Better Luck Next Time: Marco’s Famous

For a quick food stop prior to a Revolutionary Speakers’ Series lecture by Sue Johanson (of Sunday Night Sex Show fame), we opted to try Marco’s Famous in the Students’ Union Building on campus (8900 114 Street). We always walk by the “flagship” Whyte location with intentions to stop, but timing has never worked out.

On this day, the line at SUB merchants was clearly favouring the new Taco Time (which replaced Funky Pickle), but there were still a few customers hovered around the Marco’s order counter. It didn’t take me long to decide on a Cheeseburger ($5.50), while Mack decided to taste the Donair ($6.50). We topped off our dinner with an order of large fries ($4.00).

Our order was complete in just a few minutes, and we quickly found a seat to chow down as we watched the line to the Myer Horowitz grow. My 6oz. burger looked pretty standard – the patty topped with condiments, onions and a pickle. But when I bit into it, it started oozing ketchup – so much so that the ketchup began leaking from the top of the bun. And at $5.50, I would have preferred a chargrilled Harvey’s burger. Mack found his donair under a similar sauce-siege – it was messy and thus difficult to eat. The fries were also a disappointment – bland and under-seasoned, we would have welcomed salt or adornment of any kind.

Cheeseburger

Remnants of Mack’s donair

Fries

Though we are willing to give Marco’s another try (and not judge all outlets by our experience at this one), they will definitely have to step up to the plate next time.

Marco’s Famous
8900 114 Street
(780) 437-8644

Theatre: “After the Fall”

With The Crucible and Death of a Salesman as evidence, I thought Arthur Miller’s last play, After the Fall, would have had similar oomph. Boy, was I wrong.

From the Studio Theatre website:

“Miller’s After the Fall (1964) is a strongly autobiographical work, which deals with the questions of guilt and innocence, examining failed relationships, false American values and broken principles amid larger political and social failures like the aftermath of the Holocaust and the McCarthy communist witch hunt. One of the central characters, Maggie, is clearly modeled on Monroe, although Miller always denied this.”

After reading an interview with director Stefan Dzeparoski, I wholly give him the credit that he deserves in attempting to unpack this challenging play, as at intermission, Mack and I both had no idea what was going on.

Between the too-busy set (the textured backdrop, giant wardrobe, theatre seats, overhead screen, and rolling bed in the second half), and projected visuals (Quentin’s conscience, ghosts, and wife Maggie), it was a battle to pay attention to the words alone. The fragmented narration, with characters popping in and out of Quentin’s life, was too difficult to follow. I also wasn’t able to reconcile the first half of the play, with storylines involving the House of Un-American Activities Committee, Quentin’s mother, and his first two wives, with the second half that centered on Quentin’s tumultuous relationship with his third wife. “Strongly autobiographical,” I’m convinced that only Arthur Miller himself would truly be able to tell us what he intended of this play.

That said, I thought Melissa Thingelstad’s performance as Louise was a bright spot in the play, while Mack liked Meredith Bailey’s turn as Maggie.

Beyond that, I don’t have much else to say, except that the audience’s stunned silence following the end of the production, and subsequent delay in applause, said it all.

Maher Arar: Civil Liberties & National Security

On Wednesday, May and I attended a lecture by Maher Arar at the Winspear Centre sponsored by the University of Alberta Political Science Department. I know it’s a formality at such events to have people of high academic ranking precede the main speaker to, in a sense, soften up the topical ground with grand introductions of the subject at hand, but to me it unnecessarily lengthens the event.

Julian Faulker, Mr. Arar’s counsel during his civil suit against the Canadian government, provided his insight into what needs to change in the system in order for rights to be fully protected, not simply paid lip service to.

Mr. Arar followed, and essentially recounted the highlights of his experience, both the good and the bad. In all honesty, I had scanned the headlines and articles earlier this year when he had received his $2 million dollar settlement from the government, but I didn’t know all of the details surrounding his deportation, torture, and subsequent return to Canada in 2003. He told of a time in Syria as a boy when a Canadian recognized the maple leaf on his shirt; this friendly recognition was the moment he decided he wanted to immigrate to Canada. Hearing him speak of his ordeal really personified it, and was much more powerful than reading the account in the papers. Still, I found it interesting that Mr. Arar chose to repeat the fact that he was found to be innocent three times. I’m sure some in the audience may have been suspicious of his alleged involvement, but the aural reminder almost worked against his rhetoric of ultimate exoneration. That said, I would like to echo Dr. Trimble’s comment that Mr. Arar was very brave in his quest to educate the public by retelling his painful story.

(A brief aside – the Department of Political Science indicated that it wanted to make the event accessible to everyone, so had sign language interpreters as well as a screen transcribing what was being said set up on stage. I’m not sure if it was just me, but these fixtures actually made it difficult for me to focus on the speeches. I think I need to learn how to block out what’s visually unnecessary and irrelevant.)

On my way home, it wasn’t an epiphany per se, but the enveloping thought that the problems in the world are so vast that disillusionment really becomes the easy way out. On the heels of attending speaking engagements by Stephen Lewis and Maher Arar tonight, and my current reading of Romeo Dallaire’s Shake Hands with the Devil, I’m feeling overwhelmed, even though the HIV/AIDS pandemic, the obstruction of civil liberties, and genocide are only three of the many multi-lateral issues plaguing society today. I know a general awareness of these challenges is vital, and I’m doing what I can to learn more, but most days, it doesn’t seem like enough. At the same time, where does one start, besides the civilian duty of “rocking the vote?” There is no easy answer, but this will be something I will be grappling with as I continue to educate myself as a global citizen.

Narratives of Citizenship Conference

Mack and I attended the Narratives of Citizenship Conference this weekend, put on by the Graduates Students of English Association at the University of Alberta. The conference was divided into three sections – academic, artistic, and communal, though really, the concentration was on paper presentations.

We were originally asked a few months ago to be a part of the latter focus in the form of a community roundtable session, but when we were also extended an invitation to attend the rest of the conference as guests, I was excited. I am always on the hunt for professional development opportunities (related or not to my current job), so I have been looking forward to this weekend for a while.

The keynote that began the conference on Friday evening was titled “Imposing subCitizenship: Canadian White Civility and the Two Row Wampum of the Six Nations,” presented by Daniel Coleman of McMaster University. It turned out to be quite an interesting history lesson for me, as he talked about the current Haudenesaunee land claim dispute in Ontario and the events that led up to that. The most interesting idea from his talk had to do with a dichotomy I hadn’t really thought about before – of how a policy of inclusion (his example was of Native enfranchisement) could function as well as ill-recognition of one’s sovereignty and independence and hence, encourage a right to be excluded.

Saturday offered a plethora of sessions on citizenship – everything from dual-citizenship to forgotten citizens to multiculturalism and nationalism. For the better part of the day, I tried to construct a clever metaphor to capture the day’s experience, but the closest I came was something about only being able to eat the bread of a sandwich, never quite able to reach the filling (yes, a terrible comparison). It’s ironic that at a conference where one of the explicit themes was belonging and acknowledgement of citizenship, that I could possibly feel like an outsider. This is not to say that my fellow attendees were in any way exclusive or unwelcoming – on the contrary, those to whom I spoke were very nice and open with sharing their research. However, having only ever taken one course in post-modern English, I just didn’t have the background necessary to process all of the knowledge, and many of the theories and citations were clear over my head. More than that, I found myself asking often what the ultimate point of this research was – how could it apply to real life?

That said, I did enjoy Lily Cho’s plenary talk that morning (or at least, the 40% that I managed to comprehend). She did what all of the other speakers I watched didn’t – actually discussing her thesis without reading word for word off of the page. Though I still can’t define diasporic citizenship or affect theory, she had some interesting thoughts related to racial melancholia, specifically about how racial communities are connected through a collective grief that cannot end until that community is able to translate that grief into grievance.

Two other papers I found intriguing had a more literary basis, using text as a starting point to discuss greater social ideas. Jennifer Delisle’s “A Citizen of Story: Confederation and Wayne Johnston’s Newfoundland,” used two narratives as a foundation for the argument that inhabitants of Newfoundland have been dealt a double-wound in the last half century. Between losing a connection with the “Motherland” and an increase in out-migration, citizens of Newfoundland have lost their sense of identity twice. Secondly, Elyssa Warkentin’s “The Marginalized Female Citizen: Dangerous Femininity in Marie Belloc Lowndes’ The Lodger” was a fascinating study of a narrative based on reports on Jack the Ripper. Of all presentations, Elyssa’s was by far the most logical, providing enough details from The Lodger for those unfamiliar with the text, and as traditional English papers do, used evidence to thoroughly support her argument. After a long day, her paper was much-needed and refreshing.

This was my first time at a conference of this nature, and as such, I have a few observations from green eyes:

  • In stark opposition with my experience at Northern Voice, there were no laptops! (Yay! I belong!)
  • All of the conference attendees were very supportive, encouraging, and appreciative of one another. During post-presentation discussions, everyone preceded questions with something along the lines of the ostensibly polite, “Thank you for the great paper…” Moreover, whenever anyone ducked out during the talks for any reason, they always took the time to publicly apologize for their absence after.
  • As with any other specialized field, name dropping was rampant. But in this case, it was not only appropriate, but necessary, as the presenters were citing authors and their original ideas.
  • The conference was essentially a forum to flesh out ideas – like the best kind of English class, and the ones professors always want to have.

During lunch, I mediated over frozen yogurt to somehow make the content relevant to my current stream of work. Modest thoughts only, but I harked back to an e-mail requesting statistics for those immigrants who self-identity as health care professionals but are not practicing at the moment, and came up with a stream of questions. Keep in mind they are questions I can’t answer, and don’t know if I will come back to answer, at least not right away:

  • What good is self-identification without recognition, acceptance, and a right to practice?
  • Can one still self-identify without actual practice? (and the idea of borders as barriers to legitimizing identity)
  • What of those who are forced to give up on that identity for whatever reason to adopt another profession, thus altering how they relate to and identify with others (status, class, professional relationships, etc.)?
  • Is this double-wounding of identity, with not only a physical diaspora occurring but a professional extinction as well (as so frequently asked of those we meet, “Where are you from? What do you do?”)? And if this is the case, not discounting family, personal will and the holistic view of an individual, what is left?

Although I had every intention of attending the artists’ gala on Saturday, by the time we had finished dinner, I was more than spent. Luckily, our roundtable wasn’t until 3pm the next day, so I was able to sleep in.

The “Community Education and Translation of University Knowledge” roundtable was great – I got to hear about other programs I didn’t know about before, and received updates on those that I hadn’t heard from in a while. There were several “dignitaries” present, including the Mayor and MLA Raj Pannu, but their remarks missed the mark in terms of relevance to the session’s objective. While we couldn’t be sure whether or not it was a failure on the part of conference organizers to accurately inform the dignitaries in advance, or the failure of the dignitaries to put together an appropriately-themed speech, I must admit I remained respectfully silent through Mayor Mandel’s digression of needing to increase Edmonton’s film industry, and MLA Pannu’s dissemination on the importance of climate change awareness.

Needless to say, by Sunday evening, I was exhausted. Overall, it was a good weekend – it was definitely a new experience for me, and it is always invigorating and inspiring to be around those who are passionate about their work. Congratulations to the conference organizers for a successful event!

Revolutionary Speakers’ Series: Art Spiegelman

Sometimes an event is witnessed that shouldn’t be reduced to text because it deserves the sensory justice of an in-the-moment experience. This was one of those nights.

My APT English professor first exposed me to the work of Art Spiegelman, author of the Pulitzer Prize-winning Maus. It was my first brush with graphic novels, and it amazed me how the visuals collided with the text to produce a piece more poignant than simply using either or. In the classroom, I found that students in both streams of English responded exceptionally well to it, as comix supplied a non-threatening base for discussion. Moreover, it allowed for a seamless transition to the more widely-recognized Eli Wiesel’s Night. Needless to say, when I heard Spiegelman was coming to town as a part of the Students’ Union’s Revolutionary Speakers’ Series, I marked my calendar straightaway.

I was simply awestruck – Spiegelman was eloquent, witty, humble (he only ever wanted to write a “long comic book that needed a bookmark”) and exemplified the perfect balance between gravitas and humor, of which the latter enhanced the former by way of personable credence. Though he spoke much faster than I could process, he had the endearing quality of a brilliant-but-rambling professor who embraced what teachable tangents arose.

While his main focus was on the theme of “forbidden images” (in particular the Muhammad cartoons printed in the Danish papers), the talk in part became a “brief history of comics.” He has a phenomenal knowledge base, and with names sprinkled throughout, I had to strain back to the recesses of my brain to resurrect what threadlike remembrance I had of Francisco Goya, the Chapman Brothers, and Roy Lichtenstein (and those were the only artists I recognized). Spiegelman effectively made use of slides during his “performance” (as “performers are allowed to smoke”), with pictorial representations of everything he addressed. The New Yorker had always been in the periphery of politico-cool to me, but I never really paid attention to the satiric punchlines delivered by their pot-stirring cover art.

In addition to discussing the importance of trusting the artist, a split between what’s forbidden being grotesque versus sensational, and the media’s confusion of symptoms and causes, I liked that he addressed that the artist cannot control the interpretation of images where meaning could be warped by the brain’s almost primal, knee-jerk response to visual stimuli.

I also appreciated the insight he provided into his creative process (how both Maus and In the Shadow of No Towers came about), and the snitches of personal anecdotes he shared (how a Neo-Nazi documentary showed a young German with a Maus poster on his wall, citing that that was the only image of a Swastika he could obtain, and how second only to cocaine how his series of “Garbage Pail Kids” trading cards have been illegally shipped to Mexico).

I guess I didn’t expect a comix genius to be such a great speaker as well, so though I highly respected Art Spiegelman before tonight, after listening to his presentation, I am now hold him in wondrous regard. I look forward to his next engagement, or at the very least, his next great work.

New Works Festival 2007

After dinner, Dickson and I headed to the Second Playing Space in the Timms Centre for the New Works Festival, an event that features various student-created productions.

The first show we watched, Flap, tells the story of a young couple who unite over their quest to save a dying bird. Dickson sarcastically commented afterwards that he was “fascinated,” and I’d have to agree with that description for the most part. It was a linguistically-weak play, almost too colloquial, and phrases meant to be “cute” came off as tired (e.g. the “Good Grief”/Charlie Brown connection). Moreover, the pacing was uneven, and without proper transitions between the scenes (via dialogue or physical space), the blocking appeared rough and counterproductive. Most egregious, however, was the overly transparent theme. The ‘caged animal’ repetition was tiresome, and seemed in many respects like a writer’s exercise in moving from a literal wing flap to a verbal tussle to the female lead’s relationship-ending flight for freedom. In all, it was a decidedly amateur production.

The second show of the night was light years ahead by comparison. Employing a Greek chorus, cheeky musical interludes, and two charismatic leads, Skewed Logic presents the story of Stu, womanizer extraordinaire. Like The Game meets Euripides, this was a wonderful experiment in theatre. Beginning with Stu’s delineation of the “5 types of girls” (if you were wondering, they are: cute, hot, cool, attractive, and beautiful, with a “secret sixth untouchable” category), the show started off light, fun, and relatable to the mainly 20-something audience. From there, the plot escalated in intensity, and by the end, resulted in Stu’s tragic death at the hands of his best friend. Unexpected but thought provoking, it was an undoubtedly whirlwind play. I was thoroughly impressed by the director’s use of space, as she fully exploited the thrust stage and all potential entrance and exit points to her advantage. That said, there was one part of the play that Dickson enjoyed, but made me rather uncomfortable – Stu and his psycho ex-girlfriend’s simulated sex scene, complete with both actors in their underwear. While I can understand the need for the audience to appreciate the level of betrayal Stu was capable of, I still believe it was gratuitous and unnecessary. But despite that blemish, I was still floored by the complexity and creativity of Skewed Logic. The playwright, Vincent Forcier, has a bright future ahead of him!

With Festival passes going for just $5, it’s an inexpensive opportunity to support young artists and be entertained – I encourage you to check it out!

Poverty in Malawi

I ventured out late this afternoon for another International Week session titled, “Gender, Education and the HIV/AID Pandemic in Rural Malawi.” Presenting were Dr. Anne Fanning, a retired physician, and Rachel Maser, who just recently returned from a ten-month volunteer stint in Malawi with Engineers Without Borders.

Dr. Fanning began the session with a whirlwind twenty minute PowerPoint presentation meant to provide a framework and overview of the factors involved in poverty, including the necessity of infrastructure, good governance and access to education. While the content was there, I wish there had been more time for depth – her spiel can best be likened to a Blender Blaster of statistics, charts, graphs, maps and fact lists. I think she may have made some assumptions that the audience was more familiar with the material than we actually were (or, it may have just been me), and breezed through it without a pause. It’s evident she’s extremely knowledgeable (she is one of the leading experts on TB), so I can only hope to be able to hear her speak again on a future occasion (an exasperating fact – though condom use is not as prevalent in Africa as it should be, Dr. Fanning noted a statistic that an able-bodied, sexually-active man in Africa only has access to an average of fourteen condoms a year).

Rachel also referred to PowerPoint slides, and on them included many pictures she took while in Malawi. Working through EWB, but with an organization called ActionAid, her objective focused on girls’ education. One of her projects while there involved organizing a day where young girls were able to listen to positive role models working in professional jobs, and then job shadow some of those women on the following day. She came away with the sense that more had to be done to change the perception that the domain of the female was in the home. One interesting point – Malawi, at least in the southern part of the country where she was stationed, is quite well connected by cell phone. She talked about how the technology was revolutionizing the way people did business. For instance, a farmer could receive a text message with the current market price for grain, and then decide whether or not a trip to town would be worth it.

In all, it was great to be able to hear perspectives of those who have worked and lived in the field.

Ronald Wright: “The Traps of Progress”

After months of self-flogging as punishment for missing Stephen Lewis’s keynote address in 2006, I made sure to take time out of my regularly scheduled workday this afternoon to attend Ronald Wright’s opening lecture for the University of Alberta’s annual International Week.

Wright’s address was excerpted from his award winning Massey Lecture, A Short History of Progress. Drawing extensively from history and in particular, literary references, he provided an overview of the human population explosion, with the dire warning that the earth cannot sustain growth at such exponential levels.

In all honesty, a forty-five minute talk can only be expected to skim the surface, and Wright didn’t have the time to go much further than the exposition of facts and quotes spanning two millennia. Because of this, I ended up paying more attention to his oratorical style.

No doubt, Wright has an ear for language and cadence (for example, a clever insertion of the descriptor “softened” following a sentence on Viagra), and as expected of a novelist, had many quotable phrases (e.g. “the new religion of the bottom line”). Still, I was a little disappointed that he mainly read from the page, and hardly wavered from his written word.

Following his speech, there was a brief Q & A session. He had an interesting response to the question probing for his opinion on how many people the earth could reasonably sustain. He harked back to the days before the steam age, and estimated that only up to two million people could live comfortably, without the great variations in wealth and poverty that we have today, and utilizing only environmentally pure technologies. This connects back to an article I read in the Globe & Mail recently about reducing our “ecological footprint.” According to a model created by William Rees, an ecological economist, Canadians are living and consuming resources as if the planet were 20-25% larger than it actually is.

At any rate, I am glad I had the opportunity to be exposed to Wright’s perspective on the global issue of sustainability.

In Memoriam: Dr. Bruce Stovel

I opened the Edmonton Journal this morning to read that my favorite professor, Dr. Bruce Stovel, passed away last week at 65 years young. From the Journal:

“Joseph Bruce Stovel was born in Montreal. His father became the chief executive of a major manufacturing company and the family moved frequently, even settling in New York for a time, an experience that undoubtedly expanded his world view and inspired his interest in culture generally. He married Nora Stovel, also a professor at the U of A, 42 years ago, and the couple moved to Edmonton in 1985 with their two children, Laura and Grant.

“It’s typical of Mr. Stovel’s modest character that few people outside academia knew he had gained his PhD in English, magna cum laude, at Harvard University in the early 1970s, or that he was awarded several of the highest honours for teaching at the U of A before his retirement last year. Following his specialty in 18th-century English literature and numerous published essays, Mr. Stovel became an authority of international stature on Jane Austen in particular, editing two volumes of essays on Austen, founding the Edmonton chapter of the Jane Austen Society and organizing an international conference on the novelist here in 2003.”

“He’ll be remembered for treating everyone as a respected individual, bringing a positive attitude to meeting new people and exhibiting a natural enthusiasm for art and life that he couldn’t help instilling in others.”

I had the pleasure of taking an English 343: The Age of Sensibility course with Dr. Stovel in 2003. Literature classes tend to blend together – an amalgamation of discourse and debate, readings and essays. With Dr. Stovel at the helm, the authors became real, animated off the page with obscure anecdotes that humanized their lives, their stories. He introduced me to Samuel Johnson and James Boswell, and even now, years later, I find myself drawn to those aged, eighteenth-century volumes of The Life of Johnson tucked away on the fifth floor of Rutherford Library. He had many kind things to say, and always provided gentle criticism when possible. I actually still have a copy of an e-mail he wrote to me, saved in my inbox as a reminder of his belief in my capabilities.

I plan on attending the musical tribute to be held at the Yardbird Suite (he was an avid fan of blues) on January 28 in his memory.

Dr. Stovel will be missed.

Cynicism in Check

I finally took the time to read the latest edition of New Trail, the magazine for University of Alberta alumni. Featured were several graduates now working in Africa, for causes such as the rehabilitation of child soldiers, education, and HIV/AIDS treatment. Their stories are powerful, and it does amaze me that at one time, these leaders were students at the U of A.

One alumnus in particular, Robert Opp of the United Nation’s World Food Program (WFP), struck me as being exceptionally honest. In Race Against Time, Stephen Lewis scorned the devastating inefficiencies of the United Nations, something that I know would leave me feeling frustrated and jaded if I ever decided to embark on such a mission in a developing country. Opp revealed his experience with this, and his shield from pessimism:

“With such a mammoth operation and working in such difficult circumstances, there is the possibility of feeling overwhelmed, cynical, or even inadequate. Part of working effectively at the UN, says Robert, ‘is being able to see how working within a bureaucracy can lead to good results.’ He tries to stay focused on the people who need help, remembering the times he worked in the field, or taking the opportunity during visits to WFP operations to meet the people who are receiving aid. ‘If you can simply talk to the people who are getting help or who need it, and witness their struggles, you come back and work twice as hard. Overcoming cynicism and the feeling of being overwhelmed is a constant struggle,’ he admits, ‘but I believe — I know — how important that food is.'”

Speaking of Stephen Lewis, there was an article in the Edmonton Journal‘s “Sunday Reader” section this week that talked about a local Grandmothers to Grandmothers Chapter of the Stephen Lewis Foundation campaign. Its objective is to assist matriarchs in Africa forced to take care of their children and grandchildren due to the HIV/AIDS pandemic. The GANG (Grandmothers of Alberta for a New Generation) will be meeting on January 23 at 7:30pm at St. Paul’s United Church (11526-76 Ave).