Friday, February 5, 2016

My Letter To David Yurdiga

I promised myself that I wouldn't get too caught up in politics this year on the blog but sometimes there are issue that are just too important.  It's difficult to ignore the reality that our region has been hit particularly hard in recent months after the price of oil tanked.  According to Statistics Canada, unemployment has risen 40% since January 2015.  And of course, being the political hot potato that it is, it didn't take long for the political talking heads to start tongue-wagging.  Everyone from the Prime Minister to the Premier to the Leader of the Provincial Opposition has been in the news as of late voicing concern, angst, possible solutions (for better or worse) or some way of mitigating the effects of this on our region.  One voice seems to be missing from the discourse however and this concerns me.  I read the news religiously after work and have yet to hear a word from our MP, David Yurdiga.

Rather than freak out on the guy on my blog or on Facebook, which, yes, I have done in the past or sorts.  I decided instead to send him an email.  I'm very interested to hear back from him and hold out hopes that he will actually respond (hey, I'm still an optimist).  Here's what I sent him.....

Dear Mr. Yurdiga,

I am contacting you as I have become increasingly concerned due to your apparent silence in the face of rising unemployment in the riding of Fort McMurray-Cold Lake.  According to Stats Canada, unemployment in our region has risen by an astonishing 40% since January 2015.  While I realize that no politician, political party or government can control the significant drop in the price of oil,  I am disappointed by the fact that you seem to have very little to say about the matter in terms of support for your constituents or an action plan of some fashion to cushion the effects of this downturn.

I follow many media sources and while our Prime Minister, Premier and Leader of the Provincial Opposition have all spoken on this matter, it would appear that your voice is missing from the discourse.    Why is that?  I've heard more from Brad Wall.  Why should I stand up for you on election day and vote for you when you don't seem very motivated to stand up and support those who put you in Parliament?  I do hope I'm wrong but at this point in time I really can't help feeling disappointment and the nagging impression that you really don't seem to care.  I realize that this is complex issue but your voice seems to be missing.  During the election campaign your campaign literature I received  consistently mentioned the importance of the economy and keeping Albertans working.  So what's changed?  Was it all just political rhetoric?  Speaking for a mere 8 minutes in Parliament  as you reportedly did during the last Parliament just doesn't cut it, especially on an issue of this level of importance.

Darcy Steele

Fort McMurray

I should add that while the letter seems to suggest that I voted for him, I didn't.  By my own admission, I've done a few stupid things in my life but voting for Yurdiga certainly wasn't one of them.  At any rate, I'm very interested to see if he will actually take the time to respond and what that response will be.

Monday, February 1, 2016

Black Hole

I ended 2015 with a pretty modest bird list and hope of surpassing that number for this year.  February tends to be a bit of a black hole for me since by mid-January I've tended to see all of the usual suspects that over-winter and that tend to frequent the bird feeders in my yard.  My list then tends to gather a bit of dust with very few additions until late-March or early April when either all the migrating species start to show up in the yard or the weather warms up and allows me to venture out a bit more.

Overall, we've had a pretty tame winter so perhaps this year the February "black hole" will be filled up a bit more.  I'm especially encouraged since my bird list is now up to a grand total of 11 (pretty much from just looking out my kitchen window here) and for the past three years it's taken in to early April before I hit 11 species.  Hopefully this will mean a banner year for me.  I'm aware of a few local birders who can hit around 200 species in a year and while I won't be giving their totals any serious competition, I do find it useful to peruse their lists online to get a sense of what can be seen here.  I have a few favourite spots around town and it helps to see what the possibilities are in terms of what I might see in the future.

One way I'm hoping to fix my little February black hole is to participate once again in this year's Great Backyard Bird Count.  It's something I've taken part in in the past but the last couple of years unfortunately saw me working for most of it.  This year I happily find myself on days off for the majority of it.

I've made it a goal though to do my best to get a few more species for my list and beat the February rut.  I'm on pace at the moment to see over 130 species which would put me over the moon if I did happen.  To get even close to that I'll really have to up my game as we head in to the Spring.  This past month was my best January in terms of species since I started keeping track about 4 or 5 years ago so I do have my work cut out for me.  But I do love that challenge.

Here is my birding list for January.  Nothing really earth-shattering, really, though the flocks of Canada Geese I saw down in Calgary were an early bonus since we won't see them here for a little while yet.

1.  Common Raven
2. Black-billed Magpie
3.  Downy Woodpecker
4. Pine Grosbeak
5. Common Redpoll
6. House Sparrow
7. Black-capped Chickadee
8. Bohemian Waxwing
9. Rock Dove
10. Canada Goose
11. Hoary Redpoll

Wednesday, January 27, 2016

Exploring Calgary

My weekend in Calgary, aside from giving me a chance to hear some great music, also afforded me a bit of time to see some of the city sights. I will say that growing up in Ontario in the '80's I was accustomed to Calgary being referred to derisively as "Cowtown".  What I found instead was a tidy and modern city with a very walkable downtown area.  Being the large city that it is, I could only see so much in the day-and-a-half that I had but from what I did see, I thoroughly enjoyed.  Cowtown no longer.

8th Avenue, one of the city's historic streets was a joy to explore.  I absolutely love how their old sandstone buildings have been preserved.

The Calgary Tower was high on my list of things to see.  The photo turned out a bit dark.  It was still rather overcast by mid-morning Saturday.  On a positive note, it made for a very comfortable +4C.

9th Avenue and Centre Street from about 500 feet up.

With overcast skies, I wasn't very optimistic about getting a decent view of the Rockies, however, fortune smiled on me.

City view to the north-west (more or less).

Brookfield Place under construction.  Upon completion, it will be Calgary's tallest building if I'm not mistaken.

A decent view of the Saddledome.

A view of the Glenblow Museum and Jack Singer Hall, site of my CPO concert .

Once I returned to ground level, I headed off to explore the Glenbow Museum.  I actually spent a lot more time there than I thought I would.  The exhibits on military history and Alberta history alone took up well over an hour explore.  As I read a great deal of history, and in particular, military history, it's wonderful to see some actual artifacts that you read about.

Mewata Armoury anchors the western terminus of 8th Avenue.  I can only imagine how many military parades left the armoury to march down 8th Avenue during the two world wars.

If I'm not mistaken, this is a Sherman Tank sitting out in front of the Armoury.

Of course I was barely able to scratch the surface with what I was able to cram in to my short stay but  with future plans to see more concerts and the weather gradually getting warmer in the Spring, I look forward to seeing more of what Calgary has to offer.

Tuesday, January 26, 2016

Evening at the Calgary Philharmonic: Overcoming Adversity

I have to say I spent a fantastic weekend down in Calgary hearing the Calgary Philharmonic (as well as checking out the downtown, which I will elaborate on in my next post.)

The underlying theme of the concert seemed to be the idea of overcoming adversity.  Tchaikovsky's Symphony #6 was played in Leningrad during the winter of 1942 (along with many other works) in defiance of the Nazi juggernaut on their doorstep.  The Sibelius Violin Concerto was a flop when it premiered in 1904.  The composer then re-worked it extensively and when it was re-introduced the following year, it was a triumph....and indeed is a staple among the violin repertoire.  It remains one of my personal favourites.

Even the evening's soloist for the Sibelius Concerto, Augustin Hadelich has had to overcome great personal challenges as he suffered horrible burns as a teenager as the result of a house fire.  He had to set aside his violin for over a year while he recovered before picking it up again.  And lucky for us he did, else we would have lost a wonderful musical treasure.  His interpretation held so much feeling and I thought the second movement in particular was just beautiful.  He ended the piece to a well-deserved standing ovation amid cries of "bravo", three curtain calls and a breath-taking encore by Paganini.

The concert was well-worth the long trip down to Calgary and I absolutely can't wait to hear the Tchaikovsky Violin Concerto later on in May.

Sunday, January 24, 2016

Remembering La Loche

Friday was a travel day for me so after nearly 12 hours on a bus to Calgary I was  a bit blurry-eyed when I checked in to my hotel.  It was there I happened to pass by a television in the hotel lobby and hear about a shooting in Saskatchewan.  Initially, it didn't really register.  After checking in to my room, I returned again to the news and was snapped awake instantly upon hearing that this shooting had taken place in a place I was familiar with.

In the early 2000's I lived in La Loche where I taught grade 6 and while I didn't work at Dene High School, it's a place I had been in many times as I knew quite a few of the staff there.  Events like what Friday really hit me like a cold shower.  Your blood just runs cold.  Automatically I started thinking if it involved anyone I knew.   Given the passage of time since I worked there, I can't answer that question with any degree of certainly.    The students I taught would have long since graduated.  I still keep in touch on Facebook with a handful of former staff I used to work with and sadly, one former colleague of mine did have one of the victims as a student at one point.  Another one of the victims lived a couple of hours away from where I grew up in Ontario.

Some of my best teaching memories are from La Loche.  Unfortunately, due to the actions of one messed up individual an entire community will be painted with the same broad brush.   I've worked in  enough First Nations and Inuit communities to know about the challenges involved.  I've also become too well aware of what some people will no doubt think and say in the aftermath of this tragic event.....and too often it isn't complementary.  And yet, I know how very difficult it can be to truly put in to words what you might feel.  After all, what can you say?

Schools are a place where one should feel safe.  Tragically, four lives ended Friday in a place where they should have felt secure.  It's easy to play the blame game here and I could easily go off on a tangent about my thoughts on why the school system often doesn't live up to students' needs (as those who know me best well know).  This however, is neither the time nor place for that.  I do think that we need a very frank and honest discussion in this country about the role of education in aboriginal communities and I'll leave it at that.

I wish I could say that this is all new to me and that I haven't seen my fair share of tragic events in northern, isolated communities.  So yes, this all hits close to my heart and it does sting.  It can be very difficult to speak out in a small community where everyone knows everyone and news often travels just as fast as on social media.  I don't know how things will turn out or how events will unfold in the coming days but if I've managed to pass along to my students the courage to be true to themselves and to stand up for their community during the time I was there then I know that La Loche will come together during this trying time.  My thoughts and prayers are very much with the victims of this tragedy and the community of La Loche this evening.

Saturday, January 16, 2016

Accident at Nexen

The blood pressure always goes up a bit when I catch wind of accidents on site.  Just to alleviate anyone's concerns, I don't work at Nexen, although I've driven by it a few times.  I do know a few people who have worked there though none currently.  We work in an inherently dangerous industry, unfortunately.  That's just the nature of the beast.  I've worked around a coker long enough to know it can be one of the most dangerous parts of a plant.

No doubt, some people will take to social media in order to grind their own personal political axe.  It's apparent that, based on a few comments I've come across, that such people have little understanding of what goes on at such sites.  I hope that rather than clog up the airwaves with their misinformed judgements that they take a minute to realize that this tragedy has affected many people....the families, friends, and co-workers of those involved.

Thursday, January 14, 2016


My concert drought finally ended last night with a wonderful performance of the Edmonton Symphony Orchestra.  It's been well over 6 years since I've been able to see a good concert, the last time being during my trip to Hungary a few years back.  It's been even longer since I've seen an orchestra in Canada....all the way back to my university days.  But let's not dwell on that.

I had hoped to do a quick post before leaving for Edmonton when I assumed my ticket would have arrived in the mail.  I assume it got caught up in the Christmas rush as it never did arrive in time (of course, the bills still did...funny how that works.)  But I was able to get my ticket re-printed at the box office so all turned out well.

I left for Edmonton yesterday morning, saw the concert last night, overnighted and then returned this evening. A lot to fit in to a short period of time and while I was a bit tired, the adrenaline rush brought on by seeing my first concert in far too long kept me going.

Enmax Hall at the Winspear Centre is a wonderful venue and my seat choice made for the perfect acoustical experience.  The only thing I would have changed was perhaps getting a seat in the row in front of where I sat as there was a bit more leg room but in the end this was a very minor issue.  The program was a nice mix of Baroque and Classical, with a modern composer thrown in, although this involved a work written very much in the Classical style.

So what did I see?  First off was the Vivaldi Concerto in B minor for 4 violins, Opus 3, no. 10.  Bach was to take this piece and re-work it for 4 harpsichords, so it is this guise that I know it best.  Hearing the Vivaldi original was a real treat.

Next was the Concertone for 2 violins in C Major, K 190.  Unlike the previous piece this isn't one that I was very familiar with.  (A "concertone" is something like an early version of a concerto.) I'm much more familiar with Mozart's K191, his bassoon concerto, which is better known and more often recorded.  Pure Mozart this was, light and enjoyable at a good tempo.  You hear this piece and can easily anticipate him writing some truly amazing works in his later years, which of course he did.

After the intermission came a piece by the rather awkward-sounding Carl Ditters von Dittersdorf.  (Sinfonia no.1 in C major "The Four Ages of the World").  Dittersdorf, I absolutely love.  The man was a very prolific (he did write  over 120 symphonies) but had the misfortune of languishing, like many other composers of his day, in the shadow of Mozart.

Next was a short symphony by Haydn.  Not Franz Joseph but his brother Michael, who again often finds himself in his older brother's shadow.  His Symphony no. 32 is only 2 movements and, clocking in at around 8 minutes, short and sweet.  Very energetic and dance-like and an interesting glimpse of the symphonic form still very much in its infancy.

The evening closed off with Sergei Prokofiev's Symphony no.1 in D major "The Classical".  Like the opening Vivaldi, this is a piece I absolutely love and was very familiar with.   If this had been the only work on the program, I definitely would have gone just to see it.  Prokofiev died in 1953 but wrote this in the style of Franz Joseph Haydn.  Basically it's something like what Haydn might have written himself had he lived into the 20th century.  If I'm not mistaken, this work was premiered in 1918.  This symphony has enjoyed a long playing life and has been used in a few old Warner Brothers cartoons so that segments of this piece would be familiar to the average person on the street even if it's formal title doesn't exactly bring anything to mind.

So all in all a great orchestral experience.  I just wanted to give a few brief thoughts on what I saw rather than some long-winded analysis.  This was actually the only concert with works from the Baroque/early Classical period that it looks like I will be able to get to without begging for time off of work.  At long last my concert drought is over and this was a pleasant way to do it.  The next performances I hope to get to involve larger Romantic-era performances for the most part, including a few gems that are on my "bucket list".  Great listening times ahead indeed.

Thursday, December 31, 2015

The Year It's Been

I'm not one to make New Year's resolutions but I do like to take a look back and evaluate things as I move forward.  December 31, as it has been rather arbitrarily chosen to end the year seems to be just as good of a time to take a look back as any other day, so here goes...

The price of oil falling quite substantially has obviously been a big story this year, affecting not only our economy but my community.  It's certainly given me a few moments of angst and I find myself checking the price of oil on an almost daily basis once I get home from work.  I count myself among the fortunate and while I don't mind things being a little less frenetic here, particularly compared to how it was when I first moved here, I certainly don't want to see things flat-line completely.  It will be interesting to see what 2016 has in store for us.

On a much more positive note, I finished paying off a lot of debt this year, particularly timely as it turns out given the down turn.  I can head in to the new year breathing a sign of relief with a little less stress and not having to fret so much about the lack of overtime.  In short, I can enjoy life a bit more, which, while I haven't exactly blogged about it a great deal, is something I've come to understand as something I need to focus more on as I get older.  On the plus side,  I've proven to myself that I can take on adversity and that I'm much tougher than I sometimes give myself credit for.

It was a great year for birding, as I mentioned in my previous post.  I had hoped for a modest 40 sightings this year and I managed to do that, thanks in part to a couple of timely visits to British Columbia.  With luck I'll be able to squeeze in a couple more outings in the new year and with a little luck, hit 50 sightings.

I've also figured out a nice way to see some concerts, although the ACTUALLY SEEING THEM part won't start happening for another couple of weeks yet.  I'm eagerly awaiting my first ticket to the Edmonton Symphony Orchestra to arrive and hope they did get too caught up in the Christmas mailing rush.   I have a feeling I"m really going to enjoy a few concerts over  the coming months.  Rather than just thinking about going I decided to get down to business and come up with a plan to get down to see some good music.

And while surviving potential layoffs, expanding bird lists and seeing great music are wonderful things, they still pale beside the best news of all this year....namely, that my mother can count herself as a cancer survivor.  A year ago, things looked rather bleak and up in the air.  Being three provinces away while Mom did her chemo and made countless trips in to Toronto and having to rely on phone calls and social media for updates did have its stresses at times.  Mom's cancer was inoperable and aggressive.  Asking the dreaded question about what would happen should the chemotherapy fail is not easy since you know what the answer is going to be.  Skipping along merrily through life and then all of a sudden being faced with the potential loss of a very close family member has a way of forcing you to re-evaluate your priorities and not sweat the minutiae of every day life.   The only drawback to the chemo was that while it killed the cancer, it also wreaked havoc on her salivary glands which makes eating more a challenge but given the alternative...

In short, 2015 was a roller-coaster of a year.  Plenty of ups and downs to be sure but given some of the personal challenges I've faced in the past few years, fortunately nothing I can't handle.

Wednesday, December 30, 2015

2015 Bird List

2015 was quite a roller coaster of a year it seemed but in terms of birding, I have little to complain about.  Keeping a list of the birds I see in a year is a fairly new thing for me as I think I'm up to a grand total of 3 annual lists.  It was a great year in terms of number of species seen and the number of sightings of species I had never seen before as well as species I hadn't seen in a long time.  While I got off to a slow start, a couple of trips this past summer to BC as well as some luck around the house helped to push my birding list for the year up to a grand total of 46 species....small but respectable.  And of course I look forward to 2016 to top that number.

Barring any last-minute additions (which are looking extremely doubtful at this point) here is my species list for 2015, more or less in chronological order..........

1.  Pine Grosbeak - 1 Jan.
2.  Hairy Woodpecker - 1 Jan.
3.  Bohemian Waxwing - 3 Jan.
4.  Common Raven - 4 Jan.
5.  Blue Jay - 4 Jan.
6.  Black-billed Magpie - 8 Jan.
7.  Chickadee - 14 Jan.
8.  House Sparrow - 14 Jan.
9.  Evening Grosbeak - 15 Jan.
10. Herring Gull - 7 Apr.
11. Hoary Redpoll - 9 Apr.
12. Canada Goose - 9 Apr.
13. Slate-coloured Junco - 19 Apr.
14. Common Grackle - 22 Apr.
15. Mallard - 24 Apr.
16. American Robin - 1 May
17. Tree Swallow - 8 May
18. Chipping Sparrow - 9 May
19. Red-winged Blackbird - 12 May
20. Barn Swallow - 9 Jun.
21. Pileated Woodpecker - 13 Jun.
22. Northern Flicker - 13 Jun.
23. Rufous Hummingbird - 13 Jun.
24. Bank Swallow - 13 Jun.
25. Marsh Wren - 14 Jun.
26. American Coot - 14 Jun.
27. Blue-winged Teal - 14 Jun.
28. Cinnamon Teal - 14 Jun.
29. Yellow-headed Blackbird - 14 Jun.
30. Ruddy Duck - 14 Jun.
31. White-winged Scoter - 14 Jun.
32. Cedar Waxwing - 14 Jun.
33. Yellow-Rumped Warbler - 14 Jun.
34. Rose-breasted Grosbeak - 14 Jun.
35. Rock Dove - 15 Jun.
36. White-crowned Sparrow - 23 Jun.
37. European Starling - 11 Jul.
38. Great Blue Heron - 11 Jul.
39. Bonaparte's Gull - 11 Jul.
40. Western Tanager - 11 Jul.
41. Yellow-Breasted Chat - 11 Jul.
42. Red-tailed Hawk - 12 Jul.
43. Ring-billed Gull - 13 Jul.
44. Yellow Warbler - 18 Jul.
45. Yellow-bellied Sapsucker - 23 Jul.
46. Common Redpoll - 6 Dec.

Monday, December 21, 2015

A "Concerted" Effort

It's not quite the new year yet but I'm committed to making an effort to expand my horizons and take in some more live music.  It's been over six years since I've actually attended a symphony of any sort and while I tend to listen to smaller ensembles rather than full-fledged orchestral works, I decided to take the plunge and not let a concert season pass by without seeing anything, especially when we have two fine orchestras in the form of the Edmonton Symphony and the Calgary Philharmonic.  Once I got digging around looking at concert schedules I was amazed at just how many great works were being performed on my days off and getting down to see them wasn't going to be as much of a logistic nightmare than I thought.

As it turns out, there are more concerts by the CPO that fall on my days off than Edmonton Symphony ones.  If all goes according to plan, I should at least be able to attend a couple ESO performances and indeed I already have a ticket for a concert there in a little over three weeks' time.  Edmonton works well as I can head down the day of the concert, spend the night and return the following day which works wonderfully for my work schedule.  Plus, they have a performance later in the spring of Beethoven's Piano Concerto #4, which I don't think I've ever heard live, so of course I can't really pass that up.

As for Calgary, it's a mere 12-hour bus ride away so I'm planning on spending a couple of over-nights  so I can actually enjoy the concert without fitting too much travel into too short of a time span.  I'm actually very excited for my Calgary performances as they include some big works I've known about going back several years, even as far back as childhood.  There are a couple of concerts where I won't be able to avoid booking a couple days off work but seeing they happen to be Beethoven's 9th Symphony and Bach's B Minor Mass, I'd pretty much WALK to Calgary to see them if I had to.

These concerts aren't until later in the spring so I have plenty of time to finalize travel arrangements.  If all goes according to plan, my first concert attendance at the Calgary Philharmonic will be a performance of the Sibelius Violin Concerto and Tchaikovsky's 6th Symphony.  And this is just the tip of the iceberg but I won't list everything I'm hoping to see.  But if I do manage to see just the pieces I've mentioned here I know I'll be more than happy.  As an interesting side note, I actually know the choir director and the artistic director of the Calgary Philharmonic as they are both University of Windsor alumni.  Small world indeed.