Sunday, July 12, 2020

Cooling Down

It has been unbelievably hot this past week.  It finally rained today on and off.  I stayed home, though I did slip out for a short grocery run between rain bursts.  It was nice to not have to run the AC for a while.

In general, the teleworking has been ok and team productivity has been maintained, but this past week it did feel like the wheels started falling off.  This could be because there just don't seem to be any tangible goals to work towards (non-work goals at any rate) and a full return to work will probably not occur until Sept., which is kind of a drag, though I may end up coming in once or twice a week towards the end of July.  Hopefully, I will be able to rest a bit this weekend (with the heat wave finally broken) and be somewhat recharged next week.

I've been doing a bit of extra reading and managed to get through Kundera's The Unbearable Lightness of Being.  It started off reasonably well, but I wasn't crazy about the middle section and then it got a bit postmodern (with Kundera breaking in and commenting on the action in the novel, along with 3 or 4 dream sequences kicked off by Teraza that weren't obviously dream sequences until the end).  I'm curious whether the movie sticks faithfully to the plot of the novel,* which zigzags between characters, or if the plot has been straightened out (and just focuses on the Tomaz and Tereza arc).  Still, it's one of those novels that aspiring members of the intelligentsia must read.

I haven't heard yet if my piece on executives coming up with COVID-related tv series was taken for Monday night's SFYS, but it was nice not to have to worry about the deadline for once, as I got my piece in early!  It's mostly a satire of entitled executive behaviour, but I do have a few snarky things to say about how humourless the baying Twitter crowd is.  Likely that will rub some people the wrong way.  My next post will focus on this more directly.

This is the last night to watch any of the Toronto Fringe Digital pieces.  I think Act 3 was still my overall favourite, though I'm a bit disappointed I missed out on the Lear-inspired puppetry in Act 1.  I'm also very disappointed in myself for not checking the UK National Theatre website.  I missed out on Lorraine Hansberry's Les Blancs by one day, and there was another one a few weeks back that I also wanted to catch.  I'm hoping that they will stream this again or push it to Netflix or something, as it is so rarely done (in fact I don't think I had ever heard of the play before!).  I basically had to remind myself that between work and keeping up with the Toronto Fringe this week I probably wouldn't realistically have watched a 3 hour(!) performance anyway, but it did take several hours for me to cool down once I realized that the opportunity was lost.

And on that note, I think it is time to turn in for the evening.

* Apparently, Kundera wrote that the movie was not faithful at all to the spirit of the novel (hardly a surprise) to the point where he lost his cool and no longer allowed movie or tv adaptations of his works.

Thursday, July 9, 2020

Fringe Review

This is a bit of a last minute review.  There is only a single day left (today) to catch Phase 3 of the Digital version of the Toronto Fringe.  I thought two were stand-out videos.  First is a 14 minute musical called Back and Forth: In Concert.  The second is Out of the Impossible, which is a 30 minute video by Decapod Media.  This video was much slicker than I expected.  I don't know if it will resurface in some other forum, but it is worth checking out if you can. 

I haven't really decided on what to watch in Phase 4, but probably Cheap Beer at the End of the World and possibly Statistics, a musical about Rosalind Franklin.

The Toronto Fringe, Digital Version can be accessed here (for now).

Tuesday, July 7, 2020

Shortened Fringe Festival and Other Artistic Ventures

It has been such a strange artistic season.  While it probably wouldn't been the best plan in the world, it's moderately likely that the outdoor theatre (Driftwood, Theatre in the Ruff, etc.) could have gone forward, whereas the indoor stuff is definitely endangered.  It is possible that in Stage 3 (which parts of Ontario are approaching, though I suspect Toronto has close to a month to go) that indoor theatre with extensive spacing can go forward, though maybe that will be Stage 4.  In lots of ways, this does seem a lot like where we were in mid Feb. though we know a bit more about dealing with the virus and masks will be mandatory for the foreseeable future.  While it certainly wouldn't be comfortable, I'd probably be willing to return to the gym if we all wore some types of masks (and wiped down equipment more), though I can't really see this working with swimming.

Anyway, the Toronto Fringe was basically cancelled though a small group of video artists pulled together to put their work up.  A program can be accessed here.  One thing that I had a little trouble with is that each phase of this year's Fringe is only available for 72 hours, so you really have to act fast.  On the flip side, you buy a pass to a phase rather than to a specific show and then can watch more than one thing.  This was nice to find out, since the show I was most interested in turned out to only be 8 minutes long!  But once in, I watched a stand-up comic's show, as well as A Perfect Bowl of Pho (the lockdown version).  I'd actually seen a Bowl of Pho as part of a double-header at Factory Theatre (all the way back in Feb. 2019 -- when the world was only somewhat off-kilter).  I believe it was 45 minutes then, and it is 27 minutes now, but the main songs and bits are all still in place.  Unfortunately for you, this phase has just ended (I had to rush to watch Monday evening as the clock was ticking).  I didn't see anything in Phase 1, as I just didn't understand the schedule.  The most interesting presentation (a puppet show with Shakey-Shake involving Lear) will likely turn up again at a future Fringe or on Youtube or something (hopefully).  I am looking forward to catching a few shows in the 3rd and 4th phases of the Fringe.

SummerWorks is very slowly ramping up.  At the moment, they are collaborating with Outside the March on their telephone-based theatre.  However, I already listened to one of these adventures a couple months back.  I'm not sure I would sign up again.

I mentioned that the Royal Conservatory of Music thinks they have a viable plan to put on concerts at about 35% capacity.  I have a rescheduled concert in October, and we'll see if they can move forward.  I suspect Tafelmusik might try something similar.  However, the Toronto Symphony Orchestra threw everyone for a loop by announcing today that they are cancelling their entire 2020/2021 season!  At this point, I have so much unused credit with them and no prospects to using it.  (It's very reminiscent of the airline industry.)  I honestly am not sure how they can recover from 1.5 seasons completely shut down, as a lot of people will just migrate to other events and more or less forget to see if they are even around in late 2021.  So that was a pretty huge blow.

Still no idea if or when live theatre is coming back. I know my wife will want to go to the rescheduled Hamilton, though if they can only fill the house to 35% capacity, it may be impossible to get tickets.

I think this weekend, I'll drop by the AGO and then the following weekend, I'll plan on biking over to the MOCA and seeing if the Sarah Sze installation is still up.

So a lot still up in the air and no question there are still a lot of cancellations and disappointments, but it does feel like some things are trying to return to normal at some level.  I'll post more as things develop.

Edit (7/10): It looks like Factory and Theatre Pass Muraille have essentially no idea what they are going to do and have no indication at all of future plans on their websites.  Soulpepper and Canadian Stage and Crow's Theatre basically seem to think at some point they'll go back to live in-person theatre with reduced capacity and are proceeding on that basis.  I only found out this evening that Tarragon is considerably more pessimistic and has cancelled all in-person events for the 2020/21 season (just like the TSO) and will pivot to an on-line version of Orestes and will be doing radio plays for the rest of the season.  Some of those will surely be worth checking out. Like everyone else, I am just so tired of all this disruption and we really have only started seeing how disruptive this will be for the foreseeable future.

Edit (7/11): In what is likely to be the first of many theatre companies going under, Solar Stage just announced they were packing it in.  While they mostly put on children's theatre, they were starting to do one adult show a season, and I saw them put on a solid performance of Caryl Churchill's A Number.  Very unfortunate.

Monday, July 6, 2020

Exhausting Weekend

I'll just give a very high level outline of what happened this weekend.

A couple of days ago I discovered that I had used the wrong SSN for my son on our taxes.  While this doesn't really impact the return itself, it is possible that the IRS has flagged this and is waiting on some kind of a correction before we get our return (or indeed the mailed return never actually got there).  So on Sat. I went in to the office and prepared another set of tax forms (including the 1040-X, which is used to amend tax returns).  I figure to be on the safe side, I would just send everything back in, including the 1040-X.

I got home in the late afternoon and was told that there was a dying raccoon in my yard.  The city had been called but it would be up to 2 hours before the city pest control turned up.  So my neighbours and I watched as the raccoon moved back and forth between the yards.  It did take a bit over 2 hours, but finally a young woman from the city came over and scooped up the raccoon with a huge net.  She warned the neighbours that they might want to wash down their yard with bleach before letting their dog out.  I presume that the raccoon is quite ill and will be euthanized, though I think we'll all be a bit put out if they manage to save it and then dump it back in the neighbourhood...

After she left with the raccoon in her van, I learned that the raccoon had dug underneath the chicken wire designed to keep them from under the lower deck.  This certainly pissed me off, and I'll have to make it much harder to get into, probably burying more wire even deeper, and then surrounding the vulnerable edges with paving stones or something.  It's a little hard to say whether this distemper would have spread to any baby or young raccoons and killed them, though it's also not out of the question that some are trapped under the porch (after I added some bricks to try to seal up the hole), though I didn't see or hear anything under there.  I don't care much (as I truly hate raccoons and think they should be eradicated from Toronto), though of course I would prefer that they die in the ravine and not under my porch (esp. as it might be some time before we get a rain storm to help wash away any stench).  If we are extremely fortunate, it will be a couple of years before another family moves in.

Sunday was still hot, though perhaps not as hot as Saturday.  I had told my son that I would take him to the Beaches, mostly so he gets more practice riding his bike in urban environments, though it would also be a chance to meet up with a couple of his friends in person for the first time in months.  Getting down there wasn't too bad, though people are generally not wearing masks and are definitely crowding together too much (not as bad as at Cherry Beach though).  It generally is a challenge riding one's bike on the path due to all the careless pedestrians on it, and my son had a minor mishap (later on) where he cut his leg, trying not to run into people walking the wrong way on the path.  I left him with his friends and biked downtown.  It wasn't all that long after I got in to the office that I had to turn back around and fetch him home and make sure he put the right ointment on his leg.  I think in the end, I biked about 2 hours, which really was too much given the heat, and I wasn't able to do much else in the evening, aside from read a book and get through some old newspapers.  I have learned my lesson; I'll try to keep the biking down to roughly an hour max. from now on, at least until the heat wave breaks.

Wednesday, July 1, 2020

Canada - Better Than the Alternatives...

As Canada Day wraps up, I will say that, despite it not completely living up to the hype (no country does as far as I can tell), it is better here than the other places I lived, namely the US and the UK.  Both of these countries seem in terminal decline (and both have performed thoroughly poorly during this pandemic, precisely because both countries have elected charlatans and emboldened political parties that literally do not believe in the merits of good governance), though whether Canada can escape that fate (being so closely tied to both) is an open question.  I could get even more political, but there really isn't any point.  I'm sorry for those that are stuck in very badly run countries (just as I feel badly about the Hong Kongers who are being trapped in Hong Kong by China), but there is nothing I can do as an individual about fixing the ills of the world.  I took the opening to come to Canada when it came available (and encouraged others to do the same), and haven't regretted it even a little bit.*  After giving the matter more thought, I will be applying for Canadian citizenship this fall, which takes about a year to process, so I'll have time to study up on my Canadian history (I have a couple of biographies of Pierre Elliott Trudeau, though I realize he isn't the only important figure of the last 50 years...).  While there are a lot of hoops (for citizenship as well as permanent residency), it is actually possible to assemble the packages and apply without a lawyer getting involved, which I would in no way recommend for those going through this process in the States (where an immigration lawyer really is essential).  I'll go the dual citizenship route for a while, though I'd say it is somewhat likely that I'll renounce US citizenship at some point (despite even more paperwork and large "exit fees") but I'm not in that much of a hurry to do so.

So what did I do to celebrate today?  Mostly I tried not to work, even though it will mean I have to play catch up on Thurs.  I did cook a casserole for dinner, and I took my son for a bike ride (we have to make a fairly long trip to find an open bank branch tomorrow, so I thought getting him some additional road experience would be good).  I read a bit of Kundera's The Unbearable Lightness of Being and started Arriaga's The Night Buffalo.  I fooled around with the iPod some more, swapping out a couple of jazz CDs for Paul Simon's Graceland, the rest of The Joshua Tree tracks and a handful of songs by The Jam.  I'll probably leave the iPod alone for a while now.  I had made a huge push and actually published 6 book reviews yesterday, and I did spend the morning tweaking them, though they were actually generally in pretty good shape.  (I'm still on the fence about signing up for the 14th Canadian Challenge, though I still have most of the books on this list to review, plus a bunch of poetry collections from Brick Books.)  That's basically all I can recall doing, so I definitely achieved my goal of not actually working.  It's been a long but not particularly busy day, and I probably should just head for bed now.

* I actually paused and spent a fair bit of time looking for the classic "The City" strip by Derf (about liberals fleeing to Canada after the election of W, and got sucked into Derf's blog and reading a bunch of the actual strips here.  The blog has a pretty fascinating 3 post history of The City and the long, sad decline of alternative papers.  This probably only really resonates with Gen X'ers who grew up with a vibrant alternative press with lots of cutting edge comix.  Anyway, it is taking longer than I expected to track it down, but at some point I'll circle back and add it to this post.

Tuesday, June 30, 2020

13th Canadian Challenge - 12th Review - Basic Black with Pearls

This slim novel, Basic Black with Pearls by Helen Weinzweig is quite difficult to review (and this is review #12, btw).  The novel was reissued on House of Anansi Press in 2015 and then was brought out by NYRB Classics in 2018, which is the edition I own.

Here is a CBC interview with Sarah Weinman, who wrote the afterword for the NYRB edition, where she discusses aspects of Weinzweig's life and how it fed into the novel.

To return to my review, I find it is, in fact, difficult to know what actually happens in the novel.  I wouldn't say that this novel is spoiler-proof, but it is so hard to know what is going on and what is the ground truth that who can say if the plot was SPOILED or not...

There is another postmodern novel I would put into dialog with Basic Black with Pearls, and that is Hotel Crystal by Olivier Rolin, which is quite experimental.*  Each entry begins with a physical description of a hotel room - discussion of the door, style and placement of the window, condition of the paint and/or wallpaper, and then finally an inventory of the artwork on the walls, the bed and the ubiquitous television.  Information about the author of these notes leaks through, particularly by the second half of each entry.  He is apparently a secret agent of sorts or an arms dealer and possibly also a famous author (under a nom de guerre).  The footnotes to many of the entries often link back to another entry, creating a bit of a web (not completely different from something Calvino or Cortazar might have attempted).  However, a little of this goes a long way, and I did find myself getting tired of the room descriptions about halfway through the book.

Fortunately, Basic Black with Pearls wasn't quite that obscure, but the narrator, Shirley, is engaged in a long-running affair with a secret agent, Coenraad (or at least that is what she maintains from the start of the novel).  Since he is a secret agent, he can't just call her up and tell her where they are meeting, as all of their phones and computers are bugged.  So instead, he will find ways to plant information in the local newspaper or leave a postcard with some clues that she needs to decipher, generally directing her to go to a different hotel than the one where she is actually staying.

Where things get very odd is that (again she claims but we the readers don't actually see) nearly all of the time she actually encounters Coenraad he is in deep disguise, actually getting enraged if she tries to break his cover.  Apparently, he is so convincing in his disguises that he can portray himself as different nationalities (and I believe different ethnicities and races as well, which brings up unpleasant recollections of blackface, which was in the news not so long ago). 

Given the radical uncertainty over what is actually going on, even Shirley wonders once in a while if she has slept with Coenraad or an unwitting (but generally willing) stranger.  She tries to reassure herself that Coenraad would always intervene at the last moment, if she inadvertently ran across the "wrong Coenraad."

There is some additional tension, on top of the espionage angle, in that she thinks there is pressure on Coenraad's end to break things off, and that is why they are meeting (likely for their final assignation) in Toronto, which is Shirley's hometown, despite their previous rule to never meet on anyone's home turf.  Shirley spends quite a bit of time wandering around downtown Toronto, and I believe she makes it as far as Kensington Market, looking for clues to Coenraad's whereabouts.  At one point, she seems to break into the wrong apartment (not a hotel at all) and has to be escorted out.  There is then a scene of her with her husband and children (who have been completely off-screen ciphers up until this point).  No question by this point I was wondering if the entire novel was the record of a major breakdown (either schizophrenia or some other form of psychosis) and whether Coenraad existed (doubtful) and if she had even left Toronto at any point in the past.  And that's basically how it ends.  It is definitely an interesting but very challenging book.  I will let it simmer for a while and then read it a second time to see how my reactions are different on a second reading, particularly if I will find all the games and mental puzzles between Shirley and Coenraad intriguing or just sad the second time around.

* Just to thoroughly confuse matters, I would definitely recommend the interested reader check out Rick Moody's Hotels of North America, where a somewhat obsessive reviewer gradually reveals his life story through a series of long-form reviews of hotels and motels on a rating site (that is inspired by but is clearly not Yelp or Yahoo).  It's quite droll and melancholy at the same time.  As I am well over my allotted limit for this review, I will point you to this review instead.

13th Canadian Challenge - 13th Review - Short Talks

Short Talks by Anne Caron was recently reissued by Brick Books as one of its Brick Books Classics.

There are 45 short talks in the book with a very short afterword that was added for this new edition (where indeed the new introduction by poet Margaret Christakos is nearly as long as the rest of the book!).

I guess I would classify the talks as very short prose poems.  Most are quite curious.

Here are a few excerpts:

Short Talk on Mona Lisa - "Every day he poured his question into her, as you pour water rfom one vessel into another, and it poured back.  Don't tell me he was painting his mother, lust, etc."

Short Talk on Shelter - "You can write on a wall with a fish heart, it's because of the phosphorous..."

These short talks are certainly poetic and intriguing -- and misleading, since they are presented somewhat flatly as if they were non-fiction, though seem wildly fanciful in some cases.

(This review was a bit too short, even for me, as pressed for time as I am, so I extended it slightly.)

There is a bit of a theme running through many of these talks, focusing on artists (Kafka, Van Gogh, Prokofiev) and sadness.  It isn't entirely clear what form the sadness takes -- being unappreciated in a world of philistines, never finding the right word or note until it is too late, perhaps only becoming an artist due to unrelated mental illness (Sylvia Plath).  Ovid is a particularly interesting case, as he was exiled for crossing Emperor Augustus, and indeed Ovid died in exile, writing several long poems during his long exile to try to regain favour, though of course he remains best known for Metamorphoses.

Here is Carson on Ovid: "He sups and walks back to his room.  The radio is on the floor.  Its luminous green dial blares softly.  He sits down at the table; people in exile write so many letters.  Now Ovid is weeping.  Each night about this time he puts on sadness like a garment and goes on writing."