On Hearing of Marcel Prud’homme’s Passing

We called him The Dinosaur. Tall, old, he walked like he had roamed the earth for centuries. It was a slow walk yet you noticed him coming from afar. With each step, he seemed surprised the terrain under his feet still held him. There was a slight suspension of activity when he entered the Senate Chamber, the way a warm wind catches your face.

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Sénateur Marcel Prud’homme greets fans in the House of Commons on Thurs, Nov 26, 2009 (his last work day). Prud’homme passed away at the age of 82 on January 25, 2017. Photo by Canadian Press.

Sénateur Prud’homme was the kind of man who shook your hand vigorously and generously. There aren’t many Senators’ speeches I remember from my days as a Senate Page, but a section from his comes back to me after ten years. It wasn’t a controversial debate or a throw-your-papers-on-your-desk finale to a vitriolic attack. I remember it because it sounded less like politics and more like poetry, something I hadn’t heard much up until then or would hear again in my two years in Parliament, and something that politics needs to hear more of. Sénateur Prud’homme had just returned from Russia where he had received the Order of Friendship that honours citizens in the Russian Federation and foreign citizens who have made a significant contribution to strengthen peace and mutual understanding between peoples and states.

Sénateur Prud’homme proudly wore his medal in the Senate Chamber where his colleagues recognized his achievement in strengthening Canada-Russia relations. In his thank you speech, he said:

If I dedicate this medal to anyone, it would be to the young people of Canada. I would tell them: Do not be afraid to stand up and fight for something you believe in. If you are lonely or if, at times, no one listens, then reach out. As I said in La Presse yesterday, my policy is reaching out. If there is no one to take my hand at first, then I reach out again the day after. I know that at the end of the day people will establish contact.

And then, so you can get a sense of his humour, he concluded with:

I am speaking with great passion. I must calm down. I will be going back to my so-called seniors’ residence to confront another great experience next Tuesday.

I wanted to remember his exact words so I actually requested a copy of the Senate recordings of the day called the Hansard. (This was not something I did often).

Upon hearing of Marcel Prud’homme’s death recently, I’ve thought of him more than I expected to. He’s someone I wouldn’t have known had I not worked in Parliament. I was surprised to read he never married and didn’t have any children or grandchildren. He would have been an epic grandfather in all senses of the word. He looked like the kind of man who would have a family, more so than a lot of the men on Parliament Hill who did have families but treated work like theirs instead.

Sénateur Prud’homme was an unhurried man who liked to joke. I remember an Anglophone colleague recounting a time when he entered the Chamber in his slow and gargantuan way where she was standing at the door. He had said, “Ah, je suis vieux et décadent.” She replied, “Vieux? Non. Mais décadent? Oui!” She thought she was paying him a compliment based on her knowledge of President’s Choice Decadent chocolate chip cookies. He had given her a funny look and we all laughed and laughed when this story circulated around the Page office.

It’s unfortunate he didn’t leave behind any memoirs. I’m sure he could fill enough books that stacked as tall as he was.

This tribute is my way of saying thank you Sénateur Prud’homme for reaching your hand out. A nineteen-year-old girl shook it one day and the effect hasn’t worn off.

The Paris Wife

As I will be visiting Paris for the first time this year, I’m getting more and more excited by reading stories set there.

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I recently finished The Paris Wife by Paul McLain that fictionalizes the marriage of Ernest Hemingway to his first wife Hadley Richardson from 1921 to 1927. The story is told through Hadley’s voice.

There are always two sides to a story and after discovering Hemingway’s Paris memoir A Moveable Feast that also focuses on his years with Hadley, I was intrigued at what her version would say. Since she didn’t write her own memoir, we have to rely on McLain’s research.

She made the time period and the characters come alive for me. Hadley and Hemingway’s meeting and early dating in Chicago felt a little cliché, but the book really sang when they moved to Paris as newlyweds. In the prologue, the narrator writes:

This isn’t a detective story—not hardly. I don’t want to say, Keep watch for the girl who will come along and ruin everything, but she’s coming anyway, set on her course in a gorgeous chipmunk coat and fine shoes, her sleek brown hair bobbed so close to her well- made head she’ll seem like a pretty otter in my kitchen.

Of course, when someone says don’t keep watch that’s the very thing I do. Every time there was a new woman introduced into the story (and there are a lot of characters since Hadley and Ernest hung around other expat artists and their partners like the Fitzgeralds, Gertrude Stein, and Ezra Pound), I wondered if this would be the woman who destroyed their marriage.

I also kept watch for Hemingway. I noticed McLain treated him very carefully—too carefully. It seemed as if she wanted to acknowledge his cruelty towards Hadley while still making him likeable. There are hints of Hemingway’s bravado and aggression in living room boxing matches he has with friends and in his appetite for watching Spanish bull fights, but apart from one tumultuous quarrel, all his and Hadley’s marital tension is unsaid or so subtle it feels unrealistic. For a character known as a hothead, Hemingway speaks remarkably cool, reserved, and casual throughout the novel.

I felt for Hadley in the net she was caught in—trying to believe in marriage in an age and place where marriage was becoming less and less defined. Men tried keeping a wife and a mistress in the same house. Hemingway and Hadley tried this with their friend Pauline who ended up being the woman to keep watch for, and you can imagine this arrangement worked out swimmingly for everyone involved (high sarcasm there).

Not everyone believed in marriage then. To marry was to say you believed in the future and in the past, too—that history and tradition and hope could stay knit together to hold you up. But the war had come and stolen all the fine young men and our faith, too. There was only today to throw yourself into without thinking about tomorrow, let alone forever. To keep you from thinking, there was liquor, an ocean’s worth at least, all the usual vices and plenty of rope to hang yourself with. But some of us, a very few in the end, bet on marriage against the odds. And though I didn’t feel holy, exactly, I did feel that what we had was rare and true—and that we were safe in the marriage we had built and were building every day.

Was Hadley as naive as McLain makes her out to be? I don’t know. I think you can be hopeful without being naive, but it does take her an awfully long time to clue into her husband’s infidelity. She is a good and faithful wife, but as Aritha van Herk writes in her review in The Globe and Mail, there are some definite moments in the book where Hadley could have been more nuanced, like when she loses a suitcase carrying literally all of Hemingway’s work (it was stolen on a train). She is all tears and apologies, but doesn’t she ever have moments of selfishness? Hemingway certainly did.

In reading this fictionalized memoir in the 21st century, I found it hard to completely sympathize with Hadley because she is portrayed as perfectly content to make her life dreams her husband’s. Her biggest streak of independence is playing the piano and practicing for a concert that she never ends up doing because that’s when she finds out about the affair. Certainly not every woman in this time period sacrificed like Hadley—look at Zelda Fitzgerald. Not saying she’s a healthy example either but finding your identity in your husband’s doesn’t leave you with much when the marriage dissolves.

I’d recommend reading A Moveable Feast and then The Paris Wife to see how the two accounts compare since McLain heavily drew on Hemingway’s memoir to create her version of this famous and tragic marriage.

Drawn in by Degas

My favourite outing the few times I’m in Houston is visiting their Museum of Fine Arts. I happened to be there recently when Degas: A New Vision was on display and got to see this retrospective exhibit of this famous French Impressionist’s work—the largest in the US in nearly 30 years!

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The exhibit begins with an insightful chronology of Edgar Degas’s life. I cherished this quote from his family because it shows such familial concern yet tenderness for their hardworking artist—something that all families of artists have felt at one time or another. I wish I could have told them from where I stand in history that it’ll be alright.

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Degas painted everybody everywhere—from prostitutes sitting in cafés to bourgeois women at concerts; from male patrons loitering backstage at ballets to businessmen making deals on the streets; from the ordinary event of women washing their hair to the spectacle of Parisian society watching a horse race. All these types of paintings were on display at MFAH but I’ll show you a few of my favourites that were particularly exciting to see in person.

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Edgar Degas, Rehearsal Hall at the Opéra, rue Le Peletier (1872).

I appreciate that Degas didn’t just paint final performances. He showed the work of preparing for a show—the stretches, repetition, boredom, sweat, and fatigue. He did countless drawings of ballerinas’ movements before he painted them (many of which were also on exhibit), and I like how the description on one of the panels said Degas became such a master of technique that he could tell when a ballerina had done a move incorrectly.

It’s also fascinating to see how he edited his preliminary drawings when he added them to his paintings. Notice in At the Louvre (1879) how the two women change position and the umbrella changes hands. Interesting fact: the woman leaning on her umbrella was fellow Impressionist painter Mary Cassatt.

This ballet rehearsal was probably my favourite to see transformed from a textbook page to the colours and brush strokes on the gallery wall:

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Edgar Degas, The Rehearsal (1874).

The composition is so striking. Degas crams all the figures into the upper left and bottom right corners, leaving your eye to wander up the middle where the central ballerina leans forward on one leg. Her outstretched arm connects the gap between her and famous Parisian dance master Jules Perrot. Degas literally renders a slice of contemporary life here through the truncated legs on and around the staircase and the two cropped groups of ballet students—one set working, the other waiting.

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Edgar Degas, Theatre Box (1880).

Degas has the reputation of being an acute observer of contemporary life. You can see that in the painting above where he isolates a female theatre-goer in an ornate box. The artificial light of the stage reflects back on her face, making her look ghostly. Going to the theatre is a social event (especially for this time period in Paris), so why is she alone? Degas captures the alienation typical of modernity. I think this painting is another way of showing that feeling of being alone on a crowded street.

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Edgar Degas, In a Café (The Absinthe Drinker) (1875-76).

The last work I’ll mention is In A Café (The Absinthe Drinker). Talk about alienation! This painting so moved me when I first studied it in undergrad that years later I wrote a short story about a blind date inspired by it. I like how Robert L. Herbert describes what’s going on in Impressionism: Art, Leisure, and Parisian Society:

Shoulders slumped, eyes cast down, feet splayed out, her costume frowzy, she is the café habituée rooted to her seat, without aspirations. She will derive little comfort from the man next to her, the kind of elbow-leaner who will remain there for hours, eventually shuffling off to an uncertain destination. This is one of Degas’s most devastating images of public life.

There are many devastating things about this painting—how the floating tables trap the man and woman behind their drinks; how the two figures sit beside each other without engaging; how Degas seats us at the table diagonal to these forlorn figures, watching all this as if we too are supposed to be as detached as the painter but we cannot help but be drawn in.

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Small Town Texas, Big Taste

On our Christmas trip to Texas I told my husband (the Artist) that I wanted to see more of Texas.

So we went to Nacogdoches, the oldest town in Texas with a fun name to say (the “g” is silent). We toured the outside of Stephen F. Austin State University, his alma mater.

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I thought these circular dorm buildings were particularly interesting. I was reminded of the round room we had in the turret of the Empress Hotel in Victoria.

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We walked through the arboretum along the creek where we took in some swinging benches, lovely bridges, and alarming student public art.

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The trail opened out onto a grove of pecan trees, aptly named Pecan Park.

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The downtown was small but charming with its cobblestone streets and red brick buildings. The 28 degree Celsius weather certainly didn’t make it feel like Christmas, but it was fun to see the decorations regardless.

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They sure know how to do their window displays.

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But what I’ll remember most about Nacogdoches are these Texas-sized onion rings my husband accidentally ordered, wanting to make sure the four of us had enough. After living in Canada for so long, he forgets what “Texas-sized” actually means. Oh we had enough alright. The pile was so high a table of eight looked at us incredulously when the waitress placed it in front of us.

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The other small town we visited was Lockhart. It has a beautiful courthouse but we went for their barbecue at Smitty’s Market.

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This unassuming place (behind the motorcycle) was named one of the Top Barbecue Restaurants in Texas, and my taste buds would agree. The smell that hits you when you walk into the barbecue pit is enough to get you salivating, and you’ll be salivating for a while as the line-up is long (for good reason, though it goes pretty quickly).

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You watch the apron-clad employees take the meat from the smoker and cut it on a table right in front of you, the walls black with decades of built-up grease (it opened in 1948). My father-in-law warned me not to lean up against the walls because you’d be taking some of that grease home with you.

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De-li-cious. We devoured brisket, ribs, and pork chops on the tailgate of his truck. A stranger walking by took in the sight of the three of us and said, “Ain’t that the life?”

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In that moment I felt like this bumper sticker I got in my stocking was not far off the mark.

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La La Land of Sun and Shadows

I used to not enjoy watching movies that were musicals—the unreality of everyone in town bursting out of doors, grabbing props, knowing all the words and having the same choreographed movements to a song. I felt this way in Mamma Mia. Also, the plots of these musicals seem to be paper thin, inferior to the song and dance numbers. Maybe my tastes have changed, or I’ve gotten better at suspension of disbelief, or this movie integrated plot and song better because I really enjoyed Damien Chazelle’s La La Land starring Emma Stone and Ryan Gosling. It was one of the most whimsical and magical movies I’ve seen. (warning: spoilers ahead)

From the opening scene of traffic gridlock on an LA freeway where drivers come out of their cars singing the same cheerful song (“Another Day of Sun”) and dancing on their hoods and trunks, it sets the tone that yes, this is going to be a musical, there is going to be singing, and there are going to be scenes that would never happen in real life. I went along with it. Thankfully the plot still held up without the songs, of which there actually weren’t that many.

This movie is significantly set in LA where young dreamers go to chase their dream. This might show my ignorance but until looking up “la la land” in the Oxford American Dictionary, I didn’t realize its origin is actually a reduplication of LA and refers to “Los Angeles or Hollywood, especially with regard to the lifestyle and attitudes of those living there or associated with it, i.e. a fanciful state or dreamworld.” True enough.

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Gosling plays Sebastien or Seb, a 30-something jazz pianist afraid that classical jazz is going to die and dreams of opening his own jazz club where he can play all the free jazz he wants to and not get fired over deviating from a stilted Christmas set list that happens when we meet him at the beginning of the film.

Stone plays Mia, a barista who goes from audition to audition, trying to catch her big break and become an actress. She is not having much luck though. She reluctantly goes along to parties with her roommates in the hopes of meeting someone who can help her out, since it’s implied that it’s all who you know.

In this La La Land where characters are living in their fantasy more than their reality, Mia and Sebastien keep running into each other, including at one of these parties, and you know how it goes from there. I went into this movie excited to see the extremely talented and likeable pairing of Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone after their evident chemistry in Crazy, Stupid Love , and they were fantastic. It didn’t matter that their singing wasn’t flawless, though it was definitely adequate. It had a rawness to it that made it more genuine and endearing.

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Their love story plays out against the backdrop of them pursuing their work dreams and all the ups and downs along the way. One of these “downs” is Sebastien joining a pop-jazz group called The Messengers so he can have a steady gig even though Mia thinks he’s selling out to do so. Tired of vacuous auditions, Mia writes and performs her own play to a very small audience that her own boyfriend failed to make it to due to a commitment with his band. Many other reviewers have picked up on this as well but it struck me immediately after watching the movie that we see all these scenes of Sebastien playing the kind of jazz that makes him come alive, but we never see Mia acting in her play that makes her come alive. Although he reads her script and tells her it’s amazing, Sebastien never once sees Mia act. As this Vox article states, the movie does care more for Sebastien’s character. Ultimately, Mia does get an audition which she nails in what is the most heart-wrenching and gutsiest song  (“Here’s to the hearts that ache, / Here’s to the mess we make”), but it lands her a role in Paris and their long-distance relationship doesn’t work out or was never attempted. Before she leaves, they say to each other, “I’ll always keep loving you.”

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The movie ends five years later where Mia is an A-list actress, happily coming home to a daughter and a husband who is not Sebastien. Her and her husband go out to dinner and step into a jazz club called Seb’s where they see the man himself and he sees her. When he sits down to the keys, he plays his and Mia’s theme song, a melancholic waltz more than jazz. Mia’s mind goes down memory lane in one of the loveliest montages of the film where she imagines every scene—how things were supposed to be, who they were supposed to be with. It’s very bittersweet. Mia and Seb look at each other from across the room before she leaves, and there is a small smile on both their faces, proud of what the other has become, but also pained that they did it apart and that road is closed off to them now.

I read that this ending is divisive and some people really don’t like it. I do, though I will admit that the trailer and sunny opening sequence don’t set you up for this “shadow side.” It defied the predictable ending I was expecting from a movie classified as a musical romantic comedy, and it also seemed a more realistic commentary on La La Land: maybe you can’t have it all.

A Crafty Winter

Happy New Year! I’ve been waiting for Christmas to be over in one aspect: so I can finally share some of my sewing projects I’ve been up to.

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This year I decided to make gifts for the women in my family. It was a great way to avoid all the malls and crowds and give something a bit more personal, though I probably won’t touch the sewing machine for some time now.

Table Runners

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I know how to sew garments pretty well, but when it comes to basic things like a table runner that doesn’t even require any seams, I’m out of my element and turning to google. I found my inspiration and directions from Apartment Therapy, where the placement of multiple table runners along the width of the table added a more contemporary look to the dining room. I also like how the table runner doubles as a placemat.

I cut out four rectangles, making sure when I folded over the raw edge 1/2″, the finished width was wide enough to fit a plate and cutlery on either side. Mine were 16″. However, I found that it lacked a certain je ne sais quoi when I tested it on my table, so I added red seam binding to all the edges.

img_4109The seam binding was a bit tricky at the corners. I folded and pinned them like this and then hand-sewed the gap together.

Here is how a finished one looked:

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Pillows

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I had also never made pillows. They’re not terribly hard, but they do take a while to get the hang of, especially if you want a full-looking pillow, rather than a saggy one. I discovered a great trick of cutting the fabric the same length and width as the pillow because the pillow form will stuff into it and make it look healthier.

I did two Christmas-themed pillows, using the dark red/maroon colour as a way to tie them together.

For the abstract lace Christmas trees, I followed directions from Make It & Love It. I was thrilled when I saw almost the exact same green zigzag fabric at Fabricland! Instead of doing 2 layers of lace trim, I had a lot of maroon ribbon to use up so I sewed a strand of that on each lace piece (9 in total), and then added the silver buttons for stars. Make sure you sew all these pieces to one piece of fabric before you sew the two rectangles together!

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The Canadian-themed pillow was my own pattern. I cut out the maple leaf from the leftover squares of this patchwork quilt fabric, sewed it together, turned it inside out, and handstitched the gap. I’m particularly pleased with how the envelope back turned out so that you can actually take the pillow case off and wash it if needed. Instructions on how to do that also from Make It & Love It.

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Fox Apron

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The last project I’ll mention because it’s so darn cute and was probably my favourite to make was this fox apron from Simple as That that I discovered on Pinterest. The main adjustment I did was instead of using white glue to fasten the paw pockets, ears, eyes, nose, and cheeks, I cut out backs for everything (including the face) so there would be no raw edges and fraying seams. This also meant I didn’t make mine reversible, but I didn’t think that was a great loss because if you have the option to wear a fox or a floral print as a little girl, chances are you’re going to go for the fox. So I altered the free pattern you can download from the site to allow room for seam allowances. I’m really happy with how it turned out, and my niece loves it too!

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