Wednesday, 31 December 2008

The seventh day of Christmas (the first without egg nog)

The Resident Fan Boy phoned in our dairy order yesterday morning. We discovered Cochrane's Dairy about three years ago, when we longed to return to milk in glass bottles. (It just doesn't taste as good otherwise.) Knowing better, but feeling he had to ask, the RFB checked to see if we could get in any egg nog for New Year's. "We've finished the egg nog for this year," he was told. "Thank goodness!" (She says that every year.) So we'll struggle to keep Christmas until Epiphany, battling the outside world's determination to get back to business.

A year ago, I set up this blog out of curiosity and posted one post, as I teetered on the brink of 2008. This is my 101st post and the 100th for the year, which pleases a corner of my obsessive-compulsive soul. To my tiny group of commenters, and to the slightly-larger band of lurkers, peace, health, prosperity and happiness in the coming year and always. See you next year!

Tuesday, 30 December 2008

The sixth day of Christmas

We're halfway through the festival, then we're flung out of the cozy harbour of the holidays into the grim open seas of the school year, with no sign of bus service anytime soon. The temperatures have plummeted and there's a thinnish cover of snow on the ground, just enough to brighten up the muddy berms and need shovelling from the front paths. For the first time since December began, younger daughter has selected a non-Christmas DVD for her daily viewing.

Actually, what's considered holiday viewing in North America baffles me. Even the so-called Christmas specials back-pedal so furiously from being about Christmas that you end up with odd kind of soulless stories with a vague moral. One of the few new offerings this year was a thing called Shrek the Halls in which Shrek apparently learns that spending time with your friends is the most important thing, no matter how annoying, destructive, overbearing, loud, etc. those friends happen to be. It wasn't quite clear what holiday these friends were supposed to be celebrating, but apparently, it was important to do it together...

Educational channels seem to think anything by Dickens is Christmassy so we got The Old Curiosity Shop and Oliver Twist. Channels aimed at female audiences think anything to do with Jane Austen is Christmas fare, and family channels think The Sound of Music is a Christmas movie. Summertime. Nazis. Sure sounds like Christmas to me.

While we're at it, when did "My Favourite Things" become a Christmas song? As far as I can tell, it's because of "brown paper packages tied up with string" "silv'ry white winters that melt into spring" and "snowflakes that stay on my nose and eyelashes". But "raindrops on roses"? "When the bees sting?" What is this? Christmas in Australia? And don't get me started on "Jingle Bells", "Winter Wonderland", or "Baby, It's Cold Outside". Sing them if you like, but please stop calling them Christmas carols. A) They're not carols. B) They've nothing to do with Christmas, even in a secular way. (Oh yeah, and Marilyn Monroe never recorded "Santa Baby"...)

If we're going to go for secular Christmas music, here's one that isn't played nearly enough: Oh, sing it, Chrissie Hynde. Now, if you'll excuse me, I'll go shove some more mince tarts in the oven. It's time to open the sixth day of Christmas present...

Monday, 29 December 2008

The fifth day of Christmas (a seasonal rant on respect)

I am wiped. The first four days of Christmas in Hades this year were a parade of frigid temperatures and blowing snow, followed by rain then freezing rain, followed by powerful winds that managed to topple a couple of trucks on the highway and blow out power lines (not in our neighbourhood, thank goodness). This meant four of the most sedentary days ever. With the bus strike in full swing, there was no way we were going anywhere. It wasn't horrible; we have our new DVDs, books, and CDs to amuse us, but today, we decided we'd been in hiding long enough and took advantage of a reasonably temperate day to walk the 3½ kilometres into town to see The Tale of Despereaux. (Not a bad film, although one has the odd feeling that big chunks have been edited out of it.) The trip home, up the slow, slow incline that is Rideau Street, in my heavy Sorels soon had my calves cramping and telling me exactly how four days had thrown me out of shape.

However, this is scarcely a hardship. Despite all evidence to the contrary, we are reasonably able-bodied and as long as what we need or wish to get to is in the neighbourhood or in the downtown area, we will be able to manage. On the way in, though, we passed dozens of elderly ladies loaded with groceries and other shopping, some pushing walkers through slush and ice, others juggling their canes with their bags. Hundreds more are virtually prisoners in their homes and residences, one of the few Christmases left for them ruined. This is to say nothing of people struggling to get into work, either hours on foot or begging for lifts. Or those whose already precarious businesses are thrown into crisis because of customers and employees who can't reach them. People have missed long awaited operations because they couldn't make the requisite medical appointments. Children have missed therapy sessions and lost valuable ground. The nefarious thing about a transit strike is that the ones who feel the blow are the most vulnerable citizens of this god-forsaken city.

So why is there a bus strike? The media tells us it's to do with who has the power to schedule split shifts. As far as I can tell, the management wants that authority, and the union feels that this should be based on driver seniority. I don't want to be a union-basher; workers should have recourse against injustice and abuse, and yes, split shifts suck, but who exactly is getting abused here? In short, it would be so much easier for me to have some sympathy for the drivers if, after eight and a half years of using this particular system, I weren't left with the impression of the overarching contempt and disdain OC Transpo drivers have for their ridership.

Item 1: The elderly. More than once, I've seen drivers actually criticize older passengers with canes or walkers for not getting to the exit quick enough. I've tried to catch seniors as they're flung off balance when they don't sit down quickly enough for the operators.

Item 2: Mothers with young children. I've personally been scolded for stopping a bus at a bus stop after running half a block from a so-called connecting bus stop in a snow storm on a Sunday (when the next bus come in half an hour). The driver told me he had a schedule to keep up. I've run three blocks in the rain with a child in tow to catch a bus which had sped by the bus stops with a "Not In Service" sign on. The driver, who I recognised from my outbound trip, was reading a novel at a timing point as I climbed, drenched and panting, into her bus. I've had younger daughter (the one with PDD-NOS, remember?) summoned to the front of the bus to re-show her transfer while the driver gave me another lecture. I've been told off for not ringing soon enough at night, in the snow, when the windows are grimy and the neighbourhood is unfamiliar.

Item 3: People of colour. Somehow, white people are rarely called on the validity of their transfers. The people humiliated and put off the buses for expired passes almost invariably have accents. The most egregious example of this was an old Caribbean man who was checking with the driver to see if he was on the correct route. The bus driver checked his transfer and informed him he would have to buy a ticket. The little man asked if he would wait while he purchased new tickets at the nearby booth. The driver refused. The little man pleaded his diabetes. The driver called the authorities, and refused all offers by others to pay for the man. At this point, the little man swore and the driver accused him of being abusive. As a number of us got off the bus to wait for another while this was being settled, a woman said to me: "If it were my mother, ill and alone on the bus, I wouldn't want her treated this way." I replied, "Is your mother a little white lady? Then I don't think she would be treated this way..."

Item 4: People with mental and intellectual challenges. There's a fellow who greets us every day from the porch of the group home down the street. One day, he was getting off the bus as I got on and the driver snarled after him: "Your tranfer's expired!" then grumbled at me, "He rode all the way out to the shopping centre and back on that transfer..." "Did he?" I smiled vaguely at him. "I'm sure he didn't mean to; he's a sweetie." Quieter grumbling as I took my seat.

Then there was the bus driver who decided to use his own form of profiling one summer afternoon and summoned each and every young man who boarded his Transitway bus from a rear door (which is permitted on articulated buses so long as you have a bus pass) to the front of the bus on the loudspeaker
with a voice dripping with suspicion.

Each OC Transpo bus has a large poster proclaiming "Respect Goes Both Ways".

Sunday, 28 December 2008

The fourth day of Christmas (as Joseph trod and Mary rode and Matt danced)

Today is one of the traditional Feast Days for the Holy Innocents (the other days being the 27th and the 29th). Such a strange feast commemorating a massacre of children which is also an event that cannot be confirmed in any historical record outside the Bible. Not that it matters, children are being massacred on a depressingly regular basis around the world. Now is the time to sing The Coventry Carol and feel the helpless sorrow. However, one of my very favourite, favourite carols is "The Band of Children", words by Frank Samuel Herbert Kendon, the tune an ancient French carol Laissez paître vos bêtes. I first heard it years ago during one of those strange gem-like Christmas specials which I've never seen again and can't find any reference on the Internet for. It was an animated special in which six carols were illustrated while an actor read the lyrics with the tune playing in the background:

The stars shall light your journey, your mother holds you close and warm;
The donkey's pace shall rock you, sleep baby, dream no harm.

What songs are these, faint heard and far?
The wind maybe in palm trees tall, or running stream or nightbird's call;
The dark lies deep on the desert where Joseph and Mary rode,
The dark lies deep on the desert, sleep well, thou child of God.

What songs are these, faint heard and far?
'Tis neither wind in palm trees tall, nor waterbrook, nor nightbird's call,
It is the voice of children where Joseph walked and Mary rode,
The fierce wild beasts are friendly, sleep well, thou child of God.

What forms are these, clear on the dark,
That shine and yet are flesh and blood, that laugh and sing along the road?
It is a crowd of children where Joseph walked and Mary rode,
A singing band of children, sleep well, thou child of God.

O, never was seen so strange a guard:
About the footsore travellers they in lovely circles moved, till day,
Until the baby awakened, while Joseph trudged and Mary rode.
Such lullaby be all men's, sleep well, thou child of God.

I searched far and wide through YouTube for this song which I have in front of me in The Oxford Book of Carols, but it's not under "Band of Children", "Laissez paître vos bêtes" nor any combination of the lyrics or its author that I've tried. I did have limited success in finding an Advent version of the carol, Venez, divin Messie. The tune is not quite right, but it might give you a faint idea: Now, it occurs to me that this does give the rather spooky impression that it's the spirits of all those slaughtered children circling and protecting baby Jesus, but there it is.

And if the Holy Innocents sing, how about if they dance? About a week before Christmas, my Friend of the Right Hand sent a video link which I did not open. (It was, I repeat, the week before Christmas.) Yesterday, I finally got around to it and was at first bewildered. It's a video with a bunch of comments posted beneath, a recent one from a woman who lost her soldier son in Iraq and says she was able to sleep through the night for the first time. What the dickens? I started playing it. A tall, teddy-bear kind of guy gives directions to whoever is holding the camcorder and begins a strange loping short of dance in the middle of a Mumbai street. The background changes; he's doing the same odd dance in various places around the world, in the desert, on a beach, in a market. Then, oh my God, the music builds and he's not alone. And to my utter astonishment, I burst into tears. I now know this has received a great deal of media attention, but it was new to me and if it's new to you, I beg you to watch it. I'll wait....
Where the Hell is Matt? (2008) from Matthew Harding on Vimeo. So tell me, am I a blubbering sentimental idiot? My favourite bits are his stately variation with the Indian dancers in Gurgaon and the poignant lonely little dance in the demilitarized zone in Korea. And of course, the dances in the three largest Canadian cities: Toronto, Vancouver, and Montreal. (Toronto is not labeled, but they're the first group that rushes in to join Matt. And yes, it does rain that hard in Montreal. Ottawa is a two-hour drive west; a downpour will fill your shoes in seconds.)

Matt Harding apparently used to design computer games, got put off by the violence, and set off to travel the world. Somewhere in there, he got funding from Cadbury's, and the rest is internet history. Dance well, thou children of God.

Saturday, 27 December 2008

The third day of Christmas (some admittedly desperate anti-gremlin measures)

Another favourite Peanuts comic strip: Linus is comforting Charlie Brown, who is afraid of the dark, with the quote: "It is better to light one candle than curse the darkness." Elsewhere in the dark field, Lucy is bellowing: "YOU STUPID DARKNESS!"

I haven't been tackled as much by gremlins over Christmas, but every now and then the spectres of the coming year have been sneaking up on me and I've been taking measures. Years ago, a Hare Krishna type handed me, just handed me, a copy of Creative Visualization by Shakti Gawain. Shortly after this, Hospice Victoria, where I was volunteering at the time, gave a workshop on Creative Visualization, so I've hung on to the book and dipped into it over the years.

Sometimes it takes a little struggle with my knee-jerk reaction to the New Age-y overtones of the concept which, over-simplified, is this: You draw into your life whatever you imagine, both for good and ill. I think there is some validity to this notion, although I draw the line at using this idea as a bludgeon on anybody going through a tough time. In the late eighties, early nineties, when creative visualization seemed to be particularly in vogue, I heard some horror stories of people suffering from cancer being informed by some well-meaning numb-wit that they had brought the cancer on by the wrong attitude.

It seems, though, that I am doing myself no good whatsoever by allowing myself to be beset by scary and upsetting imaginings at 3 am, no matter how realistic, so I slipped Creative Visualization into my bedside drawer and set a flashlight nearby. When the fears and recriminations close in, I do a meditation exercise. I don't know if I'm managing to manifest more positive stuff in my waking hours (in satisfying ways and for the greater good of the universe, of course), but I'm sleeping better and that's got to help my attitude right there.

In further vaguely New Age-y news, my favourite horoscope is by Georgia Nichols whose kooky irreverent humour is a breath of fresh air from all those other deadly serious or airy-fairy horoscopes. There's actually some practical and common sense advice in there too. Anyway, she's suggesting this year that the best day for resolutions is today. Since I resist the idea of New Year's resolutions anyway, believing them to be doomed to failure by definition, I think I'll try a couple of creative visualizations (or at least a wish list) for today. Most of them will revolve about younger daughter because this coming year, when she leaves elementary school, is terrifying beyond belief. Between the bus strike and the freezing rain which has transformed the sidewalks into icy chutes, I'm not likely to get to any place of worship any time soon, so this will have to do. In this, the darkest corner of the year, I need to light some candles. I'll skip the incense. And the bellowing.

Friday, 26 December 2008

The Second Day of Christmas (Shopping, Murders, and Doctor Who)

Boxing Day, in the years of the misspent childhoods of both the Resident Fan Boy and myself, was a visiting day. In my case, the day was rarely spent at home, we usually visited someone else. In the RFB's case, being the son of Anglican church rector, it was the day that people descended on the rectory, and my husband and his sister circulated with platters of cookies, tarts, and rumballs. The RFB and his sister have been known to perform a dance of their own creation which they call "Doin' the P.K." (Preacher's Kid): "Pass-pass, pour! Pass-pass, pour! Pass-pass, pour! Pass-pass, SMI-I-ILE!"

Neither the Resident Fan Boy nor I miss those days much, especially when I got pressed into tray-passing duties as the persona non grata girlfriend and later daughter-in-law. However, stilted fellowship seems an improvement over what Boxing Day has become in Canada over the the past twenty-five years or so -- an orgy of shopping. It seemed to start in the late seventies to early eighties, a few stores holding Boxing Day sales, while those out walking would look on in bewilderment at the line-ups. By the late eighties, it had become a staple of the news broadcasts on December 26th, the annual film of people camping out all night and storming the electronics and music stores to get stereos, VCRs and televisions half-price. The so-called "Boxing Week" ads turn up on TV and in the papers a couple of days before Christmas. I was nonplussed to find a "Boxing Month" ad on my Facebook page yesterday, for a pizza place, of all things. However, the nadir came a few years ago, when Canadian Tire (a sort of super hardware store, which is, appropriately enough, a box store) came up with an ad campaign that started with a choir in the background: "The season for giving is almost over....Now, it's the season for getting!" I nearly broke the television in response, but I didn't want to camp outside Future Shop on Christmas night to purchase a replacement.

These years, Boxing Day usually means going out to a movie, but it's a little difficult this year with the buses on strike (grrrrr), and we had a challenging Christmas Night. Nothing but crap on television, so we played two favourite DVDs: A Child's Christmas in Wales (a Canadian/Welsh 1987 co-production) and Scrooge, the 1951 version of A Christmas Carol which has yet to be bettered. Younger daughter joined us for the latter, before the Resident Fan Boy took her upstairs for bed --- and she spewed the Christmas dinner all over her bedroom. She's never had a problem with rationing her sweets before, over several Hallowe'ens and Christmases, but for some reason, she had gorged herself on the contents of her stocking. Oh well. I'd made the purchase of one of those wonderful mops with the exchangeable and washable microfibre pads, so we corralled younger daughter in the bathtub and quickly cleaned up the hardwood floors, and started the laundry run to the basement. All of which meant I was still awake at midnight for the sole showing of Carols from King's which used to be a staple of Christmas Eve viewing and is now mystifyingly broadcast in the middle of the night following Christmas interspersed with car and hair product commercials...

It must be time for my favourite Boxing Day song, The St Stephan's Day Murders, written and sung by Elvis Costello:

I knew of two sisters whose name it was Christmas,
And one was named Dawn of course, the other one was named Eve.
I wonder if they grew up hating the season,
The good will that lasts til the Feast of St. Stephen

For that is the time to eat, drink, and be merry,
Til the beer is all spilled and the whiskey has flowed.
And the whole family tree you neglected to bury,
Are feeding their faces until they explode.

There'll be laughter and tears over Tia Marias,
Mixed up with that drink made from girders.
’Cause it's all we've got left as they draw their last breath,
Ah, it's nice for the kids, as you finally get rid of them,
In the St Stephen's Day Murders.

Uncle is garglin' a heart-breaking air,
While the babe in his arms pulls out all that remains of his hair.
And we're not drunk enough yet to dare criticize,
The great big kipper tie he's about to baptize.

With his gin-flavoured whiskers and kisses of sherry,
His best Chrimbo shirt slung out over the shop.
While the lights from the Christmas tree blow up the telly,
His face closes in like an old cold pork chop.

And the carcass of the beast left over from the feast,
May still be found haunting the kitchen.
And there's life in it yet, we may live to regret,
When the ones that we poisoned stop twitchin'.

We staggered downstairs at 8:30 this Boxing Day morning to discover elder daughter had pirated the Doctor Who Christmas special. That's my girl! David Morrissey was particularly magnificent and at 6'4", there are not many actors who can make David Tennant look short. (Silly story, though.) More presents under the tree; we spread them out over the twelve days of Christmas and I wonder if I can face any chocolate today...

Thursday, 25 December 2008

The First Day of Christmas

The Resident Fan Boy donned the YakTrax he found in his stocking, and stepping gingerly into the sheeted ice sidewalks, picked his way to the local snooty Anglican church which is a fifteen-minute mince away (as opposed to his regular church which is downtown and takes about fifty to sixty minutes of trudging)in this still bus-struck city.

Elder daughter is upstairs watching I'm Not There, a surprise gift in her stocking (Santa was taking advantage of a two-for-one type dealie at HMV and wants to watch it himself, but figured elder daughter would like it for Christian Bale and the late Heath Ledger.)

Younger daughter is in her bedroom with the bunny she requested in her Christmas letter. She's been crowning him with the crimson slinky that also appeared in her stocking, while wrestling a rainbow of new hairbands. As I write this, bunny is warbling "I Don't Need Anyone But You" from Annie in a duet with a mouse puppet.

And me? I've been pigging out on comestibles from Purdy's, which, forget Rogers' Chocolates, forget Ganong, for gawd's sake forget Pot of Gold, are simply the best chocolates to be had in Canada. And this year, Santa got me a long lovely box of Turkish Delight, also from Purdy's. I've loved Turkish Delight ever since reading The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe
when I was eight, but getting the good stuff is a challenge. This is the kind of stuff Edmund would have betrayed his family for. Ooh dear, not a very Christmassy sentiment, was that?

Speaking of not-quite-Christmassy, elder daughter got a bewildering love offering from Demeter-Santa, a double bottle of Axe Bullet essence with a note: "Read the instructions and BE CAREFUL! For emergency only. Not for fun." Uh, the instructions read: "Designed to be carried in your pocket and sprayed at a moment's notice, because there are only two types of guys in the mating game: the quick and the lonely." Self defense for date rapists? It sounds like a creepy sort of compassion, doesn't it? In Demeter's defence, she has had cataract surgery to only one eye and that was the one with retinal damage and she is not due to have the second eye done until Epiphany. (She also mutes commercials.) Now, I suppose elder daughter could use it as a defence spray; the instructions also say to avoid the eyes, but the problem is, this stuff reeks even in the plastic packaging. It seems every generation of guys has a commercial scent that's supposed to make them irresistible to sexy girls. Anyone remember Hai Karate? That stunk too...

However, our stockings also brimmed with the ancient favourites: socks, teas from Murchies, hot chocolate powders from Cadbury's (a sort of Ovaltine variation this year), the orange in the toe, the chocolate orange and the heel, and most indispensable of all, chocolate coins. When elder daughter was six, she was delighted to get "frankincense" in her stocking --- the chocolate coins that year had republique française inscribed on the tin foil...

So our morning has begun with successful stockings. When (and if) Resident Fan Boy returns from church, we'll have a light lunch and see what is under the tree. Maybe, if we're very good, some kind-hearted soul will have illegally uploaded the Christmas Doctor Who up to YouTube after dinner. If not, we'll just have to wait for the Second Day of Christmas. Hope your day is also relaxed and lovely...

Wednesday, 24 December 2008

Canadian Christmas traditions (part two)

It's just after 8 am on Christmas Eve morning. About twenty minutes minutes ago, the Resident Fan Boy set off in the new snow (yes, we've had even more of it) for the forty-five-minute trudge to his office for the Christmas Eve lunch, which starts vaguely about mid-morning and peters out in the early afternoon, as everyone sneaks home. He woke me just after 6 am so I could take one of the tourtières I'd assembled yesterday from the freezer, glaze it with egg yolk and milk and put it in the oven. I put a tea towel in the bottom of an empty kitty litter box, stuffed the whole thing into a cloth bag with a flat bottom, and tucked the still-hot tourtière into the bottom. We do this because a) tourtières can be mostly prepared ahead of time; b)tourtières are associated with Christmas; and c) the Resident Fan Boy's French-Canadian work-mates go all misty and goo-goo-eyed when he sets the tourtière on the buffet table. They tell him about the réveillons of their childhoods when they returned from midnight mass to tables groaning with tourtières, each one made by an aunt, mother or sister according to her secret recipe.

I wasn't quite prepared for my tourtière to have an emotional impact on anybody. I started making them about a dozen years ago when the weight of preparing Christmas dinner began to fall to me, because I don't particularly care for turkey. Demeter had experimented with various roasted fowls over the years (even a greasy and, heaven help us, hairy goose one year), and the closest we came to adopting as a tradition was a capon. However, ordering, preparing, stuffing and roasting birds leaves me cold. The beauty of the tourtière is that you can make it several days in advance, freeze it, pop it into the oven on Christmas afternoon et voilà, a festive dish. It took several years to find the right recipe, as the traditional tourtière is, alas, rather bland, but the recipe I use is pepped up with onions, garlic and celery. Living in anglophone Victoria, I only had the intellectual notion that it was a French-Canadian custom.

Then we moved to Ottawa. The province of Québec is a fifty-minute walk across the Alexandra Bridge from our doorstep (if I keep my pace reasonably brisk), and our neighbourhood seems full of anglophone/francophone partnerships. Elder daughter's classmates all seemed to have parents with Scottish and French surnames. At least half of my husband's workmates speak French as their first language, driving, cycling or walking to work across the Ottawa River from the city of Gatineau. It's for the sake of the ancient children behind their eyes that I got up this morning to put the final touches on one of the tourtières (the other is waiting in the freezer for Christmas Day). I suspect that modern life has rendered home-made pastries as scarce in Québec as anywhere else. With the bus strike, we won't be dragging our daughters down for the office party this year, but the Resident Fan Boy is determined to go and bask in the cries of welcome as the golden pie takes its place. Christmas is for children, after all, even the grown-up ones. And now elder daughter has confessed her attachment to the dish. It's become part of her childhood Christmas. Well, one of her ancestral names is Boucher, after all.

Now, I must sort and wrap the treasures hidden in my closet against tomorrow. For those of you who keep Christmas, I wish ease and speed in your preparations. For those who don't, I wish peace and beauty.

Monday, 22 December 2008

Canadian Christmas traditions (part one?)

Yesterday, elder daughter and I set off into the snowfall smothering Ottawa. I knew we were in trouble when the CBC website described the snowfall for our area as "heavy". Quick translation: "flurries" = "light snowfall"; "light snowfall" = "heavy snowfall"; "heavy snowfall" = "no sidewalks to speak of and cars that resent your crossing the street because they're scared to stop". So elder daughter and I trudged through the ankle-twisting snow, trying to hit sidewalks where many pedestrians had been before us to wear a path down. Tricky on a Sunday, but more likely given the bus strike that has been going on for nearly two weeks and is unlikely to end anytime soon. (I'm planning to blog on this, but somehow none of my sentiments fit in with the Christmas spirit...)

We figured about fifty minutes to make it to the National Arts Centre, which is a little over three kilometres (2 miles for you Yanks), and we were about right, even with the wind whipping white into our faces. We joined the Resident Fan Boy and younger daughter, who had spent the morning at church and had lunched downtown. I took off my boots to relieve my stressed toes and chafed shins and watched my daughters watch the show for which we'd made the pilgrimage.

For the past five years or so, the Resident Fan Boy and I have been taking in Stuart McLean's Vinyl Café Christmas Concert. The Vinyl Café has been playing on CBC Radio for the past fourteen years; the Resident Fan Boy listens to it every Sunday as he prepares lunch. Stuart McLean is kind of like Garrison Keillor of The Prairie Home Companion, but not quite. His radio show showcases a bit of music (predominantly Canadian artists, particularly new jazzy, bluesy, country, or folksy ones). Somewhere in there he started telling the stories of Dave, the proprietor of The Vinyl Café, which is of course a vintage record store, and his wife Morley. The stories took off and are now the eagerly-awaited focus of the programme. The show, concerts and stories go year-round, but the Christmas stories have become a Canadian custom, particularly an early one entitled Dave Cooks the Turkey which now has legendary status. My personal favourite amongst the Dave-and-Morley Christmas stories is Polly Anderson's Christmas Party, and my favourite non-Christmas story is called The Cat in the Car which has actually physically hurt me; I was laughing that hard.

Anyway, this is the first Christmas we've taken the girls along, and I watched for their reactions nervously. Those tickets were expensive. Younger daughter grooved to the music; Christmas carols and songs expertly played by top-notch musicians. Also, a school-mate was invited to come on stage and distribute give-aways; she caught a glimpse of younger daughter in the loge and waved. Then I watched as elder daughter giggled helplessly to the three stories, which included Christmas at the Turlingtons, the first story we heard live five years ago, and I knew we were going to be okay. There was now simply the matter of trying to get home...

The Vinyl Café can be heard on a selection of public radio stations in the States, and on BBC7 in Britain, but I think you can hear most of the stories I've mentioned for free here.

Thursday, 18 December 2008

People Look East

People look east, the time is near
For the crowning of the year.
Make your house fair as you are able;
Trim the hearth and set the table.
People look east and sing today:
Love the Guest is on the way.

I used to love Christmas, and there's a part of me that still does. It's much harder when you have to grow up and be responsible for Christmas, particularly when suffering from homesickness in a place that really is supposed to be your home. It seems, though, to be the fashion these days to hate Christmas, and having never been cool nor fashionable, I can't bring myself to quite alienate myself from this festival. Besides, I have two young girls under my roof, and younger daughter in particular loves Christmas. Since December began, she has seemed to glow and vibrate from within.

Therefore, for the sake of my inner child and outer children, I have been doing what I can to redeem the days leading up to December 25th, and in particular, the twelve days following Christmas Day.

Advent traditionally has a mournful liturgical tinge to it, but I cling to the inherent hope associated with it, which I think reaches beyond Christian beliefs to anyone yearning for the promise of something better. That's why I love the words of the Advent carol People Look East, written by the same lady (Eleanor Farjeon) who wrote the lyrics for Morning Has Broken. Love the Guest can be Jesus, if you like, but surely Love by any other name is a welcome guest to any household.

Today, my Friend With Whom I Go For Coffee took me down to the Byward Market for the third year in a row to get a balsam fir to fill the house with the scent of evergreen, something I missed so much for the twenty years we had an artificial tree. The Resident Fan Boy put in his order for Cochrane's Dairy to deliver two glass bottles of egg nog with our weekly dairy order. (The supermarket stuff is rubbish.) He's also bought the first box of Mandarin oranges, another balm to my homesick heart. For our first few Christmases in Hades, we made do with Clementines, which seem to be what Ottawans think are Christmas oranges, seedy, sweeter and not smelling quite right. The scent of the Mandarins as the soft peel tears away mingling with the smell of the balsam and the creamy egg nog flowing under my tongue help bring snatches of remembered Christmases back, if only in tantalizing bits.

Furrows be glad, though earth is bare
One more seed is planted there.
Give up your strength the seed to nourish
That, in course, the flower may flourish.
People look east, and sing today:
Love the Rose is on the way.

The brown envelope containing younger daughter's latest assessment arrived yesterday, and I wonder when will be the best time to make myself read it. I know the gist, from our feedback interview which took place a couple of weeks after the Resident Fan Boy's accident. Assessments are never fun at the best of times, because they focus on what's wrong, and tests don't allow for hesitations or alternate interpretations. What the tests indicate are that younger daughter has dropped from the fifth percentile to the first percentile in expected performance for children her age. Whether this is due to developmental demands, the difference of testing a twelve-year-old versus the testing of a seven-year-old, the less-than-stellar results of trying to integrate her in her local school, the fact that the Resident Fan Boy was injured smack in the middle of the testing process, or a combination of any or all of the preceding, I'm in no position to judge. The fact is, comparing younger daughter with her so-called peers is never going to be a cheering prospect, although comparing her with herself over the past five years is rather more uplifting. I still feel squashed and smashed. I feel I have failed her.

But despair is a place I can only visit. I don't have the luxury of living there. This is another reason I'm not an atheist. As I reluctantly retreat to the kitchen for the extra cooking this season requires (I am an unenthusiastic chef, to say the least), I relieve the sting of the chore with audio books, this time, an old favourite, Alex Jennings' reading of The Dark is Rising. I first fell in love with this story, the second installment of a series of five books by Susan Cooper, when I was in my teens, and Alex Jennings' not overly dramatic rendering never gets in the way of the narrative. It's set in rural Buckinghamshire at Christmastime and is heavily immersed in British mythology. Two nights ago, the eleven-year-old hero learns of his status as the youngest of The Old Ones: If you were born with the gift, then you must serve it, and nothing in this world or out of it may stand in the way of that service, because that is why you were born and that is the Law. And these words strike home as I gaze fearfully and sightlessly into the coming year, because the gift of a child is much like the gift of a power or talent.

Stars, keep the watch. When night is dim,
One more light the bowl shall brim,
Shining beyond the frosty weather,
Bright as the sun and the moon together.
People, look east, and sing today:
Love the Star is on the way.

In the damp, ocean-soaked cold that is the winter in Victoria, I would gaze east and think of this verse. Now I gaze longingly west through the dry, frigid Eastern Ontario air. It seems I've always seen Christmas and summer as bright harbours at either end of the hurly-burly of the year. It's even more so as I try to help my younger daughter navigate the perilous seas of her school terms. I pray we may keep afloat. Whatever your beliefs (or even lack thereof, I hope Love finds its way, more permanent than a guest, longer lasting than a rose, brimming your bowl with light.

(Here's what People Look East sounds like. I prefer to sing it slowly like a ballad, but it's based on a French carol and most choir directors take the sprightly approach:)

Sunday, 14 December 2008

I really shouldn't...

Back in January, when this was just a wee, barely-formed, newborn blog, I posted briefly (I can do that) about my favourite BBC New website headlines. My latest favourite turned up this morning:

South Korean parents of teenage rapist fined $60,000 for failing to supervise him.

This begs all sorts of unworthy and totally tasteless questions. Be my guest.

Friday, 12 December 2008

The valley of the shadow (messin' with Sagittarians)

It's been that kind of week. Ottawa's transit workers are on strike, smack in the middle of Christmas shopping, university finals, and a heavy snowstorm. Those not hung up in traffic have been struggling everywhere on foot on unploughed sidewalks. Everywhere looks like narrow mountain trails worn by many weary boots. My normally cheery on-line horoscope has been rather gloom-and-doom regarding the end of this week. Seems there's this Gemini full moon in direct opposition to the sun sign of Sagittarius and we all need to tread carefully, particularly Sagittarians. In addition, this full moon is unusually close to earth. I saw it last night, glowing through the cloud cover like a spectral snowball. I've decided to stay close to home today and be extra cheerful.

Too bad I didn't follow this advice a couple of evenings ago. The Resident Fan Boy has a Sagittarius cousin who has retired to Utah after a career with the US Embassy (in various countries). She's like most Sagittarians I've had the pleasure to meet: lively, conversational, fond of travel, rather tactless, and ironically enough, easily hurt. She's one of those email correspondents who doesn't send messages all that much but enjoys forwarding jokes. This is usually harmless enough, although I've seen most of the stuff before. Lately she's been forwarding virus warnings. You know the ones: THIS HAS TURNED UP ON SNOPES! Send this to everyone on your email list! The Resident Fan Boy dutifully looked up the key words of the warning on Break the Chain and sent her a polite email telling her that the hoax had been drifting around on the internet since 2001, at least. I don't think she replied.

A day later, I was at the computer when she sent another one. Once again, I sent her the link at Break the Chain, showing the hoax email almost word for word. She did write back to me, saying that her cousin's husband was very computer literate, and so she had reason to believe this was genuine. I thought anyone sending email hoaxes, especially when it's so easy to check their veracity, could hardly be called computer literate. And here's where I goofed. I said so. To a Sagittarian. Oh dear. Well, I got two emails back, and I've deleted them. I guess we're out of her will...

Friday, 5 December 2008

This will be my last Joni Mitchell post (for now)

Some songs (this applies to plays too, I guess) are a kind of litmus test. I'm thinking of the memorial concert at Wembley for Freddie Mercury in April 1992 where various artists performed those dramatic, epic, operatic Queen songs and the wheat was separated from the chaff. (Biggest surprise: George Michael's fabulous performance of "Someone to Love". I don't care for the man's music, but man, has he got the pipes...)

The songs of Joni Mitchell have a similar effect on singers. With emotionally complex lyrics and intricate melodies, these are not that easy to sing. While I'll take Joni performing her own stuff in most cases, there are singers of enormous talent who can redeem a song I've overlooked and/or not particularly cared for, or reveal a whole new universe in an old favourite. Here are three of my preferred Joni Mitchell covers:

1. "Ladies of the Canyon" - I don't dislike this song; I've just never particularly liked it. It's a bit cute and hippy-dippy, to my mind. Then, last year, I was ambushed by Annie Lennox's version:

Holy cow.

2. "The Magdalene Laundries" - Never paid much attention to this until I heard Emmylou Harris. (Actually, Emmylou Harris seems to improves most songs.) Can't find the whole version of this, but you can hear a snippet here and compare it with Joni's original, if you like. Christy Moore's version ain't half-bad either.

3. I've always loved "Carey", but oh my gawd, listen to where Cyndi Lauper takes it. (And she took it right in front of Joni Mitchell herself; the woman's got guts!):
Now, obviously, the band is fabulous, but don't those back up singers do a gorgeous and subtle job?

I've wondered whether to drop this without mentioning "A Case of You". I don't think I can. There are other Joni Mitchell songs that have more to do with my personal history, but this has to be the very best song she ever wrote. Many, many fine covers have been done of it, most of which you find on YouTube and elsewhere: kd lang's, Tori Amos's, and Allison Crowe's are among the best, but this is one that really belongs to the woman herself. Her original luminous recording from the album Blue is up on YouTube, along with a lovely live recording from the early 70's with James Taylor (commenters there are claiming a romantic liaison with him, which is the first I've heard of it), but here is a gentle 1983 Wembley performance:
...and this is a good place to shut up....

Thursday, 4 December 2008

Grown-up Sex

Among my pet peeves is the use of the word "adult" to describe anything with sex in it. These means a whole range of movies, books and songs aimed at an adolescent mind-set (and by this I mean, overly concerned with sex and the body in general) are grouped under the heading "adult" which no longer means "a person having reached the age of reason".

This is not to downplay, minimalize or even diss sex. But how about sex for grown-ups? And more specifically, sex for grown-up women? (Because, truth to tell, sex for grown-up men sounds an awful lot like adolescent sex, doesn't it? Or am I being vastly unfair?) As an antidote to ditties about hotness, lollipops, muffins, whatever, I intended to offer yet another Joni Mitchell song: "Come in from the Cold", from the 1991 album Night Ride Home It's about connection, uncertainty, and by golly, it's about sex, but it's a grown-up woman talking about sex. Up until today, they had a lovely version of the video released with this song, but it's been withdrawn to a "copyright claim by a third party", and the other two versions on YouTube are mysteriously silent. I may check in and embed in a few days.

In the meantime, if you want to hear a woman's rather less reflective take on sex, may I suggest one of my personal favourites Right Hand Man by Joan Osborne (to which I can link, but not embed)? There's been several claims that this song is about masturbation, but I say, bosh. Why would she be asking to borrow a toothbrush and clean shirt? And (let me stress this is a rhetorical question), how many people walk differently after masturbation? I think this lady's been busy with a partner...

Tuesday, 2 December 2008

A third helping of Joni Mitchell

With Christmas closing in like a ravenous wolf, I have reverted to my time-honoured method of keeping on-track and am accounting for the various blocks of time in my notebook as I move jerkily through my day. Right now, my notes inform me that I have spent the last fifty-one minutes surfing (there's yer problem!), so glancing at my to-do list, I've decided to ignore it for the sake of another Joni Mitchell post. And no, it won't be "River", because everyone knows that one...

Today, I'd like to draw your attention to a very early song of hers, from her album Clouds which contains two very famous songs: "Both Sides Now" and "Chelsea Morning", as well as the not-quite-so-famous "The Gallery". Our Joni had a rich and varied love-life, and this sounds like one of her more famous lovers being indicted here. (Leonard Cohen is a possible suspect; they are supposed to have been briefly involved around 1967.) But it hardly matters. This is a beautiful meandering melody with, as usual, clever and wry lyrics. Here she is, singing it on the Johnny Cash Show, probably in 1969, by which time she was living with Graham Nash (not that that matters either):