Sunday, November 29, 2009

Christmas ... What's In A Name?

Christmas Eve
George Goodwin Kilburne

Well, Tuesday is December 1st, the official start of that tradition which everyone has come to know and love -- Jo's Christmas lecture essay. I love Christmas. It is definitely my favorite holiday. There is something special and magical about Christmas. And yes, yes, I know, Christmas has its roots in Paganism. I know, I know... the lights, the tree... I know, I know. There is probably something slightly Pagan in every ancient cultural tradition, and Christmas is no different than any of the other traditions. The only difference to me is that it is part of my culture, my tradition.

I am always happy to share my tradition of Christmas, just as I am honored to be invited to share the traditions of Diwali, Ramadan, Chanukah, and all the wonderful other traditions that each culture has nurtured over the centuries. One of my favorite events of the year is the Chinese New Year here in Vancouver. One year I had the honor of being invited to share Chinese New Year with a Chinese family. We went to a gorgeous Chinese restaurant, and all the little boys wore ties, and the little girls wore red velvet dresses with white lace collars. It is an experience I will always treasure.

There has been a movement in the past decade or so to make Christmas all-inclusive, to call it "holiday" and to expunge any reference to Christmas. Well, Christmas has always been inclusive -- never exclusive. Changing the name to "holiday" does not change the inclusivity of Christmas. It belongs to everyone, but it is still Christmas. How on earth did we allow Christmas to become politically incorrect?

Christmas is very much a part of my family and cultural tradition. I was raised in the Anglican Church, and a big part of Christmas for me was the Christmas pageant -- both at church and at school -- and the wonderful, magical midnight mass on Christmas Eve. Over the years Christmas has become more secular and everyone participates, and that's okay with me. The idea of Christianity, after all, is about sharing, don't you agree? It is the main principle of all religions. And although many of us move away from our religious roots during the years, we never really leave them. Christmas is the time of year when food banks and other charitable organizations fill their shelves. People become more thoughtful. If you look in the Thesaurus under the word "charitable" you will also see the word "tolerant".

Tolerance is something we have all learned to practice, as we become a more global society. As we learn more about each other's cultures, we find many beautiful things that we didn't know about before. I'm fortunate to work with people from Japan, China, the Philippines, Israel, Mexico, the United States, Iran, Iraq, the United Arab Emirates, Turkey, Great Britain, France, Holland, South Africa, India -- and so many more. The one thing I have noticed -- universally -- is that all of these folks are proud of their cultures and traditions. When they bring a special traditional food to share with us at work, they always tell a story of how their mother used to prepare it for special occasions. There is a poignant gleam in their eyes when they tell the stories and share the special dish with us.

It is not right to ask any culture to homogenize their traditions and customs -- to take away from their culture -- just so that other folks will not be "offended". And so it is not right to ask me to change -- water down, if you will -- my Christmas. It is part of my culture and traditions, and it is Christmas -- not "holiday". So, I would respectfully request you to be tolerant of me and my customs, and celebrate Christmas with me. I'm happy to share it. Just don't ask me to give it away and change it into something unrecognizable to me, in order that someone else won't be offended. No offence is meant in my asking you to share my Christmas. Hey ... I'm also happy to share my rum and eggnog.

Now, get out there and enjoy the CHRISTMAS season...!

Friday, November 27, 2009

There Is A God And She Has A Sense of Humor

Sometimes in life it's okay to be good to ourselves. We spend so much time doing things for other people -- often unnoticed -- that we deserve to pamper ourselves a little bit too. One of my enjoyments in life is a hot shower at the end of the day, with all sorts of Crabtree and Evelyn "smelly stuff" as Phinnaeus and Marigold call it.

This evening I could not bring myself to attend the Black Widow Spider's retirement dinner, so instead I used the money I would have spent on my dinner, to buy something -- for me. I had vacillated back and forth about the retirement dinner all week -- "Should I go or should I stay?" Finally yesterday the decision was made for me, after the Black Widow Spider had thrown some papers at me, and I later overheard her telling a very large fib about one of our co-workers.


I did my bit for the Black Widow Spider's retirement fiasco party. I was enlisted to send out the invitations, buy the retirement cards, circulate the cards for everyone to sign, collect the money for her gifts and buy her a lovely bottle of French wine to accompany the gifts. That's enough, don't you think? The person who was organizing the dinner learned only today that she had been dealing with the wrong restaurant for the past couple of weeks. *sigh* So, after some last minute scrambling by the organizer, a group of 50 people will traipse over to the right restaurant, but they won't be able to sit together.

There is a God and She has a sense of humor.

Actually, in truth, I hope the Black Widow Spider has a wonderful send-off. She knows she has been very difficult to deal with, to put it politely. She knows...! A good send-off will be the perfect cap to making everyone's life a living hell a long 35-year career in the public service. I hope her party goes well for her and she has a lovely evening.

Me? I'm off to have a wonderful, hot shower with my new "smelly stuff". And best of all, I got it all for 35% off the regular price, plus the store threw in a bunch of freebies. I had enough money left over to buy myself some Purdy's chocolates.

There is a God and She has a sense of humor...

I hope you have done something to pamper yourself today. You deserve it.

Thursday, November 26, 2009

The Stuttering Cat...

A teacher is explaining biology to her 4th grade students.

"Human beings are the only animals that stutter," she says.

A little girl raises her hand. "I had a kitty-cat who stuttered."

The teacher, knowing how cute some of these stories could become, asked the girl to describe the incident.

"Well", the little girl began, "I was in the back yard with my kitty and the Rottweiler that lives next door got a running start and before we knew it, he jumped over the fence into our yard!"

"That must've been scary," said the teacher.

"It sure was," said the little girl. "My kitty raised her back, went 'Sssss, Sssss, Sssss' and before she could say 'Shit,' the Rottweiler ate her!"

Tuesday, November 24, 2009

The Hygiene Hypothesis

I have just recently heard of the "Hygiene Hypothesis" that states "a lack of early childhood exposure to infectious agents, symbiotic microorganisms (e.g., gut flora or probiotics), and parasites increases susceptibility to allergic diseases by modulating immune system development." In other words, we have sanitized ourselves sick. The incidence of allergies in children has risen since we have become overly preoccupied with sanitation. The hypothesis goes on further to state: "Viewed through the lens of the hygiene hypothesis the modern obsession or preoccupation with sterlity, equating it with cleanliness and goodness, is revealed for what it is. An unhealthy cultual artifact that arose as a consequence of the more immediate and apparent benefits from adopting modern sanitary practices and technologies. Eliminating typhoid and cholera has saved millions of lives in the aggregate since sewers and clean drinking water was introduced in North American and Western Europe for instance. But in so doing we caused the rise of the modern diseases involving immune dysregulation."

When Charles Schultz created the "Peanuts" comic strip, he was dismayed to learn that Pig-Pen had become everyone's favorite character. Everyone loved Pig-Pen (including me) and I think it is because we could identify with him, and his little cloud of swirling dust. When I was about five years-old, I remember my grandfather saying to me, very sternly, "Just look at you; you have been outside for ten minutes and your clothes are all soiled."

Well, yes, I grew up in a logging town. We played outdoors. We got dirty. That's what kids do.

Last night on the 6:00 news I heard about a company here in Vancouver that can go through all the office buildings and sanitize them until there are no germs left at all. The very thought of it gives me the creeps. Since the beginning of time have lived in a symbiotic relationship with most of the world's viruses and bacteria, and most of them are beneficial to us. Many of them are necessary, in fact. For goodness sake, leave them alone.

Get outside and play...!

Monday, November 23, 2009

Oprah's Swan Song

I have never been a huge fan of Oprah Winfrey. It's not that I dislike her, I just have never seen the huge attraction in her or her television program. I find her show mildly amusing, and I will watch it if I should happen to be home in the afternooon, and there is nothing else to watch. She seems like a nice lady, she's charming, she is usually polite and respectful to her guests, but one could never call her groundbreaking or edgy. Her guests and topics usually reflect "pop-culture lite".

Last week, amidst a flood of tears, Oprah announced she would be retiring from her television show in September 2011 -- which is almost two years from now. When I first saw the news clip, I thought someone had died. But no, it was simply Oprah announcing her "retirement" from her afternoon program. Have her ratings been slipping lately? Because this was a brilliant publicity stunt. The best way to make people want something is to tell them they can't have it anymore. So for the next two years, her fans will be in a "death watch". And, just watch her ratings and her fortune sky-rocket during that time.

Oh, goodness, don't I sounded jaded? Well, there's no business like show business -- and Oprah is a savvy business woman.

The next question is, who will take Oprah's place? I rather like Tyra Banks. To use Tyra's word, she's "fierce". She has an edge to her, and she's smart, dynamic and funny. I hope Tyra continues to have fun with her show, keeps her own personality and doesn't step into Oprah's footsteps but instead keeps her own identity. But, whoever fills the vacant spot left by Oprah, I hope they recognize the fact that it’s just entertainment. Does anyone remember the ending of the Truman show? As soon as Truman walked off the set, folks immediately picked up their remotes and looked for something else to watch.

So, Oprah, "In case I don't see you ... good afternoon, good evening, and good night."

Sunday, November 22, 2009

The Dance Of Joy...!

The Dance
Henri Matisse

This will be me -- all week -- doing the dance of joy. The Black Widow Spider is retiring, she will be gone. Gone, baby gone...! Few things in life have filled me with as much joy as the thought of our workplace losing the destructive, poisonous, malicious influence of the Black Widow Spider. We will finally be free of her and her and her venom. This miserable person has worked at our organization for 35 years, and all week long she has been running around bellowing,

"What will this place do without me?"

Well, I'll tell you what we'll do. We will finally move into the 21st Century, and stop doing things they way they were done in 1975. We will move forward in a progressive way. Folks will be able to bring forward new ideas without being told those ideas can never work.

"Nope...! This is the way we've always done it, and that can't be done."

But more importantly, our colleagues will be able to work in an environment free from false accusations, lies, innuendo and gossip. People will continue to come to work, do a good job, and stop being afraid. The skies will clear, the sun will shine and birds will sing.

Well, okay, maybe that's a bit of a stretch, but the atmosphere will feel less gloomy.

The Crying Spider
Odilon Redon

I think some people come into this world with an air of negativity. They see the cup as half empty, never half full. They lack any feeling of joy or humor. Gloom and pessimism hang off their shoulders, and trail behind them like oily, black droplets. The very air surrounding them is dank and dreary. The Black Widow Spider is one of those people. She always wears black clothing, she is always angry, and she always looks as if no light whatsoever emanates from her soul -- if indeed she has one.

Would it be safe to say I dislike this person? Yes. Intensely. It would also be safe to say I believe she has killed several of her staff members due to stress over the years. There has been a high incidence of cancer and heart disease amongst the young women -- and men -- who have worked with her. Several others have taken long-term disability stress leave.

Would it also be safe to say I am happy she is finally leaving? Oh, yes... Will I be going to her retirement party? Maybe ... we'll see.

Let the dancing begin...!

Saturday, November 21, 2009

Twilight: New Moon

There is no other legend as delicious as the legend of vampires, and in the "Twilight" series, vampires are the perfect bad-boys that every girl is attracted to at some point during high school. That first contact -- the touch of a hand on the school bus -- can be as electrifying as a set of fangs sinking into the jugular vein. The bad-boys were always a bit aloof, as if they were hiding a deep, dark secret. The darker the secret, the more attractive they were. One always imagined, what were they hiding in their tortured souls? And what secret could be deeper and darker than being soulless -- a vampire? Bella is attracted to Edward and when she finds out the truth about him, she is even more attracted. She is hopelessly lost and willing to give up her own soul for him.

The second and third movies of the "Twilight" series were filmed here in Vancouver, and I cannot imagine a better location for these movies than the forests of British Columbia. When I was growing up on Vancouver Island, I lived on the edge of the forest. I was comfortable in the forest, and spent a lot of time there on hot summer days, but there were times when I became afraid of the trees. Or, I should say, I had an instinctive knowledge of what lived in the dark forest trees, something that shouldn't have been there -- something unnatural. And whatever it was, I could feel it watching me, waiting until the sun went down. Even as an adult, I don't like driving through a forest at night. At every bend of the road, something menacing is lurking beyond the headlights of the car. I can feel it.

If ever there were an environment where vampires, werewolves and humans could co-exist, it is here. After a few weeks of Pacific Northwest weather -- rain, clouds, wind, more rain -- humans begin to resemble vampires with translucent, pasty skin and blank, bloodshot eyes. Vampires could walk amongst us, and we wouldn't know the difference. The co-worker at the next desk, is that a spot of ketchup on the corner of his mouth, or could it be....? And, as far as werewolves are concerned, I work with two monsters people who shapeshift on a regular basis.

Do vampires and werewolves exist? Oh, yes, they walk amongst us.

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

The Substitute Teacher

Is there anything more wonderful -- anything that can fill a child's heart with more joy -- than the words,

"Class, your teacher is sick today and you will be having a substitute."

It's like a mini-vacation, almost as good as a snow day.

"Miss Jones is sick? We have a sub? Yay...!"

There must be a special place in Heaven for all those poor folks who have volunteered enlisted as substitute teachers. They go forth bravely into H*ll unknown territory knowing that, whatever ensues, they will be the losers. There's nothing like a substitute teacher to bring out the heathen in perfectly normal, well-behaved children.

One of my favorite substitute teachers was Mr. Smith* who took over for our regular grade ten French teacher -- for one whole, glorious month. Poor Mr. Smith was a happless, grey little man. He wore the same grey suit every day, and he had matching grey hair and moustache. The very air around him was grey. As substitute teachers go, he was an easy target. By the second week with our class, he was excusing himself every few minutes and disappearing into the washroom with a silver hip flask. I had never seen one before, and I didn't know what it was. By the third week, Mr. Smith was taking swigs from the flask without leaving the classroom. At the end of week four, he left with the cheery parting, "Adios, you little b*ggers..." I don't know what came over us during Mr. Smith's sojourn with us. We were known throughout the school as the "good kids" -- the straight "A" students. Maybe it was some sort of a "Lord of the Flies" thing, I don't know.

A little friend of mine, who shall remain nameless, informed me yesterday that his class had a substitute teacher for a few days. I could hear the wicked glee creeping into his voice

"Oh?" I asked, "And how did that go?"

"Well", he said, "She yelled at us a lot, so you know what we did? When her back was turned, the whole class changed seats."

Oh, goodness, it's wonderful to know that some things never change.

Sunday, November 15, 2009

The Sensitive Man

A woman meets a man in a bar. They talk, they connect, and they end up leaving together. Once they get back to his place, he shows her around his apartment. She notices that one wall of his bedroom is completely filled with soft, sweet, cuddly teddy bears. There are three shelves in the bedroom, with hundreds and hundreds of cute, cuddly teddy bears carefully placed in rows, covering the entire wall. It was obvious that he had taken quite some time to lovingly arrange them and she was immediately touched by the amount of thought he had put into organizing the display.

There were small bears all along the bottom shelf, medium-sized bears covering the length of the middle shelf, and huge, enormous bears running all the way along the top shelf.

She found it strange for an obviously masculine man to have such a large collection of Teddy Bears. She is quite impressed by his sensitive side, but doesn't mention this to him. They share a bottle of wine and continue talking and, after awhile, she finds herself thinking,

"Oh my gosh ... maybe, this guy could be the one... Maybe he could be the future father of my children?"

She turns to him and kisses him lightly on the lips. He responds warmly. They continue to kiss, the passion builds, and he romantically lifts her in his arms and carries her into his bedroom where they rip off each other's clothes and make hot, steamy love. She is so overwhelmed that she responds with more passion, more creativity, more heat than she has ever known. After an intense night of raw passion with this sensitive man, they are lying there together in the afterglow. The woman rolls over, gently strokes his chest and asks coyly,

"Well, how was it?"

The man gently smiles at her, strokes her cheek, looks deeply into her eyes, and says,

"Help yourself to any prize from the middle shelf."

I'll Show You Mine ... If You Show Me Yours

One of my first memories when I was a little girl was the discovery that my two brothers had been furnished with an extra part of their anatomies that I did not have. It puzzled me, and I didn't think it was fair. I felt cheated. I went around to all the little boys in the neighborhood, asking them if they had one, and could I please see it. They all had one, and they were extremely proud of them, and very happy to show them to me. In fact, I remember one instance where several of my little male friends were so excited to show me the wonderful things their appendages could do, they all lined up along a fence and had a (*cough*) contest. I was so angry at not being able to do what they were doing, I went home and told my mother. She made me sit on the chesterfield for the rest of the afternoon with the dreaded words, "Stay there until your father gets home...!" I sat there trembling in fear and anger.

When my father finally got home, he laughed for quite a long time, and then he had a little chat with me. I don't remember exactly what he said, but he quietly explained to me why little boys have that "extra bit", and little girls don't, and whatever he said, I was happy. From that day on I was glad to be a girl, and I felt girls were somehow special and mysterious. Boys really were "snakes and snails and puppy dog's tails" and little girls were "cinnamon and spice and everything nice". I love being a woman.

Last night I was reading about Chaz/Chastity Bono, and how she felt she had been born into the wrong body. All her life, instead of feeling like a female, she has felt that she is really a male. She has recently undergone sex change orientation so her physical body will be in alignment with how she feels inside. I should refer to her as him, because he is now male. It occurred to me how difficult it must be to be born as one gender, but to know in your heart that you are actually the other gender. How on earth does that happen? I think, also, it must be more common than we realize.

I believe most people have identity issues of some sort or another. As the Scottish poet Robbie Burns said, "O wad some Power the giftie gie us. To see oursels as ithers see us!" But more to the point, wouldn't our lives be so much easier if other people could see us the way we see ourselves. It's frustrating and sometimes hurtful when people treat us differently than we are. It's as if they don't see us. They have pre-judgement -- or prejudice -- based on how we look. Occasionally in life we meet someone who sees right into our soul, and they know us, and they connect with the real person. I think that must be what love is.

Chaz Bono has a lot of courage to do what he is doing, and I really applaud him. He doesn't want to live behind a facade any longer. I think he may set an example for other people, who want to throw off the artificial guise they show to the world, and just be themselves. As with Chaz, it takes a lot of courage. Or, to quote another famous poet:

"This above all: to thine own self be true,
And it must follow, as the night the day,
Thou canst not then be false to any man."

... Shakespeare

Saturday, November 14, 2009

Canadians Are Terrific ... All Except For Laverne

Irish Emigrants Waiting for a Train
Erskine Nicol

Like every other Canadian, I am a descendent of immigrants to this country. My father's family was from Scotland, and my mother's family was from England and South Africa. I grew up in a small town on Vancouver Island, and I considered myself to be 100% Canadian -- in fact, I took it for granted that I was Canadian. But as I grew older, and learned more about the world, and more about my own country, I became quite proud of the fact that I was Canadian. We are large in land mass, and rather small in population, and we are -- for the most part -- very nice people. In fact, it could easily be argued that we are rather boring. We are peaceful, and are known as the peacekeepers. In 1957 Prime Minister Lester Pearson -- arguably one of our most boring Prime Ministers -- won the Nobel Peace Prize "for his role in trying to end the Suez conflict and to solve the Middle East question through the United Nations", and establishing the United Nations peacekeeping force.

We're very easy-going people, we don't take things too seriously, we're open-minded about everything, and we learned long ago to laugh at ourselves. That may be why some most of the best comedians -- from Jim Carey to Mike Meyers -- come from Canada. We have universal health care, and yes, it works. We have legalized same sex marriage, and we look the other way when we see someone smoking pot. Unless, of course, we want them to pass the joint to us...

Most of us live along the 49th parallel, so all of our television and radio programs are from the U.S. We watch everything Americans watch, from "Dancing with the Stars" to "Survivor" to "Desperate Housewives" ... and everything in between. When I was growing up on Vancouver Island, my favorite radio station was out of Sacramento, California.

The other day I was reading a blog from the United States, and the blog owner had published an e-mail he had received from a Canadian named Laverne. I have left it unedited, complete with typos, misspellings and grammatical errors, because somehow these things seem to add to the wonderful flavor of Laverne's e-mail.

Here is a comment on radio talk from a Canadian. She cannot listen to Rush or Hannity or FOX News. Why? Because the left wing government of Canada did not want its citizens to hear free speech.

Author: laverne
I am a Canadian Living in Btitish Columbia,. I cannot get Rush by radio , as the last Liberal gov’t appointed members to the CRTC which control radio& TV stations allowed to air on Canadian Airways . We now have a conservative gov’t, but they cannot clean up all Liberal appointments , such as CRTC and Immigration Boards, as we don’t yet have a majority gov’t .The other opp party is also left (NDP) they would do everything in their power to keep Canadians from listening to FOX’s right wing shows . Some people have installed “dishes’, but in many ares , a dish is considered ‘eye polution’ .

I’m afraid this is the situation that is developing right there in your own (used to be) wonderful free country. I PRAY that that downward spiral can be stopped before it’s too late – GOD BLESS AMERICA!

Obviously Laverne doesn't understand much about radio waves. Anyone in Canada can listen to Rush Limbaugh, Sean Hannity or Glenn Beck if they choose to do so. They can also listen and watch them on their computers, or watch them on television. Fortunately, not many Canadians -- at least none that I know -- choose to do so. The CRTC and the Immigration Boards are not blocking anything. They certainly are not "doing everything in their power to keep Canadians from listening to FOX’s right wing shows". What on earth would we do for our comedic material, if we were to do that?

Sometimes I wonder what on earth the rest of the world thinks of this quiet nation "north of the border". Do you folks really see us as a bunch of uneducated, boorish rednecks, who come in from the bush every Saturday night, sitting around in our toques drinking moosehead beer?

The world will be coming to Vancouver in a few weeks for the 2010 Winter Olympics. You are going to be pleasantly surprised to find a beautiful, cultured, cosmopolitan city, with sophisticated, educated people living here.

... Well, that is, all except for Laverne ...

Friday, November 13, 2009

The World's Best Sticky Toffee Pudding...

When my daughter and I were visiting friends in Aberdeen, Scotland, we were on an outing one day and stopped for lunch at a wonderful little hotel called "The Udny Arms".
The Udny Arms overlooks the the Ythan River and Sands of Forvie. The dunes there are a natural preserve, and of course, Donald Trump took one look at this beautiful area and decided it needed developing into a golf course, 500 houses, 950 timeshare flats and a hotel. And what will it be called? Naturally, Trump International Golf Links. *sigh* But that’s a story for another day.

It was a cold, blustery day when we were there, and it was the day I first discovered one of the most wonderful delights I had ever tasted -- Sticky Toffee Pudding. It was an experience I will never forget, sitting in that beautiful room, looking out at the dunes and the water, and eating enjoying savoring that wonderful pudding. Today is a cold, blustery day in Vancouver, a perfect day for Sticky Toffee Pudding. So, I thought I would share it with you. Here it is, hand written by the chef at the Udny Arms Hotel, Aberdeen, Scotland. (Click to enlarge it...)

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Vincent Van Gogh: The Letters

Van Gogh Painting Sunflowers
Paul Gauguin

This wonderful painting is a picture of Van Gogh as he was painting his sunflowers, done by his close friend, Paul Gauguin. Van Gogh and Gauguin had a love/hate friendship, and there is one theory that Gauguin -- in a fit of rage -- was responsible for cutting off Van Gogh's ear. As the story goes, Gauguin had been staying with Van Gogh in his "Yellow House" in Arles, but the two men had an argument and Van Gogh threw a glass at Gauguin. Gauguin left the house with his baggage and his sword, and the argument spilled out onto the street. As they fought, Gauguin took a swipe at Van Gogh in self-defence, and accidentally cut off Van Gogh's ear. Gauguin then threw his sword into the in the Rhône River, and Van Gogh proceeded to a bordello, where he presented his ear to a prostitute and then staggered home. Apparently both men made a pact to keep the truth a secret. It's an interesting story, and I suppose no one will ever know for sure.

There is a six-volume edition of Van Gogh's letters to his family and friends, that has just been published, "Vincent Van Gogh: The Letters". There are 819 letters altogether, the first being written when he was 19 years old, and the last -- which was found in his pocket when he died -- written when he was 37. Can you even imagine how wonderful it would be to read through his own account of his life? The publication costs $600, so I don't think I will bother to put in on my Christmas wish list. However, there is a website at the Van Gogh Museum, where all the letters are published, and you can choose the language in which you prefer to read them. Several of the letters have sketches on them as well. Here is a letter from Vincent Van Gogh to Paul Gauguin, written in 1888.

My dear friend Gauguin
Thanks for writing to me again, my dear friend, and be assured that since my return I’ve thought about you every day. I only stayed in Paris for three days, and as the Parisian noise &c. made a pretty bad impression on me I judged it wise for my head to clear off to the countryside – otherwise I would have swiftly run round to your place. And it gives me enormous pleasure that you say that you liked the portrait of the Arlésienne based rigorously on your drawing. I tried to be respectfully faithful to your drawing while taking the liberty of interpreting through the medium of a colour the sober character and the style of the drawing in question. It’s a synthesis of an Arlésienne if you like, as syntheses of Arlésiennes are rare, take it as a work by you and me, like a summary of our months of work together. To do it I, for my part, paid with another month of illness, but I also know that it’s a canvas that will be understood by you, me and just one or two others, as we’d like it to be understood. Here my friend Dr Gachet came to it completely after two, three hesitations and says: ‘how difficult it is to be simple’. Right – I’m going to emphasize the thing even more by etching it, that thing, then that’s enough. Whoever wants it can have it.

Have you also seen the olive trees? Now I have a portrait of Dr Gachet with the deeply sad expression of our time. If you like something like you were saying about your Christ in the Garden of Olives, not destined to be understood, but anyhow up to that point I follow you, and my brother clearly grasps this nuance. I also have a cypress with a star from down there. A last try – a night sky with a moon without brightness, the slender crescent barely emerging from the opaque projected shadow of the earth – a star with exaggerated brightness, if you like, a soft brightness of pink and green in the ultramarine sky where clouds run. Below, a road bordered by tall yellow canes behind which are the blue low Alpilles, an old inn with orange lighted windows and a very tall cypress, very straight, very dark.

On the road a yellow carriage harnessed to a white horse, and two late walkers. Very romantic if you like, but also ‘Provençal’ I think. I’ll probably make etchings of this one, and of other landscapes and subjects, reminiscences of Provence, then I’ll look forward to giving you an ensemble, a rather deliberate and studied summary. My brother says that Lauzet, who’s doing the lithographs after Monticelli, liked that head of the Arlésienne. So you’ll understand that having arrived in Paris a little confused I haven’t yet seen any of your canvases. But soon I hope to return there for a few days. Very pleased to learn from your letter that you’re returning to Brittany with De Haan. It’s highly likely that – if you allow me – I’ll come for a month to join you there to do a seascape or two, but especially to see you and make the acquaintance of De Haan. Then we’ll try to do something deliberate and serious, as it would probably have become if we’d been able to continue down there.

Look, an idea which will perhaps suit you. I’m trying to do studies of wheat like this, however I can’t draw it – nothing but ears, blue-green stems, long leaves like ribbons, green and pink by reflection, yellowing ears lightly bordered with pale pink due to the dusty flowering. A pink bindweed at the bottom wound around a stem. On it, on a very alive and yet tranquil background, I would like to paint portraits. It is greens of different quality, of the same value, in such a way as to form a green whole which would by its vibration make one think of the soft sound of the ears swaying in the breeze. It’s not at all easy as a colour scheme.

Van Gogh would be amazed at the interest in his work and his life. He did not live to see any of his wonderful paintings sold, and died believing he was a failure. I just hope he would not consider it voyeuristic for the world to be interested in his writings as well. The letters and accompanying illustrations and maps were published as a joint project of the Huyegens Institute and the Van Gogh Museum, and I believe they were treated with the respect and reverence they deserve.

Sunday, November 8, 2009

Six Degrees of Separation

The Key
Jackson Pollock

The theory of Six Degrees of Separation is one that has always amazed me. It refers to the idea that, if a person is one step away from each person they know, and two steps away from each person who is known by one of the people they know, then everyone is at most six steps away from every other person on Earth. I work with someone who is married to a Goddaughter of Queen Elizabeth, therefore I am two degrees of separation away from the Queen. When I was in grade eight, a new student from another city enrolled in our school. Our teacher asked me if I would mind sharing my locker with the new student. She and I became friends, and I invited her home for dinner one night. As my mother and my new friend stood chatting in the kitchen, they discovered that my new friend was closely related to us through a mutual relative in South Africa. Two degrees of separation -- it's a small world.

The following story is one that I have posted about previously, but I was thinking about the story today, and I thought I would post it again for those of you who had not read it. It is a true story.

I grew up in a small town on the edge of a forest and my friend Helen* lived on the other side of the creek from our house. We spent all our time at each other’s houses, playing hopscotch, skipping, swimming, playing with dolls and doing all the other things girls do. We went through elementary school together and we ate lunch together every day. We would often trade lunches, and I always looked forward to the days when Helen’s mother made her chocolate bar and banana sandwiches. My mother never made me chocolate bar and banana sandwiches, and I thought they were wonderful.

Helen and I grew apart as we got into high school and we found we had different interests. Helen was very athletic and involved in girl’s basketball, where I was more involved with the school choir and painting. We went our separate ways and didn’t see each other again after graduation. Helen became a teacher and moved to another city, and I got married. After my husband died, it was necessary for me to go back to work, so I became a legal assistant with a large law firm. I worked for a senior partner and his junior assistant, a young articling student named Paul*.

Paul was a very sweet young man and everyone liked him. He was dark, attractive and sort of self-effacing, but he was a very promising articling student. However, he had made one serious mistake in his personal life, which required a formal hearing before he could become a lawyer. When the hearing concluded, it was agreed that Paul could become a lawyer and practice law, but on the condition that he move to a law firm in another city.

In the meantime, Helen had been diagnosed with a condition that required surgery. The doctor who performed the surgery botched it, leaving Helen in chronic pain. Helen sued the doctor but she lost the law suit. By a twist of coincidence, the law firm representing the doctor was the same law firm where Paul now practiced law.

Helen was frustrated with the outcome of her case, and after exhausting all appeals, she set out on a mission to take justice into her own hands. She went to the law firm that had represented the doctor, with the intent to shoot the lawyer, and she accidentally shot Paul instead and killed him. She was apprehended while she was on her way to shoot the doctor who had botched her operation. After a lengthy trial, Helen was found guilty of murder and sentenced to life in prison.

Two people whom I had known quite closely at different times in my life, had their lives intersect with each other in a way that would turn out to be devastating for them both. At the time this happened, I had not yet heard of the theory of Six Degrees of Separation. Neither Helen nor Paul knew that I was a common factor in each of their lives. I wonder how often this happens every day as we weave to and fro throughout each other's lives.

Saturday, November 7, 2009

Don't Wait Up...

I have been invited off on adventure today. It has been so long since I have been on an adventure, I have become boring -- even to myself. Does it involve Royalty? No -- even though Charles and Camilla are here in Vancouver today -- they will have to get by without me. Does it involve wearing red shoes? No, but I will be wearing my sexy yellow Wellingtons and my yellow rain slicker.

I'll tell you all about it when I get back. Don't wait up...

My adventure was a wash-out -- literally -- as it rained cats, dogs and I think even some smallish cows these past two days. I have never seen rain like this, even on the We(s)t Coast.

Friday, November 6, 2009

A Sense Of The Ridiculous Is What Makes Us Human

For the past few days I have been at home with a cold / flu, and it has given me time to think. That can be a dangerous thing, when I have idle time on my hands. All sorts of strange ideas meander through my head. Last night as I was contemplating the ceiling life, I suddenly thought, "What are we? What is our purpose?" When you think about it, we are strange creatures -- really, we are just a series of tubes. Stuff goes in, and stuff goes out, and once a day we go unconscious for several hours. But in addition to that, we contain something unique to us -- the human spirit. The scientific definition of spirit is the property of intelligence that drives it to adapt the environment. As a group, civilization develops when several individuals develop the human spirit together. When the results of the human spirit are successful, the consequence is progress. Without the human spirit, our species would become extinct.

But, what is that special something that makes us human, beyond the human spirit? According to science, we share 99% of our DNA with chimpanzees, and yet there is a universe of difference between us. Two things that make us human are laughter and weeping. No other mammal does these things. Some animals do make a sound that mimics (apes) laughter, but it is not humorous laughter. Only human beings are unique in that we have been given the gift of humor. Some folks believe this was part of the evolutionary process, as we climbed out of the primordial soup. Others believe we are God's creatures and laughter was a gift to us. Whatever it is, we need to do more of it. It may just be my imagination, but everyone seems to be so serious, and so sad these days -- full of stress and angst. People are worried about wars, recession, pandemics, finances, unemployment, homelessness -- all creations of the human condition. We need to get back to our sense of the ridiculous.

George Carlin was able to see the absurdity in every aspect of the human condition. Here he is doing one of my favorite routines. Even if you don't like sports, you'll love "Football versus Baseball". Have a chuckle... you deserve it.

Tuesday, November 3, 2009

The Seventh Foot

Vincent Van Gogh

Another severed foot has been found washed ashore in the Lower Mainland. The foot is in a New Balance running shoe, and it matches a woman's foot that washed ashore on May 22nd. The feet started washing ashore in August 2007, and the first foot has been identified, but the man's name is being withheld at the request of his family. A second foot found on Gabriola Island in August 2007 still remains unidentified. Two more feet found on Valdez and Westham Islands in July 2008 belonged to the same man. And two feet found in Richmond in December 2008 belonged to the same woman. The amazing thing is, these feet were identified by searching the DNA database of missing persons.

According to the RCMP, "If you have a foot in a shoe laced up, it protects the integrity of the appendage."

Well, that's good to know...

The other night I watched an amazing program on CBC's "The Passionate Eye" about various theories of the severed feet, narrated by the American actor Peter Coyote. (If you want to watch the whole program, you can click on the link.)

Sometimes truth is stranger than fiction, and the story of these feet is more compelling than any CSI (Miami) (New York) TV show. On television, the case is solved before the final credits run, but in the case of these feet, identification is long and painstaking. But it will be solved. Who are these people? What are their severed feet doing washing ashore?

According to Mike foreman, a research scientist with the federal fisheries department, "The feet are the most recent addition to the collection of body parts carried ashore by the capricious currents of the Georgia Strait. It's not an uncommon occurrence for people to be lost at sea. It probably happens more often than we think," he said. "Body parts are often carried far from where they entered the water because the strait's currents vary depending on tides, winds and fresh water coming from the Fraser River, he said."

Ewwww... Just when you thought it was safe to go back into the water.

Never, Ever, Ever Drink And Drive...!

Simply put, Cognac is the Champagne of brandies. Or you could say Champagne is the Cognac of wines. They are both produced exclusively in France, and both must meet strenuous requirements in order to be called Champagne or Cognac. I have never been overly impressed with Champagne, but I love Cognac. It really is liquid gold. According to French Law, in order to bear the name, Cognac must meet strenuous legal requirements, ensuring that the 300-year old production process remains unchanged. It must be made from at least 90% Ugni Blanc, Folle Blanche, or Colombard grapes, although Ugni Blanc, specifically Saint-Emilion grapes, are today virtually the exclusive variety used. The remainder may consist of the grape varieties Folignan, Jurançon blanc, Meslier St-François (also called Blanc Ramé), Sélect, Montils, and Sémillon, It must be distilled twice in copper pot stills and aged at least two years in French oak barrels, most commonly from oak shipped from all over Europe but passing through the town of Limoges and for that reason called 'limousin' oak. ... Wikipedia

There are various grades of Cognac:

VS Very Special, or ✯✯✯ (three stars) where the youngest brandy is stored at least two years in cask.
VSOP Very Special (less commonly 'Superior') Old Pale, where the youngest brandy is stored at least four years in cask, but the average wood age is much older.
XO Extra Old, where the youngest brandy is stored at least six, but average upwards of 20 years.

I love Cognac, and I have some gorgeous brandy snifters and a little gizmo to heat the Cognac that my daughter gave me for Christmas one year. There is nothing nicer than a warm snifter of Cognac on a cold winter evening, in front of the fireplace. And needless to say, Cognac can be rather expensive, but worth the price. So, when I saw this video on CTV News this morning, I almost fell of my chair laughing. Let it be a warning, never, ever drink and drive, especially in a warehouse full of expensive French Cognac.

The driver of the forklift was drunk, and he wasn't hurt, but oh, the horror, the horror...

Monday, November 2, 2009

All They Need Is For You To Find Them...

A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte
Georges-Pierre Seurat

When I first saw this painting by Seurat, I thought it was rather strange-looking -- wooden, in fact. It seemed so very simple, I wondered why it would have taken him two years to paint it. But the more I look at it, the more I am drawn to its sense of movement. Even though the figures appear still, there is a hum of energy to the painting. The people in the park are there in small groups of two and three, and although they appear not to be interacting with each other, they are all connected by the same idea. They have gone to the island in the middle of the River Seine in order to enjoy the park on a Sunday afternoon, and in that they have something in common.

Blogging reminds me a bit of that painting -- we're all blogging basically for the same reason. I have been blogging for almost four years now, and I have seen blogs come and go. Some of the most interesting, well-written blogs on Blogger have more or less died on the vine, while others have gained momentum and thrived. There is no rhyme nor reason to it. I think it may be partly due to timing and luck, it may partly depend on how much time the blogger has to visit other blogs, or it may depend on the particular theme of any one blog. In my travels, I have discovered some extremely well-written, well thought out, fun, informative and entertaining blogs that have almost no commenters or followers at all. Some wonderful little gems get overlooked, and yet those particular blogs may be amongst the best I have ever read. And yes, you know who you are. I'm talking about you -- all of you...

Vase of Flowers
Georges-Pierre Seurat

One of our blogging friends said in an e-mail to me yesterday, "I would love to read and promote new blogs. Let's do something together. Any ideas?" I agree with her, and I have an idea -- a suggestion -- that I think might work. I thought, perhaps, rather than directing people to blogs we like, which can at times feel sort of exclusive and someone may be left out, why don't we do something inclusive and exchange blogrolls. That is to say, one day a week, instead of going to our regular blogs that we visit, why don't we click on someone else's blogroll instead. I have 155 blogs on my blog roll, they are all well worth a visit, and I invite you to visit them. Some of them truly are undiscovered gems. Some of them are astonishing in their honesty and candour. Others will amaze you with their beautiful writing, painting and photography, and some are just plain fun. All they need is for you to find them.

Sunday, November 1, 2009

Guilt-Free Cocoa...!

Now that summer is over, the patio furniture has been put away, and the ice has stopped clinking in the lemonade pitchers, it's time for that other necessity of life -- cocoa. There is almost nothing more wonderful than a rich, dark, hot cup of cocoa. No -- not hot chocolate -- real cocoa, made with 100% cocoa. Have you ever read the ingredients on a package of instant hot chocolate? Modified milk ingredients, milk powder, cocoa, carrageenan, salt, artificial flavor, sucralose, acesulfame-potassium (huh?), soy and wheat. I don't know what half of those are. The ingredients in cocoa powder? Cocoa.

The Aztecs called chocolate the food of the gods, and Moctezuma, the Aztec emperor, drank cocoa from a golden goblet, served with a golden spoon. According to a study published in the Journal of the American Medical Association, a cup of hot cocoa is full of powerful antioxidants. A study of 8,000 Americans found that cocoa may even extend life. In another study done by Dr. Chang Yong Lee at Cornell University, cocoa had twice as many antioxidants as red wine, and three times as many as green tea. In yet another study published in Science Daily, cocoa contains a compound called epicatechin, and apparently the health benefits of this compound rival the benefits of penicillin. Dr. Norman Hollenberg, a professor medicine at Harvard Medical school, spent years studying the benefits of cocoa on the Kuna people in Panama. He found that the risk of four of the five most common killer diseases: stroke, heart failure, cancer and diabetes, is reduced to less then 10% in these folks, and they drink up to 40 cups of cocoa a week.

Well, my goodness, is there any more proof that drinking cocoa -- guilt-free -- is actually good for us? Besides warming our bodies and souls, this wonderful food actually provides health benefits. Who knew! When I was a little girl, my father's cure for anything was a cup of cocoa, made from scratch using Fry's cocoa powder. And he always served it in an antique cocoa set that had belonged to his family. It was quite a special ritual, and no matter what ailment my brothers and I were suffering from, my Dad's cup of cocoa always did the trick. I still use his recipe and it's wonderful.

1. 1 heaping tablespoon of Fry’s cocoa powder.
2. 1 heaping tablespoon of finely granulated sugar
3. Dash of salt
4. 1 tablespoon of boiling water
5. 1/2 teaspoon of real vanilla extract
6. 1 cup of hot milk (2% is good)
7. Whipped cream or marshmallows, if desired

In a pot on the stove, over medium high heat, mix the cocoa powder, sugar and water. Add a little milk, stirring well. Add the remaining milk, and heat until steaming hot, but do not allow it to boil. Pour the cocoa into your favorite mug and add some whipped cream or marshmallows if you wish. Enjoy! Cocoa, what a body needs...