The Incoherent Blues

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As I rode the streetcar home last night, a streetcar busy with revelers heading downtown to party in the various bars and clubs, a louder-than-expected noise rose from the front. The sound was vaguely human and from its rising volume, I could only assume was approaching my area in the back.

Suddenly, an awkwardly rampaging bear of a man burst through the crowd, intent more on maintaining his feet than malevolence. It was just one of the many street denizens that populate Toronto, and this one was exceptionally inebriated, and loudly so.

Proving the theory that if you fall in all directions at the same time, you will stay on your feet, this tottering mass of humanity somehow lurched itself to a seat near the back of the streetcar, announcing to everyone—real or imaginary—that he had arrived.

His volume remained ear-splitting and mentally crushing, yet despite sounding like he was irritated with someone or something—Why are curse words so easy to enunciate under even the worst of conditions, while every other word remains a garbled mess?—he remained relatively harmless.

Had this been the extent of the interaction, he would have remained white noise in my background (I’m not sure, but perhaps I should be ashamed to admit that), and I would have blissfully gone back to contemplating the photos I had just taken at a hockey game or taken in the sights that passed outside my window.

But something changed.

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From somewhere within the mental and chemical maelstrom that struggled to maintain its physical if not social integrity behind me, beauty arose in the form of music.

Even though the man himself remained incoherent, magic happened when he placed a small harmonica against his lips. Riffs of Blues music poured forth in brief bursts.

Between these bursts, he continued his bilious bellowings; there was no attempt at lyrics to the best my ear could discern.

But the man mountain’s inner song rose slowly, incidental music to a life of struggle and dysfunction, signs perhaps that at one time, this free-range citizen was more free spirit.

The tide of revelers ebbed and flowed around the music man for several minutes as we continued our way across the city, most doing their best to ignore the intruder other than to throw incredulous glances or bemused smiles to one another.

Eventually, the music stopped as the human-encased chaos plunged out the back door into the night.

And if only in the smallest way, he left me changed as what otherwise would have been a self-indulgent ride across the city became a wondrous duel between incapacity and limitless capacity.

I hope he found repose.

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Warmly welcoming – La Sala review

La Sala

(photo not mine)

A relative newcomer to The Beaches neighbourhood in East Toronto, La Sala is an Italian restaurant that bridges the gap between family dining and fine dining.

Hosted in a renovated home just off Queen Street, La Sala offers a cosy, welcoming environment akin to visiting the home of a good friend. Decoration is subtle and the yellow walls both inside and out bring warmth to the dining experience.

While offering a variety of dishes, the menu is clean and simple, covering only a single page of $12 appetizers, $16 pastas and $20-$24 main courses that should please any palate.

For an appetizer, I opted for the eggplant parmesan (Parmigiana di Melanzane), which was generously portioned and nicely featured baked eggplant rather than what I expected to be fried. The surprise was my own fault, however, as the menu actually states the eggplant is baked. Baking the eggplant meant that you still got the full flavour of the vegetable while it retained its body (frying often seems to turn them into mush), and the eggplant nicely stood against the generously portioned tomato sauce, providing distinct mouth-feel and compartmentalized flavours.

My dining companion ordered the Romaine fennel and kale salad, which was generously accompanied by avocado dressing, bacon and croutons. Nicely, the salad did not appear to be drowned in dressing and the bacon was short strips rather than crumbles, giving my guest something to bite into.

(BTW: I know I am using the word generous a lot…you are not going home hungry.)

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Warm, inviting atmosphere (photo not mine)

As a main course, I ordered the butternut squash ravioli, my go-to dish when available both because I like the dish and because it affords me an opportunity to compare between restaurants. Covered in a beautiful butter and sage sauce that was very subtle both in flavour and weight, the ravioli were slightly undercooked, the pasta being a bit chewy. For its part, the butternut squash puree was nice, but could have stood with a bit more spice for my tastes, although my dining partner had no problem with it. For me, the challenge was that the puree struggled to compete with the strong saltiness of the parmesan shavings, and so the dish ended up being somewhat one-note.

More of a seafood fan than me, my partner ordered the seafood linguine (Linguine Frutti di Mare), which looked amazing and I am told was even better. La Sala did not scrimp on the seafood in this dish, the large plate being almost overwhelmed by the mussel and clam shells. And according to my companion, the calamari and octopus were cooked to perfection. Add in some shrimps and my friend spent the better part of the meal picking through the linguine to make sure she got all of the seafood available in the dish before digging into the pasta. To quote her: “This is the best seafood linguini I have ever eaten in my life.”

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La Sala’s warmth fits nicely with The Beaches eclectic vibe

Having filled up on her salad and main course, my companion could not manage dessert, whereas I had little choice but to order the chocolate mousse with crispy almonds and whipped cream. The full-bodied mousse was delicate on the palate and yet offered plenty of flavour. And nicely, the portion size was large enough to share, but not so large as to leave this well-fed diner in distress.

As to the service, La Sala seems to pride itself on being very attentive to its customers as rarely did our water glasses empty before someone offered to refill them. Likewise, as we finished each course, the next one arrived dutifully. One of the staff was perhaps a tad too diligent with replacing our cutlery and napkins, as we almost ended up with a third napkin by the arrival of dessert, but as much as anything, I put that down to a half-filled house with a full staff—people had time on their hands.

Overall, the evening was a wonderful success and despite the minor setback with my main course, I will quite eagerly return to enjoy what is sure to become a neighbourhood favourite and as good a reason as any to visit The Beaches neighbourhood of Toronto.

The Man Who Knew Infinity – a review

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In another life, I might have been a mathematician; in part, because I prefer to contemplate my universe in solitude, but perhaps more importantly, because there is a simplicity and elegance in math that simply cannot be matched by any other discipline.

It is the voice of God. It is the description of all existence and all possibility.

Thus, I greatly look forward to films like The Man Who Knew Infinity, which opened at the 2015 Toronto International Film Festival and this past week on Netflix.

Based on true events, it is much like A Beautiful Mind, in that it tells the story of a man who could see things intuitively that others could not even with the greatest of effort, but in this case, without the mental health issues.

Srinivasa Ramanujan (Dev Patel) is a poor mathematician living in Madras, India, burdened with an overwhelming fountain of knowledge and understanding of the maths. As one movie character so aptly put it, every positive integer is Ramanujan’s friend.

Frustrated by an oppressive society in India that sees him as an over-reaching Wog, Ramanujan reaches out with the aid of an understanding British diplomat to mathematicians in the United Kingdom. And he eventually catches the notice Cambridge University professor G. H. Hardy (Jeremy Irons), who brings Ramanujan to England.

As exciting as this is for the younger man, Ramanujan quickly becomes frustrated with his mentor. Rather than explore the mathematical cosmos, Hardy reins Ramanujan in, forcing him to develop mathematical proofs for his grand visions. Why, the younger man asks, do you need to prove the truth, the very word of the gods?

It is in answering this question that the movie becomes a love story between two driven men. These men change the face of mathematics, their work echoing to this day.

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Jeremy Irons is achingly poignant as mathematician G. H. Hardy

Despite the title of the film, this movie is more about Hardy than it is Ramanujan, who interestingly remains something of a mystery even into the story’s epilogue.

Intellectually brilliant in his own right, Hardy yet has to work to understand the universe, whereas Ramanujan is “given” the answers to great mathematical concepts. And despite any overt signs of jealousy, you have to wonder if this isn’t part of the reason Hardy fights so hard to rein in his mentee.

That said, as their relationship slowly blooms, Hardy risks his own expulsion from the college to push for Ramanujan’s acceptance at Cambridge as a fellow. So again, it is about Hardy’s relationships with his colleagues and the university establishment with Ramanujan as his raison d’etre.

The movie is visually beautiful and the story amazingly told.

Irons continues to be an actor of outstanding elegance no matter how curmudgeonly the character. His portrayal of a man who achingly wants to reach out to touch the face of God and yet cannot, is emotionally wrenching. This is a man who is afraid to believe in anything, but is presented with a glory that comes but once in a lifetime.

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Dev Patel portrays the anguish of Srinivasa Ramanujan, a man who speaks the voice of the gods only to find ignorance

Patel, likewise, offers a stirring performance. His confusion at the insanity of the world around him is palpable. He knows that he stands upon a great mountain, spouting the wisdoms of heaven, and yet finds himself spat upon and held back. He is very much a Christ figure to Irons’ Saul of Tarsus.

But as beautiful as this film is, I found it lacking in one very big way.

I never felt like I got to understand the titular character Ramanujan.

I have not read the similarly titled book on which the movie is based to know if there is more about Ramanujan there (its subtitle would suggest yes), but the film starts with fully formed Ramanujan scraping mathematical formulas on the stone floor of a temple. In looking for work to support his mother and new bride, he presents his efforts to bureaucrat after bureaucrat, only to be rejected.

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What is never explored or explained, however, is how this supposedly lowly man learned how to write in the language of mathematics, and because of this, I feel like I watched only part two of a much larger story.

There is a beautiful moment late in the film between Ramanujan and Hardy that touches on the divine spark of mathematics, and we see the two men finally express their common love and fears. But for me, this wasn’t enough. It fulfilled an emotional requirement, but not the intellectual. I want to better understand Ramanujan and his gift.

Despite this rather large gap, however, this is a movie that I could watch again and again for its sheer beauty. And I can only hope that it just one of many such films—math-centric or otherwise—to be made in the coming years.

Leading our own cheers

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Intelligent, articulate women who also danced for the Marlies Dance Crew

This past weekend brought the start to another season of my beloved Toronto Marlies. And as is the case with every new season, we were met by many familiar faces and a lot of new ones, both on and off the ice.

What we were not met with this season, however, is the Marlies Dance Crew, the small group of women who entertain during stoppages in play. And I find myself oddly torn over this.

On the one hand, I have never been comfortable with the Dance Crew as a concept, and cheerleading squads for pro sports teams in general (I see high school and college squads in a different light).

In the absence of male squad members, the Dance Crew simply seemed like a salacious attempt to get a rise out of parts of the crowd…and based on comments I would hear around me, it worked.

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Torn between dance as art and cheerleading as objectifying women

By the same token, over the seasons, I have actually come to know many of the Dance Crew members, finding them charming, articulate women who enjoy the art of dance. They are friends and part of the Marlies family, with whom I try to maintain contact via social media even after they have moved on to other things.

Cheerleaders in hockey is an odd thing, and I appreciate that it would be impossible—given the concrete floors and metal railings—to perform truly acrobatic stunts that you might see at college events. This may be why the whole Dance Crew concept never sat right with me, because in the absence of that artistic/athletic angle, it felt like the women were reduced to eye-candy.

Thus, while I will miss getting to know new family members, I am not terribly heartbroken over the Dance Crew’s absence this season.

And to the members who have moved on, I wish you all every success and hope you visit the Ricoh Coliseum on occasion, so we can say hi.

Family and friends

Family and friends

Bliss

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I had an amazing moment earlier today that I wanted to share, a moment of complete peace and sheer bliss.

As I may have mentioned before, I am an amateur photographer and a lover of nature. In wandering along Toronto’s waterfront this morning, I passed some butterfly gardens.

Not my first time visiting these small gardens. I’ve even taken photos there.

But for whatever reason, today was magical because there were dozens of butterflies having the time of their lives flitting from flower to flower.

The movement attracted my eye and I wandered over to the gardens to enjoy the sight and grab a couple of shots with my cell phone. But as I stood there, the world fell completely away, and it was just me, the garden and the butterflies.

And rather than flit away to keep their distance, the butterflies accepted me into the moment, a few even briefly landing on my arms and shoulders.

I had somewhere to be, so the moment couldn’t last too long. I have every confidence, however, that if I had had the time available to me, it would have lasted as long as I chose.

Complete bliss, joy and comfort.

I’ll visit the gardens again. Maybe the moment will happen again; maybe not. But I have available to me this one time that it did, and that will sustain me.

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Still Figuring It Out: Baram & Snieckus

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If Elaine May and Mike Nichols were alive today that would be horrible, because Nichols was buried two years ago. (May is still alive.)

That said, I am sure they would be happy to know that the legacy they started in the 1950s is being continued quite ably by Naomi Snieckus and Matt Baram, who previewed their latest revue tonight at the John Candy Box Theatre in Toronto.

Long-standing staples on the Toronto comedy scene, Snieckus and Baram are veterans of the Second City and both have had their turn at television (Mr. D and Seed, respectively). But this real-life husband and wife are at their strongest when they stand across the stage from each other and reveal their neuroses in a mass therapy session that other people pay $15 to see.

The new show is aptly titled as they truly are still figuring it out. A combination of sketches, Nichols & May-style audio pieces, some improv, and playful audience banter, the show, which runs about 60 minutes, is still a work-in-progress, some bits decidedly more solid than others. But in many respects, that is the charm of a Baram & Snieckus production; it never feels complete.

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This is a couple who consistently commit to their craft, who are willing to run with anything that comes up—including an audience suggestion of Dante’s cab ride, which turned into a motivational moment for an under-performing Satan with Daddy issues. But what makes this particularly charming is they are not afraid to let the audience know when they realize a bit isn’t working, and we all lean forward to see how they’ll extract themselves.

Their choice of venue facilitates this intimacy with the audience.

Although I have every confidence that Baram & Snieckus would have no trouble holding an audience in a large theatre, all of the revues that I have attended occurred in small venues, holding no more than 100 seats. The John Candy Box Theatre is no exception, and the audience sits so close to the stage that they become a tripping hazard for the performers.

Thus, when you see Baram & Snieckus perform, it is like you’re watching their lives from their living room.

[For the record, I have never been in their living room and this completely unnecessary ankle bracelet chafes.]

That intimacy, that vulnerability is the charm that bonds this team to the audience. These are your best friends and you are about to see them at their worst moment. Over and over and over again.

It’s schadenfreude for swingers. [The title of their next revue?]

One thing that was different from previous revues is the pair have started filming some of their classic sketches, and they projected two—from their previous revue You and Me Both—for tonight’s audience. This is part of a larger effort by the couple to make more of their material available online to audiences.

Still Figuring It Out, which runs until Friday, September 30, is practically sold out, so you’ll want to snatch the last few tickets soon, if you’re not already too late.

Alternatively, look for them on the web site of their company National Theatre of the World.

You will find laughs, and maybe a few insights as you too still figure it out.

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See also:

Toronto Star review of Still Figuring It Out by Carly Maga

My review of You & Me Both

Sweltering on the boardwalk

This summer has been unbearably hot and humid in Toronto, but I was going stir-crazy without my weekly walk. So, throwing caution to the (complete lack of) wind, I grabbed my camera and hit the boardwalk and some nearby wooded areas.