Monthly Archives: November 2011

Chicago/Hong Kong Holiday-Day 2

As you can see from this photo it is very cold and windy in Chicago but we had a warm and lovely day because we spent it with our  friends Kelly and Aaron Weiss and their beguiling daughter Cora. Aaron was a history teacher at ICS  in Hong Kong and Kelly worked in the Advancement Department. They moved back to Chicago in 2008. Even though I had never met their daughter Cora before I felt like I knew her because Kelly writes a daily blog First Time Fish which I follow, and so I keep up with all of Cora’s activities and milestones. She was every bit as sweet in person as she is in Kelly’s blog. 

Aaron, who is a Social Studies teacher at  Walter Payton, a college prep high school here in Chicago  was at work when we arrived at the Weiss’ apartment this morning, but Kelly and Cora welcomed us and after a short visit we set off to see the Bahai Temple, the only one in North America. Kelly works for the  Chicago public school system doing productization for a very interesting school improvement project, but she only starts that job full-time in January, so for now she is still home a couple of days a week, and luckily for us, today happened to be one of those days.  I didn’t know that much about the Bahai faith before visiting the temple but I learned they accept all religions as having value and there is only one temple on each continent. They have no clergy and no formal methods like baptism for joining the church. You simply indicate your willingness to become a member and can start meeting with one of their small communities which generally gather in people’s homes for study, prayer and fellowship.

Their goals are to help eliminate prejudice, achieve equality between men and women, harmonize science and religion, bring about world peace, find spiritual solutions to economic problems and establish universal education. Great ideals and pretty compatible with what Jesus taught. 

Kelly and Cora took us to a very family friendly restaurant called Costellos for lunch. There were lots of other children there  and a musician entertaining. After lunch Cora and Dave took naps and Kelly and I had a good visit about Hong Kong times and people, and what’s going on in our lives now. Perhaps because we read each other’s blogs it felt like we could just pick up our conversation where we left off when Kelly and Aaron moved home from Hong Kong. Since Cora was still napping when it was time to pick Aaron up from work, Dave and I went to get him and on the drive home he told us more about his school. The students are chosen for Walter Payton from elementary public schools all over the city because of their intellectual promise and dedication to their studies. 98% of the graduates go on to college or university and the school offers 23 Advanced Placement courses. Their school is home to the Confucius Institute which provides resources and programming for learning about the Chinese language and culture. When the Chinese president Hu Jintao visited the United States last year he paid a visit to Aaron’s school. Aaron runs the model United Nations program at Walter Payton. Interestingly Rosana, a former ICS student of Aaron’s who we visited yesterday, is helping to plan the Model United Nations events for high schools at Northwestern University which Aaron and his Walter Payton students will attend. Talk about connections!

Since it was such a cold and windy night we decided to stay in for supper. Dave  had his heart set on having one of the deep dish pizzas Chicago is so famous for, so he and Aaron went  and picked up a sausage and spinach pizza from Giordanos. NBC has dubbed Giordanos pizza the “best in the world ” and The New York Times calls it the “Ultimate Pizza.” People literally order these pizzas shipped to them from all over the world. Deep dish pizza has a crust made from olive oil and cornmeal that is about 3 inches tall and the crust is filled with oceans of cheese and sauce.  Our meal was delicious and extremely filling. Over dinner we talked about the possibility of Aaron, Kelly  and Cora visiting us in Winnipeg some day, the Masters course Aaron is taking, books and movies set in Chicago and our families. 

The highlight of the day for me was having so much fun with Cora. Here we are playing with play doh. We did puzzles together, looked at books, sang songs, combed each others hair, Cora showed me her favorite hiding places, she drew pictures for me and we shared raisins. Dave and I are going to become grandparents in April so I enjoyed some ‘grandma practice time’ with Cora.

What next? Tomorrow we are going to spend the day sightseeing and then in the evening have dinner at the home of a Hong Kong friend, Karen Lee. 

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Chicago/Hong Kong Holiday-Day 1

marylou and rosanna
I’m calling this the Chicago/Hong Kong Holiday because although we are in Chicago and want to see as much of the city as we can, we are also here to visit with friends from Hong Kong and on each of our days here we have made plans to connect with people we got to know during our six years in Hong Kong. Today we spent the afternoon with Rosana. She was a student in my advisory throughout her high school years, and the ten kids in her group felt like my children by the time they graduated. She was also a student in my Journalism class and in Dave’s PE class. 

with rosanna in dorm roomRosana is studying at Northwestern University in the Evanston area of Chicago. It is in a lovely old neighborhood and driving there we passed all these stately mansions on tree-lined streets. Rosana took us to see her dorm room which she shares with a young woman from Ann Arbor Michigan. Luckily it was study week at Northwestern so Rosana didn’t have classes and she had time to show us around the campus.

dave rosanna northwestern Northwestern University was founded in the 1850’s as a private Methodist school, so many of the buildings are very old. Rosana and Dave are standing outside one of the buildings where Rosana takes a number of her English classes. She is studying literature,specializing in Russian literature but is thinking of transferring to the school of journalism for her last two years. She writes for The FlipSide, one of the on-campus student publications. She has classes with as many as 700 students and says she doesn’t really get to know her professors. Teaching assistants grade all her work. I thought about how different university must seem for the ICS students who are used to small classes and close relationships with many of their teachers.

gate at northwesternRosana said we should take a picture at The Arch which is a well known campus landmark. Students often say, “Meet me at the arch.” Northwestern has 16,000 students.
rosanna and friendWe had lunch with Rosana and her boyfriend Kevin, a mechanical engineering student. He and Rosana had just returned from Boston where they spent the American Thanksgiving holiday with Kevin’s family. Kevin visited Rosana’s family in Hong Kong last summer. He is a competitive swimmer for Northwestern and told us about a walker he designed for seniors as a project in one of his classes. The walker is in the process of being patented. It was so nice to reconnect with Rosana and to meet her boyfriend.

chicago crossroads of america We spent our morning at the Chicago History Museum and learned all about the city in the Crossroads of America displays.
hog display city of chicago museum We learned about the industries that made Chicago a thriving economic centre, the hogs, breweries, furniture production, steel and the mail order business.

lincoln logs
We learned all about the things that were first made in Chicago– Lincoln Logs, Tinker Toys and the game Mouse Trap, doublemint gum, the birth control pill, bowling balls, Cracker Jack, Morton Salt and Playboy Magazine to name a few. 

gangs in chicago displayWe learned about some of the crisis events in Chicago’s history– The 1871 Great Fire, the 1930’s and 40’s when Al Capone and organized crime controlled much of the city, the Race Riots of 1919 and the protests at the 1968 Democratic convention.

italian restaurant chicago We had supper at Trattoria Roma on Wells Street since we were going to the nearby Second City to see a comedy show after dinner. The food was excellent!

italian restaurant chicagoThe 25-year-old restaurant had signed photos from patrons like Paul Newman, Nia Vardalos, Jerry Seinfeld and Jay Leno. Our Second City show was a not a huge hit with us. It was called a Dysfunctional Holiday Review.  Maybe I’m a prude but too much of the humor involved bad language and sexual innuendo   for my liking. Second City has been the training ground for many of the greatest comedians of all time and it was interesting to read the names of the alumni like Alan Alda, Tina Fey and Bill Murray. 

It was a great first day! What next? Tomorrow we are going to spend the day with our friends Aaron and Kelly Weiss and their daughter Cora. 

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Chicago Road Trip

We have just arrived in Chicago and are settling in to our lovely bed and breakfast. We are staying at Joy’s Joy an obviously well-loved Victorian house on a tree- lined street. Here’s a photo of our room the Oak Room. 

Road Conditions
Not good from Winnipeg to Morris, snow-covered and slippery, luckily steady-as-she-goes Dave was at the wheel and I felt completely safe. Roads after Morris were great. Joy had sent us easy to follow directions and we found her place easily. Lots of traffic from Minneapolis to Chicago–no doubt people returning home after the Thanksgiving weekend. 

Listening

We listened to the first twelve chapters of the audio version of the new Steve Jobs biography. What a colorful personality he was!  I will probably do another post about the book later but one thing that strikes me so far is that his parents were saints. They never gave up on him, even when he kept getting suspended from high school, they found out he was using drugs and he dropped out of college after they had scrimped and saved to send him there. They kept welcoming him home even when he refused to take a bath or cut his hair, refused to wear shoes, insisted on eating only vegetarian food and disappeared in India for months.  They let him turn their house and garage into a production factory for the first computer he built. They believed in the boy they had adopted, no matter what! What good examples they are to parents everywhere. 

Meals

Burke’s Diner in Morris Manitoba for breakfast- friendly service and actually made my poached eggs just the way I like them.
JL Beers in Fargo, North Dakota. Super cheap and delicious burgers and 51 kinds of beer. Named top restaurant in Fargo last year.

Went to a Mexican restaurant here in Chicago tonight. They had all these huge colorful paintings decorating the restaurant including this one of Frida Kahlo. Our waiters name was Alejandro and he was very helpful. 


Great food! We shared a hearts of palm salad, a tortilla soup, some chicken empanadas and hot chocolate cake with ice-cream, chocolate sauce and fresh strawberries and pineapples. 
Reading

I read So Big by Edna Ferber a 1924 Pulitzer Prize winner set in Chicago. Throughly enjoyed it. The theme of the book is the pursuit of beauty and passion in life versus the pursuit of money. Very strong female characters. A book that was definitely ahead of its time, and an excellent read. The main character Selina is enamored with Chicago and spends the later part of her life exploring it whenever she can. 

Discussion Topics

What is the thrill of hunting?  Passed by many cars with dead deer strapped to the back and trucks and trailers with dead deer on them.

What things do we want to see in Chicago? 

Should our family do a gift exchange at Christmas or give money to charity instead? 

Entertainment

Stayed in Fargo the first night and went to watch the North Dakota State University play an exhibition game against Fresno State in Fargo.  North Dakota State won handily. People in North Dakota take their college basketball pretty seriously.  A bit nostalgic. A trip to the US to watch basketball was a traditional winter excursion for our family when our boys were growing up. 

What next? Tomorrow we are going to do some sightseeing and have lunch with Rosana Lai, one of our Hong Kong students who is at Northwestern University here in Chicago. 

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Eighteen Years of Rejoice Devotionals

This week the winter Rejoice Devotional booklet came out. It contains seven pieces of mine, a week’s worth of meditations. Currently Rejoice is published jointly by Kindred Productions and MennoMedia.  My reflections in this issue are based primarily on passages from the book of Genesis.

I have been writing for the Rejoice devotional series for eighteen years now. I didn’t realize it was that long till I was unpacking after the move into this new home and in the process assembled all my old publications of Rejoice in one place.  During those eighteen years Rejoice has had three different editors– Katie Funk Wiebe, Philip Wiebe and Byron Rempel-Burkholder.
Why have I kept writing for Rejoice for so long? There are lots of reasons. First of all it is good spiritual discipline for me. It’s hard to make time for reading and studying the Bible and writing my annual Rejoice reflections forces me to do so. I am assigned a section of Scripture and my meditations have to be drawn from there. It motivates me to study that passage in-depth. I read it over and over and do research. I look at commentaries and think about ways those passages connect to my own life and my own faith journey and how they might connect to the lives of my readers. 


I also like the variety. I am assigned passages from so many different books of the Bible. Over the years I’ve written for Rejoice I’ve had to dive into Zechariah and Hosea, Jeremiah and Ephesians and some 30 other books of the Bible. I am assigned different weeks of the year. Sometimes I’m writing meditations for the summer, other times for Christmas or Easter or autumn. Truth be told I also like the fact that what I’ve written is read by so many people. I can’t even count how many times I’ve introduced myself to someone new in a church setting and they’ll say, “Oh, you write for Rejoice don’t you?” As I flip through the eighteen devotional booklets and read a smattering of the 125 pieces,  I also realize writing the meditations has in a way provided a kind of history of my family’s life, since often my reflections included stories about my children, my grandparents, my parents, my husband and other relatives. 

Writing for Rejoice has been excellent training for me as a writer. First of all there is a very strict word limit and you simply can’t exceed it. I always start by just writing my meditation and not worrying at all about the word count. Once it is finished I start to cut. I often need to eliminate half the words I’ve written, sometimes even more. But I can do it! I once took a writing workshop from Canadian author Fredelle Maynard and she said non- fiction writing should be as “bare as a bone and clean as a whistle.”  My Rejoice writing has forced me to get down to basics and cut out the fluff and the unnecessary stuff .  My last editor Byron Rempel-Burkholder has challenged me to change my writing focus and has sometimes asked me to completely rewrite pieces. This has been a good learning experience for me as a writer as well.

What next? I’m not sure. Byron Rempel-Burkholder is stepping down as the Rejoice editor so I don’t know if the new editor will still want me as a writer.  At one point I started a blog using my Rejoice devotional style called Reflections of a Pilgrim. Some of the pieces on it were my old Rejoice devotionals, but many were new pieces I wrote using the Rejoice meditation pattern to connect Scripture to my travel experiences. I’m not traveling as much anymore and other writing tasks have since taken the place of that blog. Perhaps it is something I need to revisit. 

Whatever the future holds with regards to Rejoice I am very glad I’ve had the opportunity to write for the publication for so many years. It has richly blessed me as a person, a writer and a follower of Jesus Christ. 

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The Way and The Big Year- Same Same But Different

This week we saw two movies, The Way and The Big Year. It might seem these movies have almost nothing in common with one another. The first is a serious film starring dramatic actor Martin Sheen and the second is a funny film starring comedian Steve Martin. The men both have ‘Martin’ in their name that’s one way they are the same. 

When we were holidaying in Vietnam we saw all these shirts that said Same, Same But Different. That phrase is sort of the unofficial slogan of the country. At my son’s wedding I gave a speech about how he and his new wife were same, same, but different. The phrase same, same but different came to mind as I was watching The Way and The Big Year. In both movies the characters are on a quest. 

In The Way four people are walking the Camino de Santiago de Compostela. It was an important route for Christian pilgrimages during medieval times. I felt like I had a personal connection with the film because my cousin and his wife  have just returned from a trip to Spain during which they too walked the Camino de Santiago de Compostela. Tom, the character played by Martin Sheen in the movie, is on a quest to make peace with himself after his son’s death. He died on the Camino trail and Tom has decided to walk its 750 kilometers in his son’s memory, spreading the young man’s ashes along the way. He meets three other people who are all on quests too, one to lose weight, one to quit smoking and another to write a book, but of course they are really on quests to deal with problems in their past, issues of self esteem and spiritual unrest. 

In the movie The Big Year three men are on a quest to  try to spot more species of birds in one year than anyone else in North America. I felt I had a personal connection with this movie because I went to see it with my friend Fran who has been an avid bird watcher for decades. Stu, one of the main characters, played by Steve Martin may be looking for birds but really he is on a quest to discover whether he can leave behind his multi-million dollar business empire and enjoy retirement. One of his co-stars Brad is really on a quest to prove to his father that he is not a loser and the other Kenny wants to figure out whether his passion for his wife or for birds is going to rule his life. 

 

Both The Way and The Big Year have an important message to share and they are not subtle about the fact. A critic of my writing tells me I need to leave more up to my readers to figure out, rather than telling them outright what I’m trying to say. Both these movies suffer from the same problem I do. They literally hit you over the head with their message and it is pretty much the same. People and relationships are the most important things in life not careers or hobbies or possessions.

Although the movies are set in different places, The Way in Europe and The Big Year in North America both offer stunning scenery shots.  Both got my wanderlust juices flowing again –The Way invoking a desire to see the Pyrenees and The Big Year to visit Alaska.

Summing up the same, same aspects of these films…… both start with the word THE, both  movies starred guys with Martin in their name, both had a personal connection for me, both were about people on quests –obvious as well as hidden quests, both had spectacular scenery and both conveyed  the same message.

So what was different?  The Big Year kept me awake and laughing-as the characters competed with each other, got into scrapes and got out of them. The film managed to keep all three main storylines entertaining and engaging.  

The Way put me to sleep- too much walking and sharing and spreading ashes and introspection and then walking, sharing, spreading and introspecting again. I honestly didn’t care about the characters or get to know them very well. In The Big Year you actually get to meet the people in the main characters’ lives. In The Way you don’t, except for the occasional ghostly sighting of Tom’s dead son.

The Way starred Martin Sheen and Emilio Estavez but everyone else in it was  an unknown actor. The Big Year stars Steve Martin, Jack Black and Owen Wilson and has great cameo appearances by people like Angelica Huston playing a crusty boat captain and Dianne Weist as a mother who never gives up on her son. John Cleese even narrates a little history of  The Big Year concept and one of the nerds from the TV show The Big Bang Theory has a bit part. 

Summing up the differences in the movies…….. one was a serious drama, one was a comedy, one had mostly unknown actors, one was studded with famous performers, one developed the characters and let you see what their personal lives were like, one had more introspective singular characters and you never met the other people in their lives, one entertained me and kept me engaged and the other put me to sleep. 

I am going against convention with my evaluation of these movies. The Way received an 81% audience approval rating on the famous Rotten Tomatoes Review page and The Big Year only a 53%. 

Two movies. Same, same but different. What next? I wonder what movies I’ll take in next week. Being able to see more movies is one of the nice things about being retired and living in a city with a dozen different theatres. 

 

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Winnipeg’s Millennium Library

This week I had a personal tour of Winnipeg’s Millennium Library from Irmy Nikkel who heads the library’s Support Services department. I got to know Irmy, a Steinbach native, when she was the head librarian at the Jake Epp Library in Steinbach and I was serving on the Board of Directors there. Now Irmy provides leadership to seventeen employees whose task it is to order, unpack, catalogue and process the 208,206 new items added to the city’s library collection annually. Winnipeg has twenty libraries, the main Millennium Library, which happens to be less than a ten minute walk from my home, and nineteen branch libraries. The giant stuffed moose Irmy is petting in this photo is in the library lobby for this year in recognition of Parks Canada’s 100th anniversary. 

I always access the library via the Skywalk, a covered walkway that allows patrons to walk to the MTS Centre or Portage Place indoors from the Millennium Library. The first thing that greets you as you enter from the Skywalk is this art piece by Cliff Eyland called Untitled. It contains over 2000 index-card sized paintings mounted on the wall, floor to ceiling. Irmy told me the artist is constantly adding to it, so it is a true work in progress. There are binoculars in the Skywalk so you can look at the smaller paintings in the artwork up close if you like. The index cards are reminiscent of the cards that used to be in the card catalogues used to search for library materials before the advent of the computer.

 A $21 million renovation of the library was carried out from 2003-2005. One whole wall of the building is made up of  78 foot high windows which flood the reading spaces with warmth and light. The redesign of the library won a Canadian Architecture award. Just outside the library a new park is being built. This beautiful green space will be open next year.The library publishes a monthly magazine that outlines the many programs it offers.  Almost all the branches have book clubs. This is an idea Irmy instituted when she moved to Winnipeg and got her first job in the public library system at the West Kildonan Branch.  The Steinbach library had a book club and Irmy brought that idea to her new job. 

The library is the busiest destination in downtown Winnipeg–over 4000 people a day visit it. The library has a coffee shop The Human Bean Cafe and a gift shop run by their Friends of the Library group.

This art piece called The Illumination is on the second floor of the library. It was created by Alberta artist Nicholas Wade and is made up of the letters T H and E. The is the most common word in the English language.

There is a special area just for teens. 700 teenagers were surveyed before it was built. They said they wanted a place at the library that had comfortable furniture, computers and access to food and that is exactly what they got.
I was really surprised to see a painting of American industrialist and philanthropist Andrew Carnegie in a Canadian library, but his acts of philanthropy extended beyond his country’s borders. Mr. Carnegie donated the money for the very first Winnipeg library over 100 years ago.

The children’s section is bright and inviting. The carpet in the children’s Aboriginal Reading in the Round section features the footprints of bear, wolf, elk and rabbit.
Irmy poses with one of the many life-size animal characters that decorate the children’s section. It has books for the visually impaired, DVD’s, games, and a collection of dual language books, so parents from other countries can read books to their children in their native tongue while their kids look at the English text which is also included in the book. The library has a special Local History Room with books and materials about the history of Winnipeg and other communities in the province. 

This art piece on the fourth floor pays tribute to the thousands of Chinese laborers who came to Canada from 1881-1895 to help build the Canadian Pacific Railway. Many of those workers sacrificed their lives for the building of the railroad. Some remained here when the railway had been built and eventually became Canadian citizens. 

Since I live in the Exchange District this art piece by Caroline Dukes on the library’s second floor really caught my interest. Each square depicts a historic building in the Exchange District of Winnipeg.

This bust of Winnipeg’s famous Pulitzer Prize winning author Carol Shields stands just outside the library auditorium which bears her name. The auditorium is used for all kinds of special library events and can be rented by groups for performances and events. 

Irmy gave me a great tour of the library. I learned so much, but I also realized there are many more interesting things to explore and discover at the library. Irmy told me the Millennium Library is the most popular downtown Winnipeg destination. I’m sure it will be a popular destination for me as well. 

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O Henry, Alfred Hitchcock and David Bergen

On Friday night I went to see my niece Amanda perform in a drama.  The Winnipeg Mennonite Theatre had adapted four short stories by O Henry for the stage–While The Auto Waits, One Thousand Dollars, The Last Leaf and The Gift of the Magi. Even though I had taught two of the short stories on which the plays were based to my high school English students, I didn’t really know anything about their author O Henry.

I read O Henry’s biography in the program with interest. His real name was William Porter and he was an alcoholic who landed up in prison for embezzlement. He wrote short stories under a pseudonym in order to support his family. His wife died of tuberculosis. He continued to drink heavily and ended up dying of health problems caused by his severe alcoholism, thus leaving his daughter an orphan.  Interestingly O Henry’s stories are all about doing the ‘right’ thing, making choices that benefit those you love, not trying to be someone you’re not, and willingly  making sacrifices for the good of others. O Henry’s  own personal life seems pretty far from the ideals he touted in his stories. There was a real disconnect between the artist and his art. 

I based the film unit in one of my high school English courses on the work of Alfred Hitchcock. The students and I learned all about his life. A faithful husband he remained together with his wife Alma till his death, even though in Hollywood such long-lasting marriages are rare. He and his wife worked together and were excellent partners whose relationship was characterized by some as idyllic. When Hitchcock received his lifetime achievement award his wife was the only person he thanked and he thanked her for many different things. Yet one of the major themes of Hitchcock’s films is that a happy marriage in an unattainable ideal. Hitchcock’s own marriage seemed almost the opposite to the marriages he portrayed in his films. There was a real disconnect  between the artist and his art. 

 

In 2009 I published a review of Canadian author David Bergen’s book The Time Between in which I noted the disconnect between the grim, dark, troubling, often sordid lives of the characters in his books and Bergen’s own life. Morley Walker in a 2005 piece in Quill and Quire remarks on the same thing. How can this writer who is so disciplined and dedicated to his family, work and community populate his novels with such troubled and dysfunctional characters?  There is a real disconnect between the artist and his art. 

There are authors, film makers and visual artists whose work reflects their own life experiences. This doesn’t seem to be the case for Bergen, Hitchcock or O Henry.  Does art imitate life? Apparently not always the life of its creator. 

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