Monday, 25 December 2017

The Naughty and Nice of Christmas

The very first Christmas present that I ever bought was a tree-topper angel ornament for my mother, a ceramic cherub of sorts holding a banner that said "Gloria".  Christmas for children is often about trying to be good, to produce a present-winning performance.  I was never very good at "normal".  I did not play house or want to get married and my Barbie doll was a spy named Honey West whose cover story was that she was a bartender.  A fur toy, an octopus that I dubbed "Alaska", was her assistant who ran the bar when she went off on adventure-filled missions.  Those pose-able eight arms came in handy. 

Growing up with an Austrian mother I was told tales of the Grampus, who left coal in your shoes and a switch with which your parents were to beat you.  Now, doesn't that smack of Grimm's fairy tales?  Curiously, this year I noticed Krampus sweaters and other devilish gear turning up at one of my favourite gift retailers, Posie Row.  The Internet, of course, was brimming with extreme versions of Krampus fashion.

Having your own children is supposedly the time to return to sugar plum wishes.  What happened in my case is that I ended up with the toddler that asked, "Why doesn't Santa give poor children presents?"  This question stung me as the social cliché between poverty and bad behaviour loomed large.  Remember that lump of coal that was said to appear in the stockings of "naughty" children? 
At the Bernard Stanley Gastropub for Project Kindness.

Perhaps because of my child's early social conscience I have been possessed with alternative ways of Christmas cheer.  We worked on a series of toy drives over the years for a variety of causes.  The one that was the most bittersweet was the drive for gifts to children who had a parent incarcerated.

This Friday past, I stopped into the Bernard Stanley Gastro pub for a quick bite before attending Mary Barry's early set at The Black Sheep.  Friday night during the holiday season can be a difficult time to score a table without a reservation, so I offered to sit at the bar.  And boy was I glad I did. 

No sooner had I finished my scallops with watermelon salsa than Hasan Hai appeared at the invisible line at the entrance where you stand and wait to be greeted.  I flashed him a smile and a two thumbs up.  He responded with a point and grin.  In short time we were seated beside each other except that Hasan sat on the bar.  I stashed his jacket on my lap.  The cameras came out and I was told to keep a straight face.

Now, I should probably point out that Hasan has more than one persona with a social conscience.  He started the Newfoundland Beard and Moustache club and donned a merb'ys tail to help raise funds for Spirit Horse.  Friday night he was "the dark elf on the shelf" with Project Kindness and was raising money for the Food Sharing Network.  The money goes directly to the charity as Hasan pointed out to me, "my elf leggings don't have any pockets."  The dark elf has appeared at a variety of St. John's locations and this season netted $3,831.35, which will leverage much more–the gift that keeps giving.

Monday, 18 December 2017

How Do You Like Your Mermen?

St. John's is something of a Mecca for facial hair.  Far beyond the annual sprouting of moustaches for Movember, which raises funds for men's health issues, we now have a Newfoundland and Labrador Beard & Moustache Club.  This is a social club that is interested in promoting a positive image for facial hair but you don't need a beard to be a member. 

Hasan Hai had been a member of the Saskatchewan branch of the club and when he moved back home to Newfoundland our local club sprang up in January 2017–this is neither your usual stuffy men's club nor a rowdy fraternity.  Its members have an endearing way of laughing at themselves and a willingness to help out with charitable projects. What intrigued me about the organization was its goal of challenging stereotypes and particularly what "men are supposed to look like".  They recognize diversity and the NL Beard & Moustache Club's first project is evidence of that belief.

Just in time for Christmas (and I know I am putting at least one in the mail) is the 2018 Merb'ys Calendar.  In their own words, this is what they set out to achieve with the calendar:
•First, raise money and bring awareness to a local non-profit organization Spirit Horse.
•Second, challenging out-dated views of what masculinity and beauty look like by featuring a diverse group of bearded humans.
•Third, an opportunity to toss our shirts, put on a tail, and laugh harder than we've ever laughed before.

Each month of the calendar is illustrated by full-colour photographs of the Merb'ys–in all their body type splendour– posing at recognizable Newfoundland locations.  At the ocean side on cliffs and beaches, tossing snow balls at the Spirit Horse property, at the Quidi Vidi Plantation, and even being dangled upside from a dock like some prize catch.  The calendar dates recognize Hindu, Muslim, Jewish, and Christian celebrations as well as those dates more associated with social justice than religion, like International Day Against Homophobia, Transphobia and Biphobia. 

Spirit Horse NL is a therapeutic service that aims to enhance the mental health and life skills of youth, adults, families and groups through interaction with horses.  This non-profit group pairs peers with clients, who have shared many of the same life challenges. Spirit Horse NL programs are facilitated by Erin Gallant – a graduate of Therapeutic Recreation, an Equestrian Canada Coach Specialist, a Trained Mental Health Peer Supporter and a Level 3 Healing Touch Energy Work student.

Monday, 11 December 2017

Tragically timeless–Offensive To Some

Dark and bruisingly intense, Offensive To Some ran from December 7 to 9 at The Gathering Place Theatre.  It was a stark contrast to the ho-ho feel-good Christmas fare on offer at so many other venues in St. John's, but it couldn't have run at a more appropriate time in the calendar.  December 6 is the National Day of Remembrance and Action on Violence Against Women.  I still remember December 6, 1989 as the mind-numbing day of the Ecole Polytechnique Massacre when 14 women were murdered and 10 women and four men were wounded in Montreal by a single gunman. 

Offensive To Some is a one-woman tour de force written by Berni Stapleton, some 22 years ago.  It is about an abused wife in rural Newfoundland who takes her "domestic situation"–as the police dismissively term it– into her own hands and kills her tortuous husband.  This production is skillfully directed by Ruth Lawrence and stars Miranda MacDonald, whose energy flooded every square inch of the spare stage during the 75-minute performance.  Insightful music selections, from local artists like Ritual Frames (a.k.a Daze Jeffries), edged the production from current to fresh.

The action of the play takes place in a police interrogation room simply evoked by a table and a pair of chairs.  This distraction-free setting serves as a focus point for the audience's attention and is an antithesis of the overly designed sets that often compete with the actors in some theatre confections. There is a feeling of entrapment, which includes the audience, as we sense the predetermination of the abused wife's fate.  Even before her incarceration her freedoms were limited to smoking and TV talk shows. The same potency is found in the use of props, such as the red trim of the blanket, which MacDonald rips off to transform it into a militant headband, handcuffs and other more tragic alternatives.  It was a telling metaphor for the desperation, anger and resourcefulness of the heroine. 

Offensive To Some was presented by PerSIStence Theatre Company, which is dedicated to the belief in the political, economic, personal and social equality for all those who identify as women.

Tuesday, 5 December 2017

Bridget Canning's The Greatest Hits of Wanda Jaynes–a welcome alternative to Newfoundland noir

It has been a great fall season for novels–and actually books of all kinds–featuring the talent of Newfoundland and Labrador.  Sumptuous art books by Pedlar Press like Stan Dragland's Gerald Squires, fresh-faced collections of short stories like Eva Crocker's Barrelling Forward, and let's not forget the latest entries by novelists Craig Francis Power and Joel Thomas Hynes, who both continue in their own special strain of Newfoundland noir.  However, if I had to pick a book to give a friend for Christmas it would be Bridget Canning's The Greatest Hits of Wanda Jaynes.  Described by Lisa Moore as a "fierce new talent" Bridget Canning has crafted a novel with emotional grit, just enough anxiety and a fast paced plot that keeps you turning pages.  If you want something to balance out the grimness of the economy and the evening news, Bridget Canning delivers.

What follows is an excerpt from a Q&A with Bridget Canning about her much anticipated debut novel.

GH:  You have a gift for setting up two worlds at once: the external world of the school, cast of characters, etc but almost seamlessly you introduce Wanda's internal world.

BC:  Thank you! It was important for me to reflect the different roles Wanda occupies and how they are all affected by the shooting and her reaction. Wanda’s an educator as I am, and I believe for most educators, there is a heightened awareness of how one is perceived professionally versus one’s actual private life and it can create a real feeling of vulnerability. So I wanted Wanda’s internal and external worlds to reflect her efforts: behaving professionally, protecting her private life, being sensible with social media. And of course, all these things become infected.

GH:  I found Wanda Jaynes to be a very sympathetic character.  I cared about her almost immediately.  How much of Bridget Canning is there in Wanda Jaynes?

BC:  Wanda and I share the same career situation and she embodies many places I’ve been emotionally over the years, but she acts and thinks in ways very removed from me. She’s made of much more bottled misanthropy than I am. I tend to identify more with Ivan – we both enjoy ranting as entertainment way too much.

GH:  The combination of being bright, funny and very sensitive, combined with the series of misadventures made me think of Wanda in the light of another Bridget – Bridget Jones.

BC:  I love Bridget Jones, so I happily accept this compliment. Interesting to consider both Bridget Jones and Wanda Jaynes together; they both indulge in their vices for their own pleasure and escapism, although in Wanda’s case, it morphs into a crutch for how she deals with trauma. And they both share the same analytical observations of societal pressures and relationship dynamics. I’d like to think they’d get along. They’d go for a pint at least.

GH:  Will there be another Wanda Jaynes book?

BC:  I don’t plan on writing another novel about Wanda, but if I was going to revisit the story, I’d like to explore it from another character’s perspective, like Frances Rumstead or Geraldine Harvey. However, I enjoy the idea of unlikely heroes and have just finished a first draft of a novella about an unlikely villain.

GH:  I really liked the organization of your novel.  You've got great pacing and it makes for a real page-turner.  Can you comment on this?

BC:  I did the WANL Writing Mentorship a couple of years ago for a different manuscript and one of the best pieces of advice Ed Kavanagh gave me was everything in your novel should be working to forward the plot. He also suggested drawing out the story – creating a visual to sort out all the character/plot/organizational threads. I do this with everything I write now; first slogging out the first draft and then drawing the storylines to consider ways to fuse action and nuance together.

GH:  I gather that you had another version of this book in 2015 under the title, Impulse.  Just judging by the titles –The Greatest Hits of Wanda Jaynes and Impulse– these sound like two very different books.  I am curious to know how one evolved into the other.

BC:  Funny, the title was actually The Right Impulse and when it received an honourable mention with the H. R (Bill) Percy Novel Prize, they called it Impulse in error and I didn’t bother correcting them as I knew I was going to change the title. And that title was an update from Hero Inaction, which I originally thought was clever, but no, it’s awful. The Right Impulse was a step towards the idea of heroism as a knee-jerk reaction and playing with Wanda’s good and bad impulses.
The early version of the novel contained the same plot, but through revisions, I focused more on developing other characters. It was important to me that the impact of the shooting be felt by everyone in St. John’s – because it would be. We’re a large town more than a city. So while things are happening to Wanda, I wanted the awareness that everyone else’s wheels are also churning through this shared experience. Hopefully that comes through.

GH:  I wasn't surprised to learn that you have an interest in writing for the screen.  There was something very cinematographic about The Greatest Hits of WJ.  Your next project Water From Stones will be a screenplay, is that correct?

BC:  I actually have a draft of the screenplay written and have signed a workshopping agreement with a Canadian production company as we’re putting together a pitch book. So fingers crossed there.