Me: now blogging with a baby

Okay, so it has been six weeks and two days since I last attempted to write here. I know this because the day I wrote part of the draft I’m including below, I went into labour and then at 11:30 am the next day, right on my due date, little Owen decided to join us at long last. I admire those legions of “mommy bloggers” who can write and parent a newborn at the same time. I am not one of them, evidently. I did manage to get an article written (and submitted on its due date!), but beyond that I have been in a bit (hahahaha… HA) of a fog. This despite having my husband at home on paternity leave, my mother here for the first week, my mother-in-law here for nearly a week, and most recently a friend from Toronto here for a few days. Single mothers and those whose partners work out of town: you have my admiration forever. Parents who must return to work right away: you as well. I suppose I have the right to complain about being tired, post partum healing, suffering from postpartum PUPPP for the first few weeks (it felt like forever), and being unable to connect half-thoughts to the correct words (the other day I said “bacon” instead of “cheese.” I mean, what?). But other than that awful awful awful PUPPP rash (i.e. head-to-toe insatiable pregnancy-related hives-like rash), something I proclaim an unrepentant right to complain about, I have it so easy compared to so many others, and I am legitimately grateful for that. I have also been blessed with an easy-going (most of the time) infant who has a strange obsession with the portrait of Queen Elizabeth II we have hanging in the nursery. Delightful! A baby monarchist! Anyway, having a baby changes things, blah blah blah. I’m sure I will go into this at some point, but I must at least try to pay lip service to my previous project, id est presenting what I like about Ottawa. Here is the beginning of the post I’d been working on:

Previously, I ended up in a bit of a downward rant of negativity about Ottawa, something easy to do about anywhere one lives. It is time, though, for something positive, because there are things I like about this city. It doesn’t always feel worth venturing out, but that has more to do with me than with what’s out there. Lo! Some nice things about Ottawa, in no particular order:

  • It is cheaper than Toronto or Vancouver (though admittedly not as much as you might assume)
  • It has some pretty delicious food
  • There are some pretty great parks and trails within walking distance of pretty much anywhere downtown
  • When the weather is nice, it is very nice
  • According to Statistics Canada, It is the second most cycling-heavy city in the country, after Victoria
  • Aside from some stodginess, online evidence suggests that people are supportive of new ideas, events, and businesses
  • This is Ontario’s second largest city, and Canada’s fourth, yet if you tweet the mayor (@JimWatsonOttawa) chances are he will tweet you back.
  • This might not be a plus for you, but I don’t feel like a frumpy monster if I head out without makeup on
  • I admit that this is a negative for me, but for many it would be a positive: people like to jog. A lot.
  • We may not have the Met, but I have been impressed with some of the museums here, oh most definitely.

At which point I went into specific examples of where I like to eat, planning on covering items in the above list in detailed, dedicated posts. I didn’t get the chance to finish my food write-ups, however, so I will let it rest for now, especially as I’m currently typing one-handed. My little family will be in Winnipeg for my cousin’s wedding soon, so we shall see how travelling with a seven-week-old goes! Wish us luck. I don’t think we’ll need it, though. I mean, look at this little thing:

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Filed under Family, Ottawa

The Canadian Tulip Festival, plus “super-boring” Ottawa

First, an update from last post: I’ve heard back from VitaEarth and can now inform you that the built-in insert is made from bamboo, not cotton, and that the diapers are indeed designed to be a cross between an all-in-one and a pocket diaper. Also, it looks like the VitaEarth site is more or less up and running for those curious about other prints of theirs. Oh, and I’ve been informed that they will be trying out other styles/designs coming up.

In other news, it seems that Ottawa has completely skipped spring and gone straight into summer, just in time for the annual tulip festival. I used to live within an easy walk of Dow’s Lake (or is it Dows Lake?) and so had a nice look at all the tulips last year. I haven’t done anything this year so far as I’m a little further east and OCTranspo (ie the bus) makes it difficult to get around Ottawa’s core–having been mostly designed to get people in and out of the suburbs, apparently, but that is a rant for another day. Plus I’m not that up to walking these days. I did see some of the tulips in front of parliament this morning, from the bus window, and they looked nice enough. I know not everyone is into flowers, but it is pretty impressive to see so many variations of the same basic type. Aside from the variety of colours, there are other delightful nuances as well. Some petals look feathery, some stems are long, some blooms are tiny. A delight! Anyway, it is pretty much Ottawa’s claim to fame, so it is worth seeing at least once. I like all the flowers. They class up the place.

Speaking of classing up the place, I came across the most unintentionally dismissive quote about Ottawa the other day while (who knows why?) reading the National Post. It is so dismissive, it wasn’t even really about Ottawa, just using it as a filler for “lame place no one cool would want to be.” This particular piece (“Be cool, Toronto: Ontario’s capital having a moment as world’s latest ‘It’ city — which even Montrealers admit”) is a sort-of review of a recent guide to Toronto by a Montrealer. It is also a sort-of meditation on how Montrealers are suddenly realizing that hey, Toronto is a pretty fun place to be (no blame–I used to live in Montreal and had the same vague impressions of Toronto as a stodgy polluted culture-less wasteland before moving there for grad school). In the course of the article, the author recounts a random meeting with another Montrealer he knows:

“In Montreal people always compare Toronto to Ottawa. You know, super-boring, everything closes at 9 p.m. When I got here I was shocked. It’s not like that at all — it’s totally great. I think in Montreal the past 10 years people have been really depressed, with all the corruption and bridges collapsing. They lost their pride. Toronto doesn’t have that problem. It’s full of pride.” (Maripier Isabelle, PhD candidate at UofT)

As you can see, Ottawa’s boringness is taken for granted in the same way Toronto’s once was. To be fair, this impression is not limited to Montrealers. I had never really even considered Ottawa’s existence while I was in Montreal (sorry!), and when I moved to Toronto I picked up the habit of dismissing the place in much the way Montrealers dismiss(ed) Toronto.

To be even more fair, I myself go through bouts of despair where I believe, whole-heartedly, that Ottawa is the biggest waste of potential in Canada; is boring, bureaucratic, and short-sighted; and that if I don’t somehow make it back to Toronto, I will waste away and die a lonely death. I exaggerate only slightly. So who am I to judge someone else’s casual assumption that Ottawa = limp, boring, and lifeless? Well, I live here now and will for at least the next two years, so I don’t really have a choice but to seek out the pleasant aspects of the city. Perhaps it is Stockholm syndrome. Perhaps it is that I have become steadily more boring myself (a very important factor that should not be dismissed out of hand). Perhaps it is that Ottawa really does have some nice things, they just aren’t immediately obvious to the casual visitor.

Here is what Ottawa thinks people should do:

  • Tour parliament
  • Visit the Museum of [History/Civilization]
  • Visit the National Gallery
  • Arrive in February and do Winterlude stuff (skating on the canal, etc)
  • Arrive in May and do Tulip Festival stuff (walk along the canal, etc)
  • Visit Byward Market and Sparks Street

The problem with most of those activities is that having done them once, there isn’t really any compelling reason to do them again–or, from a tourist’s perspective, to return to the city. I’m sure many would disagree, but let’s think about it:

  • Once you do the free tour of parliament, you realize just how lacking in substance the tour is. Okay, nice architecture, but it isn’t like you can just walk in off the street and sit and enjoy the atmosphere; the only way to gain access is to be shuffled along in a group. The grounds are nice, I’ll give you that, but you have to like that kind of thing. Fortunately, I do, but not everyone does.
  • When it was the Museum of Civilization, the newly-renamed Museum of History was one of the most appallingly disappointing museums I’d ever visited. I would recommend it to no one. Reworking it might actually have been a good thing, though I haven’t had the guts to check it out yet.
  • I can’t really complain about the National Gallery. I like that it exists and have an annual membership. Some of the exhibits could be better curated, but then what couldn’t? My biggest complaint is that is closes far too early. It would be so nice to wander around there after sunset, seeing the city, parliament, and the river all lit up. Closing so early is such a waste of all that nice glass.
  • Maybe it’s because I lived in Quebec City as a child. Maybe it’s because I am neither a child nor have a child that is not currently ensconced inside me. But I don’t enjoy Winterlude. I don’t enjoy February as a whole, so I appreciate the effort to make it bearable, but all the interesting “grown-up” activities are, for the most part, too expensive for me to bother leaving the house during the dark and cold.
  • As I mentioned, the tulips are nice. But you have to like tulips. And they don’t, as far as I know, scream hipster fun. Though they should. Absolutely.
  • If you like hippie (not hipster!) sweaters, overpriced restaurants, frou-frou boutiques, and ugly parking complexes, I guess Byward Market has something to offer. If you like perpetual construction zones and stuff that closes at 5 pm, Sparks Street is okay. Both have a lot of potential; neither offer much at the moment.

So…

What is the alternative? Or, rather, what non-boring things do I like about Ottawa? I will be a tease and leave that for another post as this one is already over 1200 words. In the meantime, enjoy wondering what possible fun there could be in “super-boring” Ottawa. Also, to my husband: happy anniversary!

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Filed under Ottawa

Ottawa Baby Show and VitaEarth cloth diapers

Last Saturday, May 3, I decided that in some kind of defiance of both the miserable weather (weather that only really took a turn for the pleasant yesterday) and my natural tendency to remain indoors all the time I would head out to the Ottawa Baby Show, held that day and the next at the Ottawa Convention Centre downtown (a very nice building, by the way–I vastly preferred it to Montreal’s). I thought, too, that I might find some deals on baby stuff, as I had on wedding stuff (e.g. my dress) at one of the million or so wedding shows in Toronto. In particular, I went looking for receiving blankets with whales on them. And what do you know! I found that very exact thing from Lulu Bedding and Design. One of the other things that happened while I was there, which was kind of weird, was that several people–complete strangers of course as anyone I meet in Ottawa mysteriously moves overseas a short time later–commented that I looked like I was, and I quote, “about to pop.” Not the most pleasant of images, but I suppose no harm was meant. I suppose, too, that I really am about to “pop” with less than a month to go.

Now, it may be because I only got to the convention centre at around 3 pm, but it seemed like as with many Ottawa events there just weren’t that many people there. Doors opened at 9 am, so it is possible that I meandered in just as all the keeners were leaving. One vendor did mention that all of a particular item had sold out in about ten minutes. Ottawa, too, has a much smaller population than Toronto. Plus this is just a guess, but I suspect that far fewer people have the time and energy to visit a baby show than a wedding show. Still, I’d seen the posters everywhere so was expecting a bit more of a crowd. On the pleasant side, there was far less pressure from the vendors to buy stuff than I had been expecting. I did buy stuff, but it was almost more of an indulgence on my part than succumbing to any pressure. So that was nice. Even the private RESP representative didn’t push too much and was content to leave me with a pamphlet. Perhaps Ottawa vendors are just generally hands-off; perhaps they were tired after a hypothetical morning rush; perhaps I just didn’t look like I was actually going to buy anything from them. Maybe it was some nefarious scheme. I did end up buying more than I might have otherwise simply because people left me alone, unlike the time I went into a certain Ottawa store and had someone follow me around incessantly, telling me her whole life story and pointing out items she liked and generally not letting me, you know, shop. The store literally closed on me before I could look at the stuff I had come in to look at.

Anyway, an unexpected thing about the Ottawa Baby Show: when I returned home and reflected on the experience, I realized that despite the great variety of vendors (including about five chiropractors and a teeth-whitening service), one item was conspicuously missing from the various little storefronts. Disposable diapers. I didn’t even see any “eco” diapers available.

Nearly every vendor representing a baby store did have at least one cloth diaper for sale, however.

I’m not sure if this was due to everyone savvily predicting the type of person to show up at the Baby Show, if it just isn’t practical to sell disposables at that kind of venue, or if Ottawa is in midst of a cloth diaper movement of which I have been clueless. I myself am interested in giving it a try and have been slowly collecting them as I find deals. Until last weekend, the most I’d paid for a single diaper was $4.50, which from what I’ve gathered from online research is quite a steal as the average price per diaper is $20. $20! I know that in the end it is still cheaper than disposables, but it is hard to hand over that kind of money for a single item, you know? (For those out there who care, I have a mixture of used Fuzzibunz from kijiji and new Kawaiis from an online sale.) I am sure that for most “normal” i.e. non-pregnant, non-parent, non-cheap-or-hippie-type readers out there this means nothing. But what if Ottawa really is in the middle of some kind of cloth diaper revival/movement? It would be silly not to cover it. So to anyone “normal” out there, feel free to stop reading (if you haven’t already) and enjoy the sunshine. For anyone left who is interested for whatever reason, I’d like to write a bit about a new Ottawa business I discovered at the Baby Show–a business so new that when I checked out their website when I got home it still had a generic “welcome to your new storefront” message on the front page.

That business is VitaEarth, from what I could tell started by a local husband-and-wife team and selling diapers designed by the wife-and-mother half of the team. I bought one of their diapers, partially because they were the only people at the show selling pocket diapers designed for newborns, partially because I thought it would be nice to support a new business, and partially because they seemed to be by far the most affordable around. I also liked that all their diapers are the same price (12.99 each, so more expensive than the most affordable Kawaiis but still far more affordable than the typical diaper). Plus they just seemed like nice people, and I’m a sucker I guess. I don’t believe they are selling online yet at vitaearth.ca, but I think they are worth keeping an eye on if you are at all interested in this type of thing. You can find them on Facebook, too.

I thought it might be nice for those who were not at the show and thus could not see the diapers in person to have some random person on the Internet (me!) describe them. Keep in mind that I am “about to pop” and have not yet “popped” so I haven’t actually used this on a small human. I have never ever in my life used any cloth diaper so forgive my lack of proper, uh, lingo.

vitaearth1

A tiny newborn diaper.

See how tiny? And anyone who knows me knows I have tiny hands:

vitaearth2

The largest setting:

vitaearth3

As you can see, there are a lot of buttons (snaps?). It seems to me that it is adjustable at the waist, at the legs, and at the belly button (the middle snaps down so as not to irritate the umbilical cord).

A pocket! I’ve “artistically” half-inserted the insert:

vitaearth4

I asked what said insert is made of (answer: hemp). I haven’t done anything to it yet so I imagine that it will be much puffier when actually being used. Also, I don’t know if it is visible in the photo, but the pocket has a little flap to stop the insert from coming out, much like the Kawaiis but notably unlike the Fuzzibunz. I like that; it seems a useful feature.

In addition to the hemp insert, there is a built-in insert under the pocket! I have never ever seen that before (but I’m no expert). Foolishly, I didn’t think to ask what it was made of, but it is not hemp. Perhaps cotton?

vitaearth5

The only potential problem I can see it the placement of the pocket opening, which is at the front. As you can see, when the front is snapped down, there is a bit of a gap:

vitaearth6

I suppose this placement could actually be a good thing when it comes to baby poop (something I’m not looking forward to) as it means that the insert won’t get soiled. But what of pee? Or maybe at that age it isn’t necessary to have the hemp in yet (there is that built-in part) and thus it doesn’t stick out as much?

In conclusion, though, I’m pretty excited about having a local diaper company (as excited as one can be about items designed to catch human waste). They have package deals and larger diapers as well (one-size I believe is the term–the ones with all the buttons designed to go from infant to potty training), but I didn’t look at them too closely to be honest as I have some Kawaiis already and can’t afford to invest in something with which, realistically, I haven’t had hands-on experience. I might end up running to disposables in complete and utter surrender. I did impulsively buy an AMP all-in-one small/newborn from one of the other vendors, but I already kind of regret it and wish I’d done the whole tour of the show first. If I had, I’d have bought another one of the VitaEarth diapers, to be perfectly frank. They are far less puffy/bulky, seem more adjustable, don’t use velcro, don’t cost as much, and seem like they will dry in a fifth of the time. If I do take to cloth diapering like some kind of graceful earth mother, I will definitely try to get my hands on another VitaEarth and let you know how it goes. I don’t particularly want this be a “mommy blog,” but I have the feeling my life will be pretty baby-centric for the next little while, so I guess it is a little bit inevitable. I’ll try to balance things out by writing about museums and such, but much of that depends on me actually leaving the house…

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Filed under Cloth diapers, Family, Ottawa

In Ottawa

So: a number of people (okay, three) have asked me what happened to my blog, where did all the content go, etc. I’m flattered that anyone noticed that it not only hasn’t been updated in a long while, but that it sort of… disappeared. The answer I’ve given them is that I’ve removed/made private the majority of the posts as I figure out what I want to do with it. This is true, but it is also true that making a decision like that is rather daunting, so I’ve decided to go with the obvious. Maybe this one will stick! I present my current theme:

Being in Ottawa.

This is really easy as I am in Ottawa and foresee myself, barring any miracles, being here for at least a couple more years. It is also a convenient way of keeping friends and family updated (“haha!” you laugh) without having to resort to putting everything on, say, Facebook. The fun thing about a blog rather than a site like Facebook is that I have the illusion of greater privacy/control despite the fact that this is blasted all over the Internet and is searchable (“googleable,” even). Perhaps I will explore the odd irrationality of that feeling later as I fear I am already veering off course.

So! Ottawa. I live here. I am finally, in conversations when travelling, “from Ottawa.” It took a long time for me to feel comfortable saying that, and perhaps I only really did once I realized that I’ve lived in Ottawa longer than I lived in Toronto. Still, Toronto leaves a mark on people, I’ve noticed, an identity hard to remove even if I wanted it gone. Part of me feels like my absence from there is only temporary and that I will return one day, but of course there are no guarantees and I am here now. I might as well live where I am, no? Part of the trouble is that although I lived in Montreal for six years, I very quickly lost any sense of being a Montrealer, or even being from Quebec at all despite having lived in the province from age five or so. Toronto, for whatever reason, fit me better and it has been hard to shake the feeling of being from there despite not really having been from there at all.

Here I am in Ottawa, though. Oh, also, I’m pregnant (yay!), so my child’s passport will forever be marked by Ottawa. I’d better get cozy with the place. Part of this, however, means trying to actually figure out just what this place is and just what it is not. The longer I’m here, the more I realize that some of the initial assumptions I’d had about the place are wrong — in a good way — but infuriatingly, many of the people who live here cling to those same ideas about the city as gospel. Through casual conversation, I’ve come to learn that many of the people who live here think that Ottawa is, specifically compared with Toronto or Montreal,

1) Sleepy or slow

2) At one with nature/green

3) Particularly active/outdoorsy

4) A place where you need a car

5) Family-friendly

6) Small

7) (Primarily) a government town

8) Conservative, in the political sense

I suppose there are elements of truth to each of the above, but surprise, surprise, the truth is a bit more complicated. At least, what I’ve made of the city is a bit more complicated. I’ve had the privilege of doing a lot of travelling in the last few years (New York and cities in Ireland, Australia, and New Zealand just in the last year!), which has provoked a lot of thought on my part regarding what I like/dislike and need/really don’t need in a city. For example: as a non-driver, good public transit is pretty much always at the top of my list. Parking, not so much, though I’m sure for drivers that is at the top of their list. It probably doesn’t need to be said, but everything is subjective.

Because everything is subjective, a few things about me in no particular order to help provide a sense of my demographic:

1) I’m pregnant, as I mentioned. I did not mention, however, that this is my first child and that my husband and I have no family in Ottawa.

2) I am a woman in the latter half of my twenties.

3) As should be clear from 1), I’m married.

4) I have a BA and an MA (McGill: English lit and UofT: medieval studies, if you were at all wondering).

5) I don’t drive. I never have. I don’t foresee myself doing so in the immediate future but it is not outside the realm of possibilities. My husband also does not drive. He knows how to, but I’ve never actually seen him drive and we’ve known each other for about eight years.

6) I lean left, as they say. I am, however, right-handed.

7) I grew up in the suburbs of Quebec City and left as soon as I could. Before anyone asks, my French is terrible. I was born in Winnipeg and have also lived in Montreal, Vancouver (for a summer), Toronto, and (of course) Ottawa.

8) I’ve been lucky enough to travel a lot in my twenties. I also travelled a lot as a child, but I don’t think that counts as much.

9) Gluten makes me ill. This probably seems like a random thing to include, but it does affect my experiences in different places.

10) I work from home. Mostly editing, but some writing as well.

11) I lost my not-even-two-months-old iPhone the other day somewhere between the taxi from the train station and my home. This makes me sad and also makes me realize how irrationally happy I was to have an iPhone, probably because I’m a loser and don’t have any friends in Ottawa. If you’re in Ottawa and found a white iPhone 4s in a black case, let me know.

And that is about it.

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Am I a secret NARCISSIST? Are YOU?

Short answer: I don’t think so…? I hope not…?

My sister linked to this Huffington Post article today.  I think that pretty much anything from the Huffington Post is hilarious, but this especially so.

“23 Signs You’re Secretly a Narcissist Masquerading as a Sensitive Introvert.”

Admittedly, I don’t know who Scott Barry Kaufman, Ph.D., is, nor do I know whether it was his choice to include the “Ph.D.” But tacking on Ph.D. in this way makes him look, well, like an insecure narcissist. I do think that this whole argument about overt and covert narcissists is silly, though, especially the little quiz at the end (for the record: according to this test, I am not a narcissist). This question bugs me in particular: “Even when I am in a group of friends, I often feel very alone and uneasy.” I am no expert, and certainly not a PhD, but what on earth does that have to do with narcissism, or even introversion? It sounds more like depression and alienation to me. Feeling alone in a group of friends suggests a yearning for connection, something that can strike extroverts and introverts alike (or so I assume). I can imagine that a narcissist might feel “alone” in the sense of having “no true peers,” but uneasy? Bah.

Aside from the quiz, though, I take issue with further dividing people into these kinds of categories. What does it serve, other than navel-gazing? What do any of these divisions contribute? [An aside: I took one of those MBTI tests in school and a few times on the Internet, each time coming back as INTJ (supposedly the super special rarest type). I’ve met several others who have tested as INTJ. This seems suspicious to me. It suggests to me that either I happen to magically attract people of the same type or the whole super-special-rareness thing, and the test itself, is a load of crock.] So now we have extroverts, introverts, secret-narcissists-who-aren’t-really-introverts (because you can’t be an introverted narcissist, right?), sensitive types, anxious types, overt narcissists… and so forth. Why can’t we just say that some people are full of themselves and leave it at that? And at what point is someone crippled by anxiety and feelings of worthlessness and at what point is he or she simply obsessed with him or herself? And why is it worse to be a covert narcissist than an overt narcissist?

Now, I’m sure there are genuine narcissists out there. It is true that some narcissists like to wallow about being misunderstood (teenagers and anyone with a blog ahahahaha).  I don’t like the idea, however, of suggesting that those who think of themselves as sensitive introverts are secretly narcissists, and the worst kind of narcissist at that. It could be true for all I know, but I’m not dealing with facts, damn it. And why make that assumption about people?

No, I suspect that this load of nonsense is really a way for overbearing extroverts to make themselves feel better about making their more introverted conversation partners feel unattended and trampled upon. Has your quiet friend suddenly snapped and told you that he or she feels misunderstood, as if his or her feelings don’t matter? Must be a narcissist. Has he told you that he doesn’t feel comfortable in a crowd? Has she told you she feels insecure? Narcissists.

To be fair, this is from the article:

Let’s clarify something here: Narcissism is definitely not the same thing as introversion.

Have you ever met someone who constantly tells you how “sensitive” and “introverted” they are, but all you actually see is selfishness and egocentricity? I’m sure you have, because these people exist in spades.

While the “overt” narcissists tended to be aggressive, self-aggrandizing, exploitative, and have extreme delusions of grandeur and a need for attention, “covert” narcissists were more prone to feelings of neglect or belittlement, hypersensitivity, anxiety, and delusions of persecution.

Well… okay… except that this still all comes down to perception. A well-adjusted person sees someone who seems to be suffering (because who wants to feel neglected, belittled, hypersensitive, anxious, or persecuted?) and decides, oh wow, look how obsessed this guy is with his own feelings and state of mind. Must be a narcissist. Why can’t he just get over himself?

Aren’t we beyond this by now? Aren’t we beyond telling those suffering from depression to just get some exercise? There are serious issues here, ones that can have tragic consequences, and brushing it off as covert narcissism helps no one. Those symptoms of covert narcissism listed by the author are a pretty big deal: anyone identifying with that list should seek help.

But really, this is a Huffington Post article, so I wasn’t expecting much. More than anything I’m surprised they didn’t take it as an excuse for some hipster-mocking.

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Interview: My mom, on moving back to Winnipeg after 20 years away

I spoke with my mother about her recent move back to Winnipeg, Manitoba after having moved to Quebec City (and then Toronto) over 20 years ago. What’s it like to return to one’s hometown? Is Winnipeg a nice city? A crime-ridden cesspool? Find out!

How long has it been since you last lived in Winnipeg?

I moved away when I was 31. I’ve been away for 21 years.

What brought you back?

I found myself with an opportunity to be back with my family: my mom, and my sister and cousins. I was living alone in Toronto and figured I would move back to Winnipeg because I had family here and also because the cost of living was I would say maybe a third of that of Toronto.

Even though you grew up in Winnipeg, did you experience any culture shock when you came back?

I had culture shock from where I was used to living, but I knew what I was getting into. I knew there’d be no walk-friendly places. Mind you, I was only three years in Toronto and I was 18 years in Quebec City. In Quebec City, I needed a car where I lived as well. Quebec City is a much cleaner and more historic city; Toronto is more happening. The [driving] lifestyle in Quebec City and the cold winters were things I was used to. But as far as [comparing] Toronto goes, [in] Winnipeg there’s no walking at night, there’s no feeling of security. So in that sense, yes, there was culture shock.

Do you like Winnipeg?

I’m growing to like it. I don’t dislike it: I just think they could do so many things different[ly] to make it more people-friendly. But I haven’t had a bad time here. Of course, there’s certain things you miss about the different places you’ve lived, but there’s such a sense of familiarity here for me.

Has Winnipeg changed a lot?

It’s more city-like. They’re starting to build big condos and they’re starting to do things that other cities are doing – however, I would say that it’s remained the same more than it has changed.

Do you think that’s a bad thing?

I don’t think it’s a bad thing, I just think that I’ve seen the way a couple of other cities are and I see where there needs to be improvement. To me it seems like such a simple thing and yet it hasn’t happened.

What do you think could be done to improve Winnipeg?

I think they could improve people’s ability to go out at night by having things [stay] open. It’s a city that shuts down because people are afraid of crime. Everything is closed down. If everybody stayed open at the same time – bang! our hours are changed, we’re staying open, we’re not going to be afraid – you would have more people out on the street, more people shopping, witnesses. The criminals would go someplace else or go into hiding.

What else could be changed?

I think they could change the lighting. Again, it points back to crime. Everything is just open for criminals: “It’s dark here. Let’s hover. Let’s steal. Let’s rob. Let’s kill.”

Do you think that Winnipeg’s primary problem is crime?

Yes. Absolutely. Take away that crime, and I think this is a great city. People would be out and about and there would be more things to do. People wouldn’t be afraid.

You seem to think that crime deterrence is strongly connected to improving infrastructure.

For sure. Things are spaced out, things are dark. But even the crime downtown is because everybody just goes home. The stores close at five or six. Everything closes, and so out come the people who are just hanging around doing nothing but bad things. There are a lot of gang things going on here. However: I did hear on the news today that crime has dropped significantly this past year – by a lot. I don’t know why. Maybe there are more police officers out on the streets, maybe more officers patrolling.

Do you feel unsafe in Winnipeg?

I’m not afraid, [but] I’m also careful. When I was in Toronto, if I came home at 10 o’clock at night on the bus, I might look over my shoulder now and again if I heard something, but you know, I wasn’t afraid to walk. Here, at dusk, you don’t go walking the streets. It’s just not heard of. Now, I know there are better places [in Winnipeg] than where I’m living where I probably would feel okay doing that.

Which neighbourhood do you live in?

Point Douglas. I’ve always known it as “West,” though. Between the North End and the West End. It’s at the crux of everything. You go over the bridge and things get better quickly.

What do you like about Winnipeg?

I like the cost of living, although it is going up. I like the fact that everything feels familiar. I guess that’s the thing I like most about Winnipeg, that I can go down the street and say, “Oh yeah, I walked that street when I was 15.” I have a memory. So maybe it’s the memory that I like more than the city.

Do you regret ever leaving in the first place?

No, I don’t. I probably wouldn’t be the same person had I not left. You get caught up in things. I’ve learned a lot by being away.

Do you think you’ll stay in Winnipeg forever?

I can’t say that. I know that I’m here for a couple of years, anyway. A few years. I’ve got a good job. I don’t see myself moving in the near future. I’d like to move to a different location in the city, though. Right now my dilemma is, do I move to the outskirts where there’s less crime and I could have a little garden, or do I move where things are starting to pick up and things have started happening? But then the cost of living goes up and I’m not in a financial situation — you know, one of the reasons I came here is because the cost of living is lower. If I end up making a huge mortgage payment, I’ve defeated the purpose of ever moving here, as far as financial reasons are concerned.

Any last thoughts about Winnipeg?

I have hope for Winnipeg. I see them building skyscrapers, I see them building, and I really think [things are] on the up. I would like to stick around a few years and watch the city grow.

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Interview: John Hurley, Director (Ready, Set, Go! Theatre Co.)

John Robert Hurley is an up-and-coming director based out of New York City. I interviewed him this Easter weekend while hanging out in Brooklyn. Learn all his secrets! Learn how to teach Shakespeare! Learn about directing!

You are a director with the Ready, Set, Go! Theatre Co. What was your most recent project with them?

Othello: The Webseries.”

What did that involve?

We made the world’s first Shakespeare webseries as a tool for high school teachers, who are required by state and federal law to teach Shakespeare.

Why was this important?

The methodology for teaching Shakespeare has not really changed in the last hundred years. A lot of schools these days try to solve problems by throwing money at them, so they get a lot of technology grants, which benefit, perhaps, math and science teachers. For English teachers, there aren’t a lot of tools to make use of the technology.

Where does “Othello” fall into this?

“Othello: The Webseries” allows the students to view an episodic version of the story presented using characters and costumes that are more familiar to them than a classic dress production. Also, we go into the schools to work with the teachers so that the students can make their own visual interpretations. Depending on what [resources] the school has available, some of the students have made YouTube channels and done video interpretations of the story. They have to film a scene or a monologue and write the Shakespearean text into their own vernacular. And if the school doesn’t have the technology to film that or to put it on the internet, then it becomes more of a live performance for the students; or if they don’t have the time, it becomes a written project – translating the monologue into their own vernacular. But the idea is that they realize that the language is accessible and that they can actually express themselves more clearly using complex language construction rather than like the rest of society, [which] insists on simplification.

Have you heard back from any students directly about their experience with the material?

Not as of yet because this is all fairly new. We’re in the process right now of working with the students. Part of that process is debriefing them, which we will be doing in the next couple of months to find out what their experience was so that we can understand what they are getting and what they’re not getting and adjust our pedagogy accordingly.

Have you spoken with any of the teachers?

The teachers are all very excited because they’re trying to reach a generation raised in a world of flashing lights and sound bites, and they’re trying to convince these students that this text from 500 years ago is valuable and is relevant to their world, their lives. Reading the play and watching a Zeffirelli film is not perhaps the most efficient or effective way to do so. [With] a production of Shakespeare where the acting is good [and] the costuming is fairly close to what the students themselves are wearing, you’re lowering perceived hurdles that [the students] have to jump in order to “get it.” I think a lot of students come in already believing that they, A, won’t get it, or B, that there’s nothing to get – that it’s just a dusty old, archaic relic that they’re being forced to study. So by presenting it in a way that appeals to them, you’re meeting them on their own turf; instead of making them come to you, you’re trying to meet them half-way [so they can] understand that the language and the stories are very complex and live on an emotional level that we’re not very comfortable with, especially in the United States. You’ve got to meet them somewhere, because [if] you’re teaching them how to communicate in this way, you can’t expect them to already know. You have to lay it out in pictures, in a sense, because the language is very hard to “get” as just text.

Do you worry that by doing Shakespeare so “modern” that you’re dumbing it down?

No, I don’t think we’re dumbing it down. I think this is a conception that people have, that if your characters are not actual kings of a country or an industry or something, then you’ve removed the nobility or have removed the stakes from the play. But a teenage individual lives with these stakes much more often than the rest of us do, because to them everything is life and death. Everything is that serious, because they have no concept of scale. Every day is full of comedy and tragedy. Or at least it was for me as a teenager. Everything was super serious and everything was really funny at the same time. So I think by presenting these characters as something closer to a run-of-the-mill person, so to speak, someone who is at least existing within the world of students and not in some realm they’re unfamiliar with, you’re not only making it more accessible to them, you are validating their lives and the role of literature in their lives. Literature can portray them as well as kings and queens; these stakes exist for all of humanity and not just the nobility and the gods and the people who lived 600 years ago. These things still exist and they’re still relevant today.

You are also working on Tony Kushner’s “Slavs!” with university students as a guest director at Roanoke College in Virginia. What can you say about that project?

It’s very interesting. I’ve been in New York since 2007 and only working with people who really, really want to be actors and have really put a lot of effort into being actors, and take themselves very seriously as actors, for the most part. So to go to an undergraduate university where the majority of my cast are not even Theatre Majors was an interesting challenge. I’ve been very pleasantly surprised by how dedicated they are to doing the foundational work to make the play fly. They got off book quicker than any of my casts here in New York have, hands down. They really put in the work to get themselves ready, and they’re doing some very good work. There are a few people who are less committed and who are more interested in the applause than the work – and it shows – but for the most part, they’re very genuine, very committed to what they’re doing.

How is it for you from a teaching perspective?

It’s interesting, because they don’t know, you know? They are flying by the seat of their pants, as far as how to do what they’re doing as actors. They don’t have any technique or proven methodology that has helped them in the past. It’s all new to them. So you spend a lot of time coaxing and coaching and educating them about very basic elements of being an effective actor, from things as simple as how to move around a stage, because they don’t have the experience of working a room, like a well-experienced actor has. An actor who’s been on stage a hundred times knows how to work a crowd. It’s just innate in the way they present themselves. But to someone who’s doing it for the first, or maybe the fifth, time, it’s something that they have to concentrate on. Where am I standing? Where am I looking? Where is my light? Where is the audience? So that’s interesting.

What’s a particular challenge for non-professional or student actors?

We had a rehearsal the other night where all three of the actors, who know their lines, were having a very tough time remembering their lines. All three of them were very present in the scene, and they were listening, and they were responding to each other, and true emotions began to happen. Because they’re so unused to dealing with real emotion in their lives, the way their body combats it is in dropping the lines: in order to squash the emotion, the brain takes away the lines. It forces them to stop what they’re doing and search for the line. As an actor, you have to learn that when the emotion comes, you have to keep fighting to communicate with your scene partner and that it’s okay to fumble for the line. They were getting so frustrated with themselves about dropping their lines rather than just remaining present with their scene partner and continuing to try to communicate, rather than trying to get the line “word-perfect.”

How do you talk to actors about emotion?

Something I say to actors a lot is, “You know when you’re upset with someone, but you’re trying to communicate with them – all characters in every play ever written are trying to communicate with each other – you might be angry, but you’re trying to keep a lid on it so that you can continue to communicate.” But in order for an actor to create that on stage, first they have to let it go. They have to take the lid off and find out what that is. And only once they create that thing, can they then try to keep a lid on it. But if they try first to go to the place of keeping a lid, then it’ll never work because you don’t know what you’re fighting against. You’re just shadowboxing at that point.

How would you compare teaching through something like “Slavs!” with trying to teach Shakespeare through video?

The topics are different but the technique is similar. If you want to teach something complex, or if you want to create something complex, the method is the same: you have to create layers of simplicity, either in the creativity or in the understanding. So if you want to teach someone about “Othello,” you can’t start by telling them all of the nuances. You have to start with A happens and then B happens and then C happens and then D happens. And then we go back: and then A-and-a-half happens, and then A-and-two-thirds happens. So that by beginning from simplicity, you can create a complex whole, either in your creative process or in your understanding. If you’re directing something that needs to be very subtle and very nuanced, you can’t go there immediately. You have to build around grand gestures and grand emotion. Then you try to pull it back, or then you try to refine it. But if you try to go for the refined version first, it’ll never work.

Do you think that directing always involves some kind of teaching?

To a certain extent – especially depending on the play. With a play like “Slavs!”, if you’re directing it in Virginia, whether with a professional company or with students, like I am, there’s a tremendous amount of historical and sociological background that must be understood in order to understand what you’re saying as the character. So unless you have a dramaturge, it is you who is teaching them the history that is involved. I don’t think directing always involves teaching [though] because when you have good actors who are professional and have their own technique and methodology, then they are giving you clay to mould. And so then the relationship is not about teacher and student, it’s a sculptor and clay, where you respect the material and its capabilities and craft out of it. Like they say about marble, you remove the pieces that aren’t there in the sculpture.

What is the difference between working with professional actors and student actors?

A professional actor is providing you the material that you need, whereas with a student actor, you are teaching them how to provide the material. You are teaching them what it means to be a professional actor: to come in and not wait for the director to tell you what to do but to give him or her something to work with. I enjoy both, but it’s especially exhilarating to work with an actor who you are just refining what they’re giving you, or when a student actor begins to inspire you because they’re truly beginning to work. I find that particularly exhilarating. One of the examples I always point to is actually Jessica [Ranville]. When I worked with her in her final year of grad school, by the time the performance came around, I had no idea what she was going to do each night, I just knew it would be right. That was extremely rewarding as a director, to be able to sit there and be surprised by your own work. To me, the ideal situation as a director is that you’ve provided a stage for them to work on, and together you’ve defined the world and the stage in its relationship. And then you set them free.

Last question: what’s next?

We begin casting for “Romeo and Juliet” when I finish “Slavs!”, which will be our next webseries, and then we go from there.

 

Many thanks to John Hurley for being a good sport! “Slavs!” runs April 10 to 13, 7:30pm at Olin Hall, Roanoke College, Virginia.

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