Sunday, May 29, 2011

Flying high with Firefly Circus and Theatre School

Andrew and I went to our first aerial skills class at the Firefly Circus and Theatre School in Edmonton on Thursday. I'd heard about this club a year or so ago from a co-worker who had won a 4-person pass to a private class with the founder. Unfortunately I wasn't able to go since the class coincided with a visit from family, but I've been periodically checking out the Firefly website ever since. The beginner classes fill up quickly, so it can be a bit tricky to snag a spot. This time it finally worked out, although will have to miss a class in June for a short trip to Ontario (we'll be able to make it up later).
Andrew, before class--we couldn't wait to get going.
The class is six weeks long and we'll be covering the basics of the trapeze, vertical rope, and silks. I'd had a fall on our run the previous day and tore up a patch of skin on my left palm, therefore I was a bit worried the injury was going to inhibit my ability to participate. Thankfully (I suppose you could say thankfully...), the trapeze is tough on the pads of your hands rather than your palm. Since Andrew and I took up weight training last fall my hands have become fairly callused, and only had a couple of tiny blisters on my right hand when we got home.
One of the other (more skilled) members of Firefly.
We spent most of the night on the trapeze, learning the difference between a good hang (your shoulders engaged and your core tight) and a bad hang (hanging like a wet rag), how to do the basic beats (swinging back and forth), hanging by your knees, and performing a 'crow's nest.' Our instructor, Kim, was fantastic. She was enthusiastic and encouraging, would cheer you on while you took your turn on the apparatus, and gave you pointers for the next time. Plus, our classmates were friendly and we all cheered and clapped for each other after every attempt.
The low and high trapeze.
Andrew and I were a bit taller than the other three women in our class, so we had to go last on the high trapeze so our instructor could raise it for us. The high trapeze is probably around eight feet off the ground--high enough for Andrew to dangle from it (he's six feet, plus long arms) without brushing his feet on the mat below. I had problems with foot cramps on most all of the moves (because we're supposed to have our toes pointed for everything), which means I'm going to have to eat more bananas in the weeks to come.
Andrew trying out pike beats on the high trapeze (sorry about the blurriness, he was moving pretty fast).
Andrew balancing in the side 'sexy' pose on the low trapeze.
Overall, we had a super fun time and can't wait for the next class (in the series, but also the next level of aerials). I was pleased with what I was able to do--I actually made it at least halfway up the straight rope (maybe a little farther). The trick to rope climbing is that it's all in the legs and I know I have super strong legs.



Wednesday, May 25, 2011

Balcony Garden 2011: new and improved!

Because we just can't help ourselves, Andrew and I have expanded our growing plans for our balcony garden yet again. I'm not so sure this was the smartest decision ever since our success so far has been relatively limited. We harvested about ten tiny potatoes, a dozen twisted carrots, a couple of small (but crisp) peppers and one zucchini last summer. Grant you, as I've discussed before, last year's weather made it difficult for even proper farmers to cultivate their crops, and we did produce edible vegetables so I guess that's enough of an incentive to plunge ahead with our plans for this year. So, if you're willing to indulge me, come along for a 'tour' of our garden.

View of the balcony, stage left. We have two hangers, the red for strawberries, the green for whimpy tomatoes. We tried to start the strawberries ourselves, and we're still trying, but they're tiny and if they'll ever be ready for outdoor life it won't be until next year. We bought starter plants from Canadian Tire instead. Ditto almost exactly for the tomatoes. Below the hangers, attached to the railings, are our peppers. Yet again, ditto. We tried to get plants started on our own, but they dried out and died when we were away in Florida. Further below on the ground are: a clump of fiddleheads, potatoes (purple), carrots (also purple), rhubarb and an assortment of grasses. More on these later.

Balcony view stage right. Same hangers, but underneath we've got garlic (growing like crazy) and onions. We had some very dry starter onions in our closet, which we threw in the green planter for the heck of it. After two weeks (or more, I've forgotten) we hadn't seen anything break the surface, so we tore them up and replaced them with fresh seeds we grabbed at the market. Below, in the blue bin are more carrots (these ones are regular orange) and the circular planters you can see just at the bottom hold pumpkin and zucchini (one set in each centre container) and lettuce around the rims. The buckets off to the side are the home of various beans.

Our lettuce. We only put it in last week, but it's already doing quite well.

The rhubarb has come through two winters of being left out on the balcony (unlike Andrew's poor grape vine, which didn't make it). I can't wait for it to thicken up so I can make some jam, or a pie, or something. I imagine there will probably only be enough for one project.

Those tiny green sprouts are our purple carrots. Pretty much all of the seeds I planted are now poking out of the dirt in both tubs. There should be enough room in these containers for the carrots to grow properly this year.

Fiddleheads! I was excited to see these at the market this weekend, and they were four bucks for a bundle. We don't really know how to grow it, but we'll figure it out somehow. One of the booths had asparagus, but it's supposed to take a couple of years for asparagus to reach a harvest-ready point, so there wasn't much point in bringing any home when we don't expect to be in Edmonton for more than two years.

We've already added on a couple of inches of dirt to our potato box and they just keep growing. I'm crossing my fingers that when we dig them up in September, we'll be rewarded with enough potatoes for two meals...maybe? I'd just like to find potatoes bigger than ping-pong balls? I really, truly, thought we were going to have a blue-box full of potatoes last year, I just don't want to be as disappointed with our harvest this year.

The garlic--I kind of wish I'd planted more. I suppose we could if our other crops fail, we'll see how things go.

And that's our garden. I'll report on how it's doing later on in the summer--and try to take some better pictures next time. I was in a bit of a hurry on Monday, plus it was gray and gross outside.



Monday, May 23, 2011

Music and Company at the ESO

Last Thursday evening Andrew and I attended an extra ESO concert that wasn't apart of our normal Friday Night Master's series. It was a Robbin's Lighter Classics concert (the last one of the season, too), and the reason we attended was it was hosted by CBC radio announcer Tom Allen. I love Tom Allen (as a radio broadcast personality of course, I've never met him in person). He seems to read lots of interesting articles and of a wide scope (which he shares with he listeners), he seems thoughtful and most importantly, to love music. I initially came to know of him as the host of Music and Company, the early morning classical show that ran on CBC2 before the formatting change that hit the Corporation a couple of years ago. Afterward he was one of the few (the only?) hosts who stayed with the CBC first on Radio 2 Morning, then on the afternoon slot for the program Shift. Needless to say, I was quiet excited to see Tom live with the ESO.

The ESO concert was billed as: Tom Allen's Classical Goodtime Variety show and we certainly had a good time. The evening started off favourably with the orchestra striking up the theme to Tom's old show Scherzo for Stephen by Saul Honigman, during which Tom strode out onto stage to thunderous applause. I imagine that many of us in the audience have fond memories of listening to Music and Company, and the evening proceeded as if we were listening to a broadcast of the show. Tom provided commentary throughout the show of what we were listening, ran some of the features he used to, such as the popular: Cage Match. We laughed, cheered, and even occasionally booed. As much as I enjoy going to the ESO, I can't remember the last time I had so much fun at a concert.

The first feature of the evening was 'This Day in History' (May 19th), which happened to mark the 475th anniversary of the beheading of Anne Boleyn--certainly a cheerful way to start the evening. It was a mournful little piece featuring strings, a couple of woodwinds, and apparently it was the song Anne sung to comfort herself the night before she died. Yes, definitely cheerful, but rather pretty. Andrew wished there had been more to it. Then the tone of the concert flipped. I suppose in the hearts of some Canadians the next tune has an equally sad history, it's introduction certainly incurred jeers (because it's no longer heard on the CBC), it was the Hockey Night in Canada theme. After being encouraged to applaud and cheer if we felt so moved, we were then asked to participate in announcing the Cage Match. The percussionists had the staring role here. One of the players ran some kind of chain over a symbol, I think (we were a bit far away to tell exactly what was being used), then a second player pounded on a huge gong, and finally the audience was called upon to shout: 'CAGE MATCH'. The composers pitted against each other: Hayden's Symphony No. 104 in D major versus. Mendelssohn's A Midsummer Night’s Dream: Overture (more about this later).

The last selection before intermission was a series exerts from Bizet's Carmen, supplemented with commentary by Tom. As a figure skating nut, I've been familiar with the music of Carmen for years (Calgary 1988, Debbi Tomas versus Katarina Witt. Poor Debbi never really stood a chance against Katarina's drama). Andrew and I went to see the Opera a few years ago when the Edmonton Opera performed it (I think we went on our anniversary, actually). I enjoyed it, although Andrew wasn't so keen; however, he remarked when we got home on Thursday that he now actually felt more inclined to see it again. He confessed he'd found it difficult to follow the story when we saw it at the Opera (they do project subtitles over the stage, but it's a bit tricky to read and watch at the same time). Of course, when Tom read the story, he added his own storytelling flare, making it seem funnier, more light-hearted than it really is.

Moving along...after intermission we listened to Handel (Water music), Mozart (Horn Concerto No 1.) and Beethoven (Symphony No. 5)--how can you go wrong with a line-up like that? The Mozart featured the guest conductor James Sommerville on horn, meanwhile 'a la Bob Dillian', Tom displayed cue cards on which disparaging comments were written. The messages weren't directed at Mr. Sommerville or his playing, but were translations of what Mozart wrote on the original score for his pal Joseph Leutgeb (Leutgeb was a talented horn player and this concerto was written for him). In the tradition of close friendships, the messages could have been seen as incredibly insulting (there was something about Leutgeb being a pain in Mozart's balls...) but were really just poking good fun. The audience giggled throughout much of the performance.

Josef Mysliveček was the inspiration for the next section (I'm pretty sure I've heard Tom talk about this composer before on his shows). He was a Czech composer who essentially lived fast and died reasonably young (43 years old). He was famous in his time, inspired Mozart, and is all but forgotten now. Mysliveček wrote a pile of music (Wikipedia article here) including 26 operas, received commissions all over Europe, but spent his money as fast as he made it. Sadly he died destitute in 1781 (with no nose, to boot--it was burnt off by a doctor). Nonetheless, his music was beautiful and you could easily confuse it for Mozart if you didn't know any better. Of course, as Tom pointed out, it's not that Mysliveček sounds like Mozart, it's that Mozart sounds like Mysliveček. It's too bad his music isn't heard more often, I don't think I've ever heard it played anywhere else. The ESO performed Mysliveček's Symphony in A major: I. Allegro con brio and Symphony in G major: III. Presto assai.

Next, and without warning came: CAGE MATCH (Tom told us he would give the signal without precursor so the audience had to be ready--I only managed to join in halfway). Just like on his show, Tom took votes for what the audience wanted to hear. During intermission voting boxes were made available in the lobby, and we were encouraged to write a reason for why we made our choice on our ballets. I'm guessing several Winspear employees had to quicky sift through all the entries (around 900, I think) once the show recommenced to pick the ones they liked the best. Three were read out loud on stage, one for Hayden and two for Mendelssohn, which was representative of how the vote went. Approximately 300 votes were casted for Hayden, 600 for Mendelssohn (I'd voted for the former, but I like both just fine).

And that was pretty much the show. Delightful really. I'm hoping Tom will be back at his post on Shift this afternoon, since I'll be home to listen (I usually listen at work too). The last piece we heard for the evening was selected for being a big finish: Brahms Symphony No. 2 in D major: IV. Allegro con spirito. It ended with lots of tympani, lots of brass and was an excellent way to cap off the show.

Only one more ESO concert to go for the year, the Master's series finale on June 17th,



Tuesday, May 10, 2011

Get Publishing: At the Edge of Print

This past Friday (evening) and Saturday (day) I attended the Get Publishing: At the Edge of Print conference held at Grant MacEwan University in Edmonton, Alberta. I haven’t attended any writing-related events since I left Seton Hill, and wouldn’t have known about this one if a friend who works at Grant MacEwan hadn’t passed on the link to the conference Website. I hummed and hawed over it--people who want to be writers can be weird/naive/pretentious, so I wasn’t really sure I wanted to go. That and I’m a typical writer who isn’t good at socializing with people I don’t know. Ultimately I had to acknowledge that of the dozen or so agents I’ve queried so far I haven’t so much as garnered a request for more material and I needed to do something to improve my chances.

The keynote speaker on Friday night was Andrew Steeves, one of the co-founders of Gaspereau Press (the folks who published The Sentamentalist). He spoke via videoconference (which worked quite well), and also gave us a tour of the Press facilities (pre-recorded and narrated live). Seeing the small-time printing and binding operation almost makes me want to move to Nova Scotia and try to get a job there. I think there would be something satisfying about producing books the way they do, everything in-house, done by hand, and manual with little high-tech gadgets. It wouldn’t be something you do to make big bucks to be sure, but something you do because you love books. From the hour-long presentation one remark in particular stuck in my mind. Mr. Steeves said that books are a little like IEDs—yes, improvised explosive devices. I might buy a book and read it, or read part of it, but it won’t strike my interest (there were a couple of those this year). I might leave it on the shelf for a while, but eventually I'll send it off to a second hand shop and someone else will pick it up. This might happen several times until someone finally picks that book up and, ‘bam’ it hits them. It strikes their imagination, helps them through a tough time in their life, etc. Books can lie and wait, until they meet the right reader and explodes (literally) in their hands.

Saturday morning started off by a Key Note talk by an interesting local author known as Minister Faust. He was a highly entertaining speaker who tried to get the audience thinking about e-publishing. Like many other writers, I hold a prejudice against self-publishing and e-publishing. I want to see my stories in the traditional print format on bookstore shelves produced by, if not a big-name publisher (I’m not completely starry-eyed about my writing prospects), at least by a traditional, paper publisher. Looking back, I realized that Minister Faust’s point was centralized around the issue of money. I’m well aware that even if I get a publishing contract, I’m going to have to keep working. Writers don’t make much unless they’re one of the handful of big names like JK Rowling or Steven King. With e-publishing; however, the cost of books is low (enticing people to buy more) and the writer gets a greater percentage of the royalties (since many of the traditional paper book processes are avoided such as printing, binding, shipping, etc). Definitely his presentation gave me some food for thought. I’m still think self publishing would be my last resort, but I can keep it in mind if I never manage to find Nora a home.

After this, the conference broke down into smaller, concurrent sessions. I selected sessions I thought most applicable/interesting and for the most part my choices turned out fairly well. Before lunch I sat in on ‘Writing in Perilous Realms: The Light Fantastic in Young Adult Fiction’ presented by local novelist (and U of A English professor) Thomas Wharton. To be honest, at first I was a little disappointed. Mr. Wharton primarily described how he came to realize he wrote fantasy, then described his novel, but in the end I thought the conversation was interesting enough. I realized listening that although I am an unpublished writer of fiction, I have a great deal more experience and knowledge of the publishing world than some people trying to break in. It seemed by some of the questions asked that people were trying to figure out the ‘formula to writing’ (what makes a good fantasy novel, how much dialogue should there be, etc). I thought that Mr. Wharton handled these questions well and gave thoughtful responses, which may have been comforting/helpful to the green writers in the room.

After lunch I attended ‘Tales from the Blogosphere: Passions, Politics and Profit,’ for what I think must be a fairly obvious reason--I blog (I know, you must all be shocked). This was a panel discussion from three individuals who blog for different reasons. The passion came from Kathryn Burke who runs a blog that provides resources for parents of children with learning disabilities. She was a dynamic and throught-provoking speaker who was clearly dedicated to maintaining the online connections she provides for her readers. Politics was Dave Cournoyer, a young blogger who comments on the political scene in Alberta. He told us a highly amusing story about how he purchased the rights to the web domain: and found himself at the centre of a political/media curffle over this in 2008. Consequently it also helped his blog readership to skyrocket. Finally the profit angle was provided by Jennifer Cockrall-King a freelance writer who uses her blog as a supplement to her upcoming book on urban agriculture.

This session made me wonder how I could better use my blog to promote myself as I primarily view this space simply as a ‘Web-log.’ I generally post once a week about something I’ve done in the last 7 days and rarely touch on writing. Should I change this? Should I focus on my writing endeavors? Perhaps. If I manage to sell one of my manuscripts I’ll have to, but for now, while I’m unpublished? What would I post about? The despair I feel every time I receive a rejection? My writing techniques (which have yet to prove successful)?

The final session I attended was another panel titled: Pop Culture Confidential. This featured Andrew Foley and Nat Jones who are both involved in the comic book business, a writer for Bioware, Karin Weekes, and Katherine Leighton--an ‘online spy’ as she called herself. Although I’m not considering a career in any of these fields (I must admit there is some alluring in the idea of being a writer for a gaming company--I’d have to do a lot more gaming than I do right now) I found the discussion fascinating. As was repeated over and over again, success in any of these fields requires hard work and dedication. Interesting, the discussion frequently circled back to the importance of networking, either via email or in face-to-face situations. Simple emails, stating an interest in the work a company/individual does can be more effective than flowery letters or oversharing the fact that you missed an entire week of work because you were so busy playing Mass Effect 2. Also, in this current digital age it’s important to be mindful of your online presence or reputation. Beware of what you post either it be comments in a forum, or those dreaded ‘wall of shame’ pictures on Facebook. These days, it all counts.

The very last event of the day as the 'pitch camp.' Each attendee had a fifteen minute opportunity to pitch to a editor/agent/writing professional. I lucked out and spoke to Cheryl Tardif, an acquisitions editor for Imajin Books. Unfortunately, I was hit with a case of the nerves, accompanied by verbal diarrhea. All day I ran over how I was going to pitch my manuscript in my head: 'My manuscript is about deaf sixteen year old Nora Watson who's greatest wish is to become a scientist so she can find a cure for the disease that killed her mother--and more than half of the adults in her world.' I think I got part of that out...the first part...I'm not sure sure. I definitely jumped around in my explanation of the plot, but I think I got all the important bits out. At this point, I just have to wait and see if anything happens.

Good old' wait and see. In the meantime I'll keep writing and editing.



Tuesday, May 3, 2011

Blind appreciation at the ESO

Friday night was our regular Masters Series concert at the ESO. We started out the evening with dinner at the Sugar Bowl, which we've been to before, but not for dinner. The Sugar Bowl appeals to Andrew and I because they have a huge selection of tasty beers (lots of imports and microbreweries) and their food is relatively inexpensive. We arrived around 5:30 (after finishing up at the gym) to find it relatively full, but managed to get a seat without a wait. Dinner started out with paprika popcorn (I love that they offer popcorn as an appetizer), which was super delicious, then moved onto main courses of curried chicken and vegetable stew for me, and poutine for Andrew. I love desert and rarely do we go to a restaurant without at least perusing the desert listings. We ended up ordering one a piece: banana cream pie, and chocolate cranberry oatmeal cookies (made fresh)--although as it turned out we would have been fine sharing either of them.

We had just enough time after dinner to make it over to Winspear and take a quick glance over their program before the performance began. Three pieces were planned for the evening. First, Tchal-Kouyrouk and the seventh side of the cube by a young Montreal composer, Rachmaninoff's Piano Concerto No. 2 in C minor, Opus 18, and finally Shostakovich's Symphony No. 5 in D minor, Op.47.

The composer of Tchal-Kouyrouk, Nicolas Gilbert, was in the audience on Friday and had a little chat with the ESO's conductor-in-residence, Lucas Waldin, on stage prior to the performance. To be honest, I don't remember much of their conversation (I wasn't completely with it on Friday night, as you'll soon see), but what I do remember was the composer explaining that the theme of 'seven' played heavily in the piece. I tired to watch the conductor during the performance to see what kind of beat he was keeping--it seemed to be a four beat, followed by a three (which, yes, equals seven). I don't think I liked it exactly the piece, no doubt meant to be avant garde. It seemed like sections of the orchestra would play, then stop, while other sections took up the music, but they never played all at once. Other than that, no real lasting impression for this piece has stuck with me.

The second piece was the famous Rachmaninoff's 2nd Piano Concerto. Even non-classical music fans have probably heard this piece. It's frequently used by figure skaters, and if you've seen Center Stage it's featured prominently at the end as the music for 'Jonathan's Ballet.' I have a recording of it myself, although I don't recall the recording pianist or orchestra. On Friday, the guest performer was Nobuyuki Tsujii, a blind pianist from Japan. Blind, you might ask? Yes. Was he any good, you might ask? He received an almost instantaneous standing ovation the second he stopped playing, so yes, he was very good. I can understand being able to play the piano while being blind (I recall being drilled in locating notes on the piano with a piece of cardboard covering my hands when I took lessons), what really boggles my mind is learning the music. Rachmaninoff's 2nd is no walk in the park (it's approximately 30 minutes in length). Did Mr. Tsujii learn it by ear? Is there some sort of computer program, or perhaps Braille music for blind pianist? I don't know. Regardless, he dazzled the audience and even came back out to play an encore.

Sadly, both Andrew and I were falling asleep during this performance. I don't remember ever having such a hard time staying awake at a concert before. Usually I sort out plot problems while I listen--something about the music seems to agree with my brain (I'm 99% sure studies have been conducted to determine the affects classical music has on the brain). On Friday, however, I felt so ridiculously tired that I couldn't keep my eyes open, and I definitely missed portions of the music. I couldn't even remain conscious for the Shostakovich symphony and it's a fairly lively selection (albeit 46 minutes in length).

For what of it I was awake, I enjoyed the Shostakovich. I generally prefer early 20th century Russian composers--I often feel they're music is more interesting and creative than many of the earlier classical composers (I've never been a big Mozart fan--is that sacrilegious to say so?). I particularly liked the forth movement (which I recognized once we got to it). It starts off big, with brass and drums--lots of fun. As explained in the programme notes, the 5th symphony was written after Shostakovich received heavy/damning criticism for his Macbeth opera from the official Soviet newspaper of the time, so it was meant to please his critics. It was reportedly successful in it's task, even bringing audience members to tears; however on Friday night I noticed some Edmonton audience members leaving during the first movement. Maybe they were tired like me, or maybe they didn't like it, I don't know. It was just a few people though, so hopefully it wasn't the material, just busy lives.

We have two more ESO concerts before the end of the season. The next (not a Master Series concert) features CBC radio host Tom Allen, which I'm very much looking forward to seeing/hearing.