Tuesday, February 28, 2017

SFU - always something new

Photo: Patricia Chochol

"Who Needs Canada?" Audience members at SFU's fifth Public Summit were invited to fill out these post cards. Simple but brilliant. Besides Water drinkers, other good answers included Decency, Salmon, Our friends to the south, Marginalized groups, and Polar bears. Musqueam artist Shane Point opened the evening by requesting that we join hands and open our hearts and minds to each other and the wisdom the evening could provide.

Panelist Sheila Watt-Cloutier, Nobel Peace Prize nominee and defender of polar people and author of The Right to Be Cold, spoke eloquently about the need to see our environmental challenges in human terms, and expressed her confidence that once people understand the human costs of ignoring climate change, they will do the right thing.

Moderated by Laura Lynch, the panel also included Independent Senator Yuen Pau Woo. Canada is respected for human rights internationally, he said, but we're still somewhat parochial at home. While elsewhere, applicants are chosen for international experience, our immigrant job seekers are frustrated by demands for local experience, as if our nation had a corner on virtue.

Ottawa academic Roland Paris said that our democratic ideals of respecting the Rule of Law and democratic institutions are "bred in the bone" of Canadians. Yet he also expressed concern that we are not immune from the current tide of world pressures pushing against this mode of life.

Shuvaloy Majumdar, Munk Fellow at the McDonald-Laurier Institute, believes that as the world changes with "blinding speed," other nations look to Canada for leadership. He sees the major current threats to world security as Europopulism, predatory states, and overall democratic contraction around the world.

The panel was followed by moderated audience discussion groups. Our small circle brought a wide range of responses to the question of how Canada can do better at championing human rights internationally. We have work to do to integrate marginalized people here in Canada, said some. We must consider what we can do as individuals, said others, and not expect the government to do it all for us. While one young man expressed bitter disillusionment about what he perceived as the university selling out to corporate interests, another spoke of how we must each work at creating peace within ourselves, so that we can experience it in our communities.

On the far side of the circle sat the thoughtful and soft-spoken social worker and women's rights activist, Patsy George. On the lapel of her red vest with its appliqued Inukshuk, I think I glimpsed her well-deserved Order of Canada and Order of British Columbia pins. Well done, SFU. Definitely a worthwhile evening, this left me with food for thought and reason to hope. Lots more events coming up at the Community Summit between now and March 8.

Monday, February 27, 2017

Four actors, four chairs and the willing suspension of disbelief

Image from Samuel French

The flamboyant Noel Coward (1899-1973), using what Time called his "cheek and chic, pose and poise," penned fifty plays and another dozen works of musical theatre. Along with many other fans, I have often laughed at the zany antics and clever dialogue of  his characters.

Yesterday, at the Surrey Naked Stage production Noel Coward in Two Keys, I saw him in a new light. The first play was standard comic fare. Then came A Song at Twilight. Serious and dramatic, Coward's final play brought the audience to its feet in a storm of applause.

The readings were done by four actors on four chairs. Except in pairs when speaking, they kept their backs to the audience. Conveying the story through facial expression and voice, they used no props and never rose from their seats.

It's amazing how the human mind is primed for narrative. The most minimal cues of voice and words are all we need to enter the rich world of story. Feeling with the actors, we can laugh and cry, shake our heads and sigh.

I was twelve when a troupe of travelling Shakespearean players came to our town. Wearing black tights and leotards, they set up a handful of black-painted plywood boxes as a stage. As I recall, a silver paper crown was their only prop. That day as I watched them perform, my lifelong passion for watching live theatre was born.

Sunday, February 26, 2017

Late winter on Burnaby Mountain

This recent sunny view from Burnaby Mountain has been followed by another snowfall in Surrey.

Spring bulbs seem undeterred by the unusual cold and repeated snow, however.

Parking the car in the slushy driveway last night, I glimpsed a clump of daffodil spikes three inches high. Snowdrops and crocuses are blooming too, pushing bravely through the dregs of snow.

Saturday, February 25, 2017

Dr Ghosh, the Three L's and Cutting for Stone

Image from Publishers Weekly

Not long ago, in Medalta pottery museum, I saw dishes ordered by Ethiopia's last emperor. Abraham Verghese's absorbing historical novel portrays a hospital in multi-ethnic Ethiopia under Haile Selassie. Colourful details include an ornery woodstove nicknamed Mussolini.

Besides the civil strife during and after Selassie's reign, this story tackles larger themes questions. How should I live my life, and what part does destiny play? Narrator Dr. Marion Stone's answer emulates the ideas of his beloved stepfather and admired mentor, Dr. Ghosh. The three Ls of life are love, learning and legacy.

Another pesky issue the book raises is the tension between the search for individual identity, and the need to live in community with those who are sometimes very different. Like Dr. Hema, the mother in the story, we all think we'll "have years to figure out the meaning of life." And yet.

We all need an occasional reminder to open our hearts and forgive those we think have wronged us. In Stone's case, those he is sure have betrayed him are first the father who abandoned him, then his identical twin brother Shiva and the first woman he falls in love with. Eventually, Marion is able to overcome the resentments he carries and return to wholeness. Experience and suffering have taught him a profound lesson: "the world turns on our every action and our every omission."

Friday, February 24, 2017

Three kinds of snowbirds

What's a snowbird? A well-heeled retiree who flees the snow to winter in the sunny south? A stunt pilot of the crack Air Force team? A bird, a winter bunting like in the Anne Murray song? I thought "snowbird" when I saw the naturally formed sculpture below. See the bird's profile bottom left? Black eye, black beak.

Thursday, February 23, 2017

Outside the Langley air museum, planes routinely take off and land


While visitors swarm over the planes in and around Hangar 3, outside the fence, the airport continues normal operations.

A small plane zooms along the runway, passing two others parked along the side as it prepares to lift off.

Wednesday, February 22, 2017

Handley Page Hampden bomber

This Handley-Page (aka the flying suitcase) was a clumsy aircraft. introduced in the late 1930s. Now on view at the Canadian Museum of Flight, this one crashed at Patricia Bay on Vancouver Island during torpedo dropping practice in 1942, but the crew survived. The RAF Museum in Cosford is restorating another Hampden. Below is a wooden model.

Tuesday, February 21, 2017

Military planes fight forest fires

The Conair Firecat owned by the Canadian Museum of Flight in Langley is part of a fleet of repurposed aircraft: military planes that fight forest fires.

The former torpedo bay is a large fire retardant tank. The picture shows the plane dropping stuff to slow the fire, or even put it out - a wise use of resources, as the Girl Guides say.

Monday, February 20, 2017

Would you fly in that thing?

The Canadian Museum of Flight has a couple of choppers. I stand a head taller than the small rusty Honda on the left.

The Sikorsky S-55 below is another kettle of fish. The first transport helicopter to be approved for commercial use, it went into service in the 1950s, helping build the Alcan aluminum smelter in Kitimat. Installing Hydro towers from the power station in Kemano by chopper was another first.

Sunday, February 19, 2017

The Radio Room of a Lancaster Bomber

In WWII, being wireless operator on a bomber was not a nice job. Fellow crew members were the pilot, navigator, engineer, bomb aimer, mid-upper gunner and rear gunner. The "Lanc" was first built in 1941, on the altered chassis of a Manchester and powered by four Rolls Royce Merlin Mark X engines. To see the real plane, you need to go to Bomber Command Museum in Nanton, Alberta. This link shows one of the two remaining Lancasters on a ceremonial flight. This bomber has a 102-foot wingspan.

A Lanc can also be seen flying at IWM Duxford, where the startup and takeoff make a noisy display. Nineteen Lancs from 617 Squadron carried out Operation Chastise, the Dambusters Raid on the industrial Ruhr in 1943. The wooden model below and the radio room above are located at the Canadian Museum of Flight in Langley.

Saturday, February 18, 2017

Stranger, by David Bergen

Image from the Star

In the Guatemalan highlands, by a lovely volcanic lake, Iso tends to foreign women who come to the fertility clinic seeking help to conceive. Told from her point of view, Bergen's story rings utterly true. In her first interaction with Dr. Eric Mann, Iso turns "away slightly"..."in order to pay him respect, " as the author telegraphs the gulf of culture between Iso and the American.

Against her better judgment, Iso fall in love with the doctor. But when his estranged wife arrives for spa treatments, he maintains the fiction of their marriage. Cut by the hollowness of Eric's professions of love, Iso tells herself that words, "like the husk of the coffee bean,..cover what is essential." Soon after, Eric crashes his motorcycle, and flees the country to avoid the consequences.

Pregnant and abandoned by Eric, Iso initially seeks comfort in a local man. Roberto has "a convincing jaw" but "no sense of consequence." Soon, she must tell him "a relationship isn't possible."

When Iso's baby is born at the clinic, a darker side of the business emerges. Women pay good money to adopt, and based on signatures extracted while she was in labour, Iso's child is taken from her within a day of the birth and handed over to Eric and Susan, back in the US.

Loving and concerned, Iso's mother, Senora Perdido, does not advise or interfere. Instead, she tells her daughter about the time she spent in America, hoping her story might help Iso. Prophetically, she expresses what she felt as a foreigner, saying "You appeared to be stupid, and you weren't noticed," unless "for your body, or to clean someone's toilet, or look after someone's child."

Senora Perdido knows that wisdom must be earned. Pouring her own secrets into her daughter's soul cannot protect Iso, who will still walk a difficult path. The mother-daughter relationship is full of love, trust, and consideration. On the last night before she leaves for the north in pursuit of her abducted baby, Iso pretends to sleep while her mother weeps, knowing that if she "had wanted to let Iso know she was sad, she would have cried during the day."

Through the choices Iso must make in el norte, America's stark social divisions appear. Needing to work illegally, she enlists a compatriot as an ally. Vitoria helps her get a health certificate, "mostly for TB but there were other diseases the rich were worried about. Especially if you're coming from the outside." As maid for a wealthy couple, Iso practices the silent "art of igual" she learned at the clinic.

When she tracks down Eric Mann, now much changed, she thinks "she should hate him, but she didn't." Laying careful plans to get her baby back from the doctor and his wife, Iso inspects her heart, and sees that hatred, though "exhilarating," is also "very dangerous." Since "passion, anguish, jealousy and anger...produce nothing but mistakes," she needs a "cold heart" to do what she must.

Back in Guatemala, her Uncle Santiago, a humble carpenter, is silently supportive. To the visitor who is sent from America to discover whether Iso has returned home with the baby, he explains that "we cannot...take away a man's honour." Then he calmly does what is necessary.

This book touches the pulse of our times, expressing the social and cultural divisions that drive people to take desperate measures. Considering the recent spate of political rhetoric designed to divide "us" from "them," its publication could hardly have been better timed.

With the authority of a kind of truth that is not factual, David Bergen's beautiful tale simultaneously cuts and heals the reader with "the knife of insight." Through the experience of his Guatemalan woman protagonist,  he bares the political, social and economic reality of this moment in human history.

Friday, February 17, 2017

Snow departs, leaving wavy patterns and blackened sculptures

In the back garden, snow remains pure white as it melts in a wavy pattern. The wet coast is returning to normal. Beneath the snow, the grass stayed green, and bulbs are popping up. Elsewhere, plowed or shovelled snow forms strange shapes, darkened by grit from the streets.

Thursday, February 16, 2017

Drones are not new

Suspended from the ceiling of the Canadian Museum of Flight in Langley, this Northrup Shelduck target drone dates back to the late 1940s. It was developed in the US. Driven by a jet engine, this unmanned drone could stay aloft for an hour or two, long enough to be used for gunnery practice from fighter aircraft as well as for aiming ground-launched missiles. Many nations used the technology.

Who'd have imagined then that toy drones would one day proliferate and become a nuisance, even a threat, to normal aviation?

Wednesday, February 15, 2017

The Link Trainer - a pretend plane for pilot practice

In the 1920s, Edwin Link invented this early flight simulator, using compressed air and organ parts. He patented the Link Trainer in 1931. Soon most pilot cadets flew the Link before taking to the air in real aircraft.

Tuesday, February 14, 2017

Sopwith Pup at Canadian Museum of Flight in Langley

Yesterday at Langley Airport, Hangar 3 was open to all. As well as aviation history buffs, this museum has plenty of child-friendly exhibits. The Sopwith Scout is an early biplane that was, unbelievably, used in war. Rebuilt by volunteers, two of these will fly over at the Vimy Memorial in April. Top speed? 80 mph.

Nicknamed Sopwith Pups, they're made of fabric stretched over a light aluminum frame, then ironed to shrink it tight (see below left). The original material was linen, and the "dope" that stiffened it was highly flammable glue.

The landing wheels look flimsier than the ones on a wheelbarrow, and the tiny tail wheel is  a modification. Since the original planes landed facing into the wind on fields, only a flap of wood protected the tail as it dragged along the rough ground.

The volunteers who have devoted their time to rebuild these planes would like to hop across the country with them as part of Canada's 150th birthday celebrations. Ottawa has agreed to host them, and feelers are out to other likely towns and cities. Even though these planes predate the WWII Commonwealth Air Training Plan, my hope is that they'll visit the towns that were busy with aircraft production and flight training when Canada was the "aerodrome of democracy."

It's a strange and terrible thing that aircraft development has always been driven by war. Likewise, war itself creates and sustains nationhood. The Battle of Vimy Ridge, where Canadians fought and died under their own commanders, was one decisive step toward independence from Britain.

Monday, February 13, 2017

Formerly a bank, old Birks is now a language school

Nothing lasts forever. Everything becomes something else, and that includes buildings.

This Vancouver building, viewed at night from the sidewalk below, was a bank, then Birks, and is now a language school.

Sunday, February 12, 2017

Snow over the entire mountain

We're used to seeing the North Shore mountains capped with snow, even cloaked to the shoulders in the white stuff.

But last week, driving to choir practice as dusk fell, I realized how strange it was to see snow all the way down Grouse Mountain.

Snumps (snow lumps) were still visible on the street at Kingsway and Knight, where a woman and her dog crossed unconcerned.

Saturday, February 11, 2017

Fog and Icicles

A couple of weeks ago, heavy fog in Edmonton decorated this gate with a stunning display of ice crystals. Icicles are rare on the Wet Coast, but last week they decked our eaves.
By yesterday the front roofline was ice free, and drop by drop, the north-facing back was losing its row of icicles.

Friday, February 10, 2017

Emily Carr and her monkey

BC's iconic artist Emily Carr now rests herself in front of the freshly-roofed Empress. Surprised by its colour? The new copper will eventually oxidize to the familiar green.

"This is us," with Emily. Of course we had to take a front view of her pet monkey, one of many animal companions the eccentric painter kept close by.

Thursday, February 9, 2017

Good to the last

I enjoyed this latte at a rustic wooden table in the loving company of Yaz and Chris.

Even at the bottom of the cup, the artistic pattern created by the barista remained whole.

Made me think of life. The soul that enters each body at birth brings its own artistic pattern, an imprint that stays with us for life.

Seems that along with my first view of icicles on our Surrey eaves, these recent snowfalls have made me philosophical.

Wednesday, February 8, 2017

This is us

"This is us," as the song goes. We're on a chilly Gabriola beach, with the lighthouse island in the background and sea lions frolicking near the shore. Hubby had to return to the mainland, so didn't join us on Gabriola.


Tuesday, February 7, 2017

Icicles on the eaves and tracks in the snow

Canada is a winter country, as Montreal-bred Adam Gopnik said in the 2011 Massey Lectures.

The rare sight of icicles on our eaves evokes childhood. These were standard winter features when I grew up in northern BC. Animal tracks in fresh snow make the natural world more visible to us - especially city people.

Monday, February 6, 2017

Wild turkeys dance through Gabriola's rare snow

A weekend trip to Gabriola made me realize something. After years of ferry crossings, seeing the Gulf Islands covered with snow was a first. Left, chilly wild turkeys step out from the shelter of the fence, and below, a wind-chilled beach sports a coating of white.

Thursday, February 2, 2017

Devouring Julia Spencer-Fleming: two books in two days

Having recently discovered Julia Spencer-Fleming, I'm in trouble again. Glued to her fascinating stories for the past couple of days, I've been unable to drag myself away to other duties.

After reading In the Bleak Midwinter, I jumped over the next two and picked up the fourth. Russ Van Alstyne and Claire Fergusson are so compelling that I'm willing to suspend my disbelief that the Episcopalian minister, before her belated religious calling, had a military background. Just like the middle-aged, married police chief.

Spencer-Fleming's crime novels are plotted with the intricacy of small-town social relationships. That and the zany humour, social realism, and fresh and original turns of phrase make these books irresistible.

Some samples from To Darkness and to Death: The twice imprisoned woman speaks "to her latest captor in the jolly...tones she used to cajole sulky activists trapped in overlong meetings."

Millers Kill, New York, in the Adirondaks, is a dry town. It's atmosphere is expressed in this simple sentence: "If you wanted to drink in a place where the bartender didn't look at you funny for ordering a martini, well, Saratoga was forty minutes and a whole cultural time zone away."

Sitting beside his wife at a town banquet, Russ sees Clare in evening dress for the first time, and imagines running his hands "over her pale white shoulder and down..." Instead, he guiltily spears "a large and bitter piece of endive into his mouth" and crunches it. Ignoring the "nonentical Mrs. Corlew" and the others at the table, Russ observes the shifting emotions of his unexpected lady love. As he does so, his own face resembles "one of the great stone faces of Easter Island."

In sharp contrast to the banquet scene, this bleak scene of the decrepit sawmill evokes the dark and violent emotions of its owner. Three picnic tables sit near "the featureless mill wall, scoured flat by cold and darkness," on a lot littered with cigarette butts that resemble "spent casings."

In the end, the most unexpected character turns out to be the one with the strength and mercy to help the deeply flawed Randy. This other man is Randy's polar opposite -- so much so that Randy asks why he's helping, and is told simply that "You, me, we're all human beings. We have to do right by each other."

When she and Russ finally admit to their unexpected and inconvenient love for one another, Claire comments that "the nature of His gifts" is "to see what you do with them." Later, when all the crimes are solved and peace returns to the village, Russ ponders that "we are all related. If not by blood, then by bonds we don't even realize. Until they're gone."

Along with the hymns quoted in each of her titles, such scenes give a comforting sense of balance in the midst of the threats, hatred, jealousy, and violence that Ms. Spencer-Fleming's intricate plots require. How strangely fiction works, and how peculiar that readers feel satisfied by reading such well-constructed mysteries.

Wednesday, February 1, 2017

Women, wool and weaving

Women winding wool. Watching fellow choir members during a break invoked memory and inspiration. Awake, and weave!

Predating the Pussy Hat Project were the Yarn Bombings in Edmonton, and the peripatetic knitting teens at Langley Fine Arts. Eons before cosy handknit sweaters from aunts warmed my childhood, a long strong thread connected us to the weaving women of ancient mythology, who, as Sophocles says, struck up "the wise shuttle's song, which wakens those who are asleep."