Tuesday, 23 August 2016

Mixed media

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, 22 August 2016

"Have a nice life."

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday, 21 August 2016

Saturday, 20 August 2016

Things you never see in Hades these days

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

Thursday, 18 August 2016

Cafe society II

The micro-macro-economist-barista makes me what looks like a feather atop of my mocha latte.

He turns the cup and tells me, as I exclaim over the image: "Here's a trick. You can get a Dr Suess effect."

He dips the tip of his barista-coffee-stirring-tool (not a euphemism) into a dark edge near the rim and adds two eyes.

"There's a even a way to make this an elephant…"

But he squiggles chocolate syrup across it.
"Now I'm defacing it."
"But I know it's there," I say.
"It's the artistic ephemeral moment," he smiles.
I return his smile.
"Very Buddhist."

Wednesday, 17 August 2016

Hello, I must be going

I hurried up Vancouver Street on one of my last evenings of this year's Victoria visit. It was an achingly beautiful August evening, full of golden light and memories.  I was, after all, passing through my old neighbourhood.  When I last lived in it, my children were tiny.

I was on my way to the Blue Bridge Theatre's production of Animal Crackers: a) because Blue Bridge does pretty damn good theatre - many of the actors have impressive CVs - and b) because I've adored the Marx Brothers since I was seventeen.  Groucho, Harpo, Chico, and (sometimes) Zeppo helped me survive high school.

During my final nightmarish spring of secondary education, I was staying in the dorms at the University of Victoria for a brief, province-wide drama workshop.

Our teacher had summoned us to a late-night reading of the riot act about drugs and alcohol at the conference.  (This was rich; said teacher was a notorious party animal.)  I had decided that, having partaken of neither, I was too damn tired to sit through a hypocritical harangue after a day of workshops and performances.  I was one of the few without a room-mate, so I was drifting off to the soundtrack of Duck Soup, when someone came hammering on my door.

It was Arty, a diminutive redhead in my sister's grade, whose voice had not yet changed.

"What is it?" I called out crossly.
"Mr Carr says you gotta come to the meeting."
"I've gone to bed, Arty.  I don't drink."

Pause.  The Marx Brothers were warbling "All God's Children Got Guns".

"Are you coming?"
"No, Arty."

Pause. Oh hidey-hidey-hidey-hidey-hidey-hidey-ho....

"Please?  He says you gotta...."
"F*#& off, Arty!"

People told me afterwards that Arty was seen forlornly drifting into the meeting, muttering:  ". . . and she told me to f*#& off. . . ."

(About ten years later, Arty was killed in a freak accident involving something like a wood chipper.  I used to know the details, but frankly, I've preferred not to think about it.  Poor Arty.)

I shook off the past and entered into the past offered by The Blue Bridge Theatre's production of Animal Crackers - a version of the 1920s where there was swing-dancing.  Odd.

As in common in these days of little funds for the arts, most of the actors doubled up on roles with the exception of those playing Groucho (RJ Peters) and Harpo (Britt Small).  Wes Borg, playing Chico, also appeared briefly as a bum.  Like Harpo, the ingenue male lead was played by a woman, presumably for her dancing skills.  But you know, it's not like anything in the Marx Brothers' universe made a helluva lotta sense to begin with.

The play featured the elements that Animal Crackers is known for:  "Hooray for Captain Spaulding" with "Hello, I Must Be Going"; the "strange interlude" sequence -- and several elements that aren't from Animal Crackers:  "Everybody Says I Love You", (which featured in the Marx Brothers movie Horsefeathers) and "Three Little Words" (which didn't, but like the other ditties, was a Kalmer and Ruby composition.)

During the first act, I was grateful to not be seated in the front row, as they became Groucho fodder.  However, I was seated alone in the second row (it was a preview night), and as the lights went down at the end of the intermission, and a romantic duet began, Groucho plopped into the seat next to me.
Oh gawd, I thought.
"He's not bad, is he?  Sounds just like Michael BublĂ©." (This was a running gag.)
I nodded agreeably and wished he would go away.

At this point, Chico came hawking popcorn down the aisle, and shot a bag at Groucho.  I noted that not a single kernel had spilt, and gingerly pulled one loose when Groucho obligingly held out the bag to me.  I ditched it after he loped back on to the stage.

The extravaganza ended with a dizzying pastiche of parodies from recent Broadway blockbusters -- after the first curtain call.  Groucho appeared at centre-stage and declared:  "One of the advantages of being dead for the last forty years is that I haven't had to see any of these!"

I wished, once again, that younger daughter could have seen this.  She would have loved the singing, the dancing, the costumes, and the physical humour.

I managed to catch the 10:30 Quadra and set off at a race-walk from Pandora.  This had been a golden fifteen-to-twenty-minute stroll at 6:30, but now Victoria had turned into a spooky ghost-town, no one on the streets but the homeless trying to sleep against shop-fronts, and an occasional dark figure that seemed to be trailing me by half a block.  I made it back through the shadows to Demeter's in ten minutes.

I am telling you, I had to be going.

Tuesday, 16 August 2016

Life seen through a prism

Clicking on any of this photos will enlarge them.
Early on a Friday midsummer morning, I wandered out on the grounds of the First Unitarian Church of Victoria, waiting for Demeter to arrive.  I had arrived separately because I had just completed my last night in exile, in the spare room of this summer's failed house-sit.  Back at Demeter's condo, my Double Leo Sister and her family were packing up to depart, but Demeter and I had made plans long ago to attend the memorial service for a prominent church member who died in the aftermath of a stroke suffered while driving the Pat Bay Highway.

As I crossed the parking lot, I saw a sign marking a "memorial pathway".  There is a memorial garden, with a wall containing more familiar names each time I go to visit it, but I didn't remember this pathway.  The church moved to this location four years before I left Victoria, and in the intervening sixteen years, I've only caught brief summertime glimpses.  Demeter wouldn't be arriving for another fifteen minutes or so, so I climbed the steep dirt path between the ancient trees.

I spotted an Oregon Grape plant, which, despite its name, is native to this area.  Demeter planted it in our garden about twenty years ago.  The current owners uprooted it ages ago.

There wasn't much time to climb far, so I was soon in my seat, acting as interpreter to Demeter, scribbling notes in my small book when I knew she wasn't able to follow.  There is a sound system with a loop that usually works well, but this morning, we were listening to people who weren't experienced in public speaking, and grief-stricken to boot.

He wasn't a man I knew well, for all his deep involvement in church affairs. Unitarians range from reason-worshipping atheists, humanists, and agnostics, through ethereal and downright wacky Wiccan and Neo-Pagans, to the more traditional theists and Christians.  The last group were the dominant group in past centuries in the Unitarian Church, but are now very much in the minority, and of course, it was through Unitarian theism that I came to know his wife twenty years ago. 

I was deeply moved to see her singing passionately back to her church sextet, from her seat amongst her children and grandchildren.  

Did I feel I knew more about her dead husband after experiencing him through his family and friends?

Well, yes and no.

It occurred to me that a memorial service is rather like a prism.  People speak their memories, but the memories are refracted through personality, time, and perspective.  The image we get of the dead person may not match the image we had of him while alive.  It's not an inaccurate picture, really.  Rainbows aren't illusions; they're just light after it's been bent and sorted.

My hostess drove me back to her house to pick up my suitcase and take it back to Demeter's for my final week in Victoria.  On the way, we talked about the wide range of beliefs, and she declared that the only combination that she found "ridiculous" were Unitarian Christians.  "Well, the Unitarian Church started out as a Christian church..." I began.

I'm a Unitarian by birth, so I really should have known better, having grown up in a church dominated by very determined humanists and agnostics.  Besides, apart from being a Leo, my hostess is Dutch.

"No.  Christianity is belief in the Trinity. Unitarians are the opposite."
"No.  It's ridiculous.  We won't discuss it."

It's a panorama shot.  Try clicking on it!

Monday, 15 August 2016

The summer of the fire signs

I must have looked upset, because a guy wandered over from his gang of friends clustered around an illegal beach fire and offered me a joint.

It was sunset on an August evening fourteen years ago, and I was perched on the rocks below Dallas Road, weeping in the aftermath of what I came to call The Big Blowout, when my sister, the Double Leo, ripped into me over a chance remark about a slice of pizza in front of my bewildered and terrified daughters, then aged ten and six, and her three-year-old son.

It wasn't about the pizza, of course. I sat on my stony seat (literally - I hadn't accepted the kind offer of a toke), gazing out at the darkening Juan de Fuca Strait, with that ghastly feeling you have when you know the injury is serious, and you don't know how to staunch the bleeding.

I thought about the years of pussy-footing, of being cowed and intimidated, and I wearily decided that I couldn't sustain a lifetime of emotionally supporting my daughters (particularly one on the autism spectrum), my aging mother, and use up my precious empathy reserves on my high-maintenance sister.

This is by way of an explanation for the following tale of tizziness, because the scenario emerging this summer of 2016 was eerily and ominously similar to that of 2002: my sister and her family turning up unexpectedly and moving into the guest suite of my mother's condo for a few perilous days.  Back then, in the growing shadow of the Olympic Mountains, I came to the conclusion that my sister and I can't be under the same roof for more than twenty-four hours, not without a mis-step on the minefield that is my sister's psyche.

Perhaps it was fortuitous that fourteen years later I was impulsively treating myself to lunch at Il Terrazzo after beginning art lessons offered by a friend.  I ate a lovely risotto in the cool patio of my favourite restaurant in Victoria, then, lugging bags of art supplies, dropped by a stationer's to pick up birthday cards for the various fire signs in my life.  I was rather dreading a two-day visit to my mother by my sister and her family scheduled for the following week, inadvertently overlapping with my stay, and had quietly made arrangements with my art teacher friend to stay in her basement for two nights, for the reasons described above.  My friend had made it clear that she would need plenty of notice.

I came home in the mid-afternoon, worn out.  Demeter was out for most of the day for a special meeting of her book club, but her walker, which she uses for ferrying laundry downstairs, was planted in the hallway, laden with towels and sheets.  Had I not been so tired,  I might have wondered more about this, but I squeezed past, sank into a chair, and drifted in and out of a doze.

I was awake and finishing something on my laptop when Demeter returned and informed me that Double Leo Sister and her family were turning up that evening and staying for three days.  My niece had picked up some sort of bug which involved symptoms that didn't adapt well to a campsite.

I suggested my giving up the spare room, and when my mother vigorously refused, stifled my panic and offered to set up the guest suite, texting the Resident Fan Boy in Hades, who advised me to get out.  He remembers 2002 all too well.

I was scheduled to meet my friend the Choir Singer at a folk concert in Beacon Hill Park that evening.  Double-Leo Sister et famille hadn't shown up when Choir Singer picked me up and, seeing my agitation, took me for ice cream therapy before proceeding to the Cameron Band Shell.  While a Stevie-Nicks/Lindsay-Buckingham-type duo from Sooke sang standards, I retreated to the springy plantations near the public washrooms, and in desperation, called the hostess of our largely fallen-through house-sit, who had offered their guest-room at any time.

The offer was still good. Ironically, she's a Leo, too.

I returned to the bench, and vacillating between relief and trepidation, enjoyed the rest of the concert. Choir Singer friend drove me to the empty apartment.  Evidently the unexpected guests had arrived and gone out to dinner with Demeter.  My friend waited while I threw all my belongings into my suitcase and hastily scribbled a note:  I've done the math:  Four people in the guest suite - one bathroom; two people in the apartment - two bathrooms. . . .

Of course, Demeter walked in, just as I was wheeling my suitcase towards the door.  As expected, she looked disappointed and weary. Jolly-Not-Green-Giant-Brother-in-Law (another fire sign -- he's an Aries) soon followed, declaring that my evacuation was unnecessary, along with my niece (another fire sign) and nephew (an earth sign, like me, poor kid).  Double Leo Sister was downstairs in the guest suite, but we kept missing each other in the running between floors.  I pleaded that Choir Singer Friend was waiting to drive me, pointed out that I would be back in the daytime, and fled to the guest room of yet another Leo where I spent the next three nights, being very polite.

I also spent the next three days being very polite -- and making myself scarce whenever possible.

In short, I kept careful control of how much time I spent with anyone.  When you're surrounded by control freaks (and fire signs are, no matter how you feel about astrology), fences are the best defence.

Still waiting for this summer to ease up. What do you suppose my chances are?

Sunday, 14 August 2016

Reflections at a Quaker Meeting

As Meeting begins, I see a chair.

It's a very ordinary chair, metal-legged, plastic-cushioned, such as used to be in countless business meetings and university seminars.

And as the Silence descends, I find myself wanting to sketch it.

The morning light hits the metal legs, and the reflections in the ancient, dark polish of the meeting house floor seem to dip below the surface in long, silver cones.  I sit, wishing I had the courage to pull out my sketchbook and try to capture it, knowing it's beyond my skills.

I've been taking my third session of art lessons with a friend who has taught both of my daughters.  This is the first time she has offered drawing, so I spend her two-hour classes trying to draw what I see -- and falling short, of course.  I rather like my creations, but am aware that I'm not really hitting her objectives.  This doesn't particularly trouble me.  In drawing, as in painting, photography, and writing, you are forced to slow down and notice details, and that's the point, isn't it?

Rather like a Quaker Meeting for Worship.

I don't have the gumption to haul out my sketchbook, but I do quietly pull out my notebook and scribble:  "Who polishes the floor? -  Surely they do it with love."

When I look back to the chair, the reflections in the floor have vanished. The light has moved on.