Wednesday, 25 November 2015

The café of requirement

With younger daughter consistently coming home on her own for the past three weeks or so, I'm suddenly faced with the challenge of finding a new way to shape my day.  As time-consuming as the round-trip out to Bells Corners was, it got me out of the house.  So does walking the Accent Snob, but elder daughter needs to get out of the house too, so she's been seizing the midday stroll, leaving me the late afternoon one.

I've always found that getting a start on what writing I'm to do works better in a library or coffee shop.  The library is one kilometre up a hill and has rather irregular hours.  I can't always find a seat at our local Second Cup, the local Bridgehead is draughty and smells a little like a barn, and the SconeWitch has scones which are not a great idea for daily consumption -- not for me, anyway.

So this frosty morning, on a tip from the Resident Fan Boy, I strolled up Beechwood to try the Red Door.  It's been open about a year, but is easy to miss, you really have to be looking for it, like Hogwart's Room of Requirement. I managed to find it; it's a house with a large red door, oddly enough.

I walked in to find a rather small café with an unsurprisingly hipster vibe.  The coffee was very strong, the croissants flaky and I found a table at the back which was very comfortable for the most part, except when they took a series of deliveries through the back door.  An older couple with their granddaughter grimaced sympathetically as the cold air blasted past my table and helped me close the door until the young deliverymen tramped outside for the last time.

I wrote a bit, gazed out at the white-edge branches, and rather enjoyed the music they had piped in.  As I prepared to go I asked the girl if it was an album, but it was, of course, one of those computer mixes.  I said I'd particularly enjoyed a particular song and she obligingly punched a computer screen, wrote the artist and song title on a post-it note, and I happily headed home.

I gather they're very crowded at lunchtime with a daily soup and half a dozen variations on grilled cheese sandwiches, so early-ish in the morning would probably be best for me. I could do it on a rotation with the Second Cup, SconeWitch (a scone a week is unlikely to do much damage), and the barn.

This was the song.  Part of me probably recognized it, because I gather it's in the soundtrack of Shrek 2, another of younger daughter's favourites.

Tuesday, 24 November 2015

There is freedom within

The Resident Fan Boy was betrayed by Environment Canada yet again.  He treats their web page like holy writ and is always in indignant disbelief when the actual weather differs from what was forecast.

This morning, we woke to the first blanket of white of the season - Environment Canada had promised scattered flurries - and we started the morning with a frantic scramble in the basement to locate one of younger daughter's boots.  It finally turned up under the canvas casing from elder daughter's old Girl Guide camp days.

For the first time, I bundled myself into my brand-new wine-coloured commuter coat, an early Christmas gift from Demeter.  I've been resisting its siren call for the past few weeks, but the time has come to admit that winter is at our doorstep, although the forecast is for warmer temperatures later this week.

As if we could trust the forecast.

This evening, shaking off the cold of the day, I sat by the cyber-hearth and found the following video, posted by one of my Facebook "likes".  It's Neil Finn, New Zealand-born and sometime member of the  Australian pop group Crowded House performing with the beautiful and spare back-up of a strings section on his "Solo with Strings" tour last summer.  This particular concert was in Auckland, New Zealand.

"Don't Dream It's Over" pulls me back to the summer of 1987 and my first teaching job.  When I hear it, I see the sun setting in mid-evening behind the trees and buildings at the University of Victoria.

Monday, 23 November 2015

To all the ships at sea

Finally, a version of "My Heart Will Go On" that I can stand!  This is, once again, from the wildly talented folks at Postmodern Jukebox - I've waxed lyrically about them before and subscribed to them on YouTube.  I'd just like to draw your attention to the work of the rather magnificent backup singers Brandon Rogers and Matt Bloyd before you take a listen -- and you simply must.

Sunday, 22 November 2015

Just as long as I don't get two in a row

One of the tougher things about coming to Hades has been the more frequent occurrences of what I call "used years". I stole the idea from Charles Schultz, of course.

What's a used year? It's a year that diminishes you. You struggle through the quicksand of the approximate twelve months, only to discover that a better aspect of you has been scraped off: 2002 - 2005 - 2008...

I had used years in Victoria as well. The year my father left for the last time. My final year of high school - I barely got out alive. The year the Resident Fan Boy lost his job and his mother. Those years, however, had plenty of space between them. Since I came to Hades, it seems I've had a "used year" every two to three years, and frankly, the years in between haven't been something to write home about, which explains why my mother complains about not getting letters.

On the optimistic side (and by "optimistic", I mean "I haven't been killed, so I must be stronger --- right?"), I have coping mechanisms. You see a lot of them on this blog: art, music, drama, books. Anything beautiful. Exercise (believe it or not). Creative visualization. Family research. Getting out of the house. Accomplishing small goals. Reaching out to friends.

The last is difficult because my friends have their own problems, and I don't want to reach out and drag them under.

I don't want to drag you under, either. So I'll shut up.

That way, the water can't get in.

Saturday, 21 November 2015

A kind of December

Kate Hennig and Paul Rainville
Photo: Andrew Alexander
At the end of the first scene of The December Man, I thought to myself: Oh gawd. I read the review. I forgot that it's backwards. We had just seen a tableau of quiet despair, and lost all hope of anything getting better.

In the late 1970s, Harold Pinter wrote a very famous play called Betrayal, which follows the course of a doomed love affair, but in reverse chronology. The effect is devastating. With each scene, the narrative takes a step back in time and audience knows what's coming. As a result, the last scene, which begins with the seduction, lacks any thrill or eroticism because we've just witnessed the resulting heartbreak.

However, The December Man cranks up the agony several more notches, because it is about the aftermath of a mass murder.

Six years ago, I wrote a post about the École Polytechnique de Montréal massacre, a watershed moment in Canadian history when a man with a rifle entered an engineering class on an early December evening in 1989, told the men to leave and shot the nine remaining women, killing six of them. By the time he shot himself, he had murdered eight more women, and wounded ten women and four men. I was frantic because wounded people are never named in news reports and several of my male Québecois ESL summer students were studying at L'École Polytechnique in the winter. There were no emails, text, or web sites in 1989, so I had to fire off letters. It turned out all my former students were safe and none had been present at the shootings. It was clear though, that nothing would ever be the same, not for those who never dreamed of such a thing happening in Canada, not for the families of the slain women, not for the wounded students, nor for the men who were forced to leave the classroom, and heard the shots and screams.

The "December Man" is a fictional student named Jean, an only child who lives with his working class parents and is their pride, joy, and hope. He is one of the male engineering students in that classroom, and in inexorable reverse order, his breakdown, and those of his parents is played out. The story would have been difficult to watch from start to finish. From finish to start, it's almost unbearable.

Ottawa audiences, it seems, will give standing ovations for any competent performance. Maybe it's a desire to be fair, or to be liked, or to justify the money spent on the tickets. This time, the performances of the three actors (Kayvon Kelly as Jean; Kate Hennig and Paul Rainville as his parents) achieving a portrayal of decent people doing their best and falling short - and managing to do this in reverse order, no less - warranted everyone rising to their feet, applauding while struggling with a 26-year-old tragedy that many of us still remember, and the fresher impressions of recent horrors.

Friday, 20 November 2015


One thing I rather like about November is that with the foliage gone, you can see the rivers. (Sounds a bit like I'm clutching at straws, doesn't it?)

About this time, three years ago, I was taking the Accent Snob on what I call The Long Walk. We followed the streets that line the back of the grounds of Rideau Hall, the residence of the Canadian Governor General, following the wrought iron railings until the dog and I reached the Rockcliffe Parkway. From there, just a short walk away from 24 Sussex Drive, official residence of the Prime Minister, I looked out over the Ottawa River to the province of Québec.

This is what I saw one late Sunday afternoon in 2012:
You can click on this to enlarge it.

Writing blog-posts forces you to look things up. It took a bit of scrolling over a Google Map of the neighbourhood to figure out that I was looking at the Paroisse St-François-De-Sales, built in 1840, and standing on the bank of the Gatineau River, just before it meets the Ottawa River, which in turn flows in an easterly direction towards Montréal, where it merges with the St Lawrence.

That late afternoon in Ottawa, it was a nameless ethereal church glowing in the light of a dying afternoon, framed with the tattered remains of autumn.

Thursday, 19 November 2015

But get the ice, or else no dice

Yesterday, I asked younger daughter if she'd like to see a late matinée screening at the Bytowne Cinema of the 1953 movie version of Gentlemen Prefer Blondes. Rather to my surprise, she readily agreed. It turns out that she loves "Diamonds Are a Girl's Best Friend". I bet you do, too.
G'wan, watch it, you know you want to:

Younger daughter was thrilled when I pointed out a young George Chakiris amongst the dancing millionaires. She's a huge fan of West Side Story, in which Marni Nixon provided the singing for Natalie Wood's Maria. Marni Nixon also hits the high notes for Marilyn Monroe in this movie, and provides the operatic "No's" at the beginning of the song.

The 1953 film is based on the 1949 Broadway musical which was based on the 1925 book by Anita Loos which was created out of a series of stories that Anita Loos wrote for the magazine Harper's Bazaar, based on her observation of her friend HL Mencken's helplessness at the hands of a blond bombshell. The Broadway musical was set in the 1920s; the 1953 movie wasn't, and the plots of neither had much to do with the book nor each other.

The Broadway musical starred a young Carol Channing. I can't imagine anyone less like Carol Channing than Marilyn Munroe, but the show and movie also had little in common, and "Diamonds Are a Girl's Best Friend" is closely associated with both Channing and Monroe. Here's Carol Channing singing it on a 1957 television show (I don't know which one):

It's really younger daughter who led me to the discovery that watching movies in a movie theatre is worthwhile, even when the movie is readily available on TV, DVD, or online. You won't be getting up to do things around the house, nor multitasking. Your concentration is on the movie; this is the first time I've actually watched GPB straight through. You hear the reaction of the audience around you. You can eat popcorn, and in the Bytowne, you're watching the film in the sort of movie theatre in which it would have been shown in 1953.

Mind you, the experience is digital and the mindset you bring into the theatre belongs to the twenty-first century.

What, for example, does a denizen of the twenty-first century make of the following number?

This is supposedly the American Olympic Team - would they really make their way to the 1952 Oslo games via Paris? Jane Russell's character is crest-fallen because the team has a strict curfew and is thus unavailable for amorous activities. Am I the only one who suspects the curfew is not the chief barrier for a woman making out with these fellas? Oh well, they may have thought otherwise in 1953; it was another time.

After the movie, the Resident Fan Boy and I discussed how sexual politics have changed (or not), and remembered Madonna's famous video for "Material Girl", which has a different message from the famous song and film that it references. Or does it?

Wednesday, 18 November 2015

Odd exchanges at artistic events: part two

There was a magical period in my life before children when I had time and money. Rather more time than money, so for a couple of years, I subscribed to the Victoria Symphony at the cheapest rate possible. This had me very close to the stage, which I didn't mind, and surrounded by "comps" (complimentary tickets) which I mostly didn't mind.

"Comps" make an interesting segment of the audience because they are usually people who normally wouldn't come to a symphony performance. Once I found myself next to a lovely older couple who realized, in the midst of a performance of Tchaikovsky's Sixth Symphony, that they recognized many of the tunes.
So they sang along.
And were deeply indignant when I tried, gently and quietly, to restrain them.

One of my favourite "comps" was an elder Scottish lady who was delighted to be there. After the first piece of the afternoon, she remarked to me, "I don't remember Shumann ever sounding like that."
"That's because it was Appalachian Spring by Aaron Copland," I explained.
She threw back her head and laughed.
"I wondered why they had the piano way at the back!"

The Schumann piano concerto she had come to hear followed in due course.

I retold this story to a couple of Victoria Symphony musicians at a house party some weeks later. Their jaws dropped.
"That's just the sort of thing we're afraid is happening out there," they sighed, shaking their heads.

Personally, I think they needed to lighten up.

My Scottish lady may have come for the Schumann, but I had been looking forward to Appalachian Spring which has been one of my favourites since discovering Aaron Copland in my early teens.

The Symfonieorkest Vlaanderen, based in Bruges, Brussels, is, from what I can see, similar in size to the Victoria Symphony. The part of Appalachian Spring that I love most begins at the 3:30 part, but the whole thing is gorgeous.

(The pianist is on the right edge, behind the harpist.)

Tuesday, 17 November 2015

Odd exchanges at artistic events: part one

A few days ago, I mentioned in passing a small Chagall exhibit I recently visited at the National Gallery of Canada. It was a collection of Marc Chagall's (1887-1985) illustrations of the story of Daphnis and Chloe - two rather clueless youngsters who take a year to figure out the mechanics of sex. They spend rather a lot of that year naked, although they do wear clothes in the winter and at their wedding ceremony, thank goodness.

Both begin life being suckled by wild animals. The security guard leant towards me confidentially as I checked back on some notes posted at the entrance of the exhibit.

"Do you think that's possible?" She nodded towards the drawings. "Could a baby really be nursed by a sheep or goat?"

I thought for a second.

"Well, the animal would have to lie down, and the baby would need to have a strong suck…"

She nodded appreciatively.

Monday, 16 November 2015

Over the pop

I've never been much of a fan of epic movies. I find them a bit overblown, lacking in levity, and too damn long.

However, younger daughter loves movies and music, and especially movie-music, so we had tickets for a National Arts Centre Orchestra pop concert celebrating the theme music of about fifteen larger-than-life films. I'd seen about five of them, including Titanic, which isn't my favourite movie - there are too many moments when I want to hurl things at the screen - but which had wonderful art direction and, let's face it, a beautiful score by James Horner. This isn't quite what we heard. We didn't have a soprano soloist, got some other incidental music as well, and, alas, were subjected to a full-throated choral rendering of "My Heart Will Go On".

The rest of the concert was just as beautifully performed, but epic movie themes, much like the movies they accompany, are a much of a muchness. As the woman behind me in the line-up for the ladies' room put it at intermission, lots of ooohing and ahhhing from the choir.

The same couldn't be said of the concert's opening.

We have a subscription to Pops, again, due to younger daughter's love of jazz, pop, and movies, so we're familiar with the Pops Principal Conductor Jack Everly and knew something was different the moment he walked onstage. Usually spritely and jovial, he now said a few quiet words about Paris, then turned to the orchestra and combined choirs behind him.

"Here we go; I've been expecting this," said the Resident Fan Boy, quickly rising. I hurriedly joined him because if it's one thing I know, it's that you get to your feet if you can when a national anthem is playing. I don't have a video of the NACO playing the Marseillaise, nor of the Ottawa Choral Society and the Ottawa Festival chorus singing it, but it sounded pretty splendid. Almost epic.