Sunday, April 15, 2018

Worst spring ever

Anyone living in Toronto will be forgiven for thinking this is basically the worst spring ever.  Easter was quite chilly, though at least dry, for our street-wide Easter egg hunt.  I've only managed to bike a few times between the cold and the rain.

The weekend has been a complete wipe out with freezing rain, accumulating a couple of inches everywhere.  I did force myself to go outside yesterday to go see a play at Soulpepper* and I picked up dry cleaning on the way home.  It was really not nice out with mini-hail everywhere.

This morning it was still coming down with the freezing rain, though it had lightened up a bit, so I went and bought groceries.  However, a few things were not in stock, so I guess I will force myself to go over the bridge to the mall.  I might as well go to the gym while I am there.  But the wind has really picked up, so I am going to wait an hour or so to see if it dies down before heading out again.**  I actually had free tickets to a show, but it is all the way across town, and I am just not willing to travel that far.  Too bad, as it will probably be very hard for them to attract much of an audience today.  (Not that I don't have plenty to do at home.)

I suspect all the flowers that were starting to come up in the yard will die off now.  I am just so sick of this.  While it will warm up towards evening, we have two more days of rain, before maybe catching a break on Wed.  So unpleasant.

* It was actually George Brown students putting on The Provoked Wife by John Vanbrugh.  I think only 20 or so people turned up, almost all of them with children or grandchildren in the show.  It was pretty good, though too long (~3 hours).

** If anything it actually got worse, especially on the way back from the mall.  I almost fell twice on the bridge.  Then shoveling this stuff was almost heart-attack inducing, it was so heavy and dense.  I can't imagine it will all be melted by the morning, so it looks like it will be boots yet again.

Saturday, April 14, 2018

11th Canadian Challenge - 17th review - A Complicated Kindness

One's reaction to Miriam Toews's A Complicated Kindness will largely hinge on three things -- how one feels about negative portrayals of religion, how one feels about a somewhat sarcastic narrative voice and how one feels about ambiguous endings. I certainly don't mind the first, but have mixed feelings about the second.  Usually too much of a good thing is still too much.  However, I can understand why readers are drawn to it.  Nomi, the main character, longs to get out of her small town, which is completely dominated by Mennonites.  She can't envision any way to do so, even though her mother and older sister both left, so she spends her last year of freedom (before the inevitable job at the chicken slaughterhouse) rebelling at school and generally being a slacker.  She does sound a fair bit like Holden Caulfield from Catcher in the Rye or even a bit like Daria from MTV (though I think Daria was written as a smarter character).  But again, this voice is the main thing the book has going for it, and when you really look at these refusniks, their basic answer to not giving in to The Man is to drop out of society and refuse to work, refuse to go to school, refuse to participate in social activities (other than partaking in drugs), etc.  My general feeling is that we are all implicated in society and bound to do things that we don't really want to do, but opting out is really an irresponsible, fairly selfish reaction to adult responsibilities.  Needless to say, I don't have a lot of patience for people who hold this view.  I didn't read Catcher in the Rye when I was younger, and I can pretty much guarantee I won't like it now.  That said, it's fairly short, and I'll probably try to squeeze it in one of these days.

In the case of this novel, my general impatience for and with drop outs (literary or otherwise) is tempered by the fact that the adults around her are more or less in a cult, to the point that the religious leader of the community (Nomi's uncle) can expel troublesome members and then have the whole town shun them.  Most people undergoing this treatment opt to leave town, but a few stuck it out, including the local drug dealer.*  Nomi makes several scathing comments along the way about Mennonites who are hypocritical, whereas she is fairly open about not buying into the tenets of the religion, though she does occasionally try to fit in to make things easier for her father, who is a true believer.  The novel basically hinges on Nomi's love for her father (and unwillingness to abandon him) and her longing for her mother, who left town a few years before the novel begins.

I knew a bit about Toews's upbringing, and in fact she grew up in a small religious community (Steinbach, Manitoba), so in that sense she knows very much about these towns and their hypocrises.  I hadn't been aware that her father committed suicide and then her sister 12 years later (though several years after the publication of A Complicated Kindness).  While I probably won't be reading a lot more Toews, I do expect to eventually read her most recent novel (All My Puny Sorrows) which is inspired by the last years of her sister's life.  In any event, her personal experience makes it clear that some Mennonites do commit suicide, even though it is of course against the tenets of their faith (which to be fair, seem to focus almost entirely on how degraded the material world is (and that life is meant to be suffering) and how much better things will be in heaven).  In a roundabout way, this brings me to my issues with the book, and particularly the ending.  There seems to be a lot of emotional truth in the novel (powered by her feelings over her father's suicide) but key aspects of the plot itself doesn't make any sense to me.  Also, there is radical uncertainty as to what actually happened, which is something I generally don't like as a reader.  But to discuss this, I'll need to go into SPOILER mode.


It may be a bit of a stretch, but the way the mysteries were presented bit by bit (peeling away the onion layers) reminded me just a bit of Mark Haddon's The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time, though there most of the details were revealed (and the "mystery" solved) by midway through that book, and the book's unsatisfactory ending had other causes.  While we find the main motivation behind her mother's disappearance, the book resolutely refuses to confirm whether she committed suicide (though it is strongly hinted that she did**) or has simply stayed away from the town to spare her husband the agony of choosing between her (since she has been excommunicated and must be shunned) and his faith.  What is harder to swallow is that the book sets up two more open-ended mysteries.  It is simply never settled what happened to Nomi's older sister.  She ran off with an older boyfriend and then never gets back in touch at all.  Are we to assume that he killed her?  That seems not just particularly morbid but somewhat undermines what we know about her character (she was level-headed enough to reject Mennonite teachings and wanted to get out of town but then picked up a psychopath for a boyfriend?).  

An even bigger problem I have is how Nomi's father disappears at the end of the novel, leaving her a long note that he knows the only way she will leave town is if he leaves first, but then in a few years down the road, he'll rejoin her.  At first glance, this seems at least sort of plausible (leading some critics to write about his "heroic sacrifice"), but falls apart fairly quickly.  She is the one that was ex-communicated, so the odds of her being able to wrap up his affairs, selling the house, etc., seem slim indeed.  Why wouldn't they just go somewhere else together?  That would be far more straight-forward.  Instead, the only explanation that makes sense is that he took the cowardly way out and, squeezed by his constricting, terrible faith that asked him to reject his daughters and his wife, killed himself.  So he is just one more adult who leaves Nomi in the lurch and compounds this by lying to her.  As if she won't be able to figure this out in a few years after he never turns up again.


Anyway, the big, big reveal at the end of the book is that Nomi uncovers evidence that her mother and her teacher, Mr. Quiring, had an affair.  He pressured her to continue and, when she declined, set in motion the rumours that she was unchaste, which in turn led to her ex-communication.  So in that context, with the heavy guilt and everything, it certainly makes it much more likely that Nomi's mother killed herself.  But it makes no kind of sense that Nomi's mother would cheat with Mr. Quiring in the first place, even if completely distraught over her older daughter leaving town.  At least based on Nomi's portrayal of her mother and how she adored her father, I can't make that piece fit.  Of course, Nomi may be wrong on that account, but then so much of the rest of the novel falls apart.  Thus, I wasn't very happy with the way the novel was constructed, since it all hinges on a terrible secret that makes no sense, as well as sacrifices that are counter-productive.  Everyone justifies their actions as helping her (though more likely they are simply lying about what they are up to before they go kill themselves) but in the end, Nomi is abandoned by everyone and is left to fend for herself, so she is amply justified in not trusting adults and feeling that her world is absurd and even the good moments were all built on lies.  So definitely a downer of a book when you really think about it.  A few too many funny moments to join my bleakest book list, but still not a feel-good story on any level.

* The scene of Nomi and her boyfriend trying to score dope from this drug dealer is quite hilarious and one of the few bits that really worked for me in this novel.

** Nomi mentions several times that she is worried that her mother didn't simply leave the town because she didn't take her passport with her, though of course one can still travel pretty far within Canada itself. 

Wednesday, April 11, 2018

Biking and Rain

I know some people are not that bothered by biking in the rain.  And indeed I biked pretty much year round in Vancouver, where there was often a fairly light rain.  Somehow the rain didn't bother me as much in Chicago (aside from a couple of downpours), but also the bike lanes are just wider there (and the fact that the mayor was such a strong cycling advocate meant that the police had to pay attention to drivers who endangered cyclists).  But I just really don't like doing it in Toronto.  I'm actually slightly more likely to bike in the cold than the rain.

Today I knew it was going to rain in the early afternoon.  I managed to not get wet coming home, but the pavement was pretty slick, and I was not feeling safe at all on the ride home.  Though it was nice that we almost broke double digits.  I think this is the first time that my hands haven't hurt (even with gloves) after I finished riding.  But it is supposedly going to rain most of the next five days.  Blah.  This could be a bit of a problem, since I was hoping to cycle to the Distillery District to see a play on Sat. and get my dry cleaning on the way back.  I guess I'll just see how it is closer to the day.  It looks like it will still be a challenge biking more than twice a week to work, but eventually we'll turn that corner.

Monday, April 9, 2018

Vaughan TTC tour

While the weather still wasn't great, at least it was sunny out, so I combined my trip up to York University with an investigation of the other brand new TTC stops.  We were running just a bit late, so we just went to Pioneer Village station first.

We actually got out on the bus loop side, rather than the main entrance.  A bit unfortunate, but you can still see the details of the station.  I can't really tell the material, but it seems just a bit like a shout out to the rusted iron spirals that Richard Serra works in with Pioneer Village on the top.

At the bus loop (with buses in service)

You can't see Pioneer Village from the station, but it apparently only a 10 minute walk to the west from here.  Maybe we'll do that this summer.

I also got a shot of the public art inside the station, which is not turned on due to fears that the public will use it to write dirty words or hate speech.  If they don't come to terms with the artists soon, I think they'll end up tearing it out.

Also, there were a few signs informing the public that the buses would be disrupted to strike action at York University.

This is the first time I've actually heard about it, but the TTC drivers are refusing to drive into the university itself, which I find completely appalling (given that there are at least some students who live on campus and are not party to the strike).  I really can't stress enough how disappointed I am that the city and the TTC don't see this as an unacceptable precedent.  (What happens when there is a strike at a downtown hotel -- will the streetcar drivers demand that the streetcar be rerouted onto a different street?)  Once I heard about this from the TTC website, I wondered if they would refuse to open the subway doors at York University stop and at Pioneer Village, but the subway was operating normally (and the signs do suggest that the trains are stopping but not the buses).  Again, so ridiculous.

In any event, we then went back to the main York University stop.  I vaguely remember all the construction from my last visit, and this is so much nicer.

From inside looking out

Outside looking in

The whole station does look just a bit like a low slung flying saucer.

The concert was nice, though this wind ensemble is definitely not as polished as UT's.  I think that would have been the case even if the strike hadn't disrupted things, though that clearly didn't help.  The conductor mentioned the labour problems at least three times during the concert.  I was a bit surprised that it went on at all, but this was the last opportunity for many of the students to perform, so there may have been some exceptions made.  At any rate, we were really there to see TorQ perform.  They had two pieces they did on their own (one of which I had already seen) and then they did Charon's Dance with the combined ensemble.  It was interesting and well done.

I decided we had come all this way, so we might as well check out the other stations, though we did decide to skip the 407 station.  That meant heading up to Vaughan.

I thought it was interesting that there were regular bus stops outside the main station entrance, but then a full blown Viva stop with a separate entrance.

The stations look just a bit like aluminum tortoises.  (I particularly like the sign on the wall here, in case you didn't know about the TTC coming to Vaughan.)

(Well, more than this sign at any rate.)

The inside of the main station is pretty interesting as well.

We then stopped off at Finch West.  This station is mostly about colour.  The northbound platforms are blue and white, and the southbound platforms have this streak of yellow.

There is a stained glass motif as you exit the station/

The exterior is also colourful.

This is a secondary entrance (perhaps another bus loop).

We made one last stop at Downsview Park, which has art inside the station by the Canadian artist Panya Clark Espinal. 

It is so large that you effectively move through the artist's circles on the floor and walls.

The exterior of the station is another low-slung station, apparently with a green roof, but we didn't have time to check that out.

All in all, a successful trip, though not one I am likely to repeat any time soon.

Sunday, April 8, 2018

This week (early April)

I originally had a very different post grousing about doing my taxes.  It's never fun, particularly in my case, where I have to file US and Canadian taxes (and they pretty much do have to be done simultaneously).  Generally it breaks that I don't owe US taxes, but I often owe Canadian taxes in a year when the market is up and I don't owe if the market is down.  This year kind of stinks in that the market was up a fair bit in Dec., but this upcoming trade war is going to bring everything down (and perhaps for quite some time).  Thus, I am paying taxes on the values right before the bubble bursts, which always chafes.  C'est la vie, I suppose.  In any case, after I wrap this up.  I'll set it aside for a day or two, then check my work, then file the US ones.  I'll probably hold off a bit longer if I do owe the CRA a big chunk of money.

In the meantime, I need to make another pass through the Fringe play.  I've cast all the parts (finally!) but the actor playing the main teacher is still hoping to see more changes.  I basically agreed to one more revision, but if he still isn't satisfied, I'll need to find someone else.  Because at this point, I need to get the cast together for a run through and to try to find a director.  I was also a bit nervous that I hadn't heard back from the principal of Danforth Tech.  I finally called and asked what the story was.  He said that they were going to have summer school, which will complicate things, but probably not be fatal to my plans.  I'm going over in a week and a half to scope out the room and start working on the forms I would need to get approval from the TDSB to put on the play.  Clearly, there are just a few snags, but I should be able to push through and make this happen.  Fingers crossed!

There were a few actors I had in mind for the last student, but one had family issues arise and the other was already doing a Fringe show.  I had really wanted to touch base with an Asian actor from Sing-for-your-Supper, but no one could remember her name.  Finally, the SFYS organizers got back in touch, and I got her name.  She has signed on, which is great news and such a relief.  Perhaps ironically, I found this out only about a week before the next SFYS, which is Monday (tomorrow).  I managed to find the time to write a piece about the break-up of a K-Pop band and submit that in time.  The organizers liked it quite a bit (I am so much more in sync with SFYS than Toronto Cold Reads, and I won't be submitting any more material to TCR), but they wanted to hold it for a month to allow some new voices to be heard.  It's a bit of a sacrifice, but I agreed.  In any event, the May SFYS is a better time to actually pitch my Fringe show than April, which is way too early.  For those interested, the script is here.  Feel free to show up tomorrow (details here), but I'll be making a stronger pitch for May when my piece gets mounted.

Somehow the creative juices never stop flowing though, and despite this backlog, I may also write a piece about student athletes getting ready for a road trip.  I want to freeze the action just as the bus is about to take off.  It is my personal reaction to the horror in Humboldt.  It isn't for the families, as it won't make them any better, but it is mostly about celebrating youth (and endless possibilities).  It's possible that it won't work or it will just be too heavy, if I make the linkage explicit.  In this particular case, I wouldn't make it about hockey players, but a color guard or a cheer leading squad, as I have quite a bit of experience chaperoning these teams around New Jersey, though this was about 25 years ago.  If nothing else, it would be good to get down on paper before I completely forget it all.

I am so sick of this lingering cold weather.  It looks like it will stay cold until Wed.  Then Thurs-Sun it will be warmer but probably rainy.  Lovely.  I don't see how I will ever be able to ride my bike, though I may just bundle up and try it Tues. and Wed.  I was definitely expecting to be further along in my spring exercise routine by now.

Finally, given that I am in pretty good shape vis-à-vis the taxes, I think I'll take my son to York University for a concert by TorQ.  Along the way, we'll check out the new TTC stations.  I'm more than a little worried that the strike at York will force the concert to be cancelled, but I guess I'll take the chance.  I did decide not to pre-order the tickets.  I guess I'll find out when we get there.  Again, I just wish it were warmer for this little trek.  But I'll try to have a good time regardless, and I'll surely get a lot of reading in.

Tuesday, April 3, 2018

Theatre podcasts

That last post was perhaps a bit too downbeat.  Anyway, I have some good news* in this post.

Anyway, I more or less stumbled across this podcast that features Toronto playwrights, directors and actors: stageworthy.  They are looking to interview people about upcoming Fringe productions, so I threw my hat in the ring and may get invited to talk about my project in May or June.  That would be super exciting.

This other podcast (PlayMe) is exciting in a different way as it basically records live theatre and breaks it up into chunks.  While not every play really will succeed as a radio play, more or less, it's still an interesting idea.  There are a couple of performances by Eric Peterson, which I should listen to.  (And in a particularly interesting cross-over, Corner Gas has just been made into a cartoon, so I'll probably be checking out some of those episodes as well.)  Certainly a fair number of buzz-worthy plays have ended up here, including Bunny, Lo (or Dear Mr Wells) and Bang Bang.  The Orange Dot didn't get as much buzz.  I wonder how well it will work in this format.  Interestingly, I liked the back and forth dialog in The Orange Dot but thought the ultra-violent ending was a bit unearned, so I have no idea how it will come across here.  I think it's pretty unlikely that The Overcoat will turn up here, but I will keep an eye out, as that would be pretty cool if it did.

* Speaking of "Good news, everyone," there is a podcast that is actually a new episode of Futurama with all the original voice actors back!  So amazing.  The show that just wouldn't die.  Go listen to it here.

Theatre let-downs

I can't really tell if it is just my mood or if there is a strong consensus that recent theatre outings have been weaker in March than they were in Jan. and Feb.  I really didn't care for Soulpepper's Idomeneus and Bloom at Buddies wasn't much better.  In both cases, the playwright spent far too much time undermining any narrative flow by putting front and center the concept that stories are inherently unreliable* and that there is no "objective" position from which events can be observed (and that winners write history).  But this is such a worn-out trope (ancient even when done in Rashomon) and building an evening of theatre around it is unwise.  I could probably have put up with 60 minutes of this noodling around, but 75+ minutes in both cases was far too long.  Plus, the director of Idomeneus, after spending all this time in classical territory decided to end with Greek tavern music, as if trying to say that the current mess in Greece is just a continuation of these old battles.  Or somehow trying to tie it in with modern day concerns.  I really couldn't tell what was meant by this strange fusion of the past and present, but I felt it didn't work and cheapened the entire play.

I know it is early days (from the Schultz scandal) but given that Soulpepper seems to have decided to scrap all plays by Acykbourne (as Schultz was a big advocate) and that the directorial choices post-Schultz seem very off and that their summer season is so uninspired, I will probably be crossing them off my list.  It's a shame, as of the big theatre companies, I usually found them putting on the most theatre that actually interested me.  And of course, things may change, but from what I have read of the new acting artistic director's thoughts, the company seems to be want to be more "relevant," which is just another way of saying they want to put on more "woke" theatre, as if we didn't have enough of that already.

I am also deeply uninspired by Tarragon's upcoming season.  There isn't a single play there I have any interest in seeing.  I never subscribe to Canadian Stage (as I am estranged from the artistic director's vision of more spectacle, less drama), but I do sometimes find a single play or two to watch.  I have to admit that The Overcoat was very well done (and The Humans was great, living up to the hype in my view).  In the upcoming season, LePage's 887 is cool (though not worth it for me to go again) and I am leaning towards going to Bigre, which is a wordless comedy, supposedly in the tradition of Keaton and Tati.  I think I'm going to pass on Shakespeare in High Park this year as I just find it so uncomfortable sitting through an entire performance.  I reserve the right to change my mind of course.

It's possible that I just won't see much theatre next fall or just piece things together from the storefront theatres.  Maybe that isn't such a bad thing.  After the Fringe this summer, I may be kind of burned out on theatre, and perhaps it is best to refocus my attentions in different directions.  I've been told, fairly bluntly, that the kind of stories I want to tell just aren't dramatic enough for the stage, so maybe I really would just be better off sticking to short stories (and not having to deal with actors and their crazy schedules and what have you).

* That said, I don't believe there is a single Greek legend that even hints that Penelope was unfaithful, so adding this into the mix as just a footnote really, was an extremely jarring move by Schimmelpfennig, one that I did not appreciate at all.  Though that was still easier to swallow than these stories in the paper that the Soulpepper cast has a new appreciation for the horrors of war because of all they have been through lately.  No, just no.