Wednesday, September 14, 2011

Tell Me a Story: Leah Jane Esau's WATERFRONT: THE BLESSING

Waterfront: The Blessing directed by Amanda Lockitch and written by Leah Jane Esau was like that first bite of dry toast after a long illness--uncomplicated in the best way possible, it was a mouthful of something solid and satisfying: plain, good storytelling.

Part of the SummerWorks Theatre Festival in Toronto,
Waterfront is a production of Les Nouvelles Theatre, a grassroots theatre company founded by Esau and comprised of a group of talented artists in various fields (set and costume design, dramaturgy, lighting, and of course, acting). Written by Esau under the dramaturgy of Brian Drader at the National Theatre School of Canada and further developed in conjunction with Lockitch in early 2011, the play earned the opportunity to run at SummerWorks--a juried festival that features the glitterati of Canada's theatre world.

Trailer by Leah Jane Esau

The story presses at the pulse of family relationships--the messy, bristling undertones of repressed feelings between fathers and sons, and particularly between brothers. When his father dies, Jeremy arrives from the bustling gleam of Toronto to join his brother Ed in their childhood home, a waterfront property up north, to sort through their father's belongings. Ed's penchant for telling stories and Jeremy's resistance to his brother's hyperbolic ruminations unravels a lifetime of memories; truth becomes duplicitous and stories gain new, sometimes unwanted meaning.

William MacDonald as Ed in Waterfront: The Blessing (Photo Credit: Leah Jane Esau)

The set, designed by Nancy Perrin, has a lush quality, the gift of gentle depth. It achieves the physical sense of a home that's been lived in--dusty, cluttered, and worn through--while evoking the psychological sense of a home that has settled in upon itself, sinking under the weight of a lifetime of disappointment. Very easily, the set could have turned into a visit to the thrift store, vintage furniture crammed haphazardly onto a stage--but this set harmonizes with every other element in the play--absorbing the movements of the characters while reflecting their psychological states. The lighting (by Aaron Kelly) melds all these elements together, signaling emotional shifts and shifting the story from one reveal to the next.

The movement towards these reveals is expertly dramatized--the story layering one truth upon another, unearthing the complexity and dual nature of truth, but also connecting with the audience at a basic human level. The push and pull between Ed and Jeremy (brilliantly played by William MacDonald and Robert Fulton) mirrors the issues rumbling beneath the surface of most family relationships--the struggle to be understood, to be noticed, to be valued by the people we're supposed to love the most. And so, as the tension builds and leads from one revelation to another, the desire to experience emotional release is shared by the audience and that essential connection between stage and spectator is achieved.

Waterfront: The Blessing is a testament to the power and value of story, but also the deeper, more insidious nature of truth, and our perceptions of it. This relationship, the way story and truth go hand in hand, questions truth as that pristine, unrivaled beacon of clarity that we depend on as a foundational guide. It scratches at the pliable nature of truth and questions the value we place on that comfortable but stark vision of the world as black and white, right and wrong. Waterfront does what art should: It makes us take a second glance at what we know and how we live.

Learn more about Les Nouvelles Theatre and the production of Waterfront : The Blessing here.

Saturday, August 13, 2011

Ramadan Reflection: Seeing the Glory in the Struggle

"Light Breaks Over Her" by Robb North

As Ramadan shifted deeper into the summer months and began its steady approach, I noticed a familiar dread, this curdling of pent up fear, inside me. Friends and family expressed how much they loved Ramadan, how much they missed it, and how glad they were of its return--but I was finding it difficult to feel the same. Their rejoicing, public exaltation, this unbridled happiness--it was almost suffocating. It wasn't that I didn't want to hear it, it was that I just couldn't measure up.

There is this universal ache among humans, regardless of spiritual beliefs, to want to begin anew. After a period of time, whether it be a spiritual cleanse, a physical one, or a combination of both, we want to shed our old skins and start fresh, a clean slate. We hope that we can be better and we are determined to try. I could certainly relate to the Muslims around me who, with the approach of Ramadan, clearly recognized the opportunity to devote themselves to being better people. I know the kind of spiritual high that feeds this momentum, this immense, almost giddy gratitude that inspires you to do better and therefore, be better. It's this insatiable desire to strengthen and fortify a personal relationship with God--and in Ramadan, something inexplicable happens to make you want to do it.

So why wasn't I feeling it? Why was this dread, like the smirk of a shadowy friend during tough times, always present at the start of every Ramadan? Yes, there was the obvious fear of long summer hours with no food or drink--how tiring, how hot, how looong it would be. But this fear went beyond the physical hardships I knew I would face--it was deeper and more troubling:

I didn't want to fail.

I didn't want to come up short and be a big disappointment--to God, to myself. I couldn't face the guilt of knowing that yet again, I failed to accomplish my goals. That again, I wasn't as disciplined, as focused, as incredible as I thought I could be. Because in my mind, I could be so awesome. I could be kind; I could be generous; I could hold my tongue; I could give the benefit of the doubt; I could be patient with my parents; I could be understanding of my friends; I could learn more about my faith; I could get more answers; I could stand longer in prayer, in devotion, in solitude; I could be so much more than I was--it all seemed so very possible.

In reality, I fumbled and fumbled often. I lost my patience; I said more than I should; I grew tired and went to sleep instead of standing in prayer; I wasted time; I read far less than I thought I would; I grew angry too quickly; I harboured ill feelings towards others; I held grudges from long ago; I was petty and petulant, irritiable and unpleasant--I was everything I didn't want to be.

I fumbled. I failed.

How easy it would be if these good qualities, this aspirational state of being came naturally, if it took no effort. How much more accomplished would I feel if I could just do the things I wanted to do without falling short so often, with such dedicated self-destruction?

But the thing is, I didn't try to be bad. Most of the time, I wanted to do better--I tried to be better. Sometimes I came up empty. Other times, I flourished. And really, it's as simple as that: there was no perfection; there was struggle.

Arabic is not my native language. I can read it phonetically, but aside from a set of basic words that have become second nature, I do not understand what I am reading. To understand and truly benefit from the Qur'an, I read it with an English translation knowing that no translation is perfect, that no translation can fully capture the nuances of the Arabic language, that some words in Arabic simply do not exist in English, or that they require full pages of explanations to provide context and understanding. Still, I gain so much from knowing what I'm reading. It takes me twice as long to read a page, but still, I benefit.

But sometimes, I just want to read. I want it to come easy. I want to fly through the words in this Holy Book, this guiding force in my life and I want everything to zip and zap through my brain in pristine clarity. Until I am lingual in Arabic, it won't happen. I know this. But still, sometimes I simply recite. I feel the words on my tongue, I try to perfect the pronunciation of a particular letter and soon, the words stream out of me in a regulated rhythm and there is belief, there is faith, there is something that presses itself on my heart and I connect.

It is a blessing. It moves me. I am not suddenly perfect. I have not emerged sinless and purified, but this struggle with language--the give and take it requires for me to truly benefit from everything it offers--it mimics the state of struggle that is my life.

Struggle is a state of normal and it's a good place to be. Yes, my Ramadan would be easier, less scary, more bright and hopeful, if all the good I wanted to do came easily. But it would be pointless. Yoda is wrong. It's not "Do or do not, there is no try"--the juice is in the try. Or maybe he's right--and the trying is the doing. As we struggle--we set goals, we try, we fail--and bit by very little bit, we move onwards.

Fear of failure, guilt as a result of failing--these stifle our ability to grow and flourish. I wasn't afraid of Ramadan--I was afraid of what I would not accomplish. This tremendous opportunity to be sincerely repentant, to be gloriously good--and what could I do but be imperfect?

Our success lies in the understanding that struggling is not inferiority, nor is it an excuse to give up. It's difficult and laborious; it leaves you feeling unsettled, sometimes empty. But keep striving, keep going.
Imperfection and struggle are not badges of failure--they are battle scars that serve as testament to the soiled, rumpled glory that is our everyday life. There is beauty there. There is joy.

Monday, August 8, 2011

How to Make a Dress Guard/Skirt Guard/Coat Guard for your Bicycle

If you want to outfit your bike with a skirt guard (or for the guys, a coat guard), there are increasingly more options for North American riders.

These options include metal netted guards or bright and colourful woven/crocheted dress guards that you can purchase online, or DIY projects that range in level of difficulty.

I chose the DIY route for a few reasons:

1. I couldn't figure out whether the metal guards sold online would fit my bike, or how I would attach them to my bike (there was minimal info available on these mostly European websites).

2. The bright and lovely crocheted guards require you to drill holes in your fenders to attach them (wasn't willing to do any drilling) while others come with clips that you can snap onto your fenders, but require a certain amount of space between your fenders and your tires to fit properly (didn't have enough space allowance to use this option).

I ended up consulting a tutorial on Instructables (the link seems to no longer be working) and made adjustments to fit my needs.

The tutorial and other DIY projects I've seen make use of tulle--that frothy net-like material used for weddings and ballerinas--but, I wanted something a little more sturdy, easy to clean, but just as affordable. Window screening was my answer!

Materials: Some old newspaper, black window screening (get a roll at your hardware store, or if you have old screens, you can use those! If you buy a roll, you'll spend from $8 to $13, but will have enough to last you several replacements should the need arise), cable ties, tape, scissors, and a marker.

Step 1: Template and Positioning

  • Using the newspaper, make a rough template of the guard, cutting and taping as necessary until you get your desired shape/coverage.
  • Decide where you want to attach your guard. This will depend on how much coverage you want, but also on where your bike will allow you to attach cable ties. I've used the bars from my rear rack, the seat stays, and the chain stays as my main attachment sites.
  • This part is like a dress rehearsal. Mark where you want to put your cable ties right onto your newspaper template. Use cable ties to visually represent where you will attach your ties and how far apart you want them to be. Make sure that your cable ties don't interfere with any brake lines, or shifting cables. At this point, I reverse-looped my cable ties (slid them through the way you're NOT supposed to) so they didn't lock and I could slide them out easily to readjust as needed.
  • Do a visual check. Make sure your template isn't interfering with any of the moving parts of your bike. Now you're ready to cut out the real thing!

Step 2: Cut!

  • Roll out some window screen and tape your template onto its surface. I chose black screening because its actually less visible than the traditional silver screens and I thought it would look better with my bike.
  • Now, cut. Leave about an inch of extra screening around the template (even a bit more is better). I cut my template to fit my bike exactly, and if you do the same, then you should cut out your screening leaving this extra bit around the edge. You can always trim excess later, but having that extra bit allows for more freedom when positioning the guard onto the bike and is necessary to correctly attach your cable ties.

  • For the guard on the other side of the wheel, I just flipped the template over, taped it down, and cut. (Note: clear tape does a bad job of sticking. I'd try sewing needles, or masking tape next time).

Step 3: Fit

  • This is probably the most finicky part of the process--it helps to have someone else hold the screening as you poke your cable ties through, but no fear! It can be done alone, as I sadly learned.
  • Place your guard on the bike so everything is positioned as correctly as possible. I placed my guard over everything (I did not weave it under the seat stays and bars). Select where you want to attach your first cable tie. I started in the middle (with my seat stay), thinking it would be easier to position. I highly recommend starting on one side (either the chain stay, or the bar from the rear rack) and working your way over to the other side.

Step 4: Attach

  • Start attaching your screening from one end and work your way to the other. In the picture above, you can see that I have folded the edge of the screening over the bar (that's why we left that extra bit!) and have poked my cable ties through the fold and pulled it snug to hold everything in place.

  • When working on the middle (for me, it was the seat stay), you'll poke your cable tie through and then you'll reach through the spokes (it's a tight squeeze--get someone with small hands to help you) to pull the end of the cable tie around the stay. Then, poke it back through the screen. One advantage with starting in the middle is that you have more space to maneuver your hand without the screen in your way...ah, well.

  • In the picture, I have just left the ends of the cable ties hanging (haven't looped them through to lock) so I can reposition if necessary. The screen is more likely to move if you do it this way, but if you tie (lock) at least one of the cable ties, there will be less movement of the screen and you can leave the rest of the ties undone until you're absolutely ready to lock 'em in place.

  • I fold the other edge over the chain stay and loop the cable ties through the fold and make sure there is enough slack to allow me to pull the cable ties in the middle (over my seat stay) snug, before I pull the ties on the chain stay snug.

  • As I pull each cable tie snug and lock it into place, I make sure I avoid any cables.

  • Or, if I have to go over cables or brake lines, I make sure my tie isn't super tight. It's not hanging loose, but it isn't squeezing the white cables either.

  • I chop off any excess screening from the edges.

Voila! This is what it looks like almost complete (I haven't chopped off the excess length on my cable ties yet.)

I've done a few test rides and it's been superb so far, although I'm still trying to figure out a way to attach the curved part of the screen to the fender so it doesn't hang out as much. I may try hot glue, but have avoided it thus far because (1) I can't find my glue gun and (2) I'm going for a method that isn't permanent and won't mess up the paint job on my bike.

Biking in Long Skirts is Entirely Possible

When I tell people that I've recently begun cycling and hope for it to become an important part of my lifestyle, I'm often asked how I plan to ride a bike wearing the long skirts/dresses/abayas/jilbabs that are a permanent part of my everyday wardrobe.

She's totally rocking it. So can I.
Image source:

Before I bought my bicycle, this was a major concern for me. I knew I didn't want to shift my entire wardrobe to fit into a cycling lifestyle, especially if I wanted to use my bike for more than recreation. I wanted to maintain the way I dressed while I made this slow lifestyle transition and I knew that for it to be successful, it had to be something I could keep up in the long run--and I'd only be able to keep it up if I didn't have to worry about what I was wearing every time I wanted to hop on my bike and go.

Image source:

I'm hardly the first person to think this way. There is a positive trend towards utility cycling that involves riders being able to commute to work without having to hike up their pant legs, or cycle in their "bike clothes" and then have to change into their work clothes upon arrival at work. Bikes conducive to utility cycling feature such wonders as fenders, mudflaps, chain guards (sometimes full chain cases) and dressguards/coat guards. These features prevent your clothes from getting dirty and from long coattails and skirts from getting caught in the spokes of your rear wheel.

Image source:

Dutch bicycles are paragons in this respect. These features are less common on North American bicycles though many manufacturers and bike shops have quickly caught on and are regularly importing Dutch bicycles (or designing their own) for North American riders, making them widely available for people who want to ride their bikes for transportation and not simply for recreation.

As I explained in this post, a Dutch bike is a hefty investment and as a novice cyclist, purchasing a vintage bicycle made in the 70s and upgrading it as needed was a more reasonable choice for me. One necessary element my bicycle was missing was a dress guard. Although they look very pretty on bikes, my desire for one was purely out of necessity (the looks were just a nice bonus!). Lovely Bicycle did a fantastic outline of their purpose and function in this post. I tried finding ready-made dress guards that I could purchase and snap onto my bike, but this proved too difficult. There are a few DIY tutorials on how to do this yourself, so I thought I'd give it a shot.

See this post to see how it turned out!

Friday, August 5, 2011

Over to the Dark Side: E-reader convert?

Well, I've done it. After a whirlwind week of research, I purchased an e-reader. Believe me, I never thought this would happen. I love the tactile experience of reading an actual book: the dust-musky smell of well worn pages, the soft pencil strokes of age-old marginalia, the scrape of page against page, the crack of a brand new spine--I could go on forever; nothing can replace it.

My decision to get an e-reader was a quick, easy one. There wasn't any of the expected hemming and hawing over whether or not it was a good idea. I was actually surprised it wasn't more dramatic.

After all, I've never been a proponent of bookless libraries, have never bought into the idea that the print medium is a dying culture that will soon be replaced by the snappy pixels of an electronic world, and I've always been very resistant to this overexcited desire to giddily embrace a world where real, solid books don't exist.

But while all this is true, I tried not to view the electronic world of books as a direct threat to the world of real books that I love.

With the e-reader I just thought, why not? It's an alternative platform that makes thousands of books easily accessible. I can borrow e-books from the library, access a bunch of free e-books (many of which are lovely classics) from booksellers, and if I want to, purchase an e-book for a bit cheaper than I would an actual copy. There was just something about having a device that would let me press a button and magically have a book appear that was exciting. Poof! There it is.

What's more, I didn't want to ignore something that had become an important part of the reading, writing, and publishing world where I function as an active citizen. There are many reasons why this electronic strand of the book world has become mainstream. I
don't think it's just a fancy trend; it's become an integral part of the system, a venue for accessibility and the dissemination of reading material to anyone, anywhere.

But then why, as I stood at my local bookstore toying with my e-reader, did I start to feel a little guilty?

Because honestly, as much as it is exciting, there is also something disturbing about the possibility of having books appear and disappear with the click of a button. Where do pixels go when they die? There's the sense that unless a book is a book--something solid that I can hold in my hands--it can be easily eliminated. Poof! It's gone. As if it never existed. A physical object denotes a sense of reality, a presence that cannot be denied. But, words in electronic form appear and disappear, are edited and re-edited, cut and pasted, rearranged to be anything. The possibilities are only limited by our imaginations and how far we are willing to go.

I know that with certain works, I'm more likely to purchase the actual book instead of the e-version simply because I want to actually have it. So far, I don't feel that any of the books I've started to read on my e-reader are mine. I'm enjoying the stories I've immersed myself in, but like with any electronic document on my computer, these are still words on a screen. There's a safe distance between me and the book and I haven't yet made a personal connection with the book as an object. There are no folded pages, rumpled covers, or hurried notes along the margins. It's all so scrupulously clean. With no cracked spines, how do I leave my mark behind? If I can't pass a book on to a friend, or thumb through the pages of an old favourite, how do I analyze my relationship with the book? Do we have a relationship at all?

We do; albeit, it's a slightly different one.
I think of e-readers, e-books, and all this electronic book paraphernalia as a supplement and not a replacement. It is simply another way to access the world of books, an exciting new dimension that contributes to book culture and can elevate the way we interact with books.

And that's key--the interaction. I purchased my e-reader to discover a new way of connecting with books. What perhaps, does an e-reader offer that a real book doesn't? Do my reading statistics--knowing how fast or how often I read, what time of day I'm more inclined to read, or how many books I've finished--make for a valuable reading experience? Do reading awards--an electronic badge for starting an e-library, for finishing a book, for electronically highlighting a passage--do these make a difference? What happens when I only have the words and not the pages, the cardboard, and the glue? How does my relationship with books, these beloved objects, change?

In the end, it's the words that matter. While the physicality of a book will provide a sensuous experience, it's the words that I'm drinking in. I'm far from replacing one with the other. I'm vying for a healthy marriage between the two. Whether I get the same level of pleasure with an e-book as I do with a real one is yet to be seen and though at times I'm doubtful, I'm willing to give it a good chance.

Images: Kobo e-reader from TechWorld; Kindle e-reader images are both from Larry Page; old volumes of well worn books from extended epiphany.

Thursday, July 28, 2011

Judging By the Cover: Chris Cleave's LITTLE BEE

The cover of Chris Cleave's novel Little Bee is an excellent example of successful, targeted book marketing. I picked this book up at the airport a few months ago, on my way home from an incredible, but very exhausting trip in California. I was pretty sure I would zone out and watch an in-flight movie--in fact, I was looking forward to letting my brain slow down and melt into a media-engorged puddle.

I wasn't in the mood to read. Responsible budgeting dictated that I did not have enough funds to support another book purchase.

But there it was. Bright and coyly insistent, this tangerine cover and its whimsical silhouette smiled me a welcome hello!
It was magnetic--I couldn't help but pick it up.

The contrast of the silhouette, its curling strands of hair whirling against a citrus background is striking; the loose, calligraphic font carries a whimsical note, but has a melancholic quality that evokes some of the unsettling thematic elements of the novel. The superimposed negative (white) silhouette on the eye is charming but strangely abrupt. It's a Laura Secord white chocolate sweetly creating a void, a deadening of the human gaze.

The two silhouettes are at play, but the interplay is tension wrought and uncomfortably stirring; it's a play on the typical cameo pin that features an aristocratic head--a lovely Englishwoman with a long sloping neck, hair piled in wispy curls. Here, the dominating cameo is of a little Nigerian girl, her upturned chin evoking a steady, unrelenting focus, a restrained elegance and confidence that gives her weight and purpose. What's more, this cover image/design carries the weight of the story itself: a Nigerian refugee girl lands in the UK with nothing and collides with a white, British woman who seems to have everything. They share a life-threatening secret that binds them together in ways they did not imagine.

Astutely, the cover image connects with the first line of the book, invoking the cameo of the Queen on British currency: "Most days I wish I was a British pound coin instead of an African girl. Everyone would be pleased to see me coming." Like a scientist observing his human experiment, the book marketer knows what we do when we're testing out a book, when we're weighing whether or not we should actually purchase it. We flip it over, read the back, then if our interest is piqued, we read the first page. Everything connects.

The back cover of my US paperback version of the book features one of the strangest, infuriating, and ultimately successful book summaries I've come across. The back cover acts as a pitch to the reader, expressing in 250 words or less, why you should throw down your money, and then invest your time to read this book.

I wouldn't even call what appears on the back cover of Little Bee a summary--it's marketing kitsch and I'll admit rather begrudgingly that it works:

"We don't want to tell you what happens in this book.
It is a truly Special Story and we don't want to spoil it.
Nevertheless, you need to know enough to buy it, so we will just say this:

This is a story of two women. Their lives collide one fateful day, and one of them has to make a terrible choice, the kind of choice we hope you never have to face. Two years later, they meet again--and the story starts there...

Once you have read it, you'll want to tell your friends about it. When you do, please don't tell them what happens. The magic is in how the story unfolds."

Okay, seriously, I know. You don't have to say it. It's overkill. It's cheesy. It plays like a melodramatic voice-over prying at our dormant human emotions. It's so blatant in its attempt to get you interested, that it can be off putting. It's purposely vague, hideously peppered with cliches, yet it appeals to this basic desire in all of us to feel something, anything. In fact, it promises to deliver exactly what we want: a guaranteed good read.

This back cover gives me little to no information on what the story is about--all I know is that there's two women (two women!!! Automatic tension!), there's some sort of terrible choice (what could it possibly be???), and that when these two women meet, an amazing story unfolds. So amazing, that the book cover is written in second person--it speaks directly to me. It orders me not to reveal what happens in the book to my friends. The book is so amazing that I'll want to run out and tell everyone everything about it, plot details and all--but I shouldn't. Why? Because it's just too amazing. It would be like forcing your friend to watch the final Harry Potter movie when they haven't read/watched any of the previous books/movies.* Don't ruin it. We're in this together.

Chris Cleave's own description of his book is far better than the one they slapped on the back of the paperback, but would it have been as effective?

His narration is compelling, informative, more in tune with the themes in the book; I actually know what to expect. I'm interested and willing.

But I also consider the reach of this book--it's a #1 New York Times Bestseller--and I think part of what contributes to that success is the buzz that surrounds the book (the part of us that nudges, 'bestseller? it must be good!') and the way in which people are invited to read it. Tell someone you read a book about refugees and immigration issues and you're not going to garner interest across a wide demographic spectrum. People who already have a specific interest in the topic might ask you for more, but the reach is very limited.

It's not that people don't care about immigration issues and refugees, it's that their interest has to be accessed through a platform they understand. If you tell someone you read a book about two women who are bound together by a terrible choice, you're appealing to a curiosity that exists across boundaries and borders.
People are connected by the same hopes, fears, and desires, regardless of what demographic they fit into. Appeal to those seemingly generic themes and you make powerful connections that sell a lot of books.

And just like that, I've got another book in my suitcase.

Look for my reflection on Little Bee in the coming weeks.

Cover design: Jill Putorti

Image sources: Little Bee cover from Chris Cleave's website; cameo from Timpsonwiki.

* I only read the first HP book....and then, of my own volition, went with a friend to watch the very last installment of the films.

Tuesday, July 19, 2011

MS Bike Tour: Enjoy the Ride

A few days ago I bolted out the door and went on a relatively spontaneous 10 km ride. I was high on hope and hadn't yet combined my image of a leisurely bike ride to the reality of pedaling a very heavy machine up and down hilly streets.

I was comfortable with signing up for the MS Bike-a-Thon for two reasons: (1) they advertise their event as family friendly and (2) they welcome participants on "bikes of all kinds." Family friendly is important because this implies that you don't have to be a pro athlete to participate. If there aren't any bike restrictions, I feel confident knowing that I won't feel madly out of place and horrendously unprepared on my vintage Elan amidst a set of professional riders on road bikes. I can hope that there'll be someone on a unicycle or better yet, an adult tricycle! Maybe my vision of an eclectic group of misfits riding along in brightly coloured costumes with feathers in their caps isn't accurate (how awesome would that be?!!), but still, there's the sense that even with professional riders zooming through trails, I'll be okay put-putting along on Olivia.

But to ride 30 km I've got to prepare so I thought I'd test out a route from my house to Erindale Park using a trail through the woods and a bike lane along Collegeway that leads right into UofT Mississauga and then onwards into the park. It's roughly a 10 km round trip and very scenic, so an early morning ride before the world woke up sounded so lovely.

Worry #1: As I wobble my way onto the steep and narrow entry into the ravine I envision myself losing control and wiping out: the entry is a little rough around the edges and drops off onto very uneven ground while going into a steep decline. Maybe a helmet was a good idea. And knee pads. Olivia's front wheel rides a little "squirrelly"; it's a little unpredictable and wobbles off track easily. I've gotten used to the feel but getting back on her after a lapse in riding always throws me off course--I think it's a matter of experience and with more riding won't be such an ordeal.

Worry #2: As I coast down the path and over the little wooden bridge that arcs over a brook, I slowly settle into my crisp morning ride. I take a new path that forks off to the left knowing it exits onto Erin Mills Parkway and will let me enter the trail along Burnhamthorpe Rd. Very quickly I'm gaining speed without pedaling, swerving along sharp curves. I'm going so fast that the trees look threatening and my panic rises--what if my brakes go out? What if I lose control? Why am I going so fast? Why is this path so curvy? I'm going to smack into a tree--here it comes! Except I pump my brakes and everything's fine.

Worry #3: When I finally exit the trail, I discover another dilemma. There are giant signs telling me to dismount my bike and walk it across the crosswalk. Not a big deal. I'm not so cool that I can't walk my bike. I don't care. Sure, nobody likes the safety freak who walks their bike across the road. They hold up turning vehicles like any other pedestrian; drivers point and laugh at them; children on rugged mountain bikes zip past in three seconds, but it's okay. That's what the sign says. Safety first. So I wait for the light to change and I walk my bike to the other side where the bike lane begins. As I hop onto my bike and push off, I realize that if there were cars waiting to turn right, I'd be blocking them trying to get on my bike and into the bike lane. If I had ridden across the crosswalk, I could easily weave into the lane with little disruption. The rules are killing me.

Worry #4: I make it to the next light reveling in the glory that is a dedicated bike lane when I reach the next set of lights. I need to turn left to continue down my route, but I'm not yet comfortable taking the left lane and turning like a vehicle. So I cross the intersection still in bike lane position, but have to stop awkwardly on the other side so I can wait for the light to change and cross over again. If there were cars, where would I stop? Should I dismount and cross like a pedestrian and then mount again to get into the bike lane? This feels like too much starting and stopping and not enough riding. I'm annoyed and stressed. I can't turn left like a vehicle yet because what if I'm too slow? What if the car behind me honks? What if they give me the finger?

Anyways. I'm finally in the bike lane on Collegeway and riding along the route I've dreamt of taking for months. It's through a quiet part of the city, few cars, lots of trees--and wow, I'm totally zipping down this road! This is easy!!! I'm hardly pedaling! So fast! So free! Wind whipping in my face! Sun twirling in the trees! This is what it's all about!!!

Worry #5: And then it hits me. I'm going downhill. That's why it's easy. You're not some athlete with the magical ability to bike at high speeds with little training and not an ounce of sweat. You idiot. You're going downhill, which means your 5 km route back home will be uphill the entire way. Sure, 5 km is not a whole lot. Especially on a bike. But let's not forget who we're talking about here. We're talking about me. The girl who, without fail, got hit in the face with a basketball/soccer ball/volleyball every single gym class in middle school.

Worry #6: When I reach UTM, I find the trail that leads into the park and decide to walk my bike. It's unpaved, mostly gravel, and a lot of uneven ground. My wheels are pretty skinny and I'm pretty sure I'd wipe out the first time I hit the brakes. No need to be adventurous and go "off road" yet. All in good time. On the way down, I meet a frog:

The park is shrouded in rising mist, the earthy scent of wet grass is in the air, and there's the damp of dew soaking into my shoes. The morning is glowy, the silence and emptiness thrilling. I love it here. My tree stands waiting--'how long you've left me to host the haphazard picnics of common folk' she whispers:

Olivia enjoys the view from the bridge over the Credit River:

'How pretty,' she yawns.

Worry #7: After a nice walk through the park, my sleepless night starts to kick in and I want to get back home. I bike towards Dundas, the speeding cars scaring me onto the sidewalk. Look. I know I'm not supposed to bike on the sidewalk. It's unsafe. I know. I almost fell off a bridge. Well, one wrong move and I would've gone over--poof! And I did almost wipe out: there was wet grass caught in my brakes and I wobbled. But here's the thing. I think that if you're going to bike on the road, you better know what you're doing. You better know the rules. You better know how to signal. You better have confidence. And until I've got 3/3 I'm not veering onto a road unless it's got a dedicated bike lane. Especially not Dundas. I'm also keenly aware that confidence is built through trial and error, but I'd like more trials and less errors before I endanger my life, cause an accident, or really piss someone off. I also don't want someone to give me the finger. I'd be so hurt.

Worry #8: I make it back to Collegeway and my beloved bike lane to start the arduous climb homeward. And holy moly, I am dying. I know this is because I'm unfit and haven't exercised in a while, but I'm also keenly aware that my bike is heavy. Really heavy. That's part of the charm of a vintage bike, remember? This seems so much harder than it should be. I only have three speeds and I'm determined to believe that this is fine. I WILL BE OKAY. I pedal at approximately .25 km/hour and know everyone is laughing at me. The birds in the trees, the old women in their condos, the cars passing me at lightning speed, everyone. But, I'm determined. I will make it home without stopping. I can do this.

Whatever, man. I have to pull over and stop because my legs are jelly and I think I might die. So there I am, standing on the side of the road, chugging water like I just ran a marathon, except I didn't. I'm such a disappointment. By the time I reach Erin Mills and Burnhamthorpe, I have to walk my bike up the sidewalk because I can't pedal any longer. The bike feels like a dead weight and until I reach the bike path that zooms down a hill and into the woods, I'm not getting back on my bike.

Once I reach the path, I zip and zap through the woods and think if I keep doing this, if I keep worrying about every rule I could potentially break or every person who could point me out and say 'there's that girl who doesn't know what she's doing' or if I make myself bike 5 km uphill before I'm ready, if I don't pause and just enjoy the ride I'm going to hate this, and I'm going to fail.

So here's to letting the wind whistle through a mind empty of worries and what-ifs--we're going to make it Olivia, you just wait and see.

To support me and my team in the MS Bike Tour, please visit my personal donation page.

Any donation is appreciated!

Friday, July 15, 2011

Out of the Cave and into the Light

It's 6 AM on a Friday and I haven't slept yet. I've spent the night marking assignments and as the glow through my curtains grows ever brighter, I start to prep myself to turn in. I have an evening class tonight and no other commitments, so I can sink into sleep guilt free and oblivious.

Except the guilt is always tugging my stomach into knots; I know my schedule is haphazard and unproductive and there isn't a day that goes by where I don't wonder why I can't just pull myself together.

Night: the isolation and silence it brings is a simultaneous source of solace and desperate anxiety. I've functioned on the theory that my creativity peaks at 3 AM when the first bird of the morn starts trilling from the pine tree outside my window. After hours of sitting alone in my room staring at a largely blank word document, that first sweet warble careening through the thick silence of a suffocating night sets off a panic button in my brain. What have you done? What have you accomplished? Another wasted night? Do something. Do something! And then out of plain desperation I'm suddenly focused and everything is razor sharp; all the mind wandering of the night suddenly connects into an electrified purging of productivity. I like what I see appearing on the screen before me and in a while go to bed on a bit of a foggy high. I'm not useless. I can do things.

But this hasn't happened in a long time. More often than not, I go to bed with a dead weight in my chest because I know I've wasted yet another night. Call it avoidance, my inability to focus, jitters, fear, lack of discipline, the last curve in a downward spiral--whatever it is, it leaves me with the bitter, bitter taste of waste--and without fail, the sense that I'm a little bit hopeless.

But still, as I doze off I always think, tomorrow, tomorrow things will be different.

So it's 6 AM on a Friday and yet again, I haven't stuck to my hopeful schedule and have dug myself into a world of marking hell. All I want to do is swivel the fan toward my face, slip under the covers, and just sleep. Already I hear myself saying that tomorrow will be different. Tomorrow I'll mark responsibly, happily even. Tomorrow will be the beginning of a new day and I'll ride out in glory because tomorrow doesn't have the stench of failure; tomorrow is bright and sweet.

I click on the song "The Cave" in my playlist to help me exert the last bit of energy needed to pack up my papers and set everything I need by the door so that when I wake up, I'll need minimal brain power to get myself ready and out of the house. It's a song by a band a friend introduced to me a short time ago and I've played it a few times and enjoyed it, but as I stand there about to kick open my comforter, everything suddenly makes every bit of brilliant sense.

The video for the song features band members riding around on motorbikes/vespas somewhere in India and the image--the bright heat, the bikes curving along dirt roads in a golden haze--it's visual freedom. It's suffocating in anger and bitterness, fault and blame--and then breaking free and screaming in/for hope. It sounds repulsively melodramatic, but feels achingly real and true.

And I think, 'why not now? Why can't tomorrow be now?'

Call it a sleepless high, but in moments I'm changing out of my pajamas into my everyday clothes and heaving my bike out the door. I need this resurgence to be physical, representative, but physical; I want the morning to hit my face and make me feel like I'm flying; I want to literally ride out into glory. The glory of doing things, of beginning. Tomorrow can begin right now.

And so I slam the door shut, hop on my bike, and go.

Image: Taken on my Lumix on July 15th, 2011 at Erindale Park.

Monday, July 4, 2011

Everybody Hates Middle School: My Story Girls

When I was 13, more than anything, I wanted to be a governess. Oh, to lord lovingly over a flock of grubby children dressed in their sepia-drenched breeches and frocks, all ruddy cheeks and scuffed shoes--the idea was addictive and I spent hours play-acting my way through the role.

I was a lonely teen. I binged on novels by L.M. Montgomery and spent a lot of time alone in the forest. Montgomery's stories of imaginative young girls--always sensitive and strong willed (like myself, I liked to believe)--creating vivid worlds out of words, just words, fed this intense desire of mine to escape, to get away from the static buzz of middle school drama into a world where I made friends with the moon, talked to the trees, and believed I could wish myself into a time and place where I belonged.

This may have been one of the loneliest periods of my life, but I remember it as being the happiest. I read so much that I think I half floated my way to and from school, drenched in this euphoric optimism, this insistence to look at everything--dandelions and pine trees, pebbles and cracks in the pavement--as something hopeful, something beautiful. I was fueled by passages from Montgomery's work that read like odes to nature--I wanted to see the world as beautifully as her characters did. I must have sensed the underlying melancholy in her works, because looking back, it was just so fitting--bright hopes budding in the face of cloudy realities.

I was drawn to books about young girls becoming young women--Little Women, Good Wives, Five Little Peppers and How They Grew, Emily of New Moon--and relished the idea of taking care of little ones, of telling them stories, of keeping everything in order. I suppose I welcomed the responsibility, the control over spheres of happiness--I could be in charge of a child's experience of the world, make sure things were as bright and hopeful as I imagined they could be, as I knew they should be.

At 13, I started a weekend job as a Sunday school teacher at the local mosque. It was the last thing I wanted to do at the time (seriously, waking up before noon on a weekend?). But more importantly, I had horrific memories of Sunday school as a child--chaotic roomfuls of screaming kids, screaming teachers, and pages of Arabic I had failed to memorize--everything was absolutely terrifying. But my father's insistence that I 'do something good' combined with the fact that there was no one else who wanted to take the job, lead to my reign as Queen of a bunch of 4 to 9 year olds every Sunday at 9 AM.

Once I had the job, I recognized my power. I could be Jo from Little Women (and later, Little Men) who grew up and ran a private school for forlorn little boys; I could be Polly from Peppers who cheerily took care of her brothers and sisters in their little brown house; I could be Sara from The Story Girl and tell these kids one amazing story after another. Most of all, I wanted to make sure their experience of Sunday school was vastly different from mine--I wanted them to look forward to this class, not fake headaches, stomachaches, aches of every kind, so they could avoid what I remembered as an unpleasant experience.

And so I was enthusiastic. I taught them their alifs, bas, and tas with vigorous smiles and emphatic hand gestures. We played games, had story time, and threw parties. Islamic history turned into playacting which turned into "adventure walks" into the fields behind the mosque. I was insistent that these kids have a good time. The connection to Prophetic stories may have been tenuous; leading very small children through shoulder-height grasses in back fields being prepped for construction was mildly dangerous; but, I was on a mission. The world of fantasy I lived in half the time was transpiring into something real and I wasn't going to let go.

In retrospect, my reliance on fictive worlds where girls wielded incredible creative powers may have been a sign of my own inner struggles as a misfit, but even more, these story girls served as sources of strength and confidence. I could take the magic of their world and weave it into my own. I could find solace within pages where there were girls like me. I was happy being the weird girl who wore funny clothes and talked to trees--I didn't want to be anyone else.

The images are the book covers that I recognize from my youth. I still get the same thrills and chills just looking at them now: Little Women from Scholastic and Emily Climbs from Tower Books.

Monday, June 6, 2011

Let's go ride a bike!

When I first brought my lovely Olivia home, I had to relegate her to the basement because leaning her up against the closet door in the front hall gave my mother panic attacks. The paint scratches, tire smears, and dried mud splattered over her freshly wiped walls and floors was just too much of a threat. I didn't protest. I figured lugging my bike up and down the basement steps would be part of a natural sort of workout. I'd have sweet little biceps in no time.

Part of the appeal of vintage bikes is that they are really heavy. Made from steel instead of aluminum, they're sturdy, last long, and in many bicycles, create a smoother ride. I didn't exactly forget this. I was just being optimistic, trying to look at the brighter side of things. I'd definitely get a good workout. I wouldn't ever have to lift weights again. Why should I? I'd be lifting my incredibly heavy bike. It would be a necessary and virtuous act that would condition my muscles and teach me the value of hard work. Right.

The stairs to our basement consist of two landings that require me to heave my bike up four steps at a time, then turn it at a 90 degree angle while simultaneously heaving it up the next set of stairs. The corners are too tight for large objects, and the landings are prettied up with shelves and flower arrangements making it all a little too clunky for me and Olivia. I grunted, twisted, and was generally surprised at my lack of athletic prowess. I managed to find a sweet spot along the seat post that would let me lift the bike with relative ease, but a combination of several awkward angles--the walls, my positioning, the bike itself--cramped me up and more than once, I stood on the verge of panic, imagining a painful and prolonged death-by-beautiful- bike. R
ather quickly, my virtuous exercise turned into a frustrating and awkward endeavor.

Still--still I might have put up with it. I wanted to ride my bike and if tumbling up basement steps with a knot of pent up aggression was what it took, then I was willing. One morning though,
I noticed a twinge in my lower back. It burned right at the base of my spine and sparked all day, reminding me that I was doing it all wrong. All that twisting and turning, that erratic lifting, that reckless bending at the waist instead of the knee--it smirked at me with a callous warning: Stop it. Stop, or we'll serve you with a slipped disc and two weeks of immobility.

And still--I would have done it. I would have adjusted my lifting method, done warm-up stretches, practiced even. I would have soldiered on. Anything to make sure I was out there in the streets, pedaling in glory. But, when you keep a bike in a basement, lifting it up and down a set of stairs may be cumbersome, but it isn't the real problem.

Montreal, QC

If it's in the basement, it's out of sight. And give it long enough, it'll soon be out of mind. Really, having Olivia in the basement was depressing. Unless I made the rare trip downstairs to do laundry or collect a few onions, I didn't see her. She stood sulking in the shadows alongside boxes of old records and an old bird cage, those glorious sun rippled dreams of coasting along parkways dimming into the dust-webbed realm of failed hopes. I realized very quickly that if you're looking to incorporate more cycling into your daily life, the best way to set yourself up for failure is to put your bike in a place that is physically inconvenient and visually out of reach.

Olivia, contemplating a ride into the waning light.

So, I brought her up. I brought her where I could see her everyday, baskets ready and flowered up, front wheel cocked to the side, whispering, "A ride, shall we?" If I need to go to the store, there she is. If I'm pondering an evening ride, ah, Olivia. If I've been lazy, there she is prodding guilt into my gut. It's simple, if I see my bicycle, I ride my bicycle. And that is the point of it all, isn't it?

And so, after an evening ride through winding trails, I come home and park her where she belongs. There she is in our front hall, kick stand in place, leaning gently into the stairs, so careful not to dent the walls, or smear tire tracks into the paint. She is all lady-like charm.

Griffith Park, LA

Now, when the sun glints off the front window in that dewy hue, I can just pick up and go--straight out the door and into the world. Perfection.

Images (respectively): Peter Heillman, other images are mine.

Wednesday, June 1, 2011

For the Love of Leisure Time: Jane Austen's EMMA

Jane Austen is dangerous. I've just set down Emma and I must sew myself a muslin gown and put my hair up in curling papers. I need to drink tea in pretty china cups, cut thick slices of cake onto lovely saucers, and dab at my lips with a lace-edged handkerchief. Every time I finish an Austen novel, the same symptoms crawl out of dusty corners and smile their way into my psyche. Tomorrow I'll wake up and think, "Perhaps I'll take a walk into the ravine, let my eyes rest on something lush and green."

Or maybe just something lush. Like a gentleman in a smart jacket. If the visage of Austen's female world with its lace and picnic umbrellas draws me into the fantasy, it's her stout, restrained gentlemen—Darcy! Knightley!—who drown me in a vat of hope and longing.

It's disgusting! And once it's in, it's very hard to wash out.

Emma, Austen's fourth novel and the last to be published
in her lifetime, is a horrible antidote for any unemployed graduate with aspirations. Emma Woodhouse is "handsome, clever, and rich...with very little to distress or vex her." She is one of the luckier women in Regency England. With no financial constraints or pressure to marry, she's at leisure. When Emma wakes, what does Emma do? She pays visits to her neighbours and is graciously received with cake and tea (maybe scones with jam and clotted cream?); she sits in her parlour writing thank you notes and invitations (with a dip pen in beautiful longhand—"nobody could have written so prettily but you, Emma"); she hosts dinner parties and balls (dressed in lovely gowns gathered at the waist); and she enjoys snappy bits of conversation with lovely gentlemen. And of course she meddles, rather deliciously, in the love lives of others.

But these are such superficial pursuits. Just simple activities taken up by women trapped within the stifling confines of societal expectation. With too much time and little opportunity to offer her skills and intelligence in meaningful ways, Emma funnels her energy into imaginative pursuits; she plots the nuptials of ill-matched friends. Is this Austen's critique? Her sharp wit and irony revealing the unsavoury bits of her society? Ugh, maybe. But, please—is it really such a terrible existence? Austen's previous heroines, intelligent girls dependent on a "fine match" to clinch happy lives, wait in splendid circumstances for potential husbands. Psychologically, perhaps they're a little weary, but aesthetically they're very well off! And aesthetics—silk parasols and long walks through green gardens—can make a dull penny shine.

If today, I am a woman with ample opportunity and intelligence to pursue a financially independent life, why do I find the aesthetics of Emma's world so appealing? Why is her time spent in leisure, guilt free, such forbidden fruit for today's modern woman? Is it so terrible that I would like to look pretty and lounge? That I would like to go visiting and engage in sparkling conversation with ladies and gentlemen whose company I enjoy? Is it really such a bad thing that I would rather do this than update my resume? And wait for it...maybe I'd like to entertain neighbours over a cup of tea while my Darcy, Knightley, or Bingley gallops over the moors tending to our estate! Like Emma, I could take a turn about the garden and be thrilled to my fingertips when he declares his love to me. I could do all this and be quite content, couldn't I?

No. This is practically sacrilegious. I'm afraid I'm inflicting a terr
ible injustice on my sex by voicing these dark desires. I should want to go out into the smoke and ash of the world, crack my way through the brimstone, and emerge soiled and spent, but oh, so glorious. If I'm educated and intelligent, the modern world welcomes my endeavors. No, the world expects my contributions. What a waste of time, effort, and resources if I didn't contribute! Selfish! To dream of lolling through my days, finicky over feminine trifles! What a dash backwards for women.

In the introduction to my edition of Emma, Nicola Brown (University of North London) writes, "...there
is no doubt that the lives of the leisured women at this time were narrower than we can easily imagine. The apparent emptiness of the lives of these characters is games and gossip." Thus, Austen's women are intelligent but ultimately so restricted, they lead empty lives filled with silly gossip and silly games.

But Nicola, not just games and gossip! And oh, why say it with such disdain? Why fail to see the power and meaning in frivolity? What would a Jane Austen book be without its juicy parcels of gossip and misunderstandings? And those clever games are always rife with hidden meaning: what did he mean by that look?! Does he know something she doesn't?! Is there more to this man than meets the eye? Of course!!!

Have I been duped by the lovely pastels of an Austen adaptation where everything is green and good? Yes, quite likely. Positively. Would I truly be happy lolling about day in, day out, my future happiness dependent on whether or not I find a 'fine match'? Oh, shudder.
I can't ignore the screaming constraints of hierarchical class structure that rule Emma's life, nor can I shrug off the financial constraints that govern the dreams and wishes of Fanny, Lizzie, and Jane. The brimstone of the working world--its promise of exhaustion, of a day well spent--is not only alluring, it's necessary and fulfilling.

But like all these women (and the women of today who love these women) I enjoy dresses and balls and
cake and tea and reading and walking and romance...I enjoy these trinkets of leisure time because I know there is value in the minutiae of human interaction. Though the gossip and games may serve as filler in their lives, they also represent the myriad of connections between people, the importance of tiny exertions. A teatime visit, a knowing glance, a witty exchange—these female fancies are the little baubles in life that hold lasting meaning. They make us feel real and breakable; they make us human.

What to Eat:
You must pair this novel with a plate of soft, buttery scones and homemade (ie: Smuckers) strawberry jam. If you add a dollop of clotted cream and enjoy your tea in real china--bonus! Wear lace gloves.

Judging by the Cover...
Scandalous! That gentleman is proposing something unsavoury and she's all, "ah, sigh, how juvenile, but...strangely intriguing." Generally works as a representation of secret love and double meaning depicted in the novel but that man--ugh! Is that supposed to be Frank Churchill? Has Mr. Churchill no sense of propriety? Actually no, he doesn't. But still, the look in his eyes is too lusty and controlling, borderline creepy. Maybe I'm just misjudging the power of a romantic gaze? And really, is that supposed to be Emma? I hate her hair, all frizzy and sloppily piled up like she's going to mop the floor. Emma would never mop a floor.

From an illustration called Hearts are Trumps by George Goodwin Kilburne (1839-1924).

Images (respectively): Lady Estelle's Tea Corner, Squidoo, Edmund Blair Leighton, and Ian Britton.