Flower Basket: Or Four Variations on a Theme

Petunias, I thinkI was driving north to Squamish, along the Sea-to-Sky corridor, when just a few kilometers past Lions Bay, I noticed a hanging flower basket dangling from one of the metal pipes that is used to reinforce the fjord walls along that highway. Given the area’s penchant for succumbing to rock slides after a long hard rain, MoT (the Ministry of Transportation, for those of you unfamiliar with the acronyms that pepper the pages of government texts) drilled holes into the rock walls, and carefully placed steel pipes into the rock. I’m not an engineer, so my best educated guess for the reasoning behind these pipes is so that any water that has trickled into the crags and crevices of the rock has an outlet, rather than possibly lying dormant under the middle of a harsh winter, freezing, expanding, pushing and prodding the rock until the rock eventually weakens and gives up the ghost, causing a rock slide.

The Sea-to-Sky highway wends its way from Horseshoe Bay, at the north end of West Vancouver, all the way to Whistler, where the 2010 Olympics were hosted. It is a beautiful highway, and is always breathtaking, particularly from the Horseshoe Bay to Squamish portion of the highway, as you have the mountains to your right, and the waters of the Howe Sound, and the islands that dot the Sound, to your left. I’ve driven that highway enough times to notice a discrepancy, usually because I am keeping an eye out for bears along the side of the road, or new rockfalls, which may be harbingers of worse to come. So it was striking to my eye to see the purple flowers of a petunia plant, sitting in a basket, minding its own business, along a rock wall, hooked onto a metal pipe. A brief moment, as I was driving 80kmph, but a poignant one, nevertheless.

How did the flower basket end up there?

1) Most unlikely reason: Squamish is full of landscaping companies, and perhaps one such gardener, rushing home for dinner, from a job in North Vancouver, forgot to secure a hanging basket that he was bringing home to his girlfriend, as he had an extra one from his job site. As he whipped his open-backed landscaping truck around a corner that warned drivers to slow down to 60kmph, he was actually going 90kmph, and took the sharp s curve at such a gallop, that the basket was jostled out of the back of the truck, bounced from the pavement and, by sheer fluke and specific physics, bounced right onto the metal pipe, which was about 3 feet off of the ground.

2) Slightly more plausible reason: One of the MoT maintenance guys, who traverses the highway everyday, decided to cheer his daily route up by placing a basket of petunias on this particular bit of piping, which he’d noticed, as he had been working this particular stretch of highway for the fourth year now, had the most water coming out of it at regular intervals. The regularity of water was key to keeping the plant alive. He’d chosen petunias because they were pretty hardy.

3) Tenuous reason, but with potential: Given the proximity of the Village of Lions Bay, one of the village’s local eccentrics decided to embellish the highway, in a subtle and silent anti-government protest, through the medium of a basket of flowers, echoing something similar that she’d done back in the 60’s, when she’d hung a garland of flowers on the hollow pipe of a soldier’s gun barrel. Those flowers, too, had been purple.

4) Most likely reason: The basket was near a particularly sharp s curve, where each year, people crashed either their cars or their trucks or their motorbikes, for taking the curve too fast. Though the corner had claimed several lives, no crosses were placed there. Perhaps roadside memorials were not permitted. So one of the friends of one of the victims had parked at the nearby viewpoint, one night, and had snuck across the highway at dawn, up to where the accident had happened, the rose coloured fingers of the light grazing the rock wall, pointing out the fortuitous pipe off of which to hang the basket in memoriam.

I wondered though, what the actual reason was, and how the basket had gotten there. It was pretty enough, to catch out of the corner of my eye, as I sped forward.

Ambiguity in Emails

Alien Head at the Three Rivers Petroglyph Site in New Mexico
Alien Head at the Three Rivers Petroglyph Site in New Mexico

Ambiguity in writing is one of those lovely things that happens when you come across a thought and are not really sure what the writer meant. I see an alien head in the above photo (alright, it’s not a piece of writing, but you get the point), but I am not really sure if a bona fide alien head is what the artist intended to portray on that rock, although I will caveat that this site is only about 120m away from Roswell. Perhaps it is a de-quilled porcupine, or a deflated puffer fish, though what a puffer fish is doing in the middle of the desert is another issue.

I recently came across an email that a colleague had sent on in regards to a job for which they’d applied. The hiring manager noted that they wanted the applicant to interview with several other managers, individually, and then after a meeting of all the department heads, the hiring manager would put a letter of offer together.

My colleague’s question to me was: did I get the job or not? The use of the phrase ‘letter of offer,’ would suggest that the applicant got the job. However, short of spelling out something to the effect of “I am pleased to share that you are the successful applicant for X position,” it’s not quite clear if my colleague has a new job on the horizon. I hope he does, for his sake, of course, but I also wish that there was more clarity and less ambiguity in emails, particularly when you are dealing with someone’s future; my poor friend will now be waiting with bated breath through the weekend as to whether their future will be going down a new path in two weeks time.

So this is really a reminder to you that when you are typing up an important email, ask yourself, will the recipient know exactly what I mean, or do I have to count on their ESP ability to sort out the meaning behind my words? Just remember that not everyone has ESP, and of those who do, most don’t believe in ESP anyhow.

Belated Review of Helen Lawrence

Chris Haddock and Stan Douglas turn Vancouver from an environmentally friendly flower child of the 2010s into a sultry, slightly used, and somewhat seedy whore of the 1940s in their play Helen Lawrence. Several stories are juxtaposed over a veterans’ SRO, ready for demolition in a few weeks, and a version of Blood Alley, brimming with prostitutes, gambling addicts, PTSD-suffering WWII veterans, small-time sleazes, bookies, and corrupt police officers.

Helen, the title character, appears in Vancouver looking to revenge herself on her former lover, who left her to take the heat for the murder of Helen’s wealthy California husband. She appears in the hotel, and using pure Hollywood sex appeal, impresses the bellboy, Joe-not-Julie-Anymore, and the general manager, Harry.

The former lover, Percy, lives in the hotel and uses it as a base for his bookie business, and for working with Buddy, the local sleaze business owner, to buy up the businesses in the alley area so that Buddy’s remains the only open beer garden in town. Buddy’s brother Henry, a WWII veteran, is Buddy’s main rival on the strip, and both are being played by the corrupt Chief of Police, Muldoon, and his sidekick Sergeant Perkins.

Aside from Helen and the ambiguous Joe, the other female characters are more secondary: from Buddy’s mistress, Mary, who is waiting to hear whether her Air Force husband is dead or alive; Rose, an alley prostitute and former Japanese internee, pining for a better life; and Eva, a German war bride with a PTSD-suffering gambling addict of a husband.

The superb script of staccatoed dialogue helps to create a fast-paced, tense atmosphere, punctuated by quick and precise one liners that occasionally give release to the tension through a bit of comic relief. The acting is gripping, with each actor putting their all into a very intense drama, and the very real tragedy of everyday life on the streets of mid-century Vancouver.

On that note, it must be remarked that the city itself is a character, giving rise to the darkness and despair in each of the character’s lives, trapped in their own personal narratives, through the crumbling brick, the dirt roads, the skewed wooden fences, and the slat sided Edwardian houses.

If not for Haddock’s excellent writing, the whole play could be overshadowed by the actual staging. Douglas very cleverly layers a live shoot of the whole play onto an opaque screen that traverses the entire stage, behind which are several cameras that the actors, when not on stage performing, operate for the various close-ups, angles, frames etc…

The actors are all standing in front of giant blue screens so that when they are performing, the audience can see the actor both on the stage and on the screen: the screen shot is shown in black and white, and provides a very engaging backdrop for the dingy, rundown hotel, and gritty alley, surrounded by wooden shacks.

It feels as though you are watching a play in three dimensions layered on top of the usual three dimensions of our lines of sight: the screen, the cameras, and the actual stage. It’s a brilliant use of space, and the lighting is likewise effectively used to sometimes fade out the screens and to focus on the actors on the stage for a particularly poignant moment. The layered staging certainly helps to draw in and completely immerse the audience in the multiple plots

By the end of the play, you can hardly believe that you’ve just watched a play for ninety minutes straight, with no intermission, just like a movie. And, due to some excellent acting and staging, you become so caught up in the action, that you almost forgot that you are watching a play.

Waiting for the Light to Change

A man emerged from out of the verdant shrubbery of Kitsilano’s carefully landscaped heritage homes, as I was driving up MacDonald, to get to UBC. He looked to be in his mid-thirties, and seemed to be homeless: dark, dusty clothes, patched in places; a worn, black pack slung over one shoulder;  and a guitar in a black sleeve, over the other. His left hand was holding the strap of the guitar case, adding a bit of extra weight to keep the guitar from slipping off of his shoulder. He wore a crumpled black fedora on his head, his long crinkled black hair tied back in a pony tail. It was sunny day, twenty degrees in the sun, and a pleasant spring breeze. Rather warm for all those layers.

A black figure, emerging from the bushes; a walking stereotype for the evening news after an assault occurs in the neighbourhood.

There was one oddity to him: in his right hand, he carried a bouquet of brightly coloured flowers.  He must have just picked them from some garden (or several) along his meanderings; the blossoms were still upright and lively.

He held the stems tightly, like a small child with a nosegay of dandelions, picked from along the dusty back alley, for their mother.

Ahead of me, at the corner of MacDonald and West 4th, standing by a chain link fence that surrounded a construction site (another aesthetic gentrification along that corridor), stood a young woman. She looked like one of the local university students. She stood beside a footstool-sized metal box, some plastic bags at her feet. She was waiting for something, looking into the intersection, yet the bus stop was around the fence from her, and there was nowhere for a car to stop to pick her up.

I watched out of the corner of my eye, as the man in tattered black slowed down his pace as he neared the girl. His right arm seemed to start to extend, the blossoms of his bouquet trembling ever so slightly at the movement. The girl turned to face him.

The light turned green. I did an extra long shoulder check to my right, for pedestrians, and to see if the gesture was completed.

The fence was the only thing in my sight, and the questioning numbness of a moment lost, the only sensation.

Vancouver Fog 2013


How to protect my parents from shock over the sex in my novel? Post-it notes! – The Globe and Mail

How to protect my parents from shock over the sex in my novel? Post-it notes! – The Globe and Mail.

Something to keep in mind for my own book. I have some racy stories, and I do wonder what my folks will think when they read them…eventually. I like the Post-It note idea.

Food for thought and timely reading of  Christopher DiRaddo’s thoughts on his journey.

Vancouver Opera’s Don Carlo

My grandmother and I get along royally. She’s 94 years old (soon to be 95), is still as sharp as a tack, lives on her own in her house (although this worries me considerably in terms of stairs and the fact that she still thinks she is 70), does her own cooking, has someone help with the housekeeping, takes the bus all over the place, and is generally a good sport. She’s been kind enough to treat me to season tickets to the ballet, but we’ve decided it has become too repetitive and dull so we’ve kicked things up by starting going to the opera.

Growing up, my folks and my grandparents alike were season ticket holders to Vancouver Opera, and I remember going to the opera all through high school. The City decided to do an overhaul of the Queen Elizabeth Theatre, where the opera is held, some years ago, and Vancouver Opera season ticket holders were asked to book new seats. So my mother was one of the first to request specific seats, but she didn’t get them, and was very angry to find out that the very seats she’d requested went to some people who were distant acquaintances who’d requested the same seats several weeks later. We all boycotted Vancouver Opera on account of this.

Nevertheless, my gran and I saw a performance of Albert Herring back in December and decided that the opera was a hell of a lot better than Ballet BC. We’ve since seen Don Giovanni, and just this past Sunday, Don Carlo.

The premise of Don Carlo, an opera by Verdi, is that young Carlo, the Spanish king’s son, is in love with the king’s new wife, Elisabetta de Valois of France, to whom Carlo was betrothed for many years until his father decided to take his son’s betrothed as his queen. Carlo’s loyal friend, Rodrigo, tries to help ease Carlo’s heartbreak by suggesting that Carlo ask the king, his father, Phillip, for the kingship of Flanders, a country utterly ruined by Spain and in desperate need of good leadership.

The long and the short of it is that Elisabetta, although she loves Carlo, stays true to the king. Rodrigo becomes the kings favourite. Carlo tries to ask for Flanders but does a cocked up job of it and ends up in prison under a death sentence. Rodrigo, ever loyal to Carlo, Escorialpurposely frames himself with incriminating evidence and is executed in Carlo’s stead. As Carlo is about to escape to Flanders, he is caught out by the king but miraculously saved by the ghost of Phillip’s father, the old emperor. The whole story, by the way, takes place in Renaissance Spain (the photo to the left is of the San Lorenzo de El Escorial Monastery in Spain, where all the kings and queens of Spain are buried).

Vancouver Opera did Verdi’s grand opera justice, both through a very impressive collaboration with Honolulu and Hong Kong Operas for the sets and costumes, which were opulent to say the least. Full Renaissance dresses for the ladies: corsets, farthingales, bum rolls, kirtles, ruffled partlets, gowns, and sleeves. Elisabetta, as Queen, was fabulously dressed, what looked like rich brocades appropriate to the time and to her status. The men were in their Shakespearean best, with hose, breeches, ruffled collars, and doublets (no, no codpieces), and of course, pointy shiny swords and daggers.

The set was excellent, and converted easily from an eerie monastery, to a whimsical Spanish garden, to the somberness of a king’s chamber, to a festive town square ready for a good old-fashioned Inquisatorial heretic burning, and to a hope-lost prison. There were four Acts and many scene changes; the staging was perfectly seamless.

Verdi’s music was fantastic; the orchestra, as always, sublime. I realized, upon listening to the music, how similar it was to modern film scores and thus very user-friendly to the classically-uninitiated. As for the voices, they were great. I especially loved Rodrigo’s baritone, sung and played by Brett Polegato; I actually preferred it to the lead, Andrea Care’s tenor. Perhaps it was Polegato’s acting, as he did a superb and very believable job as the loyal Rodrigo, visionary, freedom fighter, favourite, and victim of the times.

The acting from all the cast was quite intense, and made it very easy to become caught up in the action of the stage and forget that you were watching an opera. The king, sung and played by Peter Volpe, was sympathetically played, and you felt for the old codger, ever suspicious of his young pretty wife and young and handsome son, and stuck between the politics of the church and state and times.

At the beginning of the opera, my grandmother whispered in my ear, “This opera was written more for the male roles.” And true enough, there is not as much for the two female leads, although what is there was wonderfully sung, although I did find Joni Henson’s Elisabetta a bit tinny on the high notes, but she had a great depth at the lower tones. Again, her acting was just lovely, and suited the tragic situation of this young woman married to her lover’s father, and pious to the core so she never gave in to the temptation to love Carlo in any other capacity save as his new ‘mother.’

All in all, a performance worthy of the standing ovation it received, and a memorable finale to what I found to be a great reintroduction to opera after an almost ten year hiatus.

Trifle Theory of Minute Taking

Schonbrun Palace GardensIt came to me the other day, when an acquaintance was asking for assistance with her Committee’s minutes, on how to best help someone who is not familiar with minute-taking. You see, I have a sandwich theory of essay writing, which I will expound another time in another post, but it’s about keeping it simple. I’ll call this the trifle theory of minute taking (and scroll to the bottom for my terrible trifle joke).

Think of each item on your agenda as a trifle (that’s right, the dessert). You know how a trifle is several precise layers custard, jelly, and cake? The minutes of a meeting are a careful reflection of what happened at a meeting. And so your meeting minutes don’t escape you like a sloppy joe, keep those reflections, carefully layered, in the same manner each time, for each item, so that it is easy to refer back to them for decisions made and actions needing to be taken. Remember that minutes really are about decisions and action items.

The Trifle Theory

1. Custard: Main Speaker’s main thoughts (1-2 sentences),

2. Jelly:      Decision (if any)
*You can also note that great catch-all here: “Discussion ensued relative to the topic.” Maybe throw a speaker or two a bone if they actually said something pertinent.*

3. Cake:      Action (if any)

That’s it; it’s that simple.

Layer each agenda item in the minutes in this way; people will appreciate the consistency (yes, there’s that word again!) and will actually find your meeting minutes useful.

Ok, now for the joke:

A plane crashes in the middle of the desert, and three guys survive the crash and are wandering the desert, looking for food and water. They are hungry and thirsty, and the sun is blazing down on them.

After several hours of wandering,  they see what looks like palm trees swaying in the distance. They rub their eyes, thinking that the sun has gotten to them and they are seeing a mirage, but sure enough, as they draw near, an oasis looms in front of them.

As they walk up to the oasis, they notice that there is a small market right at the entrance, and they are thrilled because finally they can get something to eat and to drink.

They wander over to the first stall, and see that all the guy is selling is custard.

They say, “nope, this isn’t what we need, let’s try the next stall!”

So they go up to the next stall, and see that all the guy there is selling is jelly.

So they give this stall a pass and go to the third.

At the third stall, they see the merchant is selling cake.

One fellow turns to the other two and says, “You know what, I think this is a trifle bazaar!”

Upon Reading Rimbaud

I was reading Rimbaud’s poetry –
a recent inspiration brought on by a chance purchase at the Seniors’ Flea Market.
I was hunting for shoes but found poetry instead.
I dreamt of gentlemen savages and
drew comfort from his definition of love,
encompassing suffering and madness.
I digest his words,
every night an amuse bouche
to tantalize my mind.

DigitalisTonight, I was gifted with a flower,
pressed between the French and the English translations,
soft pink petals, and trumpet shape,
suggestive of a foxglove blossom;
it fell to my breast,
when I turned the page.
Translucent, fragile, free,
unencumbered by pulp,and floating in the air with motes of dust
in a waltz of certainty.