Anthony and Cleopatra

Anthony and CleopatraWhile Julius Caesar is my favourite of all Shakespeare’s plays, I think Anthony and Cleopatra is my second favourite. I know it’s hard to choose any favourites from his plays, they’re all so good, but this one seems to resonate with me more than most others, enough to encourage me to reread it this week.

Perhaps it’s because both lead characters are past their prime (as I am), but – like all of us who have put a few years behind us – reluctant to acknowledge it and still see themselves as their younger selves. In that, Cleopatra shines, while Anthony looks like a guy in a mid-life crisis. In a more modern setting he’d buy a Harley or a sports car. Or, like Anthony in the play, take a mistress.

Perhaps it’s because while they are, despite the irreducible effects of age, still full of passion and life and love. They are also full of doubt and uncertainty: that makes them very human; full of the foibles that love, lust and politics bring. And that’s what Shakespeare does best: brings our foibles to the fore. No character in his works is free of flaws. Nor are any of us – it’s a lesson to remember.

It’s a play set on the cusp of great change: the Roman empire and Egypt are just on the edge of significant and critical upheavals. While Rome will rise in imperial power, strength and glory under Augustus – only called Octavius Caesar in the play – and his successors, Egypt’s greatness is behind her and she will fade after Cleopatra; reduced to a mere province in the Roman empire.

Reading the play is a bit like reading the story of the Titanic: everyone can see the iceberg approaching except the characters in their own story. Yet we cannot avert our eyes from the tragedy in store. Anthony’s comment that, “The time of universal peace is near,” foreshadows both the Roman victory and his own demise.

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Goodbye, Cleo

CleoCleo was an accidental member of the family. Twelve to fifteen years ago – long enough that the exact date is hazy in my mind – she came to us. Well, she was delivered, actually. And yesterday she left us.

One late winter day, back then, I was at home, getting ready to go to the shop, when a woman from the Georgian Bay Animal Rescue group showed up with a carrying case. We are in desperate need of some foster homes, she said. Short term, just until we find a more permanent home. It’s just one cat. She won’t be any bother. Can you help us?

What could I say but yes? We’ve always been a sucker for cats, and usually had three or four in the house – and had seen as many as seven living with us. All foster care, rescues, strays or adoptions.

Cleo, as we later called her, was a stumpy, compact little black female. She had been found up on Blue Mountain, under a porch, freezing in the snow and ice that bitterly cold winter. She had had a litter of kittens, which had all died in the cold. She was feral, but they had spayed her, vaccinated her. She was just a little shy, the woman added.

Little shy? She was terrified of humans. She darted out of the crate into the basement where she vanished. I didn’t even get a good look at her. We didn’t see her for weeks. We had other cats, and two dogs, so we couldn’t be sure if she was even eating the food we put out every day.

Finally, we started to get worried. A feral cat wouldn’t be house-smart, and might find her way into a wall, or somewhere she couldn’t escape. We were pretty sure she’d never even seen stairs before our home. Where was she?

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Reading Tennyson’s Ulysses

Last weekend, while watching the delightful movie, The Second Best Exotic Marigold Hotel, I heard Bill Nighy make a wedding speech that included lines from one of my favourite poems: Ulysses by Alfred Lord Tennyson. I recognized it immediately and it made me open the poem and read it again. The poem was written by Tennyson in 1833, but not published until 1842. I can’t recall exactly when I first read it, but it was in high school, in the 1960s. I’ve read it many times since.

It’s funny how one can read into a poem something entirely different on another reading. Or the third, fourth or tenth… Well, perhaps not funny as in humourus. Rather it is remarkable. Mysterious. Illuminating. Age, especially, seems to shine a new, different light on words and meanings.

Age is one of the things I think about more these days. Age and mortality. Not in a maudlin way, but rather as in seeing doors open and new paths to explore, making the most of what I have. What age does to us, what it presents, how we manage it. And how others have seen it. With both my parents dead, my own age presses upon me in ways it never did before.

But back to Tennyson. The poem, a monologue, opens:

It little profits that an idle king,
By this still hearth, among these barren crags,
Match’d with an aged wife, I mete and dole
Unequal laws unto a savage race,
That hoard, and sleep, and feed, and know not me.

The poem is ostensibly about Ulysses, the voyager returned from his adventures and his battle in Troy. After ears away, he feels constrained, is restless, and itches to go back out on the road. His home has lost its former glory and seems barren to him. His wife, years older, is no longer the beauty he left behind when he headed to Troy. Conformity bores him, frustrates him. Everything he left behind has changed – himself most of all – and he wants to be the man he was when facing adversity, years before.

But equally it is about us, all of us, as we age. Do we drift into retirement after a lifetime of school and work, to paddle downstream, drift with the current towards death? Or do we itch for more adventure? Are we satisfied with who we ae or do we want to be something else? Someone we once were?

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Creating a New Citizens’ Group

ProtestRecently, I’ve been told that what this town needs is a new citizen’s action group. I imagine it will be a group of residents concerned that the precedents set by the last council might spread to this one. That’s clearly a worrisome trend to some folks. Like progress, good ideas must be nipped in the bud.

What this town needs, it seems, is a group of citizens who will eagerly file OMB challenges to stop any chance at growth, development, prosperity and jobs before they become endemic. Citizens who will fight to retain our brownfields, to ensure we have store closings, half-finished developments and the slow withering away of the downtown.

Citizens who want the town to work aggressively against businesses, event promoters and developers for the long-term failure of this community. Citizens who demand council be at loggerheads with anyone who wants this town to grow and prosper or, gods forbid, open a business here. Scare them away. Close the door and keep them out.

So I’ve been thinking about what we might call this group and the causes they might stand for (and against). I’ve come up with a few ideas, based in no small part on reflecting on the groups that masqueraded as ratepayers’ groups in our past:

CARECitizens Advocating to Repeal Everything. In the next four years this council has plenty of time to revisit every decision the last council made – and I’m sure the bigger decisions will come back to the table in short order to be reverted or repealled. But why stop there? Why not repeal the whole Official Plan so we could remake the map of Collingwood from scratch? This group would be dedicated to the proposition that, just because a decision made by the last council wasn’t wrong or improper doesn’t mean it can’t be changed. It might even go right back to repealling the town’s name and changing it back to Hens & Chicken Harbour. One might even think the majority of this council already belong to this group.

I had thought to call this RDROEDDFPResidents Determined to Re-Open Every Damned Decision From the Past  – but it’s too hard to remember.

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The Story of Chicken Little

Chicken LittleChicken Little was out one morning walking around town. It was a fine morning, and he decided he wanted a cup of coffee. He wanted one so much could even smell the coffee in the air. So he walked into a local restaurant. But then he stopped and his mouth fell open in horror.

He saw three horses sitting together at a table. Chicken Little didn’t like horses in general, but these were the Three Horses of the Apocalypse. The Three Horses he hated more than any other horses in the whole wide world. The most evil, nastiest, ugliest, horses he had ever seen. Talking. Laughing. Drinking coffee.

Clearly plotting. That’s what horses do: they get together to talk, to laugh, to drink coffee, and to plot. And when horses plot, it means the sky must be falling.

“My, oh, my,” he said to himself. “They’re talking. They’re laughing. They’re drinking coffee. The sky is falling. I can feel it. A piece just hit me! I must run and tell the Weasel about it!”

And Chicken Little skedaddled out of the restaurant as fast as his little legs would carry him while he sent text messages to all his friends.

“They sky is falling!” he texted.

“WTF?” they texted back, but he was too much of a hurry to explain.

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Two New Posts on the Municipal Machiavelli

I added two posts today to my blog about Niccolo Machiavelli, the 16th century political philosopher. These are:

Machiavelli: The Graphic Novel – a short piece about the recent publication of Don MacDonald’s exciting new graphic book.

and

Atheist Machiavelli? A longer piece on the debate about whether Machiavelli was atheist, pagan or Christian.

Enjoy! I have a couple of new books about Machiavelli on order, too, which I hope to review this summer.

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May’s Breads and Pasta: 1

Bread 01So far this month, I’ve made two loaves and one batch of pasta. But the month is barely started, so I have lots of time to make more. The breads so far were nothing spectacular – acceptable, reasonably tasty, but hardly exciting. I’ve made better. The pasta on the other hand, is getting quite good and I look forward to making more.

The first loaf I made in the first few days of this month was a simple boule, made with a tweaked no-knead recipe.

I used unbleached flour, corn meal, and a bit of rye flour and whole wheat. I also added some buttermilk powder, a little agave syrup and a tablespoon or so of hemp hearts. I recall I may have also added a teaspoon of gluten powder, but I didn’t record it in my notebook, so i can’t say for sure that I did.

Bread 01Overall, it was a fair bread, with a good crust, but a bit of a dense crumb. That might have been from leaving it to rise overnight, and having it fall a bit. I probably should have kneaded it and let it rise again before baking, but I hoped the oven spring would bump it up more than it did.

In taste, it was okay; good for soup, but the density wasn’t great for toasting because the heat didn’t penetrate the thick, dense slices very well. The slightly golden colour is a combination of the unbleached flour and cornmeal. Crust was okay, too.

I think that when you vary from the basic AP or unbleached white flour by adding other types, the dough really deserves to be kneaded, so that may be why these no-knead recipes don’t work as well for me.  Or perhaps I should have stuck it in the fridge overnight and let it warm and rise the next day, to avoid the collapse.

And I’ll forego the hemp hearts next time since they didn’t seem to add to the bread, but may have given it a slightly bitter taste. Ah, well…

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The Count of Monte Cristo

Count of Monte CristoMany of us grew up on the stories of Alexandre Dumas; from cartoons to comic books, TV series and movies. And, yes, books, albeit often abridged for the young market, with drawings of swordsmen, women in flowing dresses, and the court of kings. Swashbuckling adventures, romances with honour and swordfighting. We may not have always realized that it was Dumas who was the source, of course. Do you watch The Princess Bride and wonder who inspired it? His ideas and plots were mined by many who came after.

We learned to behave, to be men and women, by reading such tales, by imitating their heroes, by wishing on their stars, learning their manners and their wit and their honour; by being our own Musketeers.

Neighbourhood children made swords out of wooden posts and branches, then rolled around on the lawn playing at swordfights, banging our rough sticks together, bruising fingers, laughing, jumping on imaginary horses and riding off, firing our finger-pistols at the approaching Cardinal’s men. We died, histrionically, at a sword thrust defending our imagined Milady.

Athos, Porthos, Aramis, Artemis, d’Artagnan –  I knew the names of all four Musketeers better than I knew the historical names in my school textbooks. I knew at an early age about the subterfuge of cardinals and the honour of queens. As time progressed, d’Artagnan blended into Robin Hood into  Lancelot, the Lone Ranger, Flash Gordon and and eventually into Luke Skywalker. Swords gave way to guns and then blasters then computer games.

Years went by. I didn’t read Dumas after my early teens; the comics and the abridged children’s books yellowed, forgotten on the shelves. Other books, other pastimes, other heroes took my interest. I saw a few films based on his works, some TV, but I didn’t pay a lot of attention to them.  Fun stuff, entertainment popcorn, but I forgot the Musketeers.

It was only last year that I bought Richard Pevear’s recent (and excellent) Penguin translation of Dumas’ Three Musketeers almost by accident. The odd cover art caught my eye and I felt compelled to get it (sadly, the cover art that beguiled me has since been replaced by a poster-type cover taken from a recent movie made of the tale….). It was a good choice…

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Making Pasta

Atlas pasta makerLast year I decided to start making my own pasta. Seems a natural extension of my bread making. But it took several months before I could get started, what with personal issues and, of course, the holiday season interfering. This week I finally took the step.

As usual with me, I did a lot of online research and reading before I took the first step. I looked at many reviews of pasta makers, as well as read techniques and recipes from hundreds of sites and several of my cookbooks.

I wanted a manual pasta maker, although I know that you can make your own pasta without a machine, just a dough cutter and a rolling pin. That requires a lot of rolling, folding and cutting, and I simply don’t have the patience or the skill. The result is never consistent, either. I chose manual in part because the price of a motorized/electric machine is rather too high to justify for something I expect to use at most once a week, and usually for just the two of us.

There are a lot of pasta makers on the market, and a lot of accessories for food processors. Despite the number of brands, most look and operate essentially the same. For manual machines, the options are in the available width settings and the types of pasta you can create (through interchangeable cutting heads).

Some types of pasta can be made manually after rolling, using the flat sheets of dough and cutting it into shapes.

Basically a pasta machine does two things: it rolls/flattens the dough, and then it cuts it into strips or shapes. It’s pretty simple, and one person can do it alone.

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Too Many Books?

Too Many Books?Tim Parks* wrote an intriguing essay in the New York Review of Books last week with that title. My first thought on seeing it was to wonder if one can ever have too many books. But of course, Parks – an author himself  – is looking at the bigger picture, not the ever-growing collection that clutters my bookshelves and litters my house. He asks:

Is there a relationship between the quantity of books available to us, the ease with which they can be written and published, and our reading experience?

I worked in book publishing as both an editor and a sales rep for many years, and before that, I worked in bookstores and even owned a bookstore. I understand reasonably well the business and the economics of publishing, and of retail. Because of that experience, I have often wondered these past few years as I wander around in bookstores, how the industry can sustain such output. How many more books on the frivolous gluten-free fad, or cookie-cutter teen-vampire tales, or vapid talk-with-angels books can we add to the shelf before the diminishing return on such investment discourages publishers?

There are more books being published than ever before, and with the internet and e-readers, more ways to access those books; but is that always a good thing? Can we be overwhelmed by the volume of material to the point where we turn away from many – if not all – books?

Can we have too many choices so that we cannot discern the wheat from the chaff?

Yes, of course: all these books cannot be great books; some have to be poorly written, researched or plotted. Chaff exists. A multitude of voices can be a cacophony as well as a choir.

Parks himself asked, in another NYRB piece:

Is there any consistent relationship between a book’s quality and its sales? Or again between the press and critics’ response to a work and its sales? Are these relationships stable over time or do they change?

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Rest In Peace, Mary Chadwick

Mary Chadwick and Hannah, 94th Birthday partyMary Mabel Bernice Chadwick passed away quietly in the morning of April 13, 2015 in her room in the Tony Stacey Veterans’ Care Centre. She had awakened that morning, and spoke briefly to staff, but nodded off shortly after. She never awoke.

She was 95 years old and lived a full, rich life, one of remarkable resilience and strength.

Mary was born shortly after WWI, and grew up in Canada during the Roaring Twenties, the Great Depression and the years of recovery that followed. But then war came back.

Mary Chadwick, veteran, 89She was a young woman when WWII broke out. She soon followed the family tradition of service. In 1942, she volunteered, and served the rest of the war as a Wren (WRNS – Women’s Royal Navy Service, nicknamed Wrens) in Halifax; a nurse in the naval hospital. Her wartime experiences would build her character and help her survive her own life’s tragedies.

Mary was always proud of her veteran status. Her father was a naval veteran of WWI, and her two brothers, Billie and Doug, had joined the Canadian navy early in the war. Twenty-two-year-old Billie died at sea in 1943 when his ship, the destroyer St. Croix, was torpedoed while escorting a convoy in the North Atlantic.

Mary had a framed picture of them both, young men in their Navy uniforms, on her wall in her room, each adorned with a red poppy. She never forgot, and she attended Remembrance Day ceremonies every year.

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Lovecraft’s Tales of Terror

Cthulhu

No new horror can be more terrible than the daily torture of the commonplace.
Ex Oblivione, 1921.

Along with Edgar Rice Burroughs, my teenage reading covered a lot of genres, but I gravitated to scifi and fantasy. Fantasy in those days didn’t offer the same overflowing bookshelves of cookie-cutter tales we find in today’s bookstores. But they took me out of the miseries and difficulties of my little world so easily that I made the effort to find them.

Back then, fantasy was an addendum to the scifi section. You often had to hunt for the rare titles in stores and libraries where there were ample selections in all other genres (this is before the explosion of fantasy literature in the late 60s, when J.R. R. Tolkein’s Ring trilogy exploded into popularity. generating all those thousands of spin-offs.) I can’t recall horror even having its own section.

My reading took a darker turn when I discovered the work of H.P. Lovecraft, in the mid-60s. While I have returned over the years to ERB and many other writers whose works I discovered in the 1960s, I have not until recently re-read any of Lovecraft’s works. But his fiction certainly deserves a re-read because it was seminal for a lot of modern horror fiction and film. And last week I picked up an anthology of his more famous works for that purpose.

For a young teen as I was, Lovecraft was a rude, exciting awakening. What a change from what I had been reading before! In the swords-and-adventure books of Burroughs or the gallant, embattled heroes in the Doc Savage series, or even in Howard’s violent-but-honourable Conan, there was morality, definable good and callous wrong, great deeds and immense challenges to overcome, but evil was always defeated by those of strong heart, iron will and a strong moral sense. In all of these tales, there is some sense of redemption and achievement. There is joy in conquering, in winning the heart’s desire, in love, in battle.

Not so in Lovecraft, not at least in the Lovecraft I recall. He has a lot of despair and loss, terror and anxiety, and the sort of nameless middle-of-the-night terror that makes you wonder what’s under the bed.

And he wrote in sometimes florid prose that today seems rather histrionic, even puerile at times. But although Lovecraft seldom followed any of the rules most practitioners preach today on the art of story writing, he still garnered a huge following despite any literary failings.

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Spring Breads

Winter breadIt’s been a while since I wrote about baking bread. During the election campaign last fall, my baking was sidetracked somewhat, but I did manage to get a few loaves in.

Last month I got back to baking in earnest. However, along the way, I ignored my levain and it went off. I had to toss it, and have not yet started a new one. The loaf on the right is the last one I made with my levain. It was good and crusty, with a great acidic taste, so I need to restore a levain to get that flavour in future.

The first bread I made last month (March) was an Irish Soda Bread, based on the recipe in Paul Hollywood‘s book, 100 Great Breads. I picked it up in Chapters in Barrie this winter at a bargain price (about $5).  As is my wont, I didn’t follow his recipe exactly. The recipe on his website isn’t quite the same as in the book, either.

Soda breadThe bread is an easy, self-rising, fast bread that can be assembled and baked in about 60 minutes. Soda bread is great with soups and some cheeses.

In the book he calls for 20g of baking powder, while on the web he mentions using 1 tsp bicarbonate of soda (aka baking soda). They’re both leavening agents, but not the same product, however. I suspect the book should have called for baking soda not powder… but you can easily experiment with both. I stuck with the baking powder and the result was good, as you can see.

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ERB and Barsoom

Chessmen of Mars

Tara of Helium rose from the pile of silks and soft furs upon which she had been reclining, stretched her lithe body languidly, and crossed toward the center of the room, where, above a large table, a bronze disc depended from the low ceiling. Her carriage was that of health and physical perfection—the effortless harmony of faultless coordination. A scarf of silken gossamer crossing over one shoulder was wrapped about her body; her black hair was piled high upon her head. With a wooden stick she tapped upon the bronze disc, lightly, and presently the summons was answered by a slave girl, who entered, smiling, to be greeted similarly by her mistress.

So opens the fifth book in the prolific Edgar Rice Burroughs‘ Barsoom series, The Chessmen of Mars. I have read that opening – indeed the whole series of his 11 Martian novels – several times. I still have the entire set of Ace paperbacks from the 1960s or 70s on my bookshelves. I periodically read a Burroughs’ tale just to remember the pleasures of reading him.

I recently downloaded several of his novels in audiobook form, to listen to on my visits to my mother, in her nursing home or on my iPhone when walking the dogs in the park. Librivox has many, and some are quire well read.

Last month I manged to hear A Princess of Mars, the first of the series, written in 1912, and the fifth book, Chessmen of Mars (1922).  This month I have books 2,3 and 4 burned to CD and ready to play. Back in 2007, on my old blog, I wrote the following piece about ERB and my lifelong love of ERB and his tales. After hearing these two audiobooks, I thought I should share it again here, albeit somewhat edited and updated.

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Thurber’s Writings & Drawings

James ThurberBooks of James Thurber‘s cartoons and writing were always on the shelves at my grandparents’ home, as well as on my parents’ bookshelves. I read them, as I did everything else on those shelves, when I was quite young.

I still remember his odd, eccentric cartoons with their primitive lines but sharp and bizarre wit, although I can’t recall much if any what stories I read of his back then (and I am looking forward to reading today what I haven’t read since I was in my early teens).

Yet despite my fuzzy memory for literature of my past, I still recall the enjoyment of doing so at my grandparents’ home during the Sunday dinner; a house full of family; uncles, aunts and cousins bustling about. Me sitting in a stuffed chair reading while the adults fussed in the kitchen and drank wine, and the younger kids played on the living room floor. The books were worn, hardcovers well-thumbed and a little yellowed. Some had tattered dust jackets, others none. I loved their feel and their smell.

There were other titles I recall, too from that era: Edgar Rice Burroughs’ Tarzan, Boys’ Own Annual, Don Marquis (Archy & Mehitabel), Beano comic collections (sent over every Christmas by my English grandparents), encyclopedia volumes, The ABC & XYZ of Beekeeping, a big family bible, some pre-war books on engineering and mechanics. I eagerly read them all.

That redolent warmth of family get-togethers; the shared, noisy space and the pleasures of reading and playing, followed by a homemade meal and then crowding around the TV to watch Ed Sullivan – it all came back to me when I recently found a collection of Thurber’s works in a local used book store – mint condition, too!

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