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.


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.

View all my reviews

Monday, 8 November 2010

Write of Passage number fifteen: they shoot Clydesdales, don't they?

Two young men are sitting on the bus - hoodies in camouflage patterns, earrings, leather jackets - comparing jobs and tattoos, their exchange punctuated with the usual expletives:
"See this one? One hundred *%$@#ing dollars."
"Yeah? How long did it take?"
"I dunno,$#@*&ing hours. Still hasn't &*%^$ing healed yet."

From my seat directly behind the last speaker, I am mesmerized by what I can see of his hair, various shades with indigo by his right ear. His cap, appropriately dark with the visor pulled to one side, reads: "Sweet Acre Farms -- Home of Carroll's Clydesdales".

Sunday, 7 November 2010

"Dying is easy; comedy is hard."

When I was fifteen, a friend invited me to go see the movie Godspell. On reflection, it was an odd film choice for two young Unitarians, but my Anglo-Saxon was rusty and I wasn't all that sure what I was getting into. I was swept away by the joy, hilarity, pathos, and infectious music. I was so exhilarated when I emerged from the cinema, that I walked all the way home, despite the darkness and lateness of the hour.

Over the years, I had the opportunity to view the stage production several times: an exuberant version by a clever company that normally specialized in improv; a polished version by one of those touring "Broadway" companies; an earnest professional version in Toronto that no doubt hoped to recapture the magic of the almost mythical Toronto production that featured Victor Garber, Gilda Radner, Eugene Levy, Andrea Thomas, Martin Short and Jayne Eastwood;
and the inevitable amateur church version that got by on heart and charm.

Both my daughters got hooked on it in turn. Elder daughter was especially enamoured of it at age five and had to be gently talked out of a Godspell-themed birthday party. (I wasn't quite sure how I would explain that one to the other parents, and what games would we play? "Let's electrocute Jesus in the back yard, kids!" We went with Snow White.) I still remember searching for something in the stacks in the downtown branch of the Greater Victoria Public Library when younger daughter was a toddler and hearing her singing wordlessly in her stroller. When I stopped to listen, I realized it was "Prepare Ye the Way of the Lord."

Younger daughter has remained steadfastly loyal to Godspell ever since, so when we learned that Canterbury High School was putting it on this month, we moved swiftly to procure tickets for the matinée.

Canterbury High School, for those of you unfamiliar with Hades, is the high school devoted to the arts in the public school system. Students come from across the Ottawa-Carlton School District to attend and must audition to gain admittance into Fine Arts, Drama, Dance, Literary Arts, or Music (or, I suppose, to a combination of the aforementioned). So this wasn't going to be your average zits-and-all high school performance.

And it wasn't. The set, meant to be an abandoned and drained outdoor swimming pool, covered with graffiti and brimming with trash, was student-designed and effective. The musicians, unseen backstage, played beautifully at the right volume and on cue. The performers sang well, knew their lines and were unfazed by slight mishaps such as the occasional feedback boom or a lost shoe during a dance number.

There were some odd directorial choices, forced, I suspect, by the need to involve as many students as possible. As is standard in many middle and high schools, there were two casts. We were seeing the "New Testament" cast whose final performance this was. About half a dozen dancers were brought in to add extra menace to the opening scene, the questioning by the Pharisees sequence, and the interlude where Jesus is tempted by Satan. This has been traditionally performed by the cast members only and I found it distracting. I imagine the parents of the dancers would passionately disagree.

The oddest choice of all was having the other so-called "Old Testament" cast appear at the foot of the stage, dressed quite elegantly in shades of black and grey with the women in heels, to bear away the body of Jesus. Nice bonding, but a bit bewildering to those not closely involved.

It took me some thinking afterward to pinpoint what wasn't quite working for me. Then it occurred to me: the funniness was missing. The other productions of Godspell I've seen have been hilarious; I've hurt myself giggling. This production had humour but it got hidden in asides that sounded more like teenage wisecracks than jokes.

Godspell is a musical, but for character actors. These kids are still too young to carry off the breathless vaudevillian pace of the script, and way too reluctant to surrender their prettiness to the clown characters they're supposed to embody. This robbed the more burlesque moments of the play of their innocence.

Let me give you an example: "Turn Back O Man" is a Diamond Lil/saloon-type number. In the touring Broadway production I saw years ago, the girl assigned to sing this was a plump and uninhibited performer dressed, like the rest of the cast, in an outrageous fluffy concoction with layers of knee-socks and a pair of battered old sneakers. She threaded an endless feather boa throughout the throng in the packed lower orchestra while treating individual audience members to Mae West one-liners. When she made her way back to the stage, she glanced up into the balcony and gave a little wave. I was in the balcony. Everybody waved back. It was so over-the-top, so literally a burlesque, that everyone felt comfortable and included in the joke. Her teen-aged counterpart in the Canterbury production was clad in a sort of striped body stocking with a little skirt and artfully torn leggings with bare feet. Instead of Mae West, we were leaning uncomfortably toward Lolita. Many of the female cast-members were dressed in variations of colourful tunics with leggings and bare feet or runners. They didn't look like clowns; they looked like something out of anime or manga.

"You've got to be pretty in the city of God"? Well, you've got to be a bit flaky in a production of Godspell

Still, the farewells at the Last Supper were genuinely moving and the Finale carried the full dramatic punch.

I may be giving the impression that the young actors were incompetent; let me assure you, they were not. They let them into this school for a reason. One girl, though, truly stood out. Her name is Natasha Mumba. This lady has the presence and the power and the chops. She can sing, she can take control of the stage and she has the makings of one fine character actor. Look out.

Younger daughter's reaction to Canterbury's Godspell? She sat there trembling slightly for a few moments after the lights came up, gazing down at her programme.
"I loved it!" she declared, finally. Spellbound.

Saturday, 6 November 2010

54-40, why fight?

Each weekday, I take an hour's bus-ride with younger daughter to her school, drop her off, then pelt down to whichever bus stop will catch me the first of the three buses that will eventually get me home. I climb on, stick in my ear buds and tune into the last half-hour of CBC Radio Two Morning. It's a very eclectic mix of music and I like it.

The bus was taking a detour down Richmond Street en route to the Westboro Transitway station when this gem came on the other morning:

Geez. I hadn't thought of this song in years. It was getting airplay during our final months in Victoria before we descended into Hades.

Canada's going into Standard Time this evening (except for Saskatchewan which refuses to take part in such nonsense). That gives me an extra hour of sleep. I think I'll play some 54-40 and dance myself to bed....

Friday, 5 November 2010

Write of Passage number fourteen: do I get my medal yet?

Conversation doesn't come easily to younger daughter. I spend two hours each day with her on the bus, but very few words are exchanged and if I try to introduce a topic, I'm usually met with an impatient "I know! I know that, Mum!" even if she doesn't know, because the underlying message is Please stop talking; I'm getting overwhelmed.

So the days when she does initiate a conversation are special indeed, and terrifying, because it means the topic is of vital importance and my answer can make or break her heart.

About a week before Hallowe'en, she sees something out the bus window which makes her shudder with delight.

"Hallowe'en is coming really soon!"
I agree.
She reaches across and touches my arm with one mitten. It's black and has reflective skeletal hand bones over the back. (Uh-oh. She's touching me to make sure I'm paying attention. This must be paramount. She rarely does this.)

"I do want to go trick-or-treating this year..."
"Really?" I say, gently quizzical. "Aren't you fourteen?"
"I know I'm fourteen, Mum!" She retreats back to her window and I watch her internal struggle throughout the long bus ride, punctuated by rebellious murmurs and flat declarations such as:
"Fine! I won't go trick-or-treating!"
Minutes pass, more muttering.
Finally: "I've changed my mind! I won't watch Meet Me in St Louis tonight!"
Meet Me in St Louis features a long segment about Hallowe'en. The previous evening, she watched ET which is set in the days around Hallowe'en.

As we get off the bus, she is clearly unhappy and strides ahead of me. I follow her sadly, considering the issue. The Resident Fan Boy and I both gave up trick-or-treating when we became teenagers. Things were a little more delineated then. At thirteen in British Columbia, you used to leave elementary school and enter junior high. These days, middle schools muddy the waters between childhood and adolescence. They can begin as early as Grade Six in some provinces. Furthermore in our long-vanished childhoods, there was considerable social pressure to stop trick-or=treating when one got older. One lady was so adamant that she refused treats to any kid who appeared to her to be over ten. Her windows got soaped and egged quite a bit...

When we came to Ottawa ten years ago, I was quite startled to see great hulking teenagers outnumber the little tikes who appeared on my porch with pillowcases at the ready. Nevertheless, older daughter decided on her own (with several veerings in the days before the festival) to stay home when she turned thirteen.

Near younger daughter's school, she falls back into step with me. (Another once-in-a-blue-moon occurrence.)

"I'll watch Enchanted tonight. I was just kidding about trick-or-treating."
My heart melts. "Some teenagers do trick-or-treating, but Daddy and I stopped when we were thirteen. So did your sister. Why don't you ask at school if they still trick-or-treat?"
Short silence.
"I think I will go trick-or-treating, but this will be the last time."
"That sounds like a good plan," I say gravely.
"And next year, I'll just stay home."
"Well, you can still wear a costume to school and we will still carve a pumpkin and you can hand out the treats."
"Yes. 'Cause I'm not a little kid."
"And the good thing about handing out the treats is that you can still eat them!"
"Good. I might get hungry on Hallowe'en."

Thursday, 4 November 2010

An Ottawan October full moon

Another full moon in Taurus in Ottawa. This October evening found us scurrying down the dark street toward the bus stop, the impossibly round orb peering at us between the houses.

The National Ballet of Canada was performing a rarity in Ottawa: a mixed programme which, to tell the truth, I prefer to the full-length ballets that usually visit The Nation's Capital, having grown up with the smaller stages of Victoria. My short attention span could be a factor as well.

I had decided to dress up a little for once, donning a long black linen jumper and by the time I'd worked out the accessories --- I looked exactly like a dour church lady. The Resident Fan Boy was amused to note I'd tried to offset the effect with a pewter Unitarian pendant, but a church lady is a church lady, regardless of denomination. (Unitarian church ladies look marginally more hippyish.) Ah well. I'm too fond of my bodily comfort to attempt something flashier.

We have the three front seats of a six-seat loge for this particular subscription. This evening, there was a couple and a single lady seated behind us. The couple decided to make a break for the empty loge ahead of us as the lights went down, a risky move, as we know Torontonian balletomanes never make a move for the better seats until after the second intermission. Why became clear when a family of six showed up to claim their loge. Sneaky couple apologetically slipped back into our loge where single lady had to slide back to her less desirable seat.

This little dance was going on during the opening moments of Serenade. The National Ballet of Canada started sort of specializing in Balanchine in the eighties, carefully preserving every nuance of the choreography. I think I've said this before, but I always feel a bit aggrieved when watching a Balanchine ballet because I can't help but hold him personally responsible for the prevalence of anorexia in the dance world. This may be massively unfair, but it seems from film footage that short plump ballerinas were the norm pre-Balanchine, who preferred an idealized long leggy uniform look in his women dancers, making the New York City Ballet the classy equivalent of the Rockettes. Serenade, one of his best known works, is glorious, abstract precision with only a hint of a story. It's a series of beautiful tableaux that depend heavily on the dancers having the same proportions. I have a feeling old George would have complained about the bouncing boobs of a couple of the better endowed dancers which was quite evident in those linked bourrées of which GB was so fond.

Still, it was difficult stuff impeccably performed. The only bobble (aside from the breasts) occurred when one of the leads sprawls gracefully, loosening her hair with a deft movement. This poor lass spent several seconds trying to unobtrusively free her very thick and springy hair from its bun while lying on her side as two others danced and posed around her.

I've seen this ballet many times, but was struck this time by how modern Tchaikovsky sounds in this piece, premonitions of Copland.

During the ballet, younger daughter was stimming somewhat, taking her hairband on and off, leaning into the railing of the loge. Normally we have a four-person loge, so if this happens, I don't worry so much, but I was very aware of the people behind us, especially after their break for freedom. Meanwhile, the four young preteens-to-teenagers in the loge ahead were providing a distraction for the Resident Fan Boy, who reported that the youngest boy, who might have been eleven, was working hard at blocking his brothers' view and, as it happened, the RFB's line of vision as well.

The RFB observed that the boys' interest was piqued considerably during the next ballet, a very modern piece set to Chopin's 24 Preludes by Marie Chouinard, a Québecoise with an Order of Canada. (That's Canada's equivalent of an Order of the British Empire, for you non-Canucks.) I, for one, would like to see the National Ballet's waxing bill. The costumes consisted of black see-through body stockings (for the girls) and dance belts (for the boys) with duct tape strategically set over the naughty bits. Among other things, it made the dancers appear to have enormous cracks.

The piece was sort of Degrassi High meets Mad Max. Towards the end, younger daughter gave audible groans as each new prelude began. I don't blame her, really. It was beautifully danced and the choreography was intriguing, especially juxtaposed to the civilized sounds of Chopin, but still, it was forty-five long minutes.

The evening ended with Crystal Pite's Emergence. I happen to know two of her cousins (Victoria's like that), and I've always rather enjoyed her stuff. The Resident Fan Boy watched as the body language of young boys ahead got extremely agitated. Two of the lead female dancers wore diaphanous tops with no duct tape.

As with the previous ballet, I'd purposefully not read the synopsis, just to see what I'd pick up.
"So," said the Resident Fan Boy as we applauded. "What was that about?"
"Insects," I responded promptly. I was right. Bees, apparently. According to the programme, Pite thinks bee colonies and dance companies are similar as they seem to operate in a egalitarian fashion, but are strictly based on hierarchy. Personally, I wonder how anyone could possibly mistake a ballet company for an equal opportunity enterprise. It's all about hierarchy.

Off into the special Hades that is Ottawa on a Saturday night. Younger daughter hesitated a fraction of a second before boarding a crowded bus at 11 pm and a young blond teetering in a miniskirt and stilettos shrieked at her: "Come on, come on! Make it snappy!" The bus driver (whose ear she was teetering beside) looked up at her in appalled wonder.
"She really needs to pee," explained her equally blond, mini-skirted and high-heeled companion, semi-apologetically. They and the horde of tipsy students in their company alighted (okay, descended heavily) at the Rideau Centre, and the driver, as if fearful he'd pick up more, lead-footed the bus through Lowertown past the cruising paddy wagons.

Full moons. Gotta love 'em...