Fixed No Fixed Address

This is my annual Christmas story. For an earlier short in this universe, see No Fixed Address.

Fixed No Fixed Address

copyright 2018

Entre le bœuf et l’âne gris
Dort, dort, dort le petit fils
Mille anges divins, mille séraphins
Volent à l’entour de ce grand dieu d’amour.

The little girl’s soft voice carried across the camp through the open windows as she lulled her baby sister to sleep with a beautiful, haunting Christmas carol that her mother had taught her. Between verses, she offered commentary.

“I know you’re a girl, but the song is about Jesus. He was a boy,” she explained to the baby, who hopefully was content with the music and did not care.

Their family still had a few hours before they would join their neighbours for a Christmas Eve service followed by dancing. The year before, the tiny bedroom that they were lying in had been full of sleeping children. With a new RV in their camp, their original one was much roomier. Only Juno and Rilla were in the bedroom: Juno lying on the bed with Rilla in a bassinet beside her. Their older sister, Laura, usually shared with them, but she was busy trying to get their brothers to sleep in the living room. They were exhausted, but much too excited for Christmas.

“Shh, quiet down! You don’t have to sleep, but let Dad rest, okay? He’s been up a long time. We don’t want him to get sick! Listen to your sister sing.”

The boys groaned about their sister’s singing, but seemed to comply. They did not want to disappoint their father.

In the new RV – which was only new to them, being over thirty years old – the other half of the family had settled down for a nap as well. It was comparatively quiet, even with four children between the ages of two and nine, two adults, and a six-month-old baby, aside from an occasional giggle or snuffle.

The two remaining members of their little extended family were snuggled together in a tiny car, parked a few metres from the window that Juno sang beside.

“Do you remember when it was always too cold at Christmas to have the windows open?” the woman in the car asked her companion. “Now, even in a little parked car with no heat on, we have the windows down a crack.”

The man laughed.

“You know, I don’t really remember the weather much. Just playing outside – hockey, mostly. It was cold and there was usually snow. But I was trying to avoid windows!”

Jillian’s heart sank as she saw tears on his face.

“It was fun, wasn’t it?”

“Oh yes,” Phil hurriedly wiped his face. “Just thinking about how much fun it was.”

She nodded and tried to change the subject.

“The smell of the food cooking is making me hungry. I look forward to tonight!”

“Me too. I’ve never tried your bread before!”

“Really? Not even from, like, a bake sale or anything?”

He shook his head.

“Oh! Well, I hope it’s half as good as my grandmother’s. I mean, it’s mostly just bread, nothing really special. But we always had it at Christmas…” Now it was her turn to cry.

“I’m sure it will be wonderful! And I don’t think the kids will get at it. Laura’s guarding the kitchen until they fall asleep.” He gestured toward the kitchen window of the RV, where the eleven-year-old was visible leaning against the fridge.

“I’m sorry, I must seem so self-absorbed! It’s just that even with the war, we moved to our uncle’s farm and everything was pretty safe, even without my dad. We always had a big Christmas dinner with a roasted ham – I mean, it was a pig farm – and I just miss everyone! I didn’t think the invaders would destroy them after six years! Even the poor little pigs! Whatever did they do?”

“We managed to save some of the piglets, though, remember? We have them here. They’re just not big enough for a Christmas ham yet.”

“I know, I know, you lost your whole family too…”

“It’s okay, we’ll be okay,” he whispered, kissing her head as she sobbed.

Phil wished that he had more certainty in his life, but eight years of war, internment, and resistance had practically banished the concept from his mind. All he knew for sure now was that he had a new family to protect – one that cared for him even as he was the strange outsider.

“Do you think Sarah had any more tissues in here?” Jillian asked, pulling the last one from the box on her lap. “She always had tonnes of supplies.”

“I hope so. I don’t want to go back inside and wake up the kids.”

“Now, if I were Sarah, where would I put my extra tissues? In the trunk?”

Jillian pulled herself up to look over the backseat and into the hatchback’s trunk space, while Phil opened the centre compartment between the front seats.

“Found some!” they both cried out at once and then burst into laughter.

“Thank you, Sarah,” Jillian sighed with relief, collapsing back down into the seat. “And thank you, Phil. We can use that small pack for now. Maybe you can reach over and get a box from the trunk later?”

“Okay, sure. Whoa, what’s the matter?”

“Nothing, nothing, just sat down too quickly so I’m a bit dizzy.”

“Here, take another tissue.” He handed her one of the travel packs that he had found in the compartment and tossed the empty box into the passenger seat.

“How many empty boxes are in the passenger seat now?”

“Can’t see – maybe four?”

“Okay, I’d better make a note of that.”

“You don’t need to be Sarah 2.0, you know. We all like you already!”

“I know, but…well, I miss her too! I was just getting to be friends with her. I mean, I know it’s not like Matt being widowed again or the kids losing their mom, or you guys losing a close friend you’d had for years, but still…”

“It doesn’t matter – we lost a wonderful person.” A part of him would always be in love with Sarah Donald, even as he had never had with her what he had with Jillian. “And four kids lost their mother. Part of me just wants to pack the twins up with us in the car and drive away!”

“What?” Jillian stared at him. “That would devastate them!”

“I know! I guess I’m just selfish like that sometimes. It’s stupid – Matt is a better father than me a hundred times! But Vimy looks just like me and I always wish I could be more than just his uncle. And Juno is an orphan now!”

“Shh! She’s still awake! She’s still singing, in fact.”

Phil lowered his voice, but didn’t sound any less grief-stricken.

“I feel like I’ve failed them.”

“How? Failed who? You gave up everything to come be here for the twins. Everyone knows that. The twins even know who you are. You could have left whenever you wanted.”

“I didn’t have anything to go back to.”

“We’re a family here now! You’re the one who told me that, remember? And you just told me a few minutes ago that we’d be okay.”

Jillian suddenly burst into hysterical giggles.

“We’re hilarious, you know? We’re having a Christmas pity party instead of celebrating like I’m sure everyone thinks we are out here.” She kissed him. “I love you, Phil.”

“I love you too. I’m sorry I’m being so selfish and sad. Shall we try to sleep, like the others? Perhaps we will feel better.”

“Um, maybe. But I have another idea! How about I give you my Christmas gift? I brought it with me, just in case. I wanted to give it to you in private.”

Phil’s eyes widened.

“I – I have yours too, but…I’m not sure now is a good time…”

“Why not? At the farm, we always exchanged gifts on Christmas Eve. The morning was for Santa.”

“Um, well…yeah, I have no real reason, I guess. Can I give you yours first?”

“Sure.” She looked around, trying to see if he had smuggled in a gift that she would not recognise. That would have been difficult, seeing as she was always inventorying everything.

The gift, however, had been hiding in his coat pocket for several weeks.

“I can’t offer you certainty, but I can offer you everything I have. Jillian Marie Brooke, will you marry me?”

He held a ring out to her.

“Of course! Oh my God, of course!” She was crying again. “This is wonderful. Let me try it on.”

“Thank you!” It was his turn to kiss her. “Here – if it doesn’t fit, I have a chain you can wear it on until we can get it fixed.”

Jillian was not surprised that it was too small for her fingers, although she was mildly disappointed. The light from the RV glinted off the ring and the chain as Phil fastened it around her neck.

“It’s beautiful on you,” he whispered. “Your favourite colour!”

Nodding, she pulled out the gift bag that she had carefully concealed behind an extra blanket.

“Now it’s your turn! It’s not as sparkly, but you’ll love it.”

“Wow, you even got tissue paper and everything!”

“Sarah helped me pick it out. The wrapping, I mean.”

“The red tissue paper was her idea?”

“Well, the bag is green, and we could only afford one pack of tissue paper…”

Phil pulled out what seemed like a lightweight lump of red paper.

“Yes, that’s it!” Jillian was trembling excitedly. “It’s a two-part gift, but that’s all that’s in the bag. The second part is going to take more time.”

To tease her, he opened the paper as slowly as he could. Finally, he uncovered a red metal mug with a silhouette of two hockey players and a maple leaf. One of the players was much smaller than the first.

“A hockey mug! With a maple leaf!” That was a rare find now.

“Turn it over, turn it over! Like I said, it’s a two-part gift.”

The other side had #1 Coach #1 Dad emblazoned on it. Phil read it aloud and slowly looked up at Jillian.

“Thanks! This is awesome! I love it! I’ve never been called a dad before.”

“I thought of you right away when I saw it. I thought it would be the perfect way to tell you.”

“Wait, tell me?”

“The second part of your gift! It’ll be ready in June.”

It still took him a few seconds to understand what she meant.

“Wonderful! Oh, my beautiful Jillian, you’re right, I do love my gift! I promise to be there for you as long as I can.”

“Me too.”

“No wonder you said you were hungry! Are you sure you don’t need anything?”

“I’m fine. I can wait. But I would like to rest now, maybe? I don’t think I can actually sleep.”

“Sounds good to me.”

As they lay there together, they realised that they could still hear singing.

“Is Juno still awake? Poor little girl. She’s going to be exhausted by the time we get to the feasting and dancing.”

“I don’t think that’s her. It sounds much more like an older woman. Probably a neighbour.”

Phil nodded, but he was not convinced.

“Or maybe her mother is back to sing for us for Christmas.”

Entre le bœuf et l’âne gris
Dort, dort, dort le petit fils
Mille anges divins, mille séraphins
Volent à l’entour de ce grand dieu d’amour.

Posted in Christmas, Katy Originals, No Fixed Address | Tagged , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

Meditations On Scrooge, the Grinch, & Charlie Brown

For some reason, this year, I was struck by how important and yet misunderstood the characters of Scrooge, the Grinch, and Charlie Brown are. I felt a great kinship with these characters – not because I hate Christmas (I most certainly don’t!), but because they are all the types of people that Christmas most applies to. These are the people that Christ especially came for. [Yes, I know the Grinch and the Whos aren’t human, but for the purpose of both Dr. Seuss’s story and mine, they are considered people.]

Yet in our modern Christmas – both secular and religious – we get caught up in the warm and fuzzy feelings of family, food, friends, gifts, and magic.

Even those of us who ascribe to the Christian faith succumb to these distractions. We get caught up in preparing a giant meal for our family and forget to share our food with the hungry, or even to stop to give a donation as we rush past the Salvation Army kettle. We get caught up in making Christmas special for children. We want to feel childlike wonder again, whether vicariously through children and grandchildren, or through things that we have experienced since childhood, like family recipes, hymns & carols, and sparkly decorations. Even the act of going to church can be more about the warm fuzzies than the birth of Christ. Look, a cute baby! Lambs and sheep! Angels singing! The whole family together in one pew to make Grandma happy!

For many people, this type of Christmas is one more thing that excludes them, and thus one more thing that they want to exclude themselves from. In both Charles Dickens’s A Christmas Carol and Dr. Seuss’s How the Grinch Stole Christmas, the main characters initially hate Christmas. (In the case of the Grinch, the 2000 film adaptation gives him a backstory as to why, while the original storybook left it ambiguous.) Ebenezer Scrooge is a middle-aged businessman who has descended into bitter miserliness. He did not start out that way, but over the course of his life, his fear of poverty and desire to be a successful businessman brought him to this state. Christmas reminded him of what he did not have and also pushed at him to spend money. Thus, he grew to hate it. Meanwhile, the Grinch was either simply physically disabled by a heart that was too small, or he was raised by a culture obsessed with consumerism, conformity, and Christmas. Either way, he did not understand the true meaning of Christmas, and thus the superficial aspects of it drove him away from others.

Charlie Brown is a different case, being that he is younger and not yet jaded. As someone who is disliked and bullied, Christmas reminds him of that. (As he says, “I know no one likes me. Why do we have to have a holiday to emphasise it?”) He is not liked simply because of who he is, not because of his deliberate actions. He wants to like Christmas. He wants to be involved. He wants to be loved.

And instead of abandoning him when he reaches the point of despair, his friends and classmates realise their error in how they treated him (at least for this Christmas) and welcome him back into their fold, fixing his tree and recognising that he is a fellow person worthy of respect and love. Basically, they prevented him from descending into darkness.

Neither the Grinch nor Ebenezer Scrooge had a neat and tidy story like Charlie Brown. Throughout their lives, they were pushed and retreated further and further away from their fellows. In the case of the Grinch, this was a literal retreat, while Scrooge remained active in society, but retreated within himself and his business. Instead, they had to overcome a lifetime of villainy – a lifetime of resentment.

Scrooge especially is depicted as an ordinary man. He does not enjoy being villainous. He sees himself as the put-upon victim. He is struggling to maintain his business amid the vagaries of life, and here come those jolly-types soliciting for donations. He is an honest taxpayer who feels that his hard-earned money is going to those who don’t deserve it. He has driven away any friends he once had. The love of his life broke off their engagement because she didn’t understand how much he needed to build up his business to support her. His beloved sister died in childbirth, abandoning him, and every year his nephew comes to invite him to Christmas dinner, reminding him that his sister is gone.

Of course, he comes to realise that while he is a victim of circumstances, we all are, and we all have our choices to make. Everyone has bills to pay; no one deserves poverty; he was the one who drove away his friends and he can still make new ones; his fiancée was right to end their engagement; and his nephew is extremely loving, patient, and persistent by annually asking him to dinner.

It is this last bit that it especially important. Dickens portrays both Scrooge’s nephew Fred and Scrooge’s clerk Bob Cratchit as model Christians. The latter is particularly emphasised as going to church, even as most of his family can’t join him. Both men have a strong love of Christmas, and both men are extremely patient with Scrooge to the point of being considered foolish. For the sake of the day, they recognise Scrooge’s humanity and loneliness.

It is easy to ascribe the role of villain to those in our lives who are anything less than over-the-top about Christmas, instead of acknowledging them and listening to them. Likewise, it is easy to see ourselves as victims, even of silly things like Happy Holidays.

As Nephew Fred says, Christmas is a loving, honest, and charitable time. It is about love for others, especially those who are hard to love and have made it harder to love them by their own actions. Humanity made itself very hard to love indeed!

So while the family, friends, food, gifts, and magic are not wrong, they are not the be-all and end-all of Christmas. These stories are not about evil or grumpy characters who conform to goodness and jolliness in the end. These are stories of redemption. In the end, Scrooge was still alone, but he was no longer lonely. He was still rich, but he shared his wealth. The Grinch still lived on his mountain. Charlie Brown was still considered a loser at school, but he knew that his classmates still cared for him.

Now, the work of keeping the Christmas spirit throughout the rest of the year continues.

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Third Time Isn’t Quite the Charm

Season 11, Episode 19 (Home for the Holidays)


So we come to the third Murdoch Mysteries Christmas special! It was delightful, but not as uplifting as the 2016 edition. It had beauty, charm, and comedy, but it was also too over-the-top in some spots.

Most importantly, I felt that the show was disjointed. This was a natural consequence of having Murdoch and Ogden head to Victoria to spend the holidays with Murdoch’s half-brother, while leaving the rest of the main characters in Toronto. This led to the storylines being completely separate and I felt like I was watching two entirely different movies.

Firstly, although this was the B-plot, we are treated to a Christmas crime caper. A young Charles Ponzi appears in Toronto to scam people out of their life-savings. Brackenreid, along with Crabtree, Higgins, and their girlfriends, have to stop him. It was a good story and there were important lessons in it about forgiveness, victim blaming, and greed. However, it was overshadowed by the fact that the Brackenreids felt wildly out of character. Mrs. Brackenreid suddenly seems obsessed with getting rich (rather than simply hobnobbing it with the wealthy) and acts like a jealous child. She realises the error of her ways at the end, but it is such an about-turn that I am wondering if she suffered from a mental breakdown offscreen. It was painful to watch. Inspector Brackenreid gets taken up in her desire to be rich and almost seems to be indulging his wife in a flight of fancy that goes too far. Despite being whimsical and romantic, Brackenreid is a practical man. His oddly out of character moment is more understandable, however. Sometimes, people who are intelligent, practical, or of good moral standing make bad decisions that surprise everyone, especially themselves. Nonetheless, when combined with his wife’s odd mania, the storyline seems forced.

Secondly, the C-plot fits nicely into the B-plot in the second act, completely the crime caper movie. Ruth decides that she wants to invite Higgins, Crabtree, and Nina to her chalet in Vermont for Christmas. While the women are excited to go skiing, the constables realise that they have no idea how to ski and no real desire to plummet down a mountain. They try to learn, but that only ends up with Higgins getting injured. Soon, the trip is put aside and the caper takes over – we never find out if they actually still go to Vermont or not. The last we see them, they are enjoying local street entertainment together, and Higgins is relieved that Ruth is enjoying herself. (He loves her, but he feels hopelessly outclassed by her as she is wealthy and well-travelled.)

The two above plots were mostly enjoyable but completely different from the A-plot, namely the Murdochs in Victoria. In it, Murdoch assists his brother in a murder investigation, while Dr. Ogden tries to be a good aunt to her nieces despite her sister-in-law’s dislike of her.

(Honestly, I think I would have liked these better if they had been two separate episodes rather than one special. The first hour could have seen the Murdochs on their merry way and then concentrated on the caper in Toronto, while the second hour could have been the Victoria mystery.)

Overall, while I found Higgins, Crabtree, and their girlfriends funny, I was most impressed by the Victoria storyline and I felt that it deserved its own spotlight. I understand that comedy was lacking in it, but that was because it was not a comedic story. It was a story about rights and about family. It was about both our modern age and the past. It was about history and heritage.

The murder investigation has to do with an archaeological dig site on Songhees territory (not that their treaty is worth much if a coal baron has his way) and Murdoch and his brother soon find themselves embroiled in a dispute between the Songhees, the Haida, and the miners. This is all amid the beautiful scenery of Vancouver Island, which is actually playing itself for once!

The most important aspect of this storyline, in my opinion, is that it reminds us that we are not prisoners of history (and not characters in a scripted show) and we need to use our past to look to the future. We can choose to act. We need to treat each other with respect because we are all humans beings, and we also need to understand how trust and respect have eroded over time. It is not enough to say “trust us now” or “we didn’t do anything” or “we don’t want you here”. Broken trust needs to be earned back through actions, not promises. Being innocent of a particular crime doesn’t mean that one didn’t profit from it. No one is going anywhere.

The secondary storyline is also important because it ultimately focuses on the changing roles and rights of women in the early 20th century. Dr. Ogden immediately raises the ire of her sister-in-law because she is still using her maiden name, still asserting her identity as a doctor, and still practicing medicine, albeit as a coroner. (She also disapproves of the job of coroner at all, but especially for females.) Dr. Ogden is met with contempt and false welcome, while her nieces are bratty and obviously miserable. Initially, Dr. Ogden is simply appalled, but she soon realises that the girls are curious and bored. Their mother stifles them, trying to protect them by keeping them in approved, docile, feminine roles. What Dr. Ogden comes to realise, however, is that her sister-in-law had to give up her scholarly aspirations and she does not want her daughters to suffer what she believes will be the same inevitable disappointment that she did. She wants them to find good husbands and be happy housewives. (Unfortunately, her good intentions do not result in happy daughters.) Dr. Ogden is thus a bright light to her nieces and a glaring reminder of what her sister-in-law gave up. Nonetheless, her treatment of Dr. Ogden is inexcusable. Luckily, the situation is remedied in time for Christmas!

After all, even in 1905, there is no point in trying to hold back children because of potential future setbacks. Not only is the future unknown, but trying to protect from future misery usually ends up in pushing the misery back into the present. This does not apply only to women (who are still being advised to be happy homemakers and to prize their children and husbands above all else in 2017), but also to anyone suffering from poverty, chronic illness, disability, or institutional discrimination. Education is important. Yes, there will be children who are bright and yet forced to change their goals because of circumstances beyond their control. Some will fall into despair and waste their lives completely, others will despair a little and then re-evaluate the situation, while still others will find the opportunity to persevere with their original goals, albeit perhaps in a modified fashion. However, trying to prevent children from ever setting these goals – or even thinking that they could set them – is not helping them do anything. It is merely hiding from, not facing, reality.

Posted in Christmas, Katy Pontificates, Katy Rants, Murdoch Mysteries, Reviews, Television | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Solving Puzzles

Season 11, Episodes 8 & 9 (Brackenreid Boudoir)(The Talking Dead)

While December gets to be a busy time, it was refreshing to watch non-Christmas programming earlier in the month as Murdoch Mysteries aired two amusing-but-puzzling episodes. One of the joys of this show is that while it is a police procedural with a set formula, they keep visiting other genres and delving into the various types of detective stories that have been created. After ten seasons, it is not enough that this show is set in the past. Nor does the audience want to be constantly beset by social issues and history lessons. Yes, drama is important. But sometimes, we just want a good laugh, a good mystery, or both.

Unsurprisingly given the title, Brackenreid Boudoir is definitely more on the side of good laughs, if a bit awkward. An artist is murdered and Inspector Brackenreid goes undercover (or rather, pretends to be going through a midlife crisis) to try to determine who among a group of artists, or their patron, is responsible for the death. All is well and good, but the patron is a wealthy socialite who likes to make lovers out of her favourites and gets very possessive. Not only that, she insists on being painted nude.

Naturally, this causes friction between Brackenreid and his wife. Why he can`t explain to her what he is up to is beyond me. She is smart enough to keep her mouth shut if given an adequate explanation. Unfortunately, a good portion of the episode relies on the comedy between the Brackenreids and it is slightly cringe-worthy. I understand that the relationship between Brackenreid and the socialite is supposed to be creepy and awkward, but that should be contrasted with humour. Mrs. Brackenreid just doesn’t come off as funny – so much of her storyline would have been improved if she had only been told that her husband`s new fondness for painting naked women was an important part of an investigation. Yes, she might have hesitated to believe that at first, but at least it would have made the story more enjoyable.

The art appreciation subplot is hilarious: there are a lot of humourous exchanges between Crabtree, Higgins, Nina, and Ruth regarding Brackenreid painting nude portraits of them. For all his interest in progress and modernity, Crabtree is a bit taken aback by a painting of his girlfriend with no clothes on, even if she is a burlesque dancer. Ruth, on the other hand, is practically game for anything, while Higgins is naturally intrigued by the idea of such a painting but put off by the whole idea of his boss painting it. Finally, there is an ongoing dispute between Murdoch and Dr. Ogden about the value of a landscape painting. While Dr. Ogden is absolutely enamoured by it, Murdoch is simply unimpressed. Their resolution to the dilemma is sweet. Even in marriage, there can be room for individual preference.

The most important part of this episode is the last scene, wherein Dr. Ogden finally confesses her plan to undergo fertility treatments to her husband. The painting is forgotten and instead we get to see how this type of conversation should pan out: namely, Murdoch reaffirms that he does not care whether or not they can have children if it means that his wife will put her life at risk unnecessarily, and Dr. Ogden insists that she wants to do this for both of their sakes, not just because she thinks she is failing him as a wife. Whether this type of conversation is historically accurate is beyond me – I never overheard any bedroom conversations in the Edwardian era. Most couples were not science-geeks with access to fertility treatments, but I am sure that there were plenty of folk remedies that were more accessible to the average couple. Whether or not the topic was discussed privately is not something that can be easily determined. Still, the conversation was believable and heartwarming, putting to rest any lingering awkwardness.

For a completely different tone, The Talking Dead is a bottle episode that mostly takes place in the stationhouse, but manages to distract the viewer from this by inviting them in to solve the puzzle. While the puzzle of who killed the artist in the previous episode was also fun to uncover, this mystery left many obvious clues and marked the return of Murdoch’s blackboard. Several characters discover that their obituaries have been written in the newspaper, and two of them are soon murdered. The remaining victims are gathered at the stationhouse for their safety and to assist in the investigation. Unfortunately, the stationhouse is not as safe as everyone supposed!

This is a classic whodunit mystery wherein assorted individuals from a variety of social backgrounds end up both victims and suspects while the police try to figure out the culprit. When they do, it is not who they initially think it is!

Now, I have to admit, I had strong suspicions about the murderer when I saw the guest cast and recognised one of them as being more prominent than the others. While this is not always a guarantee on this show, as there are a lot of cameos and famous faces, when faced with half a dozen strangers and one familiar actor, it is a good idea to pay attention to them. Besides, their character was not played up as important initially, nor was said actor’s guest appearance featured in advertising. However, from the writing alone, this character was not particularly suspicious initially. The recognition was more likely because of my having seen said actor in something else.

One of the obituary victims is Detective Watts, who is thus kept from further investigating lest he be attacked. However, once it is determined that the station is not any safer than anywhere else, Watts convinces Murdoch and Brackenreid to let him resume working the case. Watts is a fatalistic man and while he is naturally afraid of dying, he is determined to continue to live life to the fullest and do his duty. He and Crabtree have an excellent discussion as they investigate. When asked what he would do if he knew that he was going to die that day, Watts admits that he would spend it investigating crime with a friend. In other words, he is doing both what he loves and what he needs to do. (Incidentally, thanks to a little webseries promoting the Frankie Drake Mysteries, we know that Watts will survive into the 1920s.)

The best part of this episode for me as a viewer was my solving the puzzle and feeling a sense of accomplishment at being right. The show presented clues and several red herrings, and the pacing was such that we were able to follow Murdoch’s line of reasoning slightly ahead of him. We had long lingering shots of the blackboard with names. The characters sputtered exposition for us to piece together. It was dark in tone, but it was a good mystery.

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The Book of Life (2014)

The Book of Life (2014)

While waiting to see Disney-Pixar’s new film Coco, I finally got to see The Book of Life. Both films are about Day of the Dead, a Mexican holiday celebrated on Nov. 2, but that is about where the similarities end. (Oh, and they’re both animated. There’s that.) Any more comparisons will have to wait until I actually get to see Coco.

The Book of Life is stop-motion animation and is entirely a fairy tale. The frame story is a group of wayward schoolchildren are taken on a tour of a museum somewhere in the United States that has a Mexican exhibit. It is the Day of the Dead, so their mysterious tour guide tells them a story about the holiday.

What follows is classic fairy tale fun: the story centres around a bet made by on-again/off-again lovers La Muerte (who rules over the Land of the Remembered) and Xibalba (who rules over the Land of the Forgotten) in the Underworld. Their bet involves a spirited young girl – unsurprisingly named Maria – and her two childhood male friends, Manolo and Joaquin. Each one bets that Maria will end up marrying their favourite. Both boys love Maria, albeit initially only as friends. After she is sent away to boarding school, both boys grow to love her romantically in absentia.

La Muerte picks Manolo, while Xibalba picks Joaquin. Xibalba keeps trying to cheat to win the bet. Meanwhile, the two boys follow drastically different careers pursuits. Joaquin becomes a military hero while Manolo becomes a bullfighter, although he would rather be a musician. When Maria returns, she warms up to Manolo, but her father would rather that she marry Joaquin.

A trip to the Underworld ensues, thanks to Xibalba’s cheating, and eventually all ends well – but I won’t reveal how!

Despite the plot being fairly predictable, it was a delightful story. The animation was hilarious and beautiful. The music was especially touching. The score uses many pop songs (both recent and classic) remixed as mariachi music – and they work within the film to tell the story. There was lots of comedy, but plenty of dramatic and emotion scenes as well. It is a good family film that will appeal to adults and children together.

As for the heart of the story, the moral centres around what makes a true hero. Joaquin is the traditional military hero, although his heroics are largely aided by Xibalba’s magic; Manolo tries his hardest to please his father, who wants him to become a bullfighter as all the men in his family have been before, but he fails miserably.

The other theme is family and legacy. In the Underworld, Manolo meets all of his bullfighting ancestors – all very famous and all very much dead from their exploits. Some of this ancestors enjoyed the identity, but even some of them would have preferred other careers. His father insists that the men in their family do not apologise, but as part of outplaying Xibalba, Manolo is forced to fight the spirit of every bull that his family has killed. Instead of trying to kill the spirits, he instead brings out his guitar to sing a song of apology. It is not that he does not respect his family, but that he acknowledges that a) they got where they were through a lot of pain to others, and b) that he does not want to follow in their footsteps.

We cannot change the past, but we can acknowledge it and continue to move forward.

I really enjoyed this film and its lessons go far beyond its fairy-tale cuteness and simplicity. It is funny, sad, beautiful, romantic, clever, and action-packed. It is everything that a good story should be.

I hear there might even be a sequel!


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Meditations on The Nutcracker Ballet

Meditations on The Nutcracker Ballet

Despite how ubiquitous The Nutcracker is around Christmas – its music especially, if not the ballet or story itself (in fact, some of the music even makes it into non-Christmas-themed commercials), I realise that it has been over 25 years now since I have actually seen the show. I was listening to an awesome parody medley where the unfortunate narrator keep going on about how the story “makes no sense” and it occurred to me that I could not remember it that well.

But then I thought about it, and when I later researched the plot online, I got it pretty much on the head.

Really, it is not a very complicated story. The ballet simplifies an otherwise convoluted German tale into a beautiful, visually-dazzling performance with catchy tunes. It is not about the story – it is about the dancing! The costumes! The elaborate sets! (Especially the giant Christmas tree in the first act, which was a novelty in late 19th-century Russia.) The music!

Thus the plot boils down to this: A young girl, Clara-Marie, gets a nutcracker doll from her mysterious godfather as a present on Christmas Eve. Her mean-spirited little brother breaks the doll, and when Clara-Marie falls asleep, she dreams that her doll has come to life and is fighting an evil Mouse-King. Thanks to her, the Mouse-King is killed (or just defeated, depending on how child-friendly the production is trying to be) and the Nutcracker Prince takes Clara-Marie to his kingdom, which is made of candy. There, all of the candy dance for her as they laud her heroism.

Basically, the whole story is about a young girl who has a sugary dream (having likely consumed lots of sweets at the party) and imagines her doll coming to life. Either he is a wholly fictional character whom she dreams up as a fantasy man, as young girls often do, or he is a representation of her godfather’s son whom she met at the party and developed a precocious crush on. (It depends on the production, just like whether Clara-Marie is called Clara or Marie.) Not much to parse here!

This is a ballet – it is about telling a story through dance and music. Part of the reason that it is seen as child-friendly is because of its relatively simple plot, Christmas theme, young protagonist, and bright colours. Oh yes, and the dancing candy.

Like most young girls, I took ballet classes and briefly dreamed of being a ballerina. As a result, I went to The Nutcracker at least a couple of times before the age of 8. It was the unofficial start of the Christmas season, usually taking place in the middle or latter half of November. The studio where I took ballet also housed the theatre where The Nutcracker was performed, so there was lots of excitement around it. I can certainly see why it appeals to young children.

I also think it presents a great opportunity for children to learn to appreciate live stage performance. The story is simple and relatable to them. Compared to most ballets, it has no romantic triangles, tragic love stories, or evil spells. It is quick-paced and dazzling, so it holds attention. I went to see Swan Lake when I was six and had to leave at the intermission because, well, I was tired and the show was boring. Then again, half the fun of going to The Nutcracker as a child was getting all dressed up. (It still is, if Facebook posts by my friends who are parents are anything to go by.)

The music itself is still wonderful – Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky at his best, despite his not being all that fond of it. (He would probably be slightly embarrassed to find out that his most enduring work is The Nutcracker and that it is being used to advertise garden centre and furniture clearance sales.) However, because it is everywhere at Christmas, it does feel a bit cliché. It is in holiday film trailers, countless commercials, Christmas concerts, music compilations, and more. Now I have to watch clips of the music with the dancing to get an idea of what the music is supposed to represent and truly appreciate it. Even still, it can be hard not to think of slapstick comedy or commercials.

However, the music is still used so much because it is enduring. Partly due to marketing, yes, but also because it is enjoyable. Great music and a great story – it is still relatable to audiences (for the most part) over 120 years after it was composed.

It’s about a little girl, her doll, and candy.

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Looking at One’s Life

Season 11, Episodes 5, 6 & 7 (Dr. Osler Regrets)(21 Murdoch Street)(The Accident)

Murdoch Mysteries has not been a show to shy away from difficult and timely topics, so I was not surprised by the premise of Dr. Osler Regrets, an episode that both explores libel and freedom of the press as well as the care of the elderly.

It centres around a visiting American doctor who is unfortunately quoted out of context as claiming that the elderly should be killed off. Not only is this a press disaster for the eponymous Dr. Osler, but a serial killer soon emerges who is targeting men over sixty. The newspaper – especially the annoying Miss Louise Cherry – makes the connection between the murders and Dr. Osler’s misquoted speech, thereby setting up much of the tension of the story.

Of course, the article and the murders are not related, and certainly, Dr. Osler is not to blame for the events. However, the misquote does get our characters thinking! Inspector Brackenreid is naturally concerned with his own aging, while Murdoch and Crabtree debate the idea of people being past their prime and what that means for them and society. Crabtree has an awkward reunion with Miss Cherry and we are unfortunately left with the impression that she is going to be a thorn in the constabulary’s side into the future. On the one hand, she is a determined career woman and talented writer; on the other, she is snoopy, snobby, and oblivious (or uncaring) to how dangerous her actions and writing can be. Personally, I want to see her succeed at her career, but I worry that her insensitivity will only cause herself eventual harm.

Meanwhile, Dr. Ogden confides in Dr. Osler about her experiments and potential fertility treatments. He is pleased for her, but dutifully warns her that she should be careful not to let her emotions get in the way of the experiment or take unnecessary risks. While this could have come across as patronizing, he does so in such a way that does not. Instead, he comes across as genuinely concerned for Dr. Ogden’s health. He treats her as a colleague, friend, and equal. Dr. Ogden has earned a place of esteem in her own right without having children – but she clearly still wants them, and she has earned the right to try.

Speaking of children, 21 Murdoch Street brings Brackenreid’s son, John, to the forefront of the weekly investigation. He infiltrates a prestigious college and gets a glimpse of how wealthier boys his age live and learn. He is initially investigating missing persons, but it soon turns into a murder case when he and Crabtree (who is undercover as a professor) find human remains in a furnace on campus.

Because the missing persons are not only less-than-exemplary students, but also sons of an Indian diplomat, issues of racism and imperialism arise over the course of the episode. The students’ behaviour is not unlike that of their peers, but the dean dismisses them as trash because of their skin colour. Their behaviour, meanwhile, stems directly from their desire for respect among their fellow students. Unsurprisingly, the boys are not dead, nor are they the murderers – despite the establishment’s strong dislike of them.

Crabtree takes his cover role seriously and tries his best to connect to the students in his class, most of whom are bored with their studies and futures. He manages to convince one student to pursue – or at least maintain and nurture – his artistic talents rather than viewing them as a hindrance. Sadly, these young men, John Brackenreid included, are all nine years away from the trenches of the First World War. Their futures are very likely to include death in the mud, or a lifetime of shellshock. It is poignant to see them in their pre-war, normal lives. There was nothing special about them – they were just young men. Whether or not they were content with their futures and lots in life, they still thought they had time. Sadly, most of them would not have much longer.

Finally, The Accident brings everything down to one hour and the chaos of a traffic accident in the early era of the automobile. It would not have amounted to much except that Mr. Dilbert, a city clerk whom Brackenreid briefly had to work with last season, is pinned between a car and a trolley. Dr. Ogden soon realises that to move him would likely kill him. Humble, diligent Mr. Dilbert enjoys one last hour of life, accompanied by Brackenreid. They are later joined by Mr. Dilbert’s colleague Miss Ash, whom he needs to submit his report to the city.

It soon becomes apparent that the accident was staged and that Mr. Dilbert was intentionally targeted. Murdoch has to contend with impatient drivers as he investigates as quickly and as thoroughly as possible. Meanwhile, Crabtree and his fellow constables have to clean up the scene, including comically chasing chickens and pigs – all the while dealing with nosey Miss Cherry again. To her credit, she does take Crabtree’s advice to help out instead of just being bothersome, but she still fails to understand that helping is not a transaction in exchange for information. (I actually feel sorry for her in her failure to understand. She is still annoyingly insensitive, but I don’t think it is as intentional as it appears.)

What this episode primarily focuses on is Mr. Dilbert as he comes to terms with his impending mortality. He goes through the five stages of grief and still manages to find time to ensure that his report gets finished and to confess to harbouring a crush on Miss Ash. Sadly, but fortunately for him, she reciprocates his feelings and both realise that they might have had a happy life together. That is not to say that Mr. Dilbert had a sad life, It merely was not all that remarkable and because he put his work first, he did not have any close friends or family. Like most of us, he thought he would have more time. Sudden death is not as likely for a clerk as it would be for a police officer. Yet he died precisely because his work mattered so much.

It is easy to get caught up in one’s own life, whether it is in one’s work, children, pursuit of happiness, or other endeavours. We are all only a sneeze away from death, no matter how careful and risk-averse we are, and most of us don’t get an hour to contemplate our demise.

In the end, Mr. Dilbert lived a life that he could be satisfied with. That is what we all need to hope for,


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