Saturday, August 27, 2011

In praise of hope

There's something courageous about a flag at half-mast, especially against the blue of a summer sky. It's a combination of sadness and joy, probably the same combination of feelings so many of us are experiencing today, the day of Jack Layton's funeral.

The words of the letter he left for us have already been championed as a manifesto for change, as impetus to go forth and change the world to the better place we want it to be.

The CBC has taken his words to heart and put out the challenge on their website, How would you make the world a better place?

That might seem like an awfully big question, but it's manageable if each of simply looks within and asks, What will I do today to make the world a better place?

I'm taking Jack Layton's final thoughts seriously, especially the parts about Hope being better than fear, Optimism being better than despair.

One of my greatest hopes is that his death won't have been in vain. I'm hoping that it will serve as a rallying point for the Left to take a page from what the Conservatives have done (aligning the voices of the Right). I am optimistic that the various socially conscious factions -- be they NDP, Green or Liberal -- will find ways to heal their differences and join together.

Coming together seems like the greatest way to honour the memory of Jack, and the best of way of fulfilling his desire that we change the world. And what better time to start changing the world than now?

PS Lipstick Press has been honouring Jack Layton by posting poems.

Wednesday, August 24, 2011

A better-than-fair day at the fair

Despite being regular fair-goers, when the PNE celebrated its centenary last year, we somehow managed to not get there. But yesterday we made up for it and as a reward, even the weather cooperated.

The food is always a highlight (little doughnuts, soft ice cream, perogies…), but this year the real treat was the performances we saw.

Chris Isaak and his always-hotshot band rocked a sea of people out under the stars (we even got to see the space station fly over).

The night’s tribute band Revolver peformed the music of the Beatles. I liked the fact that they didn't try to look like the original Fab Four (what could be worse than middle-aged men in tired wigs?) but offered some remarkable renditions of the songs.

For me, a dyed-in-the-wool survivor of Beatlemania, it was very cool to overhear snippets of conversation on the midway, especially from teenagers: “Hey, that’s a Beatles’ song!” Yep, the Beatles remain a band that’s pretty enduring. Nyah nyah to those all those dorky guys who used to criticize my girlfriends and me for loving the Beatles -- I guess we didn’t have such bad taste in music after all.

But the best show of the evening was another PNE freebie, the Peking Acrobats. As would be expected, all the acrobats were lean and fit and omigod-flexible; they'd probably been in training since they were tiny children.

The fellow balanced on top of all those chairs managed a number of stunts once he was up there. (To note: the legs of the lowest chair were balanced on four bottles that looked like they might have once held champagne; those in turn were on top of a very tall table).

After tilting the topmost chair, balancing it on only one of its legs, he then did a single-handed handstand while extending his legs most elegantly.

It must have taken years to become so skilled (and apparently, fearless).

As for me, I figure I’m doing well if I can balance on one leg while I’m reaching for a casserole dish on the top shelf of the cupboard.

Thursday, August 18, 2011

A Ferry Tale

Once upon a time in a kingdom by the sea there stood a series of islands, treed and green. These islands, so resplendent, especially when bathed in the golden glow of sunset, tempted the folk on the mainland, who toiled through the week at their weary-making tasks.

Long ago, in the springtime of the realm, the people from the mainland used to enjoy taking short trips to visit the dreamy islands. To get there, they would ride on sturdy ferries which in turn rode the sparkling seas, as if the waves were logical extensions of the roadways.

But as so often happens – especially in tales – change came upon the kingdom. Dark clouds of greed gathered along the horizon. A new emperor named Gordon came all smiling amongst the people and occupied a castle on the largest of the dreamy islands.

Gordon grinned to the friends he had brought to the castle and told them that he had plans to rearrange the kingdom. First, he’d appoint a new steward who would take charge of the lovely boats that plied the waters to the dreamy islands. And he appointed none other than a prince by the name of David.

Soon after Prince David took charge of the fleet, little things began to change, amongst them the fares. Though they’d steadily gone up in the past (hadn’t almost everything, save for wages?), they now rose incredibly – 40% on the main routes, 69% on the ones deemed as minor, and even higher yet in those in the northern reaches of the kingdom. But these things didn’t matter to Emperor Gordon and his friends, as they didn’t much enjoy having to wait in long lines, so they usually took a helicopter or plane anyway.

And Prince David didn’t think much about the fare hikes, as he kept getting raises and sacks-of-gold bonuses for all he’d done to do his part in privatizing the people’s network of transportation.

But then one day it suddenly occurred that not so many people were taking the ferries any more – not even the ones who’d learned to leave their cars behind and trek over as foot passengers, lugging their goods in backpacks and rolling carts.

When someone told Prince David that his fleet was losing money, he pointed out the shining window of his tall glass tower towards the sky and said, “Ah, but the weather is to blame.”

Then, when the sun continued to shine, he looked out another gleaming pane of glass, towards the towers of his old friends at the nearby bank. A small line creased his face, giving him an air of concern, and he pointed again, this time saying, “Ah, but it’s the loonie – much too high.”

The cleaning woman, who happened to be in his office, polishing one of its many windows, dared to look upon the prince, and said in a voice that was quiet but clear, “The fares are too high."

“Oh no,” laughed Prince David, “what could you possibly know? You’re just a simple cleaning woman and I am a prince.” And with that, he pointed his finger again, only this time at the door.

Emperor Gordon has gone away, off to live in a castle on another dreamy island, one that’s much too far to reach by any ferry. In the meantime, Prince David continues to offer his elaborate excuses. And while no one knows yet whether anyone will live happily ever after, one can only hope that at least this year Prince David won’t be receiving his usual bonus sacks of gold.

Sunday, August 14, 2011

A great day for poetry

Yesterday was the 8th Annual Summer Dreams Literary Arts Festival. Sponsored by Pandora's Collective, it's held at Lumberman's Arch in Vancouver's beautiful Stanley Park, and with all that sea and sky and tall trees around, it's a setting that's hard to beat. 

The only bad part about it is that there are so many different things going on -- readings, panel discussions, open mic sessions, workshops -- it's hard to get around to see and hear all that you might want to.

The performer above, Mike Johnson, is a talented performer of slam poetry. He's part of a group that takes part in Monday night sessions at Cafe Deux Soleil.

The photo to the side is one of Vancouver's most dedicated mentors, Betsy Warland, just after she's received an award from the director of the Vancouver International Writers' Festival, Hal Wake.

Great weather, wonderful poems, what a combination. But really, shouldn't every day be a great day for poetry!

Friday, August 12, 2011

The intangibles

I've been reading a pretty darn grim (but great) novel, Lionel Shriver's We Need to Talk About Kevin. It's constructed as a series of letters written by a woman to her ex-husband. As parents, they share the horror of having a son who's gone on a rampage and killed a number of people at his high school.

I'm not giving anything away by saying this much -- these bare facts are revealed almost immediately. The layers of additional information keep getting peeled back for an unbelievably gripping 400 pages.

But despite all the darkness you might imagine to be found here (and yes, you'd be right, there's plenty), there are occasional glimpses of the brightest sunlight, one of which struck me as I was reading this morning. 

The narrator mentions the 'intangibles' as being the "...stuff that makes life worth living."

The passage struck me as terribly important and then, when I was eating my lunch, I realized I had a concrete image of one of the 'intangibles' in my own life: a beautiful meal of leftover salad, enhanced by some wonderful salmon, accompanied by a pitcher of cold water, flavoured by mint I'd picked from the garden along with a few rings of lime. Small pleasures, but surely one of those elements that makes life so worth living.

Wednesday, August 10, 2011

Prisoners have rights too

Because we live in a country that still adheres to the principle of respecting human rights -- that is, the rights of all human beings -- we are expected to treat all people humanely. I, for one, believe this is a good thing and indicates that we are a civilised society.

Yet, even though we have standards when it comes to respecting human rights, we often seem to slip when it comes to the treatment of those who dwell behind bars.

Today is Prisoners' Justice Day, and I can't explain it any better than this small excerpt from a webpage about the day. It explains that it is:
...the day prisoners have set aside as a day to fast and refuse to work in a show of solidarity to remember those who have died unnecessarily -- victims of murder, suicide and neglect.

...the day when organizations and individuals in the community hold demonstrations, vigils, worship services and other events in common resistance with prisoners.

...the day to raise issue with the fact that a very high rate of women are in prison for protecting themselves against their abusers. This makes it obvious that the legal system does not protect women who suffer violence at the hands of their partners. the day to remember that there are a disproportionate number of Natives, African-Canadians and other minorities and marginalized people in prisons. Prisons are the ultimate form of oppression against struggles of recognition and self-determination.
The shirt pictured in the image above is from Matsqui Penitentiary, an institution where I sometimes take part in writing workshops. It was a gift from one of the men in the program.

I understand that this year, the men at Matsqui weren't allowed to sell the shirts they've made, nor were they permitted to wear them. A small violation of rights, perhaps, but the denial of small rights only leads to the erosion of other ones. But then, all of this is easy for me to say because I live outside the confines of those walls.

For an eye-opening look at life 'inside', check out I. M. Grenada's weekly blog, The Incarcerated Inkwell. It's well-written and a great look at a very different way to have to live one's life.

Monday, August 08, 2011

Popomatic fun

If you recognize the phrase above, chances are good that you remember the game it came from, Popomatic Trouble. And if you click on that link to the game, you might be amazed at the vocabulary the copy contains – capricious, liberated, reciprocate – hardly the stuff of 140-character u r 2 cool messages.

But tonight’s experiment in Popamaticism comes in a different form, an innocent-enough looking cob of corn, only this cob contains popping corn.

The directions actually say:
Place ear in the centre of your microwave. Be brave! You don’t need a container or paper bag. You can’t see the fun if you do.
So, obedient type that I am, I did as they suggested. And while it wasn’t heaps of excitement to clean up the after-mess, I’ll admit it was fun watching it do its thing. Besides, I got a bowl of one of my favourite snacks as compensation for any inconvenience.

Would I do it again? You poppin’ bet I would.

Saturday, August 06, 2011


Another perfect day for picking a load of berries, this time the easiest to pick, blueberries. All the perfectly ripe ones nearly picked themselves, pretty much just rolled off into my hand.

The rows were full of people who had the same idea for a good way to spend the day – plenty of families were picking, with kids of just about every age in tow.

Maybe it’s part of being out in the open air, or maybe it’s the illusion of privacy afforded by the rows of tall berry bushes, but whatever it is, lots of chatting goes on amongst pickers. Inveterate eavesdropper that I am, the conversations I enjoyed most were those of the kids.

Sure, there were plenty of burp and fart remarks, lots of laughing. But there were also some treasures: “After you get your tonsils out, can you still sing?” Or, “Every day someone dies and someone is born.”

And on the thought of someone being born, today is the hundredth anniversary of Lucille Ball’s birth. As an enduring performer, she has to be one of the funniest. I’m sure if I were to watch a rerun of just about any episode of I Love Lucy, I’d find something to laugh about. Today’s paper ran a nice piece about remembering her, and referred specifically to the chocolate-factory episode, a memorable one, to be sure.

But back to those fields, where I heard other conversations. Several languages rose into the morning sun – Spanish, some Eastern European sounding language I couldn’t identify, a Chinese dialect, and just in the next row, the softer-sounding (to my ear) Japanese. I remembered that today is the day Hiroshima was bombed and almost wanted to say to them, “I’m sorry.” Instead, we chatted a bit about the berries, about how big and sweet they were, how impossible it was not to keep sampling them. And I can’t help wonder, had the times been different, could it really be that we would have needed to be enemies, rather than being strangers who could laugh together and enjoy the day in a field of ripening berries.

Thursday, August 04, 2011

Nice timing!

This morning I discovered that an African violet I'd rescued from a fifty-cent table some while ago had finally decided to bloom. The blossom is just the first on a curled stem of buds that look promising.

Later in the morning, I received word that the first review of Shrinking Violets had shown up. And in the most wonderful place -- the Globe and Mail.

But then, a couple of friends who've read the book said, "Oooh, spoiler alert!"

So, if you've read the book (or don't mind a possible spoiler), here's a link to the piece which considers four current novellas from Quattro Books.

I can only hope that with the rest of the blossoms to come, there might be even more such good news.

Monday, August 01, 2011

Now's the time

It seems appropriate that today, BC Day, should be when I finally get to sending off my ballot in the HST referendum.

Besides representing a heckuva lot of paper (four envelopes, if you include the one the whole schmozzle arrived in), this entire exercise seems like such a huge waste. But if the Liberals hadn’t pretended this wasn’t coming down the pipe and raised the issue during the last election - and then people had still elected them, it would have been different.

Only now it’s all feeling so ridiculously after-the-fact, especially the threats the government keeps tossing around, about how BCers will have to pay back the Feds for the billion-plus in bribe money that Ottawa ‘gave’ us to enact the HST.

It all seems a lot like someone’s blustery uncle decided to call a family reunion and ordered a catered banquet of baby beef liver. Only said uncle chose to ignore the fact that a) the family wasn’t even asked if they wanted a reunion, and b) they’re all vegetarians.

So then, when the whole meal has to go back to the kitchen, the uncle blusters over the fact that the family doesn't want to pay for it.

Yet that’s exactly the situation the people of BC are in – and that’s no matter what the results of this vote might be. We’ll at least have to pick up the tab for all those envelopes and postage.

I’d like nothing more than to turn over the bills for all of this to those who ‘ordered the banquet’ on our behalf – Gordon Campbell and his gang. Only, oops, Gord’s already sailed to calmer (and more lucrative-sounding) waters, so he won’t get dinged for this.

Anyway, it’s time to walk up the street to toss these yellow envelopes into the box. If they get picked up tomorrow, I am hoping that they’ll make it to their destination by Friday’s deadline.

No matter which way anyone votes, the fact that this issue has earned itself a referendum indicates that the message these ballots are carrying is pretty important. I’ve got my fingers crossed that postal workers will give these look-at-me yellow envelopes the priority attention they deserve. If you haven't filled yours out yet, now would be a good time to do it.