Sunday, October 02, 2011

[It's slightly past the opportune time for some birthday stories, but I found this draft post from 2006 while trawling through my unpublished posts. Commence obligatory birthday post.]

The first story takes place on my 18th birthday back in 2002, while I was in Quebec on a 4-H exchange trip. I had been staying with my exchange family for about a week, and since they smoked in the house all the time you have to imagine me in a state of being unable to talk out loud, and being unable to inhale without coughing violently. For a week. [Editor's note: I was able to recreate the sensation using only Cuban-grown mold and pestilent travelmates this past winter.]

Now imagine me having spent two days sitting in a barn in Quebec City waiting while all the French people walked around in a circle, pulling cattle around on ropes. But not just any cattle. First, there was an elaborate ritual that involved clipping their hair in such a way as to make them look bonier, then painting the black spots black. Then carting them to Quebec City and pulling them around on ropes in circles.

Then they made me pull one around in a circle, in front of a lot of people. I didn't have a clue what I was doing. Did I mention that these people all spoke French and I don't speak French? All that my exchange person was able to communicate with me was something about a "Joooje" (judge). Whatever.

So the first night in Quebec City we stayed in a hotel. The second night (the night of my birthday), we stayed in a pig barn. Oh yes, a pig barn. But not just any pig barn. This one had some stalls (for lack of a better term) containing bunk beds with festering mattresses on them and garbage all over the floors. Apparently you were supposed to pay to sleep there, but as I said they were no more than stalls, and the walls didn't go all the way up to the ceiling, so we climbed over the wall and commandeered some more "rooms." Very early in the morning, all you could hear was the BEEP BEEP BEEP of tractors cleaning out the pig-portion of the barn. There was another 4-H exchange person from Manitoba there too, and we sat around waiting and joking about how slow these French people were, and I said something about how I bet one of us would miss our flights back home two days later. Yes, good joke Megan.

This wasn't part of my birthday-day, but they dropped me off at the airport in Montreal half an hour before my plane was scheduled to leave (keep in mind that this was the summer of 2002, still in the wake of the whole 9/11 deal, and people were supposed to be at airports at least an hour or two in advance). So I did miss my plane, and they gave me a ticket for the next flight and told me to go through the express line, but the lady wouldn't let me go through it and refused to speak English to me. So I missed the next flight, and by that time I was getting very uneasy because I had to make a connection to get to Saskatoon, and that flight only goes once a day. Finally I got on a flight and very fortunately the connection to Saskatoon was delayed.

I am never going to Quebec again.

Now let's fastforward to my 21st birthday (last year [Editor's note: gosh this is an old post]). I had been working at camp for a week, and the last day of camp happened to be my birthday. So, there was the traditional last-day-of-camp party, which was extra big because it was also the last camp of the summer. The idea was to drink a lot, but it was also a Sunday and all the refreshment stores were closed. So, we got me about 8 of those Red Bull type drinks.... I can't imagine why. I drank 3 of them and got too sleepy and had to go home (and also had to stop for several naps along the way [Editor's note: I realize now that what I interpreted as sleepy episodes throughout that summer were actually the first rumblings of my migraine problem]).

So those are my two most memorable birthdays. Growing up, every birthday was quiet, spent at my parents' farm, because nobody remembers summer birthdays.

[Editor's note: this concludes the original draft, and a slight updation is in order. Here follows this year's birthday story.]

I have a self-defeating personality to uphold, and part of the upkeep involves insisting that I don't want my birthday acknowledged. At work, this sentiment is sincere; I don't want the whole office to gather round the glow of a lighted cake and sing happy birthday to me (impatiently, because the sooner the song is over the sooner CAKE TIME). Fortunately, almost nobody actually knows my birthdate, except one single person whose own birthday happens to be the day before mine (and to whom I am quite certain I'd expounded at length about my dislike of birthdays).

I feel somewhat secure in the fact that my birthday falls upon a Sunday this year. But the Friday before, there is an evil plot afoot. I begin to worry when a good friend lets slip that she knows it's a special day. The next time I see the person who knows my birthday is pending (let's call him Banjo), I quietly ask him to kindly not tell anybody. To my surprise, he becomes suddenly angry and stalks off. About two minutes later, Banjo comes in the office with a card that he's secretly gotten everyone in the office to sign, along with the dreaded candle-lit cake. I manage to choke back my fury fairly well.

The great joke in all this, of course, is that it's not actually my birthday until Sunday; in fact, it will be Banjo's birthday sooner than it will be my own.

Saturday, July 16, 2011

Concerning Music

It's been a relentless two weeks, and even though I spent a good twelve hours in a makeshift office at the university on this last day of Summer Piano Academy—and subsequently spent a good two hours recording piano pieces only to discover that the quality was terrible—I wanted to complete these thoughts concerning music that I've been collecting for the past several months.

Not too many years ago I had high hopes of being a musician and composer; now my role is largely to facilitate other people's musical endeavors. While my work at the VCM keeps me within the musical world, it also feeds my own regret and disappointment at how time seems to have drained itself away. (N.B. This is not a blog post about work; it just happens that my workplace features prominently.) Each year brings a new class of hopeful students who are living my dream—one that I briefly lived but woke myself from for a now forgotten reason. I still like to think of myself as a composer, though I've been stuck on the same piece after only a few bars for... well literally years.

What ultimately discouraged me from finishing my composition/theory ARCT? Well, it's not that I was entirely unsuccessful. My song cycle was performed at the VCM, for one thing. The last competition I entered, my Anglo-Saxon choral piece was a finalist and only didn't make the very final cut; more than anything else, I would have loved (and still would) to hear that piece performed. And that's the ultimate discouragement: my composition instructor told me in one of our last lessons that as a composer, I'd have to get used to hearing my music only in my head; that the pieces I wrote simply wouldn't be performed. Of course that isn't entirely true; in fact, both times I entered that competition, I have been eligible to apply for a recording grant. But, I'm perceptive enough to realize that it would be true for me, given my self-defeating personality. Anyway, that was the day I walked out of that endless fugue class and decided I was wasting my time, along with what little money I had.

I can't write a post about music without mentioning my biggest musical inspiration. One of the people I admire the most (in pretty much every way, and particularly musically) is Melissa Dunphy. (I highly recommend checking out her What do you think I fought for at Omaha Beach?—and I'm totally in love with Tesla's Pigeon; I wish I were still studying voice just for the chance to perform this song cycle! While I'm making asides, I also love this video.) Very often at the conservatory I feel that the musical environment that we perpetuate is increasingly irrelevant: stodgy rules about harmonic progressions; centuries-old pieces that now seem to have obligatory positions in every performer's repertoire. I just wish there was more excitement built around new music in my city; I think works like the Gonzales Cantata are fantastic for the place they have in the society we live in today.

At any rate, this is what I wanted to create in life: beautiful, transcendent choral music. I wanted that since the summer I sang in National Youth Choir, when for two weeks we were a single instrument and the small rehearsal hall would fill with tangible waves of sound. It's what I tried to achieve in the few choral pieces I completed and the Missa Brevis I left hanging after the Kyrie. And now I'm surrounded by musicians pursuing all their dreams and more. How could things turn out this way in a music conservatory?

Three times since Christmas, I've woken in the night, delirious with perpetual poor health, seized with some idea that impressed itself upon my fevered mind as being the most important thing in life. In morning light they always turn out to be dumb ideas, but there's one idea that I think someone should take on in this conservatory, even if I'm totally unqualified. So here was my fevered dream: wouldn't it be the best idea in the world, if I get myself into a conducting class at the consesrvatory (in my delirium, a semester was all I would need). Then I would get a group of some of these fantastic musicians I've come to know over time at work, and we would create a new music ensemble to perform the works of us student composers. For several nocturnal hours, this was the best idea in the world.

But it gnaws at me—why doesn't the conservatory do something like this? It doesn't have to be a large ensemble. It doesn't have to offer a wide range of instrumentation. People like me will take anything with eternal gratitude. My new-found passion for new music is so strong that I start to seethe a little when I have to sit through too much Bach, or arias from Italian operas (do they not go in the most predictable direction imaginable?). And the almost single-minded emphasis on Baroque music in the vocal department has me rethinking my decision to finish my ARCT in voice performance. I can't see the relevance anymore.

This excerpt from Anti Social Music's website really sums up my thoughts:

We get it.

We started this whole thing because we were a handful of young composers sending scores into the black, thankless void of competitions, open calls, grant applications...the Kinko's fees add up and the postage is crushing, and for what? A one-line rejection, if that. So we got together and started performing and recording our own damn pieces.

My greatest wish in the world is to be able to hear my work performed. The greatest dissuasion from composing, for me, is the crushing defeat of watching yourself age and your compositional output cease, and all of it be swallowed up silently, the pieces you agonized over for months and years to slowly turn to dust.

Wednesday, March 23, 2011

Tales from Cuba

I spent the last two weeks of January in Cuba, on a continuing education tour with the University of Saskatchewan. The group (16 of us in all) was primarily birders, and despite the fact that I am not a birder (or wasn't, previously)—and that I was approximately 30 years younger than everyone else except my sister—it was unequivocally the best experience of my life yet (far surpassing National Youth Choir, which had until now been the best—I guess great things come in two-week chunks).

As always, my first concern was migraines. I had been weaning off my daily medication so that by the time the trip came around, I would be finished with it. I worried that the withdrawal would trigger headaches while I was away, but I packed a lot of Maxalt along with regular tylenol and advil. If there was one thing I was prepared for, it was headaches!

I didn't actually get any headaches the whole trip until the second last day. Instead, somehow a fair number of us got sick about a week into the trip (not pointing any fingers, but perhaps next time *someone* might consider not traveling with untreated viral pneumonia). This I was not prepared for. Going through my scrawled notes, a particular theme becomes apparent: "Things to bring next time: cough syrup, lozenges, cold medicine ..." During a lunch stop in Cienfuegos City, I went into a pharmacy but they said they had nothing resembling an antihistamine.

In addition to the virus, I reacted unexpectedly strongly to the mold (and every single place we stayed—except the military resort at Topes de Collantes, which was immaculate—was so saturated with mold that it seeped from the curtains and out of the air conditioner). I only have allergy problems during the spring cherry blossom season here at home, so I didn't take along any allergy medication at all. Amy miraculously didn't have a mold-reaction, and kindly shared her medication wealth with me. We referred to the whole rotten virus-mold deal as "plague."

Eventually, my coughing became worse than the time a couple winters ago when the doctor gave me narcotics in an effort to spare my lungs. Using every single antihistamine-type pill that my entire family had brought along (very good thing that none of them needed the pills), I was able to ration it out so as to last until the departure day. There wasn't enough to be comfortable or allow for a proper night's sleep, but it was far better than nothing.

That last week was more miserable and unpleasant than I can really explain. One evening I skipped supper and stayed in my hut coughing, until a terribly sharp pain started in my abdomen. For the rest of the night, it felt like something might burst with every cough, but that was about the worst. We went on a 6-hour catamaran ride while at Cayo Las Brujas, which I mostly spent in a fit of unstoppable coughing; since I couldn't even breathe above water, I didn't dare try snorkeling, though the corals and fish were reportedly spectacular. I did enjoy the delightful dolphins on that catamaran trip, though; one of them wouldn't stop kissing me.

The last couple nights were in Havana, in Hotel Ambos Mundas ("where Ernest Hemingway stayed" is its claim to fame). Piano music drifted up through the lacy wooden shutters from the lobby below at most hours of the day/night, but the mold was worse there than anywhere previously. Between that and too much sun during a city stroll, my head gave in and I had to spend an afternoon/evening writhing in bed. Maxalt to the rescue! By the time we had to leave for the airport the next morning, I was able to stand without throwing up. Anyway, I think that just about satisfies my need to wallow about the plague aspect of the trip.

There was so much so see and experience in Cuba, but I don't feel that I could do it justice. The unique warbly call of the Cuban crow. The 60-km causeway to the cayos that looks like an endless highway stretching into the sea with no particular destination. The young boys who want to sell you their pesos (which have Che Guevara's face on them) for your more valuable convertible pesos (which don't). Scattered flamingos wading through the swamp as far as the eye can see. Fossilized corals all along the path to a series of caves. Narrow cobblestone city streets filled with people and a few carts drawn by a thin horse. People napping inside their old-fashioned automobiles at the seaside resorts (automobiles which are always bright and completely rust-free, despite the salty humidity). A man with a chicken tethered to his straw hat, as a means to make money off photo-taking tourists. Throngs of Cubans milling around at highway junctions, holding pesos in the air and trying to hitch a ride to work (days in advance). The ceremonial parade of colonial-attired soldiers performing the nightly cannon shoot in La Cabana castle. Beachcombing Cubans trying to sell you conch shells (which we were advised were illegal to bring back to Canada), and striking up conversations in broken English ("Which province you from? Quebec? Saskatchewan? Winnipeg?"). The fading sunset over Zapata swamp, and the lengthy bus wait inside its closed iron gate as our guide walked to the gatekeeper's home so we could escape. Weather-worn apartment buildings streaked with black from the humidity, always with clothing hanging on the balconies in an attempt to dry. Seashores of sharp limestone pocked by centuries of erosion. Warm salty waves lapping around your ankles as the clear blue sea crawls up the limitless white sand beach (and not a single person is suntanning). Palm trees growing on sheer cliff faces. Lone, tethered livestock grazing by the roadsides. The flash of bat wings as they silently flit in and out of lamplight as dusk sets in, drawn by the mosquitos hovering around a table of tourists (drawn by the mojitos). Hotel towels and blankets folded each morning to resemble animals, complete with flower petal facial features. Cubans standing in the meridian of the highway (or right in one of the lanes) holding up blocks of cheese for sale, miles and miles away from anywhere. The unapologetic bump of a Soviet truck's bare metal seats up a windy mountain trail. The sinus-clearing sting of jincila, a concoction made of ginger, honey, water, lemon, rum (mine without), and pure fire. Guava jam and cheese.

Blue-headed quail dove, Cuban trogon, parakeet, Cuban parrot, Cuban crow, bee hummingbird, flamingo, Cuban pygmy owl, strigid owl, screech owl, roseate spoonbill, wood stork, cattle egret, great blue heron, Cuban tody, ovenbird, Zenaida dove, great lizard cuckoo, brown pelican, Cuban bullfinch, Cuban green woodpecker, pied-billed grebe, stripe-headed tanager, American coot, yellow-headed warbler, nutcatcher, caracara, emerald hummingbird, turkey vulture, black hawk, ibis, reddish egret, frigatebird, kingfisher, peregrine falcon, cormorant.

What impressed me most about Cuba was the complete lack of Americanization. And although Cubans would undoubtedly like to do things like use the internet, have more than the bare minimum of amenities, or listen to non-80s pop music (or maybe that's me)—still, there's a purity to Cuba now that I'm very glad I got to experience. I have no doubt that all that will change, and Starbucks will drop down its spreading roots into that beautiful country (much like its native mangroves). I realize that it's easy for a tourist to say that it's a shame Cuba will have to succumb to capitalism, since at the end of the day I got to go home to simple luxuries like ballpoint pens and flushable toilet paper, but there you have it.

Things I will remember most from Cuba:

  • the unspoiled natural beauty: being a nature-oriented tour, we got to see a lot of it. Nobody documents Cuba's nature better than Juan Carlos—his photos are amazing.
  • the food: they served us the most fantastic soups imaginable. We were warned that we would find the food bland and repetitive; I didn't find it at all bland, but it was basically always the same meal (vegetables, an unreasonable amount of rice, and your choice of fish/chicken/pork/beef).
  • the dogs: there were stray dogs everywhere, really dainty little things that quietly and hungrily watched you eat, or lay baking in the sun in the city squares. Sometimes they're wearing clothes.
  • the music: every day a new group of musicians would set up in whatever restaurant we were eating at, play music, and gather tips. There were at least a couple particular songs that every group played.

Victoria. Saskatoon. Varadero. Havana. Vinales Valley. Zapata Swamp; Playa Larga, Las Salinas, Bermejas. Guajimico. Cienfuegos City. Trinidad. Topes de Collantes. Hanabanilla dam; Rio Negro. Cayo Las Brujas. Jardines del Rey Archipelago. Havana. Varadero. Saskatoon. Victoria.