Sunday, May 16, 2010

looking for banksy........

Toronto photographers were in a frenzy the early days of last week, looking for the graffiti art purported to have been left in several downtown backstreet locations by the notorious British street artist known as Banksy. His real identity has never been revealed. By him or anyone else, it seems. Doesn't that speak loudly to loyalty? The guy has been on the street-art scene close to 2 decades. He must have family, friends, business associates. No one has ever leaked his identity? He's either well loved or deeply feared *~*  His documentary film "Exit Through the Gift Shop", which premiered at the Sundance Festival in March, opened in Toronto last weekend & it's believed he landed in Toronto for the first time for that occasion. Come Monday morning the buzz was out.... Bansky had been here, leaving his mark on Toronto walls. Somehow the press had been coerced by their source into keeping the exact locations of the seven pieces vague, to deter vandals & taggers (graffiti artists who spray over others' work). The hunt was on. Wednesday, I too was tramping the downtown streets, in the pouring rain, looking for Banksy art. All I got was very wet & surprised at just how much graffiti is out there in downtown Toronto. I inadvertently located the laneway, several blocks long, that runs from Portland to Spadina filled with colourful graffiti from one end to the other. But no Banksy. Back at the computer, I learned that the Torontoist website had revealed all  ....images of what one was looking for, exact locations & their current condition. Graffiti is public art & public access its intended form, they declared, and the vandals & taggers will find it regardless. Only 3 remain, though one of those has been seriously tagged. The others have either been completely painted over, removed or tagged beyond recognition. The biggest surprise was to learn that one of them (above) is only steps from my own front door. It may well be the only one to survive due to the fact that management at Fionn MacCool's bar, on whose backwall it appeared, hired a security guard for 2 nights until a professional was found to seal it over with clear plastic (see below). There is heated debate on various internet sites ...some vehemently call Banksy a phoney, not a true street artist (he uses stencils to create his images), some cry foul at the vandalism & tagging while others argue that that is the very nature of street is meant to be transitory. How did Banksy attain such international notoriety? Intrigue always helps.....the secret identity he maintains, the enigmatic overnight appearances of his pieces in various cities around the world. He must do it in the middle of the night. Does he take a cohort with him to keep a look-out for the inevitable wandering night-owls? In a National Post article on Banksy's art, photographer Tong Lam calls it "a cultural phenomenon......a critique of capitalism (that) has itself become a commodity" Indeed, his pieces now sell for tens of thousands of dollars. In 2008 a collection of his works on canvas went for the equivalent of over half a million dollars, by British auction. What a to-do! The debates rage, the vandals deface, the photographers hunt & click & Banksy, clever fellow, has invaluable free publicity for his newly released film , over 100 pages of google links & is surely laughing all the way to the bank.

The watchers watch a banksy wall. (west side of Church, just north of The Esplanade.) The Torontoist intimates that the Banksy tag, in childlike scrawl, which the watchers appear to be watching, is in fact the artist's mark. Fact or interpretation on their part, who knows? Doesn't matter. Whoever put it there knew the exact position that would serve best. Kind of like finding the precise spot for the football in what was probably one of the earliest capitalistic dream factories hoisted on gullible contemporary society, a cultural phenomenon now obsessive & addictive to a frightening global degree ....the lottery! Littlewoods' Football Pools. Get bulls-eye on the football's position in the stop-play photograph & you too can be a millionaire ! 

 Usually satirical in nature, Banksy's message is often anti-establishment, anti-capitalist, anti-war. What is Bansky alluding to here? That the sheep-like mentality of our society has us gaping at a scrap of concrete wall, as directed by the artist, rather than marching to our own drummer ? Kris Kristofferson had something to say on that subject some time back, when his career was at its prime. " Imagine alien life looking down on us... what must they think seeing one person getting paid thousands of dollars to do what they'd rather be doing than anything else on earth & thousands of other people paying a lot of money to watch them do it. " That's my momentary take on it anyway. Like all art, it's open to subjective interpretation. Men in business attire / bankers / the global banking fiascos? A simple statement on societies' response to graffiti? Does Banksy make simple statements? I doubt it *~* He began as a freehand graffiti artist, part of the industrial city of Bristol's underground movement of the early 90's.  He switched to the stencilling technique in 2000 because, as he himself has said, it's easier & faster therefore better suited to surreptitious execution. This is the piece (above) that is around the corner from my place. And to me the most intriguing of the 3 I've seen. I'm happy to have it so accessible, available to muse on when the mood takes. Also, I'm curious as to whether it will last or will someone determined enough figure out how to vandalize it, pry the protection off, find the right tool to slice through the plastic, mar the material like a keyed car. I'll keep you posted. It is, in fact, high quality plastic, it doesn 't hinder clear viewing of the work, though optimum viewing & photography can only be obtained at certain times of the day as it's fiercely vulnerable to reflections depending on the sun's position.

Banksy's rat is alive & well & living on Spadina Ave, just north of Queen. And wearing sunglasses. In disguise? Rats are a common motif in Banksy's work. As are monkeys, policemen, soldiers, children & the elderly. The location of this particular rat is the heart of Chinatown, the immediate area where restaurants were closed down by the city health department in 2009.... for unacceptable preparation standards & rat, mice & cockroach infestation. Do you suppose Banksy knew that?

On the back of the old Provincial Police Headquarters, on Lakeshore between Bay & York. Only the policeman & leashed balloon dog is Banksy original The dodo bird on head & the writing is tagged. The "thanks" balloon no doubt left by an admirer.

A uniformed armed police officer holds the leash of a pink balloon dog, the kind handed out by clowns to amuse children, a balloon dog that needs to be muzzled. Banksy's mockery of law enforcement, even as he vandalizes their own bastion? The possibilities are endless. Thanks, Banksy. Your visit has left much food for thought!


Sunday, April 25, 2010

the raven himself is hoarse.......


......that croaks the fatal entrance of duncan
under my battlements. Come, you spirits
that tend on mortal thoughts, unsex me here,
And fill me from the crown to the toe top full
Of direst cruelty. Make thick my blood;
Stop up th' access and passage to remorse,
That no compuctious visitings of nature
Shake my fell purpose nor keep peace between
Th' effect and it. Come to my woman's breasts
And take my milk for gall, you murd'ring ministers,
Wherever in your sightless substances
You wait on nature's mischief. Come, thick night,
And pall thee in the dunnest smoke of hell,
That my keen knife see not the wound it makes
Nor heaven peep through the blanket of the dark
To cry 'Hold, hold !'

Lady MacBeth's soliloquy, Act 1 Sc 5.

The ultimate scheming political villainess ? Yet in the end, tortured by her own guilty conscience, she loses her sanity ("Out, damned spot; out, I say!" Act 5 Sc 1) & dies.

There's a longheld superstitious belief in international theatrical circles that any production of Shakespeare's MacBeth is vulnerable to an historic curse of disaster and / or failure. So strong is this superstition that one is not allowed, except in performance, to speak the MacBeth name, or quote a line from the play, in any quarters of a theatre or in any related space, for fear of invoking the curse. It's always referred to as "The Scottish Play". And the 2 pivotal characters as "his nibs" & Lady M. If one dares let slip the forbidden "M" word, there is an outcry & one must immediately perform a ritual of contrition : exit the theatre, spin around 3 times while uttering a profanity, then beg forgiveness & permission to re-enter. Other variations of absolution: spit over one's left shoulder; or repeat the rhyme "thrice around the circle bound, evil sink into the ground"; or spew out a quote from Hamlet " angels & ministers of grace defend us " (act 1 sc 4)

In the late '80's, I was involved in an outdoor summer production of MacBeth by the now-defunct Skylight Theatre, in Earl Bales Park, Toronto. During the opening night performance the set went up in flames. Pyrotechnics were being used, from beneath the stage, for dramatic effect during Act 4 Scene 1 , as the 3 Witches gather around the cauldron to invoke their own curses upon the nobleman MacBeth (double double, toil & trouble!) An errant spark flew out of the cauldron & ignited rigging that was part of the rear set decoration. In an instant it blasted into huge flames. The actors assembled behind the stage, awaiting their entrance cue, were stunned into disbelief & non-action ! Except for one just-out-of-theatre-school young apprentice actor, Rick, who rushed on stage, ripped down the flaming rigging & flung it into the deep ravine immediately behind the stage area. Immersed in their scene, the 3 witches seemed oblivious to the kerfuffle til it was all over... from the audience could be heard a palpable release of voyeuristic bated breath... backstage whispers cheered Rick as a hero &, without missing another beat, the play went on. That's the way of it. The show must go on. But most certainly that episode was considered a visitation, an attempt at infiltration, from the Scottish play's ominous curse. There are numerous stories, from all over the world, of the trials & tribulations of staging a production of MacBeth. Many much more horrendous even tragic in outcome than the example cited here. During the play's very first production, in 1606, Willy himself was forced to step up & play Lady MacBeth when the young boy cast in the role fell ill & died. In 1672, the actor playing MacBeth in an Amsterdam production substituted a real dagger for the harmless stage prop & stabbed the actor playing King Duncan to death, as the horrified audience watched in disbelief!! In 1721, hecklers became such an irritant at one performance that the actors attacked them with their swords & the army had to be summoned to quell the melee. The litany of catastrophes goes on : 1849....31 audience members trampled to death in a riot that broke out during a New York performance; 1937....when Laurence Olivier's sword snapped, a piece of the blade flew into the audience & hit a man, the shock causing him to have a heart-attack. He died ; 1953....Charlton Heston suffered severe burns of the groin & leg when his tights, accidently soaked in kerosene, combusted (huh?) ; through the ages, cast & crew members of innumerable productions of MacBeth have been afflicted by heart attacks, suicides, fires, collapsed sets, falls from the stage or rigging, strikes, robberies, serious illness, family tragedies. Makes our little fire at Skylight seem as inconsequential as it was inevitable !

NB: daring young Rick went on to have a very successful career as both an actor & playwright.

image : a raven claiming territory on Vancouver's Third Beach. / Though a scavenger, the raven has existed with humans for thousands of years. A member of the crow family, it has long been revered as both a messenger of God and, as Shakespeare uses it in MacBeth, a symbol of ill omen.

Friday, March 5, 2010

and these are our citizens..........

The lost souls of Vancouver's downtown eastside! The Olympic Committee didn't try to hide them away after all, to get them off the streets, make them invisible, as rumour had insisted was the plan. If anything, the decision to have the olympic flame relay pass through the troubled area, near the end of its coast to coast journey in the months leading up to the games, seemed the equivalent of an international announcement "This is part of our city too, these are our less fortunate citizens" Though the relay did have to be rerouted somewhat, due to the rowdy protests of activists for the homeless.

In another move, a 57ft tall outdoor LED sculpture, carrying the words "east" & "van" which, horizontally & vertically, make a crucifix, was commissioned by Vanoc's arts funding council. The east-van cross has long been a graffiti image of the tough eastside & now artist Ken Lum's inspiration for his contemporary sculpture. He grew up there, the son of low-paid chinese immigrant workers.The permanent "Monument for East Vancouver arises" has already become a defining symbol of the inner city & promotes critical discourse. It lights up at night. It looks a potent symbol of suffering. No, I havn't seen it. Wish I had. There was a fabulous nightshot from Rafal Gerszak for the Globe & Mail / Tuesday March 2nd.

Was also directed, via The Globe & Mail, to the website of Vancouver photographer Eric Deis whose campaign, through raw candid 2 gigapixel photographs of the eastside's streetlife, was to bring all eyes that were on Vancouver for the Olympics to the truth of the plight of the inhabitants of  downtown eastside.

None of it immediately helps those sleeping on the streets tonight, or the one who's going to overdose tomorrow or get beat up or die of AIDS but it seems a step turned in a direction that might have city hall actively looking for longterm solutions. They have acknowledged the condition. Perhaps they will also act. It isn't going to be easy  .......but then again, nothing worthwhile ever is , is it?

see previous post January 13th 2010 : the dilemma of vancouver's eastside......

Tuesday, March 2, 2010

best post-games quips.......

"sorry, we didn't mean we wanted to own the whole podium.....just that bit in the middle."

  .......Globe & Mail letters to the editor, March 1st, from Richard Bingham, Toronto.

"Is it over? Are they gone?  Can I come out now? "

.........Globe & Mail letters to the editor, March 2nd, from Alan Donald, Vancouver.

Monday, March 1, 2010

reflecting on the olympic experience...........

There will be major withdrawal symptoms sweeping across the country of Canada in the next few days. The games started ominously with the tragic death of 21 year old Georgian luger Nodar Kumaritashvili just hours before the opening ceremonies, an event which in that utterly shocking moment seemed to have brought an end to the games before they had even begun. Couldn't help but think of the superstitious curse of doom that is believed to hover over any & every theatrical production of Shakespeare's "MacBeth". In its early days it was fraught with controversy about Whistler's sliding track where the accident happened ( too fast, too dangerous? ), anquish about the endless rain & mild temps that all but wiped Cypress mountain clean of usable skiing conditions, outrage over Vanoc's decision to chain-link fence the outdoor cauldron at Jack Pool Plaza, to keep the public at bay. Many many hiccups, not to mention the public relations disaster that was the perceived arrogance of the  "Own the Podium" slogan. Then something else happened that was far greater than anything that could have been anticipated. We discovered that that passion we'd felt murmuring as the olympic flame came into our frame of reference as it crossed the country was, in fact,  a fantastical bandwagon. And that we could, for easy choosing,  ride it all the way. Olympic fever infected the whole country, from coast to coast the citizens of Canada turned 17 days into a collective experience of unparalleled proportions. It wasn't the Vancouver games after all, it was the Canada games. It began when 22 year old Alexandre Bilodeau, the sweet uncomplicated boy-man from Quebec, came to our attention when he won mogul gold & shared with the world his all-encompassing love for his handicapped brother, Frederic. It wasn't just about the delicious taste of first gold on olympic home soil, it was about the human condition of empathy & joy & pride. The moment's emotional content began its alchemy to unify us as a nation, to transform this country into one massive community of souls who cared, that were awed by the youth & strength & sublime physical beauty & committment to excellence of all the dedicated athletes who had gathered on the west coast from all over the globe. I am not a sports fan. You will never find the TV in my home tuned to a sports event or me sitting in an arena cheering for the home team. Winter or summer. Yet the passion I felt, along with millions of other Canadians during this olympic symphony, filled me to the brim & spilled over. Not what I was expecting at all. I had imagined that olympic saturation was going to become very tiresome. That I would be glad when it was over so that we could all get on with our lives. But that was before Jon Mongomery, an auctioneer with a maple leaf tattooed over his heart, everybody's 'bad boy', triumphantly marched through the cheering night crowds of Whistler Village, beer pitcher in hand, cocky grin on his face, looking like the happiest man alive. Before Joannie Rochette became everyone's brave heroine as she skated her programme wearing her crown of courage less than 48 hours after the sudden unexpected death of her mother in a Vancouver hotel room. Before Kim Yu Na of Korea showed us what flawless grace & beauty on ice is all about. Turns out it was less about 'owning the podium' and more about the power of a countrywide human experience, a defining moment in collective national pride. A magnificent excuse to wave the flag, sing the national anthem, to shout out loud "I am a Canadian!" It was a one-off. An addiction to remember & savour for a long time to come. Wouldn't have missed it for the world *~*

And the final beats of olympic 2010 competition, tension & excitement as high as it could possibly be, the metaphoric 'sudden death' hanging nail-bitingly over the heads of the continent's two nations & young Sydney Crosby brings it to a bravo performance curtain with a shot on goal that he says he didn't even see go in. Compassion for the US team came easily. It was a big deal to them too. But a most fitting finale for the greatest party that Canada has ever held, a party where everyone was a welcome guest. Everyone!

image : reflections of a houseboat at fisherman's wharf, victoria, vancouver island.

Sunday, February 28, 2010

hey, mr harper.........

............ don't think you were singing the national anthem at the beginning of the closing ceremonies. Looked like you were faking it. That or you don't know the words. What's with that? Not good PR, you know. Not good PR as Prime Minister of the Olympic host country. Likely it could bring a whole new bunch of negativity your way. 'Tis possible your skin is thick & you won't give a damn. But it's not good for us, you know. To dislike our lead guy's attitude & inaccessibility. I want to like you but you piss me off so easily. Me & a lot of other people. You're running out of time. Time to loosen up, fella.

Friday, February 12, 2010

bad boy........

Standing at the curb on Queen's Quay. At the foot of Yonge street.  Was debating whether to take yet another shot of the iconic CN tower which was beckoning to me from across the street, its grand position between 2 high-tech highrise buildings, periwinkle blue sky as backdrop, making a startling demand for attention. Nah !!!.Turned around. Oh!!!! He was this close, sitting on a parked motorcycle , leaning on the handlebars. All I saw was the tattoos & the hand rising to the mouth. Lifted my camera. Click. Reflex action. No thought. Uh oh! Knew instantly that I'd just clicked my way into candid street photography's potential trouble zone. He was mad. His back straightened. His face changed. The  easy countenance of an uneventful but pleasant Sunday afternoon hanging out with his biker buddy, gone. The eyes narrowed as the hand ripped the cigarette out of the mouth, freeing it for verbal attack. "Who gave you permission to take my photo?" "Sorry! Sorry! Didn't get your face. Just the tattoos & the cig" "You did NOT have permission to take my photo" he virtually spat. I clutched my camera tightly & started to back away. Was he going to tell me to delete it ? Demand that I do it right there & then & show him the proof ? Was that in fact his right? But the frame I'd seen in the viewfinder in that split second of spontaneous shutter clicking had excited me, crammed as it was with the hand to mouth cigarette action, the dense blue-inked snake-like tattoos & the barbed chain he'd chosen to indelibly & to his dying day strangle himself with.  Only got that one shot. No way. He's not getting it. Backing away further, staring down his glowering eye contact, I make my escape. With my shot intact. Downloading when I got home...aha.....audentes fortuna iuvat!

The bad boy! All women know them. Many are attracted to them. The ones with "trouble" stamped on their foreheads. The ones who take you for a ride on their motor-cycle. The ones who take you for a ride.  Sean Penn? Jack Nicholson? Robert Downey, jnr?  James Dean, oozing both  rebellion & vulnerability....the quintessential bad boy ? They came into my life. I let them in.  First boyfriend at 15. Brooding & charismatic. Was smitten the moment he strutted into the youth club for the first time. ( Do kids today still have such a social life or is 'the mall' their club ?)  He was 14. Was in my life, on & off,  til I was 18, til I sailed away to a new life in Canada. Saying goodbye on deck of the transatllantic Cunard liner that would take me there in 6 days & 6 nights, he said "I'm not worried'll be back in 6 months." Cocky as ever. As irresistible as ever. But I wasn't back in 6 months. And I never saw him again. Age 23, I married one. The classic Prince of Darkness / King of Light. A lot more than just 'trouble' stamped on his forehead. Talk about roller-coaster. What is it about the bad boy that both fascinates & terrifies women? Attracts & repels. Not the tattoos. The bad boy can reign supreme without a jot of ink on his body. Inevitably, charisma  is an ingredient. And barely disguised vulnerability..... brazen self-confidence...... gall.  A wild quality. Perhaps therein lies the power. Deep down we want to be wild like that too. We're hoping some of it will rub off on us. That we'll get to bury the good girl. For awhile anyway.

The guy on the motor cycle......his charisma evaporated the moment he opened his mouth. A pretty fierce response. Less aggression might have made me less determined to keep the shot. He did have a point worth consideration. Though street photography is not against the law. He chews his fingernails. Anxiety-ridden? Insecure? Or is this particular bad boy a fuse ready to blow? That's no fun! Damnright dangerous, in fact!

Tuesday, February 9, 2010

it's raining, it's pouring......

It's raining, it's pouring,
The old man is snoring.
He went to bed with a bump on his head
And he couldn't get up in the morning.
Rain, rain, go away,
Come again another day.

A traditonal nursery rhyme, first published in 1939, though believed to have been written in the 1800's. Not much known about its British origins  .....or the origins of any nursery rhymes for that matter.Though Brits do say "It's pouring!" meaning it's pouring with rain. They also say "It's pissing down" & " It's raining cats & dogs".....possibly a reference to the extremely poor sanitation of 17th / 18th century England, causing dead animals as well as debris to be swept along the street gutters during heavy downpours.

This thought conjures up dire imaginings of what the rainy season will bring to the people of Port-au-Prince. Current reports on the relief efforts in Haiti are not good. How can more than a billion donated (US) dollars worldwide be so, apparently, ineffective still ? Disorganization & lack of co-ordination among the now over 900 NGO's operating in the most severely affected  zones seems as catastrophic as the disaster itself, the sheer numbers a root problem. We see food still being dropped from helicopters as if feeding wild animals, in a devastated urban jungle were only the fittest, the strongest, are going to reap the benefits. Surely, a month & many millions of dollars later, a more workable & humane plan should be in place. As jot said, a marshall plan is desperately needed.

But I digress, from the old man who snored while it poured with rain! Musings here were initiated when I found the above pic in my files. It was taken the day I wandered the wet downtown streets of Granada, Nicaragua, in a tropical depression rainstorm. The sidewalk on this section of El Cazada is sheltered by an avenue of great trees, name unknown. Nature's leafy umbrella kindly protected my camera. The briskly striding yellow-raincoated pedestrian flashed in my peripheral vision. Another beat & he was gone. Only got one shot. Without giving up the tree as frame, anyway.*~* Remembering that day of pouring rain resurrected the sing-song nursery rhyme of childhood and laid it, unbidden, into the soundtrack of the photograph. When I was a kid I used to wonder what happened to the old man & why he couldn't get up in the morning. Now I imagine he had a concussion & couldn't get up because he died in his sleep. So many nursery rhymes do, after all, have morbid or violent intonations. The farmer's wife cut off the tails of the 3 blind mice who chased her. Goosie Goosie Gander threw the old man down the stairs because he wouldn't say his prayers. Sounds like Goosie had anger management issues. The farmer's wife? Let's say she was the prototype hysterical woman suffering musophobia whose irrational fears drove her to cut off their tails. But what of the lullabies ? Some are anything but soothing. "Rock-a-Bye, Baby" has the cradle & the baby crashing to the ground when the wind blows. Perhaps coined by a vindictive nanny not happy in her work who released her frustrations by directing her young charges into the sleep of nightmares!  That it could have been the nanny was suggested to me via google. Her mean character traits came out of my own heart. *~*

Wednesday, February 3, 2010


The simple catapult. Or slingshot as you non-Brits call it. It conjures up memories of childhood... a forked piece of tree branch, a strip of rubber, a stone .....and warnings to "be careful". Well, mostly my brothers were getting that warning. I was too much of a scaredy-cat for brash behaviour. The catapult. The most basic of toys, or assault weapon, depending on one's intentions for its use. Its beginnings were not innocent. In 339BC, Dionysius 1, tyrant ruler of Sicily, urged the country's craftsmen to construct new weapons for military use. The invention of the catapult, and its concept of propulsion, changed the face of warfare forever. Hey, wait a minute. What about David? Biblical stories tell us that 17 year old pipsqueak David slew the 9 foot tall Goliath with a single pebble & slingshot. And that was around 1024BC, 700 years earlier. Too bad young David didn't patent his simple weapon before those wily Spartans stole his invention centuries later. And I hear tell that Dionysius rewarded his inventors with untold riches & accolades. Sure pulled the wool over his eyes, didn't they?

The photo was taken in Nicaragua. A little boy & his sister who would sit on the front steps of the house where I was staying in Granada. And get chased away by the woman who owned the house. She didn't like kids hanging around. Said she felt threatened. He was 7 years old! He gave me a demonstration of his catapult prowess, in the middle of the street. A most compelling performance he put on. His whole body became a part of the action of pull & release. Like a dancer. Streamlined.....pebble bullet going forth as if it was an extension of his lithe body. A bow & its arrow.

I was in Granada specifically to meet, get to know & take photos of the children of Villa Esperanza, a poverty stricken barrio of Granada. In the 2 weeks that I spent time with the kids each day, in the barrio, I did not see one single toy, a manufactured buy-it-in-the-store toy, that is. The children ran, they climbed trees, they played in the mud with empty tin cans & bottle caps, they did handstands & jumped off walls & chased each other. You know, all the stuff our kids used to do before they got lost behind screens of varying sizes. But no toys. With an average family income of less than $2 a day, the order of the day is food to feed the family, not toys. A few balls. And lots of catapults. All home-made, of course. And so proud of them, they were. A couple of the boys asked me to take photos of them posing with their catapults. Rubber band pulled taut for maximum effect, of course. *~* When was the last time you tucked a catapult, or slingshot if you prefer,  into your back pocket? Or took aim at a tin can?


Saturday, January 23, 2010

so this is haiti......

That it shares the island of Hispaniola with the Dominican Republic. That it is the poorest nation in the western hemisphere. That was about the extent of what I knew about Haiti prior to the evening of Tuesday, January 12th 2010. That was when the first trickle of news that there had been an earthquake of possibly unprecedented catastrophic proportions in Haiti reached my consciousness & had  me confronting the fact that I knew virtually nothing about Haiti, that I had made little attempt to find out anything about it, other than the bits & pieces of information that filtered in without effort through the decades of my adulthood. Last year, as a result of an invitation from Empowerment International, I went to Nicaragua to take photos of the kids they work with in Villa Esperanza, a barrio of Granada. There, I witnessed the dire straits of those living in a degree of poverty that didn't even have a frame of reference in my everyday world. Nicaragua is second only to Haiti as the poorest nation in the western hemisphere. I considered going there also. To record & report the reality of Haiti's conditions. But I didn't follow through, didn't formulate a plan to get there. The idea of going, solo, became a bit scary. I read about rampant crime & violence in the streets. Was it as lawless as I was now imagining it to be ? It's one thing to step into the midst of Vancouver's desperate eastside for one day. Was I courageous enough to step into raging urban lawlessness for 2-3 weeks? Going to Cuba, I hoped to find the truth of Castro's 'socialism', what that actually meant to the daily lives of the people of Cuba, not the propaganda of it that was so easily rammed down one's throat.  To do that I went into the core of Old Havana, hung out there for a couple of weeks, talked to the people, asked questions, listened to their stories.  But I let the idea of doing the same  in Port-au-Prince drift away into an on-going  list of "must do someday" ideas, not only because my imaginings of its lawlessness were intimidating but because it was easier to be lazy, to not research Haiti to the point were intellectual & emotional curiosity would have got me there regardless. Easier to turn away. To not look. As the majority of the world has turned away from Haiti over its turbulent disaster-ridden 200 year long history. Haiti is the only republic in the world that earned its independence by slave revolt. That in itself is enough to lay shame on myself that I hadn't been curious enough to learn that astounding fact. That a people in the americas sucesssfully fought for the abolition of their own slavery 60 years before america's slaves earned their freedom. But the ensuing  poverty & oppression & foreign interference that has been a constant of Haiti's history ever since had left them vulnerable long before this devastating earthquake. 70% of Haiti's 9 million people had been living on less than $2 a day. There had been no running water, no clean water even, for more than 50% of the population & no electricity to the same degree. At 60, the average life expectancy is much lower than any other nation in the western hemisphere. The infant mortality rate is much higher. And the number of orphaned children is in the many hundreds of thousands. There is a huge yawning discrepancy between the 2% that is the light-skinned mulatto elite & the 98% that is the impoverished black. Political corruption both facilitates & condones that discrepancy. The minimum wage only recently was increased to $3 a day. Hard manual construction labour or toiling in the back-breaking fields 12 hours a day or in service to the rich & powerful & elitist few, will net a hardworking Haitian $3 a day!. Oh, don't we take so much for granted in this, in relative terms, affluent society of ours? Many of us would think nothing of spending $3 a day for a cup of coffee at corporate Starbucks....... or whatever one's particular brand of consumerism is in a world where we willingly spend billions of dollars a year to plaster our bodies & our homes with product names. And imagine that it somehow elevates us to some societal status of validation. Naomi Klein's 'No Logo' is an eye-opening read on the subject. The Tommy Hilfiger company doesn't actually produce or sell anything. Nothing. Except its name, that is. Hilfiger's business is the business of selling the Hilfiger name to other companies, who put it on their products. Products we  then buy &  display the ridiculously imposed Hilfiger logo. At the time of first learning this, it boggled the mind. What a culture of gullible consumeristic sheep we are. The Haitians however, with that same Starbucks-spent $3 a day, will eke out a measure of life for themselves. Build a house of ticky-tack on a denuded hill & hope it's strong enough to withstand the force of weather pattern hurricanes & fault-line eruptions. That there are no imposed building codes is of little concern or relevance when the order of the day is survival.

 We waited with bated breath for the news media to spew it out. How catastrophic is it? How many people have died? But it was so much more far-reaching than that. At 4.53pm on Tuesday, January 12th, the bowels of the planet turned Haiti inside out & revealed, for stark global awareness, the tragic impoverished ignored reality that was Haiti before the much as it is after. Poverty, homelessness, malnutrition, infectious disease, violence, corruption, as far back as anyone can remember. Governments, corporations, churches rallied worldwide instantly. As did everyday citizens who, even if their own lives are a struggle, recognized that they are nowhere near as badly off as the people of Haiti are. Indeed, as they have always been. We've seen the images, we've watched & listened to the news. We now know. Hearts have felt compassion & wallets have been opened. That's the human condition in times of great need. To want to help.

Haitian artist activist Wyclef Jean delivered a message from the people of Haiti on Thursday. Please, no more photo ops. That was the message. 'No more photo ops. We need help. Now.' They have no food, no water, no shelter, no functioning government, no security force. Endless images of their tragic state, their homelessness, of their bone-crushed children having limbs hacked off in primitive medical procedures, of their impossibly damaged & clogged infrastructure, of the lawlessness that has always been there as a survival instinct of a desperately impoverished people but now for the first time has a global spotlight shining on it. These horrific images for endless days no longer serve a constructive purpose. They have accomplished the initial necessary & hoped for effect. Monetary donations of compassion. In the hundreds of millions of dollars. But what does that mean to the tragic figures facing a barrage of cameras every day since January 12th?? Aid is not yet reaching them. Or is doing so far too slowly. The new wave of death is the tens of thousands of seriously injured whose untreated wounds are succumbing to sepsis. But there is little of the equipment & supplies required for medical intervention being dispersed as yet. While countries fight over who has the right to land at the airport, the people of Haiti are dying. Lacking the basics of food, water, shelter & medical help, they fend for themselves as best they can. And soon, the deadly diseases that manifest from contaminated water & barely existent sanitation in the aftermath of disasters of such dimension will show themselves. Some of the people  are rebelling, many are pleading for speedier help, some are quietly going about the business of building new homes, crude shelters really, with whatever scraps of materials can be salvaged from the rubble, sticks, blankets, pieces of corrugated iron or cardboard. They are existing in conditions of deplorable human misery. So many tears. So much pain & loss. But their spirit is strong beyond measure. In the midst of unbelievable trauma & chaos, they make music, they sing, they dance, they give thanks to their God for saving them. And they wait. They wait  for help, begging not to be forgotten again. The whole world, as one community, has come together, has pledged to help, with both immediate aid & far into the future for the reconstruction of their country. But so far the distribution of basic aid is trapped in the throes of chaos & disorganization & broken down infrastructure & the medical teams & humanitarian aid workers can't do the job they rushed to Haiti to do. Help is needed in Haiti. It is needed immediately. May it be available to them soon. Today.

Hats off to George Clooney for the concept & immediate global-reaching execution of an unprecendented in the history of television telethon concert. Its style & presentation was impeccable. In 2 hours of air-time, nothing & no one up-staged Haiti & its immediate need for help. Not applause. Not the sets. Not special effects. And not the artists, a line-up like we've never seen before, for not one of them was named either on the screen or by announcement. Not Wyclef Jean, who manned the telethon's execution on the New York end. And not Clooney, who was as unintrusive as a charismatic celebrity of his renown could possibly be. The focus was on Haiti & its need. And there it remained. As was the humanitarian intention of the telethon. Mr Clooney & everyone who made it happen.

Canada's preceding telethon, though successful in its fund-raising aim, 9 million dollars in one hour, a sum which will be matched dollar for dollar by the federal government, was nowhere near as successful in its style. But how could it be with neurotic egotist Ben Mulroney at the helm. Mr Mulroney was so intent on up-staging everyone & everything that at one point it seemed evident that, in his mind, the event was about him. Get it together, Ben. What little charm you do have is wearing very thin.

Wednesday, January 13, 2010

the dilemma of vancouver's eastside

Infamous. Desperate. Derelict. A chronic out-of-control very visible condition of Vancouver's Downtown Eastside, the city's oldest neighbourhood.......... poverty, homelessness, street crime, prostitution, open drug-dealing, public drug use (the most common being heroin, crack cocaine & crystal meth). Some didn't think I should go there. But I went anyway. I was shocked. Even having read news articles and seen documentary film coverage over the years, in reality the condition is staggering. Swarms of people... hanging out in alleyways, dealing in doorways, hunkering en masse on street corners & sidewalks. I instictively knew to be furtive if I was going to take photos, trying to be as inconspicuous as possible, holding the camera at waist level, using the flexible screen. But not inconspicuous enough. Twice females from the street approached to warn me what could happen. "They'll throw beer cans at you" said the first. "They get offended when people take photos...they'll grab your camera & smash it. You don't want that to happen, do you?" said the second. After the second warning I felt I was pushing my luck and stopped shooting. The city of Vancouver had high hopes of cleaning up the area before international journalists & millions of visitors arrive for the 2010 Olympics and see all.... but just 4 weeks away from the games' opening it is obvious that whatever plans the city had have failed miserably. Rumours have been rampant that all the sad lost souls on the streets of the eastside were to be rounded up and hidden away somewhere til the games were over. Draconian measures, indeed. Not realistic. Or just. Where could they put them? They are many. Jail? Shelters? Rehab? Housing would have been a solution but it seems that is not a doable option. It remains to be seen what if anything is in fact put in place in an attempt to hide from the world this desperate state of being that exists in what is considered Canada's most beautiful city.

Sunday, January 10, 2010


A young child, perhaps 2 years of age or less, sits on her mother's lap. Offered a small piece of peeled mango she seems to hold it on her tongue for a moment then........ the back arches, the eyes roll upwards, the limbs jerk akimbo, a smile of absolute bliss transforms her baby face as she writhes in this seemingly new experience for her developing senses. When was the last time I ate food in such a mindful manner that my taste buds reached their full potential for ecstasy?

Thursday, January 7, 2010

oh what a tangled web

New year's eve I was tending bar in a small private club, a semi regular volunteer gig that serves me well in that kind of social scene. I'm a non-drinker. But lest you think I'm a puritan, I smoke like a mad fiend..... but that's another story. A good time was had by all . We closed the doors at 2am. Ah, but what do I find left behind, beneath a table....a small black knapsack. This being a members-only club, our little work-team of 3 knows all the members, though errant guests do get by once in awhile without registering, as do a few crashers. We opened the knapsack expecting to find ID. None. But it did contain a large bible from what seemed to be a seniors' church, an envelope of blank application forms for opening a small business, a tattered notebook with almost illegible somewhat illiterate randomly scrawled jottings and, explaining the weight of the bag, a beautiful signed inuit soapstone animal carving, stuffed inside a dirty white sock & then wrapped in a dirty white undershirt. How absurd! Who would carry such an expensive object around in an old rather grungy-looking knapsack on new year's eve? I took the knapsack home with me expecting an enquiry from the forgetful reveller the next morning. Nothing. 48 hours later I posted a notice, without knapsack-content details, on the community boards seen by most who are members of the club. No response. A couple of days later, my son & sister were visiting & I mentioned this strange occurrence to them. They wanted to see the inuit sculpture & its incongruous wrapping. Next thing I knew, the pair of them had revealed their secret inner yearnings to be detectives & were at my computer with the contents of the knapsack spread out before them googling for clues ! The inuit artist was easiest to find. He has an extensive website. His work sells from $500 to $5000. I can believe it. There were many photographs of his carvings but none that duplicated the sample sitting at that moment on my computer desk seeking resolution to its mystery. My sister set about deciphering the clues to be found in the notebook scribblings, my son fed said clues into google. Both were breathing fire with the excitement of the challenge. One name that google connected to a phone number, found scrawled in the notebook in heavy pencil, turned out to be that of one of a group of 5 charged & convicted of a tele-marketing scam that bilked 50,000 canadian & american companies of $23 million ! The application forms to start a small business found in the knapsack now began to have suspicious implications. And the possibility that the expensive sculpture in its seedy sock bag had in fact been stolen..... the reason nobody was laying claim to its no doubt unintended & regretful loss. The notebook also contained "to-do" lists. Among the mundane many :

go to church,

attend AA,

sell tickets.

find people who would like to invest !!!!

We seem to be looking for a bible-reading church-going reformed-alcoholic semi-illiterate senior who possibly steals soapstone sculptures & has aspirations to start a small investment business. Anybody know anyone who fits this description ? *~*

Wednesday, January 6, 2010

shut the up!!

Don't you want to throttle them? Go right over & stick a knife in their backs? Doesn't matter what public space you're in, the street, restaurant, a bus, the subway, top of the cn tower, waiting for the movie to start, standing in line for the john, even the reverent public library where shhhh! silence! has been the rule of thumb for time in memorian....... there they are with their bloody cellphones stuck to their ear, talking in loud voices about their mundane little lives. What is that anyway? Can't be alone with their own thoughts for a single second lest they might have to face the reality that they don't have a thought worth musing on? A desperate need to prove to everyone within earshot , including themselves, that they're not the depressed friendless isolated urban dweller we might dare to assume they are? Cellphones..... and their users! An obnoxious in-your-face blight on contemporary society's day to day living! A total loss of consideration for everyone else's right to a reasonable measure of unintruded upon existence. A profound lack of common courtesy that is enough to make this ranter tear her hair out by the roots & ram it down the offender's throat til they are rendered speechless! Aaah, silence at last! This abuse of common air space is not even limited to lone souls reaching out to someone, anyone, for companionship, to conduct business on the go, to verify that it was milk they were supposed to pick up on the way home & not a bottle of poison to put an end to their measly sad lives. No, they can be seen all dressed up at lunch on a patio or dinner on the town, in groups of 3 or 4 or more, not even remotely socializing with each other, each & every one of them with a cellphone clamped to the ear talking to someone elsewhere. Yesterday I was riding the Red Rocket out to the west end of the city. No sooner had I sat down than the person behind me started talking loudly to some invisible contact at the other end of a cellphone. The opening lines of her end of the conversation? "Whatssup? Watcha doin'?" Doesn't even have anything of any value to say!! And on & on it went. I can feel the irritation stirring its juices in my gut but, hey, it's January 5th, not a good way to start a new year so I move, collect all my already removed wintergear, hat, scarf, gloves & take a seat at the back of the streetcar where I can no longer hear her loud tedious smalltalk. The return journey several hours later.....had just settled down, taken out & started reading Chris Hedges' excellent "Empire of Illusion" when the young woman across the aisle from me starts up on her cellphone..... very loudly, like she's giving a performance and demanding that every other rider on the streetcar be her audience, whether they like it or not. Her hostage would be a more appropriate word. Her topic of relentless conversation? A 'he said, she said' gossip reportage of the previous evening apparently. Concentration to read is impossible. Am I going to move again? No, I am not! Am I going to stay silent & irritated? No, I am not! "Miss, talk with a quieter voice!!!!" spoken quite loudly.... but no response, my voice has not penetrated the banality of her idle chatter. "HEY!!!" She glances over to me with a surprised 'who me?' look on her face. " Talk with a quieter voice" "Oh, sorry!" she says and continues talking on her cell at a more reasonable level. A few passengers cheer, in relief I suspect. But is she sorry? Has she thought about what prompted a demand for consideration on a crowded public vehicle? Hopefully... but probably not. She was still talking when I exited the streetcar. I, on the otherhand, have taken my first but not my last step of rebellion against this constant onslaught of vocal invasion. Be warned Toronto. I am about to become recognizable as the woman who's not going to take it anymore. Get out of my face with your damn cellphone. Get a life. A real life in the here & now! Try a little silence! Shut the up!!

Sunday, January 3, 2010

once upon a time.....