“Hadestown” at The Citadel

In nova fert animus mutatas dicere formas
corpora . . .
— Ovid, Metamorphosis, Book I

I just had to post a hasty note after seeing the first preview performance of Hadestown at Edmonton’s Citadel Theatre this evening.

What a piece of work!

Anaïs Mitchell’s wonderful, powerful, poetic words and music, under the direction of Rachel Chavkin and in the hands of such a talented cast, band of musicians (that trombone!!!), and technical staff, have given new, timely form to the Classical myth of Orpheus and Eurydice. The Greek mythic world is here a mythic Great Depression America, a fusion of the Mississipi Delta and the Rust Belt, of the particular and the universal. The whole is made so remarkably topical: While Patrick Page’s Hades is nothing like the President to the south, he does pump up his indentured workers with praise of the Wall they’re building to keep the Enemy (poverty) out of their homeland; the destruction of Persephone’s natural world by unbridled industry can be nothing other than a reference to the environmental precipice on which we teeter; and then those oh-so-current resonances in references to “what happens behind closed doors.”

Apart from praising them to the sky, I don’t want to take a whole lot of time describing all the wonderful details of the production and performances — you should see, hear, and enjoy them yourself.*  What I was particularly struck by about Hadestown (apart from the glorious music and dance) is the play’s firm roots in the Classical myth. This is not a riff on vaguely remembered characters. Hadestown is the product of a deep understanding of both the myth and its profound meaning.

Just before I went to the play, I reread the opening of Book X of Ovid’s Metamorphoses. The Orpheus and Eurydice passage is quite brief, only a hundred lines of verse or so. But so many images are shared by Hadestown and those hundred lines of Latin verse. The huge tree that dominates the first act of the play parallel’s the catalogue of trees that gather in Ovid to mourn with Orpheus. Orpheus’ awakening of hope in the Chorus of Workers in the play parallels the beautiful passage in the Metamorphoses in which the torments of the dead cease for a moment while Orpheus sings — even Sisyphus is able to climb on his rock and rest for a time. For a moment there is hope even in the depths of Hell.

Hadestown is a most intelligent and engaging retelling and reforming of an ancient myth. a joyous, inexpressibly powerful demonstration that the old stories continue to have profound messages for our lives, our societies, and our deepmost selves. And the biggest, most important and timely message of Hadestown is:

Hope.

 

Cos here’s the thing
To know how it ends
And still begin
To sing it again
As if it might turn out this time
— Hermes, in Hadestown

 

 

Hadestown continues at The Citadel until December 3, 2017.

See it.


*Audience members from Old Strathcona will likely find Reeve Carney’s Orpheus oddly reminiscent of our own shirtless, rollerskating, guitar-playing guy.

 

__

Advertisements

New Voices

What an inspiring evening hearing New Voices I just had!

I’m still trying to process a bunch of stuff:

A young lady I’ve seen have scary tantrums and whom I’ve also seen around town doing the kind of menial jobs that people with developmental disabilities are sadly so lucky to get when they can — this young lady turns out to be a beautifully soulful singer;

Artists with developmental disabilities hobnob at their music video launch with Miss Sarah Chan and her husband, the Mayor of Edmonton;

The head honcho of ATB Financial announces that his company’s downtown office building is lit up in purple in honour of an inner-city art studio where professional artists mentor artists with developmental disabilities, were artists with barriers of all sorts are given the opportunity to exhibit their work, where musicians and dancers from the larger arts community mentor the resident Collective;

And, I can’t shake from my mind the fact that an outfit “advocating” for the disabled shunned the wonderful institution that brings all these people together, from business, from politics, from the arts, and from the all-to-often-invisible disabled community — I can’t shake the memory that an organization claiming to advocate for the disabled rejected this wonderful, integrated, outward-reaching place as “segregated”.

No. This place, The Nina Haggerty Centre for the Arts, which I’ve written of before, is a place of true integration. This isn’t a place of art lessons for “normal” people with a chair or two set aside in the corner for “special” people. No. The Nina Haggerty Centre is a place where people are helped to be a part of the larger community, of a larger community than most of us “normal” people ever get to be a part of. The Nina helps people to find their voices, voices they often themselves don’t know that they have.

And what voices they are!

Please listen to Angela Trudel singing words composed by her Nina Collective colleague Alana Gersky, and then listen to Angela singing her colleague Amber Strong’s words as Amber plays her own music on the piano.

Please listen. And hear.

I won’t name the agency that argued that the Nina Haggerty Centre was segregated. I understand their opinion has changed, perhaps in small part due to my online rants.

The Nina Haggerty Centre is all that is best about Edmonton and about Canada. It is about finding the beauty in each of us and helping each other to share and enjoy that beauty. Sure we screw it up a lot. Sure we are often tone deaf and we have bad days or years or centuries where we just don’t seem to be able to hear each other. Sure we’re hateful, impatient, hurtful, stupid and just plain tired lots of the time.

But when we get it, when we listen, when we just darn well work hard for what is right, and true, and beautiful. When we simply ask “what are you feeling?” and listen — truly listen — to the answers, especially answers from New Voices, we do pretty amazing stuff.

Yes, we make a mess of so much. But, do you suppose we can, like Nina Collective artist Yvette Prefontaine, keep on Searching for Hope?

I Took My Father for a Drive Today

My father was born and raised in Montreal in the first half of the last century. He served in the RCAF (briefly) and the Royal Canadian Navy (less briefly) during World War II. In the ’60s he traveled in Europe as a merchandise buyer for a major Canadian jewelry chain. My father has been around the block.  For some reason, although he had never visited this city on the North Saskatchewan River, my father always wanted to live in Edmonton. He had a feeling it was the place to be.

In the early 1970s he was offered the position of Edmonton Area Manager of the jewelry chain and, of course, jumped at it. We were living in Windsor, Ontario at the time. My father flew out to Edmonton first to find a place to live and settle into his work. I can still remember him describing Edmonton to me: the River Valley was everything in that description! As you approached the city, everything was flat and then suddenly, this vast expanse of green opened up beneath you! My father took a furnished apartment downtown and walked everywhere.

A few months later when the school year had ended, he flew back to Windsor and packed us all into our old Ford Custom and drove us to our new home. It was the best move ever! Our family is now into its fourth generation in Edmonton (our eighth generation in Canada, if my arithmetic is correct). Edmonton has been very good to us.

My father lives in Sherwood Park now, a bedroom community on the east side of the city. He’s ninety-one and hasn’t been downtown for a few years.

Today I took my father for a drive.

He could not believe his eyes! The New Arena! The Epcor Tower! The new City office tower, the Stantec tower going up, MacEwan University, Norquest College, the U of A’s Enterprise Square campus, all the apartment towers! The warehouses converted to lofts! The Neon Sign Museum! To close off the little ten minute tour, I turned south onto 104th Street, heading for Jasper Avenue.

“Look up to your right,” I said. My father craned his neck to try to see the top of the newish apartment towers on the west side of the street.

“And look. There’s the Armstrong Block. And the Birks Building.”

Edmonton had come full circle for him.

We turned east on Jasper and struggled through rush hour to take a look at the new Hyatt hotel and to go down Grierson hill for a glimpse of the new funicular. “Is that a new bridge?” he asked, pointing at the giant white arches connecting Walterdale to Rossdale.

I told him that indeed it is the new Walterdale Bridge.

When he packed up his family to pursue his odd conviction that Edmonton was the place to catch a ride to Tomorrow, my father was much younger than I am today. This afternoon I felt like my little car was a time machine, and I’d gone back and fetched that younger version of my father from a 1970s River Valley stroll and brought him right into the future he had been dreaming of all those years ago.

Well done, Edmonton: you really impressed an old dreamer today!

And that old dreamer was right all along: Edmonton really is the place to be.

A Conversation with one of Voltaire’s Bastards

The easy answer is that decision making must be decoupled from administration: the former being organic and reflective, the latter linear and structured. . . The rational advocacy of efficiency more often than not produces inefficiency. It concentrates on how things are done and loses track of why. It measures specific costs without understanding real costs.
–John Ralston Saul,
Voltaire’s Bastards, pp. 626-7

 

The other day I returned a call from a fellow at the City of Edmonton’s Drainage Department and found myself in a bit of a Joseph Heller novel, all because I wanted to make a sensible suggestion.

Although Edmonton is a remarkably young city from a built point of view, my neighbourhood’s sanitary sewer system is about a million years old. My neighbourhood also has a substantial part of one of the world’s largest healthy stands of American Elms. Taken together, these two are a recioe for disastrously root-plugged sewer pipes and black sludge spilling onto basement floors.

As well as an ongoing program of replacing or relining these old pipes, the City sensibly has something called “The Root Maintenence Program”. When my house was built over twenty years ago, the builder sensibly put a new, modern sewer line to the property line, tying into the old system there. For as long as I can remember, every twelve to eighteen months a City crew has politely and sensibly come to my house and augered out the roots blocking the old City pipe, sometimes sending a herbicide down the pipe to put a bad taste into the mouth of Old Man Elm.

Last year the main line on our street was relined, leaving only the short million year old lateral between the main line and my property line open to night-soil-seeking tree roots. So, the City crew came again a week or so ago, finding lots of roots again, saving me from a stinking basement, and generally being sensible and polite.

The Root Maintenance Program is a common-sense stop-gap until the sewage system is upgraded — the cost of routinely removing the roots is almost certainly less than emergency overtime and damage claims that would be filed by sludge-flooded homeowners if City trees were allowed to spread with wild abandon through the sewer pipes of the metropolis.

Yes. A sensible stop-gap until the scheduled upgrades proceed.

The evening of the Friday after the crew politely and sensibly augered my main drain, I found a voice mail message from a man at Edmonton Drainage Services.

“The lateral line to your house is going to be relined in the next year or two so you’ve been removed from the Root Maintenance Program. If you have any questions, call me at, etc.”

Oh. In a year. Or two. Every eighteen months the sewer has been on the verge of backing up. If it’s left for two years . . .

The next Tuesday morning I called the number and identified myself.

“Yes, I remember,” the fellow interrupted, and he immediately started into a defensive speech about how there would be no charge . . .

I squeezed in with “No, I just want to make a modest and, I think, sensible suggestion: they’ve been coming to clean it out every twelve to eighteen months and now you say it may be two years before it’s relined. Wouldn’t it make sense to leave me on the Program? Then, if the relining is done in a year, take me off, and, if it’s done in two years, I’ll get one more visit from the crew and be assured of no back up.”

“If you have a back up just call and we’ll clean out the roots. No charge.”

“But I’ll have sewage in my basement. Wouldn’t it be sensible to have me on the program for one more visit?”

“I can’t put you on both lists at once. Once you’re on the relining list you have to be taken off the Root Maintenance list.”

“You can’t put me on both lists?”

“No.” I could sense a “No charge” about to float out.

“So,” I asked, sensibly, I thought, “policies and procedures take precedence over what makes sense?”

“Yes” the fellow replied, without any trace of regret, or irony, or anything other than “that’s a mildly interesting but obvious fact.”

I was speechless for a moment. This fellow was the sort of person John Ralston Saul described in Voltaire’s Bastards: the devotee of the System at the expense of any human consideration, a person who had bought into the idea that the assembly line is more important than the product of the assembly line, that the mission statement is bigger than the mission.

“So, rather than leave me on the list, I have to watch my drain and hope I don’t find sludge in my basement.”

“Call at the first sign of a blockage and we’ll come and clean it out.”

“But I’ll have sewage in my basement.”

“Free of charge.”

I shifted  gears and joined the game:

“So, it would make sense for me to just call next summer and say I’ve got a blockage when I don’t actually have one.”

“Yes, that would be a good idea.” No appearance of seeing the mild absurdity of it.

“So it would be a good idea to lie? Okay. I’ll call next summer.”

“If you have any further questions, feel free to call.”

If the Socratic question can still be asked, it is certainly not rational. Voltaire pointed out that for the Romans, sensus communis meant common sense but also humanity and sensibility.  It has been reduced to only good sense, “a state half-way between stupidity and intelligence.” We have since reduced it still farther, as if appropriate only for manual labour and the education of small children.  That is the narrowing effect of a civilization which seeks automatically to divide through answers when our desperate need is to unify the individual through questions.
Saul, op.cit., p. 630

I’ve told this story to pretty much everyone I know and it has been met with unanimous recognition of the absurdity of rules so slavishly followed that common sense is abandoned. It’s reassuring that we aren’t all Voltaire’s bastards. And yet, the routine maintenance of the physical system is being replaced by emergency maintenance, probable overtime expenses, potential damage claims against the City, all because the Management System says “I can’t have you on both lists at once.”

Saul was depressingly accurate in his description of the dystopia we have created. From the needs of people with disabilities to the fundamental infrastructure underpinning our technological society, I’ve noticed that maintenance of the Rules has come to take absolute precedence over the needs and desires if citizens, over efficiencies of labour and cost, and, at root of it all, over common sense — sensus communis. As individuals we are forced to play the game according to often absurd and arbitrary rules or risk wading through sludge on a winter morning.

It pains me, but I guess I’ll play the game, make a phone call next summer, and lie about some tree roots.

But, tonight I’ll have a slightly bitter laugh or two while watching Gilliam’s Brazil again. But this time I’ll watch it as a documentary.

And I’ll try to remind myself:

“We’re all in it together!”

A Visit to the Neighbour Centre

A few weeks ago with homelessness on my mind I took a few minutes to drop in on the Neighbour Centre, another great Edmonton thing.  I’d been meaning for some time to visit this rare resource for “street people” on the south side of the River.  The visit was a fine and moving experience.

As one o’clock opening time approached about a dozen people gathered at the door, most laughing and smiling, all apparently familiar with each other.  I hung back, feeling myself to be an outsider here.

Finally the front door of the little storefront across 104 Street from Strathcona High School opened, but it wasn’t quite time to go in.  I watched as a mysterious lottery took place. A number, but not all of the gathered, called out to have their names put into a hat.  Four names were drawn and then the doors opened and all filed inside, I at the end of the line.

Unlike many inner city “missions” the world over, the Neighbour Centre doesn’t require that a meal be purchased with a bowed head or an open ear for a prayer or a sermon.  The proceedings began with what seemed a completely voluntary opportunity for individuals to publicly reflect positively on themselves.  Staff, volunteers, and Neighbours all took a moment to either pass or to tell the group what they thought of themselves when they were at their best, a pretty positive exercise.

After this brief self-affirmation, the purpose of the mysterious lottery became clear: four of the Neighbours appeared in yellow safety vests, “The Neighbour Centre” printed on the backs, equipped for their afternoon cleaning litter from the sidewalks of Old Strathcona.  For their work, they would be paid an hourly wage in cash. The fact that a lottery must be held for these jobs puts the lie to the idea that the “homeless” are not willing to work.

The Neighbours now disperssed through the building, some to the back to the showers, some straight to the fresh food in the “kitchen”.  The Neighbour Centre does not have a full kitchen, making to with microwaves and rice cookers and a healthy offering of fresh fruit and vegetables.

As I chatted and learned about some of the philosophy of the Centre, I saw neighbours offer to wash up the dishes. There is little distinction here; everyone pitches in. The Neighbour Centre’s focus is on helping Neighbours become actual neighbours, to help them empower themselves to better their own circumstances. It’s a hackneyed pharse, but the Neighbour Centre doesn’t offer hand outs. It offers hands up.

One particularly exciting program the Neighbour Centre organizes is the Thursday night Dinner Club at the Strathcona Baptist Church.  On these evenings about twenty Neighbours — staff, volunteers, and those who might be called “clients” by other agencies — get together to prepare and share their dinner, side by side. This is not a charity providing “services”, rather, here are neighbours serving each other and building a true community, nurturing individual growth.

Recently the Neighbour Centre has amalgamated with another great Edmonton thing, the Mustard Seed.  This will hopefully bring administrative efficiencies while not undermining either organization’s philosophy or strenghths.  Together with Youth Empowerment and Support Services (YESS), the Neighbour Centre is a rare bright light for our most disadvantaged neighbours on the south side of Edmonton. Each of us needs to try to be such a light for our neighbours. All of our neighbours.

 

Until the fine future day the Neighbour Centre is no longer needed, I hope all shoppers on Whyte Avenue, when they pass a worker in one of those yellow safety vests, will share a smile and a “Thank you, neighbour!” and maybe a conversation and some laughter.  As I did a few days ago with this fellow:

I’ve got a bone to pick with Edmonton’s Weed Inspectors

I have a bunch of very nice neighbours. One in particular is devoted to her yard and her flower beds, which she keeps in immaculate condition. Without knowing the term, she practices Integrated Pest Management (IPM), which is pretty much the accepted set of practices for the management of weeds and insect pests in Alberta. It is what the Province expects to be understood and practiced by successful applicants for a Pesticide Application Certificate (of which I am a[n expired] holder). Basically, IPM strives to keep pests (and weeds) below a certain, manageable threshold, as eradication is virtually impossible even with massive use of chemical pesticides (many seeds hang around for years or even decades in the soil before germinating).

Lately my neighbour has been coming to me with plants she finds in her yard asking me what they are, which is flattering to me, but she’s at her wit’s end! A City of Edmonton weed inspector has been, to use a harsh word, harassing her about the state of her yard. Like every yard in Strathcona, her yard has some creeping bellflower, which, unlike most homeowners in Strathcona, my neighbour pulls out obsessively. She’s been cited by this weed inspector for rampant perennial sow thistle. She has none in her yard and the weed inspector later admitted that he “just wrote that on the citation” although he knew there was none in her yard.

Today I inspected her yard quite closely and found absolutely no uncontrolled noxious weed infestations. And yet my neighbour has had three letters from this weed inspector.

To add insult to the infliction of unnecessary anxiety, at least six front yards on my neighbour’s block have been unmowed all summer and are absolutely overrun with uncontrolled perennial sow thistle and/or Canada thistle and/or creeping bell flower with no apparent repercussions for the owners of those properties.

What is going on here? Does this weed inspector have a vendetta against my neighbour? Do the inspectors only come out of their offices if there is a complaint? If the latter, does some other anonymous neighbour have some sort of sick vendetta against my neighbour with the immaculate garden? Even if the inspector is only responding to vexatious complaints, do inspectors not have the training to recognize frivolous complaints and the authority to summarily dismiss such complaints? And do they not have the authority to act on seriously and objectively out of control noxious weed beds when such are right before their eyes?

I’ll be pleasantly surprised if I get any sort of answer. In the meantime, I’ll happily continue to advise my neighbour with the immaculate yard – and all my neighbours — about noxious weed identification and Integrated Pest Management.

I wish City of Edmonton weed inspectors would do the same.

P.S.

And we should discuss the several weeks this summer when the uncontrolled pigweed and other noxious weeds on the City-owned medians on Whyte Avenue between 96th Street and 99th Street grew so tall that it became a traffic hazard, completely blocking visibility for motorists making left turns onto Whyte Avenue from either Strathcona or Ritchie. Where were the weed inspectors when uncontrolled noxious weeds on City land endangered the lives of citizens?

Update, September 6, 2016: This morning, the first business day afyer I posted the above, I was contacted by a City of Edmonton representative (by Twitter direct messaging) asking for my neighbour’s location, saying they wanted to look into this further. 

Time will tell.


Yes, In My Back Yard. Please

A good friend of mine recently moved from a rented basement apartment on the southern edge of Edmonton’s Alberta Avenue neighbourhood to a rental high-rise apartment on the northern edge of Edmonton’s Old Strathcona neighbourhood. Her former home was virtually across the street from the McCauley neighbourhood, which is the hub of Edmonton’s social housing and services for Edmonton’s homeless and marginalized citizens. Her new neighbourhood — my neighbourhood for three decades — has been voted Edmonton’s “Best Neighbourhood” for a number of years.  For some time now, however, I have been noticing a severe gap in Strathcona’s social fabric, a gap highlighted recently by an unexpectedly locked door.

For those who don’t know Edmonton, one of the most obvious things about the place is that there is a huge forest with a river running through it stretching from the southwest corner to the northeast corner of the City. This mega-central park (twenty-something times the size of that famous park in NYC) marks the edge of Downtown on the north side of the River and the edge of Old Strathcona on the south side of the River.  McCauley is northeast of Downtown. Most of the services for homeless and marginalized people are north of the River. Of course, as much as some more privileged might like it to be so, the marginalized do not confine themselves to a ghetto designated for them.

Here in my little neighbourhood there are a number of individuals I’ve come to know over the years – “gleaners” I sometimes call them – who make their weekly rounds collecting bottles and cans to augment whatever meager income they may have from other sources. In particular I’ve come to know Vivian and her dog Chewy. Often Vivian sits on one of the benches I’ve put in the alley behind my home as resting places for any neighbours who may need a break. Vivian often gives Chewy a drink of water and rests there. Vivian’s been having some health issues so the shady resting spot is important.  On Saturday morning Vivian is usually selling Our Voice at the Farmers’ Market. She is one of my neighbours although I’m not exactly sure where she lives.

This summer there has been a noticeable increase in the number of new faces I see amongst the “gleaners” in my neighbourhood. I expect some of these new faces are marginalized people displaced by the Fort McMurray wildfire and members of the McMurray Precariate pushed to the margin by that fire. But many seem to be those displaced by the new Downtown Arena. And there will be more.  A few days ago a couple of new faces sat down on the sidewalk out in front of my place.  It was a hot day. They heard me puttering about with my plants and one called over to ask if I minded if they sat there for a bit. I joined them for a chat and told them that as long as they didn’t leave a mess or burn down anyone’s house, of course I didn’t mind if they sat there. We talked a bit and then they offered me “a tip”: “the K&K Foodliner over on Whyte Ave is having a barbecue of bratwurst and stuff in their parking lot and for about three bucks you can get a nice bratwurst on a bun and a drink.” They were just waiting for the grill to get nice and greasy (and having a beer on the sidewalk) before going to get some good, cheap food. A while later they headed off to the K&K. They didn’t leave a mess. They only left the memory of a conversation and a few laughs.

Over the years I’ve been happy to make many memories of conversations and laughs with neighbours on the street. I strongly believe that the vast majority of people try to live in peace and without malice. And I know for a certainty a mean spirit will be found in a house just as often as on the street.

Until a few years ago when the Neighbour Centre opened on 104th Street, my little set of benches was one of the few places on the Southside that Vivian and Chewy and other tired neighbours could be sure of a welcome.  Certainly the Youth Emergency Shelter (officially Youth Empowerment & Support Services) on the other side of the Mill Creek Ravine – despite resistance from the “community” – has become an accepted institution, but until the Neighbour Centre opened as a day shelter and warm up space in the winter, there was no refuge on my side of the river for marginalized adults — and there still is no overnight shelter.  I fear that after the Terwillegar embarrassment, it will be a long time before any church or charitable organization alone floats the idea.

The unexpectedly locked door I mentioned, however, has spurred me to say to anyone who will hear “An overnight homeless shelter is needed in Strathcona, in the best neighbourhood in the city, in my neighbourhood, as soon as possible.”  I already have a little place of refuge literally in my back yard.

I don’t say NIMBY, I say YIMBY.

My friend and I returned to her new building one evening shortly after eight and found the outside door to the lobby locked.  Fortunately we noticed the keycard reader quite far from the door and were able to open this never-before-locked entrance. We dismissed the situation uncomfortably as a mixup, but later learned that the building’s new policy was to lock the outer door at eight every evening “due to the increasing number of homeless people displaced by the Downtown Arena” who were trying to find shelter in the outer lobby.

So, now, when visitors arrive after eight, they have to phone or text the resident who must then come down to the lobby and open the door for the visitor. No longer can a visitor enter the outer lobby, buzz the apartment number, and be buzzed in remotely. Imagine a get-together of six or eight guests, each arriving separately. Down and up a dozen stories to open the door for each arrival. Better to go down once and stick a block in the outer door. Or even better ask a homeless guy to act as outer-doorman and slip him a twenty in the morning.

This silliness is happening, not because homeless people seek shelter, but because the Arena has displaced people to a neighbourhood lacking adequate infrastructure for marginalized citizens, infrastructure which is decades overdue.

Personally, I think the building management’s solution to the “problem” of people looking for a dry place to spend the night is pretty much unworkable and won’t last more than a few weeks. The real solution will be for the City, churches, charities, and the wider community to come together and provide support to our fellow citizens.  Yes, the Mayor and Council are determined to End Homelessness by 2019 or something but we have neighbours right now, today, who need a safe, dry, warm place to go at night. The City should take the lead in bringing us all together to make an overnight shelter on the south side of the River, in my neighbourhood, a reality.

Soon.

 Update, December 13th, 2016: Well, winter is here. And Death. But no shelter on the southside. We lost a neighbour. After Ricky, how many more deaths on the Avenue will it take?.