Saturday, December 26, 2009

The REAL meaning of Christmas

I have often wondered why the Christmas story is told over and over again in Churches and in films. I can recite the story by heart, and I know the ending so why retell it? Surely everyone knows the story by now.

I think that the Bible is a reflection of an oral tradition. Oral traditions, unfortunately are looked down upon by what we feel is a far more scientific written, or literary tradition. Yet, when we write deep concepts, such as the Christian story of Christmas, or the Christian view of love, creation or of life itself, we miss the subtleties and the often hidden messages therein.

This Christmas, I have taken time to reflect on the story and the multiple layers of meaning that are contained within. I have tried not to rush to the end of the story, nor to consider the story as an introduction to the end. I have tried not to impart all meaning to the end. Most of us, myself included, have great difficulties with that. We tend to want to 'get to the point', we are impatient with story and want something written down, something to summarize, to cut through.

Some of the worst wars have been perpetrated by the two world religions who have a book, either the Bible or the Koran. This is not to say that the religions are evil, nor are those who practice those faiths, rather it is a reflection of the dangers of taking what is meant to be, and written as a compilation of oral traditions and trying to find deep meaning in the particular, ie in every word rather than the general.

Have you ever wondered why the stories in the gospel differ from writer to writer. Some people have been driven mad by that! Why cant they get THE story straight. That is because there is no STORY, rather the Bible is a record of the faith experiences of people, it is the story of faith, and like all stories, it is interpreted in different ways and in different times. This is not to say that the story is not true. I am not saying it is make believe, or fantasy. I am saying that it is only by means of story and parable that deep meanings that transcend culture and time can be imparted.

The reason the story is told OVER and OVER again, is simply because its meaning is far too rich and complex to be contained in a simplistic reduction, where one looks only to the end, and forgets the journey itself.

Monday, December 21, 2009

Is Christmas a humbug?

This year Cyril and I attended Peter Hinton's splendid play version of a Christmas Carol. For those of you who have never seen a play written by Ottawa's Peter Hinton, you are missing out. Once again Scrooge pronounced that Christmas is a humbug! I sometimes wonder if he is correct!

Every year I vow that this year, Christmas will be quieter and different from the past years. I vow that I will shop on line and limit the time I spend in stores. I vow that I will bake and enjoy preparing feasts for my friends and families and even invite neighbours in for a drink.

It is four days before Christmas, only half of my gifts are wrapped, I invited guests far too late for dinner and so nobody can come, I did NO shopping on line, choosing instead to spend time at Chapters (that was fun in fact) I did bake a cake, of sorts, with lots of fruit, that after two days could be used as a brick to smash windows! As far as inviting friends in for a drink, that too will not materialize.

I am not really sure why I think I should do all of these things, or why I feel a little guilty about NOT having a Hallmark Christmas, complete with falling snow, and a great dinner and smiling happy guests pulling Christmas crackers and sipping champagne all before a fireplace.

The reality is while I have a fireplace, it has an insert and quickly puts out enough heat to turn our living room and entire first floor into a blast furnace! I have somehow not been organized enough to invite guests and Christmas, although it comes every year on December 25th, has somehow snuck up on me.

I wonder how many others are in the same predicament or feel as I do. Perhaps we should all take action against Hallmark, or Christmas television programs, or even the department store Santas for making us feel guilty.

Christmas for many people can be a very lonely time. It is lonely precisely because they feel pressured to be with family or friends but most of them have neither family or friends, or if they do, it would be an unpleasant experience.

Christmas for others is an anti climax. After weeks of shopping, wrapping, decorating and cooking, the presents are all opened...and then what? Lots of wrapping paper to dispose of, batteries to buy and people pretending that they actually like the sweater that you bought them, or in fact needed yet another scarf or pair of gloves.

Is Christmas a humbug? I think for many people, tis the season of unmet expectations, unfulfilled dreams and wishes, dry turkey and unwanted short perhaps Scrooge was correct...for many people....Christmas is indeed a humbug.

Sunday, December 20, 2009

Christmas trees, memories of the base, and cats!

This year we put up our Christmas tree. Like every year it is a Scots pine, full and bushy with needles that prick you and pine sap that sticks to your fingers. It brought back many memories of Christmas past and our cats!

My father, who died some 20 years ago, was very fond of Scots pine. For him the only tree worth having was a Scots pine with its reddish bark and long needles. For many years we had beautiful glass ornaments, balls with silvery designs and sublimated patterns, and magnificent birds with stiff tails and silver and painted. They were brought back from the time when my parents met in France. I was told they were made in Germany. They were so lovely that as a child I imagined the birds could sing! Underneath our tree there was always a nativity scene. Since my father was a carpenter, he built a stable. This was no ordinary stable. This stable could have housed the holy family and several more with comfortable stalls for the animals. No squalor in this stable!

I remember he had painted it and glued it with what looked to me like moss on the roof. I always enjoyed arranging the figurines under our tree in the nativity set. We lived on an air base and all the houses were gaily festooned with lights, some red, some blue. Some would line windows all in the same colour. My father loved multicoloured lights and would string and staple them to the wooden window sills and door frames of our house. We would walk around the base and compare the decorations that our neighbours had. Some had nativity scenes on their lawns, others had fading Santa's perched on their roof, held on with ropes just in case!

Gradually our beautiful ornaments broke. This was partially due to a Langley family tradition of immediately throwing out the wrappings that ornaments came in. We would store our ornaments in close proximity to each other, sometimes with newspaper but never very carefully. Invariably when we opened our various boxes, shoe boxes, old boxes to retrieve the ornaments there was always a glass bird with its head crushed, or a beautiful globe with its hanging pulled out and cracked. The lights were another issue. At the time we had very large bulbs that grew very hot and were clearly painted. My father loved different colours and would string these large heavy lights, some with the paint so badly scratched they were white on the tree. Much to my mother's horror, he would buy flashers and watch in delight as the large heavy and hot lights would blink on and off. We would then put up icicles. The icicles were what looked to me like flexible tin foil. They were plastic coated with some heavy or noxious metals. They proved an irresistible treat for our cats!

A cat considers the home theirs and therefore the tree with all of its trimmings and decorations is clearly either an invasion, or a new toy to play with. As our glass bulbs diminished my father bought the latest which were silk balls. They were plastic, white plastic wrapped in coloured silk, we had green, red and blue balls and as my father so proudly told us, they would never break. That was without considering the cats.

Our cats viewed the tree as a private scratching post and as they scurried under it to sharpen their claws, we watched as the tree swayed and the ornaments dangled precariously. One of us would rush to steady the tree, while another would scold the cat. The cats were nonplussed.
Our cats would be entertained for hours by simply batting one of the silk balls. As their claws got caught in the silk strands the silk unraveled and the white plastic showed itself soon with only a few shreds of silk remaining. If that were not enough, the cats would knock the ball off and bat it on the floor, pouncing on it and pushing it to ensure that the silk wrapping would be entirely destroyed. The icicles were a treat to be eaten with glee. As for decorations, our cats regularly stole the cloth hats that the elves who adorned our tree wore. One of my cats was interested in sheep and the sheep from the nativity set would vanish into his lair.

This year, I have tin icicles and glass ornaments. I pack them carefully and the lights are small LED's that don't get hot. I miss the old lights that burned out and burned our fingers when we touched them. I miss the fact that if one light was burned out, the entire string would not work. In my neighbourhood there are inflatable Santa's or snow scenes with blowing snow in them. There are singing decorations, entirely lit up houses, Santa no longer needs ropes to hold him on the roof. There are reindeers made of wood and splendid wreaths on most doors. I miss the simple lights and the simple unsophisticated decorations on those drab military homes.

This year, I no longer have cats. My decorations are safe, the sheep are unmolested. I have two dogs who looked at our tree with the studied indifference that only a dog can have! Merry Christmas to all!

Tuesday, December 8, 2009

Let sleeping dogs lie

I have two dogs, both of whom enjoy sleeping on their respective beds in my study. As I am on the computer or at my desk, they are sleeping and I can hear them snore. Whether I read the news, or psychology or even philosophy, they snore through it.

While many of us imagine that what we do is important, the truth is that apart from our relationships, what we actually do is banal and unimportant. The dogs, and others can easily sleep through our exploits, our work, our accomplishments. To demonstrate that this is the case, name the person who won the nobel prize for Chemistry three years ago? What about the prize for physics four years ago? Chances are you cannot, and yet you could easily name people that have made a difference in the world and in your life by their sense of compassion and mercy towards others.

When I get up to take my dogs for a walk, or play with them, or even brush them, they wake up. You can hear them sigh and say "Finally! she is doing something important!" Maybe the idea is not so much to let sleeping dogs lie, but to learn from them that the truly lasting things in life are the relationships and friendships that we build with others.

Sunday, November 29, 2009

What is the point of Christmas?

I don't celebrate Ramadan but I am told that the feast and the festivities after the fast is wonderful. It is a time for friends and family to exchange gifts, spend time together and enjoy the end of a period of fasting. In Muslim countries, this marking of the end of Ramadan is an event, heralded in the shops, on the street corners and a real tradition. It is part of the culture. I don't celebrate Ramadan because it is linked with Islam and I do not practice that faith. My Scottish friends don't make a big thing out of Christmas, for them New Years is the thing to be celebrated and gifts exchanged! Another year where you have not been wiped out or slaughtered by other murderous highland clansmen is to be celebrated!

Today I walked past my neighbours home and on their lawn they had one of those hot air operated Santa Claus figures. At Hallowe'en they had a hot air and fan operated biker, with an eye patch sitting astride a hog motorcycle, and now there was Santa, deflated and lying face down in the mud. Christmas for many people is rather like that hollow Santa. While they may get involved with the parties, the festivities, the trees, and tell their children fables about fat men who climb down chimneys, when the presents are unwrapped, like the deflated Santa Claus there is nothing left, just empty wrappers and a tree and decorations to put away.

The shops are busy and the stores are blaring Christmas ditties, people worry about what to make for dinner, what to buy. There is the inevitable short lived guilt about the homeless in the city and we put a few dollars in the Salvation Army kettle, or donate a turkey to the Mission. There are the lights, the cards, and above all the cultural pressure to be happy.

I cannot see the point of a non Christian or a non practicing Christian of celebrating Christmas. It is just a pain! For them, Christmas is truly a deflated Santa Claus. It is an empty holiday. While there is comfort in spending time with the family etc, apart from understanding its deeper meaning which is rooted in the birth of Jesus, it is meaningless, even as a cultural festivity.

The reason I dont celebrate the end of Ramadan, or the Indian festival of lights, or Hannukah is simply because I am not a part of those faith traditions. To celebrate a religious festival, or one that has its meaning derived from and an integral part of a faith tradition like Christmas without either having a deep appreciation of those faith based traditions or to practice the faith is pointless.

No wonder Christmas for many people is such a depressing time! Unless they are Christian, they try in vain to find meaning under the colourful wrappers and lights or in trying to get the family together for a hallmark dinner. In the end, these things, like the hollow Santa, are in themselves empty. Thus, rather than celebrating the season, they are left with the cognitive dissonance of wanting to be happy and celebrate and find meaning and at the same time, be aware that it is all a sham. It is trying to separate what they experience from what they think the season should be, that many people find so distressing.

There are those who will say that there are two Christmas celebrations, one religious and one secular. The secular one, with Happy Holidays, and Rudolf and all of that are simply creations of our merchants and card makers, coupled with some sentiments from poetry and glossy memories of past times. When we think of Christmas trees, we imagine the scene from the Nutcracker, when the tree is revealed to the children, a splendid huge thing with lights and of course presents underneath. Children today do not experience the wow factor from looking at an evergreen with a few lights on it. They have X boxes, nintendo and are used to surround sound entertainment. In this age of amusement the Christmas tree has a poor showing.

The idea of gift exchange, is from the Biblical story and the tradition of boxing day came from 19th century England, where wealthy children would put their unwanted toys in their boxes out on the curbs on December 26th for the poorer children. It was the ultimate boxing day sale...things marked down 100%. When we think of gift exchanges, we often think of stories like the Waltons, or other families where gifts were simple and small and from the heart. Simple and small is again a thing of the past. In many of the households I am aware of, the presents for the children and adults could fill a small room. Like the description of the gifts in a Child's Christmas in Wales, most of the presents are the useless presents!

If you remove all aspects of Christianity from Christmas you are left with: Santa Claus...a figure who only appears once a year and is not half as exciting as a handsome prince, a superhero or an X man, Rudolf and the Reindeers? Many drivers find deer a downright hazard on the roads, the Christmas tree, a messy needle dropping affair, cluttered with cracked and faded memories, parties, these can happen any time, family gatherings? There is nothing unique or wondrous about any of these things.

I don't celebrate Ramadan, Kwanza, Hannukah..etc. because I am not part of those faith traditions and because they would be merely good dinners or parties if they were stripped of their faith meanings. Likewise when people try to celebrate the Christian holiday of Christmas without an appreciation or understanding of the Christian faith, there is nothing left, merely some good dinners, an few parties and a needle shedding evergreen in your livingroom. Even the fat man stuck in the chimney would not be so jolly with this!

Tuesday, November 24, 2009

HINI Pandemic of poor planning

Children suddenly dying, sick for one day, dead the next, no help. Is it an invasion of it is the HINI virus and the media's sensationalistic coverage of it.

Ontario was ready! Armed with policy analysts and strategists, they decided to set up numerous clinics in out of the way places, open only for a few hours at a time. When the clinics opened, they were flooded with individuals desperate for the vaccine. The lineups rivalled that of Rock concerts. At least in at a Rock concert you are entertained! Here you are in a lineup for the priviledge of receiving health care, something we already pay dearly for in Ontario. The clinics were overwhelmed, the vaccine insufficient. When questioned as to why they were not prepared, one policy analyst, who was responsible for strategic planning, said they did not expect the turnout would be so great.

I can only assume that this analyst has no access to the internet, news or the radio to make such a foolish remark.

After weeks of long line ups, it was decided to hand out bracelets. Here those seeking the vaccine, drive to a remote spot, wait for about an hour, get a bracelet, drive back, wait again and drive home. Not a very green solution and a very poor patch up job for a poorly planned program. The government should be ashamed of itself.

Today I attended one of those lineups. I saw elderly people, the fear visible in their eyes, washing their hands with sanitizer, mothers who wanted to protect their children, working people all waiting in line to get a vaccine that they should receive from the family doctors...but wait...

Family doctors themselves had to apply for the honour of receiving the vaccine. My own doctor applied one month ago, still no sign of the elixir.

The program seeks to inform people by means of the internet. Which is fine, IF you have access to a computer. Many of the elderly people I spoke with today do not. The program also has a long and convoluted message on the city of Ottawa's phone line. No where does it mention you need a bracelet to attend a clinic. Some of the people I spoke with today were misinformed of that.

Most disturbing of all was what I heard from my family doctor. If you receive the HINI vaccine and the regular flu shot in close proximity, your risk for contracting HINI increases. I have seen this information NO where.

Therefore in addition to enduring long line ups in cold arenas, you can actually INCREASE your risk of contracting HINI.

While I have no experience of how this program is being implemented in other provinces, I can say that it is a disgrace in Ontario.

Children suddenly dying, sick for one day, dead the next, no help. Is it an invasion of it is the HINI virus and the Ontario government's shameful mishandling of the situation.

Saturday, November 21, 2009

AIDA or is it Amneris?

Today I listened to the Mets sumptuous production of Aida. I have seen Aida numerous times before and every time I have seen it, I have had no sympathy for Amneris the pharoahs daughter and every sympathy for Aida the hapless Ethiopian slave girl. That was all before this performance.

Amneris was sung by Delora Zajick who has performed this role 250 times. Her performance was riveting, she portrayed the usual vengeful side of Amneris, but also and much more poignantly her vulnerability. Amneris wanted someone to love her, and in the end realized her jealousy of Aida destroyed Radames whom she loved. When Radames is condemned to die by the priests, she prays as he is sentenced, each time imploring the gods to have pity. It is similar to the pleas that Aida makes when she is torn between her homeland and her love Radames the captain of the Egyptian army. It is interesting that both implore the gods to have pity. Aida however prays to the gods to have pity on her, whereas Amneris prays to the gods to have pity on Radames. (Johan Botha)

While Aida (sung by Violeta Urman), prays that she is unhappy and wishes to return to her homeland, her prayers and songs are selfish insofar as they are about her happiness. Moreover she dooms Radames when she asks him to tell her the route that the Egyptian army would take to destroy her people. She does this admittedly after the mother-of-all guilt trips by her father Amonastro the Ethiopian King. He denounces her as a daughter, and calls upon the dead including her mother's spectral hand to condemn her unless she saves her people. Aida give in.

Amneris gives Radames to the priests to be condemned but Aida, who caused all of this in the first place escapes. Amneris pleads with Radames after his arrest to save himself, and that she herself would save him. Her love was unselfish. She wished Radames would love her and would gladly give up her power and crown and position for him. Aida betrayed Radames.

In this incredible production by Sonja Frisell, there were horses in the triumphal march but the most moving was when Radames is entombed beneath the alter of Pitah. While the priests and Amneris, who is destroyed sing a lament, he awaits his death. Aida has joined him by hiding in the tomb. The two declare that they will be happy in heaven, away from the veil of tears. Meanwhile above the altar Amneris is mourning give them peace.

This opera has been misunderstood by me as one about Aida but it is really about the quality of true love. Despite what Aida sings about her homeland and the fact that she will die without Radames...her words are hollow as she betrays him. Despite what Amneris sings about revenge and destroying her rival, she wants to be loved and her love is far less selfish. She would have died in the place of Radames. Her flaw, her jealousy doomed both Radames, Aida and herself and when she sings about giving rest and peace, one realizes she is singing about herself as well, a woman utterly destroyed. She rolls her eyes in this scene as she realizes that the gods she prayed to, are hollow. There is no more meaning for Amneris.

Friday, November 20, 2009

November always bleak and the death of a season!

November in my memory is perhaps the bleakest month here in Ottawa. The weather never makes up its mind. It is invariably dark and grey and tries to snow, but usually ends up in a cold rain. The trees are bare and the wet decaying leaves litter the curbs and clog the gutters. The garden is a mixture of mud and leaves, and the once flowering roses now are bereft of foliage and only have a few frozen flowers to remind us of their summer splendour.

November is a month that reinforces the message that summer and fall really are over and encourages us to remove our winter gear and coats from storage. It is a time to store the golf clubs and even sadder for me it is the end of my cycling season.

This year, I have had a wonderful bike season riding with two bicycle clubs and taking several local trips. Biking is a tremendous way to discover your surroundings and I had no idea that the Ottawa area had so many hidden gems. Somehow you miss all that in a car as you are focused on your destination rather than the journey itself. Cycling teaches you that the journey is as valuable, if not more so than the destination.

I have learned, due to the many times I have gotten 'lost', that at times an unintentional detour is a discovery. I never had to worry about running out of gas and since cycling is such a great cardio vascular exercise, I found that my stamina improved by leaps and bounds over the spring, summer and fall months.

While there are many ways to extend the bike season, by wearing boot covers, layers and even balaclavas, I find that there is a balance between comfort and performance. You can dress in multiple layers including heavy boot covers and winter gloves, and then remove layers as you warm up, but when you stop in the cold weather you quickly chill, or at least I do. I have the heavier cycling tights, sweaters and layers and boot covers but I find, even if I line my boot covers with plastic so that they are totally windproof, that I still freeze.

I shall miss my bike! It is time to plan bike trips for next summer and look forward to the cross country skiing season!

Monday, November 16, 2009

Television...a reflection of a nasty society

I just finished watching a rerun of an episode of Little House on the Prairies. The show is utterly charming and extols family values, kindness and charity. As I was watching, I thought back to the shows that I enjoyed while growing up.

There was Bonanza and despite the odd "shoot em ups", Hoss, Little Joe and Adam were all honest, hardworking and caring types. Pa Cartwright would always negotiate with the natives, or greedy lumber barons. He believed in a better world. The Cartwrights were the kind of people you would love to have as neighbours, especially Little Joe! Another show I liked was Sea Hunt. Here diver Mike Nelson exposed and fought against underwater corruption and crime. He was honest and helpful often risking his life to safe another! Most people would call those shows corny or overly sweet.

Essentially all the shows that I enjoyed had one thing in common that of a triumph of kindness over cruelty, of truth over lies and basically good over evil. Why are these themes so absent today?

I think that there has been a subtle change in television. The shows have gradually become cruel and nasty. The survivor series are a good example. There is no kindness there, only brutal self serving survival.... nasty selfishness on the screen. The survivor series of course is a genre in itself. Then there are disturbing series like Dexter, a serial killer. What does that tell you? Unlike the Cartwrights or Mike Nelson of Sea Hunt...I would NOT want Dexter within 100 miles of me!
The same is true for the endless sea of CSI type shows. Who wants to watch as the police investigate yet another sadistic murder and rape scene? What pleasure is there in this? What does it teach us?

It is trite to say that television is there to teach us, but I believe it is accurate to say that the shows that we enjoy, ie have the highest ratings, are a reflection of us, and of the spirit of the times. If one is to believe Rick Mercer, the times today are cynical, there is no good and no evil, it is all about self. The books we read, Self made millionaire, Self help, Self enlightenment..that genre of book typified by Ekhart Tolle and other self proclaimed gurus who promise to cure what ails you...if you buy their book, weight loss books, all point to same thing. We have become, or have been led to believe we have become, an utterly self absorbed society.

This is reflected in the disturbing trend of a marked decrease in the number of volunteer hours that people do. People have a thousand excuses, they are too busy, they have the children, the children need to go to soccer practice etc. etc. but the wane in altruism is simply a reflection of the fact that we have become a cynical and self absorbed or selfish society. The reason that television is nastier is because we have become that way. We delight in watching Survivor or Dexter because we think to ourselves, we cant be that bad, and therefore feel a little better. We are like the Grinch, and our hearts have become two sizes too small. Like the Grinch, we snigger and scoff at that which holds us to a higher standard and perhaps calls us to account for the way in which we spend our time, in service to self or family rather than to others.

Television is a mirror of our society. The shows like Bonanza or Little House, or the Waltons are relegated to specialized channels and are by no means mainstream. The ideals of service and kindness have been replaced by cruel and nasty principles. What television shows us is not a very good image of ourselves.

Sunday, November 15, 2009

When poppies fade

As a child growing up on military bases, remembrance day was a very meaningful event. Usually we would have a WWII or even a WWI vet recount the horrors of war. I recall being particularly alarmed when one vet told of seeing orphaned children running from their bombed homes. As a seven year old this was the stuff nightmares were made of. I remember crying in the classroom for those children. Our poppies were made of paper then and faded and dissolved in the rain.

On the base, there were parades and march pasts of the veterans. Most, if not all of the service men at that time, including my father were veterans. There were rows of them, in uniform on the parade squares as we watched and listened to the band play. I particularly enjoyed, and still do, the Scots regiment with their kilts and bagpipes and magnificent drums, played with flourish and flying feathered drumsticks. Being an air base, there was always a splendid air show with roaring fighter jets, and vintage planes. Were it not for the stories told to us by the veterans, one could easily believe that war was a thing of spectacle and flourish and bravado. The march pasts however, always caused a lot of emotion and tears in me because of what I had heard and also read by this time. The poppies were plastic and garish and poked you when you tried to put them on!

As I grew older, the march pasts were smaller and the WWI vets moved into homes and were in wheelchairs. As a young adult, the crowds at the memorial crosses became fewer and fewer. There were a few old men in tattered uniforms with poppies on their left breast. They saluted the flag as people just walked by. The 11th hour of the 11th day was a thing of the past, and irrelevant to many. The number in the march past was smaller and feebler. Our memories like the poppies were fading. For most individuals, especially when I lived in Montreal, the war was best forgotten. Never forget the motto of the veterans was a relic and one must move on and create the future without reference to the past.

It took our recent engagement in war and the reality of young people killed in action to cause people to retrieve their faded poppies from their kitchen drawers and speak to their children about war and watch documentaries about battles. Since that time, the crowds have increased as more and more people now understand that it is crucial never to forget. For many it became clear that we cannot have a meaningful future if we do not remember and honour the past. One of the reasons Eisenhower after he liberated the death camps took so many photographs and documented the horrors was simply as he put it "Because some day, some bastard will say it never happened" That was what was happening with our remembrances of war. No one claimed they never happened, but somehow they were forgotten, relics, to be dusted off like old medals but what happened then, could not affect us today.

This year, I watched the remembrance day ceremony on Parliament hill. There were fly pasts from jet planes, children singing the songs I used to sing in those ceremonies in the military base schools, but once again the most meaningful moment for me was the march past. There were so few veterans. There were no WWI vets. For them unlike those immortalized in Flanders Field, they did grow old and die, there were precious few WWII vets. There were many people at the ceremony many with fresh memories of their children or friends who had been killed in Afghanistan. I cried with the march past. I cried because I saw in the faces of the veterans living witnesses of the past. I cried because people had indeed forgotten, and once again we are engaged in war. Let us all pray that our poppies never fade!

Saturday, November 7, 2009

Will opera die?

In many of the opera's I have seen, the hero or heroine or sometimes both die. Unfortunately I sometimes wonder if that will be the fate of opera. Increasingly it seems that I am the youngest person attending the operas and I am over 50! I hope that opera will continue to live and to be available to everyone and not be thought of as arcane and elitist and a thing of the past not worth listening to in an age of competing entertainment.

Sadly, the death of music programs in many schools, because they want to concentrate on what they see as the fundamentals, has meant that many children, unless they are fortunate enough to attend well funded private schools, are simply not exposed to great music. This fate has not only befallen great music, but I was told by many teachers that for a long time Shakespeare was not taught in schools as it was wrongly seen as 'elitist'

Great music, the classics, the soaring works of Brahms, Mozart, Beethoven and the operas provide us not only an insight into Western culture and Western civilization, but provide us with an outlet for many of our deepest emotions. As Shakespeare provides us with a vocabulary and a means to articulate what we feel, opera and the classics enable us to hear what we feel unfold before us.

Opera provides the best example of this interplay between passion, culture and our emotions. I have seen Madame Butterfly many times and yet I sob when Butterfly kills herself. Why is this? No doubt because Butterfly is a dramatic example of unrequited love. She loves an unworthy man! Similarly when a villan like Tosca's Scarpia is killed, I cheer. Why? No doubt because this represents a desire to right all wrongs. Opera therefore is a play that paints archetypes in music.

No doubt there are those who will argue and say, these themes can be represented in modern music, or movies. In part, they are correct but that is like saying we can live on tofu and water. We can, but life would be rather dull. Opera is greater than life, the characters full of passion and we secretly wish we could live like that! There is nothing so romantic as a love duet in a grand opera. When Delilah sings to Samson about her love (albeit for evil gains!), and begs him to respond to her kisses and tenderness....there is not a woman in the audience who has not asked for the same thing, although few have the vocal capacity to sing it in such a manner!

Not to expose children to the classics, is perhaps to doom them to a life where they will be unable to articulate their deepest passions and feelings. How can they express that they have a love that they would die for? Calaf would die for Turandot. How can they express that they would sacrifice everything to protect the one they love. Well, Traviata does this! Opera has a cleansing effect on one's emotions. After I see a great opera, and cry and am moved by the sheer beauty of the voices and the drama that unfolds. I am always thrilled and empowered!

I have met many people who say they don't like opera, but they have never been to an opera! They have a notion that opera is boring, or about fat ladies singing. Nothing could be further from the truth! To listen to the dramatic tones in Mozart's Don Giovani when the statue drags Giovani to surely not boring. The very flames of hell are licking at the edge of the opera stage!

Young people often escape into their music to find some way of expressing or articulating their turbulent emotions and passionate feelings. Unfortunately the music they listen to is often as banal and empty as what they are trying to escape from.

I am sorry that more teachers and parents do not take their children to the opera. The HD performances in cinemas are inexpensive, exciting and enables one to see live performances from the great temple of opera, the metropolitan opera of New York. I hope that they do lest this tremendous art form become almost extinct!

Calaf no hero!

This afternoon I saw Turandot, Puccini's last opera. The Zeffirelli staging of Turandot at the Met can only be described as fantastic. There were Chinese dragons, numerous fans, unbelievable costumes and beautiful lighting. The splendor and beauty of the stage was a marked contrast to the sheer cruelty and bloodiness of the opera. In addition, the people of Peking were all dressed in grey and scurried about the stage like rats.

Turandot (sung by Maria Guleghina) is the quintessential ice queen. A princess who has renounced love and men and beheads all suitors if they fail to answer her three riddles. The opera opens with the handsome Prince of Persia walking bravely to his death and Calaf discovering by accident, his blind father King Timur and his servant Liu. Calaf swears that when he sees Turandot he will curse her for her cruelty. When he sees her, as she appears on a lighted dias of gold above the people, he is captivated and proclaims he is in love. Despite the court eunichs Ping, Pang and Pong telling him he is a madman and will die as so many others did and despite an impassioned plea from both his long lost father and his servant, he is not dissuaded and singing about his destiny, he rings the gong, announcing he will be the next suitor. We also see the head of the Prince of Persia being raised on a stake to join the heads of all the other defeated suitors.

The lead tenor Calaf sung beautifully by Marcello Giorani, is often portrayed as hero who risks all to secure the love of the ice queen. Who but the Italians would know of passionate, all consuming love. In this opera however, Calaf is portrayed as a man equally as cruel as Turandot. After correctly answering the riddles and therefore winning Turandot's hand, Calaf foolishly proclaims that if she can find out her name, he will sacrifice his life. Turandot is enraged and proclaims that no one shall sleep that night, nessun dorma...on pain of torture and death until she finds the name of the stranger who won the contest. I had always thought that nessun dorma was a beautiful love aria, but instead it is a deluded song where Calaf is willing to sacrifice all the people in Peking, rather than reveal his name and end the suffering. Calaf is begged by Ping Pang and Pong who bribe him to go away as his very presence will cause the suffering of many, but her refuses citing his love for Turandot.

Turandot's servants bring King Timor and his servant Liu.( sung by Marina Poplavskaya) Liu carried a love in her heart for Calaf and because of that love, will not betray him and reveal his name. Turandot orders that the truth be ripped out of Liu. Lui sings a beautiful aria about the true nature of love. The executioner is called and Liu, rather than reveal the name of Calaf, kills herself. The distraught King takes her dead hand and follows her as she is carried away saying he too will journey with her.

Turandot at this point melts. Many commentators say she melts because she has found love, but it is clear that she does not melt for pity at the blood she has shed but because she knows Calaf has won. Calaf is so often thought of as a brave hero, but by abandoning his blind father and letting the lovely Liu die, he shows himself to be every bit as hard and as icy as Turandot herself.

The opera ends with Turandot and Calaf being married in a splendid scene with masked dancers, coloured banners and, of course, Giacomo Puccini's splendid lyric and dramatic music. Turandot and Calaf were well suited, one blinded by hatred, the other blinded by a deluded sense of destiny. The only sane people in the opera were the comical trio, Ping Pang and Pong who tried their best to dissuade Calaf.

Somehow, I don't think this marriage would last very long, but in the wacky world of opera, all things are possible!

Friday, November 6, 2009

Putting the FUN back in Fundraising

This year, I am team captain of the Kanata Nepean Bike clubs 2010 ride for MS. This is a two day event that is from Ottawa to Kemptville. It is a lot of fun and attracts bikers of all levels and ages.

The event is fully supported with rest stops every 10km or so. In Kemptville, we can either camp or stay in the residence of the agricultural college, now part of the University of Guelph.

In order to ride, each rider must fundraise at least 250 dollars and pay a registration fee of $50.00. While this may not seem like a lot, it took me an age and much harassment of my friends to achieve this goal. I ended up raising $650 but not without a lot of blood, sweat, tears and deleted emails. Last year our team of 11 spoke and many of us concluded that this is not fun.

This year, I am soliciting advertising spots on our jerseys and shorts. Each biker in our team of 25 will be fully kitted out in shorts, jerseys and gloves with the logos of businesses who chose to advertise with us. At $400 for one advertising space, I have been met with great enthusiasm as it is a very visible and inexpensive way to advertise. For me this puts the FUN back in fundraising.

There are some who are old school who will still continue to raise funds the old fashioned way by soliciting your family, friends, neighbours and club members but I believe that this newer technique is truly the way to go. Each cyclist on the team can ride for free and have a new cycling outfit to boot. If they chose to fundraise in addition, that merely goes towards their total and they would be well on their way to raise more money for MS.

Fundraising is now a professional business. The days of asking friends and neighbours to help, or even by hosting a bake sale are perhaps a thing of the past. While these events may gather a bit of money, they are labour intensive and yield little in the long run.

For me explaining what we will do and speaking about a team of cyclists and getting businesses to back us is a lot more fun than emailing my friends, pestering my neighbours and begging my family!

Monday, November 2, 2009

Death does not take a holiday: RIP Martin

I learned today that a friend of mine Martin Podehl died at the age of 68 as a result of a tree felling accident.

Martin and I cycled together as part of two bike clubs and I had the most fun with him on a long ride that rained and rained until we arrived at our lunch destination like drowned rats. He was an excellent, safe and supportive individual whom I shall miss. He rode with me on the century ride and then again on a CCCTS ride where he was sweep because of his knowledge of the area.

His death reminds me that we are truly creatures of the moment and we only have this time, this moment to tell our friends how much they mean to us and how much we care for them. I am not sure I do this often enough. I always assume there will be another time, but death does not take a holiday.

Martin was the consumate organizer and offered me wise counsel regarding a trip that I am planning for next year. His wit and skill will be missed by all of us.

Sunday, November 1, 2009

Weight training..or what to do when you put your bike away

Now that the bike season is winding down, (pause for a sob) I have recently picked up a few books on off season bicycle training. One book is called "weight training for cyclists" by Ken Doyle and Eric Schmitz, the other "cycling anatomy" (also about weights) By Shannon Sovndal MD and my final book "the complete book of long-distance cycling" by Edmund Burke. The books all have a common theme and speak about the fact that weight training and explosive cardio is of much more value than spending time on a treadmill or even spinning. In fact, spinning does nothing for the muscles that we need to be more powerful and faster cyclists. They are all unanimous in suggesting three keys: The first and most important is weight training, the second explosive cardio and then diet.

Ah the joys of lifting weights! Biking is wonderful for the thigh and calf muscles but not much else. To be balanced, unless you do lifting as part of your job, you need weight training, in particular the strengthen the neck muscles, hamstrings and core muscles otherwise known as the abs.

It has been about a year since I have done any weight training and I have forgotten the "joys."

1) Sweaty equipment
2) People who leave impossibly heavy weights on the machines
3) Grunts, groans and assorted screams usually by muscle bound body builder wannabes with no necks!
4) Personal trainers who roam the weight room like sharks looking for exhausted prey
5) People who offer unsolicited and unwanted advice

However weight training every second day does offer its rewards for cyclists. Unlike cardio workouts where it is very difficult to get your heart rate up, a few very heavy sets with a leg press or bench press will do it in far less time. Weight training, for those who are in good cardiovascular shape gives you much more benefits in a shorter period of say all in the books and manuals I have read.

My off season cycling training manuals also recommend explosive cardio. That is run full out for 30 seconds, pause, walk and do it again. Also skipping and jumping. The key is short bursts of full intensity with little or no rest in between. It is exhausting. There are many suggestions but the key appears to be a short period where you are full out followed by short rests.

The other recommended routine is a combination of weight training and explosive cardio. You do a set of very heavy weights and then do jumping jacks, and so forth. This one is even more exhausting!

There is nothing wrong with spinning. It is a lot of fun, and you feel good after being bike deprived for a period of time, but the experts are pretty unanimous on this one, if you want the benefits of being a stronger and faster cyclist, weight training plus what they call explosive cardio is the answer.

The last element is the dreaded 'd' word, or diet and nutrition. There is no doubt that a biker with more fat is slower than a leaner one. Notice I did not say heavier. Muscle weighs more than fat and to be a strong cyclist one needs muscle mass. However excess body fat contributes nothing to strength or speed and slows you down. This, I must confess, is much harder for me than weight training or cardio. This is where I do battle with myself! Cycling clothing is a good indicator as well. Cycling clothing hides nothing and excess fat is clearly visible underneath that shiny coloured lycra!

See you all in the weight room!

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

Biking, the ride and the rush

I have been asked on several occasions, usually by my family, what is it that attracts me to bicycles. For most of us biking gave us a sense of freedom. As youngsters we could not drive a car, but we could ride a bike. The bike enabled us to go greater distances and meet with our friends. For many people however, once they can drive, they put their bikes away and somehow bikes are seen as childish. This never happened with me, I was always interested in bikes.

Bicycles attract people on many levels. I enjoy the simple mechanics of a bike and the fact that you can ride with great speed along little known roads on an efficient, non polluting simple machine that even a mechanically challenged person like myself can understand. ( or at least know a good mechanic!) Somehow, when you are riding a bike along a stretch of scenic road, passing fields and valleys and small towns you become one with the bicycle. Pedaling is such a fluid motion that you are not even aware of it. You are aware of the way in which the road seems to meet your wheels with every pedal stroke.

Years ago, I read a book called Zen and the art of motorcycle maintenance. At the time, I was fascinated by motorcycles and the book explored how the protagonist got better as it were, by fixing his motorcycle. I remained fascinated with this book and motorcycles in general until my friend was killed when his tire blew out of his motorcycle. I then returned to my first love which was the simple bicycle. At that time, I was the proud owner of a blue 3 speed supercycle with a white leather seat, (well I think it was plastic!) white wall tires,a large headlamp that ate batteries and did not shine very far and numerous reflectors. I polished and oiled my bike and continued to ride my bike long after it was fashionable. I rode that bike to my job in a bakery. I rode some 7km to arrive at my job for 3am which was when we would bake the donuts for the morning. At that time, bikes were made of steel and had a very classic look about them. A three speed was for Canada, a very modern invention. Many bikes had no gears at all! There was something very special about having a bike that was not only for fun, but useful and attractive as well!

My bikes have evolved since that time. I had the heavy mountain bikes with the huge balloon tires, a five speed bike with a chain oil that forever stained my socks, a french 10 speed bike that weighed more than the mountain bike and whose chain had a propensity for falling off, a peugot that never worked properly, and more recently commuter or hybrid bicycles. During that time, I had an interest in lights and had many generator style lights with a wheel dynamo. My dynamos worked for a little while, but I would invariably overload the system by riding as fast as I could at night to see how bright the light would shine. It would shine brightly and then with a pop...burn out. Technology has changed and my lights are now much smaller, far more efficient and powerful and also much cheaper. Rather than one bike, I now own a city bike which has eight speed internal gears. It is like my old three speed, only with five more. It is nostalgic and nice to ride around the town. I also have a touring bike and a racing bike.

Biking is a very zen experience. When you are biking for a few hours, your mind becomes clear and your thoughts are not cluttered with deadlines, stress, to-do lists, emails...or other elements that we live with. Instead, your mind focuses on your breathing. I have taken many yoga classes that tell you to focus on your breathing, but I never really got it until I am on a bike for a few hours alone. Without telephones, noisy engines, machines you are alone with this mechanical object and I actually focus on my breathing and experience an incredible sense of relaxation. Whether you are riding alone or with a small group, I never experience the stress of competition. I have a set distance and off we go.

Biking enables me to connect with my past experiences. My new racing bike has leather handlebar tape and canvas and leather saddle bags. I have tried to recreate my childhood or young adult, experiences and tastes of the past with the newer and lighter technology and it has worked. You can have a bike that not only has a retro look, but can have older parts that work nicely with the newer bikes. Like the protagonist in Zen and the art of motorcycle maintenance, my book would be entitled Zen and the art of biking. I feel great when riding my bike.

I don't want to go back to my dynamos that never worked or my chains that fell off but I do want to ride a bike that has the grace and the elegance of those older bikes that I remember so fondly!

Thursday, October 15, 2009

The hidden treasure of fall bike riding

Today I led a ride with the Cross Canada Cycling touring society, or CCCTS. There were three of us, Emerson, Mike and me. The temperature was 5degrees and we had to convince Emerson by means of a phone call to join us which he did.

Fall biking is a treasure. The colours are magnificent, the roads fairly quiet and the bike paths all but empty. Today we rode to Carp along very quiet roads, up and down a few small hills, past barns that gleamed in the sun, dairy and beef herds and beautiful horses. We took the bike path from Brittania to Corkstown road and the path was deserted!

For lunch, we stopped at the Swan in Carp. The food in the Swan is superb and all three of us had a splendid lunch in a quaint and warm little restaurant. I topped off my meal with a tall glass of Irish cider. It was a very civilized lunch!

Many people hang up their bike on labour day but that is a mistake. The key is layers and the right clothing. I was wearing Helly Hansen dry tech base layer for a shirt, which really wicks away any moisture. On top of that, I had a fleece lined and fairly windproof cross country jacket. That kept me very warm without getting overheated. I wore MEC cycling pants and most important of all neoprene shoe covers, as my feet always get cold in this temperature.

While Mike and Emerson wore light balaclavas, I was comfortable with a light windproof lycra ear cover, like a thin headband. We did not stop much in our short ride but drank as we rode along the glorious and quiet routes.

This is what biking should be, a quiet cycle along quiet undulating roads where you don't have the constant fear of being mowed down by an irate driver.

In fact the only car-bike interaction I had was while driving home with my bike latched onto my trunk. I stopped for a red light and a man in an SUV slammed on his brakes. He had been tailgating and narrowly missed my bike. I watched him as he gesticulated wildly behind me. After the light changed he roared up beside me in the inside lane, I ignored him and he cut me off. He proceeded to cut off other drivers, tailgating and slamming his brakes. I had had such a great day biking that I just shook my head.

To all those who think it is too cold to cycle or who are worried about getting cold, the key is really a good base item and a fleece lined and fairly windproof jacket. Mine was purchased for cross country skiing. It is a great time to ride a bike!

Tuesday, October 13, 2009

The Kanata Nepean polar bike team

This Thanksgiving the Kanata Nepean Bicycle club had a short 60km ride to the Swan pub for lunch and back again. The challenge for this ride was in the morning when I took the bike out of the shed, there was a heavy frost and the roofs were gasp..white with frost.

The air temperature was around 5degrees. The challenge in biking is always to keep warm but not so warm that you become overheated. In this way, it is very much like cross country skiing. Our bike group looked like arctic explorers. Some wore balaclavas, others heavy thick gloves and all of us had multiple layers.

The key is to keep your core which for biking is your chest and upper legs warm. I wore my windproof tights and a cross country jacket over my layers of sweater and jerseys. After lunch I had to stuff my jacket in my bag and continue on with my wool jersey. One thing I found worked very well was my neoprene boot covers. Having cold feet on a bike ride is very unpleasant.

Our polar team survived the ride, no frostbite or chills and will live to ride again at least until the end of this month!

Sunday, October 11, 2009

Therapy dogs

Bubba is a therapy dog who visits Alzheimer's patients at the Billings Lodge. While Bubba has been a therapy dog for few years, I sometimes forget how special he is and how important his work really is.

Today he lay down beside some patients who delighted in stroking him and speaking with him. He made new friends and got reaquainted with his old friends. Bubba is calm and serene in his work and allows himself to be nuzzled and cuddled. His work brings incredible joy to the patients but I sometimes take his skills for granted.

After we work, we go to Timothy's in Billings Bridge for a coffee. I have the coffee and he usually has a small cookie. As usual we sat at a table and he hopped up on a chair while I drank my coffee and gave him a cookie. I thought nothing of it, until an older woman and her daughter remarked on how amazing he is, and well behaved and well mannered. They showered Bubba with compliments, so much so that he walked over to them and gave them a kiss.

Their effusive comments made me aware, once again of how special Bubba really is and the immense pleasure and joy he brings to others. The two women left saying how blessed they were to meet Bubba and how proud I must be to have him. I am indeed.

Saturday, October 10, 2009

Opera in HD and Tosca's kiss

Since last year, I have become a huge fan of opera by HD. The metropolitan opera broadcasts some of its splendid performances on HD and shows them in over 40 countries live. This week, the broadcast of Puccini's masterpeice, Tosca was seen on over 1000 screens.

Such a wonderful use of technology allows people like me to attend an opera at the met and listen to the world's greatest singers and some of the most creative staging ever. Today's magnificent performance of Tosca was no exception.

The stage was minimal and stark like the theme, but the singers were outstanding. The uber bad guy, Scarpia sung by Georgian baritone George Gagnidze, oozed evil as he sang Va Tosca, in the church as the Te Deum was sung and cannons fired. The HD performances have interviews with the principal singers and the set designers enabling the audience to participate. The soprano, Finnish singer Karita Mattila was one of the finest dramatic singers I have ever heard. Her entire body trembled with emotion and the way she acted the jealous scene in the first act is something I will never forget. I have never seen a more frantic or frenetic Tosca! The tenor who sang the painter Cavaradossi was Argentinian Marcelo Alvarez. Cavaradossi is a difficult character to sing, and many tenors have sung him like a hero. Cavaradossi does help his fugitive friend, but to portray him as a revolutionary hero is to misunderstand him. Alvarez sang him very convincingly as a romantic.

Of particular interest was the attention paid to Scarpia's henchman Spoletta. He was a small sadistic character who wore reddish round sunglasses and who sniggered and delighted in seeing others suffer. Far from being a mere backdrop, he was a character in his own right.

I sat beside a retired teacher as we both lamented the sea of grey hair in attendance. Opera is not taught in schools and people under the age of 50 in attendance were few and far between. I find this very sad. The beauty of HD is that it can reach many many people in remote and small areas, and showcase the drama and splendour of opera to a new generation.

In opera, passions are expressed in music and the mix of the acting, the soaring orchestral score and the drama make opera a sublime and deeply moving experience.

Today, I found myself cheering when Tosca stabbed Scarpia singing "this is Tosca's kiss!" Indeed, take that! Tosca throughout was a strong and passionate woman. I have seen performances where after Tosca discovers her lover Mario is dead, she breaks down and falls off the cliff killing herself. In this version, Tosca is confronted with Scarpia's henchmen. She runs up the stairs of the prison walls and beckons them to fight her. As they approach her she kicks them and shouting "I will see you before God Scarpia" throws herself to her death. This is much more in keeping with the text and spirit of the Opera. Tosca is many things, but a coward she is not.

Teachers, take your students to see one of these performances. Opera enriches our lives and allows us an entirely new vocabulary to express our deepest emotions, that of music!

The next opera is Aidia, star crossed lovers, monumental music, splendid arias including the beautiful Aria by the defeated Ethiopian King about his country, Egyptian splendor, a victory parade for the Egyptian military hero Radames, pharoah's daughter, a slave girl...a pyramid and battles...what can be more operatic?

Friday, October 9, 2009

The Glory of Biking..a Thanksgiving!

This past Thursday, yesterday, was a glorious fall day, the kind of day you would wish would last forever. There was no wind, the leaves were changing, the air was not cold and the sky was blue. It was the perfect day for an 87km bike ride near Orleans Ontario.

As I biked through farmlands, past log farmhouses, red barns, and may beautiful horses in the field with their colts, I was struck by an overwhelming feeling of being very fortunate. Our group, the CCCTS rode on quiet country roads, there were no roadside bombs.

Our group stopped for dinner at a small restaurant in Limoges, there was plenty of hot burger sandwich platters and grilled cheese sandwiches for all. As we sat down for lunch, a lady told us how she envied us because we had cycled.

After lunch, I rode behind the group with my new bike to make sure that no one was left behind. We call it the 'sweep' position. I was able to see our group of 8 cyclists wind down roads and up hills, past the small rivers and past waving fields of drying cornstalks. How fortunate we are.

During the ride I spoke with a retired naval engineer who had worked, as I had long ago on sound channels and salinity profiles, I spoke with others about Newfoundland, bike gears, geography, history and even a slight touch of politics. There were no battles, there were no machetes. How fortunate we are.

I came home thankful for the cycling club, for the beautiful day, for my bike and for my health and vigour. I came home and I realized that I had so much to be thankful for that I did not have any room or time to complain about anything, such is the glory of biking!

Home Renovation

The family that renovates together drives each other mad!

This week we installed new floors. The job was calculated to take three days, but it took the better part of a week. A week where our fridge and stove was in our livingroom and various sections of the house cordoned off as the ceramic tiles were installed.

Added to the chaos was one very disturbed llasa apso. Bubba, the llasa apso stayed with us during the renovations. We had wisely decided that Sophie should be babysat for the week and so she was boarded with a friend of mine.

The problem with home renovations is the chaos. Where do you put your stuff? Who put it away? Can it ever be found again? and of course, the inevitable: do we really need this stuff?
If we did not have any stuff, life would be very easy and home renovations would not be stressful. The stress is having to deal with our stuff. King David in the Old Testament set aside 1/3 of his army to look after his stuff. I think our stuff is simply drowning us. Putting things away brings it all to light, there are the 14 sets of mismatched dishes, the numerous tablecloths, the condiments that threaten to collapse our fridge, the paintings, the dog leashes, the bath products, the kitchen cupboards, and that blackhole to end all blackholes..the hallway closet.

Hallway closets are entities unto themselves as they are the resting place for extra jackets, numerous shoes, umbrellas, winter hats, summer hats and in our case, one unweildy old fashioned vacuum cleaner, that really does not do a good job as a vacuum cleaner but is excellent at taking up space and knocking unsuspecting visitors to the closet on the head with one of its hoses.

Although I did not do any of the renovations, except for the moving of fridges and stoves and furniture, after a week of having someone cut tiles, grout, sand and pound nails into our floor all the while being surrounded by chaos...I am exhausted. I have a new appreciation of the creation story in the book of Genesis. After God organized and made sense of the stuff of the universe even He had to wonder I am tired!

Brooks Saddles: The Cult...the Truth

A saddle is one of the most important features of your bike. Many of my friends after a mid length ride walk like rodeo cowboys and sit very carefully. They do not have cheap saddles, but often the latest in gel and plastic combinations. My talk about the virtues of a Brooks saddle are often dismissed as anachronistic or slightly masochistic.

Here is the TRUTH about the Brooks saddle.

Brooks saddles have been described by one of my biking friends, Martin as a cult. Either you believe or you don't in the claims that the Brooks leather saddle is the most comfortable saddle on earth. Here is the truth about the cult

1) Brooks saddles are by far the most comfortable saddles you can own.
2) They are cool in the summer
3) The claims of break in time are greatly exaggerated
4) They do not require much care
5) They are cheaper in the long run. A well cared for Brooks saddle will easily last 10 years or more.

The dreaded break in period

At first, the hard leather saddle does not appear to be comfortable at all and there is much fear and trepidation over how to 'break in the saddle' and care for it. I own three brooks saddles, one with springs, a brooks narrow B-17 and a special B-17 with copper rivets.

I have found that the best thing to do is to apply a good coating of neetsfoot oil, made from the hooves of cows, to the saddle when you take it out of the box. Rub it in, and apply some more with a hair dryer to make sure it penetrates. Then ride the saddle. It will be a little hard but if you keep applying neetsfoot oil and proofhide a few times a month that is all it needs.

I took my B-17 narrow out of the box and after one night of neetsfoot oil rode it for 100 miles. I was not sore. The more you ride the Brooks saddles the better they become.

My B-17 special is on my carbon bike as after 5000km of riding it is well broken in.

To care for them, there are only two things to remember:

1) If the saddle gets wet, it is not a problem just make sure it is stored in a place where it can dry out.

2) Once a month or so apply some neetsfoot oil or proofhide

3) Clean it once a season with saddle soap

4) Polish it with neutral or clear shoe polish. I have used beeswax but that tends to make the saddle a little sticky.

Thursday, October 8, 2009

The Mystery of Food and Drink while riding

I have been puzzled by what to eat and drink when you are riding. Some of my friends don't eat but then chow down on enormous lunches. Some others that I know use power gels. Still others munch on power or protein bars.

Some swear by bananas which they stuff into their pockets, and others rely on drinks. I even know one person who has a tin of ensure as it is a meal replacement. Some drink water with lemon, and others have coffee in their bottles.

This is what I have found.

1) I am not on the space shuttle and refuse to eat food that I have to squeeze out of a tube
2) Bananas bruise easily and a bruised banana is not appealing
3) Granola or trail mix left in your saddle bag for the next ride will become food for rodents or other pests that inhabit your garage or bike shed.
4) If you buy a mix of nuts and chocolate, expect the chocolate to melt and you have a gooey mess
5) Muffins will simply disintegrate in your bag and leave a crumbly mess in your saddlebag
6) If you pack your granola in a single plastic bag, you will pick it up by the wrong end and your trail mix will spill all over the road
5) Energy drinks are heavy
6) Gatorade is far too sweet
7) Power and energy bars are far too chewy and I have yet to meet one that is tasty.
8) Granola bars, neatly packaged in foil will break and upon opening will spill like sawdust onto the road.

My best drink solution is a homemade one:

2/3 cup fresh squeezed orange juice
1,1/3 cups of water
2 teaspoons honey
pinch of salt

This makes about 2 cups

I have found that MEC sells a little tube of capsules called Nuno. They are electrolyte replacement tablets and make your drinks fizz. They are slightly flavoured. I usually have one bottle of water with my fizz and one bottle of the orange mixture.

For food, I have learned that I can eat dried fruit on a ride, but not those energy or power bars. Almonds and other assorted birdseed is also a good bet for me.

I have also found that those little bottles of INSTANT energy that you can buy at stores that cater to all night truck drivers really do work. They give you a boost when you are flagging. They have different names, Power charge, Zap...but the ingredients are all the same, caffeine, taurine, sugar and electrolytes.

Tuesday, October 6, 2009

I am a new convert

For the past year, I have laughed at my bike riding friends who ride with very light carbon or titanium bikes. I laughed mainly because I could keep up or pass them on a heavier steel touring bike. As a result of my experiences, I had simply written off light racers as a fad, for Lance Armstrong wanna-bes. I reasoned that the engine, your heart and legs and lungs were what counted and the rest was frivolity.

This was before I rode my new DeVinci carbon bike. I could not believe the difference. The skinnier tires make for a bumpy ride, despite everyone saying carbon absorbs all the bumps, my steel touring bike with the wider tires is a softer ride. My bike has TIME clips which are wonderful for someone who is "clip challenged"

I was amazed at the way the bike responds and that in no time I was cruising at 38km/hr (no not on a downhill).

I am a convert! It is a thrill to ride such a machine.

Of course, the downside to my new stallion is that it will not hold panniers or any bag to speak of. I have a small saddle bag but no post mount, so it does bang a little.

I shall no longer laugh at those whom I derided in the past for being weight weenies!

Sunday, October 4, 2009

Century ride and lessons on saddles and clothing and food

There is something magical about a true 160km century ride, or 100 miles. Today, Martin, Steve, Tim and I did just that. You can see us in the picture holding a centurion's bust after the ride was over. It was the Kanata Nepean Bicycle clubs fall century ride. There were three speed groups. I was leading the middle group, or S3. We began at 930 am, stopped briefly for lunch and at 515 or so, arrived at our start point, muddy but exhilerated and we had a beer and shared a plate of nachos.

Muddy because it had been raining off an on. I decided to wear a wool jersey, shorts and my mountain shoes. My feet froze! I needed my warmer boot covers! My legs were also cold and I would have benefited from my long cycling pants. My jacket, as all jackets, was fairly useless as I quickly heat up. Wool has the advantage of keeping you warm even when wet. This is true, to a point. I would have benefited from another layer as it took a long time for me to warm up when I got home. The real mystery in riding a bicycle is what to wear. Since you cant bring a huge saddle bag with extra clothing on such a long ride, you have to know what you are doing from the start. I clearly have a lot to learn in this regard.

100 miles on a bicycle is a real test of endurance and a true measure of your speed. Our average speed was 26km/hr which means that most of the time we were riding close to 30km/hr.

I was riding on a new brooks saddle and learned that despite all the hype about how long it takes to break them in, with oil applied the night before, they are ready to ride. Despite spending nearly 6 hours on a bike, I am not sore.

Food is also a problem on such rides for me. We stopped for lunch in Merrickville and I had a bowl of chile. This was a mistake as it sat heavily on me for the duration of my ride. I have decided that it is better simply to nibble on almonds and granola and have drinks rather than have a heavier lunch. One would imagine you would be famished after the ride, but this is not the case. This probably explains why most distance cyclists are so skinny. They can't eat!

Endurance biking is very different from a short jaunt say of 60-80km. You have to plan what you eat and wear with much more care than a shorter trip.

It was a great trip and hopefully this will become an annual event with KNBC.

Thursday, October 1, 2009

I broke down!

Riding with cycling clubs is a good thing because it enables you to discover new areas and ride beyond the familiar, but it is also a bad thing because inevitably the talk will turn to the latest and greatest advancement in bicycles, particular the lightweight bikes. For many years I scoffed at the shiny, painfully uncomfortable and expensive pieces of machinery known as road bikes. They did not have fenders, so you get wet, you cant mount a rack so you can't carry anything, the tires are so skinny that if you hit gravel, you wipe out. I had resolved that road bikes were useless.

I ride a salsa casserole which is a lightweight touring bike. I resisted all talk of lighter bikes until I had my casserole fitted by Mary Patterson. I asked Mary if a lighter bike makes any difference at all, or is it more a function of the riders weight. Since Mary was not in my bike club, and was not going to sell me a bike, I thought her opinion would surely confirm mine, that the weight of a bike makes little difference. To my chagrin, she commented that indeed bike weight does make a very big difference. Even when I pointed out that the greatest source of weight for my bike is me, she still convinced me that a lighter bike is more responsive and faster and hence less tiring on long distances.

My casserole, when loaded is by no means a flyweight, in fighting form, it is a welterweight.

Today, I broke down and purchased, on sale, a beautiful Devinci CX2 carbon road bike. The good thing about carbon is that even if I wanted to put fenders on it, or racks you cannot mount anything on it. I even purchased time pedals and time clips, forever renouncing my hitherto fearful trepidation of things that clip and hold your feet while you ride, and presumably are easy to release. After a few embarrassing and painful falls as a result of SPD clips, which are supposed to be very easy clips, it took a while to convince me. I told Doug at Kunstaadt sports that I really required klutz proof clips!

My new road bike is equipped with my old brooks saddle. I have a new brown brooks saddle on my casserole. I decided that getting used to a new bike would be enough of a challenge without breaking in a new saddle.

I discovered that Tall Trees Cycles sells a beautiful leather handlebar tape. There is nothing worse than the feel of that horrible cork-like, plastic, gaudy spongy tape that purports to be handlebar wrap. There is nothing nicer than the feel of leather.

I am proud to say that it took an entire season of some nearly 5000km of bike riding before I broke down and purchased a faster bike.

My casserole bike is like a trusted station wagon. You can load it up and it will take you anywhere. It is comfortable and sports a few scratches, so I don't worry about new scratches, much like an old car. My first love of biking will always be bike touring, where you load up your bike with a picnic blanket, a camera, binoculars, a book and a splendid lunch for a days outing but there are times when the siren song of a sports car, or in this case a light weight carbon road bike, is simply too much to resist.

Monday, September 28, 2009

P'Tit train du Nord...a creative masterpeice!

This weekend, I cycled on the P'Tit train du Nord linear cycling path from St. Jerome to Mont Tremblant Quebec. This is a stone dust path that was created when the train was taken out of service. In the 1920's-1950's, downhill skiing was extremely popular in Quebec but there was no way to get to the ski hills of Val David and Mont Tremblant. The train was one of the few ways to take skiiers to their destination before the major highways were built.

The P'Tit train du Nord has preserved many if not all of the old train stations. At St. Adele, the old train station has been converted into a bike shop and a cafe. The Auberge at St. Adele was once the hotel for the train stop. Its walls are covered in old photos from the 1920s' to the 40's of skiers with ancient wooden skiis, knickers and long socks. There was one black and white photo of a group of rather solemn skiiers with the local priest and cure with them on the train, presumably for a blessing before the slopes!

Along the stone dust path, there are numerous signs indicating bed and breakfast, restaurants, camping sites, bike shops, and the ever popular depanneur.

The first night, I went to the Julianne restaurant with Karen as our host had told us it was the best in town. Karen and I had a leisurely dinner of fresh pasta, creme brule for desert and coffee. It was fascinating to watch the patrons. The restaurant was packed and patrons filled the tables, sharing a bottle of wine. What impressed us both was the level of chatter and discourse. I compared it to English (Ontario) restaurants where patrons are very quiet or they feel they need several drinks before the speak. The Quebec culture is far more appreciative of life itself and Quebeckers enjoy the pleasures of life, like food, wine, culture and sport. The food was splendid!

Our group started at the Auberge de P'Tit train du Nord in St. Adele Quebec. The Auberge is utterly charming and inexpensive. There is a large stone fireplace in a lounge. The lounge is decorated with comfortable rocking chairs and sofas and the tables are old trunks, presumably used by passengers of days gone by. The most interesting of the trunks was an old steamer trunk that stood vertically and had a chest of drawers inside. The rooms are named after the railway stops. My room was la Peidmont and was a large room with a queen sized bed, two windows, a chest of drawers, desk and a closet. It even had a TV and video player. For this I paid the princely sum of $50.00 per night, or $55.00 with a full hot breakfast in the morning.

There is a large dining area downstairs with a patio that overlooks the P'Tit Train du North cycle path.

On our first day, we took the path to Val David. The path wound by a river and numerous small waterfalls. The fall colours were splendid and the combination of the rising mist, the bright reds and the sparkling water made for many a photo opportunity. We continued to Val David where our host told us there would be a farmer's market. We arrived to find a splendid farmers market. There were alcoholic ciders, artisan breads, unpasturized cheeses, pastries, fine chocolates, ginger gold apples, numerous vegetables and artists displaying their works. It was a splendid sunny day and I was in gastronomic paradise! I bought a soft cheese called Le diable en vache, a bottle of alcoholic cider and a small loaf of bread for my lunch.

We continued to ride on the trail and on some roads with some hills, until we stopped for lunch. Our group, Jim, Andrew and Karen shared our spoils. There were fresh cherry tomatoes, cheeses, different breads, cider and curds to be enjoyed by all! The rest of the group at a different picnic table, each had their own lunch and missed the delights and the laughter of sharing. Some of them curious about our laughter came to our table only to discover an empty cider bottle and remnants of cheeses!

My bike would not shift into lower gears and Andrew and I went into Ste. Sauvere to look for a bike shop. Ste. Sauvere is a charming tourist town with sidewalk vendors and numerous shops and cafes all with brightly coloured signposts. There were dogs, children, old and young all walking the narrow roads in the glorious sunshine. We found a bike shop and a slim bearded man by the name of Daniel took my bike in hand. Within 20 minutes, my problem was solved and for $10.00 I was back on the road again.

There is something puzzling about a map printed out from google. It is very bare bones and has only one route. Andrew and I were searching for one particular street rather than looking for our destination which was the bike route to Ste. Adele. We asked everyone we could see and had different directions. Finally, after exploring numerous sports stores and stopping for a coffee we stopped at a large sign outside of a tourist hotel and discovered we were a mere 500 meters from the bike path! My adventures with Andrew were a lot of fun.

On Sunday, we awoke to a fine drizzle and then rain. The skies were dark and there were puddles forming on the bike path. Some cyclists decided to go home, others choose the path and four of us, Stella, Christine, Andrew and myself decided to go for a longer trip up into the hills and on the road.

The hills were steep and short and if you did not have the right momentum or cadence, which I rarely did, you were forced to walk part of the hills. The rain continued and we were soon fairly soaked. The downhills were steep and chilly. After some 25km we decided to turn back and our ride was only some 45km. I found the hills to be a challenge. We got onto the highway with a gentler gradient and I was able to resume my normal cycling speed. Andrew and I waited for Christine and Stella and I stopped at a Depanneur to buy three bottles of Quebec beer to share. I bought them for the beautiful labels. We rode back to the inn, showered and I opened my bike bag to share my treasures.

I learned that glass bottles in bike bags are not like steel bottles. One of my liquid treasures, la belge, had smashed and my bag was filled with broken brown glass and beer. I was fortunate that this bag only contained my treasures and a plastic bag and hence nothing was destroyed!

We drove home at 330 on Sunday.

Quebec is far more cycle friendly than any place I have biked in Ontario. Rather than bemoaning the loss of a train, and wondering what to do, they created a bike and ski trail that extends over 200km. There is a taxi service to take you and your bike to different locations, numerous supports and most important of all, it is well used. When we were touring, there were senior citizens on the trail hiking, older couples, young couples, children, teenagers, rollerbladers and even a man with skis on rollers practicing for the cross country season. The path and trails are a treasure.

Ontario has many abandoned train tracks and many small communities that were once serviced by trains. We could easily have our own p'tit train d'Ontario. In this way cyclists would be seen less as a nuisance and more of an asset.

Sunday, September 20, 2009

Parc nationale de Plaisance Quebec

Today I had the pleasure of discovering la parc nationale de Plaisance. It is near Thurso Quebec and comprises of a series of islands, penisulas and marshes in the Ottawa River. It is a natural haven for birds and has dozens of observation platforms.

The northern cycling path was a challenge for my road bike, in particular when my wheels spun in the soft sand along the park roads, but the scenery was spectacular. I rode along sun dappled trails with marsh or river beside me. As we biked along the path a more beautiful scene awaited us. It was a pure delight to the senses!

We rode to Plaisance and visited the falls. There was a village near the falls from 1912-1925. No one knows why the village ceased to exist as there was no church nearby and hence, no records. There are post holes evident where the homes once stood and the site of a mill beside the impressive waterfalls. There is a small museum dedicated to the site and this history in Plaisance, but I did not visit it.

The parc is immaculate, with Yurts for rent, spacious cabins and what appeared to be hundreds of splendid picnic sites. We passed many canoeists and fishermen slowly plying the golden waters. Once we had arrived in Plaisance we took a ferry back to Thurso. The ferry was a pontoon boat and as the journey was 25 minutes, it allowed me time to drink my thermos of mint tea as I sat down.

After the trip, ably lead by Stella Val of the Kanata Nepean Bicycle club ended, I rode along La Route Verte back to Masson to catch the ferry to Cumberland where my car was was. I had cycled some 85 km. This was by no means a long ride, but the scenery and the fact that I was forced, because of the roads to go slower than usual meant that I was able to relax and enjoy the environment that surrounded me.

La parc national de Plaisance is a hidden treasure and well worth a visit!

Biking in Quebec and cycling deaths

It seems we cannot watch the news without hearing of yet another cyclist killed. Either they are sharing a lane with a bus, or hit by a car it is disturbing at best. City council seems unable to come up with a meaningful solution and the Police are giving out free bells.

Today I had a wonderful cycle trip along La Route Verte, which is a bike trail system in Quebec. I cycled along the highway 148 from Masson to Thurso en route to le parc national de Plaisance. Highway 148 is a very busy narrow highway but the Quebec government has simply paved a shoulder all along in both directions. I cycled as transport trucks and cars roared past me. Not one car honked their horn, nor did I hear "Get off the road". I did not have to share the road, I was on a paved designated shoulder and there were signs everywhere urging motorists to share the road.

Why can't Ontario adopt such a simple solution? It is not expensive, does not require the roads to be widened and allows cyclists to use busy highways. La Route verte is only one of the large cycling systems in Quebec and it extends from the Ottawa area all the way into Gaspe. It is well marked and there is ample information for lodgings that are bike friendly.

While Ontario and in particular, Ottawa city council appears blocked, it seems that one possible solution would be to simply imitate a system like La Route verte.

Sunday, September 13, 2009

The new centurions

Here is a photo of two centurions. Steph and me. We had just completed a 100 mile ride, that is 160km. Steph actually had done more! I had often heard of century rides, and longed to do an imperial century ride, or 100 miles.

The imperial century ride is a great challenge and I learned that there is a vast difference between 120km and 160km. At 140km I was starting to get tired. I had taken a large pannier on the back of my bike and because it was large, decided to take 'essentials'. I took an extra bottle of coffee energy drink, almonds and raisins to share with everyone (I never even opened the package), a well equipped first aid kit, a small towel, a sweater, a brush, another shirt (in case), spare inner tube, complete repair kit, allen keys, pocket knife, notebook and pen and a camera.

I was told that there were no stores beyond Richmond and in Richmond stocked up with even more fluid just in case. The extra weight is not really an issue until you are riding on hills and for a long distance.

Our group leader was Tim Sparling who took us to Smith's falls. In Smith Falls there was a lovely little fair with vendors, colourful tents and a young girl singing. Steph wanted to pay her to stop!
We also checked out the local bike shop and Tim bought some ear covers so that he would hear more than the roar of wind when he rode. Tim has hearing aids and tells us it is like thunder. He reported that the ear covers worked!

On the way back, after Wanda and Rolly left at Peirces corners, the remaining Centurions, all male headed for home. I was riding 27km/30km per hour but I am sure they were doing at least 40! I arrived back in Kanata, elated and celebrated with Steph and Andrew over a beer. The centurions of this day were Paul Hough, Tim Sparling, Steph Novak and Andrew Chen as well as myself. While there are no plumes or eagles in the pictures, we are centurions none the less.

Carnivale Lune Blue a step into the 1930's

On August 27th 2009, I stepped back into the 1930's and rode a 1917 ferris wheel, attended a freak show complete with an electric chair and a bed of nails, watched acrobats in a tent and attended a museum of fair artifacts collected from the USA.

The Carnivale Lune Blue, is a painstaking reconstruction of the many travelling fairs and side shows of the 1930's. There was a strongman, Leviticus with a stretchy lionskin and a large handlebar moustache, a woman on stilts, world class acrobats in the Cirque Maroq, and a genuine sword swallower.

The fair itself had a 1917 ferris wheel and an old merry go round from that period. The games had prizes like Kewpie dolls and other games that you would find in the 1930's. The games were equally impossible even back then!

The carnival workers were dressed in period costumes. Most of them were history students who enjoyed their role. I had a chance to visit the exhibits and photographs of carnivals of the past and was fascinated by the sub culture involved and the necessary elements. Each carnival is like a play, there are characters that must be in the play and elements to make up a carnival. This carnival did not have a bearded lady, but it did have a snake show!

The freak show, Carnival Diablo was terrific. The host drank boiling water and mouthed razor blades. The strong man bent a steel bar with his teeth, the sword swallower swallowed a 27" steel sword and the woman who lay on the bed of nails also danced on broken glass. The freak show produced an electric chair from Illinois and the strong man sat in it and took an electrical hit, his head lighting up a flourescent tube for show. It was staged in a canvas tent with rough benches, true to the period.

The Cirque Maroq was breathtaking. It was housed in the original cirque du soleil tent. It was the story of two clowns who found themselves in an all female circus. The female acrobats were exceptional, in particular the german wheel. The strength and coordination required are incredible. We were all spellbound.

After the show, I had a pulled pork sandwich, which was traditional carny fare for that period and took some pictures of the band and the lady on stilts. For about 5 hours, I was in the 1930's escaping from reality and learning about carnivals in that period. It was a time when men like the famous Cuban would poke their eyes out of their sockets and put them back in for show, or when strong men would pull wagons. The carnival had the pole with a huge sledge hammer that you hit. Try as I might, I only reached 1700 out of a possible 2100 points. I did not ring the bell like in the cartoons, but I did do better than a lot of others!

There was a lady who would guess your weight. She was unpopular among women! The painted carnival signs, as in this picture were reproductions of actual posters that would be plastered over the towns. They told of freakish events, of siamese twins, bearded ladies, snake men and so forth. They were colourful, fanciful and in some cases true works of art with their interplay of the themes of light and dark and good and evil.

The 1930's ended for me when I decided to go home and had to negotiate a pitch black trail back to my car. I had left the elephant man, the sword swallower and the strong man behind. A world of wonders indeed!

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