Not watching hockey

As a person not born in Canada, I have integrated pretty well, I think. I know the words to the national anthem in French as well as English. I can name the strengths and weaknesses of several politicians at the federal, provincial, and even municipal level. I understand some of the complexities of our love/hate relationship with our cousins, the Americans.

But I have completely failed to understand the national passion for hockey. I don’t get it at all. I am not a sports spectator anyway, though I have of course spent countless hours watching my children’s soccer and softball games — but that’s a parental requirement. Sport as such leaves me cold. And ice hockey is a particularly alien concept: fast, loud, frequently violent, and played in a cold and unfriendly environment.

I know there is something going on right now called the playoffs. Exactly what that is I couldn’t tell you, though I assume it’s some kind of end-of-season championships. But it means that even apparently normal Canadian men and women get caught up in playoff madness: needing to know the score, being elated when their team wins and cast down when it loses, criticizing players and debating endlessly what they should have done differently, and wearing hockey shirts, surely the ugliest garment ever designed, in public.

Pubs and casual restaurants that have big-screen TVs are intolerable locations during playoff time. But even if you avoid them, you are not necessarily safe. I have friends who have downloaded an iPhone app that gives them regular updates on game scores — I am lobbying to have the official list of Deadly Sins increased from seven to eight.

Of course, home is a hockey-free zone. But you have to be careful when going out. During playoff season so far, I have had to hide in artsy venues and the kind of restaurants where food and conversation are the twin priorities. I have:

  • been to a performance of Ruddigore, the Gilbert & Sullivan comic operetta, performed by the North Shore Light Opera Society at Presentation House Theatre;
  • attended  my daughter’s school play, an episode of Blackadder where she played Baldrick;
  • listened to Marc Destrubé and Alexander Weimann play Mendelssohn, Schumann, and Brahms sonatas, courtesy of Early Music Vancouver, at the Unity Church on Oak;
  • listened to Jeremy Fisher and The Wailin’ Jennys at the Chan Centre;
  • dined at Les Faux Bourgeois, the Avenue Grill, and Osaka Sushi.

And —  success! Not a single televised hockey game at any of those locations.

Confused in 2010

I didn’t want to have the Winter Olympics in Vancouver and Whistler. I wish we had spent the money on something else (or, perhaps, accepted that we didn’t actually have the money to spend). But, living in North Vancouver, I didn’t get a vote.

Here are some of the things I don’t like:

  • The mixed-up priorities. I am concerned about hospital and police services being unavailable for the needs of residents for the duration of the Games. I don’t like it when public officials and others fail to understand conflict of interest. I don’t like the water-cooler conversations on how much money people can make renting accommodation to visitors, as though money is the only thing that matters and gouging is the only sensible thing to do when the opportunity occurs.
  • The inconvenience. Yes, perhaps this seems small-minded. And I could probably tolerate the road closures and the expected traffic chaos if it were not for the Vancouver 2010 organizing committee (Vanoc) and the media constantly exhorting me to bike, walk, or take transit during February. Those are simply not options for me; they are not options for much of the population.
  • The completely false notion that the Games are about some pure ideals. They are about sport and about business:
    • The sporting aspect is at a level that I don’t understand. When the winning score in speed-based competitions is measured in fractions of a second, the whole thing becomes meaningless to me — not that I have ever understood the emphasis on winning. My idea of sporting competition is a friendly rivalry where people can say “good game” to their opponents afterwards and where an athlete doesn’t have to live with a lifetime of feeling like a failure if he or she doesn’t win.
    • The business aspect is also at a level that I don’t understand. I am offended by the fact that small businesses have been put out of work without compensation as a result of Olympic-related construction, while big businesses will be making making more-than-usually-enormous profits. I am offended by the tight controls on advertising by anyone other than those who have paid a premium to be a sponsor. Of course, since corporate sponsorship is worth about a billion dollars to Vanoc, perhaps it’s not surprising that they control it tightly (with the help of city inspectors — more confused priorities).
  • The threat to free speech. Initially, the city announced that there would be “no-go” areas during the games where protests would not be allowed. Then they announced that there would be designated protest areas. Fortunately, the public outcry seems to have resulted in a softening of the initial approaches and a coalescing around one more consistent with our national belief that we live in a country where we are free to protest anything we like. We will now be allowed to protest in any public place outside of the Olympic fences — probably: the RCMP and the Vancouver Police Department are continuing to give rather confusing messages.

Here are some of the things I like:

  • Our party outfits. The design of the Olympic materials is striking (and I appreciate them more from having looked into the process behind the design). The clothing to be worn by the athletes and the volunteers looks great. The Games-branded clothing that we can all buy is kind of fun. The street banners and even the building wraps are gorgeous (now that I have relaxed after getting all uptight upon hearing the rumour that our downtown public library would be wrapped as a giant McDonald’s hamburger).
  • The torch relay. Seeing pictures of small and large communities across Canada as the torch passes through gives me a sense of a large country united by, well, something mostly intangible but something that is a part of feeling Canadian.
  • The sense of occasion and festivity. Even with all my conflicting feelings, I am going to watch the opening ceremonies (on screen) and watch one or two of the races (in person), reasoning that it’s not likely Vancouver will see anything like this again in my lifetime.

Perhaps I will have to design my own t-shirt. Those that say “CANADA,” or “With glowing hearts,” or “We will own the podium” don’t work for me. Mine will need to have all kinds of explanatory subheadings, accepting that winning is not really all that important and that good sportsmanship is a greater thing; that we will try our best to be fair to everyone and respect all their individual belief systems while gently pointing out that we kind of like a polite, free and tolerant society; that Canada is really happy to have you all here but that we will heave a sigh of relief when the party is over and we can put our feet up while reviewing our credit card bills; that we are mildly patriotic after a few beers (oh dear: apparently we must drink Molson beers, as they are an official supplier) but really we are all citizens of the world.

Ambivalent? Grey area? Maybe Confused will have to do.

One hundred and four

mapleleavesWe’re up to 104 Canadian soldiers killed in Afghanistan since 2002. Each death is reported and details of the individual’s life are provided. This seems to be the way we do things — in this century, in this country. I have mixed feelings: I’m glad that each person is given the dignity of individual recognition, but deeply saddened at their lives’ early and violent ends. Each time, I think of the family and friends who get the call that they must have feared ever since the soldier was posted to Afghanistan (or maybe ever since the soldier joined up).

Perhaps my empathy gene is overdeveloped: I can cry for days over a news story about the tragedies of strangers.

The CBC website has a list of all the dead with names and links to the stories about the fatal incidents. There are pictures: just head and shoulders, ID-card style. You can scroll down the page and see the names and what part of the country they are from.

The 104 is made up of 103 men and one woman. War is still primarily a man’s world where the role of women is to wait, worry and grieve.

Air India Memorial

Memorial1The Air India memorial was installed in Stanley Park on July 27, 2007, twenty-two years after the disaster. I was vaguely aware that the installation had occurred. You scan a newspaper article or catch a few words on the local radio news and mentally auto-file some skeleton version of the information, so it was not entirely a surprise to come upon it on our Saturday morning walk.

The stone memorial is in the shape of an arc, calculated to represent the trajectory of the flight. The names of the dead — all 331 of them — are etched, one after the other in alphabetical order, in rows. There is a stone from Ireland inset in the wall at the upper end of the arc. The words:

Time flies
Suns rise and shadows fall
Let it pass by
Love reigns forever over all

on the front of the arc are the same words found on the sundial in the Toronto memorial and the Ahakista memorial in Ireland. The words are said to have come from a Latin inscription found by the sculptor who created the Ahakista memorial.

Memorial3It’s moving and beautiful and the weight of names makes you angry that so many people died and the investigation was mishandled in such a way that the perpetrators were never even brought to our watered-down version of justice. Kim Bolan’s book Loss of Faith details the painfully slow and problem-ridden process.

After the initial emotional reaction, I found myself wondering about the whole process of designing and creating the memorial. Maybe this is just another example of how humans manage and compartmentalize the unthinkable: we turn to practical aspects. We start planning a funeral service and concentrate on the details; we draw up lists; we create a website; we become advocates for a cause.

We think about design and how to create something generally acceptable but not trite. We select materials and think about the logistics of layout. How would you choose the typeface: one that would be simple and classic and legible and would make best use of space? Fitting all of the names neatly into the area available must take careful calculation. The site must be dignified but also appealing and accessible, so that visitors to the park are drawn to it. It is next to a children’s playground that is intentionally an integral part of the site, as many children died in the tragedy.

TimeFliesI think it would be a challenging assignment, but one that would create a sense of accomplishment. You would be performing a service to the victims and the bereaved families by using your talents to create something permanent that stands to remind us of past wrongs. Not many of us have such meaningful work.

The memorial was created by Lees & Associates, landscape architects.

Saturday Afternoon at the Opera

Saturday Afternoon at the Opera — SATO — is one of the wonderful things about CBC Radio: passion, dramatic music, and the glory of the human voice in song while you drive around in the rain on a weekend afternoon, crossing chores off your list. Rich baritones, deeper than you would imagine possible, dripping with menace; the soaring beauty of the great tenors. Heroines singing in the realm of angels or pouring like syrup in the lower ranges. The chorus: the power of massed voices making you shiver.

And the quiz! Love the well-bred laughter of the host, the panel, and the studio audience. Love the way panel members act a little confused in that “oh, how silly of me!” way (the forehead-slapping, “doh!” moment is the lower class equivalent) when they fail to get the correct answer to some obscure piece of esoteric trivia. Love the willingness of the radio audience to join in the fun by sending in their quizzes (how many operas can you think of where the action turns upon the fall of a handkerchief?).

This weekend, the feature was “Daphne,” one of Strauss’s later works, replete with all the usual motifs: love, villainy, miscommunication, disguises, and the interference of the gods. Introductions were by Bill Richardson, a perfect person for the role. He has that light, amused intelligence that doesn’t take itself too seriously: you feel his delight in the delicious absurdity of the plot, and it’s hard to resist his obvious enjoyment of the music. You feel he and Stuart Hamilton, the quizmaster, would have a wonderful time chatting about opera and making bad puns over a bottle of wine. Listening to SATO gives you a hint of what it would be like to be there sharing the conversation and the wine.