Saturday, November 10, 2012

Remembrance Day post: He lived, but did not return.

Every year I try to do a post for Remembrance Day (or Veteran's Day, as they call it here, which rather changes the tone). This year, my older sister Andrea beat me to the punch on Facebook. With her permission, I'm posting her note in it's entirety.

I have a photograph of my late grandfather with his many siblings, and this young soldier's image is taken from it. He was one of my grandfather's brothers, my great-uncle Bernard Geier. In the photo Bernard is the only one who is not smiling; there is a haunted look about him.

Long ago, I remember my mother telling me that Bernard fought in WWII, that he somehow survived when a bridge or wall exploded next to him. The fellow soldiers he was with, his closest friends, were killed instantly. Bernard lived through the remainder of the war, but when he returned home he was broken: the horror of witnessing his friends' death had triggered a schizophrenic break.

Shortly before he was to have been committed to a mental institution, however, Bernard vanished. The only family story about his possible whereabouts does not surface until the 1960s: that Bernard is homeless and living on the streets of Montreal, far from his hometown of Guelph. But no one knows for certain what became of him.

Today I scanned the photograph of my grandfather and his siblings because it is the only known picture of Bernard... and my children needed a photo of a veteran for school. I enlarged Bernard's image and cropped it so he stands alone as you see him now. I printed this picture and glued it to a piece of paper with a border of poppies. In ink I wrote my great-uncle's first and last names, and to the bottom corner of the paper I added a small photo of my own two children. My daughter will place it on The Wall of Honour in her elementary school's main corridor. This wall is dedicated to those who served or serve their country.

As I was creating this simple record - for Remembrance Day? for a child's school assignment? - I was strangely moved; it felt like something else. It occurred to me that this was very likely the first time in several decades that anyone has written my great-uncle's name; and the only time his photograph has been connected, with or without glue and a border of poppies, to a photo of children who were born so long after he disappeared. His own great-great niece and nephew. He himself never had the chance to marry or have children. In a way, the Wall of Honour at a small elementary school is Bernard Geier's final marker, seen, at long last, by family and a few others who care to look.

Rest in peace, Uncle Bernard, and know that for many, Remembrance Day is not about a single day or countless battlefields, but about the irrevocable sadness of lives lost even after the war is over.

Tuesday, October 30, 2012

Apocalypse ABC. Happy Hallowe'en.

(Some of the images are a little hard to see, but if you click on them they enlarge and become a slideshow).

Wednesday, October 10, 2012

Now, at the Hollywood Bowl: Intimations of my mortality

One of the advantages of university employment is that it keeps me – a man who has been aspiring to be a cantankerous old fuddy-duddy since adolesence – in contact with people whose lives do not revolve around diaper changes and nap time (do NOT mess with my nap time).

I have not attended a large-scale live music event since an outdoor performance of the Orchestre de Strasbourg in 2009. I have not been to a rock concert since seeing Metric in a bar in Montreal, and I hadn’t been to a stadium show since seeing Green Day (and prior to them) Aerosmith when I lived in Halifax.

Given that I live in the city with one of the most famous outdoor performance venues in the world, this was a failing that needed to be rectified. Fortunately, our friend Anna (age: young enough to appreciate the charms of Justin Bieber, old enough to be embarrassed by that) took it upon herself to forestall our impending senescence by organizing a group to go see Florence and the Machine at the Hollywood Bowl. None of the following vaguely grumpy-sounding post should detract from my gratitude for her organization, but I both my loyal readers know that I do not ever venture outside without finding some way to make it sound like a soul-destroying ordeal.

Upon disembarking from the shuttle bus, I was struck by the unexpected variety of people that had gathered to see the show. Florence and the Machine are hardly an alternative act, but there sound is enough out of the mainstream that I would have expected the crowd to be fairly uniformly hipster or hipster-sympathetic.

Instead, there was a surprisingly high number of scantily clad Glamazons, a species of six-foot tall women that live in Hollywood clubs, movie-opening after-parties, and magazine gossip pages. Their platform heels did not seem concordant with an arena show, their tops - whose existence was suggested by the wisps of fabric rather than defined by them - were definitely not concordant with the forecast temperatures, which were supposed to dip to the low teens (Celsius) as the night went on.

 “Are they planning on trying to score with the band?” I wondered aloud, uncharitably, to Amynah.

“They might be trying to get invited to the after-party,” explained Amynah, always savvier than I as to the mysteries of the celebrity-supporting biosphere . “You always want hotties at an after-party for the media.”

I expressed my doubts that Florence (or her Machine) would be associated with anything so quotidian as an after-party – I rather imagined that after her concerts she would retreat to a velvet yurt, to recharge by communing with woodland sprites or something like that.

 As we had left the house in a hurry (Amynah had arrived from Hamburg mid-afternoon, part of a series of trips that should be a blog post of their own) we needed to eat. We bought two “Bowl Burgers,” a small fries, a bottle of water a small Coke. This came to $35.

We then had to lug this feast up to our seats in Section W. The “W” stands for one of the following: “Way the hell in the back,” “We hope you brought oxygen tanks,” or possibly “Weather conditions might prevent you from seeing the stage.” We passed a number of skeletal remains clad in mountaineering gear that were not able to scale the heights from which we were to almost be able to see the show.

Nonetheless, once we were there, we were able to take in the whole Bowl in its glory – a natural amphitheatre carved into the hillside, seating thousands of people, under the anodyne grandeur of the Hollywood sign.
This was our view, no zoom. That blue blob in the center
is the dome covering the stage. To give you an idea of it's
size, the entire LA Philharmonic  can fit on that stage.

And the maximum my phone could zoom in.
The distance didn’t change how much I enjoyed the music, but it did very much change how I experienced the show: after several numbers, I forgot to clap because I felt like I was watching the whole thing on television. I kept getting inordinately distracted by the people around me: the inevitable girl two rows back who wants everyone around her to know that she knows all the lyrics to the songs and thinks we have paid $40 a ticket to hear her recite them, the drunk Adam Sandler lookalike yelling “I’m horny!” at inopportune moments while his seatmates fell over laughing at his wit, the Chinese family behind me that could not, for the life of them, clap in time either with each other or the music….

I would have been subject to all of that if I were seated in Section A-for-Awesome (well, probably not the Chinese family, who I suspect were sui generis) but it wouldn’t have mattered. The problem with viewing a concert from such a distance is that while even though the acoustics of the Bowl were such that the sound quality was excellent, it lacked the all-encompassing and overwhelming volume one wants at a rock concert. Instead of seeing Florence as she is meant to be seen (i.e. a larger-than-life mystic banshee towering above us), she was, from our vantage, a crimson Q-Tip flickering in and out of view at the further reaches of my vision.

When I started to get irritated by the smell of pot smoke (maybe section W was for “Weed?”) I realized something else: when I cannot subsume myself in the obliterating communality of shared joy that a rock concert can be - and probably not even then - the whole thing is simply not a decorous enough experience for me. Cantankerous Old Man Reynolds kept popping into my head waving his cane around and yelling in my ear that the people around me were just enjoying themselves ALL WRONG.

On the other hand, I was grateful that when Florence invited the audience to start “snogging” whoever was seated next to them, the venue’s security team immediately began patrolling the aisles with flashlights to make sure no one did any such thing. Thank you, goon squad, for that.

Monday, August 27, 2012

One Angry Man

Today, I received a summons from the Superior Court of Los Angeles County, ordering me to register for jury duty. Under ordinary circumstances I would LOVE to serve on a jury: imagine the blogging possibilities! However, under ordinary circumstances, I would be living in Canada.

As it stands, I am not. Thus, before even opening the envelope, and therefore not having a clue of what was being asked of me, I was addressing to it outraged, yet noble speeches in my head, dredging up my first-year poli-sci understanding of civics: “No sir, will NOT stand to be drafted for the duties of a citizenship that I while being denied the attendant rights, upholding laws for which I’ve no franchise to ratify…” which ended, in my imagination, with the judge chastened and my fellow potential jurors applauding. Man, that jury-summons envelope got it GOOD from me.

On opening it, I was directed to a handy website on which I had to register, with the dire warning that if I did not do so by September 28th, I WOULD BE SUMMONSED AGAIN, TO APPEAR AT A LATER TIME. As threats go, seemed to be, as the kids say, weaksauce.

  Once I punched in my juror i.d. number, I was greeted by a pre-recorded video featuring the senior presiding jurist (whose name escapes me already). After her assurances that I was executing my civic duty for which my fellow citizens were grateful, she concluded with a rather ominous observation that I myself might be pleading my case in front of 12 suckers just like me. The subtext: “do this right, or karma will come around to bite you.”

Once her spiel was over, I was brought to another page, which launched automatically in a countrified version of “God Bless America” along with patriotic iconography  – a very MySpace touch, on a website devoted to the sober administration of justice and upholding of the law. It seemed outré that they should be trying to make this process rousing.

By this time, my imaginary speech was a tour de force indictment of the entire system: a treatise on the nature of law as a Platonic ideal that should be untainted by exclusionary nationalistic preoccupations (the contradictions of this stance with the arguments in paragraph two of this post were, I expect, to be reconciled in subsequent drafts). My reverie was interrupted when I realized that I was now being prompted to fill out a series of questions, any one of which could disqualify me. First one: “Are you a citizen of the United States.” I answered "No" and shortly thereafter…. “You are not eligible to serve.”

Honestly, I’m more than a little disappointed. It was going to be a hell of a speech.

Saturday, August 11, 2012

Vasquez Rocks: It was, in fact, hot enough for me.

"I will conquer that, for it is there."

California is in the middle of a heat-wave. As such, we decided that today would be a good day to go for a hike to see the Vasquez Rocks, which is located in the middle of a desert, which in turn is sitting atop a giant frying pan, inside a massive convection oven, that is on fire. It was hot, it what I’m saying, and certainly not the circumstances in which strapping a baby to your back along with the associated baby-infrastructure and climbing up a steep hill with a cranky and underslept toddler would be advisable.

However, I am well aware that no one reads this blog for parenting competency  (I am aware that the way I update this thing, I could have stopped, more accurately with “no one reads this blog.” Shut up, wisenheimer).

In any case: Vasquez Rocks are about an hour away from where we live. I insisted that we go through a car wash before leaving: vehicles accumulate a lot of dust in Los Angeles, and we were overdue. This made us late to meet our friends and, unfortunately, gave Amynah lots of I-told-you-so opportunities when we got to the park and immediately drove into a cloud of dust kicked up on the park’s dirt roads. Amynah is not so saintly a person to rise above an invitation to smirk as tempting as that.

Anyway, the temperatures were scorching. Searing, even. The sun was blinding. Small insects were flinging themselves onto my car for the sweet relief that oblivion would bring from the heat. It was breathtaking. Let not my pampered, Northern-bred temperature tolerances fool you: our hiking companions are natives of Tehran (today’s projected high, according to the BBC: 35 degrees Celsius) and they said that the heat was clearly the cruel jest of a malevolent and wrathful god (I may be paraphrasing slightly).

On arrival Sana was thrilled by the landscape and the rocks – she immediately added to my load of camera, binoculors, water bottles, diapers, spare clothes and Inara with several handfuls of mineral specimens. She also made a bee-line straight up one of the larger monoliths, while Amynah and I struggled to keep pace. Clearly, I have done an inadequate job explaining gravity’s universal dominion to her.
In any case, that one climb, 15 minutes total, was enough to knock all of us out. We found a clump of trees that had themselves taken shelter behind some boulders, and hid in their shadows for the next 30 minutes while we waited for the visions and dizziness to pass. We then walked back to the car, even then managing to get slightly lost as we were disoriented by the unrelenting onslaught from the idiot fire beast in the sky.

Ramin and Atefeh along with proof that no, I did not forget Inara.
I will allow that the rocks and surrounding landscape were beautiful, and the company – Ramin and Atefeh – were gracious, especially as they allowed us a cool-down period in their apartment (promptly trashed by Inara) and then treated us to the best Iranian food we’ve had since leaving Montreal. But still, let it be resolved that I shall not stray any further than fifty feet from an air conditioner until November.

Such was the heat that when we took our break, I deliberately sat beneath this spiderweb in order that I could benefit from a few filaments more of shade.

Friday, May 18, 2012

Visiting The Last Bookstore

At least once a month, Amynah and the girls and I travel to downtown Los Angeles to have lunch with her uncle.* Downtown Los Angeles is strikingly non-vibrant, people-wise, considering that it is the nominal heart of a city of 12-million people.

On the other had, it does boast a great deal of attractive art-deco architecture, including some beautiful movie theatres (most of which have been converted to other uses, like churches).

It also boasts one of the so-called “Most Beautiful Bookstores in the World,” so honoured by no less an authority than Who could resist?**

After dining, Habib guided us to The Last Bookstore (demanding to know, as was his wont, if I would not prefer to read things on my phone like a civilized person). It’s a used bookstore, and I suspect the fact that they don’t charge retail left them feel free to make their cashier’s counter out of old tomes.

It’s an enormous space, littered with couches and offering a coffe bar, all of which contributed to an inviting atmosphere. It also featured somewhat-too-precious decorative touches like fake taxidermy of a wooly mammoth head mounted on the wall, and a mutilated mannequin at the end of an aisle (both of which Sana reported with frightened certainty as being monsters that intended to eat her). It need hardly be said that a place like this would also have a section devoted to the paleo-technology of vinyl records, right?

Places like this always inspire me to buy some classic or other that I’d never tried before. I think the mannequins, in particular, guided my hand this time: I picked up Kafka’s “Metamorphosis.”*** Similarly unnerved by the atmosphere, Sana picked up Sandra Boynton's “Birthday Monsters.”

·    * The presence of Amynah’s uncle and his family has been the aspect of Los Angeles that I am most going to miss when we leave. Yeah, we're leaving. BUT I WON'T TELL YOU WHERE OR WHEN.

** I have now managed to go to three of the bookstores on this list, though this last one was the only one whose threshold I'd crossed as the result of any intent or foreknowledge.

*** Will I get around to reading it? Not in less than two years, if my moldering copy of "Persuasion" is any guide!
These are photo experiments: because the world needs more black and white urban
 decay photos, and I am the man to elevate the genre from "trite" to "barely competent." 

Sunday, May 13, 2012

Noted near my building

These handbills posted near our apartments, part of a compound owned by UCLA. Note, the "No Smoking" sign is not consistent with UCLA standards, and is presumably part of an ongoing feud.

Tuesday, May 08, 2012

A rose by any other name would still not look like that

I’ll cut right to the chase: I finally rescued my bike from the decay caused by it having been left, neglected and unloved, for five years in storage. I also installed a snazzy new child seat for Sana.
Sana narrates the trip: "What's that? What's that? What's that?
It's windy. What's that? You're going fast! What's that?
What's that? He's on a bike too! What's that?"

My first two-wheeled adventure in Los Angeles was modest in scope: a quick trip along the Ballona Creek Bike path, which sounded promising, and which received rave reviews from knowledgeable locals.

All I knew about the path was that it runs seven miles from Culver City to the ocean. There was an access point not far from us, and so I thought I’d try a quick jaunt to test out my long-atrophied cycling legs.
They hurt, not least because I was riding with 30-odd pounds of toddler with which I never had to cope when last I biked in France. What hurt more was the disparity between the mental image conjured by the words “Ballona Creek” and the reality.
I couldn’t help but make comparisons to the scenery and conditions that had made me fall in love with biking in the first place – waterways were supposed to have trees nearby. And banks on which spray-painted graffiti could get no purchase. Rainbows and Ponies this was not.
But you know what was more painful? The constant taunting knowledge that the neighbourhood directly across the creek from me is called (drumroll please)…. Alsace.

Post Script: Some people find motivation to improve ourselves through competition. Some find it through fear of senescence. Some find it through their belief that the Almighty has commanded it. Others among us find it through the desire to find odd stories with which to fill the ever-grasping maw of their blog.
 The 3,000 odd kilometers I put on my bike during my three years in Alsace should have confirmed in me a love of cycling. The fact that Amynah and I owned bikes that were superior to our French bikes in every respect, and brought them to Los Angeles at some personal cost and inconvenience should have induced me to get them up and running just to make the trouble worth it. The fact that I have daughters with whom I like to spend time, and for whom I want to be a good role model, should have encouraged me to install a kid’s seat ages ago.
None of those things worked. What did work was my inability to resist the lure to my curiosity set by the neon-yellow sign of the “Libreria Christiana.”  The placard of the small store, located roughly 1.609344 km from my apartment, boasts not a cross, as you might expect, but a bicycle.
I mentally dubbed it the “Bikes and Bibles store” (their website is actually the much more ecumenical “bikes and books”) and vowed that eventually, I would have to go in there. But to do so, I needed an excuse, and so I resolved to rehabilitate my CCM roadbike from Montreal. 
I managed it last week. Books and Bikes is a family store, as one would expect. The owner is Freddy (I didn’t get a last name), who runs the store with his two sons. The “Books” part of the store pre-dates the “bikes” part, though today it seems to occupy only the first quarter of the store’s space, the rest being given over to bikes and bike parts of all shapes and sizes (creeping secularism?). Apparently, Freddy’s facility for fixing frames, footbrakes and fenders found favour, and soon the small group of friends and neighbours grew into a steady trickle of local customers, who would drop their bikes at the back of the bookshop, leaving them for Freddy’s ministrations. Eventually, it became clear he had the makings of a proper business, and Books and Bikes was born. I plan to become a regular, so that I might continue my campaign to convince them to rename the place “Jesus Spokes.”

Sunday, April 22, 2012

Wedding madness

Sana found she had much in common with her great-uncle Ramzan.

Pretty much all of my last dozen or so blog posts have started with an apology for not blogging as much as I used to, but this time, I will provide you with an excuse: Wedding Madness!

In the last month, I’ve been to a highly American wedding of French people in the desert oasis of Las Vegas, and a highly South-Asian wedding of Canadian people that took place in the snowy wastes of Edmonton.

The bride wore sparkles, the groom was dashing in a sequined hat. 
Yes, it was already a Vegas wedding featuring Elvis, but certain 
organizers felt we needed a "theme" of "tackiness." I believe 
this person gilds lilies as a hobby.
Perhaps a comparison by the numbers, would be illustrative.

Length of festivities:    Las Vegas:   7 min       Edmonton:   4 days

Guests:   LV: 10    EDM: 650

Number pregnant brides:   LV:  1          EDM: 0

Number of grooms whose legal identification was stolen 36 hours before the wedding:   LV:   1                        EDM:  0

Number of exotic dancers invited by a certain someone, because they were sweet, and claimed to be Canadian: LV: 1 EDM:  0 

Amynah was the Maid of Honour. Don't get technical: Just see
 how long you live if you try to call her the Matron of Honour

Number of invited exotic dancers who had the poor judgement to accept said invitation:  LV: 0     EDM: 0

Number of eggs smashed on groom: LV: 0 EDM: Several dozen

Number of outfits worn by bride: LV: 1    EDM: 5

Number of Elvises: LV: 1   EDM: 0

Number of wedding bands that invited Sana to dance onstage: LV: 0 EDM:  1
Sana saw snow out the plane's window, and silently thought
 for a moment, and then informed us: "I know how to ski."
 I think she has access to the Matrix.

Percent of ceremony I missed because of screaming baby: LV: 0%   EDM: 75%

Percent of ceremony I missed because poor directions that sent me out into the Mojave desert: LV: 75% EDM: 0%

Number of hours traveled one-way: LV: 6 (car) EDM:  6 (airplane)

Percent of that time during which someone in my family was crying: 50%

Proportion of that half that is mine: 1/4.

Number of duststorms: LV: 1 EDM: 0

Number of snowstorms: LV: 0 EDM: 1