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.

prudhomme

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.

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Stopping People

Stopping strangers has become a habit of mine. Habit might be too strong of a word. Tendency, perhaps.

Before moving to the city, I explored a Vancouver neighbourhood to see if it was an area I wanted to consider living in. I walked the streets and stopped a girl who looked about my age. “Hey, do you live around here?”

My neighbourhood

She did. She liked it. That was enough for me.

A week later, I moved and ran into her on the way to Granville Street. This time she stopped me.

“So you moved here?”

“Yeah, I did!” I was excited to make my first friend in the neighbourhood.

Turns out we live four buildings away from each other on the same street. A few days later, she came over one evening to help me eat brownies. We shared our stories.

There are so many people to meet, I can get overwhelmed thinking about it. So many possibilities, so many conversations, so many intersections.

Possibility

My friends laugh when I tell them about my street-stopping antics. I think they think I just go up to everyone now and talk to them. This is hardly the case. There are some people who I won’t stop. Or just don’t.

I started thinking though, is it really strange to stop people? It’s normal for this guy, and look at all the amazing stories he hears because he simply stops people on the street and asks them a few questions. I know it’s his job, but still. What a great job.

I recently met my apartment neighbour for the first time. I guess I could have knocked on her door if I really wanted to meet her earlier, (I was fairly certain she was a girl because of the wreath on her door), but I like when things happen more naturally. For instance, we both happen to be locking our doors at the same time, climbing up the stairs, or collecting our mail. And so it happened in such a way the other day. I arrive on my floor and hear the sound of a key turning. It sounds like it’s near my suite so I walk a little faster to make sure I don’t miss the few seconds between the opening and closing of a door. I’m not too late.

The open door

“Hey neighbour!” I exclaim. “I’ve been waiting to meet you!” (No, I don’t say the second part, but I’m thinking it).

“Hey!” she says back. She’s slightly older than I am, fiddling with the handle on a piece of luggage. Turns out she wasn’t around earlier anyway because she had gone abroad for a month. She welcomes me to the building. I welcome her back to Canada. We don’t talk long, but long enough for me to think I’d like to invite her over sometime. She says at the end, “Thanks for saying hi. You’re the first person who’s ever introduced themselves to me in this building.”

“Oh, really? How long have you lived here?”

“Four years.”

Four years and no one’s ever said hi?! Not even over the one token laundry machine in the building shared amongst thirty people where you’re bound to run into someone? But I’m not really shocked. You can see how easily it happens. Wake up, go to work, come home, eat, sleep. Repeat. Everybody in their separate apartments, separate cars, separate spaces, separate worlds. As I asked last week, “Are we together or are we alone together?

Are we together or are we alone together?

I’m finding I’m getting stopped myself more often. Maybe it’s that idea that what you put out into the world, you get back. Some kind of magnetism.

I got stopped for two hours on the Seawall last Sunday from a grandfatherly Greek man who approached me with the question, “How’s the book?”

I am slowly working my way through The Brothers Karamazov (my summer project) and the answer to that question is not a simple, one-word answer. It’s mentally and spiritually exhausting and exhilarating at the same time and maybe I was relieved to have someone to talk about it with. Some books scream to be discussed and when you’re not sitting in an English class anymore, you have to work harder to make it mean something. The funny thing is, we didn’t end up talking much about the book, and I didn’t end up doing most of the talking. I think he really needed to tell his story to someone so I just happened to be in the right place at the right time. I sat on the bench and listened. He wants to write his story in a book one day, but he told me the time is not yet. He has to go away to write it.

How’s the book?

In my Ottawa life, I lay on a bench one afternoon, eyes to the sky, soaking up the sun behind the Parliament buildings when another stranger stopped me. He asked me what I was thinking about. I don’t recall I was thinking about anything profound but his question intrigued me. Hardly anyone begins a conversation this way.

What are you thinking about?

In one of my short stories, a girl stops a guy who is painting en plein air and it is the start of something new for each of them.

I think I like stops so much because they aren’t really stops in the sense that they’re roadblocks or endings. They’re more like beginnings. Time out of the day to see someone or something differently. I wrote about another one here.

Time to see differently

After encounters like these, I often think, “This should happen more often.” There’s something kind of magical about strangers’ lives intersecting at a particular moment in time, in a particular space, for a particular conversation that both people probably need to have.

You come to someone and they come to you. Of course it’s a little scary, but then I remember Jim’s words to Laura in The Glass Menagerie:

People are not so dreadful when you know them.

And it’s true. They’re lovely, actually.

Talking through Walls

How do you renovate a historic building to respond to structural concerns while still keeping its heritage look that people have come to know and love?

This is an old architectural dilemma that frequently comes up for those involved in restoration work.

Take the Victoria Memorial Museum Building in Ottawa (more commonly known as the  Museum of Nature).

Museum of Nature

Canadian Museum of Nature

Built between 1905 and 1911, it mimics the Neo-Gothic Parliament buildings on the opposite end of Metcalfe Street:

Parliament, Ottawa

and the Beaux-Arts museums of its day, such as the Victoria and Albert Museum in London:

Victoria and Albert Museum, London

Unfortunately, the Museum of Nature was built on bad foundation that started sinking a century later and endangering its one-of-a-kind collection of minerals and fossils inside — including those of a huge blue whale.

real skeleton of a blue whale

The top of the museum’s tower already had to be removed back in 1915 because it was too heavy for its unstable clay foundation.

The solution: seismic upgrades that blend the old with the new. People liked the original Gothic tower that fit with the building’s crenelated, castle-like roofline, and so the three principal architects (Bruce Kuwabara, Marc Letellier, and Barry Padolsky) erected a new, lighter tower to recall the building’s history while simultaneously evoking the museum’s future.

3 stages of the tower. © Canadian Museum of Nature

The renovations to this building weren’t completed by the time I finished my undergrad at Carleton, so when I returned to Ottawa for a visit last fall, this museum was one of the first places I checked out. Coming from Vancouver, it was odd to see this conservative city pull a signature Vancouver with the bold addition of a glass box or a “glass menagerie” as a Carleton architectural prof called it in this article.

The Museum is an example of a palimpsest – a word my sister once unforgettably referred to as “a gross combination of pimp and incest.” Ah, sisters. I spent grad school writing about palimpsests and the word has never sounded the same to me since.

example of a palimpsest – Codex Guelferbytanus B 00474

It actually means “any surface that has been altered or reused while still retaining traces of its earlier form.” It could be a writing surface, like in the picture above, or a building surface. The preservation of heritage buildings are often great (or not so great) examples of palimpsests.

With the addition of the glass tower called the Queen’s Lantern to commemorate the 100th anniversary of the Victoria Memorial Museum, the Museum of Nature is a not so subtle palimpsest – a dialogue between cultural memory and present renewal. Of form and function. Before the Lantern, there was only public access to the second floor. Now the Lantern houses a much-needed staircase to provide access to all the upper floors.

And let me tell you, climbing that butterfly staircase to the lookout platform had something sacred about it. Cathedralesque. Maybe because the windows echoed the stained glass windows in a church.

cathedral windowsI had a similar feeling when I walked the ramp of the National Gallery. Maybe that’s not such a coincidence – both the National Gallery and Museum of Nature are important cultural landmarks that now have a glass affinity to one another.

National Gallery of CanadaIt’s fascinating how one building can reference so many other contexts. Here’s a historic fun fact that further connects the Museum of Nature to the Parliament buildings: it was the emergency meeting place for MPs and Senators when the Parliament buildings burnt down in 1916. The new glass tower in 2010 was meant to face the Centre Block’s tower as they both bookend Metcalfe Street, as if the two buildings really are talking to each other across time and space.

Martin Lipman © Canadian Museum of Nature

So what do you think – is this conversation working?

I Said I Would Never Do It

Blog, that is.

Then again, I said I wouldn’t do a lot of things:

  • buy a digital camera
  • get facebook
  • get a cellphone
  • get an e-reader

Yeah, so I tend to dig my heels in when it comes to new technology. I own all of these items now (well, the last one was a gift), so I guess I come around eventually.

In university, my friends joked that I was so behind the times. More than behind the times. Before my brother generously gave me his old iPod a few years ago when he upgraded, I was still carrying around a discman. Well, I didn’t carry it around too often for obvious reasons (i.e. social embarrassment). I ran without music in my ears and struck up a lot more conversations than I do now with people sitting beside me on buses and trains.

My “home” bus station in Ottawa

I signed up for facebook on the last day of undergrad – my attempt at doing something “dramatic” to celebrate this significant day, something that my peers had persistently pressured me to get for four years, and here I was, finally giving in and making it a much bigger deal than it deserved. In hindsight, the timing wasn’t so great either. With two weeks of exams still to study for, I had to fend off a new and highly potent form of distraction that normal students who got fb in first year had already learned to (somewhat) manage.

The next year when I moved to Victoria for my Master’s program, I capitulated and got a cell phone, after realizing my mom, like usual, was right. My landlord would likely not have a phone I could use for long-distance calls and it was time for me to become more “connected.” The Telus guy looked at me incredulously.

“Seriously? You’ve never owned a cell phone before?”

“Nope. Is it really that weird? I’m sure you’ve seen other people like me before?”

“Yeah, I have. It’s just that they’re usually over 65.”

“Oh.”

Considering this history, I suppose it was kind of ironic I chose a title for my blog that has such strong associations with cell phones . . .

textingthecity started a year ago today because of 2 things:

1)   the anticlimactic moment after defending my Master’s thesis and realizing, “hey, I still really love my topic and want to keep talking about architexturewho can I talk to?”

readers, thanks for letting me talk with you!

2)   boredom, needing something to fill my time between sending out resumé after countless resumé

dog days in Victoria

And guess what? I’m really enjoying this blogging thing. For someone who associates the day she got a cell phone with the word “traumatic,” I’ve come a long way. (In my defense, it was a smart phone, okay? to go from nothing to that was mildly overwhelming). And my favourite part? The community of people and their words, art, and interests I’ve been gratefully introduced to.

 

A brief look at where textingthecity has been:

It was born in Victoria in a yellow room

It travelled to Ottawa and New York to follow Mondrian and learn a lesson in expectations and reality.

It relaxed in Hawaii’s pacific waves.

It vicariously went to London through the hopes and heartbreaks of Olympic athletes.

It frequently returns to its home base of Vancouver, through such characters as a feline hotel guest and storytelling windows.

For this coming year of blogging, I hope to feature more examples of urban art, literature, and architecture outside of Vancouver, whether or not I actually travel there myself. So yes, I hope to change it up a bit more on here . . .

That being said, some things will never change. Like my firm resolution to never get twitter.