Friday, April 29, 2016

Worn down

I am feeling quite run down.  I think this is largely from my body trying to catch up on 6 + months of not getting enough sleep, and the best way to get me to slow down is to threaten to get sick...  Anyway, while demands at work are far more reasonable than before, there are still a few tasks that are taking up a fair bit of time and it is hard to find the time to do them (during work hours) and fit in all the various meetings I am required to attend.  During one particularly long meeting, I did sneak in some work on a policy paper I am drafting.

But it is the extra-curricular work (two papers for the Transportation Association of Canada) that is really dragging at me.  I have one presentation all but done with only some minor edits requested.  The other one is far more interesting to me, and I've managed to do the advanced modelling (all over night, mind you) but I still have to draft something up by tomorrow!

So I won't be writing much more, since I have a fair bit left to go on this paper.  I still have a fair number of events, probably at least one scheduled per week, but there are new events coming up all the time, and I am really starting to weigh the cost (both in terms of money and time) and deciding not to go.  For instance, next week, someone is coming through and playing Bach's solo Cello Concertos.  Normally, I would be all over something like this, but I'm just not feeling up to it.  That's not to say I am not enjoying the events I do go to, and I'll write at least a little on some of the highlights of March and April, but I am starting to cut back a little and then trying not to have (non)-buyer's remorse.

Monday, April 25, 2016

Late April grab bag

This post will probably touch on most of the posts I have made over the past week, but I am feeling too lazy to actually link back to them.

In terms of reading, I am finding Naipaul's The Enigma of Arrival to be pretty slow going, but I'll probably wrap it up by the weekend.  I've also dipped a little bit into the books on relativity.  I think it will be good to change things up a bit, since my reading has been so dominated by fiction for such a long time.

I did finish my Canadian taxes over the weekend, though I am missing some RRSP form, and of course the bank is so far behind the times they can't just scan it and send it over.  I'm getting pretty frustrated with this company, and I think I'll end up submitting the taxes with a note about the missing form that will have to follow later.  I find myself really annoyed at how frequently the Canadian tax code shifts, particularly in the tax treatment of children.  I had originally followed my previous year's return, then realized that they had zeroed out one of the credits unless your child had severe mental or physical problems, which is not the case for us fortunately.  But there is no point in rehashing all the problems with the way that Canada Revenue treats individuals as monads with little reference to their place in a larger household.

It was touch and go, but I have managed to pull together a presentation for a transportation conference, and the deadline isn't until the 29th.  Now I have a bit of time to get feedback from others.  Unfortunately, I have a second paper and that one may be a bit late, since the data came to me so late, but I'll see what I can do over the next two or three days.

Given all the upheaval last month, I didn't get more than a page into my latest short dramatic work, The Re-up.  It is a piece about relationships and what would happen if marriage more or less withered away and most people just signed short- to medium-term contracts instead of all this til-death-do-us-part business.  It's only slightly futuristic.  Anyway, I managed to finish that up as well and sent it in for the May SFYS.  I still don't know why they didn't accept my piece on an alien invading a 7-11, but you can read it here.  The new piece is here.  Hopefully, I will hear back by late Sat. or Sunday if it was accepted.  I'm not really supposed to check email at work (if I don't get word until Monday), but I may make an exception -- or see if I can check on my phone over lunch.  I don't have all that many remaining ideas for short pieces, though I do have a slightly manic scene set around the delivery of a file cabinet (directly inspired by Slesinger's The Unpossessed), but I have to admit, I don't think that would go over all that well.  I think regardless of whether this piece is accepted, I'm probably done with Sing-for-Your-Supper for the time being.  I want to focus on the longer pieces, either finally revising them and editing them down a bit or working on Straying South or The Study Group.  I probably actually will have the energy now that I am not working absurd hours anymore and feeling squeezed all the time.  (Famous last words...)

I'll end with a poem I wrote many years ago with some unorthodox reflections on Shakespeare.

Shakespeare and Company

Shakespeare leers back at me;
through the dark centuries he can still slight me
and my contemporary sensibilities.
There is bad blood between us.
That there is any blood between us is a minor miracle
and is totally the fault of my mother
and her mother.

He looks grubbier somehow,
though not in that studied grungy look that has taken over the West.
I can feel dirt under his tight collar.
Perhaps I can even feel the lice crawling around
somewhere beneath those elaborate expansive costumes.
I eventually stop staring and go take another bath.

When I return he is still there --
obviously less tense but still silent.
Perhaps I can crack his resistance.
Should I ask "What's up?" or
"Shoot some hoops, Bill?"
or would that only make it worse?
I might be able to manage "Nice weather, eh?"
However, it is snowing outside
as if God sent the Flood in the dead heart of winter,
which is why I am inside in the first place,
looking through my books
and getting ever so slightly bent out of shape.

Sunday, April 24, 2016

Short reflections on books that have fallen short

The title may be longer than absolutely necessary, but I'm in one of those ruts where most of the books I have read recently have let me down one way or another.  It has been a very busy and somewhat stressful period of trying to wrap everything up at one job and launch a new one.  In fact, due to the unwritten pressure of trying to start at the new job early and the very overt demands of needing to wind up a lot of loose ends at my old job, I didn't have any time off between jobs.  I turned up at the new job on a Monday but was working through the weekend (granted only on two small tasks) to clear away the issues remaining from the old job.  I guess I have to content myself with the week vacation I took, though as should be fairly clear, it wasn't exactly restful...

That means that I was kind of hoping for books a bit more escapist than usual, and that I was perhaps a bit too severe on the books I have been reading over this period.  That said, in at least two cases (A Man Who Knows and After Julius), I am quite sure I wouldn't have liked the books even had I read them during a more sedate period.  I'm pretty sure that is also the same for Loving and Giving, though it is possible I would have been a bit more forgiving with that one.  Perhaps.

I'll try to be relatively brief about these books, though I imagine the post itself will be fairly long.  There will probably be at least some SPOILERS, so if that bothers you greatly, it is probably best to skip to the next post.

Indeed, I have been going through a relatively bad patch of books.  Probably the last book I enjoyed (almost without any reservations) was Albert Cossery's The Jokers and before that it was probably Tess Slessinger's The Unpossessed. Of the books that I am covering, I would say that I really liked one (The Price of Salt) and even that one will probably not make by top 10 list for the year, though you never know.  That said, I thought there were things to admire about three or maybe even four of the others, but that these were books that I still finished more out of obligation for having started them rather than actually enjoying them.

Somewhat ironically, I was warned away from Patricia Highsmith's The Price of Salt as it was too "talky" and completely failed as a thriller (and I am not sure if they did amp up the storyline a bit for the recent movie version: Carol).  And that is true, but the dilemma of two women falling in love in an era where this was still quite illegal had its own urgency.  I think this is a book that my mother would have liked very much, and I hope that she read the reissued version that was floating about in the early 90s.  Some of the hallmarks of lesbian humor are present here -- how the third date usually involves a moving van (substituted here with a cross-country trip).  This was probably the high point of the last 15 or so books that I have read.  My main reservation was that I just wasn't all that interested in the younger partner in the relationship, and that Carol probably only is attracted to her because of her youth, though it does turn out she has artistic abilities and has some insight into the workings of the world (i.e. she isn't a complete naif or ingénue).  Still, if the relationship does continue in fits and starts past the confines of the book, I can easily see a time when Carol would just lose interest and find a new partner or more likely return to her first partner, which is itself a fairly common pattern among lesbians, or at least it was up through the 90s.

Looking past this book, there was a definite theme to many of the books where male stubbornness played a huge role.  When stubbornness was combined with hot-headedness, as with Smollett's Roderick Random or the main character from Achebe's No Longer at Ease, then I really, really struggled with the books since I was fairly alienated from these characters and didn't care what happened to them, since they deserved it.  Roderick Random was such a jerk who never seemed to learn his lesson, and I thought the happy ending to be completely undeserved.  No Longer at Ease is a bit more interesting, as you know Columbo-style what crime was committed by the main character and the novel explains how he came to that point.  I still didn't like it very much, however.

Now, The Luck of Ginger Coffey was a bit different in that Ginger was stubborn in his own way, particularly in valuing himself a bit more than his employers (and he did foolishly spurn one decent job opportunity, which he might be able to salvage at novel's end) but he wasn't so completely hot-headed that I came to dislike him.  I'll be reviewing this shortly and will go into more detail at that point.

Faulkner's fiction is full of stubborn men.  Sometimes he lays it on just too thick, as in As I Lay Dying, which I pretty much hated (I certainly came to loathe the main character).  Intruder in the Dust features a stubborn Black man, Lucas Beauchamp, who also was a central character in "The Fire and the Hearth" from Go Down, Moses.  In many ways, he is extremely fortunate to have remained alive so long, particularly because he carries himself with so much dignity that it drives most Southern whites crazy.  Even the more sympathetic whites think he is generally too big for his britches.  What is generally not spoken of directly is that it is fairly clear that he has a "mixed" background.  (I actually briefly was confusing part of the plotline of Go Down, Moses, with Charles Johnson's Oxherding Tale where there is an unbelievable mix-up that leads to a mixed-race boy who becomes the lead character.  I think Johnson was definitely riffing off Faulkner to a large extent, though also Ishmael Reed.)

In any event, Intruder in the Dust focuses on Lucas in his old age when he is about to be lynched for shooting a white man in the back.  Where things get a little strange is that he won't say anything useful to his attorney, but asks the attorney's young nephew to go out and look at the body.  What then transpires is this weird almost Scooby Doo hijinks where the nephew and a spirited spinster Miss Eunice Habersham go off and dig up the body.  Confronted with evidence that Lucas is actually innocent, the attorney then feels a bit ashamed to not have taken Lucas quite seriously and they all set about trying to find the real killer.  In a lot of ways this feels like a more realistic To Kill a Mockingbird, though the style is often needlessly complex (kind of par for the course with Faulkner).  While more honorable than most of the townsmen, the attorney is still quite racist and feels a lot of this would have been avoided if Lucas was more respectful of whites.  (Intruder in the Dust may well be closer in tone to Go Set a Watchmen, which kind of deflated a lot of Harper Lee fans.)  Generally, when the uncle makes his speeches they are too long and just too defensive about about how the South would solve the Negro problem if left to their own devices.  That said, I might read it again (many, many years down the line).

Where Faulkner is quite good is on family dynamics: about how mothers never quite forgive their children for not needing to be buttoned up, whereas fathers focus more on the teen years.  Teen hijinks are looked at through a mixture of secret pride and a bit of despair over no longer being 16.  I did like this passage from Chapter VI: "the rage which was relief after the event {of the nighttime raid on the graveyard} which had to express itself some way and chose anger not because he would have forbidden him to go but because he had had no chance to ... it was his uncle's abnegant and rhetorical self-lacerating which was the phony one and his father was gnawing the true bitter irremediable bone of all which was dismatchment with time, being born too soon or too late to have been himself sixteen and gallop a horse ten miles in the dark to save an old [Negro]'s insolent and friendless neck."

Elizabeth Jane Howard's After Julius (1965) also has one solid passage about an older woman who has been passed by by time: "She watched them round the bend of the drive, listened as they slowed down and eased into the lane and she shut the door before she could not hear them any more. Cressy's scent was still in the air; she walked away from it into the drawing-room with its log fire, berries arranged in an urn, and her desk, neatly crammed with letters she had already answered."  But the rest of the plot is so annoying.  There is her older daughter who never forgave the woman for having an affair, which seems to have sparked her husband (Julius) to join the volunteer fleet which saved the British troops at Dunkirk (the miracle at Dunkirk), but Julius died during the attempt.  So what happens, twenty-odd years later, the daughter takes revenge by stealing away the lover who has shown up for the weekend.  As if that wasn't melodramatic enough, the younger daughter ends up sleeping with a borderline psychotic poet and goes off to marry him the next day.  Her life is clearly going to be a total ruin, but she is so witless that I simply didn't care.  I didn't like any of the characters at all, aside from an elderly colonel, who would have made a decent husband for the older woman if she would give him half a chance.

General dislike for the main character is also how I felt about Bove's A Man Who Knows, where I just couldn't bear their circular conversations that went no place (as well as his general immorality).  This is by far the worst book I've ever read by Bove, and I don't understand why it was translated and not some of his better books.  Molly Keane's Loving and Giving (sometimes titled Queen Lear in the UK) features the most milquetoast character I've encountered in a long time.  She was so insipid and only cared to please her rakish husband.  There were all the typical Keane touches -- a monstrous mother, slightly foolish elders who can't quite maintain their estates (shades of The Cherry Orchard here, though at least Aunt Tossie finds some way to keep it all going, unlike the mother in Good Behaviour who literally throws all the bills in a drawer and figuratively buries her head in the sand) and servants who are used to getting their own way.  But I couldn't get past the fact that the main character was so deserving of her unhappy condition.  I find it astonishing that a few people consider this to be Keane's best book, though I don't care much for Good Behaviour either, which is more generally ranked among her best.  At any rate, I have completed my march through Keane and Comyns, which I begun back in 2013.

While there were a few interesting moments in Waberi's Passage of Tears (and it was certainly less sterile than McCarthy's Satin Island) the plot was fairly thin and the outcome felt pre-ordained.  Most of the interest came from an Islamic radical reading Walter Benjamin's work second-hand.  I probably won't bother to read any more of Waberi's work.

I'm not quite certain about Amit Chaudhuri.  While the writing in Afternoon Raag was often enjoyable, there was essentially no plot to speak of.  I couldn't even tell you if the main character ended up with one or the other of the two women he was seeing while at school in Oxford, or if he left both of them to return to India.  It was just sort of a pointless noodling (somewhat intentionally modelled after a raag).  I didn't care for his The Immortals either, but I might at some point read more of his work.

That's kind of where I am landing with Dany Laferrière and Alain Mabanckou.  I'm not deeply interested in their work, but I might read more.  How to Make Love to A Negro (without Getting Tired) doesn't have much of a plot either, as I discussed here.  Blue White Red has a more traditional tale about immigrants and what they have to do to remain abroad when they don't have sufficient skills to be employed in the formal economy.

I suppose I will end (finally) with Machado De Assis.  In this case, the SPOILERS might ruin the book, so only press on if you have read his work or don't mind SPOILERS.

In this case, I find that I like his short stories more than his novels.  He wrote 3 major novels translated into English, but I do have to say that probably reading any one of them is sufficient, since they all largely revolve around the same concerns.  (Epitaph of a Small Winner is probably the best with Dom Casmurro a bit behind; I didn't rate Philosopher or Dog? as highly as either of these.)  I suppose Dom Casmurro is slightly different in that the title character does marry the woman of his dreams and has a son (the others have no descendants) but he starts to doubt her chastity and comes to believe that his son was actually sired by his best friend.  Breaking with Othello's example, he simply exiles them to Switzerland (on the pretense of educating his son) but then doesn't even shed a tear when he hears that his presumptive heir has died.  De Assis is sort of the master at creating characters with cramped souls that actually prefer leaving no mark upon the world.  It's definitely a strange viewpoint, and one that I certainly don't share (obviously).  Still, it is worth reading at least one or two of his novels (and a handful of the stories).  

And with this, I will bring this discussion to an end.  I will probably get through two more fiction books in April and then plan to stick to non-fiction for a while, which may be a bit of a shock to the system...

More accidents on the commute

Friday was a strange day.  I saw two accidents that could have been much worse.  In that sense, I guess it was marginally better than this day.

I have no idea why the subway was so backed up, but I had to let 3 go by before I could squeeze on.  As the third was getting ready to shut its doors, a young woman ran by and tripped and fell on the platform right on the yellow rumble strip.  She was really laid out, and its not that hard to imagine her getting her hand caught in the gap between the train and the platform.  I'm not even sure the conductor did see her, or just took a look and made sure she was not touching the train.  At any rate, the doors closed more or less right in her face, and the train took off.  This whole sequence would have made a perfect PSA for why it is such a bad idea to run and try to catch a train.

A couple of people helped her get up and I thought she was ok, but she noticed that there was a major stain on her white jeans.  I suspect it actually was blood and the accident a bit worse than I originally thought.  In any case, she turned around and walked out of the station.  I did feel bad for her, but she had made a bunch of bad choices, and could easily have endangered others on the platform.  Running for a train is generally a bad mistake, though I have certainly moved quickly if it is an off-peak time and there is a clear shot between the bottom of the stairs and the subway door.  (Often, however, you then run into someone who decides to stop short as soon as they get onto the train; that has happened to me a few times.)

Friday wasn't all that eventful for me personally,* though I had wished I could ride my bike.  I managed 3 times in 5 days, but am still quite sore, as I am only just getting back into it.  Depending on the weather, I may ride in tomorrow (Sunday) and then Wednesday is pretty likely.  I'd like to make it on more day (Monday?) but it really depends on whether it rains or not.  The main reason I didn't ride is that I was going to see The Beaux' Stratagem at Soulpepper.  I wasn't able to switch tickets for Thurs, as I had hoped.  While I have occasionally ridden home later than 10 pm, it isn't something I am ever eager to do, so I just took the King streetcar.  (I should say that the students did a very good job with the play, and I'll be interested to see what they do next season.)

I just missed a streetcar, and while I was waiting for the next one, I saw two cyclists come by and all of a sudden, one of them collapsed in the street and fell basically in front of a car or rather just to the right of the car, but his arms were sort of in the path.  The car wasn't actually going that fast and was able to avoid the cyclist.  So everyone pulled over and tried to find out what had happened.  I had thought perhaps the car had clipped him, but in fact the front brake locked or something, and he went down.  He was just extremely, extremely lucky to have been able to get up without a scratch apparently.  The bike even seemed to still be working, and he pedalled off, though I imagine 1) he was very sore the next morning and 2) he will be taking that bike to the shop for a thorough tune-up.  I probably ought to have a tune-up as well, though I may wait another few weeks to sort of break it in.

Both of these events could have been so much worse, and I am glad that everyone walked away with just bruises or at worst a skinned knee.  Stay alert and be careful, people!

* I'm clearly still kind of numb about Prince dying; I believe I already said I am just about all grieved out for my pop heroes.  Let's give it a rest, 2016, mmm'kay?

Saturday, April 23, 2016

Shakespeare 400

I have to admit that I am not really doing all that much to mark what is generally considered to be the 400th anniversary of Shakespeare's death (April 23).  I did add one more Shakespeare performance back in March (Richard III) to this list of productions I've seen (I'm missing a few, but most are there).  Somewhat incredibly I am not going to see any Shakespeare at Stratford this summer, since I don't feel like seeing Macbeth again and they are doing a really odd fusion of the history plays.  However, I'll see the two plays at High Park: Hamlet and All's Well that Ends Well.  I don't think my son would quite get All's Well (it isn't really that funny for a comedy) and I am debating taking him to Hamlet.  He could probably handle it.  A bit closer to us, Driftwood is going to be doing Taming of the Shrew set in the 80s.  I'll definitely go see that and probably will take him as well.  They were supposed to have the tour dates up today, but I guess it will be tomorrow.*  Probably at least one or two of the Fringe productions will be Shakespeare, simply because there are no pesky rights to deal with.  So I'm not worried about getting enough Shakespeare this year.

In terms of the rest of the day, I'll see if any of the BBC Radio 3 shows are streamable.  Though I really ought to just work on a bit of my own scripts, either this short piece I started for SFYS while in Chicago, or the reworking of King Lear.  While I am definitely wondering whether I should go forward with this (and I'm working on blog post called Justify Your Production to hash out these issues), I could at least write out another few pages and see if there is any magic there.

If I had all the time in the world, I would watch Kurosawa's Ran (though I still haven't made it all the way through Ikiru, which I wanted to watch again once I returned to my role as a bureaucrat of sorts).  If I can dig it out, I will make a serious effort to get to Welles' Chimes at Midnight tonight.

* So they open with a show at Todmorden Mills on July 8, and then there is almost an entire week in Withrow Park the third week of July, which is when I will plan on going.  Quite exciting...

Tuesday, April 19, 2016

9th Canadian Challenge - 16th Review - Such is My Beloved

Morley Callaghan's Such is My Beloved is a quick read, as least in my case, though it does ask some profound questions, at least for those of a religious bent.  I was reading it from an outsider's perspective and was probably less troubled by the book's overall implications.  The basic plot is that there is a very gung-ho priest in town.  (Interestingly, as far as I can tell, the city is not named, though it is presumably between Montreal and Detroit, since that is where the two streetwalkers originate from.  The Catholic church is somewhat in decline, and it certainly doesn't seem to be a bustling metropolis.  I'm tentatively identifying it as Kingston, though that is hardly important to the story.)

Father Dowling is solicited by the two young prostitutes and, while he is initially horrified, he eventually comes to their lodging house to try to reform them.  They initially rebuff him but gradually come to like having him around.  The book shows how Father Dowling gets pulled into their lives.  He doesn't neglect his work in the parish, though there is a considerably financial burden on him as he tries to alleviate their misery (and to convince them to stop streetwalking).  He feels guilty (and rightfully so) when he stops sending money back to his mother.

Father Dowling does not have much success in finding legitimate work for the girls, which is hardly a surprise, since the book is set in the early 1930s when Canada was gripped by the Depression (arguably by some economic measures Canada suffered even more than the U.S.).

Father Dowling finally decides to take very decisive action and forces the richest man in the congregation to take an interest in the girls.  This is where things start to completely unravel for the priest.  I assume that Callaghan was familiar with and was drawing upon Dostoevsky's The Idiot, which is essentially about how difficult it is to truly fulfill all of Christ's edicts about loving and caring for others, in particular fallen women, in modern society.  And how that way madness lies...

To discuss the key issues much further, there will be some SPOILERS, though they are fairly predictable.

Again, SPOILERS...

Where Father Dowling goes wrong is in expecting far too much out of very conventional people.  He almost certainly could have gotten money from the businessman, but then the priest insisted on bringing the prostitutes over to the businessman's house and having them meet the family (apparently so that their good influence would rub off on the prostitutes).  Basically, everyone is furious at him for this totally bungled move, which shows that the priest really has no common sense.  The prostitutes are snubbed, and the businessman's wife insists that her husband take this matter up with the Bishop (with fairly predictable results).  The truly wise religious leader does not burden his flock with more than they can bear, and Father Dowling seems to have overlooked this message.

I can't quite tell what message Callaghan really wants to convey -- is it that most Christians are hypocrites that reject the teachings of Christ when they are right under their noses or that the priest is foolish for insisting upon a level of selflessness that is too extreme.  He may well have meant both at the same time.  When the priest is confronted by the Bishop, he says something to the effect that he thought just by being in the same room with the prostitutes, his presence would help "save" them, which actually seems so unbelievably arrogant.  There's a line by the poet John Sinclair about how it is ok to act crazy but not "to fall in love / with the act" (from "In Walked Bud").  In short, it is fine to aspire to act like Jesus and to offer salvation to fallen women, but it is too much to think that you are the embodiment of Jesus and can personally redeem them, which is where I think Father Dowling has landed.

There were a few places that Callaghan surprised me.  Lou (a pimp who is running one but not both of the girls) actually backs off from making a scene with the priest, though he doesn't like or trust the priest.  Second, the Bishop actually manages to have the girls run out of town before the situation develops into a full-blown scandal.  That was also a bit of a surprise.  Perhaps the biggest twist is that the priest goes into a full-blown depression and is sent to a retreat to recover.  It is implied that he accepts he is mad (perhaps subconsciously realizing he was thinking of himself as Christ-like) and that he will never recover.  Again, this seemed to be drawing heavily on The Idiot.  But I found it quite an unsatisfying ending.  The priest is young and impressionable, so I would imagine that after some time he would (or certainly should) build up that scar tissue on his "soul" that would allow him to function a bit better in society.  That's what I would expect from a priest with genuine religious feeling.  While he didn't neglect the other parishioners during the events of the novel, he does at the end where he is really wallowing in self-pity in an extremely self-indulgent way just because he couldn't save two prostitutes who didn't really want to be saved.  It's a very strange ending to the book, and I certainly wasn't satisfied by it.  I much prefer the priest from Morte d'Urban who finds a way to navigate the needs of his new flock and balance that against his own spiritual re-awakening.  Still, there is no doubt that this was a book that made me take the question (or really slogan) "WWJD" as a serious one.

Sunday, April 17, 2016

Non-fiction reading list

As I indicated in this post, I think it is worth keeping track of the non-fiction reading I am contemplating, or at least those books that didn't already migrate over to the main reading list.  I really have no idea how long it will take me to get around to these books.  Many of them I've carried around with me for years, or decades in a few cases.  I think I will group them by subject rather than try to write them down in the sequence I expect to follow.  I have vastly more books that I would like to read than I will list here, but I don't want to get too discouraged.  If I make any meaningful progress on this list, I will roll the remaining books over into a new list with the next round of urban studies books and history tomes.

Relativity by Albert Einstein
Relativity Simply Explained by Martin Gardner
Einstein's Universe Nigel Calder
A Brief History of Time by Stephen Hawking
Death by Black Hole Neil D. Tyson

Natural History/Biology
The Voyage of the Beagle by Charles Darwin 
The Origin of the Species by Charles Darwin (I'm not quite as interested in this, but I really ought to read it once)
The Panda's Thumb by Stephen Jay Gould
The Flamingo's Smile by Stephen Jay Gould (I tracked down a box set of Gould's early books)

Essays by Montaigne/Shakespeare's Montaigne
Persian Letters by Montesquieu
The Spirit of Laws by Montesquieu (on-line here)
Confessions by Rousseau (actually a tedious auto-biography - I got through 9 of the 12 sections before finally throwing in the towel*)
On Certainty by Wittgenstein
Being and Time by Heidegger
A Thousand Plateaus by Deleuze and Guattari 
We Have Never Been Modern by Bruno Latour (ultimately abandoned this; just not rewarding)

The Raw and the Cooked by Levi-Strauss
Tristes Tropics by Levi-Strauss
Coming of Age in Samoa by Margaret Mead
Growing Up In New Guinea by Margaret Mead
Male and Female by Margaret Mead (a few interesting insights but very dated and a slog overall)
Cultural Patterns and Technical Change ed. by Margaret Mead
Risk and Culture by Mary Douglas and Aaron Wildavsky
Patterns of Culture by Ruth Benedict
The Forest of Symbols by Turner
The Ritual Process by Turner
Routes by James Clifford (quite disappointing actually)
Argonauts of the Western Pacific by Malinowski
A Diary in the Strict Sense of the Term by Malinowski

The Autumn of the Middle Ages by Huizinga and Payton
The Federalist Papers by Hamilton/Madison/Jay (wow this was dense)
Notes on the State of Virginia by Thomas Jefferson
Crevecoeur - Letters from an American Farmer
Democracy in America by de Tocqueville
The Journals of Lewis and Clark ed. by DeVoto
The Silk Road by Wood
Cross-Cultural Trade in World History by Curtin
Gold and Spices: the Rise of Commerce in the Middle Ages by Favier
The Structures of Everyday Life (3 vol) - Ferdinand Braudel
Postwar by Tony Judt
Reappraisals by Tony Judt
The Cool School - Library of America (does Art History count?)

Urban Studies/Architecture
MoneySpace: Geographies of Monetary Transformation by Leyshon and Thrift
Now Here: Space, Time and Modernity ed. by Friedland and Boden
Economies of Signs and Space by Scott Lash and John Urry
The 100 Mile City by Sudjic
Making the Second Ghetto by Arnold Hirsch
Venkatesh American Project
Venkatesh Floating City
The Neoliberal City by Jason Hackworth
The Power Broker by Robert Caro (managed to get 1/3 through, but that was so long ago I'll have to restart this)
The Battle for Gotham by Gratz
Divided Cities: New York and London by Fainstein, Gordon & Harloe
Cities and Visitors by Hoffman, Fainstein and Judd
The Tourist City ed. by Judd and Fainstein
Tourism Mobilities: Places to Play, Places in Play by Sheller and Urry
Cities and Economic Development: From the Dawn of History ... by Bairoch
Cities in the International Marketplace by Savitch & Kantor
Global Chicago ed. Madigan
Chicago Dreaming by Spears
Nightshift NYC by Sharman and Sharman
City Lights by Jakle
Cities of Light and Heat by Ross
Subterranean Cities: The World Beneath Paris and London by David Pike
Metropolis on the Styx: The Underworlds of Modern Urban Culture by David Pike
The Ruins of Paris by Jacques Reda
The Search for the Ultimate Sink by Joel Tarr

Urban Studies: Toronto-specific
Urban Engimas ed. Sloan
Imagining Toronto by Harris
The Ward ed. Loring et. al.
Accidental City by Fulford
The Public Metropolis by Friskin
Changing Toronto by Boudreau, Keil & Young

General Non-Fiction Essays
Susan Sontag Essays of the 1960s & 70s (LOA)
Joan Didion We Tell Ourselves Stories in Order to Live: Collected Nonfiction (everything except The Year of Magical Thinking and Blue Nights -- the latter is quite skipable apparently)
Saul Bellow It All Adds Up: From the Dim Past to the Uncertain Future
Essays of E.B. White (includes Here is New York)
A Collection of Essays by George Orwell
The Real World of Technology (revised & expanded ed.) Ursula Franklin 

* I have to say that my bad reaction to Rousseau's The Confessions makes it much less likely I read anything else by him, though some day I'll perhaps attempt A Discourse on Inequality.

Video Cabaret and the Great War

I just saw Video Cabaret's The Great War.  It was amazing as usual (and the Star agrees).  It's not quite the equivalent of a Passion Play, but if you squint there are some similarities.  There are quite a few characters, and they all have to be introduced, so that the audience knows what is going on.  There are actually a few interesting links.  Apparently, while there are strong ideological ties between Robert Bourassa and Henri Bourassa (who was a newspaper publisher in Quebec who stirred up nationalist feelings amongst the Quebecois and who opposed conscription during WWI), they were not related.  I guess Video Cabaret tried to subtly hint at this by not having the character who played Robert Bourassa (in the Trudeau plays from last season) play Henri Bourassa this time around.  Instead it was the actor who played Jacques Parizeau, who played Henri Bourassa.  (There is one small linkage to the rise of the FLQ in the way the phrase "That's right" is said (off-stage) when the young men of Quebec rally against conscription.)  Actually now that I think about it, resisting conscription during WWI was a key subplot in MacLennan's Two Solitudes, where Marius Tallard goes into hiding to resist the draft and there is quite a disagreement amongst the neighbours on how to react, which not surprisingly breaks down along ethnic lines.

Mac Fyfe, who absolutely owned the previous plays as Pierre Elliot Trudeau, is very good here as a sensitive lieutenant as well as the Duke of Connaught (Governor General of Canada), but I would say the play largely revolves around Rick Campbell, playing Colonel Arthur Currie, who seemed to be a military mind who actually knew what he was doing.  He was very good last year, but he really shines brighter here.  There are certainly comic moments, though some of the comedy is actually quite bitter, as we see the politicians back home maneuvering in relative comfort while the soldiers are ordered to make one suicidal charge after another.  Appropriately, there are few very comic moments when the focus in on the soldiers in the trenches (aside from their visit to a brothel while on leave), so in that sense it is not quite the same as Blackadder IV where almost all the comic bickering takes place on or near the Front.  Actually, while the violence is stylized, it is still a pretty dark play, and it probably is not appropriate to take small children.  (There was a small child behind me who was a bit traumatized.)  Even my son is probably a bit too sensitive for this play.  Anyway, the play runs through May 14, though tickets are already on the scarce side, so get a move on if you want to see this.  More information and a link to the box office here.

I'm not exactly sure of their plans and if they will cycle through a third time or not.  From this page, it looks as though they started up again with the cycle in 2000, then after The War of 1812 (which I am sorry I missed but I wasn't going to fly to Toronto or Stratford just for that), they jumped to the two Trudeau plays, which is where I came in.  (Apparently, I could have caught WWII on its first go around in 1994, but I just wasn't that aware of Video Cabaret at the time.  Too bad.)

Next year they are going to do the 4 plays covering Confederation through the Saskatchewan Rebellion or 1861-1885, though they have already done them in the second cycle.  That might make it more feasible to mount so many plays.  Anyway, I can't wait.  I'll probably take my son and perhaps even my daughter to two of them (Confederation and perhaps The Canadian Pacific Scandal), though I'll also encourage the school to consider sending the class to see Confederation.  I'll also see if the planners in my office want to go as a group to The Canadian Pacific Scandal.

After that, I really don't know if they will redo Mackenzie King or launch into WWII and the Cold War.  (Putting on WWII and the Cold War in one season would be an awesome pairing -- hint, hint.)  It might take a while for me to see the whole cycle, but if they are game to go around a third time, I am as well.

Consular Blues

I just thought the title of this post sounded amusing.  Friday we had a visit to the U.S. Consulate in Toronto to deal with some passport issues.  One nice change from a few years back is that you can mail in your passport (from Canada) for renewal if 1) you are an adult, 2) you won't be needing to travel for a month or so, and 3) there are no other weird, hinky issues that you have to talk over with the consulate staff.  In my case, I did have to visit.

I think the lines used to be considerably longer, but not as many people seem to be trying to get visas for the U.S. (another very popular service at the Consulate).  Either they already got them, or the exchange rate is keeping people from visiting the States.  The lines did seem longer in Vancouver two or three years back, which I attribute to a larger population from Asia (particularly young people on student visas in Canada) that needed to get visitor visas and to the better exchange rate.  Believe me, I am certainly not complaining that the line wasn't down the block!

Anyway, while they do stress this several times, you cannot bring anything electronic into the Consulate, including laptops, cell phones, key fobs that could start a car, and even FitBits.  (This last item came fairly close to tripping us up.)  And there are naturally no lockers at the Consulate to store them while you go in.  There may be some store nearby that will hold them for a fee (according to some reviews), but it is much better to arrange things to not have any of this on you.  In our case, I was able to drop things off at work, then we walked over to the Consulate.

The other thing that they don't tell you until the last minute is that if you are dealing with passports is that you need to bring a prepaid Xpresspost envelop addressed both from and to your home address.  It is fine to get the Regional one, not the National one, but it is best to get the slightly larger one (not the very smallest envelope).  That currently runs just under $15 Canadian.  The Consulate also does not accept checks (even those drawn on US accounts).  They do accept money orders, though since they also accept credit cards, it is probably best to just do that, particularly if some new fee gets added to your total.  While I cannot guarantee this, an earlier appointment is better than a later one, since there are always a few problematic cases that arise during the day that sort of take up additional staff resources.  I put these tips out there, since the more information beforehand, the less stress you will have the day of your visit to the Consulate.

I thought the security procedures here were actually a bit more streamlined than in Vancouver, where I also had to deal with the Consulate.  Once inside, it didn't take too long to get some help at the window, and I have to say that everyone we dealt with was very nice and even in one case quite friendly.  We were in and out in about 90 minutes.  As I said, it really wasn't too bad, though hopefully I won't have to go back for a while!

Saturday, April 16, 2016

And now for (reading) something completely different

I was taking a look at my progress on my somewhat absurdly long reading list -- and realized that I have three more to go in order to have knocked off 100 from the list (just not in precisely the order that I had laid out).  It definitely goes in periods where I am enjoying quite a few of the books and then times (like now) where I am finding fault with most of the books.

At any rate, after I get through these three (ending on Laferrière Heading South), I think I will take a bit of a break to read some non-fiction.  I have vast number of urban studies books which I have mostly skimmed.  I might pick just a handful to read.  They would probably be on a separate list, since I don't think I will want to be completely prescriptive in how I interlace my fiction and non-fiction reading.

Darwin's The Voyage of the Beagle is a book I have been meaning to read for literally decades.  It is probably more like 15 years for DeVoto's selection of the Journals of Lewis and Clark.  I think it is time to fit them in somehow.

However, I am going to start by rereading* Calder's Einstein's Universe and then tackle Hawking's A Brief History of Time.  (Some study put this at the number one or two spot of books that were purchased and never finished -- or even begun.  In my defense, I didn't actually buy the book...)  I did, however, buy Neil Degrasse Tyson's Death by Black Hole while at the planetarium side of the Natural History Museum on our recent trip to New York.  I am probably going to enjoy Death by Black Hole more than Hawking's book, but if I read Tyson first, then I will never read the Hawkster.  I expect that it will take me a while to get through all of them.  I may post on more scientific topics for a while, or I may use the break from fiction as a chance to catch up on a number of reviews and musings that I have simply not gotten around to over the past month.

* I actually had read up on quite a bit of Einstein's theory of relativity in my teens, and recently thought that it might be something my kids would be interested in as they got into more serious science at school (you never know).  I happened to be in the science section at Powells (on my only trip to Portland while living out in Vancouver) and picked up a few books on the subject.

Shadowy weekend

It's been interesting watching how the 80s revival (in music and to some degree in fashion) is giving way to the early 90s.  That's particularly good for those interested in Canadian alternative music, as to me the highlight of that period ran from roughly 1991-1995, and many of the Canadian bands of the time are reforming and playing Toronto at least.

The Lowest of the Low have reformed on a semi-permanent basis and have played a couple of shows.  One I waited a bit too long, and it sold out (this was a busy period at work, however, so I was working quite late those days).  Then we were out of town for the other show.  Still, I'll keep my eyes open and may make it to one of their gigs.

Shadowy Men on a Shadowy Planet have been playing occasional reunion shows since 2012, though one band member died, so there is a replacement bass player.  I found out that they played Lee's Palace Friday night, but I had seen two concerts back to back, and I just didn't want to be gone another evening.  Anyway, it was sold out.  It appears there is another show tonight, which is also sold out, though there may be tickets available through the usual (shadowy) channels.

Potentially more interesting is that for Sat. April 16 only, there is a 4 LP box set coming out that collects their 3 albums and a fourth LP of rarities.  This is part of Record Store Day 2016.  Some details here (scroll down to the bottom).  I'm just not that interested in the artificial scarcity of these sets, particularly for a vinyl-only release.  If it comes out on CD next year, I might consider it, though I have to admit I find there is a certain sameness to their songs, and I don't think I am really the target audience.  I'm more interested in the idea of Shadowy Men than in actually going to a gig or listening to an entire box set of their music.  I'd probably be better off picking up one or two of their CDs at BMW for example.  Still, for those that are interested, today is the day to go record store hunting.

How could I forget to link to "Having an Average Weekend"?  This version is from one of the reunion shows.

Tuesday, April 12, 2016

Beaver Hall in Hamilton

As a bit of a respite from all my tax calculations, I went down to Hamilton on Sunday to see the Pacifica Quartet playing Beethoven.  (On the Hamilton Express bus in fact, which was pretty smooth after we got past the huge line of cars trying to get into the city for the Jays game.)  I had thought it was going to be 3 Beethoven string quartets, but, ultimately, they didn't have enough time for that.  They did one movement from one of the early quartets, and then Quartet #7 (Op. 59, no 1) and Quartet #14 (Op. 131) after the break.  It was pretty incredible.  Of the two, I did like #7 a bit more, I think because of a long section where the cello was plucking the strings.  At one point, the concert they were doing in London, Ont. a couple of days earlier was more different, but in the end, it was basically the same program, but #8 instead of #7.  For those in Chicago, they have a quite different concert coming up on April 24th, where they are doing Beethoven's Op. 131 with Mozart's Quartet in G Major, K. 387 and Shostakovich String Quartet #11.  That would be something worth checking out, and there are more details here.  I should say that they pretty much sold out the room in Hamilton, which is fairly impressive.  I have no idea if they advertised widely and tried to pull more people from Toronto, or if it is strictly a local crowd, but it was a good turnout for a great afternoon of music.

Since Chamber Music Hamilton puts on their shows in the Art Gallery of Hamilton, the tickets actually allow admission into the art gallery as well.  I got there in time to look around for close to 40 minutes, as well as looking at the main exhibit again during the intermission.

I had thought that the upstairs gallery would be more or less the same as during my visit about a year ago, but it was quite different.  This time around, the paintings were hung salon-style and they generally skewed a bit earlier, sort of ending with some of the Group of Seven painters, with a few exceptions.  Probably the biggest exception is that they had Alex Colville's Horse and Train back up on the wall.

Looking back at the previous visit, they had relatively little Lawren Harris upstairs.  While Ice House is part of the large Lawren Harris exhibit and should be moving from Boston to Toronto soon, I only remember seeing Hurdy Gurdy this time around.  They did not have In the Ward, Toronto (1919) or Icebergs and Mountains, Greenland (1930) upstairs (and it is unclear when they have had either on view, so I may write to ask if they will bring out these two to celebrate getting Ice House back in the fall).  They did have Harris's Waterfall, Algoma (1920) on view, which wasn't out on my previous trip.  They did have their key paintings by Tom Thomson and Emily Carr on view, so that was nice to see them again.  I do wish they had T.R. MacDonald's One A.M. on view, as I quite liked that from before.  On the other hand, they had a different painting by MacDonald called The Red Skirt.

T.R. MacDonald, The Red Skirt, 1939

The main reason to visit the AGH right now is to see the main exhibit on the first floor, which is a show on Canadian art linked with Beaver Hall.  It appears that all the paintings are from the 1920s and all are associated with Montreal in some way, though some of the painters left Quebec.  While there is a bit of sameness to the portraits after a while, many of the urban landscapes are quite nice.  I think my very favourite was Adrien Hébert's Saint Catherine Street, but I liked Saint Denis Street as well (in the Musée national des beaux-arts du Quebec).  It reminded me just a little of Caillebotte's Paris Street; Rainy Day in terms of the scale.

Adrien Hébert, Saint Catherine Street, 1926

Adrien Hébert, Saint Denis Street, 1927

Not every painting was of an urban scene.  There were also a series of paintings of nuns by Sarah Robertson.  This painting is from the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts, though I must admit I don't recall seeing it on view on our last trip.  It's possible of course that I have simply forgotten it.

Sarah Robertson, Old Fort, Sulpician Seminary, c. 1931

I'll end this review of the show with more of a rural view by Anne Savage.*  This painting is also in the the Musée national des beaux-arts du Quebec, though it may or may not be commonly on view (when not on loan).  I haven't yet made it to Quebec City, but one of these days I am sure I will drop by and see what is going on in the museum.

Anne Savage, The Red House, Dorval, ca. 1928

The show runs through May 8, so there is still time to make a trip, and it is certainly worth seeing once.  There is an associated catalog, though the Gift Shop has currently run out of stock.  I put a hold on it through the Toronto Library, but it might be many months before it turns up.

Anyway, it was a nice interlude from a long day of going through tax forms...

* I didn't really think too much about it either way, but some of the critics are pleased with the gender balance in the show.  In addition to Savage and Robertson, there are quite fine paintings by Prudence Heward and Kathleen Morris, but I don't have any more space in this post for their work.

A tale of two taxes

Now that tax time has come around again, I decided to put together a post on various tax regimes and their rules (and how things might look under a more sensible tax regime).  Like probably everybody else subject to U.S. taxes, I find them extremely draining and needlessly complex, and I am just recovering from preparing the U.S. taxes.  I also found I made a major mistake on my Canadian taxes (and probably have to amend the 2014 taxes!), so I am going to take a day or two to recover and then fix them.  Fortunately, I hadn't mailed them off yet. 

What may be a bit surprising is that in terms of the top two tiers of detail (basic income and basic investments like dividends), the U.S. taxes are only slightly more complex than the U.K.'s and are written in a bit more straightforward fashion than Canada's (where they just don't give enough examples to make it clear that yes, your children count as eligible dependents for example).  Also, while it is nice there is some responsiveness on the part of Canadian tax authorities, they made a fairly substantial change to Schedule 1 this year, and I nearly made a major mistake because of it.  However, the U.S. quickly delves into completely ridiculous arcane rules and a certain point I do just give up and start zeroing out some of the rows on the Schedule D tax calculator for instance.

In any case, I would definitely prefer a system like they have in Europe, where income is only taxes where it is earned, rather than the system for both Canada and the U.S. where all income is taxed and then there are some exclusions and deductions for the tax paid to other countries.  While it is true that there is a tax treaty in place between these two countries, it is also true that if you are a high earner (essentially anything over $100,000), then you absolutely are being doubled taxed in the U.S. at least on a portion of your earnings.  I find it difficult to accept that as being fair, particularly given the high tax rates in Canada, which come extremely close to 50% marginal tax rate once you approach $150,000 in global income.  One of the inevitable consequences of such high marginal tax rates is that high income people look into tax shelters, legal or not, and then more of the burden falls on people in the $75,000-$150,000 range.

Anyway, it doesn't seem that these issues will ever be resolved.  It is interesting and more than a little shocking how low the U.S. sets taxes on investment income.  I don't even recall when they cut the rate from 15% to 0% on a wide host of investment income categories, but certainly by 2014.  (What's even weirder is how this very important calculation is buried in Schedule D and not directly reported to the IRS.) In contrast, Canada basically says that capital gains are taxed at 50% of the overall tax rate, but on the other hand, more people can deduct standard investment expenses, while this is only available to people who itemize their deductions in the U.S. (and then usually this is still taken away due to the machinations of the AMT).

I would certainly prefer that the U.S. eliminate the 0% rate, which seems completely unjustifiable on any grounds, but allow standard investment fees to directly offset capital gains.  That would be an improvement, and would almost certainly raise more revenue, though I am sure someone would still try to game the system.

What I am not crazy about in Canada, and particularly Ontario, is that they pretend to have sort of moderate tax rates (11-13% for higher income individuals) and then they come up with crazy accounting rules, particularly a surtax (so you literally are paying a tax on your tax) that raises the effective rate to 20% and thus 47.5% or so when combined with the federal tax.  If being progressive is so important to decision makers, then one should not try to hide the fact that this is embedded in the tax code.

I think more than anything, I do believe that households should be taxed as households, rather than individuals.  Not only is it silly for all adults to file separate tax forms, I personally don't think it is just for a tax system to tax an individual earning $120,000 differently from 2 people earning $60,000, and yet it is so.  (This is the whole impetus behind the tax sharing adjustment (Schedule 1A) that Harper brought in in 2014, and decided to label the "family tax cut."  By making it such a blatantly political adjustment to the tax code, that increases the odds that the Liberals decide to undo this for 2016, which will just exacerbate the problem.)  The flip is also a problem.  In the U.S. married couples do get a bunch of tax breaks that two unmarried people do not get.  There is no perfect treatment that works for all situations, but I do think that household income should be pooled and taxed just once, rather than the extremely complex Canadian system where literally all deductions and tax credits have to be parcelled out across household members.  That seems extremely rife for mistakes -- and malfeasance, since it would be very hard for Canada Revenue to keep track and make sure there was no double-counting.  Aside from the attempt to tax individuals as completely independent entities (and not part of households) and the tax surcharge, I generally do think Canada's tax rules are a bit fairer.  They certainly are simpler than the U.S., which has incredibly and I think needlessly complex rules on investment income.  That said, there are definitely a lot of places Canada could provide more examples or just use more straightforward definitions in their tax terms.  I guess that really is all I feel like writing on the subject.

Thursday, April 7, 2016

9th Canadian Challenge - 15th Review - How to Make Love to a Negro

I decided to knock this review off quickly, even though I have two other reviews waiting in the wings.  (If I put the Alice Munro review off much longer, I'll have to reread large chunks of it!  Nonetheless, I don't think I can focus on this until my taxes are done.)  The title is a bit of a Rorschach test.  If you are put off by it, then this is not a novel for you.  Perhaps more specifically, if you appreciate or are open to literature focused on the seamier side of life, you might like this novel.  Otherwise, don't bother.  More specifically, Dany Laferrière name-checks Henry Miller several times and Charles Bukowski as well.  If you like Miller or Bukowski, then this novel might appeal to you.  While it is certainly not a reboot of Bukowski's Post Office, there are strong similarities between the two, and indeed both are first novels by their respective authors.

There is really no plot to speak of.  The narrator lives in a fairly squalid one-room apartment on rue St-Denis in Montreal with a roommate, who more or less lives on the couch and is often described as a kind of Black Buddha.  He finds romancing young white women in Montreal (essentially all of them are Anglophone students attending McGill) to be a breeze and he seduces one after another.  That's pretty much the plot.  Laferrière spends far more time talking about the jazz music that his roommate plays or different writers that the narrator has read than actually advancing the plot.

The narrator wants to become an artist and settles for becoming a writer, and in a bit of a postmodern twist, the novel that he writes is How to Make Love to a Negro, i.e. the book that is in the reader's hands.  It isn't at all clear how the two come up with any money for the rent, though it is strongly implied that they are taking money from their white girlfriends.  As I said, it is sort of a book designed to elicit strong reactions and is certainly not for everyone.  For some reason, the book seems to be published in English with a truncated title -- it is actually supposed to be How to Make Love to a Negro without Getting Tired!

One thing that is not in this book, though is omnipresent in Alain Mabanckou's Blue White Red, is the hassling from immigration officers.  (I'm finding Mabanckou and Laferrière to be quite similar, though Laferrière naturally focuses more on Quebec, whereas Mabanckou is more interested in an Africa-Europe axis.)  This probably implies that the two did immigrate to Montreal legally.  It isn't even clear whether they came from Haiti (as Laferrière did) or Africa.  The narrator tells one or two of his dates that he comes from Africa, but this seems designed to impress upon them that he is the "real thing," a Black man from Africa, and is probably not true.  The narrator has found that when people want something (particularly if they are looking to be transgressive and cross some boundary, particularly the color line), they are living out some fantasy in their head and don't want to be bothered by reality.  I don't really have much more to add to that.

Tuesday, April 5, 2016

The very busy week

It feels like last week is still not over, or at least there are still just a few things hanging over my head.

Unlike the previous vacation, when we came back from Chicago, we (or rather I) only had a few hours to recover before going back to work.  The kids had Monday off from school.

Monday was a slowish day fortunately.  Most of our Canadian clients had Easter off, though actually a few were open.  I had a few things to take care related to the new position.  I had half-thought I would manically stay up and write a short piece for SFYS (begun on the Chicago trip) and get it out before midnight.  That is the equivalent of slipping something under the professor's door.  In the end I was just too exhausted but more importantly I was feeling guilty about undone work, particularly the write-up for a modelling project that was due a month or so ago.  Normally, we would not be that far behind, but this is a case where the client grossly underpaid for the amount of work done, and I ended up doing almost all the work in the evenings on my own time and was somewhat resentful.  It certainly ended up as the last thing I would work on when I did have time, though I knew the day of reckoning was looming.

The first part of the week was wrapping up another big documentation job, and then finally notifying the PM that I was leaving.  It's more than a little ironic that another consultant is coming in and arguing that they have to completely revamp the model, so the shelf life of the model we developed might be extremely short.  I would be far more upset about this were I not moving on.

The middle of the week I tried to close out a long-term project that has been dragging on for well over a year.  I made a bit of progress and handed over my notes, but this is one that is going to be hard to salvage.  I also was furiously sorting and scanning documents to try to clean up the office.  In the end, I think I did a pretty good job.

Towards the end of Wed. I got the email from the client I had been dreading and I proposed that I send draft documentation on Friday and then clean things up next week.  Not unreasonably, the client felt that I might just vanish, so he counter-proposed that I get a solid draft to them Thurs. and they would provide comments and we could wrap things up on Friday.  That meant that I finally had to get going on the documentation.  I should say that it was not the case that I had done nothing -- I had a decent outline and a few sections already written, but there was a long ways to go.  I pretty much locked myself in my office and started working.

As it happens, I did have to head out Thurs. for my farewell lunch, but otherwise I did almost nothing but write this report.  I stayed much later than I wanted (I honestly can't remember if it was 11:30 or after midnight).  On the flip side, this forced me to take a cab, and I brought back both pieces of art, rather than doing one each evening on the train (and as it rained very heavily, I would have been out of luck on the second day).  While there were still a few holes in the documentation, I did get a solid draft out before I left.

Friday, I had a surprise urgent question from a different client, so I dealt with that in the morning.  (And let them know afterwards, that they would have to work through my colleagues after that, though hopefully that was the last major loose end for that project.)  I made a few edits to the documentation, pasting in some missing charts.  Then I got the comments back.  The good news is that there were relatively few comments and no major ones.  However, it was almost the end of the day.  At this point, the client felt that they had something in hand that they could work with, whereas before the documentation was essentially vaporware.  So the client agreed to wait until Monday for the final, final version.  I almost forgot that I stopped everything at 4:15 to take 7 boxes of books from my old office to the new one.  That was a bit of an adventure, but it just made so much sense not to have to bring them all back home and then lug them over to the new office.

I discussed it with my colleagues and we agreed that I would keep the work laptop over the weekend and drop it off on Sunday.  While my wife was kind of appalled when she found out, I decided this was the best solution.

What I forgot to mention was that he had a HVAC technician in to deal with an issue, and it turned out, he needed to go through the wall right where a bookcase was!  So I spent a big chunk of Saturday moving books and boxes.  The basement is still all messed up. I did take a few breaks to bike over to the library (there was snow on the way back!) and to get groceries.  While I didn't find the hair clippers I have been looking for, I found a few more missing jazz CDs (still not the Zoot Sims or Brubeck Take Five discs though).  More importantly, I found the hard drive I used at work in Vancouver and it did have quite a few missing scanned files.  Not absolutely everything, but enough that I decided not to stay up all night trying to restore my missing email files (and thus I got a bit of sleep!).

Sunday we had the HVAC technician come back around and handle the problem.  I have no idea why he wanted to schedule for Sunday, but I guess that was for the best.  It took him a couple more hours than expected, but the job got done.  Then I headed into work for the very, very last time.  I had one small issue to review for the on-going job and then the final edits to the documentation.  And I took the opportunity to do some final scanning and sorting, though eventually I just got sick of it.  (I might well have a lot more time free in the evenings now that this phase of backing up documents is finally over.*)  It didn't really help my mood that it snowed quite a bit that afternoon, and I hadn't expected it, so I didn't have the right kind of footware.  I'd also hoped to make a stop at the AGO, but that was just a pipe dream.  I probably won't go this weekend either, but perhaps the weekend after that I can check out the newish Outsiders exhibit.

The problem was that this took up a bit more time than I expected and I was really scrambling Monday morning to pull everything together for the new position.  I couldn't find some documentation, and I couldn't find the signed copy of the offer letter (fortunately, I had scanned and sent one the previous Monday).  Most importantly, I hadn't realized that the on-line training would take quite so long, and I was chastised (mildly) for this.  Nonetheless, I got through most of the day reasonably well.

The biggest adjustment will be to try to come in to work earlier, but then I also get to come home much earlier.  Over time, I am hoping that my sleep schedule will get more reasonable.  Right now I've woken up in the middle of the night, though that is really because I am worried about taxes.  I have put that off too long, and I'll have to scramble to get it done.  After I sign off, I need to gather up anything that seems relevant.  If I can find everything, then I will probably reward myself my going to see the Goldberg Variations tomorrow evening (unfortunately playing up in North York).  If I can have the first draft of the taxes done by Friday, then I think I will go to Hamilton on Sunday to see the Pacifica Quartet (I don't even know if there are still tickets, but I imagine so).

It is kind of silly to still be procrastinating so much at my age (both on that documentation and on the taxes), but I really have been extremely busy.  And for better or worse, I have almost never really suffered the consequences of putting things off until almost the last moment.  In the back of my mind, I know how long it will take me to do something in "crunch time," and while I don't like to work that way, when I am dealing with multiple projects as I was most of the last two years, something is going to be pushed off until nearly the last moment.  That said, I could have given up some of my weekend activities had it ever felt like a true crisis.  That would have made me even more resentful of how much my previous job sucked out of me of course, but I could have done it.  Probably it would have been more beneficial for me to really suffer once or twice due to procrastination.  (I have done half-assed jobs on paper abstracts and not gotten to go to conferences I wanted to attend, but that hardly counts.)  At this point it may be too much to expect me to change too much.  The tiger not changing its stripes and so forth...

Anyway, I am kind of exhausted just looking over my last week at the old job, and now I have to go scrounge around, looking for my tax records.  See ya.

* Certainly, I have a file cabinet worth of material remain to be scanned eventually, though I got through a lot of files.  One of the more amusing was a file from my senior year of undergrad where I was part of a study group that pulled together a guide to English literature ahead of our comps.  Also, apparently I read DeLillo's The Names back in my early 20s.  I have no recollection of this, so I will keep it on the reading list.  If I ever come across my reading log (which I maintained until my mid 20s), there probably will be a few other books that really surprise me.

Sunday, April 3, 2016

Early (Theatre) Warnings - (mostly) Fall 2016

Since this blog is all-jumbled up at the moment -- and I am still thinking about theatre and other live productions -- I'll list a few things that I have come across that are a bit further away, predominantly events that should occur in Toronto in the fall. Almost all of these have come from the DPS website.

The rights for Annie Baker's The Aliens lapsed (today in fact), but Company Theatre may put it on in the summer or fall or in 2017.  Hard to say.

Alumnae Theatre will be doing August: Osage County in April in fact (so this is actually fairly short notice), but I will not be going.  I think the play is quite interesting (if a bit exhausting), but I saw the original Steppenwolf production, and I just don't want anything to blur my memories of that.

I really haven't had a chance to reflect on A Man Vanishes over at Videofag, but the fact that the space is closing soon does sadden me a bit.  There are three or four events in April and May (so again, sort of short notice -- sorry).  I'm thinking seriously of going to Perfect Gays in late April, but then skipping Ana, which is only on for a single day (April 30).  I'm fairly likely to go see Sheets, which is apparently the last production that will be put on in the Videofag space.  I suspect I will be challenged and feel a bit squeamish about these pieces, but that is kind of the whole point about Videofag and its mission, and it is definitely the kind of thing I don't expose myself to all that often.

Harold Green will be doing Donald Margulies' The Model Apartment in May.  At first, I didn't plan on going, but I've dug a bit deeper and this is a bit of a subversive play, so maybe I will try to squeeze it in.  (Oh, I see Eric Peterson will be performing in it.  That makes it even more interesting, as I've wanted to see him in something in Toronto; it may mean the tickets will actually become a hot item.  Too bad they are performing up in North York...)

Tracy Letts' Bug will be coming to Toronto in late May, but I will pass on this one.  And Coal Mine has already launched into Letts' Killer Joe, but it's another play I just don't want to see.  If you do want to go, the run will probably sell out, so try to get tickets now.  I'm a lot more interested in Letts' later work, not his early plays.  I was a bit bummed out to miss out on his latest play at Steppenwolf -- Mary Page Marlowe -- but it will probably start making the rounds over the next few years.  I should eventually catch it.

Similarly, Albee's The Goat or Who is Sylvia will be coming through in early June, but I did not like this play at all, since I found the characters' actions unconvincing on every level.  Still, most Albee plays are worth seeing at least once.

Perhaps the strangest production yet is some space called "The Garage" on Augusta plans to put on Beckett's Play in early July.  I have doubts that this will happen, but I will keep monitoring the situation (I'm starting to think it may be this Fringe show that caught my attention).  I've never seen this (nor Happy Days), so I would want to go.  Though I am considerably more interested in watching Happy Days, so hopefully it will be mounted here within a few years.

I've already talked about Soulpepper's upcoming 2016 shows here, and there are several interesting plays.  I'm most interested in Arthur Miller's Incident at Vichy and Susie-Lori Park's Father Comes Home from the Wars.  These are must see plays for me (and indeed I already have my tickets...).

I talk about Tarragon next season here, and I may see The Watershed (though I am going to feel less compelled if I see Eric Peterson in The Model Apartment) and almost certainly Sequence and Will Eno's The Realistic Joneses.  Upon further reflection, I probably will be subscribing for the season -- it looks like a particularly strong one.

Coal Mine continues to be a bit hit or miss for me.  I think in the 2016-17 season I'll probably only go see Dennis Kelly's Orphans, which will run for most of April.

The Howland Company was supposed to be doing The Glass Menagerie in early Sept., or at least they secured the rights, but it does not appear to be on their website.  I suspect this is another phantom production.  They seem most interested in putting on plays relevant to Gen X and/or the Twitter Generation (which seems to be the goal of RedOne as well, though they have a slightly grittier aesthetic).  I am not completely uninterested in this kind of work, so I will try to drop in periodically on their website and see what they are up to.

Bloor West Village Players* are supposed to launch their season with Les Belles Soeurs in Sept.  I hope that comes to pass!  It does appear to still be on, though I am not at all familiar with the other plays in their upcoming season.  Indeed in late April-early May (the last play of this season), they are doing a comedy called Fox on the Fairway.  I might go, though it is all about golf, which bores me terribly.  Still, it is not really about the game per se, but madcap antics at the golf club.  Some critics are comparing it to a Marx Brothers farce, though I wonder if that raises expectations a bit too high.  (Note: it definitely did...)

Someone has the rights for Wallace Shawn's Aunt Dan and Lemon in early Sept.  It would be worth seeing if they actually pull off a full production.  Wallace Shawn writes in a very idiosyncratic style and it is aimed at a very specific audience (New York intellectuals), but I've found seeing his work quite rewarding in the past.

Speaking of phantom productions, Alumnae has put down markers on 3 plays for the same time slot in late Sept.  That may mean they don't know which they want to do, and it depends on the directors' availability, or they will do all three in the season, but change the timing.  I'm not sure.  The first is a fairly recent (2005) play called Colder Than Here by Laura Wade.  It is supposed to be an offbeat comedy about a woman dying of cancer and trying to arrange everything for her funeral ahead of time, both to ensure her funeral is "green" and as a bit of a coping mechanism.  I'd probably go.

The second is Paula Vogel's How I Learned to Drive, which I have no interest in seeing.  I've already passed up an opportunity to see this in Chicago and I'll pass it up here as well.  It's kind of frustrating, since this is the Vogel play produced the most often, whereas I want to see Hot and Throbbing or even Desdemona (though I don't think that is remounted very often).

They are also considering Melissa James Gibson's This, which I am 95% sure I saw in Chicago at Theatre Wit (one of the last shows I would have seen before decamping for Vancouver in fact).  I might go see it again, though it isn't a particularly high priority.

On the other hand, Hart House is known for sticking to their announced schedule.  They just put that up. I'll definitely see Wajdi Mouawad's Tidelines in mid Sept.  I'll probably skip Much Ado About Nothing in Nov., since I saw a version recently at Tarragon, though I might change my mind.

In late Sept. Tafelmusik is doing Handel's Water Music, which I'll probably go see.  I've listened to their recording so many times that it would be cool to see live.  In mid Oct. they have an interesting concert programmed around the cello.  But that is pretty much it.  I doubt I will see any other concerts in the 2016-17 season, and I don't plan on subscribing.

In November, Canadian Stage will be doing Payne's Constellations, though I won't be there.  I thought the script was terrible.

What Canadian Stage should be doing is Caryl Churchill's Love and Information.  Astonishingly, they are going to be scooped by a high school production!  Etobicoke School of the Arts is doing this show, next weekend in fact.  I am kind of torn.  I have no problem going to see a college production of some play, but I just can't see travelling an hour out of my way to see a high school production.  Someone in Toronto will surely put on the play in the next year or so, right?  If so, I will post it here.**

On a more positive note, I was checking out what rights have been applied for at DPS, and apparently Stupid F***ing Bird is coming to Toronto in March 2017, so I will definitely keep an eye out for that. 

This is perhaps the strangest coincidence.  I was updating the post about Shostakovich, and there is a short blurb in there about how I try to catch Messiaen's Quartet for the End of Time whenever possible.  Apparently, a group performed it last year in Toronto, but quite under the radar.  To prevent that from happening again, I did a bit of searching, and apparently the Toronto Symphony Orchestra Chamber Soloists will be performing this on Dec. 10, 2016, but all the way out in Kingston!  That's quite a ways to go, though I suppose I could manage it if there was something worth seeing at the Agnes Etherington Art Centre.  Still, I will see if there is someone to contact in the fall to find out if they will also be doing this same concert programme a bit closer to home.  Today I just saw that Amici will be doing the Quartet for the End of the Time on April 30, 2017, which should be pretty incredible, and I probably don't need to hear it in Dec. and then 4 months later, so I'll basically wait to see how soon I can order single tickets for next season.  I may also see if anyone from work is interested in going.

In terms of very long-term planning, the Moordale Concerts look pretty interesting.  I may not subscribe to the entire 2016-17 series, but Jan 22, 2017 the Heath Quartet is doing Dvorak's String Quartet 13, and on April 23 the New Orford String Quartet will be doing Schubert's String Quintet, which is always worth seeing, so I will try to pencil that in as soon as I get a 2017 calendar!  And then just a week later Messiaen's Quartet for the End of Time as I mentioned above.  So April is already looking busy!

The Royal Conservatory has their new dates up, and it looks like I would pick and choose.  I may or may not be able to get to 4 dates to make it an actual subscription.  The most interesting is Nicola Benedetti playing Baroque hits including Vivaldi's the Four Seasons on March 3; I'm pretty sure this would be a higher order of professionalism than the concert at Casa Loma, but the outdoor setting is also nice and has its own attractions.  Another interesting concert on Feb. 10 features the bassoon, though not Mozart's Bassoon Concerto (I'm not sure I've ever seen this live.).  In addition to Villa-Lobos’s Ciranda des sete notas, they will be doing Sibelius’s Symphony 5.  I'll probably go to this concert.  I'm somewhat torn over the Academy of St Martin in the Fields Chamber Ensemble concert on Oct. 21 where the highlight is Schubert's Octet but they are also doing Mozart's Quintet for Horns and Strings K 407.  I just saw the Schubert and it isn't one that I want to see over and over.  Still, I may go in the end.  Nov. 13 there is an all-Bach concert (and indeed it is all-Bach, all-violin) featuring Viktoria Mullova, which is intriguing.  The JCT Trio concert on Jan. 21 looks worth attending as well, though I hope I'll be at TRB in D.C. around then.  Finally, while this is a bit pricier, Gidon Kremer and his chamber orchestra Kremerata Baltica will be in town Feb. 4 doing an all-Russian program ending with Mussorgsky's Pictures at an ExhibitionIf I pick up one of the jazz concerts, I can probably get to 4-5 events.  Anyway, there is still quite a bit of time to think about this.

I think that's enough long-range planning for one post.  Back to catching up on my blog backlog.  Ciao.

* My interest in this troupe has declined dramatically, and I currently plan on skipping all their future productions, including Les Belles Soeurs.  C'est dommage.

** There really are no professional or semi-professional productions of Love and Information anywhere nearby.  In April 2017, it will be put on in Philadelphia by the Theatre School at Temple University.  I probably would not travel just for that, but if the dates happen to mesh with Spring Break, perhaps a trip to Philadelphia and Washington DC next year would round out the East Coast cities that the kids really ought to see.

Saturday, April 2, 2016

Interlude - Chicago theatre reviews

In one of the posts a while back, I discussed going to see 3 plays in Chicago.  Despite a minor scare Sat. afternoon, I did manage to make all three.  (And it turns out that Yankee Tavern played Chicago an entire year ago, so I didn't just miss it.)  Had we stuck around another few days, I might have gone to see Long Day's Journey into Night at Court Theatre.  I heard good things about it, but could not make it (and I saw a good production in Chicago 6 or 7 years ago).  It looks like that will run until April 10 if interested.

I enjoyed all 3 plays I did see.  I would probably recommend Brecht's Galileo first, though it does run 2 hours and 45 minutes.  Then Dreams of the Penny Gods at Halcyon, and finally The Flick at Steppenwolf.  I knew what I was getting into with The Flick, which is 3 hours of realistic banter between low-level employees at a struggling movie theatre in Worcester, Mass (not far from Boston).  Actually, while The Flick is not my idea of a well-constructed play, it is interesting seeing the stretching of theatrical conventions (as well as seeing a play so deeply about the lives of workers as workers).  I would say the same thing about Conor McPherson's Port Authority, which is much less traditionally theatrical than his other plays, such as The Seafarer.  I can also see why audiences who don't really know what they are getting in for with The Flick are leaving at intermission.  I was a bit surprised that the young guy next to me left, while the couple on the other side (who had taken their coats and everything with them) came back.  It runs through May 8 at Steppenwolf.

As I discussed in my post about trying to help bring certain productions to Toronto, I think The Flick would work beautifully over at the Aztec Theatre on Gerrard.  I'd still kick in a few bucks to try to make it happen, but I don't feel the need to see it a second time.  (I do hope that the company that is supposed to put on The Aliens actually lives up to that, since I want to see it; the plot reminds me just a bit of Bognosian's subUrbia.)  I've told a couple of theatre companies here they should consider Yankee Tavern.  Maybe one of them will bite.  I'm actually willing to make a bigger effort to try to bring Stupid F***ing Bird to Toronto (skipping it may have been my biggest mistake from the previous trip to Chicago in August 2015), so if anyone is interested in trying to co-produce this, let me know in the comments.

I can't really discuss Dreams of the Penny Gods much without spoiling it, but I will say it is a dark play (perhaps a bit bleak though there are certainly some comic aspects to it) about a dysfunctional family.  Most of the characters view religion as a way out of their problems, in one way or another.  The set is really quite interesting, as the family makes its living renting out storage lockers and they live on site, so everything is cluttered.  I'll come back around and discuss some aspects of the plot, but this should give you some sense of whether this is of interest.  The play runs through all of April, so there is plenty of time to go check it out.  Details here.

I don't know that one can really spoil the plot of Brecht's Galileo, since it is drawn so much from his life, particularly the fact that the Catholic Church forced Galileo to recant his writings about the earth not being the center of the universe.  But the play is a bit more ambitious than this.  On the one hand, it shows that the church itself was divided with some reformers or at least some priests not completely opposed to science.  Brecht suggests that the Pope knew the truth but ultimately forced the recantation to forestall uprisings in the north of Italy.  In other words, politics were far more central than theology to the decision to persuade Galileo (by showing him the instruments of torture and letting his imagination do the rest).  That said, there is one memorable scene (Act I, Scene 6) where an older Cardinal completely loses it when he is forced to think about humanity's insignificance if indeed the Earth is not at the center of the universe.  It was quite an interesting dissection of egotism and to some degree why religious impulses develop in the first place: "Mankind is the crown of creation, as every child knows, God's highest and dearest creature.  How could He take something so miraculous, the fruit of so much effort, and lodge it on a remote, minor, constantly elusive star? ... {No, impossible.} [The earth] is the centre of the universe, I am at the centre and the eye of the Creator falls upon me and me alone."

The staging is great, with video projections at times that helped illustrate some of the celestial mechanics for instance.  Still the play is too long, and most of that comes down to Brecht's writing.  There are four scenes right before the intermission that basically convey the exact same information with only minor variations.  At least two of them could have been combined or excised completely.  (I've been dealing with this in one of my plays where an actor told me that things were just dragging and that a scene or two should be trimmed, since the audience would already have made that leap and didn't need so much repetition.  I'm not always so sure about that -- I'm finding audiences are just kind of thick -- but I have come to agree that a quicker pace is almost always justified.)

Things move along much more quickly in the second half.  We see that Galileo is willing to sacrifice his daughter's happiness in the pursuit of scientific truth.  Towards the end, there are some discussions about how scientists probably ought to think more about the implications of their research on society (to this day, many scientists do not agree with accepting such restrictions, even self-imposed).  Certainly it is depressing watching conservative political parties turn anti-science to a degree that is quite astonishing (back in the 1970s when the Republicans were relatively moderate they were quite supportive of scientific research (though harnessed in the service of industry) and were willing to protect the environment); those days are long-gone, and the Conservatives in Canada are certainly not much better.  Thus, it feels appropriate to focus on the anti-science aspects of the script and downplay the (very) rare moments where Galileo does worry about where his ideas will lead.  To a certain extent the producers of the play do this by linking the dates in Galileo's life to what was going on in the U.S. from the 1930s to 1950s (particularly the McCarthy hearings), but the point is somewhat lost at the end, since I have no idea what Mexican/US border 1953 was supposed to signify.  Some of the dates seem to mesh with the tribulations of J. Robert Oppenheimer (as well as Brecht himself being called to testify before the Un-American Activities Committee), but of course the atomic bomb had already been unleashed long before 1953.

But I digress... I wasn't crazy about the puppet show scene in the second act, since it just was so tonally off from the rest of the production (though it was probably the most Brechtian thing about the whole play).  I'll have to see just what is actually written in the script.*  The one other place I thought Brecht made a huge blunder is when Galileo's young assistant gets in an argument with the Grand Duke (who at the time was a boy of 9) and they actually tussle on the ground and an astrolabe is broken.  There is no way this would have possibly have transpired like that, as the assistant would have been thrown in jail and quite likely whipped. Remy Bumppo are faithful to the script here, but it is just absurd.

Still, these are relatively minor quibbles, and I am very glad to have finally seen the play.  It runs until May 1, and I would recommend any Brecht fans in Chicagoland to go.

With that, I will sign off temporarily, but I'll discuss Dreams of the Penny Gods in a bit more detail in a follow-up post, but as I mentioned that review will have spoilers.

* Brecht does set this up as a separate scene with performers at a carnival spoofing the Pope, so making it a puppet show is not a huge stretch.  The scene's function is basically to show that Galileo's challenging of Papal authority in the matter of astronomy was filtering down to the general public, which severely upset the authorities and ultimately caused them to take a harder line with Galileo.