all-light-cannot-see-anthony-doerr

Rest in peace, Robin.

What a shock, to learn that you’re gone from us. We are sad about it – devastated, bereft – all over the planet.

We have not yet had time to process how much the world is depleted by your absence; we only know that when we found out, we could hardly believe it. Our jaws dropped. Our hearts hurt. The incongruity of the happiness you brought us, in spite of your personal suffering, is not lost on us. We are sad for ourselves, and for your family and friends, but especially for you.

I hope that you really are resting in peace, finally. Your manic energy and high-speed chatter that made us all guffaw out loud – those might have been pretty difficult to have going on in your own head.

I hope that you had plenty of moments of true joy. You sure gave a lot of them to us.

I hope that you got to experience love as deeply and often as your characters did.

I hope that wherever you are now, you are able to understand the full magnitude of love that humanity feels for you. I’m sure that having millions of strangers love you is not as useful, in daily life, as having close friends to know you well and support you. But that doesn’t make the love less real. You put your own self into every role you played, and you profoundly moved people. You touched their hearts, changed their lives, and made their bellies ache with laughter.

Thank you for all those gifts you gave.

1 robin williams good morning vietnam
Good Morning, Vietnam
5.0.2
Dead Poets Society
3 robin williams the fisher king
The Fisher King
4 robin williams hook
Hook
robin williams aladdin genie
Aladdin
6 robin williams mrs doubtfire
Mrs. Doubtfire
7 robin williams the birdcage
The Birdcage
8 robin williams good will hunting
Good Will Hunting
9 What-Dreams-May-Come-robin-williams
What Dreams May Come
X robin williams patch adams
Patch Adams
XI Night-At-The-Museum-robin-williams
Night At The Museum
XII In-the-Wild-Robin-Williams-with-Dolphins
Robin Williams Swims With Dolphins

***


 

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How Fine the Line

grief-kent-sorensen
“Grief” by Kent Sorensen. Statue in Cimetière du Montparnasse, Paris.

We had awful, awful news at our school last week.

A five-year-old girl died after returning home from school one afternoon. One of our own kindergarten students.

It’s like a punch in the gut, a slap in the face that makes you see stars, and makes the colours all weirdly bright. Suddenly danger is brilliantly visible in every cranny of space and every second of time. A moment’s inattention at the wheel. A tiny speck of the wrong person’s breakfast. A fleeting loss of balance at the top of the stairs. A brush with an angry bee. An unpredictable catch of the scarf. An unthinking dash into the street. Or simply being in a normal place at an unlucky time.

This girl is gone forever because of a moment that could happen to anyone.

Most five-year-olds are pure, solid vitality. But all at once, we are looking at our children and seeing the thinness of their skins, the narrowness of their airways, the fragility of their spines, the delicacy of their skulls, and the ever-so-fine tripwire that is the difference between a beating heart and a still one.

We teachers cry and our hearts break. We can’t think too closely about this girl’s family, for fear of disintegrating and being unable to teach. We are parents, even those of us with no children of our own. There’s a reason we call them “our” kids.

Abruptly, the reality is there in front of us: it is monumental and terrifying that each of us is responsible for so many beating hearts, every day.

How is it possible for this just-begun life to be snuffed out? One child fights cancer for years of her young existence, and another is extinguished with not even a fever’s warning. Neither circumstance makes sense.

At home, I clasp my living children extra tender-fierce. I enfold my stillborn salmon-spirit-Sebastian in the centre. The fear that all parents feel, the unseen lining to every moment of their children’s growth, is now busting through the seams. It’s real: the fear, the death, the beating hearts.

Last Friday was the quietest Friday in memory, as the student body came to school with this new knowledge. They talked earnestly with their teachers, thought differently about their own siblings – and how maybe they want to keep them after all.

We are shaky, holding each other in the Light.

***

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Ladders from Dark Places

This past Thursday, October 10th, was World Mental Health Day.

The ladder. Image by Dilovely
The ladder

Please, let’s talk.

Mental health, or lack thereof, is a subject very close to my heart. Several people who share my blood have struggled with depression and similar mental illnesses. So has my husband.

In fact, my Hubbibi was suffering from depression when we first got together. It had dogged him for a long time, on-and-off. I remember him explaining it to me like this: “You know how when you’re a kid, you get that feeling of euphoric excitement when you think about Christmas? At my worst moments, I would think about my own mortality and feel like that.”

Those words chilled me completely – partly because that was the love of my life talking, and partly because I’d never heard it explained quite so accessibly.

Fortunately for me, and for all of us who love him, Sean didn’t become a permanent victim of his illness. When I asked him what held him back from that terminal edge, he admitted that he would think about his mom. He knew he couldn’t do that to her.

Although I like to think that I (or at least our blossoming relationship) was somewhat helpful in Sean’s turning a corner, it is actually his mom who deserves the real credit – for literally putting the phone in his hand to call the doctor. He got back on his feet, with the help of serotonin re-uptake inhibitors.

Obviously, the thought of Mom is not enough for everyone who considers suicide. I lost a friend to mental illness a few years ago, and although I know he loved his mom, the problems he faced – enlarged by depression – appeared insurmountable. Unsurvivable.

I don’t actually know how fine that line is, between enduring and evanescing. Personally, I have never come close enough to it to tell, although I can imagine situations in which I might. And I realize the precariousness of our intricate bodily chemicals, over which we have so little control. As a parent, it scares me to think of how easy it can be for someone – especially a young someone – to fall into dark places.

For Sean, it is well worth the hard journey back up the ladder. Not that you’re necessarily “home free” if you climb it; Sean has recently gone back on medication after several years off. But he’s learned to recognize warning signs in himself, and we talk about it openly.  We are both optimistic.

Just this past week, Glennon Doyle Melton of Momastery – a wise woman who knows a LOT about dark places – posted an essay called 5 Things I Know About the Path. It’s really good. My favourite is #4:

“You always have enough strength and courage and wisdom. You always have exactly what you need for your daily trek. Sometimes you won’t believe this- because you will encounter stretches of the path that are treacherous and terrifying, but if you give up in the middle of those stretches – if you sit down permanently in them- then you have to live there. Don’t live in the dark, scary parts. Trust and keep moving.  There will be a clearing soon and you will feel the warm sun again. The One who created your path is outside of time, so your life is an epic movie that has already been scripted. Maktub – it’s already been written. You’ve already made it. So don’t plan or worry – your job is to Trust Your Path and participate fully and notice as much as you possibly can and keep on moving.”
***

I have a request to make. Please, if you have ever known success against mental illness, either in yourself or in someone you love, I would really appreciate it if you could leave a comment to share your insight. What helped in turning the corner or climbing the ladder? What made the most difference?

Thank you. You never know when your hard-earned lesson might be someone else’s first rung.

***

P.S. Sean, thank you for your openness and courage. I love you jillions, honey.


 

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Are police officers supposed to be scary?

If you’re Ontarian, or even Canadian, you’ve probably heard about Sammy Yatim, the 18-year-old who was shot dead by police a couple weeks ago on an empty Toronto streetcar. You’ve probably heard that he was armed with a knife, that he was acting threatening, and that he was shot at nine times. (Eight of the shots are said to have hit him.) And you’ve almost certainly heard that Constable James Forcillo has been charged with second-degree murder in Yatim’s death.

In the car with my four-year-old, a piece came on the news about a protest being held by the families of people who had been killed by police. (This kid has really started listening to the news, and often comments on what he hears.)

“Killed by police?” he said. “The police don’t kill, they rescue.”

That’s verbatim. Broke my heart.

So I commenced an awkward explanation: police officers carry guns, and sometimes when they’re on duty, they use them… and guns can kill people, so sometimes that happens.

He thought about that. “Mummy, I never want to meet the police in person.”

“Oh, honey, you don’t have to worry if you meet a police officer. They’re not going to hurt you. They’re here to keep you safe.” I reminded him that his Uncle R is a police officer and a really nice person – that most of them are.

But he insisted: “I just don’t want to meet them.”

It makes me think of the little kids at my school who cried with fear when the police officers visited. Mind you, there are children who cry and dramatize over any old thing (my own almost-kindergartner included), but it still seems sad. There are local officers who come to the school to talk about bicycle safety, and they’re always lovely and sincere, and yet some kids are scared.

 US_Navy_060830-N-8907D-010_Officer_Diane_Branch_with_the_Chesapeake_Police_Department_takes_children's_fingerprints_during_the_Ident-a-Kid_program_held_at_Naval_Medical_Center_Portsmouth

I still remember the time a police officer visited my class when I was a kindergartner myself. He wore a blue shirt and had a fancy hat, and mostly I remember his shoes were very, very shiny.

My husband and I were recently discussing this topic. Sean has been both a corporal in the Canadian Armed Forces and a correctional officer in an Ontario Detention Centre. He knows some things about uniforms and weapons and boys’ clubs and the psychology of violence. I asked his perspective on all this. This is what he had to say.

I think it’s right that the officer was charged with murder. I read that 15 officers have been charged with murder since 2008, all acquitted. The charge has never stuck to any of them, but the consensus is that the video evidence is overwhelming in this case.

It has been true forever that there’s an omertá* feeling within police departments all over the world. It’s disconcerting, especially in a democracy, that people who are given, by society, the goal of protecting society, and the right to use deadly force when necessary, can abuse it with impunity. Of course, because we’re human beings, there are bound to be times when deadly force is used inappropriately, but there need to be consequences for that, just as there are for anyone else who uses deadly force inappropriately.

But within the police department it seems there is a different standard. Let’s say I – a normally law-abiding citizen – used deadly force on someone who was going to rob my house. In Canada, I would be charged with murder. (Maybe not in the States, I’m not sure, because their gun laws are crazy,** but in Canada I would be charged with murder.) And a police officer would come and arrest me.

But if a police officer kills someone who appears threatening, no other officer goes up and says “You just committed a crime, you’re under arrest.”

In the Yatim case, there were six officers there. It is supremely obvious from the video that the constable acted way outside legal use of force precedents. So in any other situation – if he had been a civilian – the police officer nearest would have turned around and arrested him for murder. But in this situation, even though all of them were there and they all witnessed it, none of them turned around and said “Whoa. What are you doing? You’re under arrest for murder.”

Why not?

If we give you that responsibility, you need to uphold it. It’s a big thing. You’re paid well, you’re given this massive responsibility and the power that goes with it, but you need to understand that if you go into that kind of work, you’re going to be held up to a particular standard, or at the very least, the same standard as the general public.

Police officers are not soldiers. Soldiers are ostensibly in combat zones surrounded by potential enemies. A police officer is not. But we’re getting into this mentality of the “war on crime”, the “war on drugs”, etc., and many police officers I think have that mentality of going into a war zone, of being surrounded by bad guys who are out to get you, and that’s simply not the case in a place like this.

But if you see everyone as a bad guy, of course you’re going to shoot the kid with a knife. On an empty streetcar. Nine times. Absolutely ridiculous.

I think that if he’s found anything but guilty, there are gonna be riots – as there should be. We cannot allow police officers – those to whom we give the power to use guns – to kill other people casually in the course of their duties. We cannot allow them to utilize that force without major consequences if it’s not done properly.

There’s no excuse for this. The kid was cornered on an empty TTC car. Nobody – not the officers, nor any member of the public – was in any danger. So there was zero reason to do this. NONE. The situation would have been different if he’d visibly had a gun out; then yes, the officers could reasonably say they didn’t know if he would point it at them and fire. But it’s a knife. I mean, by all accounts it was a little jackknife. For God’s sake. He probably couldn’t even throw it at you and do any harm.

Why couldn’t those six officers just wait him out? It seems to me, whenever I see videos of police officers nowadays, they no longer seem trained to deescalate. They actually seem trained to do the opposite. They always seem to talk to people in this overly authoritative voice, not quite yelling but very strong, and to present themselves as bigger than they are, and they sort of move forward as a group, deliberately intimidating.

And in certain situations that’s warranted, but it seems they use these tactics in every situation. And that’s not cool. It’s not their job. And that’s the thing that police officers need to realize. Their job is there because the public allows it. The scariest thing would be – and we seem to be heading in this direction – a feeling among police officers that they have a right to be here, whether the public says so or not. And that cannot ever be the case. Because that’s how fascist states and police states come into being. As soon as a police force realizes “Hey, we’re the only ones around with guns, so we can do what we want,” then you get Egypt. You get Syria.

{I asked him his opinion on the weapons used by police officers in Ontario.}

They carry way too many rounds. First of all, it’s heavy – I’m not sure why you’d want to carry all those rounds – and second of all, it’s completely unnecessary. Just like the all-black uniform, the hip holster. Again, it’s part of this uniform that looks intimidating and scary: “We’re here for business, and our business is kicking ass and taking names…” and this sort of macho B.S.

And yeah, it’s totally unnecessary. We’re not in Beirut, we’re not in South Central L.A. Even there, I’m not sure how necessary it is. But certainly in Toronto and Southwestern Ontario, all the places I grew up, it’s not necessary. You’re never getting into a firefight where you’re going to fire all – whatever it is – fifteen rounds in your pistol and drop a mag and slap another one in to fire fifteen more rounds.

Unless you like to fire nine rounds into lightly armed young boys… in which case, maybe you do need all those rounds.

The key here is awareness and training. Officers need to be trained to deescalate situations. I was actually commended a number of times as a jail guard, by my captains, because I wasn’t the type of guard who went in, chest out, looking for trouble, wanting an inmate to say or do something so that I could come down hard on him. I learned how to talk, how to deflate potential trouble. I don’t know, maybe other guards thought of me as a wimp or something, but my goal and job there were to always have things as peaceful as possible. And that meant not being macho. Not having an attitude of “I’m gonna kick your butt.”

Police officers seem scary now in most situations. They don’t seem approachable or friendly anymore. The “serve and protect” motto seems to be rarely remembered. I would not approach an officer in Toronto and ask for directions somewhere, even though that’s what people used to do all the time. You’d look for a friendly neighbourhood police officer if you needed help. But nowadays, I don’t know. I would be intimidated and I wouldn’t want to do it.

2010_G20_Toronto police
Another occasion when use-of-force went haywire: Toronto Police and Ontario Provincial Police officers near the intersection of King Street West and University Avenue during the protests surrounding the G-20 Summit in Toronto in 2010 – from Wikimedia Commons.

I have so many questions. Is there really an increase in police violence, or does it just feel that way right now, since there was also a fatal police shooting (of Steve Mesic) in Hamilton this past June? And we still freshly remember the Taser death of Robert Dziekanski – and the investigation that seemed to go on and on, but also featured police overreaction. Do we just hear more about it because now every other person (at least) has a pocket video recorder?

In this CBC article on the police’s use of force in Hamilton, it’s said that violent crime is down, but use of force is up. Assuming that’s true, is there a good reason for it? Do we actually know which came first? Is the visible use of force effective in deterring crime? Are would-be criminals less likely to mess with authority when officers look more forbidding?

Certainly my husband would argue that meeting machismo with machismo leads not to calm, but to desperate behaviour – particularly violence.

I watched the video of Sammy Yatim’s shooting for the purpose of writing this post. What I saw was fear. Police officers who yelled at the nervously shifting figure on the streetcar from their phalanx position on the sidewalk, pointing their guns in an urgent stance, as if they were expecting a small army to exit the vehicle and attack. Then three shots. Then six more. All from the same side.

There was nothing about that group of officers that conveyed a feeling of control, of calm, of “We’ve got this,” even though there were six of them dealing with a single kid. They should have felt complete confidence to simply walk in and do their job.

Everybody knows you don’t put guns in the hands of twitchy, nervous people.

Is it true that police officers are feeling more fear? Is it because guns and gang violence are infiltrating Canada to a greater extent? Or is it because of the “war” terminology that’s been all the rage, especially since 9/11? Is it because of that new SWAT-team look that someone somewhere in some government decided was better? Are insidious expectations changing outcomes?

Does it suck to be a police officer in this position? How are you supposed to be the friendly neighbourhood police officer AND a soldier in the War On Everything? How are you supposed to serve and protect the public as well as intimidate and subdue the enemy? Those are totally different people skills.

Or maybe all this has to do with a few isolated incidents, and there is really no issue at all.

I have great admiration for police officers. I know I could not do their job. I couldn’t hold up to the stress of being faced every day with the most troubled and needful members of society – and being expected to know what to do with them.

I don’t know where we are headed, or how worried we should be. I’d like to hear your thoughts.

***

* I had to look this up: “As practiced by the Mafia, a code of silence about criminal activity and a refusal to give evidence to authorities.”

**Reminder of how crazy those American gun laws actually are: today I was asked to sign a petition to ban guns in Starbucks locations across the U.S. What the what?? People bring their guns to Starbucks??? NOT A JOKE, apparently. (And it makes the customers nervous. No shit.) No offense, Yankees, but we Canucks can’t process this. At Starbucks up here, we’re like, “Wear a shirt and shoes, please. Have a lovely day.”

***


 

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A Review of All Things Misérables

So I finally got to see the new Les Mis movie in mid-February, when it had been in theatres for a month and a half.

les_miserables_movie_poster
Just learned this awesome word: “oscarisé”. This director has been previously Oscarized. Way to go, Tom Hooper.

This is rather a travesty. I’m a musical geek. I could sing you most of the soundtracks for about a dozen different musicals.* I was also a French major; I studied much French lit, loved the Romantics, and I’ve even been to the Victor Hugo museum.

As you can imagine, this movie gave me a lot of feelings.

First, some back story. (Victor Hugo would want me to include this.)

Dilovely’s first exposure to Les Mis in any form was on a visit to family friends in Toronto. She was about 11. This family had the piano music for the Schönberg-Boublil-Kretzmer musical, and the dad was playing it while another friend, a girl around my age, swished her long skirt around and sang “Master of the House” and “On My Own”. She knew all the words. Mini-Di wished she were like this girl: confident, knowledgeable, able to sing in front of people. And the music… it was compelling. There was obviously great drama behind it.

It was the spring of 1990 when a copy of the Original Broadway Cast Recording, with Colm Wilkinson as Jean Valjean, came into Mini-Di’s household, via her aunt. It was a home recording, on cassette tape, of course.

She and her sister Emily became totally obsessed. ‘Twas in the days before lyrics.com (or anything .com), so Em transcribed the lyrics by hand in a little spiral-bound notebook, and Mini-Di read them and listened for the parts she couldn’t get. They knew every word – and every inflection, every quirk of accent, every nuance of instrumentation. They were of an age where they understood the concepts of poverty, prostitution, homeless people, revolution, and death – but only superficially. Suddenly this story, with its gorgeously sad music, was making tragedy real.

Soon, Dilovely would see the musical live at the Royal Alexandra Theatre – twice – and receive a Les Mis T-shirt for her birthday.

Fast-forward ten years. [That’s a Hugo tactic too.] In 2000, Dilovely was in France, having finished her French degree during which she was, inevitably, moved by Victor Hugo’s poetry. That year, the musical version of Hugo’s Notre-Dame de Paris was a wild success in Paris, starring Canadian Pierre Garand (a.k.a. Garou) as Quasimodo.

Dilovely found a copy of Les Misérables in the original French at Dunkerque’s Virgin Records store: two hefty paperback volumes totalling 1,948 pages (not counting appendices). She decided to make it her Everest.

Cosette-sweeping-les-miserables-emile-bayard-1862
“Cosette Sweeping” by Emile Bayard, 1862.

She spent over three months reading this chef-d’oeuvre (in between teaching and gallivanting), with her French-English dictionary close at hand. She adored it. She cried frequently over the story. When it was over, she mourned its finishing and missed the characters terribly. They had become family.

As you can imagine, she was rather stoked to find out that there would be a new movie of Les Mis, the first to incorporate the music from the musical, and the first movie-musical to use live (rather than pre-recorded and lip-synched) singing by the actors. She anticipated great things.

Then, poor Dilovely wasn’t sure she would even make it to see the movie in theatres.

It ended up being almost a covert op: get baby to sleep just in the nick of time, leave the house in a hurry to arrive less than two minutes before the opening scene, keep phone in bra for whole movie in case of emergency text from Auntie Em, return home as swiftly as possible once the movie is over, before baby remembers that she doesn’t know how to drink from the bottle. (She was chewing on the nipple happily enough when we came in, so it was better than nothing.)

So, here are my thoughts as a francophile/Les-Mis-devotee.

Firstly, A Note About The Book:

To be honest, after I’d read Les Misérables, I returned to the musical’s soundtrack and found it lacking. The book is incredibly rich, teeming with history both real and imagined.** Every character, major or minor, is endowed with a superbly crafted, heart-wrenching personal history. And Victor Hugo knew what he was doing; though I haven’t been able to find it for you, I remember reading a quotation from him in which he admitted that he strove to evoke powerful emotions in his readers – something on the order of “If y’all don’t cry reading this book, I’ll eat my hat,” but in erudite, Romantic French.

It was gratifying to see the movie and realize it recaptures some of the depth that was lost in the stage play.

General Notes:

  • This movie thoroughly impressed me: the performances, the singing abilities, the method acting, the sensitivity of the adaptation, the sound mixing (bonjour, Oscar!), the makeup (Oscar again), the costumes, the set design, the overall vision.
  • This movie contains some of the most raw acting I’ve ever seen. And I don’t mean raw as in under-done – I mean naked, harrowing, bare-your-soul-to-the-camera acting.
  • The main actors are apparently all Les Mis geeks, for whom playing these roles is a dream come true.
  • Their dedication to their roles is remarkable. For example:
    • Hugh Jackman drank no water for 36 hours prior to filming his convict scenes, to achieve the “gaunt” look;

    Film Religion

    • Eddie Redmayne sang 21 takes of “Empty Chairs at Empty Tables” to be satisfied with his work, even though the director was happy with take #12;

    eddie redmayne empty chairs at empty tables

    • and Anne Hathaway had them actually cut off her real hair, on camera.

    anne-hathaway-haircut-les-miserables-fantine

  • Sean, without previous exposure to the music, was not as thrilled with the movie. There were many scenes where he felt it would have been better if they’d spoken the dialogue instead of singing. I think that’s an unsolvable issue with movie musicals: when you put them onscreen, it’s just kinda strange that they’re singing. The same is true of Rent: when it’s a movie, you expect them to speak their dialogue, not sing it.
  • To combat this, I recommend listening repeatedly to the soundtrack until it’s part of the fabric of your being. Then it doesn’t seem incongruous at all.
  • While watching, I had occasional glimpses of how the movie might seem to an outsider, how it could be perceived as maudlin. I mean, the pathos is so thick you can chew on it. But that’s part of why we love it. I believe Hugo would have approved.

Comparison to the Stage Musical (spoiler warning, if you don’t already know the story… but who doesn’t?):

  • I noticed every time the music differed from the soundtrack in my head – alternate lyrics, more delicate instrumentation, and lots of abridged songs. (“Dog Eats Dog” was all but eliminated.)
  • The grit and sordidness of the time and place really come through on film. From the dizzying nosebleed section of the Royal Alex, you can’t fully appreciate how filthy everyone is. (Teeth especially.) On a movie set, one can achieve truly repulsive squalor. “Look Down”, “Lovely Ladies” and “Master of the House” are outstanding examples of this.
  • Similarly, the intimacy of film allows for plot subtleties that aren’t possible in stage format. Suddenly certain realities are clear:
    • Fantine’s dawning acceptance, as her hallucinations dissipate, of the fact that she is dying and must give up care of her daughter;
    • the poignant youth and naïveté of the students;
    • Valjean’s jealousy and panic when he realizes Cosette will not always be his;
    • the gendarme’s regret after shooting Gavroche;
    • the pathetic haphazardness of the barricade, and indeed the “revolution” as a whole.
  • I loved the new song, “Suddenly”, sung by Valjean when he takes little Cosette into his care. This was one of the book’s plot points missing entirely from the musical: rescuing Cosette completely changes Valjean’s outlook and priorities. His love for her is immediate, intense, beautiful, and drives basically all of his subsequent actions. He is fiercely protective and fearful at the same time, as parents are. I was very glad they reincorporated this element.

Specific Notes:

  • The opening scene blew me away. “Goosebumps” doesn’t remotely cover it.
  • Hugh Jackman made me cry, especially in the Soliloquy at the beginning. I loved almost every aspect of his performance.
  • My only quibble was that I wished “Bring Him Home” were more wistful/delicate. But it’s, like, one of the hardest solos in the world, and he sang admirably.
  • Anne Hathaway made me cry multiple times, even though her character lasts for less than half the movie. I’m glad she won the Oscar.
  • I’d been warned that Amanda Seyfried as Cosette sings like a Chipmunk. I understood the reference immediately – it’s true that her vibrato is very trembly and the part is written super-high – but her pitch is right on and I thought she did a good job overall.
  • I was also warned that Russell Crowe as Javert was the weak link. I can’t disagree; his singing – especially his consonants – were tentative where they should have been full of conviction (no pun intended). His performance was lacklustre. But again, his pitch was good, and his duet with Jackman was solid – especially the low note on “Monsieur le maire, you wear a different chain” – so I forgive him.
  • Sacha Baron Cohen and Helena Bonham-Carter as the Thénardiers were appropriately gaudy and repellent, although I didn’t love Sacha’s constantly mutating accent. But I guess accents are his thing.
  • Eddie Redmayne is totally endearing as Marius. Earnest and freckly and boyish. He completely won me over with his delivery of the line, “I’m doing everything all wrong.”
  • Colm Wilkinson! Was in it! As the Bishop of Digne. I didn’t even recognize him – or his voice – while I was watching… so I guess I’ll have to see it again.
  • I appreciated the parts that recreated certain stage moments, like Valjean’s burdened silhouette in the sewer, and the angle at which Enjolras dies. My inner geek-self was tickled. (If you’re thinking, Um, Dilovely, what other self do you have? then yeah. Touché.)
  • I also appreciated the bits that gave us information from the book that was not in the stage version; for example:
    • we get to see the elephant statue that, in the book, is home to Gavroche and a bunch of other urchins.
    • we also catch sight of young Cosette’s doll that looks like a bundle of rags tied together; readers know she has wrapped up a little lead knife to be her doll. (I KNOW – how heartbreaking is that??)
  • I was confused for a moment by the enormous barricade that appears in the finale, with the whole cast singing atop it. I guess it’s probably reminding us that less than 20 years after the end of the story, in 1848, the French people would rise up for real and force King Louis-Philippe to abdicate – using a MUCH bigger barricade.

Notes on Revisiting the Story After Many Years:

  • As my understanding of the world increases, this story seems more and more relevant – and sad. There are people all over the world who still face tragic circumstances like those in Les Misérables, even though as a species, we should know better.
  • Fantine’s story touches me more now that I’m a mom. The idea of being obliged to give my child to someone else to look after and just hoping for the best, yearning for her all the time… Furthermore, knowing I’m going to leave the mortal plane and never hold her again… Just awful.
  • Hugo’s own story also hits home a lot more. His firstborn son died in infancy, and his second child Léopoldine drowned at age 19, shortly after being married. He knew all about pain, and also about passion, and politics. And he observed poverty all around him – the conditions he describes in the Les Misérables were not imagined. No wonder it’s an amazing book.
  • I need to read it again someday, even though it would probably take me… an embarrassingly long time.
  • And if you enjoyed the musical or the movie or even just the plot, I highly recommend reading it yourself.

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  • BONUS Factoid/Recommendation:
liberty-leading-the-people-1830
La Liberté guidant le peuple, by Eugène Delacroix.

This is one of my favourite Romantic paintings, commemorating the July Revolution of 1830 in Paris. The little boy right beside Lady Liberty is said to have inspired Hugo’s Gavroche. I fell in love with this after seeing it discussed on video by Sister Wendy, and later had the privilege of seeing it at the Louvre. Sister Wendy is amazing and so is the painting.

***

*West Side Story, Showboat, Cats, Evita, Les Mis, Joseph, Miss Saigon, Assassins, Falsettos, A New Brain, Once On This Island, Rent, Parade… Sisters, what am I forgetting?

**For example, there is a section entitled “Waterloo”, a gruesome 70-page depiction of battle and its remains, related to the story only as historical context – and a vehicle to introduce Thénardier in the last few pages. I wrote a paper on it, about Hugo’s manipulation of time, during my M.A. That’s how much I love Hugo.

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Too much to say, too little to say

wooden angels in newtown connecticut

Sean asked me yesterday if I blog to try to “make sense of the world.”

Yes. Absolutely. That has never been more true than now.

I also blog because, as I know from keeping a diary for so long, it helps a lot in painful moments. It’s a way for me to remove a piece of what’s making my mind hurt, look at it from a small distance, not quite so close to my heart, and begin to let it be… if just a little bit.

I know there’s an overabundance of writing on the topic of Newtown, but I am compelled to add to it anyway. This week, I can’t write a normal blog post about funny things my kid says, or Christmas preparations, or teacher politics.

Because this week, when I think about teachers, I can only think about the educators at Sandy Hook – the ones who never expected to lay down their lives in the course of their jobs, and the other ones who, from now on, will always wonder when they might have to. I’ve only read two news articles about the shooting, but they were enough to brand forever on my brain the thought of a teacher shot dead while shielding her tiny students with her body.

I don’t know how you ever teach again, after surviving a catastrophe like Sandy Hook.

This week, when I think about kids, it’s worse. Obviously, I think about my children all the time, but now there’s this underlying horror with too many strands to put my finger on… I look at them, my vivacious three-year-old son, my wide-eyed baby daughter, both so beautiful it makes me ache, and I feel guilt-gratitude-tumult-terror-overwhelminglove…

… and I wonder… How do I deserve these beautiful children… How could I have brought them into this messed-up world… What would I do if something like – what would I do if – what would I…

… Oh God. And I can’t wonder any further.

It might sound like a strange thing to say, but I’m thankful that Sebastian died the way he did. If I had to lose a son, it’s a blessing to feel sure that he didn’t suffer, never had a chance to be scared or alone or even to cry. His was the most peaceful death possible.

Of course, I know this doesn’t death-proof my other children.

There is no word for how crazy it is to me that pro-gun types are advocating more guns right now. The idea of guns in an elementary school is so, so wrong that my brain can’t even process it. People actually dare to make the argument that if the teachers at Sandy Hook had had access to their own guns, not as many people would have died that day. This may be mathematically true (maybe), but guns in school classrooms is a tragedy unto itself. And let’s be realistic: there’s no way those guns wouldn’t do harm, and most likely unnecessary harm.

As a Canadian born of pacifist parents, my mind is boggled that anyone could possibly believe anything contrary to

MORE GUNS = MORE DEATH FROM GUNS.

It’s already proving to be true in Canada, even though we have no “right to bear arms”, and we don’t generally have the cowboy mentality toward guns that is common in the U.S. We are still utterly shocked and outraged when someone opens fire in a public place in Toronto, but the frequency is increasing: our gun problem is growing. As more illegal firearms enter the country across the border, more people get shot. Period.

It’s common knowledge that the majority of gun crimes are committed by males. I don’t disagree with people who say it’s because society puts too much emphasis on male toughness of a certain kind, but I think it’s deeper than that.

It’s scary: somehow, little boys seem hardwired to think guns are cool. I noticed it while teaching kindergarten last year: young boys – even the quiet, gentle ones – seem to gravitate toward games involving guns. They’ll turn almost any inanimate object into a gun – to “shoot bad guys”, of course.

My father, who, along with my mother, transplanted himself decades ago to a new country to avoid being obliged to kill people, has admitted that he ate puffed wheat as a kid solely because it was “shot from guns”. (So ironic that it’s “Quaker”.)

My own son, with no toy weapons and zero violent TV or video games in the house, has been known to say, “Guns are cool,” and, if we allowed it, would do plenty of pretend-shooting.

If I were to see him do that that right now, I think I would burst into tears.

To me, this is the greatest argument for gun control. Wherever this “manly” urge to shoot stuff comes from, it’s far more likely to reach fruition if there is easy access to guns. Add mental illness into the mix, and obviously, it’s deadly. Since neither the urge nor the illness is going to be eradicated, it’s the third ingredient that has to go.

The other question that I can’t get out of my head is: Why is this so much worse?

I remember the massacre at Ecole Polytechnique in 1989 – the one that deeply shocked our nation, and spurred much tighter gun control laws, along with discussion of childhood abuse and mental illness. It filled us all with fear and incredible sorrow. I also remember Columbine, and Virginia Tech. And I know that countless innocent people die violent deaths every day in countries filled with war and terrorism. On the same day as the Newtown tragedy, sixteen people died from a car bomb in Damascus – which was forgotten by news sources almost immediately.

Why does this awful event haunt me – and all of us, it seems – so much more?

Not just because it’s still so raw. Not just because it was so unexpected, so appallingly incongruous in that little town. Not just because a massacre in America is so much rarer than a car bombing in the Middle East.

I think it has to do with how easy it is to put yourself into the scene. I saw pictures of those parents, rushing to the school to find out if their children were safe or dead, powerless to stop the world being ripped from under their feet… and they could be me. I think of those traumatized teachers and students, and I can’t help picturing the faces of my own wonderful students and colleagues at my school. They could be us.

And then. They were so young.

The murder of innocents is almost impossible to take.

On Easter Sunday in 1997, I was eighteen years old. I sat in silence at Quaker Meeting in my hometown, reeling from the news of the murder of two-year-old Zachary Antidormi, remembering the Dunblane school shooting a year before, feeling like the world should be ending, and composing this poem in my head.

Light is in everything
But a shadow fell upon a woman
at a moment
Blade in hand she slayed Innocence
and God was not in that knife.
Baby Angel of momentum growing
    now impossibly stopped.
This is a shadow where anguish is complete and
Innocence hides.

Light is in everything
But a darkness possessed a man
on a morning
A score of bullets tore Innocence
and God was not in that gun.
Tiny Spirits of energy flowing
    now indelibly cut.
This is a darkness where heartbreak is real and
Innocence cries.

Your words     life      rebirth       hope        spring      chances
fall alien on my ears like a sick joke

Tell me God needs little students and maybe
a little guard to help them across
    but not
that God’s hand wields knives and machine guns.

Remind us how to find Innocence
    somehow
because that is where God’s Light lives.

We are in the darkest time of year, in our corner of the world. Hannukah has just ended, Christmas is almost here, and we are filling our homes with light, warding off that darkness.

As Hawksley Workman wrote, “the darkness defines where the light is.” When I lost my son, I suddenly understood these words. At the awfulest moments, humanity’s love can be a very powerful thing. It plunges into the hole with you, and gradually, it can help you climb out and stand up again.

Humanity’s love being sent to Newtown right now is immense and beautiful. Let us find ways to be part of it.

newtown-memorial

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For my sparkly grandmother

I have a necklace my maternal grandmother bequeathed to me. She bought it in Greece, on a long-ago voyage. Whenever I wear it, I get compliments on it. I say, “It used to be my grandmother’s,” and people are taken aback, because it’s so funky and contemporary-looking. I’ve always simply said, “She’s a really stylish lady.”

About eight years ago, Gramma Sue, as she’s known to us, endeavoured to write down the story of her life, and then recorded herself reading it.

Last Saturday, she shed her mortality. With it, she shed her blindness, her immobility, her increasing forgetfulness, and the frail, uncomfortable husk of her body.

Over the past few days, listening to her voice reading her story, it was wonderful to hear her as I will always remember her: articulate, philosophical, funny, and vital – not to mention grammatically impeccable.

When we, her grandchildren, picture her life as she told it, it’s like something out of a movie. In high school in Indiana, she was popular, a go-getter, participating in (and usually leading) honor societies, student council, social club, dramatic club. When she was eighteen, she read the book Wind, Sand and Stars by Antoine de Saint-Exupéry, and developed a passionate ambition to fly a plane. She was turned down at age 19 for a flight-training course offered by the government, but enjoyed working for an airline for several years. (She worked in reservations, which had always been done exclusively by men; she told United Airlines that they would need women in these jobs as the war drew away the men, and they might as well start with her, so they did!)

She was also intelligent, full of humour, and beautiful, with a vivacious, twinkly smile – drawing comparisons to pin-up girls – and was understandably sought-after. But she didn’t date – or kiss – just anyone. In her love life, she wouldn’t be satisfied with anything but the real thing.

 

Sue - 1940

She met Frank on a blind date set up by her sister; he was rooming with a friend’s family. She didn’t particularly want to go on the date, and did not have very high expectations. On seeing his picture, she dismissed him as “too handsome – probably spoiled”. Continue reading “For my sparkly grandmother”

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