The Spooks Were Cool
Saturday, December 27, 2008
I have written twice here
about my wonderful relationship with libraries and in particular with la Biblioteca Benjamín Franklin
in Mexico City in the 60s. It was a USIS (United States Information Service) facility which was the public face of the CIA. The Benjamin Franklin was located in that most fashionable area called La Zona Rosa
or Pink Zone. They had a wonderful selection of books in English and a magazine and periodical section to die for. It was here that I could read both Downbeat
and Scientific American
sitting comfortably on a lounge chair and not standing uncomfortably by the magazine rack of the nearby Sanborn's
. In 1962 I tried to take some books home but the female attendant at the front desk told me I needed a library card. One of the requirements was a passport type photo. So I went home and put my camera (a Pentacon-F) on a tripod and accessed the self-timer. I made a print to the size specification of the library and returned the next day. The woman looked at the picture and said, "I cannot tell if this is you because I can only see one side of your face." I picked up a nearby book and placed it to cover one half of it. "Does this look like me?" I asked her. She smiled and without making any further objection pasted it on to my application. A few days later I had my first ever library card.
Friday, December 26, 2008
In the seven years that I taught high school in Mexico City I had a first-day-of-class technique that served we well. It was rapidly evident which of my students would challenge me for authority. I made it a point of asking them something I knew they would not know. In most cases this would settle them down for the duration of the term. I believed that too much personal intimacy with students was bad so I always called them Mr. or Miss. I never had discipline problems. I am not sure I would use that technique now if I had to teach again. It seems that my method involved humiliation. It is only today that I finally thought about it and how as boy I was part of a class that humiliated a kind teacher and pushed him into a nervous breakdown. He was much too kind to retaliate. We should have felt ashamed.
In school while I was not always a model student I always behaved. But in my third year (grade 11) 1959, 1960, at St. Edward's High School in Austin I was not a good boy. In the first and second years (grade 9 and 10) we slept in huge dorms with Gothic celings. We had bunk beds so that the dorms could accomodate 50 of us. There was a separate room within the dorm were our prefect lived. In that 11th grade we had the privilege of living in a room for four with a couple of bunk beds. That grade 11 my roommates were John Arnold, Melvin Medina and Mac Letscher (his parents lived in Australia). That's the order of the pictures here. I was the smallest of the four. John Arnold made it a point to be my bodyguard. He was a member of the football team so few ever tried to bully me. The 11th grade was on one whole floor and one of the rooms was occupied by our prefect, Brother Cyriac Haden CSC who was a soft spoken and very pleasant man. He also taught us chemistry.
As a teacher and as a prefect we immediately noticed in Brother Cyriac a weakness in imposing discipline. We made it our goal all that year to push him to his limits. In his class (which was right after lunch) I would casually walk in with an unfinished apple or cherry pie on a plate and finish it in class. I told Brother Cyriac that if I ate slowly for a good digestion I simply did not have enough time to finish lunch in the time we were given. I was ejected several times (Brother Cyriac rarely punished us at all) and I was finally barred that year from being a member of the elite and nerdish National Honour Society. We had several of those little cardboard cylinders that when inverted would make the sound of a cat or a cow. We would make these sounds in class and pass the devices around under our desks. Brother Cyriac would try to find the offender. He could never find it as we were too quick. He would then shout and most often say the word we all wanted to hear (the first time I ever heard the word was in his class), "Stop the hullabaloo!" We would all then roar with laughter.
Every morning a huge bell would sound to get us out of bed and ready us for breakfast. Our most important personal mandate was to spend the most time in bed. Duck cuts were fashionable and many of us would spend valuable sleeping time getting the duck cut ready. We four realized this was silly so we all got a flat top haircut. We would face our room sink mirror, put on a bit of crew cut goo ( it think it was called Top Cut) and we would rapidly brush it to perfection in mere seconds.
It was a couple of months into that first semester that the four of us decided to make Brother Cyriac loose his cool. We developed all kinds of stuff to do a slow job of it. We would alternate beds so that Brother Cyriac would not know who was sleeping in which bed when he would check us out at night to make sure we were all in for the night. On other days we would make the four bunks become single beds. One day we put all four beds on top of each other (the ceilings were that high) so that when Brother Cyriac opened the door of our room a whole section of it was empty. Another time we made the room look like a complete mess. When Brother Cyriac poked his head into the room he went ballistic. That's Mac Letscher in his crew cut in our messy room, below.
Then we decided to dye or hair a striking light blue. We kept on with our campaign and I am sad to say that Brother Cyriac disappeared one day and we never saw him again. My guess is that we drove this man into a nervous breakdown. Even then we felt a bit guilty of our deed.
But, today, I reflect on this I as prepare myself to attend and look forward to a high school reunion in Austin in June. I am deeply ashamed at our lack of kindness to a man who always treated us fairly and like the good Christian he was he just turned his other cheek.
Wherever you are, Brother Cyriac I apologize for myself and for my roommates. We may have meant all we did to you. We simply did not know any better.
Another regret from Lee H. Lytton Class of 61
I too had many moments of guilt about the way we treated the poor man. He died long ago and is buried along with Bro. Francis, Bro. Hubert, and a couple of others in the cemetery at the end of Woodward at IH-35. Over the years, I've occasionally visited their graves, and in the case of Bro. Cyriac, did my best to apologize to him for being a major asshole.
A Meccano - A Searing Flash From A Christmas Past
Thursday, December 25, 2008
Yo siempre te tengo presente, pero en un día como éste vos y yó hemos sido grandes protagonistas de esa hermosa ilusión de Navidad, a nuestro regreso de la misa de gallo.
¿cuántos regalos inexplicables? Nunca me voy a olvidar de tu "meccano" con ese motor eléctrico. Alex, te mando un gran abrazo para vos Rosemary, tus dos hijas y tus nietitas, esas flores que son orgullo de tu cámara fotográfica.
The above Christmas email from my first cousin Wenci
from Argentina opened in me all kinds of memories of extremely hot Christmas Eves as I watched the snow fall last night. My granddaughters Rebecca and Lauren opened their presents. I had been unable to convince anybody (a joke of mine every Christmas) that we had to wait until midnight to open the presents. Rebecca could see through it all and simply said, "We are either going to open them before the Christmas portrait or after."
My cousin Wenci's email is accurate in every respect except for that Meccano. It wasn't a Meccano. My mother had somehow obtained from someone at the Buenos Aires American Embassy a much better (and cooler) American Erector Set invented by A.C. Gilbert. It came with that electric motor that so impressed Wenci and I remember making a walking (it really only rolled) robot that I affectionately called Gilbert after the inventor. Here is Wenci's email translated:You are always in my thoughts but on a day like today, you and I, have been protagonists of that beautiful illusion that is Christmas when we would return from Midnight Mass.
How many unexplainable gifts? I will never forget that Meccano with its electric motor. Alex I send you an abrazo to you and Rosemary, to your two daughters and to your two flowers, your granddaughters who are a pride of your camera.
Abraham Rogatnick told me he felt too frail to come particularly when he looked out of his window and saw all that snow. His presence was palpable at the dinner table as I had cooked without onions. Abraham is alergic to them. Even Rosemary did not put onions in her trademark stuffing for our large roaster chicken.
My son-in-law Bruce Stewart was working late into Christmas Eve so his side of the family was represented by the presence of his mother Marjorie Stewart (in the photos here she is on the right). In the second picture, which was really the first one I took that evening (with b+w Polaroid), I attempted to include our cats. Rosemary is holding Toby and I my female Plata who was not in the least happy. After one exposure that was it. The second picture is better as we are not worried about the cats. I am wearing a plastic crown that came in the Christmas crackers that Rosemary buys at VanDusen every year.
Today is a perfect day to do nothing and to somehow try to incorporate in my mind the memories of those hot Christmas Eves in Buenos Aires and the sense of loss that they will never return. For me, every Christmas is like dying a bit. Something is taken away to be lodged into the back of my head only to be brought back as a searing flash by an unexpected email. I wonder if my father thought about it in the same way? Did he also think that Christmasses are the occasions in which we adults prepare fond memories for our children so that some day they will be in the same sad/happy situation I find myself now?
Christmas to me is watching (but more so listening to the sounds of) Rosemary carefully wrapping all those presents and then seeing the very same presents torn open with the wrapping all but ignored. Christmas is a time to be sad. And as far as I can figure out that seems to be an altogether good thing.
The Prince Of A Professor & The Man In Birkenstocks
Wednesday, December 24, 2008
My friend Graham Walker and I listened to Johann Sebastian Bach's Cantata BWV 36 at the Chan last night. The first line sung jointly by soprano Suzie LeBlanc, alto Laura Pudwell, tenor Colin Balzer and baritone Sumner Thompson:
Schwingt freudig euch empor zu den erhabnen Sternen (soar joyfully aloft amidst the starry grandeur)
made me think of a possibly unlikely meeting between two men who were present. One of them was wearing extremely casual clothing and his trademark socked Birkenstocks, the other, a Kodiak bear of a man with white hair, was sitting two persons away from us. I found this extreme urge to loudly greet him in the following manner (and I did), "Dr Vogt how is your cyclotron?" He looked at me with a smile and said, "It's doing just fine."
The two students sitting between us and Dr Erich Vogt asked me, "What's a cyclotron?" Luckily I was able to answer a vague, "It's a particle accelerator and this man headed UBC's TRIUMF for years." I really wanted to answer stuff like, "He deals with particles called charmed quarks. A cyclotron is a donut-shaped chamber that accelerates electrons, protons and other particles at extremely high speeds. When these speeds reach relativistic speeds (nearing the speed of light) then you have an out-of-phase problem and that is why particle accelerators are now not circular but miles long." For more on the extraordinary Dr. Vogt read below:
Erich and the KAON Factory
Erich Vogt and Kaons: The very political particles that weren't to be Canadian
By Eve Savory CBC News
Last Updated: Monday, May 5, 2008 | 2:27 PM ET
This weekend, three Nobel Prize winners and dozens of other scientists of the first order blew into Vancouver for a physics symposium — and a party.
Forty years ago, TRIUMF, Canada's national laboratory for particle and nuclear physics, was established and that alone is reason for a physicist to celebrate
But that's not what drew Carlo Rubbia, Dick Taylor and Walter Kohn to the gathering at the University of British Columbia (UBC). It was friendship for the man who co-founded TRIUMF — a man who never won a Nobel Prize but who has worked with some 30 winners, and a man celebrated for his commitment both to science and teaching.
Professor Emeritus Erich Vogt has taught 5,000 first-year physics students over the last 43 years.
Vogt is 78, and according to his students, a prince of a professor. Writes one at Ratemyprofessor.com: "This man is AMAZING. He got his PhD in Princeton in the 50s and had lectures of ALBERT EINSTEIN — !! not mentioning his OTHER Nobel Laureate friends!!"
"Incredible prof. about 200 years old and he's been teaching for free since he was 65," enthuses another.
"All other lecturers should sit in on some of his classes to learn how to teach," scolds a third.
For more on this man read the rest of this delightful CBC interview by Eve Savory here
I thought of Dr Vogt and José Verstappen the man in the Birckenstocks. Verstappen has headed Early Music Vancouver
for at least 28 years. Such is his perseverance, intelligence and his knowledge not only of what people will like but what people should like that he was able to fill the Chan on the evening of a snow storm. His followers (I am, unabashedly, one of them) trust his taste for music and we attend his concerts(his society hires local musicians and mixes them in groups with musicians from abroad) all beautifully announced by the Early Music Vancouver Calendar that is mailed once a year and that my Rosemary magnets to the fridge. Verstappen could have lost his shirt last night considering that musical director and violinist Marc Destrubé hired the three best natural trumpet playes in North American to contribute for two of the Cantatatas (BMV 171 and BMV 248/6 Part VI). And there was the participation of those baroque oboists Washington McLain and Sand Dalton (not cheap, I am sure!). The band included many of the members of the Pacific Baroque Orchestra
including the three-week mother Glenys Webster playing the viola while a violinist friend kept her thirsty Oscar Robin at bay backstage.
Verstappen did not lose his shirt and we all went home satiated with extremely good Bach. Driving home I thought of the musicians hugging each other and congratulating each other after the concert. I felt frustrated. I am not a musician. I can never be part of that club of people who can do that remarkable task of reading music and transfering that knowledge to an innanimate object made of old wood. The handshakes of the musicians are to me like the secret handshakes of a Masonic order. I can never share and can only watch from the outside. I looked at Dr. Vogt during those cantatas and I am sure that the elementary particle man can see into Bach and read into the meaning of the notes. It was plainly evident on his face. Perhaps there is a relationship between music protons and neutrons that Dr. Vogt is able to understand.
From my vantage point as an outsider I can only assert on this Christmas Eve that I am lucky, and that indeed we in Vancouver are lucky to have these two men in our midst.
Even with all the snow and the cloudy skies I don't have to be a musician or a particle physicist to soar joyfully aloft amidst the starry grandeur.
Lauren’s Sundae Hat, Therese’s Sturdy Legs, & A Coat Hanger Angel
Tuesday, December 23, 2008
Guest Christmas Blog by John Lekich
There is a thick blanket of snow on the ground the day Alex and I are set to meet Bernard Cuffling – the veteran Vancouver-based actor who plays Clarence the angel in the Arts Club production of It’s a Wonderful Life
. Since I walk with a cane, snow has a tendency to make me a little grumpy. In my boyhood, seasoned gentleman used to tackle their sidewalks with homemade wooden shovels inspired by the business end of a snowplow. But old-school shoveling etiquette has fallen on hard times. Some people shovel and some people don’t - which makes for very uneven progress when you’re working with a personal ambulatory system that mimics one of Alex’s vintage tripods. My eyes are constantly fixed on the ground, watching for sudden changes in terrain. My legs stiffen up in anticipation of a sneaky patch of ice. It has a way of taking all the wonder out of gently falling snow.
Still, the afternoon proves to have a few unexpected compensations. On the way to our interview, Alex makes a side trip to pick up his two granddaughters from school. While we wait for Rebecca’s class to return from an ice-skating expedition, Lauren chats away in the back seat. She is wearing a wool hat with a pom-pom that makes her head look like the top of a strawberry sundae. The pom-pom moves from side to side as she tries to remember the French word for chicken. She moves on to politely explain why she likes grape Jello better than lime. I ask her – rather non-committally – if she has played in the snow. “Yes!” she says, drawing out the word so that it ends with a sizzle of excitement.
When we arrive backstage at the Arts Club on Granville Island, we get a nice surprise. “Look who I found!” says Alex. It’s Therese – a former Railway Club bartender whose easygoing charm never failed to delight us over many a long-lost Thursday lunch. Every once in a while, she would wear a tastefully abbreviated kilt over dancer’s leotards. Instantly melting the heart of the most callous barfly every time she ventured from behind the beer taps. In the middle of an icy winter, I would often envy the artful sturdiness of her legs. Alas, Therese Hartwig has long since abandoned mixology to wholeheartedly immerse herself in the more pragmatic aspects of theatrical life. When she throws her arms around my down-filled parka in greeting, she is wearing the kind of efficiently drab jumpsuit favoured by garage mechanics. Nevertheless, I find myself wishing that I was wearing a much thinner coat.
My joy at seeing Therese again is matched only by meeting the gentlemanly Bernard Cuffling for the first time. I have been watching him in a long string of plays – starting with his 1975 debut in the Arts Club production of My Fat Friend. Originally from England, Cuffling has the kind of face that would look perfectly at home merrily toasting a reformed Ebenezer Scrooge in the Alastair Sim version of A Christmas Carol. As Alex takes Cuffling’s portrait, the actor is still wearing Clarence’s downy pair of angel wings. He will keep wearing then until the end of the play’s unreservedly successful run on January 3rd. I ask how it feels to wear the wings and he explains that they are held to his shoulders by a simple arrangement of coat hangers. “Do they stay on?” I ask. “Oh, yes,” he assures me. “We tried a lot of experiments. But it’s the only thing that really works.”
For some reason, I find this coat hanger idea both comforting and inspiring. If something you find in an ordinary closet can successfully support such a wholly celestial concept as angel wings, any number of small miracles are possible. It’s a thought I cling to as I make my way to Alex’s car without incident. On the way home, the snow is lit by streetlamp. It streaks by in an endless ribbon - the dazzling white of an angel’s wing.
Food For Thought
Monday, December 22, 2008
A cartoon in the Vancouver Sun this week had a sentence that began with, "I should have went..." Rosemary told me that since it is in the vernacular it will soon be correct. I am not sure it is correct now and I wonder if the artist of the cartoon knew better or just didn't. I suspect he didn't and that the cartoon was not vetted by the folks at the paper.
In my photography classes at Focal Point and at Van Arts I have students who tell me they want to be fashion photographers or photo-journalists. Others tell me they want to shoot architecture or food. Some say they want to shoot for magazines. Whichever way you look at it, as things stand these days, I would say there is no immediate future in any of these specialized fields of photography. This is not because my students are not good enough to compete. They are competent and some are very good. The problem lies in the visual standards of web magazines and the fact that hard copy magazines are paying less and less.
In my career in Vancouver I have avoided fashion because fashion in a city with little catalogue work (when I came Eaton's and the Bay did local catalogue work) means that after a couple of months of fashion fame, like a comet you will be over the horizon and replaced by the next one. Fashion is the kiss of death in Vancouver. For many years the tabletop food and beverage photographers did extremely well. The work of Deryk Murray comes to mind. He became prosperous enough to buy a bank on West Hastings by the Cenotaph and converted it into the best photo studio in town. Then the bottom fell out in the industry and Murray left town, (for a while).
Shooting food and whiskey bottles with expertise is not easy. One needs all sorts of lighting resources. The investment in this kind of photography is expensive. It is as expensive as the photographers who shoot architectural interiors and are faced with the problem of not only making vertical columns in walls seem parallel but they must also balance interior lighting with the exterior. The photographer will need many powerful and expensive lights. The advent of digital means that a photographer can now shoot the exterior and the interior in separate exposures and then seamlessly meld them together. You would never know. But in order to make those parallel columns look parallel the photographer has to use an expensive 4x5 view camera and equip it with an even more expensive digital back if he or she hopes to compete in the diminishing market.
My blog is a photo blog that specializes in portraits. I will bang on my own drum and point out that I am very good at it. I try to post photographs that are well taken and well lit. I will sometimes show garden shots but I have to admit I am an amateur. I would really never show you classical architecture shots because I have never been an architectural photographer. I am not Roger Brooks, one of the best of Vancouver's architectural photographers. The food shot here has a purpose. Let me explain.
I will be the first person to state that I believe in good journalism. I believe in journalism written by journalists who studied their craft in school. I abhor citizen journalism. I believe that just because anybody can "publish" their opinion on line; it does not necessarily mean that it will be good. It generally isn't. Citizen journalists have ruined many a web-based magazine with their caustic rants. For a taste of that just look at the comments section in the on-line Globe & Mail.
Where this citizen journalism really shows its amateur origins is in the realm of local Vancouver food blogs. If you look at any of the pictures you will be hard-pressed to find one that shows food in an appetizing manner. More often than not the food looks like stuff that is extruded from animals after their digestion. Shooting food is not easy. Shooting food to make it appetizing is not easy. Shooting food with a little or expensive digital camera that is unassisted by intelligent lighting will simply not work.
I had to shoot the food picture you see here for a magazine that insisted that I do it. I took the picture at Monk McQueens in False Creek. For the picture I used a portable boom light stand so that I could suspend a largish soft box over the piano. Had I used an in-camera flash or available light the food would not have looked good.
I think that I can give my opinion on the photographic side. On the writing side I can only assert that most of the food writing in food blogs does nothing for my appetite. Vancouver used to have James Barber but we still have Christina Burridge, Jurgen Gothe, Jamie Maw, Angela Murrils and a few others. Writing about food to make one want to go immediately to partake of it is not easy. A. J. Liebling, between meals, would have plenty to say about that.
It has never been so evident how difficult that is. Just look at the food blogs. I may not be a good judge of the writing side of it but the photographs suck.
Una Navidad Colorada
Sunday, December 21, 2008
rojo, ja.(Del lat. russus).
1. adj. De color encarnado muy vivo, que corresponde a la sensación producida por el estímulo de longitudes de onda de alrededor de 640 nm o mayores. U. t. c. s. m. Es el primer color del espectro solar.
colorado, da.(Del lat. colorātus, de colorāre, colorar).
1. adj. Que tiene color.
2. adj. Que por naturaleza o arte tiene color más o menos rojo.
Real Academia Española © Todos los derechos reservados
Red and green are the colours of Christmas. Those who are religious say that red represents the blood shed by Christ to save mankind. Snobs might say that the month-long Roman Saturnalia decreed for December 25, AD 274 by Emperor Aurelian as natalis solis invicti ("birth of the invincible sun"), a festival honoring the sun god Mithras is the real origin of red. The reason is that at about the same time, the Church Fathers likewise set the official date for celebrating the birth of Jesus as being December the 25th. And since Christmas was appropriated from the Saturnalia by early Christians, when Italians celebrated Christmas in the 19th century the world copied the colours of the Italian flag. I think this reason is far-fetched and the most likely one is that the fat man wears a red suit.
In Spanish we have two words for red, colorado
. Both words come from the Latin. In Mexico rojo
is used more than colorado
. In my native Argentina the higher classes look down on the lower classes who use the crass sounding rojo
while they the patricians opt for the more melodic colorado
. Off colour jokes in Spanish are chistes colorados
and dirty old men who are more likely to tell them are called viejos verdes
or green old men.
The most brilliant red I know is the vegetable dye red coloured Mexican rebozo my mother was given by her sister Dolly in Mexico City in 1952. It is made of a very rough cotton (Rebecca refuses to wear it saying it makes her itch).
Mexico City at Christmas is not a white Christmas but it is a cold one. It was particularly cold in the 50s and 60s when I lived there as few houses or apartments had interior heating. I remember my mother wearing the red rebozo when she went to the Mexican Christmas posadas
which are parties that mimic the act of the Virgin Mary and Joseph looking for a place to spend the night when Jesus was about to be born. The party goers sing outside of the party house for entrance and are denied several times until they are finally let in and the festivities begin. That red of my mother's rebozo screams Navidad
But I have used it to dress up and undress models since I first came to Vancouver 35 years ago. For the last four years I have taken it as a prop for my nude class at Focal Point. My students are dazzled by the colour and the fragrant scent of olinalá
. Olinalá is a tropical tree that grows in Olinalá in the state of Guerrero. I have a chest made of the sweet smelling wood and I store my mother's collection of Mexican rebozos in it.
Here are but a few of the women who have worn that red rebozo. In order of appearance it's Ivette Hernandez, Linda Lorenzo, Jennifer Froese and the last one I have long forgotten her name. The colour negative has deteriorated and she moved when I took this exposure.
Even though I am unable to clear out the yellow I like it. Perhaps because it was the first time I took out my mother's rebozo from the olinalá chest for a photo.
Every year I wrap the bottom of our Christmas tree with the red rebozo. In our home it is the real colour of Christmas.