Sunday, December 11, 2016

Lessons from a Younger Brother AND, as it turns out, Facebook

Being Musical
Facebook told me that I've been friends with James for 9 years, now. Wow! 9 years? What ever did I do with my life before Facebook's distinctly lacking AI could remind me of how long I've been friends with one of the most important people in my life?

I wouldn't bother watching the video (in fact you can't, as it disappeared from my feed today). I won't attempt, in this forum, to enumerate it's many shortcomings.

But, I do want to take the opportunity to say that my friendship with my brother, James, is now 40 years old. Happy Birthday.
First Summer -- Vincie, Jamie, Michael
Facebook doesn't know this, but I was allowed to hold him in my arms on the day he was born. Although it says James on his birth certificate, for the foreseeable future we would all called him Jamie. I can remember the pride I had, at the age of 5, to be entrusted with something so fragile and special.

It must have been about age 3 when his personality and musicality became apparent. He created the first of a lifetime of rhythmic games with his body and voice. He called it "Bee-ing." Sitting on an old, tensely coiled couch, Jamie would slam his head and back into the springs in, what I can only imagine was, the rhythm of his heart. Air was forcibly expelled through his tiny embouchure.

Being Tron: Opening Night of Tron-Legacy

It was the first of many things he taught me. We could sing together for hours.

Of course, my fascination with toddler Jamie soon gave way to mild curiosity, irritation and finally, disinterest. Teenage Mike had no use for a little kid. But, we were still brothers and played together frequently. My favourite was the Hard/Soft game. If Jamie ran up to me and punched me as hard as he could, I would return the most gentle tap possible. If he flicked me with his pinky, I would leave him writhing on the ground, rubbing his shoulder. Not sure what the lesson was, but it held some fascination for both of us.

We became close again as James became an adult and pursued his degree in Music Education at the U of S. Watching him play the clarinet as a child had been a chore, but no longer. Here was real talent and beauty. I think it was my first conscious experience of the power of time. When he came into the world, even though I was only 5 years old, I was better than him at everything. With a 5 year head start, I stayed better at most things for a long time. That the tiny baby I held in my arms, and played with, and punched, had become powerful and beautiful in his own right.

Now, I'm watching James begin to grow old. I've seen him both soar to great heights and suffer his greatest defeats. We have shared songs, chess, tennis, pirates, tunnels, juggling, climbing, cooking, handstands, magnets, and parenthood. Facebook doesn't really know about any of these things. Oh, perhaps a post... a picture or two, but not how they impact a person or their relationships.
Being in a Kayak is fun
This post started out as a rant against Facebook. The dumb algorithm that informed me that I had been friends with my brother for 9 years. But, as I've been writing this, I realize that I should really have been mad at myself. Facebook's algorithm knows how to count. Through page views and clicks, it knows I have a connection to James. It gave me an opportunity to share that with people. Yes, it was a sad attempt. But, what about my attempt? I'm the one who has spent my life with this person. Learned from and with this person. Facebooks pathetic effort to describe my relationship reminded me of the most important lessons James ever taught me. Facebook might sum it up with a meme: "Live, Laugh, Love," or something equally trite. I'm going to put it in language a little more personal:

Bee-bee-bee-bee... I-Love-Ja-MEE...


Friday, December 09, 2016

Vancouver: Stolen Holiday -- Day 5

Day 5

Bloedel Conservatory roof
Can't let yesterday get me down. I got a fresh view of Canada's 3rd largest city and made a new acquaintance, should I ever find myself down and out. But, I've come to vancouver to lighten my spirits and I've only got one day left. I hear it is in the -30s (counting the windchill) back home. I feel in a tropical mood today.

I have postponed a trip to the Bloedel Conservatory so far, because I thought it would be a perfect activity for Wendy to do with me. I hadn't counted on how tired she would be, nor how early it would get dark. I was surprised that at this time of year the sun sets 30 minutes earlier than it does in Saskatoon. It makes up for it by rising an hour earlier. Damn daylight savings time.

The hike to the Bloedel is about 7.5km from downtown, but it is a interesting walk. I crossed the Cambie St. Bridge, right at the tail end of English Bay. Suddenly all of the tall buildings were gone and I was walking into brilliant sunshine. Up a long hill, through Mt. Pleasant and South Cambie and I was at the conservatory. It isn't terribly large, but they have many species of birds.
I had the foresight to stop by Leo's Camera Supply on the way. They didn't have the new camera body that I was looking for (Pentax K70) but they did have quite a selection of old, film era lenses. I found a 100-300mm beauty for $100 and you are the beneficiaries.
John, Paul, George, or Ringo?
The most difficult part of photographing them was the humidity. It was a long cold walk and the tropical climate inside the conservatory tested the limits of my cameras weather sealing. I had to sit for 45 minutes before wiping down my equipment was even feasible.

In my Google Photos album, there are many more bird photos, but I don't want to test your patience, so, if you are interested, you will have to go hunting for them.

Sooooo Cute!
 After jogging back downtown with all my gear, I felt it was time to stretch my legs. Wendy and I went for a walk in Stanley Park. I had hoped for something less traditional, but there you have it. At it turns out, lots of people do it because it is both easy and pretty spectacular.

In our many evening strolls, we passed by the adorable house-boat in the previous photo. I speculated on whether we could sell all of our possessions and move into something similar. Wendy pointed out that I can get seasick on most seaside docks. Oh well, Saskatchewan. Still stuck with me for a while.

Since I was busy taking pictures with my new lens, Wendy easily outpaced me. I had to text her to enable the posed shot below. I asked for "wistfully gazing into the distance." I think I got more "grudgingly counting the seconds until I can continue my walk."
It is said that "the look" can transcend the resolution limits of the human re
We passed by a television or movie crew. Many cameras, cables and light controlling paraphernalia were spread out on a small rise above the sea-wall. They were clearly waiting to capture the sunset with the vancouver skyline in the distance.

Skeptics would say that this Great Blue Heron was only waiting for a fish to swim past. Dreamers may believe me when I say that I think he, too, was waiting for the beauty of sky to sink spectacularly into darkness.
 And, wouldn't you know. So was I...

Thursday, December 08, 2016

Vancouver: Stolen Holiday -- Days 3-4

Day 3

A Dingy, one-railed stairwell of The Pinnacle is better than nothing
Wendy starts her conference today, so I am on my own. That means no plans and a much less traditional type of tourism.

So far, Monday is wet and crazy. The locals I have asked seem to think snow in downtown Vancouver is a rare event, but apparently their odds of having a white Christmas are about 1 in 5. However common or rare, I quite enjoy seeing the city display a fun mix of panic and wonder. The fervour with which our quickly jaded population rediscovers the selfie as giant flakes cling to needy lashes brings a glow to my Grinch-like heart. By no means immune to our cultural obsession with sharing our lives, I also partake in the ritual.

A man of many rituals, I set out today to find some stairs to climb. After my various successes in Calgary, last year--with the notable exception of The Bow--I was sure that the easy going, West-coast vibe of Vancouver would yield many exciting opportunities. Not so. Building security is omnipresent in many places. Where it is not, they likely have key passes required to gain access to areas above the lobby. After several hours of wet, slushy failure, I return, disappointed, but not defeated to my 19-story hotel to get a mid-afternoon climbing fix.

After her conference day is done, Wendy and I consider going out for an evening adventure. The thought of a 30 minute bus ride coupled with our state of near-exhaustion is too much. We opt. to visit a nearby Italian restaurant for supper. At Zefferelli's, our meal unfolds and I am again disappointed. Not because the meal is bad. It is actually excellent and the ambience of the place is classy, but boisterous. No. The problem is that I am not hungry. After a small appetizer and a paltry 2 pieces of pizza, I have to sheepishly ask our server for a take home bag. At least I will enjoy the pizza again, tomorrow.
Zefferelli's Pizza Funghi

Day 4

Wendy is at her conference again, today. Yesterday's snow didn't make for much more than a few selfies, sure to make friends in Saskatchewan (or anywhere else in Canada, for that matter) laugh out loud. I start walking. The streets are still pretty slippery in places. Even though it is getting above zero, not very much sun falls to the streets with all the skyscrapers around.
The neighbourhood of Gastown (Vancouver's original downtown core) has an earthy steam-punk feeling to it.  I manage to find a few small alleys to give contrast to some of the more spectacular neighbourhood buildings.
Sneakers on power lines... even more popular on the West coast! 
Finally, I manage to get into the stairwell of one of these historic structures.  Narrow and winding, the stairs are beautiful white marble. At the top, a tantalizing window. I am about to open it and step with trepidation out onto the roof, when I notice a tiny alarm connection in the upper left corner. Nooooo!!! Foiled at the last moment.

Back on street level, I find myself standing around the ChinaTown train station. Two young men start talking loudly as they approach me. They have marked me as a tourist and begin discussing how much they could get on the street for my large camera. I make a snap decision to engage them, rather than walk away... and the course of my day is set.

The loudest (and smallest) of the two young men is the trouble-maker. He scans me. My clothing. My phone, shoes, camera. He is clearly the kind of person who lives or dies by such snap decisions. Im not nearly so astute, but I do notice a small tattoo behind his ear. It is a music note and I make a quick guess. Asking him about the kind of music he makes totally changes his demeanour. Suddenly, he imagines me as some sort of mystical guru with the power to see inside of his soul or something. Not only does he tell me about the hip hop music that he loves, but he pours out a story about his new kid and about how he has just broken up with his girlfriend of ten years. This is an area that I do know quite a bit about and I feel pretty comfortable talking to him about his problems. He gets a call on his phone. A friend of his is waiting at a nearby Tim Hortons. 'E' (short for Ian) asks if he can buy me a coffee. What the hell...

Over the next 45 minutes, I have coffee with E and two of his associates. E puts his phone on speaker so that I can listen in to a conversation with his probation officer and he shows me texts from his ex-girlfriend who is concerned about getting their son to his vaccination appointment. I receive assurance that the probation is a joke and that he was illegally searched and will probably get off without any problems. E pulls several phones out of his messenger bag and offers one to his friend from Montreal. There is a brief discussion of how much could be had for the phone in minutes on Craigslist, followed by a attempted swap for a never worn pair of brand-name hightop shoes.

The one thing that really peaks my interest is E's description of Hastings Street. He tells me about his mother who, after many years of separation thanks to social services, he has recently found there strung out on drugs. He assures me that she is lucky because she has a place to stay, rather than being on the street. E is irritated that part of my job in Saskatoon involves reading to kids at the women's crisis shelter and in the paediatric ward at the hospital. He agrees that it's good for those kids to get attention but thinks it's "fucked up" that his tax burden (not his words) is greater because of it. He is pretty certain that the rich aren't paying their fair share.

I try to decline his offer to show me some staircases in a few residential buildings he knows that don't have cameras all over the place. He tries to convince me by suggesting that anyone I see will think I'm a cop because of my camera. Fortunately, before I am forced to seem ungrateful and reject his tour, he tells me he has to meet someone to try and secure a room to rent off Craigslist.

Left on my own, I can't stop thinking about his description. He used the words "war zone" to describe the neighbourhood. I am only 5 minutes from Insite, the supervised safe injection site that the problem-ridden downtown Eastside is infamous for. I start walking.
Carnegie Community Centre in the old library
I couldn't bring myself to take pictures. A twitching addict mumbles a nonsense stream of words while shaking a tin cup. Two more are organizing pills on the filthy sidewalk and still others who don't even seem to know there are other people near them remind me of a scene from The Walking Dead. I don't want to be a tourist in this miserable existence. At the same time, I need to see this ugly scar that rhythmically haunts my news feed. I take a single photo so that I can't forget that I have been here.

War zone isn't quite right. It is shortly after noon and, except for the occasional siren, it seems too quiet. It dawns on me that I am in the third world, here. People litter the streets--as dirty as the trash that sticks to the curb. Some shuffle around, wandering through a pathetic flea market of CDs, clothing, and ancient electronics that I wouldn't touch if they were free for the taking. It has a certainly legitimacy. A woman runs a tiny propane grill near the entrance, providing this outdoor bazaar's equivalent of a food court. Out on the street, less legitimate deals are also in session. several times I pass small groups setting items out on a shawl or scrap of fabric. One man carefully lines up 3 bottles of hand lotion next to earbuds and a badly scratched pair of children's sunglasses. He arranges them with a determined precision that belies the paltry value that these items may have. I don't believe that anyone will pay or trade for any of these things.

After an hour of agonizing observation, of keeping my gaze down so I don't stare, I find myself at the bottom of the steps to the Carnegie Community Centre. A once-upon-a-time library, it is the sole building in this area that appears to have an architectural pedigree. Proud bones fallen on hard times. I'm reading the sign outside which implores the able bodied to find Jessie for a volunteer assignment. Perhaps I will come back tomorrow and ladle soup, I tell myself. But, I don't want to come back here... ever. I am overwhelmed with shame, disgust, and powerlessness.
Iridescent Salmon in Stainless Steel
I know I do things to try and help others. I donate time. I donate blood. Through my work, I encourage, educate and inspire another generation to fight and make things better. Most importantly, I have raised 2 children who are smart, strong and able. Still, it just doesn't feel good to be making it up stream, fighting the rocks, the predators, and the current while watching so many of my fellows roll over on their sides and drift back out to sea.

Monday, December 05, 2016

Vancouver: Stolen Holiday -- Days 1 and 2

Day 1

Very excited to be in Vancouver. I've only been here twice in my life. Once when I was 10 or 11 years old, and once when I came to see The Police in concert with Anna and Ian in 2007. Wendy and I have never been here together.

Like most of the good things in my life, we are in Vancouver because of Wendy's insatiable desire to learn and teach. She is attending the Learning Forward conference. You may remember this as the conference that allowed me to go to Nashville in 2014. She was a presenter at that one. This time she is just attending. In both cases, I was/am along as an adorable complication ;)

But, before the learning begins, we get to do a little exploring. First... Wendy style.

Our flight arrived in Vancouver at 6:35am and we were at the Pinnacle Hotel Harbourfront shortly after 7am. By agreeing to change our room type from a King-size bed to 2 doubles, we were allowed to check in immediately (rather than waiting until 3pm). We flopped down and rested for an hour or so before heading out on our adventure.

We wanted to do some scenic hiking and good news... Stanley park is 1km from our hotel. However, for those of you who missed the memo, Wendy likes to avoid crowds. So we grabbed coffee and hot chocolate (OMG!) from Waves. 40 minutes on the bus through West Van. and 10 minutes walking had us practically alone at the mouth of Burrard Inlet, hiking through Lighthouse Park. It was a cloudy morning and the trees, tall and dense. With the humidity high, and 500-year-old, moss-covered Douglas Fir and Western Red-cedar everywhere, dripping with water, Wendy was in heaven.
 We shortly found our way to the lighthouse. I was disappointed not to be able to climb it, but it was pretty none-the-less. A persistent cool breeze came off the water and we enjoyed sharing the wave worn rocks and the cries of gulls and eagles with a single photographer.
 Wind-swept trees were in abundance, but this one, near Shore Pine Point, was my favourite.
This log did not bear the standard play warning! Very dangerous, indeed ;)
 Considering I had nearly broken my toe the previous day (while climbing my own pathetic single story staircase), I managed to hobble along quite nicely with only the occasional mishap.

We spent 2 1/2 hours meandering through the park and eventually had lunch in W. Van. at Handi, an Indian buffet. The naan, pakora and paneer were all particularly delicious. Lack of buffet desserts (except for Jello) was quite a let down.

In the evening we enjoyed a stroll down by the water and a soak in the hot tub.

Day 2

Cloudless morning light from our 4th floor hotel room

We started out by walking through some really inspiring downtown architecture on our way to the Dr. Sun Yat-Sen Classical Chinese Garden. It is well rated, appearing in National Geographic's 500 of the World’s Best Hidden Travel Gems and is supposed to be pretty great. I enjoyed it, though it is on the cusp of a very sketchy neighbourhood (Vancouver's infamous Downtown East Side(google news)).
 From there we hopped a bus to UBC and walked to the MOA--Museum of Anthropology ($18 admission). We feasted on their apple/brie croissant and vegetarian chilli before wandering the exhibits.
 I was spell-bound by the stories that the artwork told. In the Footprint of the Crocodile Man was horrifying and beautiful.
 And, there were even quite a few puppets!
The Last Supper of Lucifer
The Last Supper of Lucifer is super cute. The tiny display is less than 30cm.
I found Bill Reid's Raven and the first men riveting and fun
I can't spare the time to tell you all the wonderful things I saw at the MOA, but if you are in Vancouver, I can't recommend it enough. Be generous and budget a big chunk of time. I spent 2 1/2 hours here and had to leave much of it unseen.
In the late afternoon we managed to get to the Vancouver Public Library. I'm not going to geek out too much, but their digital maker space was AMAZING!! And, not to brag, but they do not have anything in their children's area to match our performance space a.k.a. Pooh Corner.
Outdoor wandering found these great translucent, illuminated stairs.

Here is my growing Google Photos album of our trip to Vancouver.