Wednesday, February 27, 2013

A penny for your thoughts on this

Images of Canadian penny from Toronto Real Estate News

Yesterday I leaned down to pick up a penny from the rainy street. I could see that it was not a Canadian one -- just a shade smaller. It felt so slight in my hand -- very thin and light.

As I pored over the tiny printing to determine where the coin was from, a woman materialized beside me. She was wearing a CBC zippered hoodie, and over it, a jacket with a CBC logo.

"What is it?" She held our her hand and I passed over the coin.

"Some sort of penny, but I can't read the word -- too small." After a moment, she looked up.

"This penny is from Singapore. 1994."

She returned the tiny coin and I slipped it in my pocket. "Do you work for the Mother Corp?"

She nodded, and I seized the moment to ask her advice on pitching an idea I've had in mind for a while. But she shook her head. "Not a programmer, just a tech. All the programmers are in Toronto."

We looked at each other, shrugged the westerner's shrug. "You can go to the website, pitch it online." She disappeared into the CBC building. Penny in my pocket, I headed for the library.

As of last month, the Canadian penny is no longer in circulation. When I was a kid, a penny used to buy lots of penny candy. One cent bought three "strawberries and bananas," or a handful of licorice pipes and shoelaces. Now it's no longer legal tender.

Yet even though it isn't economically sound to continue manufacturing these near-worthless coins, the penny lives on in the language. At least for older generations, things can still cost a pretty penny, and  harking back to our ancestral ties to Britain, we can be penny wise and pound foolish.

A penny saved is still a penny earned, figuratively speaking, but it will no longer be only the impecunious who don't have two pennies to rub together.

When we finally  understand something, we'll still be able to say the penny drops, and no doubt occasionally, someone will turn up like a bad penny.

When I was in Hong Kong in the early eighties, the currency included paper pennies; I have some stashed away. Singapore is known as a very rational place; I wonder if it still has good cents.

Monday, February 25, 2013

Dancing Lessons by Olive Senior

Book cover image from Cormorant Books

This is a story of the human cost of a feudal slave-owning society to the generations that follow freedom. It takes place in rural Jamaica, a short way out of Kingston, the capital. 

G's attraction for the charming and much older Charlie Samphire begins when she sees him waiting beside the road she takes to town on an errand for her strict caretakers, Miss Celia and Aunt Zena. The young girl's conviction that Charlie loves her takes root when he stops to rest his horse beside a stream and feeds her a Bombay mango.

Trapped in their illusion of social superiority, Miss Zena and Miss Celia allow their pointless snobbery to cut them off from G. Not that they were very warm to her in the first place.

At sixteen, G marries Charlie and has four children in rapid succession. Her only ally is Mrs. D, her mother in law, who teaches her a dizzying array of housekeeping tasks. With these, the two women numb themselves against the harsh facts of their lives.

Mrs. D needs a defense against the violence of her family history, which has scarred her, body and mind. Her daughter-in-law needs solace against the fact that once she has burned her bridges, her husband ignores her from the start and chases a long series of other women.

As an old woman tucked away in the comfortable retirement home Ellesmere Lodge, G looks back over her life and intuits how things could have been different. Across an abyss of silence and coldness stands her daughter Celia, the successful child and the only one who has stood by her.  G's house was damaged by a hurricane, and her daughter is paying for her stay at the lodge.

At Ellesmere Lodge, oddly enough, G's journey toward redemption begins with a library book, a garden plot, and a fellow lodger called Mr. Bridges.

I decided to read Olive Senior's work when I heard her interviewed on CBC radio last year. It was a good story, but it slowed down in the middle, and I began to skim. Diligent editing, more showing and less telling would have kept my interest from flagging.

I also had some trouble believing in Charlie -- why did he change as he did? It made no sense to me, and I waited for an enlightenment that didn't come.

Olive Senior won the Commonwealth Book Prize in 1987 for her short story collection Summer Lightning. This is her first novel. It was published in 2011 by Cormorant.

Sunday, February 24, 2013

Five Elements Rhizome reading

Wanda Kehewin-John reads

First, Michelle Sylliboy, of the Aboriginal Writers Collective, thanked Parliamentary Poet Laureate Fred Wah for supporting the event. Then she explained the theme of the evening -- Five Elements -- Earth, Air, Fire, Water and Spirit. 

Backed by aboriginal voice and drum trio M'Girl, and emceed by artist and Indigenous Plant Diva Cease Wyss, the readings began with a poem by Larissa Lai.

Referring to the British East India Company, the nineteenth century explorer John Meares and a group of emigre Chinese carpenters and metalworkers, Ms. Lai's poem calls Canada "our home on native land." From that early history the poem also projects forward in time and forecasts "the global snowball" which was "already gathering steam."

The next reader, Jonina Kirton, read a poem on a Spiritual theme -- "Lake Manitou." She was followed by Janie Lew, reading a poem about the uses and abuses of rain water.

Wanda John-Kehewin was up next. Also using the element of water, her poignant poem on the pollution of our waters by industry was entitled "Stand by the last stream." Wanda's book of poetry, In the Dog House, will be launched by Talonbooks in April.

Writer and social justice activist Joanne Arnott read next, a powerful short poem called "The Teaching."

The next reader was the lively and energetic Poet Laureate of Victoria, Janet Marie Rogers. Describing a road trip to Sante Fe, her poem was entitled "Three-Day Road," and evoked Joseph Boyden's first powerful novel, which had the same title.

Kelly Roulette, a lawyer and broadcast journalist as well as a poet, closed the first set with a poem of spiritual seeking, asking "Where is the red road?"

Sadly, I had to leave at the break. The second half featured men as well as women. Stage and television writer Larry Nicholson, a Cree from Hobbema was one. Another was Alex Jacobs, graduate of the Institute of Indian Arts in Santa Fe, and former Program Director of CKON Mohawk Nation Radio.

Wish I'd had a chance to hear these readers, and the other second half presenters as well. The Rhizome Cafe was packed -- literally standing room only. It was a high-energy evening.

Saturday, February 23, 2013

Omnia vincit amor

Image from Victorian Vignettes

Yesterday the phrase came up in a crossword puzzle I was working on. It brought back memories of Totem Park Residence at UBC. I'd arrived at the university on scholarship money, supplemented with the newly rolled out Canada Student Loan.

I also got a part-time job in the kitchen, to help make ends meet. As it happened, these ends included a Spanish guitar I'd seen at the Mediterranean Guitar Shop on West Tenth. I obtained an emergency loan from a friend to buy it, and then got work in the kitchen to pay her back.

Los Guitarreros de Mallorca, Palma, Mallorca, read the black hand-inked label inside. That was one of the most thrilling purchases I ever made. I have it downstairs still, though I haven't played it for many years. Back then, I learned a few chords, then carried it everywhere, and sang folk and protest songs at every opportunity.

Sixty-seven was the summer of love, and that fall I started university. Once I had the guitar, something about the zeitgeist made me do it -- I embroidered the Latin phrase for "love conquers all" on a sweatshirt. Amor vincit omnia was the word order I used; I can't recall where I got the information, as I never did study Latin at university.

That baggy shirt was okay to wear around the rez, but it was a mistake to wear it to my kitchen job. To me, it was just an abstract foreign phrase, a stance on life that was lauded by my generation. But to one of the full-time kitchen workers, a middle-aged foreign man from a European country, it apparently meant something else.

Devoid of English, he waylaid me after work one day, and I had to dodge around the sofas and chairs of the lounge to get away. Needless to say, I never wore the shirt again.

A small loss of innocence.

Friday, February 22, 2013

Simple pleasures -- light through a glass

Sunlight shines through a glass

After a busy morning, I slowed down to enjoy a mid-after- noon early supper at Cosmos in White Rock.

It had been raining earlier, but as I drove down the steep hill of Oxford Street, the sky cleared and the sun came out.

A brisk wind had blown up and shafts of sunlight shone through the green translucent water, as big white-capped waves raced toward the shore. Away from the shallow beach, the water was grey, and the horizon line was blurred and softened by cloud.

In the restaurant, I enjoyed the warmth of sunbeams reaching across the table, and this beautiful pattern of light on my paper, still pristine before I filled it with the relief and meditation of scribbled words.

Tuesday, February 19, 2013

Monday, February 18, 2013

Sea of Poppies by Amitav Ghosh

Poppy fields along the Ganges and the British East India Company, an opium factory with dreaming labourers treading the poppy mash as one would tread grapes to make wine, and ruthless traders seeking Chinese markets for their Indian-grown opium. Wealthy estates and a riverside botanical garden, the shabby slave ship Ibis, with her Lascar crew...the lush list of scenes portrayed by Amitav Ghosh in his novel of the opium trade in the nineteenth century goes on and on. Raja Neel Rattan is the financially embarrassed son of a profligate father who desperately needs cash to support his estates, his lifestyle and his many dependents. Elokeishi is his dancer consort. 
Zachary is an American on the lam from Cleveland, where his partially black heritage made him a target of white workers in the shipyards, while the police studiously looked the other way.

Deeti is the wife -- soon to be the widow -- of a sickly Sepoy war veteran of the British army. Wounded in the war, he acquired the opium habit while in the hospital. 

Kalua is a carter, a strong, large young man of low degree whose life consists of carrying villagers where they want to go in his oxcart, while keeping his distance so they can remain uncontaminated by the touch of his low caste person.

Benjamin Burnham is the unscrupulous owner of many financial interests that rake in money from opium and other sources. Believing that free trade is man's right and God's will, he is quite willing to go to war to preserve the opium trade, and indeed, the first "opium war" is in the offing.

And  Jodu is a Bengali boy who, having just lost his mother, is carrying out his deathbed promise of finding Paulette, the French-born foster sister with whom he grew up. All have their stories, and what stories they are. I'm glad the sequel was published before I finished this novel -- I can track these astonishingly compelling characters further without having to wait.

This novel was shortlisted for the Man Booker in 2008. I'm surprised it didn't win. The first sequel, River of Smoke, came out in 2011.

Sunday, February 17, 2013

Cat and early crocus

Spring on the wet coast. The cat is frisky and the first crocuses are showing themselves. Tomorrow we might have winter again, but today we are enjoying sun with some cloud.

Saturday, February 16, 2013

Southbank season is coming

Today at the Surrey Central Library, SFU Continuing Studies Creative Writing Director Wayde Compton and the Southbank writing mentors held an information meeting for a roomful of interested writers who live south of the Fraser and want to hone their writing skills in a writing community that meets close to home.

Southbank is affiliated with The Writer's Studio, a well-respected SFU program launched a few years ago by local poet, essayist and memoirist Betsy Warland. Students take courses from published writers, learn how to establish a regular writing practice and benefit from being in community with other writers.

When Compton took over the directorship of the Writer's Studio from the retiring flagship director last year, he added the fledgling Southbank to his portfolio. This program is similar to TWS but shorter. An equally intense program of learning, Southbank runs from the end of May to mid-August.

The program had a great initial year, and we're nearly ready to launch the 2013 season. Applications to Southbank are now open and ambitious writers are busy preparing their documents.

Among this year's instructors are Caroline Adderson, Michael Slade, John Mavin, Lois Peterson, Heidi Greco, Jane Silcott and J.J.Lee.

All four of last year's Southbank mentors are back: Claire de Boer, Renee Saklikar, Toni Levi and yours truly, Carol Tulpar. 

For more information, check the SFU Continuing Education website here.

Friday, February 15, 2013

Water for Elephants, by Sara Gruen

Book cover (Algonquin, 2007) from Goodreads

There is murder in this story. A cover-up protects the killer for many years. Only the killer may not be who you think.

The setting is 1930s America, and the country is full of hungry unemployed men. Circuses are going bust everywhere. Always ambitious to rival the famous Ringling Brothers, Uncle Al, the owner of Benzini Brothers Circus, stops at nothing to keep his show in business.

Besides being first on the scene to buy bargain priced stock and acquire performers from other shows that are going belly up, Uncle Al uses more questionable means to keep afloat. He justifies his actions by saying he is keeping his huge team employed at a time when there are almost no jobs.

Jacob, an orphaned veterinarian with all but complete qualifications from Cornell, falls in with the circus by chance. He stays on, first out of necessity and a sense of responsibility for the animals in his care, and later, out of love. 

When he falls for a beautiful young married performer, Jacob becomes part of a dangerous love triangle. Marlena has already burned many bridges, not the least of which was marrying a mercurial fellow-performer called August, whose very entry into a room brings a whiff of unpredictability and danger.

Uncle Al and August are enraged and frustrated by the apparent stupidity of Rosie, an elephant acquired from another circus. But when the language barrier is discovered, and the charming and clever elephant is addressed in Polish, she proves more than equal to creating a wonderful new show with Marlena, and plenty of money begins to pour in. Unfortunately, bad trouble isn't far behind.

Besides providing a thrilling story about a circus as seen from the inside, author Sara Gruen raises interesting themes that concern secrecy and murder. Jacob's memories are told through his memories as a very old man, and this frame story, too, has a surprising ending.

Water for Elephants is now also a movie. The female lead is played by Reese Witherspoon.

Thursday, February 14, 2013

It's Valentines -- be happy

Photo: clasped hands 123RF

Anyone feeling left out on Valentine's Day?

Hoped for chocolates or roses and didn't get them?

Why not lighten up, smile and think of this quote by Fred Allen:

"The last time I saw him, he was walking down Lover's Lane holding his own hand."

Wednesday, February 13, 2013

Reflection in reverse

Sometimes we see "through a glass darkly," and sometimes we actually see things in reverse.

This image of the roof line of a neighbour's house in a rain puddle reminded me of how our perceptions can be both convincing and wrong.

It's a nice metaphor for the opposing possbilities for seeing things.

Tuesday, February 12, 2013

The Amalfi Effect

There is an Italian restaurant I love in London. Located near the British Museum, in Southampton Row, it's called the Old Amalfi.

I keep returning to this place not so much for its food or service, although these are good, but for what I have come to think of as the Amalfi effect.

What I love best is to sit beside the mirror wall and look out into the street, watching as two big red double deckers appear to drive into one another and disappear, as seen above.

It's also exciting to watch cars appear from nowhere and dash away from one another, and to watch pedestrians clone, walk towards one another and then vanish.

Monday, February 11, 2013

Joy of ironing

Picture from Richmond Auctions Service

Today I made a couple of tablecloths from lovely scarlet brocade. After patiently straightening and measuring and hemming, I ironed the hems flat.

It brought back memories. First, of the "sad irons" we had when I was a kid. There were two cast iron blades and a handle doohickey that was used to pick them up. When the one you were using cooled, you pulled a lever and dropped that back on the stove, then picked up the other one, by now nicely heated.

I didn't know why they were sad -- but they did have to be heated on top of the wood stove, but the pain of sitting on top of the stove could have done it, I thought. Turns out that sad is a throwback to an older meaning, heavy, which is now obsolete.

As a kid, I loved ironing. But things sometimes went wrong. I remember leaving the iron on a nylon lace trimmed collar too long, and being dismayed when I half melted it. I also remember that one time my little brother's hand somehow got between the heavy iron and the ironing board. Unfortunately for him, I wasn't fast enough to avoid giving him a slight press.

These days, we rarely iron. Many fabrics don't need pressing, and besides, few people feel they have the time for such details. Most clothes can be caught on the fly as they come out of the dryer, and folded or hung up before they have a chance to develop any wrinkles.

The sad irons and holders in the picture are being offered for sale in Coderre, Saskatchewan, as "antiques and collectibles."

Saturday, February 9, 2013

Turn, Turn, Turn

Original cover image from sound stage direct

"To everything there is a season."

The words are from the Bible, and the idea they express is bedrock.

And not only for the cultures descended from the Judeo-Christian tradition by way of Europe.

But who would have thought that the hit song the Byrds brought out in the midst of the heady social rebellions of 1969 would be built around a quotation from Ecclesiastes?

When I first listened to the lyrics, I was a naive young teenager. Drawn to the song for its music and poetry, I sensed its profundity too.

Now I wonder: what impelled those young musicians to express such sentiments in song? Listening to the lyrics as I looking back over the intervening forty-years, I now know the truth of the lines as told through my own experience.

The Byrds album with that song on it was the first one I ever bought. I was working in The Hub, my first real job. We sold tobacco and magazines, books and souvenirs, and we weighed out warm roasted peanuts and red-dyed pistachios from a nut machine of a type then fashionable.

At the back of the store was the music counter. Pure bliss, especially in the midst of that rich renaissance of folk music.

Before I got the album, I had to buy a turntable, because we didn't have one at home. Dad installed it in an old Marconi radio cabinet, and hooked it up to the single radio speaker. No stereo, but the album still sounded good.

How radically access to music has changed. Now the internet makes it possible to listen with joy, at a moment's notice, to any of numerous versions of any song online. So here is is, from 1969, "Turn, Turn, Turn."

By the way, The Byrds are not the only ones to be taken by this ancient line. Canadian writer Alistair Macleod has used this as a title for a Christmas story, which can be heard as a CBC radio podcast here.

Wednesday, February 6, 2013

Thomas King and Candace Savage

Book cover picture from CBC Books

The Inconvenient Indian, by Thomas King (Doubleday 2012) recently hit the top of the bestseller Non-fiction list in The Vancouver Sun. The author begins his discussion with the lack of shared assumptions between "Indians" and "whites," the terms he has settled on for the purpose of this discussion.

For one thing, the Canada - US border is a construct that has no intrinsic meaning for native tribes, says King.

Though this book is discursive, funny and personal, the author's academic rigour is unimpeachable as he exposes the propaganda and bombast behind the history we've been taught. King's unique history should be required reading for high school students.

This author is a master storyteller, as he demonstrated in the Massey Lectures of 2003. In "The Truth about Stories, a Native Narrative" King discussed the white man's irrational antipathy towards Indians. Five lectures were done in the format of a single story, re-told five times with new variations. These series showed King at his most brilliant, as he moved from comedy to tragedy and back in a powerful act of oral storytelling.

The current book has recently been reviewed in the Vancouver Sun, the Star (Toronto), and the Montreal Gazette.

Though Candace Savage was interviewed about her book on CBC radio, her book, A Geography of Blood: unearthing memory from a prairie landscape, (Greystone, 2012) is not on the lists. Her work resembles King's in that it reports the author's personal experience, in her case, coming to terms with the fact that the proud mythology of the prairie settlers is a partial fabric with gaping holes.

Savage's description of opening herself to the consciousness of the morally reprehensible aspects of our nation's history is impressive. She writes of the slaughter of the buffalo, and of the painful displacement of aboriginal peoples who paid in suffering so that land could be surveyed for settlers, and the unifying railroad built. She describes the horror of the Cypress Hills Massacre, so little known though it happened such a very short time ago.

It's interesting that these two works came out so close in time, and so near the time of  the hunger strike by Theresa Spence and the associated Idle No More movement of aboriginal people from all over Canada to get some serious recognition from the federal government, which is in the process of passing legislation that deeply affects the future of aboriginal groups, once again without having consulted them.

Sunday, February 3, 2013

A checkered career?

I held my glasses up to the light to see how badly they needed cleaning (or was it my blurred vision?)

And I made an interesting discovery. They magnified and warped the grid lines of the screen door.

In metaphorical terms, this raises questions.

First, though I know what it means to look at the world through rose coloured spectacles, I now wonder what it means to look at the world through tiny squares. A tendency to compartmentalize?

Also, if I looked backwards through these glasses, would I perhaps be regarding my checkered past?

Saturday, February 2, 2013

Groundhog Day prognostications

Photo from

At Geekquinox, they say in rhyme that he didn't see his shadow, but Canada is a big place.

If a groundhog peeped out of his burrow in Surrey today he definitely saw his shadow.

Does this truly portend six more weeks of winter? Considering today's balmy weather, that seems hard to believe.

Or am I tempting fate to say so?

Friday, February 1, 2013

Bridging the green gap

Book cover from Vancouver Observer website

A couple of weeks ago I was invited to a book launch. Published by the Vancouver Observer, Extract: The Pipeline Wars Volume I Enbridge is a collection of writings that oppose the building of the Northern Gateway Pipeline on environmental grounds.

The event was to be held in the fashionable downtown Ceili's Irish Pub, but the venue was changed at the last moment because of a police incident in the area. I had planned to go by transit, but the other Ceili's location was not so accessible by transit.

Also, it had free parking. I changed my plans and drove. My writing friend Carrie Saxifrage was a contributor, and I wanted to turn out and hear her read.

Half the pub was reserved for the launch, and screens were set up around the room showing a series of beautiful slides of wild country and the animals that live there.

The half of the pub where the launch was not going on was occupied by pairs and groups of drinkers, many of whom were intent on a football game being broadcast on huge televisions that clashed with the silent salmon and grizzly bears on the other screens.

Between football footage, ads on these huge TVs promoted "Canada's Number One Pickup Truck," shown traveling through the forest with a Bobcat in tow. Now isn't that a wise use of fossil fuel?

On the other screens, the sponsors of the nature pictures were shown in tasteful small logos around the edge: LUSH, Spud, Hollyhock, Board of Change.

Contributors to the book rose gamely and read or spoke, but the only voice that was really audible on our side of the room was that of Tzeporah Berman. The others were mostly drowned out by the din of the packed pub.

The only refuge for the eardrums was the ladies' room. From there I could hear the speakers better than I could from our table, though it was quite near where they stood.

Like the football fans on the other side of the pub, the young of the green energy lobby were in one another's arms and also on their smart phones.

At the next break in the football game, TV commercials showed motorcycle races and blared out ads for oil-guzzling dirt bikes.

When I made my escape from the noise, this is what I was thinking. We may talk green, but we're all implicated. Enslaved by all those toys that require more and more energy. We're involved in a spiralling addiction to wasting oil that is planet wide.

What we are doing is insane. Building a pipeline to carry Alberta bitumen to the coast where we can waste more oil shipping it by tanker across the ocean to a distant continent where it will be used as fuel to make more stuff -- most of it unnecessary. That stuff will be shipped back over here to be sold, wasting still more oil.

It's beyond crazy. And it has to stop.