Hints From Heloise, via Bruce

July 12, 2010

One of the weird things about being out of the country so much is that I don’t always know what will be new to Americans, and what will be old hat. Every time I make ready to introduce a fresh (to me) writer, artist, musician, place, idea, or some such, I am always a bit apprehensive that I am actually the last to know about him/her/it, and that I will be gushing on about, say, Miley Cyrus (or worse yet, Billy Ray Cyrus) long after the person, place, or thing in question has flamed out stateside. Nowhere is this more evident than with cinema: Japan gets movies half a year later than the US, bare minimum, with the exceptions of presumed blockbusters such as Avatar, Michael Jackson’s This Is It, and the Harry Potter flicks. So, when I saw Invictus, for example, I wanted to let all my friends know how good it was; problem was, all of them had no doubt seen it months before, and it was likely available on DVD already in the US by the time I saw it in the theater in Japan.

All of that to say, I apologize in advance if you’ve heard this before:

When I stopped in the factory outlet town of Kittery, ME, earlier this summer, my intention was to buy a dozen polo shirts of every hue in the rainbow to replace the ones that had worn out over the past year. Polo shirts, khakis, and Topsiders have supplanted jeans, t-shirts, and sneakers in my wardrobe for the most part; basically, if an affair is too formal for polo shirts, it is highly doubtful that I belong there in the first place.

Shortly after donning my first new shirt, a lime green one, I dripped a dollop of bright yellow right below the bottom button. It seemed that the paper wrapping my overly-mustarded hot dog had a cleverly concealed aperture, presumably engineered that way for maximum damage. I dampened a napkin, preparing to dab at the mustard stain, knowing full well that it wasn’t going to come clean. Knit shirts are well known for their tenacity at maintaining a discoloration even after repeated washings. Saki snatched the napkin from my hand and said “Here, let me do it.” Rather than rubbing the stain, she shoved a piece of dry napkin up the inside of the shirt (directly behind the stain), and proceeded to strike the spot with a series of hammering motions, using the napkin I had dampened a few moments before. “What on earth are you doing?” I asked. “Hitting it knocks the stain out of the cloth, and into the napkin on the back side,” she replied.

No way, I thought, preparing to relegate the shirt to a pile of similar articles of clothing to be worn while doing household chores. She finished her ministrations, and of course there was a wet spot, but all of the yellow mustard had seemingly disappeared. Shortly afterward, the dampness evaporated and left only—well, no evidence whatsoever!

“I have never heard of this before,” I marveled, looking closely at the previously affected area; no matter how I turned the cloth against the light, I could not see any trace of mustard. “This is how everybody does it in Japan,” Saki said, (somewhat dismissively, I thought, with an implied “duh” in the tone).

So, as I say, if this is common knowledge in North America, please excuse my beating of the proverbial deceased equus, but if it is indeed news to you, give it a try next time your shirt or blouse suffers from the double whammy of colorful condiments and inexorable gravitational downforce. It is really quite remarkable.



July 11, 2010

The first time I ran across the term “CFA”, I was in the sub-Saharan country of Niger, about to change over a fistful of dollars into the local currency. As it happened, the former French colonies of Niger, Togo, Benin, and Burkina Faso all shared the same currency, known as CFA. This was, in my estimation, exceptionally convenient, as every time I departed one country and entered another, I was getting hosed on the exchange rate, which always seemed to favor the other guy. The initials stood for “Something (I forget what)-Franc-Africaine”; the currency was tied to the French franc (this was in the mid-1980s, before the advent of the Euro), at the rate of 100 African francs to one French franc, as I recall. As there were seven French francs to the dollar at the time, and thus 700 CFA, I was suddenly a millionaire for the first, and thus far the only, time of my life. I merrily spent thousands on hotels, restaurants and gasoline fill-ups, and when I sold my car in Togo (to a local chieftain with a plethora of wives), I had a stack of banknotes that required a valise to carry them from the importation office.

It proved a bit difficult to get all those CFA out of Africa, however, as the rather draconian French currency laws at the time allowed one to cross borders with no more than about $1000 worth of francs. In the end, I bought traveler’s checks and hid them in a secret compartment of my money belt, and crossed my fingers against the possibility of an intensive body search. There was good news and bad news: the good news was no body search; the bad news was that the traveler’s checks were stamped on the back, per French law, “not to be cashed outside the franc zone”, which meant France, French West Africa, and French Polynesia, none of which was I planning to visit in the foreseeable future. Later in the trip, a clever American Express agent in London ingeniously solved the problem by destroying my useless traveler’s checks in front of my eyes, having me fill out a loss form, and then re-issuing a new set of checks without the franc zone limitation verso. I have never been back to Africa since, and over the years, the term CFA slipped into a quiet closet of my memory, only to be dragged out occasionally when comparing war stories with other travelers.

Fast forward twenty-some years, and I was chatting with some friends in the kitchen of their Prince Edward Island farmhouse. There was a knock at the door, and my friends introduced me to the newcomers as a “CFA”, albeit “not a bad one”. The others chuckled and allowed as to how a lot of CFAs had been showing up on the Island of late. Sensing that I was the butt of some obscure joke, I bit the bullet and asked “What’s a CFA?”

“Oh,” the answer came, “it’s someone who’s not from the Island. It stands for ‘comes from away’”, “away” being any place other than this tiny lump of red clay in the Gulf of St. Lawrence.

“Um, excuse me, but I was born here,” I rejoined, possibly a bit testily. All eyebrows raised to attention. It turned out that that made all the difference in the world. It seems that anyone born here is automatically embraced into the fold, fussed over like the proverbial prodigal son, even if he or she has, like me, been absent for most of a lifetime. By contrast, someone who moved here at six months of age will always be a CFA; no naturalization is possible. And so it is that the term “CFA” once again surfaces in my life; for the fleeting few months of summer, I am a native son, before departing for some distant continent where I will forever be a CFA.

Some Random Book Notes

July 10, 2010

This month, in addition to the regular BookPage Whodunit column, I will be reviewing the new Bill Bryson book, At Home. Building on the raging success of A Brief History of Nearly Everything, At Home takes rather a more close-up look at history, as revealed through the rooms of his Victorian parsonage in rural Norfolk, England. As is often the case with Bryson’s books, the subject matter takes him far afield of the original premise, and the book is the better for it. I am only about a third of the way through it as of this writing, and I have already learned much about word derivations (did you know that the word “vicar” stems from the same root as “vicarious”? Thus a vicar is a kind of stand-in for a rector.), the offspring of English parsons (the Bronte sisters, Lewis Carroll, Cecil Rhodes, and Alfred Lord Tennyson, to name but a few), and a smattering of 19th century British history, most of which eluded me in school. The challenge will be to write a comprehensive review in the print edition of BookPage, and keep it to 300-400 words. I may wind up doing something I have not done thus far, and craft a longer and more comprehensive review of the book here in Mysterious Orientations. Stay tuned!

In other news, I just finished Ransom Riggs’ The Sherlock Holmes Handbook (subtitled The Methods and Mysteries of the World’s Greatest Detective). I might have glossed over it but for the fact that I had seen the recent Holmes movie on the flight back from Japan, so once again I was strongly in the mood for a dose of the first super-sleuth and his earnest sidekick.

Many scholarly works have dissected and minutely examined every printed word of author Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, begging the question “Why yet another book on Sherlock Holmes?” The answer is, Riggs attacks it from a slightly different perspective, as a “how to” manual for those who aspire to emulate Holmes and his methodology. In chapters such as “How to Locate a Secret Chamber”, “How to Stage a Dramatic Entrance”, “How to Sniff Out a Hoax”, and “How to Fake Your Own Death”, the author quotes liberally from Holmes various adventures, showing once again that crime-solving is nothing if not “elementary, my dear Watson.”

As Holmes notes in A Study in Scarlet, “There is a strong family resemblance among misdeeds, and if you have all the details of a thousand at your finger ends, it is odd if you can’t unravel the thousand and first.”

In the Appendix, Riggs devotes several pages to the life and times of Sir Arthur (whose epitaph reads “Steel True, Blade Straight, Arthur Conan Doyle, Knight, Patriot, Physician, & Man of Letters), and a short compendium of the wit and wisdom of Sherlock Holmes (“Life is infinitely stranger than anything which the mind of man could invent”, and the oft-quoted, and misquoted, “Eliminate all other factors, and the one which remains must be the truth.”)

Definitely a must for all Sherlockophiles!

Capital Punnishment

July 9, 2010

It probably speaks badly of my character that my two favorite forms of humor are Tom Swifties and puns. I have gone on at some length in Mysterious Orientations about the art form of the Tom Swiftie (“I dropped the toothpaste,” said Tom, crestfallen; “You don’t bring me flowers anymore,” she said lackadaisically; “The prisoners are escaping over the wall,” he said condescendingly, etc.), but I have been remarkably silent on the fine attributes of the pun, for some unknown reason. It is high time that I rectify this omission.

Although William Shakespeare used puns relentlessly in his plays, modern writers often groan at their use, and eschew them completely (until that inevitable moment when they come up with one too good to pass up). Dave Barry opines: “Puns are little plays on words that a certain breed of person loves to spring on you and then look at you in a certain self-satisfied way to indicate that he thinks that you must think that he is by far the cleverest person on earth now that Benjamin Franklin is dead, when in fact what you are thinking is that if this person ever ends up in a lifeboat, the other passengers will hurl him overboard by the end of the first day even if they have plenty of food and water.”

Oliver Wendell Holmes was rather more succinct: “People that make puns are like wanton boys that put coppers on the railroad tracks. They amuse themselves and other children, but their little trick may upset a freight train of conversation for the sake of a battered witticism.”

On the other side of the fence you will find Samuel Johnson, who famously offered: “If I were punish-ed for every pun I shed, there would not be left a puny shed of my punnish head.”

Or Oscar Levant’s telling observation: “A pun is the lowest form of humor—especially when you don’t think of it first.”

Harry Truman was known to caution guests about his wife’s home-cooked meals with the warning: “Missouri loves company.”

Over the years I have casually collected a number of groaners, gathered from my travels and the experiences of others. Here are a few favorites:

Upon hearing that we were in the mode of “playing catch-up” vis-à-vis an unusually heavy workload, my boss remarked that “playing catch-up did not cut the mustard” with him. On a drive up California’s coastal Highway 1, I ran across a sign advertising a dairy, with the notation “Our cows are outstanding in their field.” Cross-language puns are fun for the multilingual; consider this Anglo-Franco mishmash: “One man’s fish is another man’s poisson.” The Japanese say “three-nine” or make a hand gesture to that effect to express gratitude (the Japanese words for three and nine are “san” and “kyu” respectively, hence “san-kyu”, as in “san-kyu velly much”. Here’s one from Hawaii by way of Israel: “Aloha oy”, which basically translates to “Greetings. God forbid I should tell you about my bursitis, you can’t believe the pain.” Or how about the Latin for a deceased cat, “rigor morris”? These go on ad infinitum, indeed ad nauseum, but if you send me some good ones, I will be glad to publish them in an upcoming post, perhaps entitled “Quip pro quo”.

Stanfest 2010 , the Canadian Contingent

July 8, 2010

Considering its smallish population, roughly one-tenth that of the US, thinly spread out over an area that dwarfs its southern neighbor, Canada has produced a remarkable number of world-class musicians, in just about any genre you might think of: Leonard Cohen, Joni Mitchell, Gordon Lightfoot, Anne Murray, Bryan Adams, Avril Lavigne, the Guess Who, Rush, Robbie Robertson, Bruce Cockburn, Bachman Turner Overdrive, Michael Buble, Celine Dion, Bif Naked, Maynard Ferguson, Nelly Furtado, Glenn Gould, Jeff Healey, The Band (most of them, anyway), Justin Bieber, John Kay (Steppenwolf), Diana Krall, k. d. lang, Guy Lombardo, Sarah McLachlan, Oscar Peterson, Buffy Sainte-Marie, Hank Snow, George Canyon, David Clayton-Thomas (Blood, Sweat and Tears), Ian Tyson, Gino Vanelli, Rufus Wainwright, and more.

And nowhere is the love of all things musical more evident than in the Maritime provinces, where pockets of pickers pepper (ah, alliteration…) the landscapes of Newfoundland, Prince Edward Island, Nova Scotia and New Brunswick. Often the gathering places are remote villages, rather than the urban centers of Halifax, Moncton, or St. John’s. It would be a rare summer’s evening indeed when there was no live music close by, no matter how far-flung your home stomping grounds.

One of the finest of these gatherings is the annual July event known as Stanfest. Named after iconic Canadian folksinger Stan Rogers, who died in an airplane fire in 1983, Stanfest gathers the best and the brightest musicians from Canada and abroad for a three-day songfest dedicated to the craft of songwriting and the diversity of musical styles (and let’s not forget the beer-infused partying). All of this takes place in tiny Canso, Nova Scotia, about as far east as you can get in mainland Canada.

The Canadian contingent this year was particularly fine, including a number of artists with whom I was not previously familiar, but whose songs were by turns provocative, insightful, clever, and well crafted.

A few particular favorites:

Royal Wood: Ontario singer/songwriter, plays piano and guitar; handsome in a forties’ matinee idol sort of way, like Jimmy Stewart back in the day; beautifully rendered pop love songs, in the manner of Billy Joel or Randy Newman; here is a Youtube link to check him out, and if you like what you hear, there are dozens more: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=cnAmDZ4wBZc&feature=related

David Myles: New Brunswick singer/songwriter, rhythm guitarist of a trio comprised of two guitars and a stand-up bass; in concert, he jokes about his ragamuffin past, at odds with his current sartorial elegance when performing (white suit, tie, hat straight out of a film noir detective flick); the Youtube video referenced below is the title song of his latest CD, “Turn Time Off” (this particular version is an off-the-cuff live video shot outdoors, not a great recording, but sweet nonetheless); once again, if this appeals to you, there are numerous others available to check out: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vXTFRyiUkEw ; here’s another tune, “A New Friend”, once again a live performance, with a bit better production values: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2WBA5NuMV6Y

The Stanfields: these guys are the Maritimes’ (a bit of errata: I originally said they were from Newfoundland, and was corrected by a sharp-eyed reader; they actually hail from Nova Scotia) latest offering from the growing Celtic/punk movement; with garage-band enthusiasm (and volume) and cleverly crafted songs (one particular favorite is “The Dirtiest Drunk in the History of Liquor”), the Stanfields rattle the rafters with every performance. This tune is called “Ship to Shore”:  http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=o4-zYLfmSpo

Paper Lions: perhaps the most dynamic new band in Canada at the moment, this Charlottetown, PEI-based group combines Beatles-influenced licks with tight harmonies and cutting-edge instrumentation; these guys are such genre benders, it is next to impossible to pigeonhole their style; suffice it to say that their rock/folk/blues/alternative/jazz/fusion should attract a wildly diverse fan base. Here is one particularly Beatle-esque tune, “Travelling” (once again, there are lots of others, including a slew of videos under their previous moniker, The Chucky Danger Band): http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=S02bqXuntE0

And finally, my personal favorite, Alex Cuba: born Alexis Puentes in Artemisa, Cuba, he emigrated from his native land to British Columbia in 1999; he came up through the ranks as a bass player, and that influence shows strongly in his finger-style guitar playing; his lyrics, all in Spanish (of which I understand but a smattering), are heartfelt, and his jazz/salsa/rock/funk style channels Laurindo Almeida and Jimi Hendrix in equal proportions. Cuba co-wrote a fair bit of Nelly Furtado’s fourth studio album, including its title track, Mi Plan. Don’t miss this guy; he will blow you away! http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=E4doPh0Tr8s ; http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-5387jy8OL4 ; http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=EqoTvcBcgYA&feature=fvsr

PS, pictures coming soon!

Home Once Again

July 7, 2010

I have been without internet for the past several days, perhaps the longest time I have gone without connectivity since I first went online sometime in the 90s. My sole connection to the outside world has been The Globe and Mail, which has done an admirable job of keeping me up-to-date on current events, so at least I’ve been comfortable in the knowledge that the planet has not imploded during my self-imposed web exile.

In the space of three weeks or so, I have put some 4000 miles on my trusty Civic, driving a circuitous route from Prince Edward Island to Nashville and back, pushing its odometer over the 20,000 mark, finally. It performed splendidly, returning better than 35mpg overall, with the air conditioning blasting most of the time, and the trunk and interior of the car crammed with stuff in every conceivable cubbyhole: bags upon bags of clothing from L.L. Bean, Eddie Bauer, and Tommy Hilfiger outlet stores; colorful Fiestaware dishes, service for eight, to replace the chipped and mismatched dinnerware in my PEI kitchen; a hundred-odd trade paperback books from BookPage, perhaps more, in boxes and bags, with a few stragglers slid under the driver’s and passenger’s seats; and a slew of water-resistant gear to combat the inevitable nasty weather of Canso, Nova Scotia, site of Stanfest, arguably the best folk music festival in North America. Oddly, and thankfully, the Canadian Rain Gods were complacent this year, and appreciative concertgoers had sunlit skies for the full three days of the concert, unlike last year, when it rained virtually the entire time. A brief flashback: the hardy attendees of Stanfest 2009, individually draped in clear ponchos and rain sheets, prompted singer Don McLean to observe (accurately) from his onstage viewpoint: “Wow, you guys look like a bunch of giant condoms!”

So, sunny Stanfest behind us, we finished the last leg of the journey with an hour-plus car-ferry ride aboard the MV Confederation, the larger and more luxurious of the two vessels making the run from Caribou, Nova Scotia to Wood Islands, PEI. Before the bridge was completed to Prince Edward Island in the late 1990s, the only way to get to PEI was by ferry, and I make it a point to take the ferry at least once every summer, in homage to simpler times gone by.

The house is pretty much as I left it, although the lawn has morphed into something resembling a miniature Jurassic Park in the interim. I would have gotten out the lawn mower in a seemingly vain attempt to beat back the forest, truly, but the aforementioned Canadian Rain Gods apparently decided to unleash the heavens sometime during the night, so I have been spared that unpleasant task for another day or so. Instead, I will busy myself with indoor errands, and of course post several catch-up installments to Mysterious Orientations. Check back soon!


July 2, 2010

July 1st is Canada Day, the northern neighbo(u)r’s equivalent of US Independence Day—sort of. Known colloquially as “Canada’s birthday”, Canada Day celebrates the union of New Brunswick, Nova Scotia, and The Province of Canada, which was later broken up into Quebec and Ontario (the western provinces and Newfoundland would not be on board for many years to come). Canada Day had its genesis in tiny Prince Edward Island, my home province, courtesy of The Charlottetown Conference of 1864, the first meeting leading to the Articles of Confederation and the creation of Canada (1867); however, contrary Islanders found the terms of union unfavorable, and decided not to opt in. Prince Edward Islanders were, in fact, courted by the United States, and for a time there was a very real possibility that the Island would either become part of the US, or go it alone as an independent country. Cooler heads prevailed, however, and in 1873 PEI joined the fledgling nation of Canada.

Canada was a nation born in negotiation rather than in combat. There was little or no Canadian equivalent of the Give Me Liberty or Give Me Death/Don’t Tread on Me/Live Free or Die rhetoric that characterized the months prior to the United States Revolution. Canadians then, as now, were unfailingly polite in their interactions, or so the history books would have us believe. I can rather picture the early negotiations going something like this: “Um, Your Lordships, we were thinking that we might like to try this nation thing on our own, eh? You English have been great, you really have, but things are a bit different here in this wild empty country, don’t you know? We still want to be friends and all that, and you are always welcome to visit here, for sure. Also, we are still crazy about the royal family, and we’d like to continue to be a part of that whole tradition if it wouldn’t be too much trouble. You know, celebrate the Queen’s birthday and all that? And we definitely want to keep on speaking English, well, all except those pesky French. So, um, what do you think, eh?”

Much as the 4th of July in the US, Canada Day is celebrated with fireworks, barbecues, sports and (of course) beer. All in massive quantities. I can personally vouch for an entire case of Alexander Keith’s Light Ale having been consumed over the course of the small party I attended (at which there were but four attendees, only two of whom were drinking). A column of brown glass soldiers lined the kitchen counter by early evening, standing in mute witness to the day’s excesses. I was the designated driver, and I piloted a motley crew of revelers and their dogs on their appointed rounds of the back roads of Hants County, Nova Scotia, culminating in a dockside viewing of distant fireworks from somewhere across the St. Croix River. Kinda low key, all things considered, and yet nonetheless quintessentially Canada Day. I wouldn’t have had it any other way