September 30, 2009

Counting My Blessings Before Bed

Today was a kind of crummy rainy day. Here are the things that made it better:
  1. Lynsey helped me finish a beast of a work task. She was, as one of my friends once called me, "the hand of God reaching down into the darkness..."
  2. Everything got into the mail and (almost all) out of my house.
  3. Conference Call #1 gave me the opportunity to have human contact, to think strategically, and laugh a little.
  4. I found enough food to make myself lunch, meaning I didn't have to go out in the downpour.
  5. Conference Call #2 helped me pass another hour and a half of work time.
  6. During Conference Call #2, the sun came out.
  7. Ellen always makes me laugh. Case in point.
  8. I went outside since the sun was out and I had no food to eat. I bought fresh food.
  9. I got new hair products, which my friend has triple-guaranteed (right, friend?).
  10. Impromptu stop at the library produced three books to read and four CDs to listen to.
  11. I made a delicious bagel sandwich of avocado, tomato, pesto. Ate it with cottage cheese and a glass of water. (am I healthy or what!?)
  12. Made cookies.
  13. Ate three cookies. Plus batter. Take back that healthy bit...
  14. Read a book instead of watching TV.
  15. Chatted with my roooooooommates.
  16. Tomorrow's forecast is for no rain.

September 28, 2009

Two Movies, Two Quotes, Two Questions

Brought to you by this past weekend and my friends with great movie taste. Watch these movies. Both made me cry, and I had to remind myself to breathe a couple of times, which is a good indicator of being drawn in by a movie.

Movie #1: God Grew Tired of Us - a documentary on the Lost Boys of Sudan. Over 27 000 boys fled the civil war on foot in the late 80s. Twelve thousand were still alive five years later when they resettled in Kenya after Ethiopia's government collapsed. This movie traces three of the boys who are sponsored to move to the US.

Quote #1: "What is the meaning of this? (motions to a Christmas tree) and how is this Santa part of Christmas - is he in the Bible?"

Question #1: How do I view my obligations to the communities I'm a part of? Do I even think of life that way? These boys came to the States and immediately spent the majority of their money and effort on bettering the lives of those they cared most for. While I recognize that sometimes a culture of obligation and responsibility can be unhealthy, I feel convicted to think more about how I function as a part of a whole.

Movie #2: After the Wedding, a Danish film from 2006. I'm not sure how to explain it without giving things is about a wealthy Danish family whose eldest daughter is getting married, and a man who helps run an orphanage in India. In addition to the plot line, I liked the cinematography.

Quote #2: "Do I have to live halfway around the world for you to help me?"

Question #2: I just realized that the thing I've been pondering most would give away a major part of the movie's plot. Hm. What to do. I can't give it away. So I'm not going to. I will tell you all to watch the movie, let me know, and then I'll let you know what the question is :)

September 27, 2009

Why "Glee" Makes Me Sad

I like the dancing. I like the singing. A lot. It makes me lean forward in my seat.

But. My excitement over Glee is waning. Allow me summarize the plot and characters so far:

Will is a hip young high school who decides to bring the school's Glee Club back to its glory days (when he was a student). His wife, Terri, is currently faking a pregnancy because she is afraid telling Will the truth will result in him leaving.

Rachel is the star of the Glee Club. She threatens to leave when another member is given what she regards as her solo. She is picked on by the cheerleaders and has a crush on Finn.

Finn is the QB. He also loves to sing. He's a little bit afraid of how he'll be seen for his Glee Club involvement, but he's a good sort who genuinely wants to help out. His friendship with Rachel is not well-received by his girlfriend, Quinn, to whom he is highly committed.

Quinn is not only a cheerleader, but the president of the "Christ Crusaders" (aka Celibacy Club). She always wears a cross and although she and Finn haven't had sex, she is recently pregnant. She joined Glee Club as a way to keep tabs on Finn and spy for her cheerleading coach, Sue.

Sue is a coldhearted and jealous coach of a championship cheerleading team. She is determined to bring Will and his Glee Club down and reestablish herself as top dog at the school.

Emma is another teacher at the school. She is almost sickly sweet, with a fear of germs and a crush on Will. They often flirt, but she recently put an end to this, as he is married and she is dating the football coach. Things are slightly awkward but quite friendly between the two of them.

Kurt is a stereotypically geeky Glee Club member, who just came out to his father. His father handled it well, having known "since your third birthday, when you asked for a pair of sensible heels." He is also the newest (and most promising) football player - the kicker.

Puck is your classic jock. A little bit of a jerk, more than a little arrogant - he is Finn's best friend. What Finn doesn't know is that Puck is the father of Quinn's baby (because, as she puts it, "he got her drunk on wine spritzers, and she was feeling fat that day"). In his defense, Puck wants to be involved with the baby, but Quinn shuts him down.

Well, I think that's pretty much it. Oh yes, and Terri is hoping to secretly arrange for Quinn's baby to replace her non-existent one...

So why am I less than excited by this fascinating crew of characters?

a) all the girls are schmucks. Seriously - Emma is the closest thing to respectable, except for her hypochondria and dating a middle-aged man to try to get over her actual crush (it never works). The other Glee Club girls are decent as well - Tina and Mercedes - but they're clearly supporting roles. The men are all redeemable and engineered to make you like them. But the women are seriously lacking in moral depth and character.

b) the whole thing is so stereotypical and predictable. I suppose that most comedies are, but this show seems to be taking on too much plot for a straight-up comedy. I don't think it's set up well to straddle the comedy-drama line, especially when you factor in the singing and dancing.

c) I am really bothered by how they've primed Will and Emma for some sort of affair. Will has an imbecile of a wife and it's obvious that you're supposed to wish he was with Emma. If I had to choose one thing that bothers me most in pop-culture and the media today, it would be how lightly people treat monogamy and the longevity of relationships. Lifetime commitment isn't exactly portrayed as ideal, let alone possible.

d) in this last area, I'm not sure which bothers me more: the stereotyping of the Christian community (both Quinn and the principal are portrayed as Christians), or the reality that there is a subcommunity of Christianity that is like this caricature...both frustrate me immensely.

So is the spectacle of song and dance worth the pain of pitiful plot lines and cookie-cutter characters? I'll give it a few more episodes, but I'm leaning towards, "No."

Good Music Makes Me Giddy

Q: Which is sexier* - slide guitar, cello, or banjo?

A: I don't know either.

Tonight, I almost decided not to see a local band called In Medias Res perform. I am glad I went, so that I did not miss out on the following moments:

5. Cello and violin round out the sound of a traditional rock band (acoustic & electric guitar, bass & drums). These men also know how to make their songs build. I like the tension and the way it pulls you in.

4. Winning the 50-50 draw. Split three ways (we paid $10 for an "arms'-length" of tickets), I ended up with $33. BUT one of my friends owed me $20, so I got it back tonight and came home richer than I left, even after buying a CD. HA.

3. The first encore song. This song, but performed with some sort of hand-held glockenspiel by all six men. I don't know how to explain it...but it was phenomenal.

2. A song about a bear. More specifically, a song "about when you're in love with a girl, and you've been married for a couple years, and you have a nice home - and a vacation home, and your vacation home is a log cabin in the woods, and one night you are lying in bed beside her, sleeping, and she wakes you up to say, "What was that?" and you tell her it was nothing, and she wakes you up again because she hears something downstairs, but you say it's nothing and go back to sleep, and she goes downstairs to see, and there's a bear in the living room - (laughter) - and then the bear eats her (more laughter) - and that's where the song ends. It's not a happy ending.

1. The song about the bear featured footage of a bear cub falling down a hill and then chasing a frog...the cutest and funniest thing I've watched in awhile. I was in stitches. I wish I could find it on Youtube. But I can't.

*by sexy, I mean a lot of things that include (among other things) musicality, attractiveness, required skill and exuded "vibe."

September 25, 2009

Meta-narratives, Mo, and Miller (Don)

This is the postscript to my last entry.

I sat down on the bench hoping to hear from God. I left feeling slightly confused. Had this man been some sort of answer to my prayer, or a distraction from it? Was this a random isolated encounter, or some sort of piece in a bigger narrative?

Last week, I heard Don Miller speak at the opening of his new book tour. Along with some jabs at our "socialist healthcare" in Canada and his naming of Vancouver as the most beautiful city in North America, he talked about the essential components of a story in screenwriting and how turning Blue Like Jazz into a movie has taught him a lot about living a good story and not just writing them. I appreciated many of his thoughts as both human and writer:

"We love conflict on the screen, but we hate it in real life...conflict existed pre-sin. (Adam's loneliness)"

"If you killed off a character, what dreams would die with them?"

"We're conned into not wanting big things, because with dreams comes fear...conflict...failure..."

"We often think that 'winning' is the only resolution to our substories, but it's not. (see Friday Night Lights - the movie)
and my absolute favourite,

"If you want to control a nation, control its stories."

Over a week later, there are still many thoughts swirling around in my mind involving story-writing, my own creative projects, and the meta-narratives of my life. One of the general premises of Don's talk is that each of our lives is a story, with interconnected events, a progressing plot line and an eventual climax and resolution. I don't disagree.

However, even if we argue that I am the author of my story and not merely a character (which takes us back to that good old free will debate), I am not an omniscient author. I don't actually know how my story will end. I don't even know which are the relevant scenes.

There's nothing more frustrating than watching a movie where a story thread gets dropped (like when I watched a TV edit of Hope Floats) or when a nugget of something never even develops into a story thread. I can't think of any off the top of my head, but they're the scenes that you almost forget were a part of the movie when you get to the end.

But in my own life, I don't know which threads to chase down and tie up, or when to take an isolated scene and pursue it. I wonder, at the end of my life, which parts I will look back at and think, You should have let that one go. I wonder, in the immediate moments of life, how to wait for the right time to act, to seize moments and pursue dreams. Movies, and in fact, most stories, do a terrible job of demonstrating the reality that most of our lives are spent waiting - sometimes this is our own fault, but much waiting is inevitable. In writing, we gloss over and sum it up, because no one wants six chapters (or six scenes) of all the unrelated things that go on while the one story thread we care about is on hold.

Oh, there are so many thoughts heading in so many directions! It is terribly hard to wrap them up and end this post.

(ten minutes pass while I walk around, stop the rabbit from chewing cords, and think a little bit more).

I think that is the point.

It's not wrapped up. I don't know where I'm going. There are several things I'm thinking on, mulling over, waiting for. I don't understand the whys of many of them. There are seeds of ideas and situations that I feel tired of judging, deciding to throw out or keep in. When I try, I feel like I am making premature decisions about relavance, importance, value, and the future. I am bound to make mistakes.

I am in the middle of my own story, and it bothers me that I can't read the last page to see how it all turns out.

September 24, 2009

Kitsilano Beach - September 23, 9:20am

I noticed him when he said hello to a little boy on a tricycle. He was on the short side of average, graying hair and weathered skin. Olive or tan - certainly darker than me. A blue button-up shirt with the sleeves rolled. Cargo shorts and sandals. Trying to be young?

I was sitting two benches down, watching the shoreline, trying to get my bare feet into the sun where they would warm up. I was there to think and listen. I told God that I would really like to hear from Him instead of Him listening to me prattle on again.

I had arrived just before 9am, and while the occasional jogger came by, I was pretty much alone. But soon other benches had occupants. Dog walkers strolled slowly by. Many of them carried Starbucks cups. A couple of women and their personal yoga instructors set up on the sand.

He called out hello to the little boy, and I had three near-simultaneous thoughts: His accent - is he South American? Is he a friendly sort of man, I wonder, or a creepy one? And where is that little boy's parent!??

The dad wasn't far behind him, and as he spoke with the man in the blue shirt, it was clear that they had met before. That's a relief, I thought, they must both be beach regulars.

When he appeared in my peripheral vision a few minutes later, I realized that I hadn't resolved whether he was a friendly-sort or creepy-sort of man. But I looked up anyway, and he smiled.

"Hello. Do you come to the beach often?"

This did not look promising.

"No. Not usually. But it's such a beautiful morning, and I had some time..."

So we began to talk. Guardedly, but I was intrigued by his accent, which I couldn't quite place. And while I rarely say hello to strangers, I do enjoy it when an unexpected conversation unfolds.

I mentioned that I had moved to Vancouver a few years previously, and he asked where I was from. This set me up to return the question, which I was more than happy to do.

"What about you - where are you from?"

"Well, I have been here fifteen years. Before that, I was in Ontario for four years. Before that, I lived in Sweden for six years. And before that, I lived on a mountain for seven years."

While unusual, this didn't place his accent. But I was decidedly intrigued.

"A mountain? Did you live there alone, or were you with others?" I thought this might narrow the possibilities down a bit more - although there are many mountains in South America, it is not the only place in the world one could live on a mountain.

"I was with others," he replied, "on a mountain between Iran and Iraq."

Suddenly, this became a very fascinating conversation, a stranger with ties to one of the most remote and currently compelling places on earth. So I asked more questions.

Mo, I learned, was Iranian by birth. He was studying art when revolution occurred in 1979. He had begun to teach drawing. But his generation, he said, was a generation of revolutionaries. So he abandoned art and became a fugitive for his political involvements.

"I was a radio broadcaster," he said, "mostly on labour and women...when the (new Islamic) government wanted to control us, they bombed us." He almost laughs at this. "But we were free. Eventually, I knew I had to leave...I could not stay on the mountain any longer. I missed asphalt. On the mountain, when it rains, you cannot walk anywhere. I had not seen a street light for seven years. I missed this," he taps his toe on the pavement.

He did not tell me how he arrived in Sweden. Only that he left to pursue studies and work in Canada. Some lucky breaks and hard work landed him in Vancouver, and now he teaches art - nude figure drawing - for a local college. Teaching is more of a hobby. His real passion is politics. He hopes for another revolution in Iran. He comes to the beach every day, sometimes twice a day. Rain or shine. We discussed the beauty of the world when seen in the rain, and how joyful Vancouver is when the sun comes out in February. There is nothing like it. He spoke of his great love for the waterfront and said several times, "I am free."

I had so many questions to ask, but I was deeply aware of the different worlds we inhabit - even within the same city. I wanted to know more, but I was still a bit afraid. I wondered, What would be the point of going deeper?

After I declined his offer of a cigarette, he stood a respectable distance away to smoke. We continued to talk. Thoughtfully, with pleasant pauses. As he flicked off ash, he asked me the time. I glanced at my watch and realized I needed to go. I said goodbye, told him that next time I came down I would look for him, and thanked him for sharing a bit of his story with me.

"Anytime," he smiled as he stretched his arm across the back of the bench.

September 18, 2009

Children are Children

I love sponsoring a child through Compassion Canada, but sometimes I am derelict in my sponsorship duties. Today's letter from my little girl reminded me that I haven't written her since the spring:

Hello Beth _______ (I am always addressed by first and last name), how are you? I am so longing for you because I do not receive your letter for along time yet. But I believe God Jesus Christ keep helps you.

(insert stab of remorse here)
I really have been meaning to write...and send photos. I just keep forgetting to get them printed, so then I put off writing, and then...then nothing happens.

She continues.

Beloved Beth _______, I have three dogs, all of them so cute. What makes me feel amuse that they all are corpulent and the two do not have tail. I would like to give one to you but how? We are far each other.

Beth _______, do you have mate? May I know him?

And so it is decided. Tomorrow, I am writing her back. I am printing out some photos, and showing her that, no, I don't have mate. But I do have family. And maybe I'll send her some puppy dog stickers, preferably corpulent.

September 17, 2009

Things Keeping Me From Blogging

  1. My serious thoughts aren't processed enough for the public yet.
  2. My lighthearted thoughts always come at inopportune times when I am not online.
  3. I am working again.
  4. My online relaxing time has been spent trying to figure out the best ways to use Twitter & Google Reader.
  5. TV season is starting again.
  6. So are the social invites.

September 10, 2009

It's TV Time!

Now that Labour Day has come and gone, three things have happened:

  1. children are back in school.
  2. the leaves are turning colours.
  3. TV shows are starting up again.

If I could watch all the TV in the world, without interfering with my social life (my policy is that people come before my preferred TV shows), these are the shows that would entertain me.

The Mentalist
The Office
Better Off Ted
Big Bang Theory
30 Rock
How I Met Your Mother
So You Think You Can Dance
America's Best Dance Crew
The Ellen Show

I don't think I'll be able to make them all a weekly occurrence. I might try to stay on top of the first six. The bottom five, I don't really need to see every episode...I'll just tune in when I can.

A few notes on shows:

Bones: I am itching for Bones and Booth to get together. It's gotta happen soon. Four seasons of URST (unresolved sexual tension) is about as long as you can stretch it out (see Remington Steele, as another example).

The Office: This may be the season that it starts going downhill. I have high expectations and low hopes.

Glee: Loved the season premiere last night. Except for one thing: giving Will an imbecile of a wife sets him up for an affair or divorce. Maybe both. This makes me angry. But their cover of Golddigger is so good...

Ellen: Love this woman. She makes me laugh like no one else.

September 6, 2009

Saskatoon Sky in September

Saskatoon Sky
Originally uploaded by bethaf.
This was taken yesterday. I couldn't believe how beautiful the clouds were...if there's one thing I like best about nature (and I like a lot of things about nature), it would be the sky. I could spend hours watching the sky. Stormy skies, night skies, sunny skies, breezy cloud-moving skies...

Happiness is a sky like this.

The Book Thief

After finishing The Book Thief, I feel that I need to rework my entire rating system. I don't think I can give a 10/10* to a book - is there such a thing as a perfect book? But this one definitely ranks at the top of all that I've read this week.

I'm a sucker for WWII books. Not only that, but it's brilliantly done. Narrated by Death, books within books - a Bildungsroman (German for coming-of-age-story) of classic proportions. It has been awhile since I've cried in a book, but there were tears down my cheek through the last several chapters. It started with a single tear - the parade & the quote from The Word Shaker got me (if you've read the book). After that...there was no going back.

One of the things I enjoyed most about the book was the way the author builds tension. It isn't exactly foreshadowing - it's more of an insertion of blunt statements of things three steps further down. It works, though, because you're left asking, But how!? And why!? and even as your dread (or joy) is growing, you read faster and faster to fill in the gaps. For someone known to read the end of the story (or at least skim the last chapter to see which characters are there), it gives a sense of comfort.

So. Now that I've finished my fiction binge, I would rank my reads accordingly. Keep in mind that I thoroughly enjoyed them all.

4. The Secret Life of Bees
3. Eleanor Rigby
2. My Name is Asher Lev
1. The Book Thief

I've noticed some similarities. All four books deal with a young adult protagonist and the chaotic inner world of growing up. All four have some sort of spiritual content, an awareness (or a desire) for something more than just the world we see. All four deal with mother-child relationships (which is really quite common in a bildungsroman, which I would probably say all four are). Two of them deal, to some extent, with Judaism, persecution and genocide. I would give any of them to a fourteen year-old without hesitation.

I feel like I have just completed a weekend book bender. It's time for a rest.

*speaking of 10/10, this is the title of the first song on my soundtrack to the week. The only snag in my lovely vacation was when I somehow deleted all the music off my iPod...and although I haven't been able to listen to it for the past day and a half, Paolo is still circling through my head, proving once again that it was $10 well spent.

My Name is Asher Lev


I loved the way My Name is Asher Lev explores art and the compulsion to create. I believed its portrayal of an observant Jewish family in Brooklyn in the mid-twentieth century. I like that it tackles the way that certain callings/gifts/occupations are viewed from within a religious community, and how the greatest gifts can also be the greatest threats. This sacred-secular divide is one that exists far too frequently and is challenged far too infrequently. Although I can't say, if I were one of the Rebbe's people, where I would have fallen after the big exhibition. Sacrilege is something I do not want to be accused of.

(I have to stop here, or this will turn into an essay...each of these books is fuel for extensive thought & discussion on important subjects, which is why I love literature. But I feel the need to hold back.)

In terms of style, I thought Asher Lev had a believable and endearing voice. The confusion of a child who doesn't quite understand what is going on around or within him, the growing confidence of what defines him, and the deep tension that realization causes.

Yup, it's a winner.

Rating: 9.5/10

In other literary news, I have decided to forgo Surfacing and in its place have picked up The Book Thief by Markus Zusak. I can't bring myself to tackle the non-fiction yet. I'm too busy soaking in all these stories.

September 4, 2009

The Secret Life of Bees

I'm very glad that I read this book before seeing the movie. I don't think I'll watch the movie, because I expect that it will disappoint.

It didn't take me long to be completely sucked in - 19 pages, to be exact. And 129 before I had to flip to the end to make sure things turned out okay.

I felt for Lily. I wanted to take Lily in and stand up for her. I wanted to reach into 1964 South Carolina, shake some people (maybe slap them!) and shout in anger at how ridiculous segregation is. I wanted Zach to want her. I wanted August to be exactly like she was - wise, patient, and gentle.

There are only two things that were less than amazing in The Secret Life of Bees, and they are the same two things that irked me just a little in The Mermaid Chair, another book by this author.

The first is that I find the symbolism a little heavy-handed. In both stories, there is an object - or really, a collection of objects - that plays a deeply significant and spiritual role in the story. But the integration of these objects lacks, to me, a certain subtlety. There is no gradual integration or dawning realization Oh, I get it! It's all spelled out for the reader.

The other thing that doesn't quite sit right with me is her portrayal of the divine. What I gather from both books is a sense of divinity and power that is all-infused - in nature, in all humanity, in everything - and distinctly feminine. Now, I'm not saying that spirituality or "the divine" is fully removed from creation and limited to masculine realms...but that I find myself somewhere in the middle ground between the two extremes. To say much more would require an entry in I'll leave it at that.

Rating: 8.75/10

(since I didn't rate Eleanor Rigby in her entry, I'll do it here: 9.5/10)

September 2, 2009

Eleanor Rigby

I read Eleanor Rigby in three sections. I read two pages in the airport, waiting for our luggage. I read again for awhile while lying in a hammock. Then I fell asleep, and woke up ready for dinner. I finished it off on the leather couch with a lamp over my right shoulder.

I love Douglas Coupland's books because they are about such normal people. Yet they involve the bizarre and unexpected and nearly irrational. I like that he is obviously fascinated and concerned with issues of spirituality and truth. I like that I don't know how things will work out, but when they do, I smile - usually with a twinge of sadness - and close the cover contented.

Random Douglas Coupland trivia: he coined the term "Generation X" in a book of the same title, and I once saw him at a movie.

Sounding Sunny

Every holiday needs a soundtrack. My upcoming week away will be punctuated by the sounds of Paolo Nutini's new album, Sunny Side Up.

I'm not sure which of these three Paolo-thoughts make me happier:

a) the obvious maturing and breadth of subject matter on his sophomore album (whereas his first album, These Streets, was almost exclusively about relationships & sex).

b) plans to see him perform (again) at the Commodore later this month.

c) the distinct possibility that I'll be once more in his hometown in the next six months...

A more in-depth album review may follow...until then, enjoy these two gems:

The List

Vacations are for reading. Tomorrow, I leave for a week-long getaway. Half the weight of my luggage is in book form:

Groundwork of the Metaphysics of Morals - Immanuel Kant (some light philosophy)
My Heart's in the Lowlands - Liz Curtis Higgs (travel writing through Scotland)
Mere Christianity - CS Lewis (classic Christian literature)
The Secret Life of Bees - Sue Monk Kidd (my "Oprah" read)
Eleanor Rigby - Douglas Coupland (I miss Wendy.)
Surfacing - Margaret Atwood (if I could pick a writing tutor, I would pick her)
My Name is Asher Lev - Chaim Potok (recommended by a friend)

We'll see how many I get through. I don't know what order I'll go in yet...Also, I read Sweetness in the Belly this past weekend. Highly recommend it.

Love books. Wish they would stop making more so I could catch up on the world's massive literary resources.

September 1, 2009

Summer Leads to Autumn

I finally saw (500) Days of Summer. It made me laugh. I got sucked in. I can't deny that this was the best part of the whole thing...

Joseph Gordon-Levitt has single-handedly brought back the sweater-vest.