in the beginning announced: "It's a girl!"

Back at home, still glowing from the show, I posted a link to the review in the Ottawa Citizen at Facebook, but couldn't get an appropriate photo to come up. (The pictures in this post were taken by Andree Lanthier.) Instead, I kept getting a thumbnail of a group of men in orange jumpsuits kneeling by what appeared to be the Rideau Canal. I later learned they were at the Rideau River. About the same time that younger daughter, the Resident Fan Boy and I were settling in to enjoy the play, a nine-year-old boy slipped into the Rideau River not far from where we live. Because Christmas has myrrh in it. Christmas also has loss.

Oh sisters two, how may we do
To preserve this day?
This poor Youngling for whom we sing
Bye-bye, lulle, lullay.

Thursday, 9 December 2010

A ghost of Lennonmas present (write of passage number seventeen)

On the Transitway, a temperature of -10C is feeling more like -15 with the windchill. It's just before 9 and I've been on the go since 7:20 and this bus is my fourth of the morning -- so far. I get on at the front of the articulated bus, so by the time I make my way to the back, most of the few remaining seats have been grabbed by those who nipped in by the rear doors.

A woman has a cell phone glued to her ear. There's a pillow in her lap and two large designer purses on the seat beside her. She also appears to be wearing two long wigs. The bottom one is white-blond; the top one is magenta. I pause expectantly by her seat. In Canadian Bus Body Language, this means: "Will you take your stuff off, please, so I can sit down?". Madam Double Wig stares determinedly into the middle distance and mumbles into the cell phone.

"May I have this seat?"
No reaction.
I adopt a cheerful, motherly tone: "Excuse me, sweetie, did you pay for two seats?"
She glances at me, then back into the middle distance. I'm beginning to suspect that no one is on the other end of her phone call. An elderly Asian couple gaze on this scenario in mildly appalled wonder. I look to the very back where there's one seat wedged between two large adolescent males busily texting.
"I see," I say, a shade less cheerily. "You're just rude." I stalk off and carefully dock my butt in the free space.

I'm comforting my wounded feelings with the folk/rock/soul mix of CBC Radio Two's Morning show when I see a large group of commuters board at the Lincoln Fields stop. An elegant and formidable lady spots the seat I failed to get. She's dressed in what I think of as Civil Servant Winter Issue: a long, slim-fitting immaculate black wool coat crowned with a fleece cloche hat. She assumes the traditional Bus Body Language position I described earlier and when ignored, firmly puts the two designer bags in Madam Double Wig's lap. MDW slams them back into the empty seat beside her. Few words appear to be exchanged (I'm several seats back with ear buds in), but Elegant and Formidable Lady isn't budging.

After an impasse that nearly lasts the Transitway stretch of the Ottawa River Parkway, EFL manages to sit down. In honour of the thirtieth anniversary of John Lennon's assassination, CBC Radio Two is playing "All You Need Is Love". I listen to Lennon while watching the seatmates conversing, with MDW's gestures gradually growing more extravagant:
Nothing you can say but you can learn how to play the game. It's easy.



Now I can't resist slipping the ear buds out. The two are facing away from me, but a few words make it back, all from Madame Double Wig:

"F*&%#..."
"S#$^&..."
"Ride the f@$@#ing bus..."

Nothing you can do but you can learn how to be you in time - It's easy. (I got the general idea, so I'd slipped in my ear buds again.)

Elegant and Formidable Lady has evidently had enough and transfers herself to a seat that has become available down in the next section. Madam Double Wig is now declaiming to the crowd below, some of whom are energetically remonstrating with her.

"And you can f*&$% off..."

I stick my ear buds back in. Nowhere you can be that isn't where you're meant to be.
It's easy.

Back in my section, people are animatedly discussing the situation in pairs, nodding and smiling. Chatting odd couples: a fellow with a long grey ponytail with a pretty office worker in a bright tuque; a Muslim lady with a baggy-panted young fella. The appalled elderly Asian couple offer their seats to Madame Double Wig's next unsuspecting seat partner as they exit the bus. The unsuspecting seat partner smiles and politely refuses the offer, looking mildly confused.

- My goodness, I think to myself, as the song fades in my ears. Madame Double Wig is actually a kind of catalyst.

Nobody told me there'd be days like these. Strange days, indeed. Most peculiar, mama!

Wednesday, 8 December 2010

A ghost of Lennonmas past

And there went out a decree from the radio station CHUM that all should head down to Nathan Phillips Square with a candle and a black armband. This was tricky because winter had come early, even for Toronto and keeping candles lit was a tall order.

Hundreds of twenty-and-thirty-somethings gathered in front of an outdoor stage where Lennon's music blared and periodically a DJ would holler what one assumed to be platitudes. It was hard to tell so far back. A tall skinny fellow with a mass of black curls glanced over his shoulder, then looked again, sharply.

"Just how old are you?" he challenged a pair of young girls.
"I'm sixteen," said the more confident one, inclining her head toward her friend. "She's fifteen."
"What are you doing here?"
"We're here for John!"
"No, you're not, there's no way. You're too young."
"We are not!"
"You are too. You're telling me you know anything about his music?"
"We know all his stuff!"

By this time, tall curly guy's friends were wandering over to listen in, grinning and shaking their heads.
"Prove it."
"How?"
"Give me the lyrics to 'Happiness is a Warm Gun'."
"And not the obvious part at the end," put in one of his pals.

So the young girls recited them in a monotone, stumbling over each other in their haste to establish their worthiness. Sometimes the young men supplied a word.

The girls stayed. We left. It was damn cold.
I know no one can do me no harm because... happiness is a warm gun, mama. Bang bang; Shoot shoot.

Bloody cold.

Tuesday, 30 November 2010

Blonds have more stun (a final Google Map stroll through my Edmontonian childhood)


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The last time I did NaBloPoMo, it was August and I took the suggestion from John Reid's family-history-themed blog Anglo-Celtic Connections to do a "Google walk" through a childhood neighbourhood. I was pleased to get five posts out of this: my house, the route to the downtown bus, the way to church, the trip to the candy store and ice rink, and the journey to the playground. I didn't get around to the most important pilgrimage of all: the daily trek to school. However, it was August and I was pushing school from my mind. Deep in November, so deep it's almost December, it's time to brace myself and remember my first years of formal education.

When I wait with younger daughter for the first of the three buses that will eventually get us home, children scuff by in their snow-gear, en route from the local neighbourhood school. There's a pair of little girls who stroll by us every day, one with dark hair, the other with white-blond hair spilling perfectly brushed over her shoulders, even at the end of a school day. I shudder inwardly. This little blond girl might be a perfectly pleasant person, but she's a dead ringer for Bianca Richardson.

Every class had a Bianca Richardson. I'm sure yours did too. She was the little girl whom substitute teachers and class visitors always called on, because she was very pretty and very blond. (The regular class teachers seemed a wee bit less enchanted, but in my experience, seasoned teachers are not as easy to con.) Bianca was also, as I recall, unusually articulate for an eight-year-old, with a withering command of the situation if lesser mortals dared express an opinion. Not unusually bright, at least not in the academic sense, but alas, that has never been high on the list for social success.

In those days, I still hadn't quite learned that I had none of the attributes of a popular kid, and was blissfully unaware of just how far down the food chain I was. I only knew that I rather disliked Bianca Richardson. I think most of the girls felt the same way. She was not a very kind person, although she had a very high sense of moral indignation when crossed. The boys, of course, adored her.

Westglen School, the beginning of my downward social spiral, was a bit of an anomaly. It was called Westglen Junior High, yet went from Grades One to Nine. (Ages 6 to 15.) The Grade Nines looked down upon us pipsqueaks with great contempt -- when they bothered to look down at all. I have a brief but dazzling memory fragment of catching a tantalizing glimpse of an after-school dance from a side hall before being shooed away.

We weren't allowed to cross the busy street at the corner closest to my house even though it was cater-corner to the school and would have saved about five minutes' walking time. Instead, we made our way down the sidewalk across the street from the school, usually playing "Step on the crack and break the devil's back". If someone changed the back in question from the devil's to your mother's mid-step, you had to catch your foot in time. We crossed the street at the far corner, where older students were the crossing guards.

If there was time, we'd play in the field at the end where the high metal goal net, which wasn't rusty when I was a girl, doubled as my spider's web. I was the spider at every recess, capturing screaming playmates and hauling them back to my lair. (My mum made me a remarkable spider costume for Hallowe'en in Grade Two, but I was sick and had to be content showing it --at a safe distance -- to the trick-or-treaters who came to our door.)

However, if I arrived later, it was a heady rush for the locker room when the bell rang. For some reason, I had a terror of "The Bell", which was in fact a buzzer, even when I arrived in plenty of time. It seemed paramount to get inside once it rang.
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School ended with those of us in Grade One being escorted in two assigned groups across 127 Street, supervised by monitors. We lived in dread of getting Miranda, an officious Grade Six with pierced ears, who insisted on her charges walking in pairs. We always got stuck with her, of course, while the other lucky group cheered and dashed across the field in an unruly mass around the other more lenient monitor.

My humiliation was shortlived, though. Miranda's route took her west up 109 Avenue and being a resident of 109A Avenue,I was free from her jurisdiction once we were safely across. If it was winter, I'd pick my way home up 127 Street along the top of the block-long wall of snow left by the snowploughs which grew steadily during the long Edmontonian winter. By January, there would be a brown worn path left by many small boots. It seemed very high up above the sidewalk on one side and the busy street on the other. But I was a lot smaller then.

I moved from Edmonton, Alberta to Nanaimo, BC, during the last quarter of Grade Three. I never saw Bianca Richardson again and didn't particularly mourn over this fact. In a sense, I meet her daily, one of those ambitious mums from Oak Bay in Victoria, or Sandy Hill in Ottawa, working for the government, fund-raising for the school, and ferrying her pretty blond insufferable children to music lessons and soccer practice in the minivan.

I've now NaBloPoMo-ed five different months. Seven to go. December? Not two months in a row! January? I'm taking another online course and I've learned the hard way that genealogy assignments and NaBloPoMo don't mix. I've done February and March, so, barring some unforeseen circumstance, I'll plan to NaBloPoMo April. In the meantime, I hope I'll have the discipline to blog more than once a month. On the other hand, is that Christmas coming at me like a freight train?

Monday, 29 November 2010

You put a chill into my heart

With snow back on the ground, I'm learning to walk in boots again. Have you ever had dreams when you need to run somewhere (or from something) but you...seem...to...be...inhibited.... That's what the first week of walking in snow-gear feels like. I feel muscles I haven't felt since last March, and my socks are slipping off inside my boots and gathering painfully on my arches, because it's been six months and I've forgotten why I need to put on two pairs of socks in the morning.

With the chill in the air comes a chill in my heart. Leslie Neilson has died. There goes another great Canadian. I was aware of his work as a rather dour leading man, but with millions of others, became a fan when he embraced comedy in the most effective way possible: by playing it straight.

I was watching Airplane for the first time in a long time a few months back and was amazed at how funny it still was. This even after being trapped in a Pacific Coach Line bus as a woman behind me recited the whole plot, joke by joke....

Here's a YouTube tribute from Drebin31 featuring Neilson and his dead-pan pals Lloyd Bridges, Robert Stacks, and Peter Graves, plus other delights: The late great Barbara Billingsley (just left us this year) speaking jive! Weird Al Yankovic! That flaky fey fellow in the air control tower! OJ Simpson! With a gun!

Oh dear. But most of all, Leslie Neilson. I'm gonna miss the guy. I'm sure I'm not the only one...

Sunday, 28 November 2010

♪Just bitchin' and mopin' and sinkin' and brayin'♫

I'm battling with my inner bitch today. This afternoon was the last of the online chats that form a part of the online course I've been taking in genealogy this month. There were four chats, one at the end of each week.

Now, I'm not great at online chats. I'm not even that crazy about instant messaging. It's like conversation with a ticking timer. Online chats are kind of like cocktail parties. With the Loose Women (if you're British) or The View (if you're American).I don't like either show. They're talking a million miles a minute, overlapping each other, about things that usually hold little interest for me, unfortunately exactly like this month's chats.

As it happened, I only made it to two of the chats, the first because I forgot it was in Greenwich Mean Time. There's no excuse for this; I've taken a course from this company before -- I plead temporary insanity. I missed the third chat because I failed to receive the week's lesson and I was damned if I was going to subject myself to an online chat if I hadn't even done the assignments. So I spent part of this week doing two weeks' worth of lessons, then glumly presented myself at the final chat.

They chatted, all right. About the snow in Britain. About so-and-so's birthday vacation to Tenerife. About getting dad to look after the kids to so she could do her genealogy research, lol. I got up and made myself a snack. Sat down, checked the printout and saw I'd missed nothing. Checked my email and surfed a little. When I looked again, they were sharing platitudes about the importance of organization in family research and explaining to someone else what IMHO meant.

I'm pleased to say that the course I took last spring wasn't like this, although I didn't like the chatroom aspect then much either. It's useful for enforcing assignment deadlines, but that's about it.

This course wasn't a waste of time (she says hastily). I found small, tantalizing records of a branch of my family who lived in the village of Great Torrington in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. I discovered the difference between a tanner and a leather dresser -- my great-great-great-great-grandfather was the latter. And I learned never ever to take an online course in November. Especially when you're doing NaBloPoMo. Which I don't think I'll ever do again in November either....

Saturday, 27 November 2010

Moving music

As the bus made its way down Rideau Street into downtown Hades, I watched the reflection of the sun flash by, ricocheting off windows and walls, seemingly in time to the Bach piano concerto playing on my ear buds.

Yesterday, I was talking about how statues and sculptures change with the surrounding environment and our perception of them. I suppose this is true of all art. When I was in a youth theatre at age 17, I was amazed how we could perform the same play three nights running and each performance was distinctly different, according to the audience reaction and the moods of the actors.

Music seems to be the most dependent on environment and mood of all, especially now we can take it anywhere. Last summer, I was (again) riding the bus and saw three boys walking along the sidewalk and imagined their adventures. It then occurred to me that they could be doleful or up to no good, but the upbeat song on my iPod gave me the illusion that they were walking with youthful and light-hearted energy. I was superimposing a soundtrack on whatever they were getting up to on that sunny July afternoon, and watching them like a movie.

Just a couple of weeks ago, I was listening to Tempo on CBC Radio Two and because Henryk Górecki had just died, they played the first movement of his Symphony of Sorrowful Songs. No, I don't mean the famous second movement; I mean the first movement that begins with an interminable grating of the lower string instruments as they overlap each other in steadily mounting grief. Listen to the first few moments of it. If you can bear it:

I gazed up and down the street and everybody looked miserable, bogged down, staring at the ground as they waited for the bus or dragged their shopping in their listless hands. Of course, had I been listening to a lively jazz piece, they would have appeared busy, energetic and probably kind of hip.

A few days ago, I was stuck outside a Grand and Toy stationery store, waiting for it to open. Having nothing else to do for five minutes, I strolled over to the railing and looked directly down two levels to the food court below where I could see people strolling diagonally across the red tiles. Every now and then someone would approach the trash bins and deposit stuff in them, pivoting gracefully away to dance across the floor. Well, that's what it looked like. This was blaring on my iPod:
As I listened, I noticed strings of white Christmas lights dangling into the court like tropical jellyfish. The bulbs blinked rapidly along with the notes, as the shoppers -- well -- tripped the light fantastic.

I was almost sorry when the store opened.

Friday, 26 November 2010

Static sing

When I attend the monthly meeting of the British Isles Family History Society of Greater Ottawa, I make my way into Library and Archives Canada on Wellington street by skirting around Lea Vivot's Secret Bench. It's meant to have a whiff of the Garden of Eden to it, but in the wintertime, it smacks more of The Little Match Girl. I gather there are copies of this bench all over the world: in Montréal, in Prague, in Florida. I wonder if I'm the only one to resist the urge to bring mittens and boots for this young pair (well, maybe not in Florida), who seem decidedly less carefree when the temperature dips below zero. Actually, I wonder how many have been unable to resist...

At the beginning of each day, the #9 bus, the first of ten buses I'll take throughout the day, carries us past the Cancer Survivors Monument just below the train station in Hades. If the morning is blithe and bonny, the dark figures appear to be out for a pleasant stroll. If the sky is grey, the journey looks more depressing, challenging and downright ominous.Throughout the winter they appear to be struggling, first through the snow drifts of December, January and February, then through the filthy slush and ice of March and April.

It occurred to me, after a year of rolling by, that art is never static, not even sculpture, which you might think would be the most stationary of all.

Take this, for example:
This quirky, gigantic watering can appeared at the corner of Albert and Slater in downtown Ottawa about a year ago. I think it's the work of sculptor Vu Nguyen, but I may be wrong about this -- there's surprisingly little information about it. (If I'd really had my wits about me, I'd have looked more closely at the base of the work when I was taking pictures of it, but it was too damn cold to linger.) This is another sculpture I see every day as the Transitway buses take younger daughter and me downtown to transfer to the bus home. Now, on one level, this looks different according to your viewpoint:However, this is just how it looked at 9am yesterday morning. According to the angle of the light, the weather, the season, it changes. It reflects the buildings surrounding it, the traffic lights and construction signs, the vehicles driving by and the passing pedestrians. It shines with the light of the Christmas decorations across the street, it shimmers in the heat. Snow covers some of the side surfaces, or rain drips down and runs in rivulets. In a strong wind, the vegetation on top revolves slowly.

I kinda love it, even when I can't stay still to look at it. It doesn't stand still either.

Thursday, 25 November 2010

To call back the November of 2010

Earlier this month, I mentioned a couple of songs that recall past Novembers for me. What about this November?

Here's a song I've been hearing on the bus ride back home in the mornings. It's smooth, cool, old-fashioned pop, and written by Emm Gryner, a singer/songwriter from Sarnia, Ontario who's frighteningly talented and disgustingly pretty. (Not that I'm envious, or anything.) Here she's singing with Joel Plaskett, another really, really gifted singer/songwriter who's from Nova Scotia. (Click on the title to hear it):

Gold Soul of Rock 'n' Roll

I'm not puttin you on not putting you on my friend
Word for word these are the things he said
Once your idol here comes a tidal wave crashing in
You and your queen on a hill and the storms are lashing in
I walk through your town
God's Grandeur underground
Somewhere there's someone turnin' you up loud
Gold soul of rock 'n' roll
Baby babe I get so low but never round you

Ice will break oh the lights will change on the Owlerton Green
Heart so bright lit into the mic oh the jive you've seen
Roundabouts and racers
The groovers and the shakers
Somewhere someone's burnin' their Melody Makers.

Gold soul of rock 'n' roll
Baby babe I get so low but never round you
You're the gold soul of rock 'n' roll
All the others lost it all
But you never do...

Wednesday, 24 November 2010

Write of passage number sixteen: a heterogeneity of hijab

The route to younger daughter's school is long and straight along Baseline Road. It gives ample opportunity to observe government office workers and students en route to local high schools and Algonquin College. Many of these are Muslim women, wearing a variety of hijab: chadors, the occasional niqāb and a dazzling array of different coloured head scarves in every colour and pattern you could imagine. On a bright morning, the sun catches sparkles, gold threads, and even rhinestones.

There's a regular waif on the #118 most mornings: very slim, dark hollow eyes -- today she's wearing a Lakers' jacket over skinny jeans and a charteuse all-in-one ribbed al-amira. On other mornings I've seen her wearing a baseball cap sideways and at a rakish angle, balanced precariously on her veiled head.

Another girl boards the bus, prettily plump with a crimson al-amira bundled over her bun. Earrings with intricate patterns dangle below her scarf and brush her shoulders. She glances at the waif, then continues a lively conversation with her bare-headed companions.

Tuesday, 23 November 2010

Take that, Leonard Cohen!

Freezing rain yesterday; pouring rain today. On the packed bus, I heard that North Korea is shelling South Korea. Oh dear. I don't need a cold and a broken Hallelujah this morning.

Remember I was saying that in Canada, Christmas seems to begin the day after Remembrance Day? Here is what happened in a shopping mall in Welland, Ontario ten days ago. Welland is on a strip of land that separates the west end of Lake Ontario from the east end of Lake Erie.I love watching who is determined to keep eating during this! ("You don't really care for music, do yah?")

Monday, 22 November 2010

Think I'll go out to Alberta...

My husband's uncle liked me. That really meant something to me, because I was pretty darn sure that no one else in my husband's immediate family liked me. Except for the Resident Fan Boy who has always seemed reasonably fond of me.

One night, I was enduring another Sunday dinner at the in-laws. This was always a case of damned-if-you-do-damned-if-you-don't. If I didn't show up, it was a snub; if I did, I felt like an interloper (which I was, having committed the crime of marrying into the family without an invitation). The meal was one long Miranda act in which anything I did or said would be taken down and used as evidence against me. The phone rang and my mother-in-law spoke in delighted tones to her beloved kid brother. Then she looked at me.
"He wants to talk to you." She could not conceal her astonishment.

I was never sure why the Resident Fan Boy's uncle liked me. Maybe it was because he was a fellow Taurus. He was a gruff fellow, a prairie man who had started out as a farmer, and eventually become a consultant to the World Health Organization, taking his large family around the world. After more than thirty years of marriage, he ditched his wife for his high school sweetheart, to the horror of his children and the embarrassment of his sister who stoutly declared that this wasn't the sort of thing that happened in her family.

The kids chose sides, my husband's uncle stubbornly waited out the divorce proceedings (his wife refused to cooperate), and married his old girlfriend. Five years later, he reconciled with his wife, dumped second wife and remarried. My mother-in-law was furious, having cut first wife dead for the sake of her brother. She wasn't speaking to him when she suddenly became terminally ill.

He phoned out of the blue during that final long weekend as we were waiting to hear the news from the hospital. I answered and he asked me what the situation was. I told him that I would call the Resident Fan Boy to the phone.
"Can't you tell me?" Brisk. Blunt.
"Well, I'm only the in-law, so it wouldn't be protocol," I stammered.
"Good. I'm glad someone's observing the rules."
When the RFB took the call, he was obviously trying to tell his uncle that a trip out from Alberta to Victoria would be pointless, given how far gone his mother was.
I grimaced at him, and hissed: "Tell them to come."
I could feel him relax as he said: "She says to come."

His memorial service is in four weeks. I think we need to come.

Sunday, 21 November 2010

The best frayed plans

Oh I had plans for this weekend. We were going to take younger daughter to see Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, and I was going to prepare my assignments for an online course on genealogy that I'm foolishly taking this month. (Yeah, the same month I'm doing NaBloPoMo; what kind of idiot am I? An idiot who signed up for NaBloPoMo then got the notice about her course three days later. She'd forgotten she'd registered. That kind of idiot.)

But we checked online and all the good IMAX seats were gone, so younger daughter decreed that we go to the Museum of Science and Technology. I have a certain lack of enthusiasm about the Museum of Science Technology which has all the charm of a visit to a warehouse in a god-forsaken parking lot in the middle of an industrial park. (Which is what the museum is, unfortunately.)

But I went. Then I came home and realized that the instructor of the online course still hadn't sent me this week's lesson and the chat session in which we discuss our assignments was scheduled for the next day. It was after the said chat session that the instructor finally left a message at the forum where I'd been leaving increasingly frantic hints about my predicament (in addition to emails, in addition to contacting the company that does the lessons), and we discovered that for some reason, this week's lesson was marked as "spam" by my server. No problem with the first two weeks, nor with the last course I took with these guys, but noooo...

So I have two modules to work on this week instead of one. And I know more about spatial disorientation then I did going into the weekend.

But it's not Harry Potter, is it? To comfort myself, I've been sampling the various crazy HP stuff popping up on the internet in honour of this penultimate opening weekend. Here's my favourite, an effort by Julia Bentley, who was born in London, Ontario and recently got her music degree from the University of Toronto. She makes a damn cute Chosen One and everything (including the bobbin' Potterites on Yonge Street) is Canadian -- except for the song which is your basic "I'm-the-king-of-clubbin'-so-you-pretty-girl-are-definitely-going-to-sleep-with-me" dance tune. Bentley's version is way more interesting, so you should watch this before Flo Rida gets wind of this and gets this yanked off YouTube:

We'll be seeing the movie in two weeks. (It's Fiddler on the Roof next week.)

Saturday, 20 November 2010

Remembering Novembering

Back in the nineties, when my girls were very, very young, I used to record "A Prairie Home Companion" off the Seattle public radio station (which we could access from Victoria), so I could listen to it at my leisure throughout the week. "PHC" was so saturated with music, skits and stories, that a single listening didn't suffice, and besides, I found it hard to settle down and give it my full attention on a Saturday night. I remember a kind of November when the streets in Victoria were coldly damp and the air full of a sort of grey/gold light from the almost winter sun shining through the clouds. I was hurrying to wherever I was going with my Walkman on, listening to Garrison Keillor repeating emphatically: "Be prepared for something wonderful to happen..."

This is the fifth month I've "NaBloPoMo"-ed, and almost each month I've done this, I've hauled out my journals from the past twenty years and read entries of the month in question. I wasn't able to do this for August 2010 because I was three thousand miles away from my diaries, but for each of the other three months - February and September of 2009, and March 2010 - a theme has seemed to emerge. My past Februaries seemed frozen in limbo. Septembers were months of transition, and Marches rife with crises.

Novembers? Well, they have been spent in preparation, mostly for Christmas of course, but they seem to be a period for things that aren't quite due, but soon will be: December seminars that I quaked about teaching, school field trips and projects, my own children's being. November was the month in which I underwent amniocenteses and saw my children for the first time on the monitor during ultra-sound. In the case of my elder daughter, it was a time of joy and wonder; during the second procedure, my fluid started to leak and I spent twenty-four miserable hours wondering if I'd lost my younger daughter.

Looking through my journals is not an easy thing to do. I'm hit with waves of nostalgia and regret, bewilderment at the motives of someone whom I am no longer. There are flashes of joy and warmth, though. Memories of friends, of concerts, of things shared, and pleasures savoured alone.

Two gems, one from each daughter's earlier years:

We discovered, having moved into the neighbourhood of Fairfield near downtown Victoria, that the annual Remembrance Day ceremonies were an easy walk away. Elder daughter, then at age two, persisted in calling it "Forgiveness Day".
Younger daughter had received a gift of the book Angelina and Alice from the Angelina Ballerina series.
"I can read it," she told me earnestly, "because I was a mouse..." (And so she was. For Hallowe'en.)

In a few cases, I had mentioned music that reminded me of particular times. Here are two songs that, for me, belong to two different Novembers:

Oh, gosh. So much coming at me. Every time I look around... I'm going under....

Friday, 19 November 2010

Never tick off a writer

Sixty-Five Roses: A Sister's MemoirSixty-Five Roses: A Sister's Memoir by Heather Summerhayes Cariou

My rating: 4 of 5 stars


For pretty well as long as I can remember, one of the hallmarks of the beginning of the academic year is the rather hyper presence of brand new university students accosting passers-by for Shinearama as part of their freshman week. In the early days, they actually shined your shoes to raise money for the Canadian Cystic Fibrosis Foundation. I had a favourite pair's colour permanently changed due to an over-enthusiastic Shinearama participant wielding so-called neutral polish. Now, they just bounce up and down a lot and chant. I throw loonies in the collection box and get high-fives from students for the rest of the day when they spot my sticker. The Resident Fan Boy resists, but I toss in another toonie and firmly press the sticker to his chest: "You're doing it for my cousins," I tell him.

Pamela Summerhayes and Jeffrey Summerhayes are my fifth cousins. Their connection to me stretches out past their father, through his mother to Simon Cleaver and Elizabeth Clarke of Bow Brickhill, Buckinghamshire, who married in 1788 and are our great-great-great-great-grandparents. When Pamela was diagnosed with Cystic Fibrosis at age four in 1958, her parents were told she had a very short time to live, most likely months. Over the next few years, as they scrambled for resources and support, they founded the Canadian Cystic Fibrosis Foundation. A few years later, their youngest child Jeffrey was also diagnosed with CF. Pamela died in 1980 at the age of 26. Jeffrey, now in his late forties, is still living with the challenges of CF.

One of Pam's very last acts was to make her sister (and also my fifth cousin) Heather promise to write their story.

First off, this is no sentimental, gauzy, softly-lit memoir of a beloved relative (and believe me, I've read a few). This is an unflinching look at what a chronic condition can do to a family. Heather Summerhayes Cariou is unsparing of herself, of her family, of her extended family, friends, acquaintances, professionals. Don't get me wrong; this is not a hatchet job. The story is told with great compassion, but Summerhayes-Cariou is not sugar-coating any of the details. She names names, up to and including the teacher who humiliated her brother Gregg in Grade Four. (Have there been any libel suits?) She replays family screaming matches, and catalogs the events leading to the eventual break-up of her first marriage. This is no walk in the park.

However, this is the work of a strong writer and there are, for me at least, many moments of familiarity. In a spooky coincidence, Summerhayes-Cariou opens her book with the same lines from the song "Oh Very Young" by Cat Stevens that I used in a post about my elder daughter leaving home for university. I also recognized something of our own situation (my younger daughter is on the autism spectrum) in the descriptions of the morning after the heart-breaking diagnosis, the striving for normality in everyday life, and the disappointment when family and friends don't know what to say or do and either fail to reach out or reach out hamfistedly, resulting in more emotional turmoil and damage.

I found myself wincing as I read about my distant cousins' struggle to balance the needs of typically-developing children with the urgent and compelling demands of offspring with special challenges. My elder daughter has never acted out the way Summerhayes-Cariou did as she fought both with her family and with the conflicting emotions that arose from having a sister at risk, but I lost quite a bit of sleep wondering about the many ways I must have failed to be the parent I wanted to be to both my very different daughters.

So, it's not a feel-good book. It's not an escape fantasy. It's not even a tear-jerker. It is, however, well-written with stinging honesty.



View all my reviews

Thursday, 18 November 2010

Upping the Dante

When I first encountered Dante's Divine Comedy, it wasn't through Alghieri's verse. It was via those amazing 19th century engravings by Gustave Doré.

I was in a Grade Twelve "English Seminar" class (the kind where you assigned yourself your own projects), and I did a class presentation on Doré's vision of The Divine Comedy because I had just discovered them and I was fascinated. Being an adolescent, I was especially drawn to the gruesome tortures Dante invented for everyone he didn't like. (Isn't revenge the next greatest teen dream after sex?) Some guy from the university was observing the class that day and asked me at the end how Dante's paradise would differ from a modern conception of heaven. I didn't have much time to think (did I mention I was an adolescent?), so I blurted out the first thing that came to me. I had just been learning about how filthy life was in medieval times, or indeed, any time before the anti-septic twentieth century came along and this had made a great impression. (Hygiene, another teen obsession -- or it should be...) I told him how clean Dante's heaven is and how smelly and vile the Inferno is, with many of the punishments relying on disgust in addition to agony.

"After a life spent walking through all kinds of waste, both human and animal, a sparkling Paradise must have looked very, very good to Dante," I said to our class visitor, although probably not in so many words. I was seventeen at the time, after all.

Of course, as revolting as it is, Hell is way more interesting. At least, Dante's version is.Anyone remember Rod Steiger's Night Gallery? One of my favourite stories in this TV anthology features a slightly miscast John Astin as a hippy who suddenly finds himself in a sort of Limbo waiting room when he gets bumped off in a motorcycle accident. Upon learning he's destined for damnation, he has visions of Doré's renditions of the Inferno, and although sobered by the prospect, you can tell he's intrigued. He gets sent to a rec room where he'd unable to turn off the ragtime music on the Victrola and a pleasant elderly couple relentlessly show him vacation slides. When he complains, the devil himself shows up to assure him that this is indeed his own special hell and that there's a room exactly like it "upstairs" where it's someone's idea of paradise. We leave John Astin sobbing: "Noooo.... Bummer! BUMMER!"

Elder daughter has been struggling with this week's essay, meditating on heaven, hell and purgatory while everyone else has somehow found the time to celebrate the end of mid-terms. Yep, I remember this. One guy was expressing his joy on his drum kit upstairs (no, no, no -- a real drum kit). I listened to him in the background while elder daughter slumped over her computer monitor and we discuss reciprocal love and lust and why Francesca and Paolo find themselves whirling in a fiendish wind in the upper levels of hell. At least they're in the upper reaches of the Inferno, one circle closer to purgatory and heaven than the gluttons who only love themselves.And at least they're together.

Noise, filth, hopes to be abandoned, lessons to be learned, and always that feeling that others are having a way better time than you are. Sounds like the Divine Comedy to me. But I don't point that out to daughter. It wouldn't fit in her thesis.

Wednesday, 17 November 2010

Out of time and slinking off to bed...

Damn. I've been working on something, but it won't be ready by midnight and I'm getting tired. I'm cheating with this James Bondian slinker by Anjulie, who is from Oakville, Ontario (not far from Toronto):
I'm so ashamed of myself...

Tuesday, 16 November 2010

In need of re-animation

Oh gawd. I've just spent a frantic hour proof-reading elder daughter's essay via Skype and Microsoft Word. She doesn't ask me to do this often --- and may never do so again. I was using the rather marvelous "Track Changes" tool on Word, the one that notes your changes and deletions in red while preserving the original uncorrected text in the right margin. Ever tried it? It's fab! So I saved it, went to attach it and discovered I'd lost it. After searching files for it only to be told I couldn't open it, I had to do it all over again, this time carefully renaming the file and saving it to my desktop where I could see the damn thing to attach it.

Thank goodness someone else posted something rather wonderful on my Facebook page today. These are videos from the RSA (Royal Society for the encouragement of Arts, Manufactures and Commerce), and they're called "RSA Animates". I rather wish all lectures could be this way, or that I could take notes like this, but I would need to be both artistically competent and prescient and I'm neither. If you can spare a few minutes, just look at this:

Isn't that great? Here's another from an American professor (with a Sicilian background which apparently hasn't slowed him down -- watch this to see what I mean):

If you just close your eyes and listen, it's interesting enough, but by golly, it's much easier to follow and remember with the visual accompaniment, doncha think?

Monday, 15 November 2010

Cloak encounters (of the cape kind)

I have an Irish cape that buttons jauntily below my left clavicle. It was perfect for winters in Victoria which are cold, damp, and I guess, rather Irish. It also worked well for pregnancy, especially since mine were of the winter variety, leading to spring babies. During the decade I had children in tow needing clothes, snacks and amusement, I stopped wearing the cape because I couldn't get my pack-sack on over it.

With both girls in school, however, I realized I had the perfect garment for the Hades transition from crisp autumn to the deep-freeze that drives Ottawa pedestrians into parkas.

Donning the cape in the city that was still fairly new to me at the time, I realized I had the opposite of an invisibility cloak.

I had a Talking Cape.

People would approach me and speak to me. I hadn't noticed this effect before, because Victorians strike up conversations with strangers: on the bus, in the park, waiting for the elevator. In Ottawa, it was brief and was invariably on the topic of the cape: where did I get it, what country is it from, etc. Still, it was human contact. Or at least attention. One morning, I was at the bus-stop when a car containing four women drew up to the traffic light. I could see all four jabbering animatedly, gesturing toward me. By that time, I recognized it as The Cape Effect (at least, I hope so; I may have been drooling again) and wanted to say to them: "You know I'm standing about five feet away from you, don't you?"

This autumn's cloak encounters have included a gaudily-clad taxi driver with wildly curly hair who was convinced my cape was South American (we had a discussion of how Celtic culture may have swept through Spain en route to the British Isles), and a man who commented on my "blanket" at the crosswalk. (I think English was his second language.) A homeless man who frequents the Bay with a cat perched across his shoulders told me he liked my style.

When winter winds blow and I hang the cape back in the basement, I fade back into a non-entity. Now, each year, I have another reason to look forward to the autumn. Not only will the trees billow forth in brilliance, but for a few sweet weeks, I will exist somewhere else besides my own mind.

Sunday, 14 November 2010

Art therapy

So, last night I was lying in a foetal position on my bed. It was 6:15 and we had to leave the house in an hour to attend a ballet at the National Arts Centre. I didn't want to go. I was exhausted, foot-sore, periodical, miserable. The performance in question was Éonnagata. All I knew about it was that it featured Robert Lepage, a man who personifies the terms "enigmatic" and "eccentric". I knew he's famous for ground-breaking works and for being an artistic visionary and that he's extremely well-known in his native Québec. I knew him from his participation in one of my absolute favourite movies Jésus de Montréal in which he plays an enigmatic and eccentric actor who asks to perform the "to be or not to be" soliloquy from Hamlet in a passion play -- and does without a flicker of irony. Lying there, all I could think of was The Great Gonzo tap-dancing in oatmeal on The Muppet Show, bellowing, "Art! Art!" I was way too tired for this.

Well, I managed to pull myself together and plod out into the night with the Resident Fan Boy and younger daughter. And by golly, I'm glad I did!

Éonnagata is the story of Le Chevalier D'Éon, born (take a deep breath) Charles-Geneviève-Louis-Auguste-André-Timothée d'Éon de Beaumont in 1728. The ambiguity of her/his name carried on throughout his/her life. S/he spent the first part of it as a man and the second part as a woman.

The story is told in ballet/acrobatics/martial arts/ by three actors/dancers/performers: the ballet dancer Sylvie Guillem, the independent dancer/choreographer Russell Maliphant (actually born in Ottawa, but associated with British dance) and Lepage who is kind of Canada's answer to Jonathan Miller. If you look these people up, you'll understand we were watching a kind of "dream team" cast.

The music moves from soundscapes to Rococo to driving drums. All three performers dress in sort of tunics which suggest breasts on the men and tights which suggests a bulge on Ms Guillem. The Resident Fan Boy told me he had some difficulty distinguishing between them, but I didn't and I found this delightful. Sylvie Guillem, who is a superb dancer, moved with feminine grace and form, and I found the two men who moved with equal grace, unmistakeably male in their movement. There was another bonus in being able to watch three mature artists at work: Guillem is 45, Malifant is 49, and Lepage is nearly 53. The only times I felt pulled out of the story, which follows the Chevalier's life as set out in a brief poetic narrative at the beginning of the piece, were in the sections where Robert Lepage is dressed as a woman. He's taller and broader than the other two who are similarly built, so these moments had a "Dame Edna Everage" quality.

No matter. I was mesmerized. I also noticed that younger daughter, who stimmed and fidgeted quite a bit at the National Ballet's evening of short works two weeks earlier, was quite relaxed through the ninety-minute ballet, only stirring toward the end. After applauding enthusiastically, I asked younger daughter what she thought. "It was very good," she said gravely. The Resident Fan Boy informed me that it was like counting sheep.

Philistine.

Saturday, 13 November 2010

As a matter of fact, some of my days at university were like that....

Oh, oh, oh. Tired. Too tired. This day has left too little of me and too much to do.

When a "UVic" in Catalonia (this is important, the speaker in the video says "Spain" but some Catalan posters took issue) did a widely-viewed "lip-dub", Sean Slavin, of my alma mater The University of Victoria in British Columbia, decided to see what could emerge, mainly because many viewers had apparently confused the two universities.

What follows is what he and about a thousand volunteers came up with last September. When I watch it, I'm nearly undone by an avalanche of memories, but I think someone who hasn't been a student here, taught here, met one's spouse here can still enjoy this on its own. (Hang on for the "Rick Roll"):

Friday, 12 November 2010

Brighten your house as you are able...

I think I must have been in Grade Six. I was standing at the edge of the schoolyard at View Royal Elementary in Victoria at the close of a school day, looking east toward the bridge that crossed an errant offshoot of Portage Inlet, where Helmcken Road ducked under the railway trestle and climbed the hill.

That's when it hit me, a vision in my mind's eye, glowing softly in multi-coloured lights from a long way away.

Christmas is coming.

When I was a kid, November 12th was the day the Christmas decorations went up in the stores, including those marvelous complex window displays with mechanical manikins. (Does anybody do these anymore?)

For many years I struggled and managed to cling to that magical tingle of anticipation that set in the day after Remembrance Day. Sadly, I discovered it's easier to believe in the magic when you're not the one waving the wand. Gradually, the decorations appeared earlier and earlier until the fake Christmas trees and wreaths festooned the stores in late October, and as I grew older, the responsibility of making Christmas happen shift more on to my shoulders. When my children arrived, thump! Christmas lay across my back like Santa's sack.

However, I did see the lights glowing behind their eyes. Today, younger daughter shudders and shivers without explaining why. Does she hear distant music and see something shining just out of reach?

I'd better make sure it's not just her imagination.

Thursday, 11 November 2010

As the eleventh hour approaches

November 11th, 2000: The Resident Fan Boy eagerly got us out of the house and down to the War Memorial for our very first Remembrance Day in Ottawa. On a finger-chilling morning, I calculated the costs of standing with two little girls, one with special needs, for two hours and vetoed the idea. Disappointed, the RFB retreated with us to Dunn's Deli a few blocks up Elgin Street as streams of poppy-wearing people flowed past us in the opposite direction.

We tucked into our blintzes and sandwiches as those around us chatted cheerfully and smoked. (This was in the days just before smoking was banned in eateries in Ottawa.)

As the eleventh hour approached, I comforted myself with the fact that the televisions in the deli were tuned to the ceremony taking place just a few blocks away. Then I noticed the increasing quiet. Fifty voices, twenty voices, half a dozen voices. At eleven, the silence was complete, save for two women talking intently at a window table, who suddenly noticed how well they could hear each other, shrugged in embarrassment and held their peace.

Only in Ottawa, I thought.

What's the time? Time for me to shut up...

Wednesday, 10 November 2010

A book for the eve of Remembrance Day

I was ten years old when I saw the play The Diary of Anne Frank on television. My mother explained beforehand that Anne had hidden from the Nazis with her family, but was discovered and sent to a concentration camp. I could tell by the way she said this that this was a sinister thing, but wondered what could be so dreadful about a camp where they made you think hard.

The play must have made a deep impression because for Christmas, my father gave me a copy of Anne Frank: The Diary of a Young Girland my mother gave my very first diary. Anne wrote her entries as personal letters addressed to "Dear Kitti"; I decided to address my diary to "Aurora", because when I was ten, I thought that was the most beautiful name in the world.

This past October, during our visit to Halifax to see elder daughter at her university, we dropped into the bookstore while waiting for her to emerge from her morning class. I saw Anne Frank: the book, the life, the aftermath on the shelf and leafed through it, thinking: Oh dear, yet another book about Anne Frank. (I've read a good portion of them.) I bought it, of course.

The book is not so much a series of chapters as a collection of essays. The earlier essays are concerned with Anne's place in history: her stature as a writer(was she an ordinary girl living under extraordinary circumstances, or an extraordinary girl living in increasingly unbearable times?); an examination of what actually happened before and after the Frank family's period of hiding, and how new revelations about the diary still receive heavy media attention. Later chapters examine the diary as a literary work, the initial struggle to publish it, and how it was edited -- surprisingly, largely by Anne herself, who planned to submit it for publication after the war. The book continues and concludes with the fierce feud over the dramatization, how the diary figures in Holocaust-denial literature, the outreach work of both the Anne Frank-Fonds in Basel, Switzerland and the Anne Frank Foundation in Amsterdam, and the varying degrees of success with which the diary is studied in American schools.

Here's the thing: I resisted this book initially because I thought: What more could I possibly learn? I had the same reaction before watching the documentary Shoah. The answer was the same: when you're dealing with an enormity -- and genocide has to be the best example of enormity there is -- it's impossible to learn it all. For one thing, your brain tends to shut off in the face of the horror. Anne Frank and her diary are sort of an entry, providing something that is imaginable as a link (if we dare to look further) into the unimaginable.

Things I didn't know before reading this book:

1) Holland was second only to Poland in the percentage of its Jewish population slaughtered (more than three quarters), due in part to the accuracy and efficiency of Dutch records.

2) Not all of the entries in Anne's diary are addressed to the imaginary "Kitti"; this was a device Anne herself came up with as she re-wrote and edited much of her diary in preparation for eventual publication.

3) There are three versions of the diary: the "a" version is the original; the "b" version are Anne's revisions, and the "c" version is the one most of us have read, that which Otto Frank, Anne's father and the sole survivor, put together from versions "a" and "b".

4) The strange, strange story of the creation of the Broadway play and the bitter fights surrounding it.

Francine Prose is very critical of the play and even more critical of the 1959 film starring Millie Perkins. She acknowledges, though, that both brought more readers to the diary and for many, like me, a first introduction to the Holocaust.

I must admit, I have never cared for the film either. There have been some recent interpretations of the Anne Frank story on television that begin to do some justice to the story. For one thing, Anne's caustic views of the Van Daans,whose real names were Hermann and August Van Pels, and Dussel the dentist who was actually Eric Pfeffer, may not have been that fair. Certainly there are those who remembered and loved them who object to their portrayal, particularly in the play and the movie. Prose doesn't mention recent productions such as The Attic (a rather good 1986 mini-series based on the memories of Miep Gies, one of the refugees' faithful supporters), The Diary of Anne Frank (an English 2009 interpretation that clearly tries to portray the protagonists as they were, rather just how Anne depicted them), and my personal favourite Anne Frank, from 2001 which tells the story from well before the family's retreat into hiding, then takes us unflinchingly to the transit camp at Westerbork, to Auschwitz, and to Bergen-Belsen where Anne finally died, mere weeks before the liberation of the camp.

Is it possible to enjoy a book that touches on the Holocaust? Perhaps not. However, this book is a palatable experience without being cloying or sentimental, and it is certainly fascinating reading.

Tuesday, 9 November 2010

Yet another winter project: properly reading autobiographies by relatives

Captain Of The QueensCaptain Of The Queens by Captain Harry Grattridge

My rating: 3 of 5 stars


Captain Harry Grattidge is my first cousin three times removed. I mean, he really is deceased; he died in 1979, but blood relations are forever, even if you never knew them. You don't stop being your parents' children; your grandmother is still your grandmother after she's popped her clogs. So even this long-dead distant cousin whom I never met remains connected to me.

I first encountered Harry Grattidge about seven years ago while embarking on my umpteenth viewing of the classic Titanic flick A Night to Remember when I suddenly noticed his name in the opening credits. "Special thanks to Commodore Harry Grattidge, OBE...."

Grattidge? Wait a minute, that's a family name. And it's not a common one...

Some quick googling led me to a couple of Grattidge family web sites and I started to learn about Harry, not to mention a host of other members of my great-great-grandmother's family. I am now in touch with Grattidge cousins across the world.

Harry is one of the closest things I have to a celebrity in my family tree (although I do have a noted designer and a few people in line for the British throne). During his long career at sea, which started when sailing ships still had actual sails, he managed to knock up against history several times: at Yalta as master of the Franconia, aboard the doomed Lancastria, and, as the title of his autobiography tells us, as the captain of the huge liners the Queen Elizabeth and the Queen Mary. He even claimed to be the officer who unwittingly ferried three assassins ashore just before they murdered Arch-Duke Ferdinand on June 28th, 1914. He was, in many ways, the ideal consultant for the making of A Night to Remember in 1957: not only had he served on the Carpathia (sometime after her rescue of the Titanic survivors), he knew Carpathia's captain Arthur Rostron, and of course was utterly familiar with everything to do with a luxury ocean liner. In this shot, he's chatting with Joseph Boxhall, the Fourth Officer of the Titanic while actor Kenneth More, who portrayed Second Officer Lightoller in the film, listens in with William MacQuitty, the producer of the film who erroneously identifies Harry as "Commodore of the White Star Line". (He was Commodore of Cunard, of course.)

The term "autobiography" may be a misnomer. It was "as told to" one Richard Collier in 1956, three years after Harry's retirement and became popular enough to become one of those Reader's Digest's Condensed Books. The trouble is, I'm not sure how much is Harry's voice and how much that of his ghost writer. I imagine the more lyrical passages are the work of Collier and I suspect something like the following is pure Harry:

I asked Lana Turner [on a cruise for her fourth honeymoon] how she was enjoying the trip.
"Very much," she said coyly "but being a bride seems -- well, a little new and strange."
I thought that was one of the most feminine things I've ever heard a woman say.


I rather think Harry deserved a swift kick to the shins for that gratuitous remark.

His own marriage was, from those in a better position to know, an unqualified disaster. He mentions neither his estranged wife nor his two sons.

He doesn't say a great deal about his parents or siblings either, so as a family historian, I have to be grateful for a thumbnail portrait of his father, my great-great-great-uncle, in which I learn that he loved bridge at his club and reading Sherlock Holmes, while leaving family disciplinary matters to his wife. Harry also only makes passing references to his brother and sister, failing to tell us that his brother died in service during the First World War.

He does, however (or rather, the ghost writer does) paint a delightfully detailed portrait of what it was like for a boy to grow up in the Stafford of the late nineteenth/early twentieth century.

Mostly, though, Grattidge's audience would have been eager for the details of his brushes with the famous and powerful, so Harry lets loose with stories about Ivor Novello, the Duke and Duchess of Windsor, Winston Churchill and many others who would have been more familiar to 1950s readers. Here he is with Field Marshal Viscount Montgomery:

Captain of the Queens is an enjoyable, if dated, read, and as a family historian, I'm delighted to own a copy (which I obtained easily and cheaply from either AbeBooks or Alibris). I am lucky enough to be related to at least half a dozen people who got around to getting their lives into a book. Up until now, I've treated these autobiographies as text books, merely paying attention to the passages that aid me in my family history research, but this winter I am determined to settle down and read these books properly.

As a sort of postscript, I meant to post this yesterday, so imagine my surprise when checking in at John Reid's informative genealogy blog Anglo-Celtic Connections and discovering he's posted a link to a podcast about the Lancastria this morning! There's serendipity! The lecture doesn't mention Harry, but I see The Lancastria Association of Scotland has posted Harry's account of the worst British maritime disaster ever (far worse than the Titanic) online.




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