Tuesday, January 27, 2009

Excuse me?

Sometimes entries just write themselves.

I was reading the New York Times this morning online, as I so often do, trying to wake up and be useful, when I happened upon a story about odd road signs in England, and this photo:

I was now fully awake.

The story http://www.nytimes.com/2009/01/23/world/europe/23crapstone.html?_r=1&em went on to examine, as it were, a number of quirky and suggestive place names in the British Isles, including Titty Ho, North Piddle, Crapstone, and Penistone. My inner eight-year-old started to giggle.

It seems most of these names date back to when words had different meanings than they do currently. I could have written a serious post on the evolution of language, but the eight-year-old wouldn't let me.

Butt Hole, it turns out, probably referred to a well. Not nearly as much fun now, is it? Damn reason. Gets in the way of all the best stories.

So I got to thinking about Canada's equivalent, and of course, Dildo, Newfoundland popped into my head. It is not terribly far from the trio of Heart's Delight, Heart's Desire, and Heart's Content, which run down the Bay Roberts coast within about 20 kilometres of each other. (I drove through them last year and they are lovely, if wee.) But of course these three aren't nearly as salacious and provocative.

I'm asking all nine of you who read this blog - can you think of any other risque Canadian place names? We have lots of quirky ones, like Moose Jaw, but are there any other Butt Holes, Dildos, or Penistones out there in Canada? Post your comment below.


Last Friday, a truly remarkable woman passed away in Cambridge Bay, Nunavut.

Helen Maksagak was the first female Commissioner of the Northwest Territories, from 1995 to March 1999, when she was appointed Commissioner for the newly-created territory of Nunavut. To the best of my knowledge, she is the only person to ever serve as the Queen's representative in two different jurisdictions (for those of you reading from non-Northern locations, the Commissioner is to a territory what the Lieutenant-Governor is to a province. Yes, we do have a different word for everything).

Mrs. Maksagak was a quiet, friendly Inuk woman, born in a traditional camp at Bernard Harbour in 1931, and raised in the Mackenzie Delta communities of Aklavik and Tuktoyaktuk. In her early 30s, she moved to Cambridge Bay with her family, and raised six children there with her husband John.

Mrs. Maksagak was, perhaps, four foot nine. She was tiny, dainty, and impressive. She reminded me of one of those apple granny dolls popular in Quebec, where the head of the doll is made from a shriveled apple. She opened meetings with prayer, befitting a Christian woman, and was fluently bilingual in Inuktittut and English. During her entire life, she worked tirelessly for the benefit of her community, particularly youth. She cared passionately about the environment long before being green was cool, and was a leader in the endless fight on drug and alcohol addiction in the North.

She also had a wonderful sense of humour and loved to laugh. One of her proudest days was when Nunavut was created in 1999, and the Inuit had an official homeland.

In 2002, all of her selfless efforts resulted in her being named to the Order of Canada. She was an exceptional woman, and she will be deeply missed.

Thursday, January 22, 2009

And the nominees are....

I am a film geek.

In a prior life I was actually paid to care about these things, but now, as with all the best things in life, I care for free. It makes me happy.

Usually, the Academy Awards make me unhappy. It's an industry, after all. The studios behind a lot of big stars with a lot of crap films throw bundles of money at advertising campaigns, and are rewarded with a laundry list of award nominations that mean nothing other than the box office is suddenly going to blossom, because people generally are sheep who will want, overnight, to see a movie they didn't care about two days ago simply because it was nominated for an Oscar.

Not this year.

This year's nominations are full of previously under-appreciated talent (usually from TV) acting in small pictures who are being noticed for their skills, and not how much money their films brought in. Because for the most part, their films didn't earn very much at all. I'm willing to bet most of you haven't seen these films, and you probably haven't heard of most of them either. For the most part, big studio pictures got shut out of the categories anyone cares about. Sure, The Dark Knight and Kung Fu Panda and Wall-E picked up a bunch of technical nominations, but will anyone really toss and turn at night trying to pick the Best Editing winner for their office pool? I don't think so.

In fact, of the 30 nominees in the main 6 categories (Picture, Director, Actor, Actress, Supporting Actor, Supporting Actress) exactly one comes from a blockbuster, and that would be Heath Ledger, who turned in a riveting portrait of anarchy in The Dark Knight before he died unexpectedly (exactly a year ago today, not that we're keeping track or anything).

Each of the acting categories has at least one nominee who is a working actor (as opposed to a STAR), someone whose face you always recognize but can't quite place, someone who is working all the time but never gets bothered at the grocery store. A few people's lives are going to change quite drastically on February 22, and I'm not sure if that's a good thing or not. Part of what makes each of these actors so good is that, away from the set, they're able to live normal lives and observe society around them. Those days may be over for some of them now.

In the Best Actor category, Richard Jenkins is nominated for The Visitor. You've most likely seen him as the mortician father in Six Feet Under, but he's made nearly 85 movies in 35 years, including this small scale portrait of a regular guy who comes home one day to his New York flat and finds a family of illegal immigrants has moved in. And he lets them stay.

He's up against Mickey Rourke in The Wrestler. Anyone who remembers him from Body Heat and Rumblefish would be hard pressed to recognize him now, so broken is his face. But it works for the character of a washed-up wrestler trying to make a comeback. Every now and then, an actor's personal story blends seamlessly with the character, and the result is serendipity.

In the Best Actress category, Melissa Leo of Frozen River is up against stalwarts like Kate Winslet, Meryl Streep and Angelina Jolie. TV watchers might remember her as Detective Sargeant Kay Howard on Homicide. Approximately 3 dozen people saw Frozen River, despite sterling reviews. Perhaps a few dozen more will make a point of renting it on DVD now.

In the Best Supporting Actress category, we find two actresses - Viola Davis and Taraji P. Henson - who you may remember from Century City or Law & Order: SVU, and Boston Legal, respectively - up against a previous winner and two constant nominees.

And over in the Best Supporting Actor category, Michael Shannon earns the only acting nomination for Revolutionary Road, despite all the hype about the reunion of DiCaprio and Winslet. Shannon is usually the bad guy on any number of shows, so its good to see him branching out a little.

The best part of all of this, is that, apart from Rourke, none of these nominations was predicted by the cognescenti. There were no nominations this morning for the likes of Leonardo DiCaprio, or Clint Eastwood. Instead these skilled, under-known actors earned their spots, mostly starring in small films that came out in the hectic fall season and got lost in the bigger ad campaigns for the films that drew the most eyeballs and dollars.

But the biggest story of this year's Oscar race may well be Slumdog Millionaire, set entirely in India and filmed partly in Hindi. It's a romance about a smart kid from the wrong side of Delhi who wins the grand prize on a Who Wants to be a Millionaire type show, and the resistance he faces from people who think he must have cheated (because poor kids can't possibly be smart). Despite a miniscule budget and a cast of mostly amateur actors, it is nominated for 10 Academy Awards (second only to Benjamin Button), including Best Picture. It is a fairytale story worthy of a film all its own.

In the Best Picture category, it will compete against The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, a romantic fable based on an F. Scott Fitzgerald story that is really a meditation on the nature of love when the physical is stripped away; Frost/Nixon, an adaptation of a Tony-winning play pitting disgraced President Richard Nixon against talk show host David Frost; The Reader, a Holocaust drama about the nature of evil; and Milk, about the first openly gay elected official and his subsequent assassination by a co-worker.

All of these, in their way, ask us to examine our perceptions of the world, our views on race, culture, class, and gender identity, and what it truly means to be human. I honestly don't know which film I want to win - I'm just happy someone is still making films like these, when it would be so much easier to make Transformers 42 or Saw 11 and rake in the cash.

OK. Maybe I'm rooting for Slumdog Millionaire. Because I am a film geek, and I love an underdog.

Tuesday, January 20, 2009

148 years on, a Dream has been realized

It is rare to experience an event and know while it is happening that you are witnessing history in the making. Usually, the historic import of something only becomes clear in the context hindsight brings, but yesterday’s inauguration of Barack Obama as the 44th President of the United States was an exception to that rule. If we didn’t know already about the historic significance of installing an African-American in the White House, there were only too many media pundits willing to hammer the point home again, and again, and again during dawn-to-dusk coverage. So many words were spoken and written, in fact, that it is hard to have an original thought at this point.

One thing though, is clear: after eight years of President George W. Bush, with his ignorance of history and geography, and his inability to speak the English language coherently, a sea change has taken place. America has managed to elect a man who embraces his obvious intelligence and who is a keen student of both history and politics, whose career and public persona has been shaped as much by his own bipartisan ideology as the courage, ideas, dreams and actions of those who went before.

Washington D.C. is a city designed and engineered to maximize grandeur, full of memorials paying homage to the defining moments and figures in American history. None of the 42 previous Presidents has ever understood or been able to harness the visceral power of symbolism and the resonance of history quite like Barack Obama. He and Washington will be a good fit.

Two years ago and virtually unknown, Obama stood on the same patch of Illinois ground where Abraham Lincoln had declared his candidacy for President in 1859, and made his own declaration. 20 months later on election night, he celebrated his victory in Chicago’s Grant Park, previously known only as being the scene of violent riots during the 1968 Democratic Convention.

The pre-inaugural whistle-stop tour train from Illinois to Washington last weekend evoked a bygone era, when the nation did have faith in its leaders and hope for its future, even in the face of crisis, be it a war or a failing economy.

His erudite campaign speeches have brought echoes of Lincoln, Martin Luther King, Jr., Franklin Delano Roosevelt, and John and Robert Kennedy to a generation of new ears, building upon their themes of public service, self sacrifice, and small “p” patriotism while infusing them with hope and an optimism not seen in American politics since the devastation of 1968.

On Tuesday, Obama placed his hand upon the same bible Lincoln used in 1861 to take the oath of office on the west steps of the Capitol, witnessed by at least a million people lining the Mall, stretching past the Washington Monument all the way to the Lincoln Memorial, some three kilometers away. It was an extraordinary and emotional sight. As he sat upon the dais facing the crowd, I wondered if he was thinking about Lincoln yet again, or if he was reflecting upon the line in the marble of the Washington Monument about halfway up where the color shifts slightly, because construction was interrupted by the Civil War.

The 20th Amendment to the Constitution fixes the date that the President shall be sworn in on as January 20th. The Martin Luther King Day holiday marks his January 19th birthday each year. The resonance of the juxtaposition of these seminal events this year was palpable. Had Dr. King not been assassinated in 1968, he may well have attended the Obama inauguration. He would only have been 80. This year is the 45th anniversary of the March upon Washington, which culminated in Dr. King’s “I Have a Dream” speech on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial:

“I have a dream,” he said, “that one day this nation will rise up and live out the true meaning of its creed: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal”.

“I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.”

Barack Obama was three that winter. Metaphorically at least, Dr. King’s dream has been realized through him, but there remains so much more work to do if we are ever to achieve a society where a black man taking an oath of office does not have to do so behind bulletproof glass and wearing a bullet resistant suit.

At the inauguration ceremony, Aretha Franklin sang “America”, closing the circle on Dr. King, who referred to it in his Dream speech: “This will be the day when all of God’s children will be able to sing with new meaning: My country, ‘tis of thee, sweet land of liberty, of thee I sing.”

And sing they did, up and down the Mall, black and white, Jews and Gentiles, Protestants and Catholics and non-believers, for one shining moment.

Here comes the meme again...

And I am told I am supposed to tell you six random things about me. And provide the sixth photo of the sixth photo folder in my iPhotos. Meming. Hmmm. All these sixes must mean memes are Satanic.

OK. Photo first. This is part of a series of photos I took one June day in 2005 while I was at a friend's cabin not far from Name of Town Withheld. We were crossing the lake by barge when I noticed an Arctic Tern hopping around on a small island in the middle of the lake, calling to its mate. I had just clicked off a couple of frames when the mate appeared with a tiny fish. In the frames that follow this one, the fisher hands the fish off to the other, and takes off again, while this one hops off, presumably to the nest to feed its young (which I couldn't see). It was total serendipity, but I was lucky I had the camera set to six frames per second, or I would have missed the whole thing.

Now, six random things about me:

1. My eyes seem to change color if I am standing near water or on a very green lawn.

2. I am on my third career and not entirely convinced this is the last one for me.

3. I hate clearing rain gutters.

4. I have one leg 3/4 of an inch longer than the other, but I can never remember which leg is longer and which is shorter when I take pants in to be hemmed.

5. I once served 15 straight points to win a volleyball game.

6. I have been snubbed by the Queen.

Random enough for you, Megan?

Monday, January 5, 2009

Something bigger than 5 championships

Well, we can all take a deep breath and sit back in our chairs now that Team Canada has pulled a fifth consecutive Junior World Championship out of the hat. It's amazing how exciting hockey can be despite the broken plays, undisciplined penalties, puck chasing and dicey goaltending. Usually teams making so many mistakes never advance to the medal round, but somehow, Team Canada dodged the big bullet against both the U.S. and Russia, and steamrollered the Swedes tonight to take the gold. Despite all the mistakes and sloppy play, those three games were incredibly exciting affairs. I caught myself on more that one occasion actually speaking to the TV, most particularly when there were 14 seconds to go in the Russia game with Canada down a goal, and the Russian defenceman got fancy clearing the zone, aiming for the empty Canadian net and ending up icing the puck. All he had to do was carry the puck into the neutral zone, and it would have been the Russians facing Sweden for the gold, but no, he had to try to be a hero, which backfired big time, resulting in a Russian zone faceoff and a Canadian goal with 5.4 seconds left in the game to force overtime, and eventually, a shootout win for Canada. That mistake will follow the kid around for a very, very long time.

I was heartened however to see big #5, P.K. Subban, voted top three Canadian players by the coaching staff, and making all-tournament first team. For my money, he was consistently the best Canadian every single game, an offensive rushing defenceman who makes big plays and knows how to move the puck.

Subban, who currently plays junior for Belleville of the OHL, and was a Canadiens second round draft pick in 2007, happens to also be black. I mention this only because it is still unusual to see black players in the NHL. Currently, there are about two dozen, most prominent being Jarome Iginla, Donald Brashear, Georges Laracque and Dustin Byfuglien. But up until the 1990s, black players were pretty much non-existent in the entire NHL. Hockey has not diversified nearly as rapidly or as completely as the other three big professional leagues in North America (interestingly, two players on this year's Swedish junior team are also black, demonstrating once again that no country's culture remains homogenous forever) .

When I was in high school, our class jock was a fellow named Hilton Ruggles. He was an amazing physical hockey player, who played left wing in the Quebec Major Junior league for four seasons in the early 80s. We all expected him to end up in the NHL, but despite racking up major points in QMJHL, including 113 points in 59 games in 1983-84, he wasn't even drafted. And that was probably because he too was black. The verbal abuse he would take at games was breathtaking, and it was all based on the colour of his skin. Opposing players and coaches would call him all sorts of horrible things, and there was an incident that made the papers where fans brought bananas and threw them on the ice after he scored a goal. He often also took crap from his home crowds, which is unprecedented in trash-talking annals.

By 1985, he'd had enough, and set off for Europe, playing for pro teams in Italy, France, Germany and Austria before settling into Britain in 1988, where he played for a half-dozen teams through 2002, racking up 2102 points (1122 goals & 980 assists) in 1052 games. Now retired, he is the general manager of the Cardiff Devils, where he had some of his best seasons in the early 1990s (including 1993-94, when he played 62 games and scored 243 points). But he never did get a chance to play in the NHL.

Last week, the Governor-General of Canada made Willie O'Ree a member of the Order of Canada. Mr. O'Ree was the "Jackie Robinson of hockey", the first black man to play in the NHL, in 1958, for my faves, the Boston Bruins. His pro career was short-lived and ended for good in 1961, but he played in the minor leagues until the age of 43. There was no other black player in the NHL until 1974, when Mike Marson signed with Washington. So perhaps it shouldn't have been a surprise when Hilton was passed over just a few short years later. A generation later, P.K. Subban is poised to enter a very different NHL, one where more teams than not have at least one black player, and where all players and staff are subjected to a diversity education program developed by the league, and run by Mr. O'Ree. I hope we are moving towards a hockey future where players will be judged on performance, and performance only. The world is becoming ever more diverse, and our sports leagues need to understand that and show some leadership, since so many kids look up to the pros and emulate their behavior. Subban, with his play and his outgoing ebullient personality, looks like he'll be an important part of that ongoing evolution.

Friday, January 2, 2009

And now, -43

I should note yesterday's photo was taken at -42 C. Today, it is a notch colder. The interesting thing about ice fog is its cumulative effect. In this picture, taken moments ago, you can barely make out the school itself, never mind downtown. If this cold snap lasts through the weekend, I probably won't be able to see across the street, quite literally, and all those trees in the school yard will disappear.

And yes, it is dangerous to drive in these conditions, especially after dark (3 more hours!) so again, staying indoors with some coffee and hockey games (World Junior quarter-finals people) seems like a good plan.

Thursday, January 1, 2009

A wee bit nippy, indeed

Canadians are obsessed with the weather. It's right up there with hockey as our national sport, a surefire opening gambit at any cocktail party if you're trying to chat up a stranger or make nice with someone you have nothing in common with. Everyone has an opinion on the weather. Northerners are a particular subset of Canadian obsessive in this area. During the Christmas season especially, when winter is usually at its coldest and the sun barely skims the horizon for a paltry four hours and fifty-seven minutes a day (not that we're counting or anything), we all go a little squirrelly over the weather.

Long-time Northerners can pretty much tell what kind of morning it's going to be by looking out the window when they get up. Cloudy, grey and sombre means warm, -20 at the most. Sunny and clear means cold, probably below -25. And around -40, a phenomenon known as ice fog descends over the community and blankets the trees in hoarfrost as the molecular particles of moisture in the air literally freeze, and hang around making it hard to see across the street.

No matter how long I've lived here, I've never gotten used to -40, and neither has my elderly vehicle. This morning, this is what I saw out my living room windows:

Usually, I can see across the school yard to downtown, but today, it was like downtown got erased overnight. At this point, it seemed logical to abandon my plans to go out at all, brew a nice pot of coffee, and curl up on my couch to watch the Winter Classic hockey game on TV. Now, if it warms up this weekend, I'm all set for a round of small talk.

Goodbye 2008, and good riddance to you

Happy New Year everyone.

2008 was a long, painful, and difficult year. There were times it seemed it would never end. Now, finally, it has, and good riddance to it, I say. Welcome 2009. You bring fresh opportunity and truly a new leaf. I hope you turn out to be everything 2008 was not, and nothing that it was.

Perhaps I will organize my complicated and conflicted thoughts about 2008 and blog about them once I break through the writer's block they seem to have inflicted these past several months, but in the meantime, I look forward to a clean start in the morning, as 2009 truly takes root.