Sunday, January 29, 2017

Studying the craft of screenwriting

Just finished a great weekend course on writing for the screen. From the perspective of a novelist, I learned how differently a writer must approach the visual medium of film. Brian Paisley OC (right) started Canada's first Fringe Festival. Keith Digby founded Edmonton's Phoenix Theatre. These instructors helped workshop participants create the pattern of beats needed to structure an engaging "three-act" movie.

Hollywood, said Brian, is "Darwinian;" it has learned and retained what works best in movie story telling. That knowledge, Keith pointed out, is not new. It goes back to Aristotle.

Thursday, January 26, 2017

Beauty in the midst of destruction

Left: a shimmering cut branch in the midst of the "logged" area along East Beach in White Rock.

Two springs ago, the mature stand of trees that used to flank my once-favourite East Beach seaside walk was "clearcut." At the same time, new buildings on the hilltop acquired beach views. I didn't return to my old walk till last week. This morning, I read in the Vancouver Sun that several restaurants in White Rock have closed.

I've also been reading about Quantum aesthetics -- the artistic parallel worldview to quantum physics. This perspective holds that wholeness incorporates beauty and ugliness. Thus art cannot be subjected to restrictive rules.

Are the above facts above connected, and if so, how?

Tuesday, January 24, 2017

Buffy Sainte-Marie -- still a visionary and a humanitarian at 75

Image from Billboard

In 1964, when her iconic song The Universal Soldier was released, Buffy Sainte-Marie was twenty-three years old. A philanthropist, social activist, educator, and visual artist, Buffy Sainte-Marie is a pioneering singer-songwriter who continues to speak for the rights of indigenous communities. In 2015, her album Power in the Blood won Album of the Year.

On April 1, at the JUNO Awards Ceremony, this deserving woman will receive the Allan Waters Humanitarian Award. An Officer of the Order of Canada, Buffy Sainte-Marie has gleaned numerous other awards and honours through her long career.

Sunday, January 22, 2017

Deep Diversity by Shakil Choudhury

Image from Between the Lines

The subtitle of this very timely book is Overcoming Us vs. Them. In this remarkable work, Shakil Choudhury delves to the heart of the human problem of xenophobia.

According to Choudhury, our temptation to fear and exclude those physically unlike ourselves begins in the brain: our neurology makes us tilt towards apparent tribe members and away from those who appear to be outsiders. He quotes social psychologist and science writer Siri Carpenter, who explains that: "Deep within our subconscious, all of us harbour biases that we consciously abhor. And the worst part is: we act on them."

Along with our implicit bias, which we must work to bring to consciousness, the tendency toward negativity bias is also a challenge. Biologically speaking, we are more likely to withdraw in fear than approach in optimism. We're run by our emotions, and in an effort to keep us safe, the body defaults to fear.

Racism, says the author, "remains a defining issue in our world." Yet humans "are learners," who have changed our thinking and behaviours, and will continue to do so." The idea that society is getting better is a view held not only by Choudhury himself, but by such diverse individuals as the Dalai Lama and linguist Steven Pinker, whose TED talk provides startling evidence that we are living in the least violent era in human history.

Choudhury, a former Ontario teacher, now gives workshops in cross-cultural communication, anti-racism, multiculturalism, and cultural intelligence. In a clear and engaging manner, he lays out his four pillars of deep diversity. He then goes on to explain the reality of unconscious bias, backing up this claim with personal anecdotes and scientific studies like Harvard's Project Implicit. Interestingly, it is now possible to participate in this research online.

We have the power to change. To do so, we need to raise our awareness and learn a variety of skills. And since it is part of human nature to make mistakes, our first guideline must be compassion, for ourselves as well as for others. There is much to be learned, and some of the facts about the implicit dominance of certain social groups can be startling. Facing up to the deep unfairness of society's power structures evokes the courage that helps us begin making positive changes, even at a micro personal level.

Inner work is an essential part of the process. We need to become aware of and face our biases, and work at being hopeful of positive outcomes. This we owe to ourselves and society. "Honouring the values of our egalitarian, democratic society requires this much from us."

One way to develop our inner personal power is meditation. With self-awareness, empathy, and a well-developed ability to regulate our behaviour, we can learn to manage conflict and be open to relationship with those who initially appear quite different, even inimical to us.

To heal ourselves inwardly and have meaningful lives, we must become clear-eyed and whole. To do this, we must be "able to see both the beauty and the brutality in the world." After taking what actions we can to improve a situation, we can then remain serene about things we cannot change.

Thursday, January 19, 2017

The Post Mistress: laughter, sorrow and consolation

Image: Arts Club Theatre

The Post Mistress, by turns hilarious, tragic, reverent and inspiring, is on at the Surrey Arts Centre until January 21. The creator of this amazing evening of entertainment is the multi-talented Tomson Highway.

Patricia Cano won over last's night's audience with her repertoire of facial expressions, her acting and dancing, her masterful portrayal of voices and accents. This crazy, funny and uplifting evening of entertainment was full of wisdom, jokes and surprises.

It's rare for a musical to feature virtuoso performances in English, French, and Cree. Spoiler alert: The tango scene takes place in Buenos Aires, Argentina (and that's pronounced the way the locals say it).

Wednesday, January 18, 2017

Honour by Elif Shafak

This novel by Elif Shafak takes the reader on an amazing journey. We travel from a British prison to the top of an Abu Dhabi skyscraper. We are whisked from a Kurdish village in eastern Turkey to a London squat in Hackney.

Some of the fictional territory explored is that of identity. "Who am I?" is an urgent question shared today by increasing numbers of migrants as they struggle to find their place in distant countries with vastly diverse history, geography and culture.

The book is full of oppositions -- Turkish vs Kurdish, rural versus urban, foreign versus local, men's roles versus women's roles, and of course, as the title suggests, honour versus shame.

Elif Shafak is a brilliant novelist who imagines her writer self as a compass. While one part of her is anchored in Turkey, the rest of her is free to roam the world.

To achieve this, she "commutes" between Turkish and English, writing in both languages. Politics divides us, she says -- and how tragically apparent that is in Turkey at present. Fortunately, literature unifies us, revealing how much we have in common.

To thrive, Shafak believes we humans must not be walled about by people just like us. Instead, we need to come face to face with difference. Thus we may allow light to pass through the walls that divide us. Entering the magic spaces of story, we begin to appreciate how others see the world.

Sunday, January 15, 2017

Janie Chang launches Dragon Springs Road

At the Saturday launch of her latest novel, Dragon Springs Road, author Janie Chang converses with a reader. Below, musicians play for the occasion, and guests chat and laugh together. The event was held at Harrison Galleries.


Saturday, January 14, 2017

Miss Pym Disposes by Josephine Tey

Josephine Tey (the nom de plume of Inverness-born Elizabeth Mackintosh) first published this remarkable story in 1948, four years before her death. The copyright was renewed in 1976 and the first Scribner paperback came out in 1998. In 1914, author Val McDermid wrote about Tey in The Telegraph.

The novel portrays a girls' physical training school as seen through the eyes of author and psychologist, Miss Pym. High-strung emotions and goings-on at the school test the visiting lecturer to the limits of her emotional and moral endurance.

This highly original crime novel exposes the reader to a slow burning certainty that the crime is coming. When it takes place, late in the book, much doubt remains. Might it yet have been an accident? This hope is short-lived, though the reader, along with Miss Pym, rebels against the evident fact.

But by the time the killer confesses to Miss Pym, she has already astonished herself by deciding to shield the guilty young woman. The mark of quality in this kind of story is the unpredictable plot twist, and Tey does not disappoint. After Miss Pym confronts the killer with a piece of evidence only she possesses, one more stunning surprise awaits.

Like other Tey novels, this was a most satisfying read. The title refers to a saying no longer in common use. Man proposes but God disposes is a translation from the Latin.

Friday, January 13, 2017

Unusual extremes of temperature and rare winter sun and cold

On our rainy coastline, sunlight is especially welcome in winter, when low cloud blots out the mountains that surround us. Winter skies are blurred and gloomy, and our challenge is to tough out the light deprivation.

The past couple of years have been different. The summer 2015 (when this pic was taken in Vancouver Harbour) brought extreme drought and wildfires. Only last fall did the dried out bird marshes recover.

For the past three winters, the Serpentine and Trout Lake, Jericho pond. Even Lost Lagoon froze solid for the first time since 1996. Here in Surrey, the welcome winter sun still shines on snow that has lasted an entire month -- remarkable.

Thursday, January 12, 2017

Canadian Authors Metro Vancouver hosts Cristy Watson

Our January literary event took place last night at the Alliance for Arts and Culture. Accomplished author Cristy Watson talked to fellow writers about the challenges and rewards of writing High Low fiction. These contemporary stories portray realistic characters and situations, using language that's easy to read.

Ms Watson's books for middle school kids form part of Orca's Currents series. Grade 2-4 reading levels, strong exciting plots, and plenty of dialogue help the reluctant reader succeed. As a teacher in Langley, Cristy Watson witnesses how easy-to-read books can bridge the gap between graphic novels and longer YA books by building essential reading skills.

Watson's "edgier" titles for Lorimer Books fill a niche for teens by portraying difficult questions and issues that kids frequently face today -- problems like the one suggested by Watson's title Cutter Boy. Times change. In 1970, Judy Blume published Are you there, God? It's me, Margaret. At the time, it was considered edgy. Today kids still need to read and understand the world, starting where they are. That remains unchanged.

Cristy Watson hosts an open mouth every 2nd Thursday of the month, at Pelican Rouge Cafe in White Rock. Come one evening and join her.

Tuesday, January 10, 2017

Meat rationing ends in 1954

As Marguerite reports in Victory Cookbook (Chancellor Press, 2002), February 1952, saw the new Queen and her husband, Prince Phillip embark on a Commonwealth tour.

At that time, Britain still was far from having recovered from the ravages of WWII. Meat, the final rationed item, was not deregulated until June 1954. When at long last queuing for limited supplies of food was no longer necessary, people gleefully tore up their ration books.

The end of meat rationing was timely. A few months earlier, a disease had killed many of the nation's rabbits, particular in Kent, where the population was nearly wiped out. During the war and post-war years, rabbit had helped to eke out the few ounces of meat allocated to each person.

A month earlier, fats had been taken off the ration. This too was cause for celebration. Then a "frantic call" came to the food guru at Harrods, asking what to do with pastry that had turned sticky and greasy. During rationing, people had become unfamiliar with handling rich ingredients. They didn't know pastry had to be refrigerated between rollings.

Ms Patten had a cooking show on BBC Television, and during a period of freak weather conditions, an episode became visible in America. When a call came in reporting that US watchers could see "a dame making a pud," BBC and Marguerite Patten realized that hers was the first British broadcast to be received on US television by direct transmission.

Monday, January 9, 2017

The end of sweet rationing

The end of "sweet" rationing came in February of 1952, just four months before the Coronation of Queen Elizabeth.

This image from Marguerite Patten's Victory Cookbook, (Chancellor Press, 2002) shows happy customers buying the candy that has been limited by their ration books for the past 13 years.

Patten reports that when this milestone was reached, she was "deluged" with recipes for real chocolate icing for cakes. This was a delicacy people had not been able to enjoy for more than a decade.

When "shell eggs" came off the ration, people no longer had to make souffles with powdered ones. Says Patten, fresh eggs were "infinitely better for this purpose." Lemon meringue pie and meringues also made a comeback.

Sunday, January 8, 2017

The Ministry of Food and kitchen guru Marguerite Patten

During World War II, the United Kingdom endured severe food rationing. With U-boats regularly sinking ships in the Atlantic, and Nazi Germany in control of European ports, Britain had to fend for itself by growing and distributing enough of the right foods to keep the population healthy.

To this end, to work alongside the Minister of Agriculture, Lord Woolton was put in charge of managing the nation's food supply. Rationing began on January 8, 1940, with restrictions placed on bacon, butter and sugar. Soon after, meat, fish, tea, eggs, milk and more were rationed as well.

Before the war, Britain had imported 55 million tons of food annually -- about 70% of what the nation consumed. As imports plummeted, the Ministry of Food produced and distributed ration books to ensure that each person got a fair share of the many essential foods in short supply.

In summer 1940, the government struck a committee of nutritional experts to determine the minimum food needed to maintain health, though this info was not made public. Food management was serious business. Officials worked at eradicating black marketeering and wasting food became a prisonable offence. Long lines were formed as people waited to buy provisions. A joke of the time was that if you saw a queue, best get in it, and find out later what it was for.

The available rations were pretty thin. For adults, 1 "shell egg" a week, or sometimes every two weeks was the limit, though powdered eggs were more available. Two ounces of butter, 4 ounces of margarine,  and 2 - 6 ounces of cheese comprised the weekly limit. The allowable 2-3 pints of milk each week could be supplemented with "household" (powdered milk), of which a packet could be purchased each month. Two ounces of tea and eight ounces of sugar had to be stretched to last a week, and bacon or ham was limited to 4 oz. Meat was rationed by cost (1s 2d) per week, so the amount available depended on the cuts chosen.

Meanwhile, the Food Advice Division gave demonstrations in government centres, factory canteens, and large shops. Some Home Economists used mobile vans which were parked in various places where demonstrations could be carried out. Their mandate was to teach people how to keep their families well-fed on the available rations. This was where Home Economist Marguerite Patten came in. Eventually she took charge of and ran the MOF Bureau at Harrods. At age 95, long after she retired and then got bored and "unretired," she gave an interview to the Telegraph, who reported that she was still giving kitchen-related advice to Jamie Oliver, among other chefs. Patten wrote 170 cookbooks in her lifetime, and earned the OBE for service to the art of cookery. She died aged 99 in 2015.

Saturday, January 7, 2017

White Rock beach has a new Christmas tree

This is the first year in ages that I didn't get to White Rock beach during the Christmas season. It's cold, and the snow is still lying quite thick in Surrey.

Today I did venture down, and saw this new tree of lights. It makes a nice change after the blue lights that fade year by year in the trees that flank the beach promenade.

It was a novel experience too, to drive by the Serpentine dike and see hockey players skating around.

In Vancouver, the Parks Board declared Trout Lake safe for skating a couple of days ago.

It's good to see the kids enjoying the ice, because based on experience, I'd say it's unlikely to last much longer.

Cookery heritage

I acquired this cookbook a long time ago, from a woman returning to England after living in Kitimat, BC. Anna's home town of Roundhay, Leeds, sounded most exotic.

Prominently displayed on top right cover of this 1972 edition is the original price: two shillings and sixpence.

I used Marguerite Patton's cookbook a lot, in spite of having to decipher her measurement system, including ounces of flour, and oven temperature mysteries like Gas Mark IV.

Doing a roast beef dinner, I ventured to try her Yorkshire Pudding recipe -- so delicious that I never sought another. When Yasemin grew old enough to cook, she too mastered Marguerite's recipe and I must say, my daughter makes a fine Yorkshire pudding -- though we use butter, not lard.

Until recently, I had no idea that this lady had once headed the Ministry of Food, located in Harrods Department Store, or that she'd lived to age 99 and been awarded an OBE.

Friday, January 6, 2017

Bull in the post office?

A bull in a china shop, sure. But the post office? No bull market for the post office these days.

The Vancouver Post Office, located for decades at the same place, has moved one block to a smaller location. No doubt like so many other older city buildings, the imposing old structure will fall to the wrecking ball, to be replaced by a high rise full of insanely expensive condos.

Having lived in the area since the late sixties, I sometimes experience Vancouver like a ghost town, full of buildings that used to be here.

Thursday, January 5, 2017

Precious and Grace by Alexander McCall Smith

Alexander McCall Smith has produced another delightful novel, full of everyday wisdom. In this story, a Canadian woman hires Precious Ramotswe and Grace Makutsi to uncover her past in Botswana, and the naive Mr. Polopetsi gets involved in a pyramid scheme.

Mr. J.L.B. Matekoni's garage assistant Fanwell acquires a stray dog he can neither care for nor abandon. As usual, this generates conversation between the detectives, and as usual, both wax philosophical. Outspoken as usual, Mma Makutsi states categorically that dogs have no souls.

Mma Ramotswe quietly disagrees. Temporarily sheltering the animal while she works out what to do with it, she raises the topic of dog souls with her husband. Mr. J.L.B. Matekoni muses on his belief that of course dogs have souls. For him, even cars -- at least old ones -- have souls.

"Do you think our souls grow as we get older?" asks Precious. Her husband's affirmative response comforts her. "Our souls," he tells her, "grow like the branches of a tree" and as more birds come to make their homes in these outward-growing branches, "they sing a bit more."

The scene with Mma Ramotswe's tennis-loving childhood friend the police superintendent is telling. Superintendent Bogosi initially doubted her decision to open the detective agency, opining that rather than paying good money to have problems solved, most people would "take them to their friends and ask them to do it for nothing." Now he tells his old friend that if she ever retires, she should come to the police, who will create a post for her, something along the lines of "Head of Difficult Cases."

As always, Precious Ramotswe is patient. She understands that it is sometimes wise to say and do nothing, and realizes that some people "do not want to find what they were looking for." Having seen it happen, she asks herself whether it is "because what they were looking for was not what they were really looking to speak." This insight helps her with the case of Susan, the Canadian woman who has returned to Botswana to seek some kind of resolution that Mma Ramotswe does not quite grasp. Thus, she decides to say and do nothing, telling Mma Makutsi that "Sometimes doing nothing is the same as doing something."

Unsurprisingly, her associate cannot understand this. Mma Ramotswe explains to her that "if you do nothing, somebody may feel the need to do something, and that means you're getting something done by doing nothing."

The book is filled with such delightful insights on ordinary problems: the intransigence of human pride, the insidious nature of doubts, the benefit of using lists to get things done. When the detectives clash over their views on Susan's case, they must resolve their own sharp differences of opinion. They manage when each admits that she has been wrong in a different way.

Solving Susan's case hinges on the question of forgiveness. After dozing during a church sermon, Mma Ramotswe awakens at the perfect moment. She hears the priest say to his brothers and sisters in the congregation that "Forgiveness is at the heart of the way we live our lives." We must teach our children that "if we do not forgive then we run the risk of being eaten up by hatred" that will "gnaw and gnaw away."

The minister's words are the final springboard from which Mma Ramotswe gets one of her sudden insights. Remembering what she observed when she took the client to her old home and used her detecting principle of watching "where eyes went," she understands what the Canadian woman hasn't told her. With Mma Makutsi beside her, she speaks the words that Susan needs to hear in order to achieve the resolution she is seeking.

Tuesday, January 3, 2017

The palace and The Crown

This jigsaw portrays one wing of the enormous Blenheim Palace. Putting it together was pretty easy, except for the sky, which had to be done by trial and error, as the pieces were so similar.

Blenheim Palace was built following victory over France in the War of the Spanish Succession, and given to John Churchill, the first Duke, who led the Allied forces to success in the Battle of Blenheim in 1704. Though the grandson of the Seventh Duke was born and grew up here, Sir Winston was not a peer.

The many titles and honours bestowed upon Sir Winston Leonard Spencer-Churchill were given for his service to the UK and other nations. As a young man, Britain's most famous prime minister proposed to his wife Clementine in a folly in the enormous gardens attached to Blenheim Palace.

Oddly enough, we were just watching the Netflix series, The Crown, in which, of course, Churchill figures prominently. Near the end of Season 1, artist Graham Sutherland receives a commission to paint the old war horse, and the film shows the interaction between the two men. This scene reminded me of the sketches Sutherland did of Churchill's hands -- mentioned in this blog after a visit to the Audain Art Museum in Whistler a few months ago.

Monday, January 2, 2017

Inside outside inside

Lamps reflected in the windows create the illusion that they're outside, sitting in midair like magic lanterns.

Sunday, January 1, 2017

Joy and gratitude for a loving family Christmas in a cosy season

I begin this year grateful for the joys of being with close family, home for a white Christmas. As well as the warm get-togethers, the season brought whimsical moments to treasure. And turkey dinner of course.