January - Overture to another year

As a youngster, returning to elementary school after New Year’s Day characteristically meant our class would be asked by our teacher to write a short composition on what we’d done during the Christmas break. Recording one’s thoughts about a trip off the island to the big city or the gifts we’d received was typically central to the exercise. So here I am, many decades later doing the same thing.

With my brother Terry, my wife Pat and I spent New Year’s Eve having dinner at the Chemainus Festival Theatre followed by their Christmas Musical It’s a Wonderful Life. The next day Pat and I drove out to Tofino through a typical west coast monsoon, fully expecting our packed raingear would receive major usage. However, miraculously by the following morning, the Pacific storm had blown itself out and given away to a cloudless sky of pure blue followed by four days of brilliant sunshine. 

Sunset on Jan 3rd, 2014 at Pacific Sands Resort in Tofino
It was a year ago this Christmas that I retired our older TV and replaced it with one of those humongous flat-screen sets. A few days after getting the unit up and running, I signed up for a service called Netflix. For those who may not be familiar with Netflix, basically it’s an internet television network with millions of subscribers world-wide who for a monthly fee of $7.99 can watch as many TV shows and movies as they want, anytime, anywhere, on nearly any internet-connected screen. Also making Netflix popular is that the user is always in control, able to play, pause and resume watching at will, all without having to endure the never ending landscape of mindless commercials that clutter the regular TV channels these days. 

For a movie junkie such as myself, Netflix ended my trips to the local video store and the need of having to scramble to reserve popular movies in advance. However, I must confess that I’m still addicted to viewing first run Hollywood films at the movie theatre. The smell of stale popcorn and watching a film in the crowded company of other movie fans remains a compelling draw.

Films I viewed in the theatre this past holiday season included The Wolf of Wall Street, American Hustle, 12 Years a Slave, Gravity, Captain Philips (all nominated for Best Picture Oscars), The Hobbit, and The Hunger Games: Catching Fire. One film I particularly enjoyed seeing with Pat was called Saving Mr. Banks. The movie tells the story of how Walt Disney acquired the rights to make the classic film Mary Poppins. Set in the 1960s, the author of Mary Poppins Pamela Travers is seen struggling financially and is convinced by her lawyer that has no choice but to sell the rights to her children stories to the iconic filmmaker Walt Disney. Disney is played by Tom Hanks and Travers by the English actress Emma Thompson. Sadly in my opinion both were overlooked for best actor nominations in the upcoming Academy Awards.

At home on Netflix I’ve been watching Season 1 of a TV series called Homeland, an American political thriller about a Marine who is hailed as a hero after he returns home from eight years of captivity in Iraq. However, a US intelligence officer suspects that he may have been turned and is planning a terrorist attack on home soil. The series is pretty exciting.

In November Oxford Dictionaries announced selfie as their international Word of the Year 2013. A selfie is a photograph that one has taken of oneself, typically one taken with a smartphone or webcam and uploaded to a social media website. Here’s ours taken at Cox Bay near Tofino on January 5th.

At this point you may have drawn the conclusion that I wrapped up 2013 watching nothing but television and movies. Not so. Christmas gifts included two beautiful un-digitized books that can’t be read online – Vancouver Island’s Esquimalt & Nanaimo Railway: The Canadian Pacific, VIA Rail and Shortline Years (1949-2013) by Robert Turner & Don MacLachlan and The Land of Heart’s Delight: Early Maps and Charts of Vancouver Island by Michael Layland. I’ve had hours of enjoyment wading through the extensive text and studying the wonderful photos and drawings included in these masterful volumes of island history.

At this point you may have drawn the conclusion that I wrapped up 2013 watching nothing but television and movies. Not so. Christmas gifts included two beautiful un-digitized books that can’t be read online – Vancouver Island’s Esquimalt & Nanaimo Railway: The Canadian Pacific, VIA Rail and Shortline Years (1949-2013) by Robert Turner & Don MacLachlan and The Land of Heart’s Delight: Early Maps and Charts of Vancouver Island by Michael Layland. I’ve had hours of enjoyment wading through the extensive text and studying the wonderful photos and drawings included in these masterful volumes of island history.

As previously mentioned, Pat and I spent four days out on the west coast staying at Pacific Sands Resort. We normally try to make it out to the outer coast in early spring. However, we took a chance at an exceptional January price offer and as luck would have it we were rewarded with four days of glorious sunshine with balmy (compared to the rest of Canada) 8-degree daytime temperatures. During the four days we walked every accessible beach on the peninsula and hiked over the newest section of Ucluelet’s Wild Pacific Trail called the Ancient Cedars loop. We continued north on the new trail to Rocky Bluffs, a location storm-watching connoisseurs will definitely relish. We’ve hiked the older sections of the trail in the past but the new section was truly worth the additional visit. 

Rocky Bluffs - Wild Pacific Trail, Ucluelet
Our beachside suite at Pacific Sands Resort looked out on the expansive vista of Cox Bay, a west coast Mecca for the surfboarding crowd. I’d love to give surfing a try but I’m not convinced a condom-like layer of black rubber stretched over my frame could possibly permit my survival in such frigid water. However, the surfers I saw trotting back to their condos looked warm although I confess were much less than half my age. 

Our suite had cooking facilities so we prepared most of our own meals although we did venture out to some local restaurants. However, west coast cuisine we found to be pretty expensive and portions definitely on the tiny side. One restaurant we really enjoyed was called The Shelter. We went twice due to its funky west coast atmosphere and wonderful Fish & Chips served up on a wooden plank.

Railway Vandalized near Port Alberni
As volunteer conductors during the summer months on the Alberni Pacific Railway, Pat & I were shocked to learn last week that quad-riding vandals have been ripping up sections of the historic (1911) E&N railway in the Alberni Valley in order to drive over the rails more easily. Apparently rails were removed by using a cutting torch. Personally I can’t comprehend the stumpy mindset of individuals that would carry out such reckless activity.

Railway accidents akin to the one at Lac-Megantic last July have ramped up the media spotlight on rail transportation ever since. Can you imagine what would have happened if any railway equipment had been travelling along the tracks pictured above? The photo shows APR conductor Kevin Hunter standing at the vandalized area. The Port Alberni RCMP are investigating and can be contacted at 250-723-2424 or Crime Stoppers at 1-800-222-TIPS. 

Have bomb packed and ready to travel 

Am I missing something? I thought all the security searches I’ve endured at airports over the years was to stop individuals who might be bent on blowing up an airplane.  Evidently last September at the Edmonton airport a teenager was found to have a homemade pipe-bomb in his baggage. It was immediately confiscated which you’ll agree was the smart thing to do. However, bizarrely he was still allowed to board the aircraft and fly off for a Mexican holiday. It seems the Edmonton airport security staff thought about it for a few days and finely phoned the RCMP. The teen was arrested when he returned home. I’d say some rules need to be fine-tuned.  

Quick trip to the big city:

Last Wednesday Pat received an urgent request from the Toronto Conservatory asking if she could whip over to Vancouver and fill in for a piano examiner who had taken ill. It meant a bit of a scramble as Pat rescheduled some piano students before we rushed off to catch the last ferry sailing from Departure Bay, getting to the Surrey Sheridan Hotel at midnight. After a day of examining on Thursday we scooted back over the Port Mann Bridge (my first time driving over the new tolled structure) and checked into the Metrotown Hilton Hotel.

I have over the years enjoyed such examination jaunts with Pat as I get to play tourist during the day. So what did I do on this one you ask? I’ve been trying for some time to find a fish-poaching pan. I had already checked every store in Nanaimo and proceeded on this trip to check kitchen stores around the lower mainland. I had no idea such an item would be so hard to find. I was constantly told that no one stocks them due to low demand. However, a clerk in the Coquitlam IKEA told me I might find one at the Gourmet Warehouse on East Hastings Street in Vancouver. Subsequently I contacted the store via Facebook. They informed me within minutes they had one in stock priced at $50. I drove to the store Saturday morning and picked it up. Later in the day I found the same branded item in a kitchen store in the Metrotown Mall. Their asking price - $149.50. It pays to shop around. 

And yes, I did see a few more first run movies while on the mainland - namely August; Osage County and Dallas Buyers Club, both with Academy Award nominations for their stars Meryl Streep and Matthew McConaughey respectively. I also caught the opening day screening of the new Jack Ryan flick Shadow Recruit. Wow! Absolutely a high-powered knockout thriller. Hollywood has returned to making Russians out to be the bad guys. Strange in this Olympic year. I wonder if it’s due to Russian President Putin’s homophobia. Hollywood would find that particularly disdainful and rightfully so. 

I viewed Shadow Recruit in Silvercity Metropolis’ new Ultra AVX theatre. The theatre has big lounge type leather seats that tip way back and you choose your seat on a touch screen when you purchase your ticket. The screen is huge and the sound system has been upgraded to a new Dolby platform called Atmos which pumps out 128 channels of pure audio bliss. It was the most crystal-clear sound I’ve ever heard in a movie theatre.

Curling’s getting hot

Sitting in a Vancouver Restaurant last week, a curling game was being shown on the barroom TV set. Not unusual for curling at this time of year with the Olympic Games and the Canadian and World Championships in the sport just on the horizon. However, what surprised me was the game was being played in the sun-drenched desert city of Las Vegas, in front of thousands of spectators, many of whom I would guess had never seen a curling game before.

I lobbed my first curling rock down a sheet of ice in the early 1950’s. It was at the Alberni Valley Curling Club that had been a WWII army drill hall at the north end of 10th Ave in Port Alberni. I loved the game and played competitively for three decades before drifting away from it for reasons that escape me.

It’s really quite remarkable to observe the growth the game has had over the years, to the point where 18 countries will have a curling team competing at the 2014 Olympic Games next month in Sochi, Russia.  Still, watching a curling game being played in Las Vegas was a real head-turner. To relate to this new Vegas entertainment option one could now paraphrase the old saying to read, “what slides in Vegas, stays in Vegas.” 

Perfect Pitch from a Pill

I was reading in the National Post newspaper on the weekend that a new study undertaken at the University of British Columbia has found that people with little to no musical training who were administered the drug Valproate (which treats epilepsy and mood disorders) could learn to identify musical pitches out of thin air with no reference points. For many a musician, this is the Holy Grail.

Musicians call this rare and strange phenomena Perfect Pitch and researchers have estimated that one in 10,000 people possess it.  Obviously far from all musicians have it. I for one don’t, although I know several colleagues that do. I’ve also taught music students during my teaching career that had it. To musicians who don’t possess perfect pitch, the phenomena seems kind of magical and we usually work throughout our lifetime training our ears to develop the best next thing, relative pitch. Simply put, this means when one has identified, say one note on a recording, one can deduce what the other notes will be. 

The National Post article went on to say that the most frustrating thing about perfect pitch (for those who don’t have it) is that, “it appears to be developed exclusively in childhood — the prime window being between ages four to six. By the time you get to 12 years old it’s pretty much closed off.” 

Who knows, in a few years taking music lessons might include a prescription for Valproate to “restore the brain plasticity necessary for people to learn skills that are generally developed only during early, critical periods in a human’s growth.” Perhaps the pills could be coloured black and white - to match the piano keyboard.