Wednesday, May 24, 2017

Overcoming (minor) disappointments

I have had to deal with quite a few annoyances over the last 2-3 weeks.  Probably the most serious is that there has been quite a rash of scammers on  They build up just enough positive reviews to be taken serious, sell some things (at low but not ridiculously low prices) and then abscond.  When you contact them about the issues with the tracking number or "where is my stuff?," Amazon announces mournfully that the seller has left their platform.  So then you have to file a claim.  Eventually you get your funds back, but it is still a hassle, and the scammer basically gets away scot-free.  At some point, Amazon will have to figure out a better way to deal with these losers.  What made it particularly annoying is that I had ordered a special book on coding as a present for my son.  The other thing I got scammed on was a box set of Leonard Cohen albums.  After poking around for a bit, I found both of them at fair, though slightly higher prices on the site, but now I have to deal with the whole issue of shipping to Canada, which has gotten quite outrageous.  Still that has been my way of dealing with that particular annoyance.  It could have been much worse, since I don't really end up out any money.

The second is that I have not really seen much improvement in my weight, despite exercising more and eating slightly better than I did a few months ago.  I have stuck to cutting diet soda (and really all soda unless I am at Toronto Cold Reads, where you sort of have to order something from the bar) out of my life, and I have recently stopped buying crackers, which was a minor vice.  I'm eating much more fruit, though I need to be more radical in cutting out processed sugar.  I'm not quite there yet...  I guess I see a little bit of progress, but I am impatient.  I did manage to convince myself to cycle in this morning, even though I didn't want to.  I probably need to add one more form of exercise, either jogging or swimming, so I am trying to summon the willpower for that.  And I really need to do a better job of staying more active next winter, since it is really the winters that undermine all my good intentions.

A slightly related frustration is that I seem to have lost a critical part of my bike pump.  I already feel that I should pump up the tires a bit, but I will have to go to the bike shop and buy a new pump (I really don't think the part is sold separately).  I must have dropped the part on the ground instead of inside the pannier the last time I added air, which would have been while waiting to see For colored girls... at Soulpepper.  It's certainly not the end of the world, but I should try to deal with it now, rather than a few weeks from now when the tires are really flat.  (And I really ought to also take my son's bike in for a tune-up, since he hardly used it at all last year, but that may have to wait for another time.)

I have mentioned that I recently got serious about the curtain project after a several month break.  I finally got the last panels pinned, which certainly takes a while for 60 inch long curtains!  I was buzzing along and ran out of thread in the bobbin twice!  But that wasn't the problem.  I had noticed a squeal that was quite annoying, but pretty much all the on-line help said it was probably the bobbin catcher that needed oil.  I was dubious but pressed on.  Anyway, I had about three inches to go on the last long seam on the final panel when the sewing machine completely seized up on me.  I couldn't even move the balance wheel manually as everything was jammed.  I dug a bit deeper into the on-line help and basically someone said that all the parts should be oiled.  So I took about an hour and disassembled the machine and oiled liberally.  It was still jammed up, and it seemed like the motor might actually have burned out.  It felt so unfair, since I probably only needed 30 minutes more at most.  I more or less gave up and went to look on Craigslist for used machines (though they often have their own issues).

I spent another hour or so straightening up the study.  Somewhat on a whim, I plugged the sewing machine back in and it worked!  (A minor miracle.)  I suspect it was a combination of the oil and the moving parts like the shaft just cooling down.  I was able to finish the seam and then hem the top and bottom of the curtains.  I have to say, they came out pretty well, definitely a bit better than the other pair.

But I think this is very much a temporary state of grace, and this post would have had a much different feel if the machine was still broken, since the options weren't great.  I don't think I could have hand-sewn the bottom and top hems.  Even now, I don't know that I trust the machine enough to undertake another major sewing project.  Small stuffed animals and perhaps a pillow cover might be ok, but I don't want to attempt a quilt, for example.  I really need to track down a sewing machine technician and have it serviced.  Maybe the cost won't be so bad now that I know I don't actually have to replace the motor or any major parts.  Anyway, that's what I should do, and I'll try to make a few phone calls next week to see what my options are as far as repairmen in the city. 

The last thing is a bit more speculative in that it has been fairly difficult to keep a group of actors all moving in one direction, since many of them are a bit flaky.  I then found out that Red Sandcastle is completely booked through the fall and early winter, which was a bit of a set-back.  However, today I found out that Kensington Hall does have availability and seems to be in the same general price range, so I think I will make sure at least two or three actors are interested and then book Kensington Hall.  This would be the perfect place for The Study Group and it should work pretty well for my evening of shorts, so I think booking it for the shorts this fall and working towards The Study Group next spring makes sense (at least as much sense as anything in the arts ever does...).  Anyway, I imagine if I go forward there will be lots of weird things and some disappointments, but I think the payoff will probably be worth it.  Mostly I would get my name out there and gain some experience in producing here in Toronto.  I have a tendency to move on (to other projects) when blocked, and I think to actually make headway, I need to show more persistence in overcoming disappointments and obstacles, so that will be my goal for the next few months.

Tuesday, May 23, 2017

Montreal (2017)

My main reason for going to Montreal was to see the Chagall exhibit, so I pretty much left it up to the kids to decide on the rest of the sites.  We had a bit more time on this visit than two years ago, since we flew in and took the train back.  I'm not entirely sure we'll do that again next time.  The airport is quite far from the downtown, and there was a lot of construction and traffic on the way in.  My daughter still struggles with car sickness, particularly when there are traffic hold-ups and also when there are strong scents in the car.  She basically just made it to the hotel but then she succumbed, so it was not a pleasant start to the trip for sure.

After some discussion, we decided to skip the Architecture Museum and no one really wanted to walk up Mont Royal.  We took the Green Line out to Viau, which is where the Biodome (one of the few leftovers from Expo '67) and the sports arena are.  I was not impressed by the Green Line.  The cars are far too small (maybe even narrower than CTA cars) and several of the stations were left completely unattended.  I've mostly been on the Orange Line on previous visits, and it is a much better experience.  Anyway, my daughter wasn't all that interested in the Biodome, but she wanted to check out the Botanical Gardens, particularly the Japanese Garden.

On the way in, we found out there was also an insectarium.  My wife wasn't at all interested, but the kids wanted to see it, so we went in.  I'd say it was 75% mounted moths and butterflies, but there were some glass cases with living insects inside.  It was relatively educational.

My wife somehow had twisted her ankle, which slowed down our progress through the gardens, though we finally found the Japanese Gardens, which were nice.

I was a bit disappointed to find out that the roses were not blooming, so we just left.  (I was even more disappointed to find out that Habitat 67 wasn't anywhere in the vicinity.)  At that point, my daughter now wanted to see the Biodome, but my wife wasn't up to it, so we took a crowded Green Line back to the hotel and found something to eat.  I took the time to finish up Ursula Le Guin's Changing Planes, which is a bit like a SF version of Gulliver's Travels.

Fortunately, after resting the rest of the evening, my wife was able to get around on Sunday.  We checked out and walked over to the old city.  There was apparently some festival where a bunch of people dressed up like the original inhabitants of Montreal.

This was fairly amusing, though we didn't stay all that long to watch.  We were headed to the Montreal Science Centre.  I realized that while I wasn't going to be able to get next to Habitat 67, I could probably see it from the port (and indeed from inside the Science Centre).  So it wasn't a total loss after all...

Actually, the kids quite enjoyed the Science Centre and probably would have stayed another hour or two, though I was getting kind of weary of it.  We walked through Victoria Square (appropriate, given the upcoming holiday) and then tried to find food at the Gare Central.  I remember this was a problem on the last trip as well where roughly half of the restaurants in the station are not open on Sundays, which just seems ridiculous to me.  We had about an hour to kill and finally boarded our train.

It was an uneventful but long train ride.  I was glad that the rain held off until we were actually on the train (whereas it rained most of Sunday in Toronto).  The kids did start getting restless with 90 minutes to go, but at the same time I think trying to fly back would have its own issues.  I spent most of the train ride back reading MacLennan's The Watch That Ends the Night and got 200 pages into it.  All in all, a fairly good trip.

Monday, May 22, 2017

Montreal and Chagall

I mentioned once or twice that there is a massive Chagall exhibit running at the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts.  It runs through June 11, so there is still a fair bit of time to view it, though the last weekend or two are likely to be very crowded.  It was overwhelming in pretty much every way, both in the amount of material on display and the fact that it was a very popular exhibit.  We turned up at about 11 am, and unfortunately had to pass through two guided tours that were clogging up the galleries.  I'm still glad I went, but it probably would have been better to experience on my own, since I would have fought the crowds to try to see some paintings a second or third time.

The exhibition has Chagall's focus on music and works he created for ballet's (costumes and backdrops).  Here are some of the costumes for a production of Mozart's The Enchanted Flute.

Given how many of Chagall's paintings include a fiddler or an angelic harp, there was a lot of material to choose from, and it doesn't feel like too much was sacrificed to make this exhibit come together.  The catalogue is pretty exhausting, and going through the exhibit in person is even more so, particularly with the crowds.  I was somewhat surprised that most of the paintings could be photographed, though a few were off-limits.  I didn't take too many photos, but here are a few.

Marc Chagall, The Yellow Room, 1911

Chagall, Dusk aka Couple Between Darkness and Light, 1938-43

Marc Chagall, The Wedding, 1944

It wasn't particularly surprising that some of the paintings in the catalogue were not on display, but what was a bit more surprising is that apparently some of the paintings in Montreal weren't actually in the catalogue.  I'm fairly sure that The Yellow Room isn't in the catalogue.  I'm somewhat less sure about Birth (from the Art Institute of Chicago -- not pictured here) and Dusk, but I don't think they are included.

I was glad that there was a room of Chagall's stained glass pieces, though they didn't photograph particularly well.  As I said, it was a pretty overwhelming amount of Chagall and really too much to take in in a single visit, but I won't be able to go back unfortunately.

On our last visit to Montreal, we spent far more time on the Quebec artist installations housed in the building across the street.  This time around we just went to a couple of floors and focused mostly on the Beaver Hall artists.  I liked these two paintings quite a bit.
Philip Surrey, Night, 1938

Adrien Hébert, Corner Peel and Sainte-Catherine, 1948

After this, we took a quick look at the gift shop.  I was somewhat surprised to learn that the museum owned some modern art by European artists, as I don't think I managed to see that on the previous trip either.  So I left my wife and daughter on a bench, and my son and I went in for a lightning strike visit.  I would have liked to spend more time obviously, but I did see the Picasso and Matisse and other modern paintings.

My favorites were these three.

Henri Matisse - Seated Woman, Back Turned to the Open Window, 1922

Lyonel Feininger, Yellow Street II, 1918

Philip Guston, Rain Cloud, 1973

As this post is long enough, I will discuss the rest of what we got up to in Montreal in a follow-up post.

Thursday, May 18, 2017

Hidden theatrical gems

I thought I would mention a couple of shows that are still a bit (or a lot) under the radar.

Tarragon is doing Ntozake Shange's for colored girls.  It is a powerful production, though as many have noted it isn't a traditional drama but different monologues about Black women's experience.  It has gotten a fair number of reviews, but there still doesn't seem to be a lot of buzz around it.  This is a slightly updated version with a poem about HIV/AIDs (and partners being on the DL -- down low) and then an abusive partner gone crazy largely due to his service during the Iraq Wars.  So it has somewhat blurred the original timeframe of the 70s, but some things seem to be timeless.  Anyway, I think it is worth seeing, though I will admit I went and scored rush tickets...  (Details here.)

Much more underground is The Best Dad in the World and other Sad Characters, which is an interesting piece with 3 actors who do short character sketches set in Toronto (I think).  Each one is performed as a stand-alone piece, though the characters all kind of interact in one way or another.  So there is a young cancer patient, whose step-father showed up at the hospice ward and played God.  On one of his visits, he attached a therapeutic clown.  The clown then shows up later, very anxious to meet his drug connection.  We find out that his girlfriend left him after he quit or was fired from his hospital gig.  We also see the man who is now dating his ex, and who was suckered into buying a Botticelli painting at an art cafe!  So it is a fairly intricate kind of sketch comedy, based on character studies.  It might have been interesting to have the characters interact, particularly for the final sketch or two.  In addition to the art cafe sketch, where the menu contained some outrageous puns on artists' names, the sketch about the trans-woman who came from the town of Whimsy was truly peculiar and funny.  This show is at Red Sandcastle through the end of the week.  (Tickets here.)

Tuesday, May 16, 2017

Grab bag (with curtains)

Now that it is nice out again, I've been exploring the neighbourhood a bit.  I went back to the bookstore at Pape and Dingwall and picked up the hardback edition of The Watch That Ends the Night.  (I'll be visiting Montreal soon, and I wanted to make sure I had a copy to read on the train.)

I think this is the first time I cut across Dingwall (to then cut through the projects to get to Jones).  I saw one of the Little Free Library boxes.  These are so cute, even though I probably won't ever use it.  I think the other one I saw was in the Annex, but there are several around Toronto.

Anyway, I was off to check out this pizza place that supposedly does deep-dish Chicago style pizza.  It's called Double D's.  It's actually quite close to Gerrard Square, which is fairly convenient for us.

It's pretty good.  Nowhere near as good as Giordano's or even Pizzeria Uno's, but probably the best equivalent we'll find in Toronto, and it is close as I said.

I've been fairly good about the biking, and I'll bike at least three times and perhaps four times this week.  Drivers are only slowly getting used to cyclists being out.  I haven't had that many close calls myself, though I've been cut off a bunch of times or blocked from the bike lane by a car (or the 144 bus!) where it isn't really supposed to be.

On the way home I saw the aftermath of a major accident at Queen and Sherbourne, where somehow a car and a van collided in the intersection and then the van smashed into a telephone pole.  So glad I wasn't in the area when that happened (maybe 15-20 minutes before).  Indeed, I had worked late today, so it isn't inconceivable that I could have been right in the middle of it had I left on time.  While the damage to the van looked quite bad, I don't believe there were any serious injuries or at least there wasn't an ambulance anywhere in the vicinity.  (Oops, my bad.  Looking at the photo again, there is an ambulance, but no one was put on a stretcher or anything like that.)

On a completely different note, it's been quite interesting checking out the weather report for the Toronto Islands.  The rain has really socked it to the Islands, and the lake level is also higher than it has been for years.  Consequently, large parts of the island are flooded and tourists aren't going to be allowed on the Islands until the end of June at the earliest!  I think my office had a picnic excursion planned, so now it will have to be July, but everyone will be wanting to get out there then, so perhaps a rethink is in order.  (I had kind of wanted to take my family, but maybe this should be something we try to do next summer.  On the flip side, it might be a lot easier to canoe the Humber River compared to last year when the river was so low...)

Finally, I thought I would talk about a few things that are paying off.  I tried to plant grass seed, and I think some of it is coming up, though one corner of the yard is so beaten down it probably needs a soil transplant!

Also, we planted flowers (from seeds) in the flower boxes, and I think these are coming up as well, though it looks like we should have tried to spread them out a bit more.  I should know soon if these flowers are going to bloom this year or not. 

And I have finally made significant progress on the curtain project.  The sewing machine is still squeaking a bit, but I am able to run off roughly one curtain per night now.  (There are far fewer problems with the bobbin with this material, thank goodness!)  I really ought to pin the next one, but I am fairly tired.  I wish they looked a bit more professional, but this isn't too bad for 100% home-made curtains (we'll probably tie them back anyway), and the final set ought to come out just a bit better.

I have roughly one more week to finish the second set and finish straightening the study and the basement.  At that point, I will have to decide just how serious I am about making a stuffed fish for a friend's child and then starting in on a quilting project.  I kind of promised I would do it, so I think I will at least attempt the quilt (the top at least) and see how it goes (though I am open to paying for a long-arm quilter to put the whole thing together).  Maybe it will be relaxing once I really get the hang of it.  Or at least that's what I can tell myself now...

Sunday, May 14, 2017

Most quoted authors

I wonder if there has ever been a comprehensive study of which authors get cited or quoted in other authors work.  This does exist for academic works (most of the articles I contributed to have been cited fewer than 20 times, but four have been cited 80+ times and then two of those have hit the 100+ mark).  I'm not aware of anything nearly as systematic for fictional works, not least because you don't list one's references at the back of a novel (and only in the copyright page if you quote extensively from other works).  I suspect if Google really wanted to find this out, they probably could do a study, given that they have scanned most books that are still in print, but I don't think they consider it worth their time, at least not now, since it is hard to image a revenue stream that would emerge.

Now when I mean quoted or cited, I mean it in a fairly general sense, so it might mean an epigraph or sentence being quoted in another work, but it might just be a riff, like saying someone is stingy like Scrooge or even a situation is Kafkaesque.

From my recent scan of literature, I would say that a fair number of British authors, particularly from the Victorian era through 1950 or so, tend to cite Roman authors, like Horace, Virgil, Ovid or Juvenal.  I'd say that has died down a bit lately, however.  American writers always were a bit more likely to reference the Greeks (particularly Homer) but that also seems to have declined a bit and Greek and Roman literature (and even Chaucer and Dante) is not really part of the curriculum any longer.

I suspect Shakespeare remains in the top position, even among American writers.

Lewis Carroll is probably not that far behind, since so many authors want to explore dreamlike states, and Alice is a convenient shorthand reference.

I'm not sure what the list looks like after that, but I'll offer up some thoughts.

I suspect Kafka is the single most influential and/or cited "foreign" author among writers working in English.  I could certainly be wrong, of course.

I suspect that Dostoevsky far outpaces Tolstoy, Turgenev and Chekhov as far as Russian influence in English literature.  In terms of specific Dostoevsky works, it is probably Crime and Punishment in the lead, then the Brothers Karamazov with The Double and Notes from Underground fairly far behind.  I don't think Demons is particularly influential anymore, which is a shame, as it is a bit of neglected masterpiece.

Bulgakov's The Master and Margarita seems to be gaining in influence, which is well deserved.

It's kind of interesting that when Hemingway is invoked, it is sort of for the whole of his oeuvre as well as his macho image, whereas when Fitzgerald is referenced it is virtually always in regards to The Great Gatsby.

While Dickens has certainly generated quite a lot of interest in a wide range of his characters, the ones from A Christmas Carol do sort of eclipse all the rest.  The same could be said for Mark Twain and Tom Sawyer and Huck Finn.

At least people do read their other works, for Mary Shelley and Charlotte and Emily Bronte, they are all defined by just one novel each, which is a bit unfortunate no matter how great those novels are.  (I suppose it is still better to be a one-hit wonder than to not have that level of success in the first place...)  Orwell is more of a two-hit wonder with 1984 and Animal Farm being quite influential, but with his other novels and essays being generally neglected.

I would say Faulkner may be at a low point now, as I certainly haven't seen too many other novels reference his characters (though perhaps I do remember coming across a reference to epic stubbornness that was actually a reference to As I Lie Dying).  (Other long and fairly complicated novels such as Moby Dick* and Ulysses have somewhat fallen out of fashion these days.)

I really don't think I could hazard a guess at which poets are still cited, though I do see T.S. Eliot (especially The Waste Land) pop up from time to time, as well as Walt Whitman.

Anyway, this is what I have come across in my relatively recent reading.  I am happy to make corrections based on submitted comments.

* Melville's character Bartleby the Scrivener does have legs, however.

The Stupid Baby Play

I am sorry to report back that last night was another example of a really solid cast in what I consider an unworthy script: Albee's The Play About the Baby.  Now most critics consider this a black comedy or more precisely a black, absurdist comedy, minor but still intriguing.  I basically feel this is a case where they can't bring themselves to say that the Emperor has no clothes.  I think Albee has written a pretentious, post-modern wank-fest that is only a pale shadow of his other plays, particularly Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?.  There isn't a single moment where the perfectly reasonable questions of "Who are you?", "What are you doing here?"* and "What have you done with the baby?" are answered directly.  I suppose the last one is answered indirectly.  (SPOILERS coming.)  But there is no motivation established, and instead the older man keeps going off on a variety of tangents whenever asked a direct question.  Some of these aside are amusing (or at least amused the majority of the audience, though I found them too self-indulgent and theatrical), but they are certainly evasive.  I suppose this is the same sort of thing that he and Pinter have done for years, but I just didn't think that the dialogue is interesting enough to carry the evening (again, at least not for me -- many people in the audience enjoyed it).


Since the role of the older couple is never explained, my mind tries to impose meaning on the vacuum.  The most likely explanation is that these are mental projections of the young couple as much older and wiser people, which only partially explains why the older man says that the young man touched him in the groin (as he would obviously have done if the two are the same person), but then this no longer makes sense when the older man says that he was in the hospital giving birth (rather than the young woman).  It just fails to cohere in any way that makes sense, and when things don't cohere, I have absolutely no interest in them.  Again, trying to impose some sense on this, I generally came around to the idea that the woman either had a miscarriage or lost the baby very early due to SIDS, and then this play is them coming around to accepting trauma in the Now (rather than Later when they are older and more used to pain, as the young man tries to bargain at several points).  And yet, if this is so, why is the older man so gratuitously cruel to his younger self?

The whole thing was treated like a joke by the older man, who also breaks the fourth wall quite frequently.  At one point he says he has six children: two Black, two white, one green and one is not described.  Then he says he had the Black children when he was Black.  Then he catches himself and says that he had one Black child, two white ones and a light green one (which he gave birth to incidentally).  What is one supposed to do with such ramblings, aside from turn the older man into a trickster character like Coyote or even Loki, who is a more malevolent trickster?  It just means that nothing we see is real and can be inverted or reversed at any moment.  I have no interest in plays that refuse to have ground rules, and it is very rare indeed that I like absurdist plays.

There are definitely interesting moments along the way, and I'll touch on just a few, although for me the destination wasn't worth it. In one of his monologues designed to distract attention from what is going on (and now that I think about it, it is quite pointless that the older couple spend a lot of time talking to the audience without the younger couple around and yet they do...), the older man talks about going into the Royal Academy Museum in London and experiencing a sculpture exhibit for the blind by closing his eyes tight and having a guide show him to the pieces.

The older woman talks a bit about trying to interview creative types and not getting very far, particularly when a writer says he would rather die than let her watch him write (or as she puts it, translate his ideas into words).  She gets really quite indignant about this rejection, but of course why should she have any right to impose upon the artist, particularly when she seems to want something from him in exchange for nothing?  (I assume this was Albee's dig at a bunch of reporters who must have always been pestering him about his craft.)  Just coincidentally, I read a follow up piece on this comic/performance artist who is trying to goad Jason Segel into responding to his videos where he eats Segel's photo every day.  He sounds like a total knob when he complains that he is being ignored and assumes that he has a right to make his name off of Segel.  I mean he has a bit of fame already, but the more he complains, the more he comes across as an entitled jerk.  (This is one of the rare cases where I wish The Star had comments turned on, since I thought they would be illuminating, though there are comments here at an earlier point in this guy's quest for fame.)  I guess Albee helpfully(?) points out that entitled jerks were around 20+ years ago, even if there do seem to be more of them today in the era of social media.

I'm sure I started the evening in the wrong frame of mind, wanting to be proved wrong that this play was not worth my time, but, despite fine acting, I still felt it was a waste of my time.  I can't judge whether others would feel the same.  Most people in the audience did seem to be digging the play, more engaged in the discursions than I was.

* While it is sort of hinted at, I don't think the younger couple ever asks "How did you get in?," but I may have just overlooked that.  The fact that the older couple can apparently just sort of walk through walls just adds to the unreality of the play and the fact it has no ground rules.