March this year coincided with Lent, the fast that lasts from Ash Wednesday to Easter. In previous years I've given up meat, animal products, dessert, snacking, or any or all of the above. This year I decided to do something different. Instead of giving up a kind of food, I've been eating anything I want – but only between the hours of sunset and sunrise. I got the idea when I was working in Vancouver last year. In September, my Saudi Arabian students were fasting for Ramadan, and one of my fellow teachers, in a show of solidarity, decided to do the same. Talking with her about it, I thought it sounded like an interesting discipline, and this Lenten season I decided to try it. My fast wasn't quite as hard-core as the traditional one in a couple of ways. Firstly, the Ramadan fast actually begins some time before sunrise and ends some time after sunset. Secondly, Muslims are forbidden to eat or drink anything, but I made an exception for water.
At first, it was easier than I thought it would be. The first day or two were hard, but I was surprised by how quickly my body adjusted to it. It was just a matter of skipping lunch, and, on the bright side, I found that dinner started tasting really good. Still, as the days grew longer so did the fasts, which meant, paradoxically, that increased daylight became a bad thing for me. The arrival of Daylight Savings meant I could sleep in a bit, but also that I had to wait so long for dinner that I got over-hungry and lost my appetite again. The fast also necessitated some unusual sleeping schedules. For example: 6:00 – get up, brush teeth, eat breakfast; 7:00 a.m. – go back to bed and sleep for two hours; 9:00 a.m. – shower, get dressed, go to church. Or: 5:45 a.m. – get up, brush teeth, eat breakfast; 6:45 a.m. – get dressed, watch an hour of T.V.; 8:00 a.m. – go to work; 1:00 p.m. – get home from work, take a two-hour nap. The most surprising thing was that even though I was starving at dinner time, I always ate a normal-sized meal, and didn't feel the need to stuff myself. There's probably a lesson in there about how we don't need as much food as we think we do, something I'm reminded of every year at Lent – and always forget shortly thereafter.
Over all it was a good discipline, and I tip my proverbial hat to all the Muslims who every year forego not only food but also water for their holy month. I don't think I could do that, but I might do a similar fast again if Lent is a bit earlier, or if I'm living at a more southerly latitude. I might also try something less-extreme, like fasting between 8:00 a.m. and 6:00 p.m., or something. Oh, and in case you're wondering, no, I did not lose a noticeable amount of weight over this.
At the beginning of March I went with a group of international students to visit a sugar bush. I'd done the sugar bush field trip in elementary school, of course, but it was nice to go again, and to help introduce the foreigners to this very Canadian tradition. It was an excellent day for the trip. The weather had just started to get warm, so the sap was running and the temperature was mild, but there was still lots of snow on the ground. I did the tour and the sleigh ride and then got all wet because I forgot how a see-saw works. (See, this is why I don't go in for sports!) I didn't do myself any permanent damage, though.
I mentioned that I joined my church choir in January. The songs weren't great, but it was nice to be back into singing, and I was really starting to enjoy it. Unfortunately, due to some problems (which I won't get into), the choir has taken a break, so I'm not able to do that any more. I don't know at this point when it might reconvene.
I guess the Oscars must have gotten pushed back by the Olympics, because they were at the beginning of March this year. They broke with tradition by nominating ten films for Best Picture, instead of the usual five, but I'd still only seen a few of them. Of the films I had seen, Avatar won only technical awards, and Star Trek picked up Best Makeup. I was surprised that Sandra Bullock got the Best Actress award. I hadn't seen any of the other nominees, but I didn't think her performance in The Blind Side was that great. Still, it was impossible to hold the win against her, because she accepted it with so much grace, praising her co-nominees and thanking "the moms that take care of the babies and the children, no matter where they come from." The show itself was okay; my only complaint was that they omitted the live performances of the nominated songs – usually my favourite part. In Memoriam: It was a quiet year. We lost Patrick Swayze, Carl Malden, and Ron Silver (that last one came as a surprise to me). Oh, and Michael Jackson, of course, although he's not remembered as a film personality.
In the news, a woman was kicked out of a French language class in Québec for refusing to remove her niqab. Both the niqab and the burqa creep me out: I disagree with a mentality that says women should hide their faces, and I think it would be deeply disconcerting to talk to someone whose face you couldn't see. However, I also believe in freedom of expression, and I don't think the government has the right to tell people what they can and can't wear. I agree that there should be standards as to what government employees wear while interacting with the public, and that people who seek government services should need to show their faces for identification purposes, but in most circumstances they should be able to wear whatever they want. As an E.S.L. teacher, I can definitely see how wearing a niqab could be an impediment to language learning – but not as big an impediment as getting kicked out of a language class!
In related news – or at least similar news – U.S. pundit Ann Coulter came to speak at the University of Ottawa and was booed off campus by protesting students. I found the story especially interesting because I had been at the university a few days before, and I saw a poster up that said, effectively, "Support free speech," and below that, "Stop Ann Coulter from speaking." Apparently, they don't teach irony at university these days. I don't know much about Ann Coulter (except that she provides occasional fodder for Jon Stewart), but as I've already said, I'm a big fan of free speech, and short of inciting violence, I believe people have the right to express their opinions. I'm reminded of a similar incident in 2002, when students kept Benjamin Netanyahu from speaking at the University of Concordia. In both cases students seem to have shown a disturbing lack of respect for our Charter rights, not to mention an un-Canadian lack of good manners. Perversely, the more recent fiasco has also had the effect of turning Ann Coulter into a martyr. Way to go, U. of O. students!
Movies I've seen this month:
The Road – A fairly faithful adaptation of the novel. Unusually, I worried that having the book so fresh in my mind might have made the movie seem better than it otherwise would have, but the person I saw it with confirmed that the film also works in its own right, and I'll take her word for it. It certainly seemed to capture all the important elements of the story. And, yes, I cried at least once. (Three and a half stars)
World's Best Commercials of 2009 – Many of the ads were entertaining, but none was great. There was an ad with Ozzy Osbourne and some Hulu ads that were fun. My favourites, though were some ads from an eastern European country for local sports. (Two and a half stars)
Oscar-Nominated Short Films (Animated) – The five Oscar nominees plus three other shorts. My favourite was probably the Wallace & Gromit one, although I also enjoyed one called "The Lady and the Reaper", and I thought the animation style on the Polish film was quite interesting. I was quite disappointed in the winning film, which had a clever premise, but wasn't particularly well-done, and seemed unnecessarily crude. The only one I liked less was the Canadian film. (Three stars)
The Reader – Oscar-winning film about a teenaged boy's affair with an older woman who has a dark secret – or two. It raises some interesting points about guilt and responsibility in the Holocaust, but they aren't dealt with in as much depth as I would have liked, and I don't understand how that element of the plot is supposed to interact with the other themes. (Three stars)
O' Horten – Incredibly low-key Norwegian film about a retired train engineer. The situational comedy is mildly amusing at times, but never laugh-out-loud hilarious. (Two stars)
Inglourious Basterds – (Sic) Quentin Tarantino is back in form; this is definitely one of the better films I've seen by him. In contrast to Kill Bill, which I found overly long and overly gory, this one is much more thoughtful and atmospheric, and is full of wonderful little Tarantino-esque touches. I did feel that something was missing, though, and I didn't realise until later what it was. Compared to other Tarantino films, it spends fairly little time developing its characters. A couple of them are fairly engaging, but only a few are sympathetic, and most assume a purely functional role. That's especially sad for the characters played by Brad Pitt and Christoph Waltz, who are both brilliant but feel a tad under-used. (Three stars)
The Hurt Locker – A relatively well-made movie, but not at all as good as I was expecting from a Best Picture Oscar-winner. I'm especially surprised that it won Best Original Screenplay, considering the occasional corniness of the dialogue. (Three stars)
Departures – Oscar-winning Japanese movie about a cellist who loses his job in an orchestra and begins working at a funeral home. The premise is good, the main actor is loveable, and the film looks stunning, but it is weighed down by a rather predictable and cliché-ridden plot. (Three stars)
The Cove – Documentary about dolphin fishing in Japan. Definitely not an objective account, it casts the Japanese as villains and the filmmakers as valiant truth-seekers. Whether you buy it or not probably depends a lot on whether you accept its implicit premise that killing dolphins is inherently wrong. I must admit, I haven't given much thought to the issue, and I don't usually have an objection to using animals for food. Still, I tend to think of cetaceans, like apes, as being a class above other animals, and I probably wouldn't feel comfortable eating one. (Two stars)
The Legend of Drunken Master – Jackie Chan kung-fu action film. The plot is silly and the acting style is ridiculous, but I enjoyed the action sequences, and the cheesiness adds to the fun. (Two stars)
Twin Dragons – Another Jackie Chan film. Not as good as the first one. The story is sillier, and the action sequences not as good, except for the final showdown which is quite decent. (One and a half stars)
T.V. shows I've seen this month:
Mad Men (Season 1) – Okay, I gave this series a fair shot. And I have to say, I don't get it. What is so great about this show? Allowing for the literal '60s setting (as opposed to just being stuck-in-the-'60s), and the lack of violence, explicit sex, or nudity, it feels exactly like it's trying to be The Sopranos, with many of the same themes, all of the cynicism – and none of the humanity. Everything about this show feels shiny, polished, and lifeless, from the sets, which look like they belong in a museum, to the characters, who are unrelentingly two-dimensional. I mean, I get it already: the '60s were repressive. But did they literally produce nothing but people who were emotionally stunted and devoid of personality? The show does have its moments. (The second last episode is close to awesome; why can't they all be like that?) And it does provide an interesting reference point when learning about modern American history or listening to "The Age of Persuasion". I don't think I'll go back for Season 2, though.
Books I've read this month:
Farmer Giles of Ham by J. R. R. Tolkien – One of Tolkien's less-known works. It tells an amusing tale of a medieval English farmer pitted against a dragon.
The Colour of Magic by Terry Pratchett – The first of the Discworld books. So far I'm not that impressed with the series. I've heard it compared to the work of Douglas Adams, but I didn't find it that funny. The Discworld seems like a pretty interesting place, though, and I'd be willing to try another book or two.
Ayn Rand and the World She Made by Anne C. Heller – Biography of Ayn Rand, the famous novelist and libertarian philosopher. She sounds to have been a fascinating thinker, but rather a lousy human being. I've never read any of her books, but I'd definitely like to give them a go some time.