It’s All Greek To Me


The other day an interesting blog post about astronomical information in a lovely piece by the Ancient Greek poet Sappho came up in my twitter feed. After reading the translations in that post, I said to a friend, “I really should sit down and learn Greek so I can really read Sappho’s poetry. Catullus is at his best when he’s translating her.”  The next morning I sat down for a few hours with my old copy of C. A. E. Luschnig’s An Introduction to Ancient Greek, a long-ago gift from a friend who felt “Old Norse will have to wait!” as she wrote inside the cover.  I don’t think I’ve learned Old Norse yet.

That afternoon I ran to The Edmonton Bookstore, one of a few fine second-hand booksellers in town, hoping that in their collection of Loeb Classical Library books there would be a copy of Sappho’s poems. Sure I’d be able to find texts online, but a real book is always better.  Fortunately, there was one copy of Greek Lyric I: Sappho and Alcaeus on the shelf for me to grab and clutch to my book-loving heart.

In the evening I relaxed with my old Liddell and Scott Greek-English Lexicon and the text of Sappho’s poem:

Δέδυκε μὲνἀ σελάννα
καὶ Πληίαδες· μέσαι δὲ
νύκτες, παρὰ δ᾽ ἔρχετ᾽ ὤρα·
ἔγω δὲ μόνα κατεύδω.


With an ease and rapidity which startled me, I had a scribbled (in green ink) English version of the beautiful poem in front of me:


More clearly:

Together the Moon and Pleiades
have set. It’s midnight now.
The hours in bunches run away.
But I lie down alone.

I feel satisfied that the grouped, companionable departures of the heavenly bodies and of the hours contrasting Sappho’s lonely solitude have been captured in my translation.  I am not, however, satisfied with the translation of Δέδυκε, with its connotations of dedication to the gods, by the colourless “have set.” But, considering that just twelve hours before I was under the impression that I knew little Greek, I’m feeling pretty good!

I wonder now whether I actually do know Old Norse.

Thoughts on Charity Auctions

Recently I’ve involved myself in two charity auctions. I had the winning bids for three items in an online fundraiser for Northern Light Theatre, and I have donated a painting for an online auction organized by Edmonton artist Jay Bigam as a fundraiser for the Red Cross’ relief efforts for Fort McMurray. These two online fundraising auctions got me thinking about a decision I made sometime ago: I make it my policy to not donate my art to charity auctions unless there is a minimum reserved bid. I made this decision after I learned that one of my paintings was sold at charity auction for less than the cost of the frame. I found this to not only be personally insulting, but also insulting and disrespectful to the organization trying to raise money for its good works.

In the case of the Northern Light Theatre fundraiser, I went online to check it out because I’ve been a fan of the Company since its early days a generation ago. I saw fifty dollar gift cards had been donated by three restaurants I’d be happy to feed my hunger at — The Blue Plate Diner, downtown, Under The High Wheel and The Next Act, both in my neighbourhood (Old Strathcona). I checked out what the bids were at.

Five Dollars.

All three of them had been offered five miserly dollars. Some schmuck had said (three times) “Fifty dollars of your food and drink is worth five bucks to me! And your theatre company? The same Five bucks!”

Screw that noise!

I bid fifty bucks on each of them because Northern Light Theatre is worth at least a hundred and fifty bucks to me and those restaurants deserve proper respect for supporting live theatre in our city.

In the case of the ongoing artists’ fundraiser for Fort Mac evacuees Jay was adamant from the outset that there would be artist-set minimum reserved bids. Once Jay and the Red Cross worked out the mechanics, and even though I’d already donated to the Red Cross’ Fort Mac fund, I without hesitation offered my Sunflower:


We’ll see how it goes when bargain-hunting vultures are shut out.

Something else that really bugs me about all this is that crowd-funding campaigns have fundamentally the same model as charity auctions but with reversely inflated reserved bids. Give ten bucks you get a doohickey worth a nickle. Give a hundred and you get a wotzit worth five.

And bragging rights.

Sad, but, since crowd-funding seems to be so much more attractive than charity, maybe charities should give up the charity auction idea and sacrifice a few percent on the kickstarter altar.

But, I’m going to claim my bragging rights:

I gave a hundred and fifty bucks to Northern Light Theatre to help keep Edmonton the insanely vibrant live-theatre place it is. And I gave proper respect to three generous restaurants who help make Edmonton the crazy foody city it is.

Next time you see a charity auction, show some respect: bid the value or even more (it’s a fundraiser, not a firesale).

And then brag about it. You’ve earned the right.

You know what’s hard?

You know what’s hard? You know what is grinding down for the parent/guardian of an adult with intellectual disabilities and multiple medical problems? What is really hard is the stream of Good Samaritans wondering if they should help/intervene and who don’t actually hesitate to do so.  Don’t get me wrong — I love that Good Samaritans exist and I totally understand why they approach my daughter and I sometimes.  But I’d really like them to understand what’s going on, and I don’t usually have time to explain.

So, I’ll do that now.

Next time you’re at Stadium Station in Edmonton, for example, in the afternoon maybe, and you see that odd couple, the burly fifty-something guy, and the special needs girl who looks about 15 (but is actually pushing 23) — When you see them, go ahead and talk to the girl in baby talk, ask her if she’s okay. Go ahead and ask the guy in your best good cop voice if the girl has a regular doctor. Go ahead and diagnose her spitting up on the sidewalk as a symptom of her anxiety.  Go ahead and keep your worried eye on the two as they hurry to their vehicle and drive away.  And try to forgive the guy for being brusque, because:

The girl has a nasty auto-immune disease which makes her intestines bleed at times, and which also makes her umpteen specialists at the U of A Hospital very attentive to her care.  She also has a nasty summer cold and a urinary tract infection. She has a hair-trigger gag reflex: a single cough or sneeze can make her puke on the side walk, with or without anxiety.  One time she had a coughing bout on a rush hour LRT and the old guy managed to fish a grocery bag out of his omnipresent bag of supplies, catch her puke in it, and bustle them both off the train at the next station, deftly tying a knot in the bag and dropping it in a garbage can on the platform. I don’t suspect anyone on that crowded train realized what had happened.

The girl wears adult diapers because of urinary incontinence. The antibiotics for her current UTI have messed up her gut. At the moment you approach that odd couple, she has excrement in that diaper because she had a bathroom break at the Legislature five stops ago and she’s not so good at cleaning herself at the best of times and security guards and sheriffs tend to intervene when a fifty-something guy and an apparently fifteen year old girl go into a public washroom together, so she was on her own in the ladies’ room at the Legislature.

And, at that moment, you intervene, and she coughs and pukes. He’s simply trying to get his daughter to move with some haste, without tantrums, so that they can get home to the shower-head in the bathtub, the commercial-sized washing machine in the basement, and privacy, before the shit makes its way to her already bacteria-filled urinary tract.

Please forgive the guy for being brusque, and, please, don’t stop trying to help.  But also please try to understand that your intervention may be nothing more than an interruption of a procedure, a protocol if you will, that has been developed over two decades of damned challenging parenting.  Again, please continue to be a Good Samaritan: the world needs you.

But also please try to realize that you may be missing a whole lot of backstory when you step up to help.

Cayley Thomas’ “Weird Love”

It was with great anticipation that I bought Edmonton singer-songwriter Cayley Thomas’ first full-length album, Weird Love.  I had been impressed with her EP Ash Mountains a few years ago, although it seemed a little scattered, like Thomas was trying on different musical costumes, all of them a little retro, and all quite fetching.  Weird Love, while still devotedly retro, is much more focused, and more than a little addictive. The album is emphatically about Love, none of it actually terribly weird love. Here there is addictive love, aged love, teen love, bitter love, broken love, depressive love and sibling love. The overall tone is upbeat, but not unbroken by serious depth and hurt and poetry.  While not perfect, “Weird Love” is eminently listenable, and pretty addictive itself.

The Tracks

The album opens with a driving drum and bass soon joined by guitar and synth and finally by Thomas in an crisply aetherial haunting love song filled with marvellously fresh and strong imagery called “Clementine”. I’m still trying to figure out the end of the song. Somehow it seems like the band just isn’t sure of how to wind it all up musically, and I can’t help feeling a little let down after such a ripping performance.

“What If/I Wish”, with drug references and fortune tellers upstairs and dreams revisits psychedelia and time slips away. A bit of a Midnight Cowgirl vibe happening here.

The third track, “Sure is Nice”, sure is! Another love song, this one is everything good about the Poppy Family, GoGos, The Association.  This is a joyous, a little bubble-gummy, summer time single with hit potential. While “Clementine” has a greater lyrical depth, “Sure is Nice” is so catchy! But, again, a bit of wandering at the fade, but somehow with a late sixties feel, which is a positive.

In my notes while listening to the title track “Weird Love”, I began simply with “Wow!” “Weird Love” is love growing old and bitter, but yet more than a little sweet. The insight this young woman brings to a slowly evolving experience she’s not had time to have is quite remarkable. Again the retro feel in the arrangement. I was thinking for some reason of moments of Bowie circa 1969, “Wild Eyed Boy from Freecloud”, “Letter to Hermione”, etc.

After a jolly, wistful little do-da-dum piece called “Chirp Chirp”, it’s summer of about ’62 on the way to a beach party with “Hey You”. Professions of eternal love. Grease is the word, it’s a good word when Thomas is crooning “. . . till the end of time.”  And then, a “Commercial Break” — elevator music with a wink.

“I’ve Lost My Mind” is a twist: Juju era Siouxie and the Banshees with  a really fine vocalist.  Real-world depression pressed into a Goth depressive mold.

When you’re still in love but they’ve fallen out of love with you and into love with someone else . . .

“Heart in Two” deals with an all too real thing that could be horrible as a song but Thomas does this torchy blues thing that comes out sounding like an old standard you can almost remember hearing before, but you haven’t.

It’s love again in the ominously titled “Lines”, love of an obsessive unhealthiness, addiction, “Cocaine on Tuesday” and the repeated “Where do we go from here” and “Hope you don’t take it too far.” The closing crescendo and harshly cut off tone-that-goes-on-forever is a tremendous lead-in to . . .

“Alan Alexander”,an almost wordless paean, an ode, an elegy, a threnody, a celebration, and just perhaps, a letting go.

For some years I’ve been saying that Cayley Thomas is a person to watch, at first in Edmonton’s theatre scene, but later mostly for her music and voice.  With Weird Love I hope and expect that she’ll be opening more ears to her music, and more doors for her career.

Weird Love by Cayley Thomas is available for download and on cd and vinyl at Bandcamp.


“Wish”: Fine Performances in a Flawed Play

As thousands were fleeing their homes in Fort McMurray last night, I, more fortunate, sat down in the PCL Studio Theatre in Old Strathcona to experience Northern Light Theatre/Good Women Dance Collective’s co- production of Humphrey Bower’s Wish (based on Peter Goldsworthy’s novel of the same name). I won’t go deeply into the production – Jenna Marynowski has already done that in her usual expert way. I will get into some of the questions raised by Jenna but my take is perhaps a little different.

To be clear: Northern Light Theatre/Good Women Dance Collective’s co-production of Wish is beautiful. The performances by the two cast members are brilliant. As Jenna mentions in her review, lighting, sound design, everything, is wonderfully executed. The following is a review of the play-as-text not the play-as-performance.

I’ve not read Goldsworthy’s novel that is the basis of the play.  Although a few of my interests are consciousness, animal consciousness, legal issues surrounding animal rights, disabilities and parenting children with disabilities, languages, language learning, species boundaries . . . the list goes on — although I have these interests which are touched on by the play, I don’t think I’ll be running to read Goldsworthy’s novel. If the play is any indication, the novel is a didactic conflation of Daniel Keyes’ “Flowers for Algernon” and Shaw’s Pygmalion with a gorilla playing Eliza and a trial for bestiality replacing the Ambassador’s garden party.  I don’t object to the lifting of plots: I have a habit of lifting structure from Homer or Aeschylus when I get around to writing creatively. Virgil, of course, lifted both the Odyssey and the Iliad when he slapped together the Aeneid.

No. What I am uncomfortable with about Wish is that the didacticism that has been imposed on structures borrowed from already didactic works has a sledgehammer clumsiness more baldly preachy even than anything Steinbeck produced at his height.  And it’s a sledge hammer that finally manages to hit no nail on the head. In Wish (the play) we are led by the hand through issues: disabled-as-outsider; disabled parenting; parenting the disabled; animal rights; species boundaries; animal consciousness; language; the nature of Nature; and so on.  Early on J. J. (Christopher Schultz) talks of Signing coming “naturally” to him and that water is his “natural” element. But, signing actually isolates him, and the ocean would quite indifferently drown him. “Natural” is not, to use the language of the play, a sign that is necessarily made with the “good hand”.  In the end, where does Wish leave us? Where we probably all should have been before we saw the play: in a world of shades of ethical grey. In a world in which simply living, however simply we live, has an impact on Nature. If you live in a black and white world, “Wish” may discomfit you. What starts out feeling like a wordy ad for PETA veganism becomes for a moment a poster for species-apartheid before resolving into : “The needs of the many sometimes outweigh the needs of the few except when they don’t — oh and, the individual counts for something. Most of the time. Maybe. And wishes, too.”

I might still have been able to accept and even enjoy the over-the-top but ultimately aimless didacticism of the play if not for my crashing inability to suspend my disbelief when it came to the character of Eliza, the gorilla.  This persistent disbelief has nothing to do with Ainsley Hillyard’s marvellous uncostumed performance. Remember “Elephant Man”? The stage play, not the film, in which the titular character’s deformities where portrayed by skill rather than prosthetics? This is the sort of skill Hillyard brings to the roll of Eliza, and her movements are convincingly gorilla-like. What I had trouble with was Eliza’s character as written. I simply could not imagine that a gorilla, no matter how isolated from peers, could develop into the too-human personality that the text gives her.  If Hillyard were portraying a Bonobo I might have had an easier time.

But, still.

I don’t feel I walked out of Wish with any clear answers or even any clear questions.  For a play which seems so clearly intended to teach, I can’t help but see that as a failing.

Wish is playing at the PCL Studio Theatre,  until May 7.Go see it for the marvellous performances and to support local live-theatre.

PS: I chuckled a bit at the doctor’s repeated correction of “monkey” to “ape” – a little bit of fun I have when talking to fluently anglo-franco billingual people is to ask them,

What’s French for “monkey”?

“Singe” they imediately reply.

What’s the word for “ape”?

Invariably they pause and visibly startle before saying with a mixture of amusement and perplexiry: “singe.”

Wish certainly gets right the power of language to affect thought and concept.