blending an assortment of thoughts and experiences for my friends, relations and kindred spirit

blending an assortment of thoughts and experiences for my friends, relations and kindred spirit
By Alison Hobbs, blending a mixture of thoughts and experiences for friends, relations and kindred spirits.

Friday, March 30, 2012

The importance of clothes

"We're psychologically lazy," confessed the speaker. "We cling to our first impression of a person which is made within the first 5 seconds after meeting them."

I was at a Breakfast Seminar on "Image Awareness" sponsored by Holt Renfrew, and the consultant was teaching us to present "our best self" to the world. We have "a pretty sophisticated image to convey," apparently. For instance, our hair colour is so important. We have to choose it based on our skin tone. My husband, when I told him this, opined in all innocence that our hair colour was what we were born with, that we were stuck with it, surely, and some of us at the seminar wanted to ask, "What about grey?"—but we were told that "auburn browns suit the most women. We don't want to look hard." No.

We don't want to look old either. That, and a lack of attention to detail, will convey a negative impression.

Grommets on a jacket of mine
During the course of the talk we were given a lot of tips about those details to which we ought to pay attention. We should go more sheer in our lipstick as we mature. Ladies, we much watch our body line and strategically choose blocking in colour when we buy our clothes (from Holt Renfrew), because our appearance is a form of communication. Note that we have to look current, no matter how old we are. This year, we should think about the batwing or butterfly sleeve for entertaining (though it strikes me that a batwing sleeve for washing up after the entertaining wouldn't be such a good idea). Anyway, anything feminine is so vogue, this season, and blue nail colour is hot. The blouson top is really big and we're seeing a lot of grommets in our tops, metallic hardware. Or we could go for Bohemian chic, where we add in the peasant neckline and the tiered skirt. As for fabrics, the abstract snake or the classic animal is current, as are circles and dots. The one-shoulder look for our party dress and the covered placket for our blouse shows quality. We can tone it down for less formal occasions and go with Prada for the handbag.

Having mentioned the Prada handbag she conceded that some of us "may not want to spend so much on our clothes; we may want to buy antique furniture instead!" Well, as long as we remember to have retro buckles on our handbags. Don't let's forget that there's "more at the wrist this season," besides. (I couldn't refrain from giggling when I saw the PowerPoint slide which went with that suggestion: a picture of an arm absolutely covered with bangles.)

Our inner wrists will show our natural skin tone. The speaker had a volunteer come to the front to demonstrate the importance of colour in our choice of hair and clothes and began by asking her, "Can I see your epidermis?" Like me, the girl had dark eyes and eyebrows and a Mediterranean skin type. The recommendation was for her to give her hair with a copper tinge and to wear blue-based reds, silvers, burgundy browns and blue-based blues. Gold-based blues or gold-based reds would create a sallow appearance.

"How many of you have had your colours done?" she asked the crowd. A few hands went up, not many. In our Prada handbags, we ought to be carrying a swatch of 8 neutral colours and 22 accent colours to suit our wardrobes. The other thing to be aware of ... "I'm not here to depress anyone but we're talking body types!" ... is that, if we carry weight below our waist, we don't go cropped.

She was very enthusiastic about jackets ("and you know how important the piping is"). She told us that "peplums accent the waist" and she talked about "investment suits," a white one for example. We can revive our whites, if they have lost their brilliance, with a sodium bath. "When I approach a suit," she told us, "I do a squeeze test" to see if it crumples if travelled in, and we must not carry a laptop computer over our shoulder in an Armani jacket or it will ruin the finish. Having said that, we can extend our jackets into other lifestyle opportunities. We all have our own clothing lifestyles.

So we do. I doubt if she'd appreciate mine.

The image consultant started her business in the mid-80s, advising "... men only ... then I diversified to include women."


"To me she's married, not unto my clothes!" Petruchio exclaims at a comical moment in Shakespeare's play, and later he has more to say on the subject (more seriously) when he explains to his wife that he and she will dress ...
... Even in these honest mean habiliments;
Our purses shall be proud, our garments poor;
For 'tis the mind that makes the body rich;
And as the sun breaks through the darkest clouds,
So honour peereth in the meanest habit.
I imagine it takes time to acquire such wisdom.

Wednesday, March 21, 2012


We hear about The Consolation(s) of Philosophy, but what about poetry? Not that I need consoling, the weather having so warm, bright and invigorating lately, but if I do, I'll know where to look.

My friend Kay, when I saw her again in Wales last month, gave me a precious gift, a book of poems called The Water Table by a poet I'd not heard of before, Philip Gross. He teaches at the University of Glamorgan. Apparently he's a Quaker, practising silence as well as words. The poems in this anthology are inspired by the poet's familiarity with the Bristol Channel (or Môr Hafren, if you're Welsh); he must have stared at it a great deal. Ten of the 64 poems are entitled Betweenland. Here is the last of those:
Just after sunset, and the tide
high, almost white, dull-
lambent like nothing the sky 
holds or could lend it. Each
shore, this and that shore,
black, a particular 
blackness pinned in place
by each house- or street-lamp.
Done with. As if land
was night, and us its night-thoughts
and the river was the draining down
of daylight, westwards and out 
of the world, so how could you not
(your gaze at least) feel drawn
and want, half want, to follow?
I get very excited by this sort of thing.

I also picked up a book of Poems Of The Late T'ang from our bookshelves recently, although, because they're translated, I fear I am hardly getting more than a glimpse. In the introduction the translator A.C. Graham gives an example of how difficult it is to translate Chinese poetry, because it is so concise and the Chinese associations between word and experience so different from ours. My daughter-in-law says that the ancient Chinese poems are symbolic––not daring to express directly what the poet had suffered, perhaps from a cruel régime.

Here's the literal translation of a Chinese poem by Emperor Wu (Hànwǔdì) who died in 87 B.C.

silk sleeve, ah, no sound.
jade courtyard, ah, dust grow.
empty room cold and still,
fallen leaf lean on doubled door bar.
peer after that beautiful woman, ah, where find?
feel my heart not yet at ease.

and here is an attempt by Amy Lowell to translate the original more freely:

There is no rustle of silken sleeves,
Dust gathers in the Jade Courtyard.
The empty houses are cold, still, without sound.
The leaves fall and lie upon the bars of doorway after doorway.
I long for the Most Beautiful One; how can I attain my desire?
Pain bursts my heart. There is no peace.

Even in the literal version, the emotion behind this still transmits itself. Did it comfort this man to write his emotions down? In some mysterious way, it is comforting for us to share his humanity more than two millennia later.

The thing about good poetry is that once heard (or read at the speed of spoken words), it sticks. While I was shovelling the final remains of this year's snow from the path in our garden in this week's sudden heatwave, the line
They call it easing the Spring
came into my mind, which led me to remember the rest of Henry Reed's famous poem (of 1943).

Thursday, March 15, 2012

Cruise ships, hydraulic excavators and the people themselves

Last week I went to a CCFS lecture on China's economic relations with Canada. The gist of the young speaker's message was that China is no longer seen as the source of cheap labour in the world and should be taken (is being taken) more seriously by Canadian policy makers; in fact more than 7% of our international trade is now with that country (the statistics quoted on this link must be out of date). Incidentally, 37% of Canada's trade with China deals with small businesses. Canada still imports more than it exports to Asia in general but is now exporting more than it used to in the way of oil, other minerals and agricultural products, especially to Japan and Korea. Aerospace products were mentioned too.

Meanwhile, Brazil's exports to China have increased by more than 40,000%!

A typical construction site in Hangzhou, summer 2011
Traditionally, western and Japanese companies were the ones who designed things (electronic products, say) the production of which typically took place in Taiwan using cheap assembly lines in China. Actually China has been importing its components from South East Asia lately and furthermore China itself is now competing worldwide in the production of cruise ships, threshing machines and construction equipment like cranes and excavators. The top firms in China (e.g. in the steel industry) are government backed and the demand for China's heavy industry products is largely domestic, though they are selling abroad as well. Huge government subsidies are on hand for renewable energy initiatives, so long as the equipment required for these projects is manufactured in China.

Some interesting points were made comparing the West with China:
  • In the West, the markets are an end in themselves. In China, they are the means to an end; there's a great desire to catch up technically.
  • The West has floating currencies. China has its currency fixed.
  • In western countries, consumers tend to consume more than they save, generating a deficit. In China it's the other way round, with a surplus as the outcome.
  • Western companies aim to "do what they're best at," whereas the Chinese deliberately invest in order to achieve a greater range of products.
Towards the end of the gathering I heard (from David Rothwell, an entrepreneur selling wastewater treatment technology to China) the recommendation that Canada should be using the Chinese expats now living here to set up "marriages" with more companies in China. The best import we have from China, he said, are the Chinese themselves.

Wednesday, March 14, 2012

Debussy, on MacKay Street

The Ottawa classical music scene has come a long way since we moved here in '95. Two annual, international chamber music festivals now make for "wall-to-wall music" (as I heard someone describe it) in the summer time and besides, various local organisations run series of concerts throughout the winter. Almost next door to where we used to live on MacKay Street is the United Church, where one such Chamber Music Series happens; this one originated in a sequence of concerts offered by local musicians a few years ago to raise money for the purchase of a piano at the church. Such events prove popular because the standard of performance is high, Ottawa being the home of many professional instrumentalists, members of the NACO among them, as well as singers and composers, one of whom, Colin Mack, is busy tuning my piano as I write this; he tells me he does the piano tuning and composing (last July I attended the concert described on that link) on separate days.

The programme for last Saturday's MacKay Street concert was put together pot luck fashion in honour of Debussy's 150th birthday and featured five singers who'd chosen to perform various extracts from Debussy's compositions to the accompaniment of the pianist (familiar to Ottawa concert goers), Jean Desmarais, who did his best to describe this music and his enthusiasm for it, making the startling remark that Debussy, turning his back on the Wagnerian style of composition, was arguably the Greatest Composer of the Twentieth Century, which led to a lot of discussion and conjecture afterwards, between me and my husband at least. Neither of us agree with the claim, but, if not Debussy (who hardly qualifies for the accolade, being born in 1862), who was the 20th century's greatest composer? Stravinsky? Britten? Janocek? Bartok? Shostakovich? R. Strauss ... Sibelius ...Vaughan Williams might rank with the composers of that calibre, too. Any more suggestions? What does "greatest" mean, anyway?

Chris and I also wondered why Debussy's very French music doesn't have the same emotional impact for us as does German or British music of the same period (Verklärte Nacht by Schoenberg for example, composed about 5 years earlier than La Mer). It may just be that we haven't been so much exposed to it.

Several of the items on the programme (e.g. the songs sung by Denis Lawlor, baritone, and Isabelle Lacroix, soprano) were settings of poems by Paul Verlaine, which made me wish I'd brought my Verlaine anthology along so that I could follow the mellifluous words: De la musique avant toute chose ... as Verlaine described his poetry himself. But the sexiest item came in the second half of the concert, the setting of Pierre Louys' Chansons de Bilitis (1897) performed on this occasion by Arminé Kassabian,  the mezzo soprano, who deservedly lived up to her description in the programme "... natural beauty, rich and radiant tone and vocal versatility ... a stunning presence ..." (I wonder who wrote that; he was obviously thoroughly smitten).

In the second half of the concert Jean-Philippe Fortier-Lazure and Marya Woyiwada sang a duet-scene from Debussy's tragic opera Pelléas et Mélisande for which the synopsis extract reads as follows:
Pelléas takes Mélisande to a well in the park. As she plays by the water, fascinated by her reflection, her wedding ring falls in, the moment the clock strikes noon. She wonders how to explain it to Golaud. Pelléas advises her to tell the truth.
I confess I find it hard to suspend my disbelief when watching opera and staging this scene in a church made it all the more difficult for me. When her ring dropped into the carpet (in lieu of the well) in full view of the audience and she sang "It's fallen in the water!" and he answered "Where has it gone?" I had to suppress some giggles. Together with high heels, the dress she wore was distracting as well, too tight for cavorting around a forest well. It would have been altogether more convincing had I kept my eyes shut because the pair was singing with appropriate tenderness. The tenor sustained a beautifully lyrical tone every time he sang, and so did both sopranos. These are young people who have been well trained by their mentors not to strain their voices.

Tuesday, March 13, 2012

Emerging leaders

At the end of February, the Aga Khan Foundation Canada invited all the people on their mailing list to "... a public conversation: Women Leading Change - Perspectives from Canada and the World" at the The Delegation of the Ismaili Imamat on Sussex Drive. A decent number of men were present, despite the subject matter.

Chaired by the high profile journalist and human rights activist Sally Armstrong, the ambitious theme of the discussion was how women leaders around the world are hoping "to achieve women's equality at the deepest level in societies, resulting in enduring peace and prosperity for all." Appearing with her were Jeannette Corbiere Lavell, President of the Native Women's Association of Canada ("the toughest job in Canada today!"), Linda Jones, Director of the Coady Institute's International Centre for Women's Leadership, Josephine Ndambuki (who impressed me with her presence and articulate way of speaking)––a founder of the League of Young Professionals of Kenya, and Shruti Upadhyay of Christian Aid, India, the latter two ladies also being involved in the Coady "Igniting Leadership" programme, which was launched last year with funding from CIDA. It seems there is a great "hunger" for this course. For 16 places at the institute, 420 applications were received, mostly from Africa.

Sally A. opened the conversation. She has been sensing for the last 18 months that something is happening in the world: where women's issues are concerned, we're at a tipping point, she told us. For thousands of years women have had to survive oppression and trickery (often in the name of religion) and now a seismic change is occurring. She used the phrases "end game," "dawning of revolution," "clarion call." She quoted Jeffrey Sachs' claim that the status of women in a country is directly related to the economy of that country. "Where one is flourishing so is the other."

Here on the podium were some examples of female leadership. What (in their opinion) made a successful leader?

The answers they gave: having a vision, having a sense of responsibility and purpose and identity, dogged persistence, equality with the men, being rooted in and supported by one's community. The network, collective leadership, was more worthwhile than a focus on any one, individual "hero[ine]." You need information, you need confidence, you need pride in your team.

Sally A. said, women are generally more interested in peace than in owning a piece of turf.

Linda J. said, people must be drivers of their own development. Hitherto, aid agencies have been too patronising. Systemic change is more important than handouts.

Josephine N. said that one's cultural heritage can be challenged. In Kenya, she forces people to see traditional practices harmful to women from a health perspective, challenging the old superstitions with hard facts. If we follow the witchcraft, she says, we all perish! But it takes time to change people's minds. Josephine seems to have co-opted the Kenyan National Rugby Team to help with her campaign to change entrenched attitudes in her country. The rugby players have become her ambassadors, she said, role models, showing that it's possible to be a "real man" without indulging in violence against women.

Dr. Simar of Afghanistan was quoted: what makes you think that if you share your rights you lose your rights? (This was a question aimed at Afghan men.)

Shruti U. reminded us that there are male leaders in some countries "acting in the name of God" to oppress the womenfolk. In the established Indian religions there is no equal status between men and women, she said. Working women in developing countries tend to hide their income from their husbands. In many countries, rape within marriage is not recognised as a violation or crime. The same applies to child abuse.

Another question was about high expectations. Women in high places suffer from an "imposter syndrome," a fear of being found out as inadequate. They should cultivate more self confidence and take the occasional failure in their stride.

A gentleman from Pakistan (he had talked to me earlier and introduced me to his daughter) got up in the audience and told the assembled company that you cannot lead people unless you love them (I liked hearing that) and that "women have a greater capacity for love." We had heard examples of good leadership and he wanted to know, what makes a good follower? This question was not really answered and nor was the Work-Life Balance question posed by someone else. Sally A. said with a shudder that she didn't want to talk about that. Shruti U. commented that, for a working woman, the most difficult negotiations of all are the negotiations one carries out with one's family.

Thursday, March 1, 2012

Two National Museums

Cardiff's National Museum is on Gorsedd Gardens Road
Within a week, I visited the National Museums in Wales (Cardiff) and Japan (Tokyo), both of them full of artworks worth discovering. What an education I got!

In Cardiff with my mother and sister (Feb. 9th) I chose to (re)visit the Davies' Collection of French art—such good taste, those ladies had—as well as my favourite British art by the neo-romantics John Piper, Paul Nash, and company (Graham Sutherland, Ceri Richards, Stanley Spencer, Barbara Hepworth ...) They had a whole room full of David Jones' pieces, wonderful! It struck me how similar to the Canadian David Milne's his art was. We spent some time in a retrospective exhibition of paintings and photographs of the Queen as well which included an excellent portrait of her by Karsh.

Welsh is easier to understand than Japanese
The collections in the Tokyo museum (Feb. 15th) looked less familiar! I saw terracotta figures (haniwa) made to protect a dead person's tomb or soul. In the next room were scrolls of Buddhist "scripture"; Buddhism came to Japan through Korea in the 6th century. Further on in the galleries was a 12th century painting of a Utopian scene entitled Nirvana, with echoes of the lion lying down with the lamb from Isaiah, but in this case the animals and humans in the picture, painted on silk, were encircling a reclining Buddha. It reminded me of what I'd seen in China, and the copies of poems by Bai Juyi were an even more direct link to that country, as was the tea ceremony paraphernalia, the Ming Dynasty cups and bowls.

Entrance to the TNM beside Ueno Park
I found rooms full of 16th century (Muromachi period) screen paintings, a lovely scene of Pine Trees on the Seashore for instance and another with birds, flowers, boats, waves, willows and a hunting scene. Then there was a Zen Buddhist screen, Moon and Plum Tree, simply done in ink. From the 17th century I saw beautiful folding screens featuring blossoming plum trees on gold leaf, adorned with peacocks, and an 18th century one told the allegorical story of four old men on an "outing," accompanied by riders on horseback and young servants who were pushing and pulling them up a steep slope and carrying them across a mountain stream.

The museum also had a large collection of Samurai armour. The Samurai were "strong and stoic," keeping their swords in lacquered scabbards. The "warrior class" of Japanese society in the old days played games like snap with painted scallop shells instead of cards, the shells kept in octagonal boxes. They played a so-called "Incense Game" requiring something like a chess board. They did play card games too; the cards were circular. Battledore and shuttlecock was a popular pastime and they also liked theatre with its Noh masks and elaborate costumes. In the permanent collection at the museum were many paintings of actors and "Beauties"––young women of the Pleasure District in their fashionable 18th century attire.

I saw some lovely watercolours by Hokusai and tiny, intricate ivory netuske as well as a large Map of All the Countries of the World, with Japan at the centre, of course, Australia featuring vaguely as part of Antarctica at the bottom.

I took a break for lunch, a tasty wonton soup served with tea for $10 in the peaceful museum restaurant outside the main building, then went to explore another floor of the museum, seeing lacquerware (an artform that dates back to 5000 BC!) with inlaid mother of pearl, iron sculptures of a snake, a lobster, and fish, of bronze quails and elephants that doubled as incense burners, and an ox. In the Edo period they loved collecting miniature objects: those Hina dolls that I mentioned in an earlier blogpost often had dolls-house furniture with tableware to match. Some of the dolls were made to nod their heads or dance in circles.

In the last gallery visitors were being encouraged to sit down and create their own design for a kimono. I did this too and was given a leaflet about the meaning of the patterns used on kimonos.

Near each museum (my blog is all about juxtapositions!) was a large public park, Bute Park and Ueno Park, respectively. The spring daffodils were starting to bloom in Cardiff; at the bottom of the hill near Ueno Station in Tokyo I walked past a lotus pond that had not yet sprung to life. I'd have to return in midsummer to see those flowers in bloom.