Sunday, January 27, 2013

A brief reflection on turning 50

This past Wednesday (January 23), I celebrated a major milestone birthday ... my 50th (that's right, the half-century mark ... the big 5-0!).

Usually, I would celebrate my birthday in a low-key manner. A nice dinner at my sister and brother-in-law's home with about 10 of my closest relatives, which is fine with me. For my 50th, my sister Nancy decided to ratchet it up a little and on the Saturday before, held a party with about 25 of my closest friends and relatives (there were great hors-doeuvres -- including hot brisket sandwiches -- a mini self service candy store in their dining room and of course, a delicious chocolate and vanilla cake). It was a great little get together and I didn't get home until 1 a.m. On the exact day of my birthday, four of my friends took me out to dinner at a downtown Montreal resto-pub that I started to frequent called Nyk's. We had a good time and a lot of laughs (and weren't hampered by the crappy attitude of the waiter, who wasn't thrilled at the the fact that my friend Paul brought along a birthday cake from an outside  bakery, and wanted to charge us $2 a slice if we wan't to serve the cake there ... all Paul asked for was four plates! Next time, we go to Baton Rouge). And the more than 250 birthday greetings I got on Facebook was certainly quite a boost.

Overall, it was a really terrific way to celebrate my half-century mark; it wasn't a loud blow-out, nor very under the radar low-key; it was just perfect!

I like to reflect a lot, and this week was no exception. Because I like history, I took a historical perspective on the week when I was born (January 23, 1963) to see how the world was like back on that cold January morning (it was a frigid 5 degrees Fahrenheit that day in Montreal). John F. Kennedy was still the president, John Diefenbaker was still the prime minister of Canada and Jean Drapeau was firmly ensconced in the mayor's chair at Montreal city hall. People were lining up outside movie theatres to see Peter O' Toole in David Lean's epic historical biopic "Lawrence of Arabia" (which is one of my favorite flicks); the #1 show on TV was "The Beverly Hillbillies" in its debut season (and Jethro's harebrained schemes always made me laugh, especially his Double-Knot spy phase); the #1 song on the Billboard charts that week was "Go Away, Little Girl" by Steve Lawrence (in which a cover version was done by Donny Osmond about a decade later); and in the bookstores, the title that was flying off the shelves was Rachel Carson's ahead-of-her-time look at the environment and how it was being ruined by pesticides called "Silent Spring". Indeed, it was an interesting time to be born.

Reflecting over the past 50 years, I realized there have been its share of good times, bad times, good choices, bad choices. Although I may not be a millionaire swimming in a pool of money, what I have experienced so far, and the people I have encountered and befriended have made me quite rich.

Let's see ... I appeared as a contestant on "Reach for the Top" and "Jeopardy!" ... I have met my share of interesting people throughout my personal and professional adventures (Terry Fox, Milton Berle, George Burns, Ed McMahon, the Governor General of Canada circa 1980, Joan Rivers, Drew Carey, Alex Trebek, the Smothers Brothers, the rock group Chicago, John Cleese -- who called me "Steve" --, Terry Jones, Jerry Stiller, Lewis Black, the list just goes on); I've had the good fortune to get involved in some great community and charitable organizations (which I am still involved with today) such as B'nai Brith Youth Organization, Dreams Take Flight and Generations Foundation; worked at some interesting jobs (such as researcher for Just For Laughs' museum and a newspaper copy editor/columnist); I've had my own weekly radio segment called "Book Banter" that ran for 19 years on CJAD; I've written a book that was a local bestseller and have churned out thousands of newspaper columns for several Montreal-based weekly papers, which has taken me to festivals, sporting events, fundraisers and plenty of shows (which I still do to this day, and still enjoy it since I produced my first piece of newspaper copy 32 years ago).

And like I've said before, the list just goes on.

I would like to conclude by saying that just because I just turned 50, it does not mean "over the hill" and ready to tread upon the path towards the old folks' home. I refuse to do that! I plan to spend the next half century continuing to do what I enjoy doing, explore some new things (I just got an iPad for a birthday gift and marvelling at what it can offer after so much navigating, and I'm beginning to savour the joy of a morning cup of coffee -- weekends only -- with another birthday gift, a brand new Keurig system), meet more new interesting people, travel a little bit more (next destination: BBYO International Convention in Washington, DC next month), churn out more written stuff and above all, appreciate more what I have now, look forward to see what the future will bring, and cherish the people  in my life (family, friends and professional acquaintances) who make me feel good and feel special, and in turn make them feel appreciative for the unique kind of people they are, and feel very fortunate that we're part of each other's lives. I couldn't ask for anything more.

The way I see it, I don't see myself as "olden", but more like "golden". Not a bad way to commemorate   50 years of one's life.

Saturday, January 12, 2013

Two dance-related shows that shouldn't be missed

Billy Elliot is not your average teenage boy from a small mining village in Northern England, circa 1984.

He is not keen on taking boxing lessons at the local gym for 50p a lesson. One day, after another unsuccessful boxing lesson, young Billy stumbles upon a girls’ ballet class run by the local dance teacher, Mrs. Wilkinson. Somehow, Billy gets roped into taking ballet class, and thanks to the encouragement and nurturing by Mrs. Wilkinson, Billy finds his footing on the ballet stage, rather than the boxing ring. In fact, his dancing skills make him good enough to audition for a spot at the prestigious Royal Ballet School in London.

This is the premise of “Billy Elliot”, the smash Broadway musical that is in its final two days of an eight-day run at Salle Wilfrid Pelletier of Place des Arts. The show, which won 10 Tony Awards, including best musical, takes place in a small northern English mining town during an actual bitter strike by coal miners in 1984. At that time, 300,000 miners walked off the job in order to save the British coal industry that was threatened with closure by then-Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, who was politically opposed to Britain having state-owned industries and was a strong proponent of destroying the unions.

While Billy finds ballet and dancing as a sense of escape from the bitterness and turmoil of the continuing coal miners’ strike, as well as a ticket out of the dreary life of working in the mines, he finds his artistic ambitions not getting the moral support from the townspeople and especially his dad, who is spending his time on the picket line.

This show is a gritty, moving and quite uplifting production about pursuing an out-of-the-ordinary dream in the face of harsh economic and labor realities. Every element of “Billy Elliot” works so well together to make it the award-winning blockbuster that it is. The performances of the ensemble cast give it the loud, brash, cheeky and profane audacity of the struggling but proud English working class heroes. Special kudos go to Noah Parets in the title role (one of the four young performers who portray Billy in the touring company) and Jake Kitchin who is a scene stealer as Michael, Billy’s best friend and aspiring cross dresser. The musical score by Elton John is powerful and the choreography is breathtaking (especially the “Angry Dance” number, which closes the first half of the show). And just when you finish wiping the tears from your eyes at the emotional finale, the entire cast return to do an uplifting closing dance number … and all of them (male and female) sporting tutus!

If you think ballet and taking ballet lessons is still not cool (especially for guys), check out “Billy Elliot” the musical; it will quickly change your mind.

* * *

Another addition to Montreal's ever growing list of cultural festivals is the Bouge d'Ici festival, which celebrates the art of dance in all of its many forms and is now running through January 19. 

The festival's nerve centre is the Mainline Theatre on St. Laurent Blvd., in which its artistic director is also the director of the Mainline, the irrepressible Amy Blackmore. It will be the site of a week's worth of shows, showcases and workshops dealing with everything that is dance and its many disciplines. 

Last night (Jan. 11) was the festival's opening night, which was marked by the performance of Sora, a Montreal dance collective. The group is made up of a trio of three young female dancers (Emilie Barrette, Magaly Gates and Alessandra Rigano), decked out in black dancing tights and with various selections of pre-recorded and live music (masterfully provided by guitarist Philippe Da Silva Ethier), provided a whirlwind 45-minute presentation of simple, yet complex contemporary interpretive dance. They say that seeing is believing, and that rings true for Sora. The trio puts so much energy into their visually stunning dance numbers, the odd silent pauses during the show are punctuated by their hushed, out-of-breath gasping for air, a true indication of how much hard work they commit to their unique interpretation to the beauty of individual and group dance. 

If what Sora offered last night is any indication, then dance fans -- and new converts to dance performance -- are in for a real treat during the entire run of the Bouge d'Ici festival. 

Thursday, January 3, 2013

Helping to make magical memories for special kids with Dreams Take Flight

On the afternoon of December 15, the 18th year of the Montreal chapter of Dreams Take Flight came to a conclusion on a festive note. That day, about 150 socially, physically and mentally challenged kids, their siblings and their parents -- along with many of the Dreams Take Flight adult volunteers and participants -- gathered for one last time at one of the hangars of the Air Canada base in the suburb of Ville St. Laurent (practically in the backyard of Trudeau Airport) for a memorable Christmas party. About six weeks had passed since we all spent a magical day that began bright and early at 3:30 in the morning at the hangar, as we embarked upon what I always called "the ultimate day trip" to Walt Disney World in Orlando, Florida.

This year marked the seventh time that I participated as an adult escort with DTF on their annual flight to Disney World. Someone once asked me if I found going to Disney World (in particular, the Magic Kingdom) every year rather repetitive. I told them that every time I go, I treat it as if it is my first time there.

And this year's flight was no exception.

It's amazing to see how the process that begins every year when our meetings resume in March, and culminates in the flight to Disney every first Wednesday in November. It's a process that I look forward to getting involved with during this eight-month period, because I realize this gargantuan effort wouldn't be possible without the tireless efforts and incredible organization of its dedicated core of volunteers (made up mostly of current and retired Air Canada employees, along with some friends and supporters), and the exceptional  leadership of its executive, led by longtime president Brian Roscoe.

But what I enjoy about being involved with Dreams Take Flight are the strong bonds that are created between the core group of people whom you see on a regular basis through these eight months, through practically every meeting, to their major annual fundraisers the golf tournament and the Defi Velo bicycle rally, to the parent meeting in October, to the child pre-registration and volunteer briefing, to the flight itself, to the Xmas party. These are the people who help select the kids, create the merchandise and gear for the children and adults, organize the logistics of the flight, who are the group leaders and adult escorts and who keep the Montreal chapter running like a well oiled machine day after day. These are the people you look forward to seeing every time and whom you want to become part of your group when we go to Disney World. They genuinely define what "dedication", "commitment" and "passion" are all about.

And of course, the main reason we all take the time and commit our energy to this magical day is the 175 special kids we bring along to Disney every November. Unfortunately, these kids who are selected only know a great deal of misfortune and hardship, whether it be a physical disability, an emotional or mental problem, or a financial/domestic hardship; basically, they mostly experience a lot of difficulty and harsh realities, and at times are always told "no" or "sorry, you can't". A Dreams Take Flight trip to Disney World or Disneyland is a well deserved escape from those hardships and harsh realities, even though it's only for 24 hours. I believe the Disney Parks are a concrete fantasy world, where the real world, and all of its problems, are supposed to left outside its gates. When I embarked upon my first Dreams Take Flight trip in 2004, and feeling a little nervous if I would be competent enough to handle a group of eight young kids between the ages of 7 and 11 whom I only met only once before a couple of weeks earlier, I devised a sort-of personal mission statement that gave me a sense of focus on what my job would be: "show these kids a great time ... and have fun doing so."

Believe me, it's a little credo that has worked for me in a big way over the past eight years.

Now let me say a few things about this year's flight to Orlando.

For the fifth year in a row, I was blessed to be part of the group with the three same adult members: Popi, a longtime DTF flight volunteer who has been our group leader and possesses extraordinary organizational skills and a deep sense of compassion for the kids who become part of our group because she always make sure that their best interests are looked after and that they have a memorable time at Disney; Isabel, our group's resident photographer, who can fill a 500-photo memory card with 24 hours' worth of happenings and is always smiling and ready with a hearty laugh; Kari-Ann, who is a rational, no-nonsense person and serves as our group's voice of reason. Somehow, when we first came together back in 2008, we knew the chemistry between the four of us was right and we knew how each other thought and operated, without any difficulties or tensions; basically if it ain't broke, don't fix it! This year, we were well complemented by Patrick, an Air Canada employee who earned his spot on the flight by being a day of flight volunteer at the hangar for several years; Monique, a teacher at the Mackay Centre School who helped us communicate by sign language with a couple of our kids who were hearing impaired; Melanie, a nurse who was not only embarking upon her first DTF trip, but also on her very first airplane ride; and Gary, another longtime DTF flight volunteer (and head of the advance team -- he goes to Orlando the day before us), whose collection of anecdotes of his many years with DTF (he also participates in the Calgary and Vancouver chapter trips) is as large as his heart and dedication to the group's mission.

The children that are selected to become our DTF group are usually ones with special needs, either physical or mental (which is why we have a nurse and educator with us). When Popi, Isabel, Kari-Ann and me looked at the red binder that are given to each group leader, which is filled with the detailed dossiers of each child in that group that are provided by the hospital or agency that recommended them for the trip, we are amazed at the physical and emotional hardships they have endured, and are strongly convinced that they richly deserve the flight to Disney World. In our group this year, we had kids who were hearing impaired, one who could not speak because she had a trachea tube in their throat, and one who was confined to a wheelchair. But disabilities and challenges aside, one thing was certain: they are kids, and like any kid between the age of 7 and 11, would love the chance to have a day of fun in the Magic Kingdom, and have the opportunity to meet Mickey, Minnie, Donald, Goofy and all the other Disney characters up close and personal.

This is the mindset we have when we meet the children in our group for the very first time during the child pre-registration day at the Air Canada base hangar, which takes place bright and early on a Saturday morning in late October, about two weeks before the flight. We get to meet the kids, have them photographed and fingerprinted for ID purposes, and measured for their DTF clothing that they will be wearing for the flight, as well as talk to their parents about what their children will expect during that day. What I love about it is the look of anticipation on the kids' faces when we ask them if they look forward to going to to Disney, and ask them which characters they want to meet there. It also serves to heighten our anticipation, because we are just as excited to take that trip and show these special kids what a great place Disney World is, whether we are about to go on our first or 21st DTF flight.

The day of the flight is a long day, which begins for the adults as early as 3 a.m. So it maybe the middle of the night outside the Air Canada base hangar on a chilly first Wednesday in November, but when you step inside, all perception of reality just disappears. Amongst the flurry of activity of the 20-odd groups doing their final preps, there are displays from the Canadian border service, the SQ (the Quebec provincial police), the armed forces and the air force, as well as the mascots from the Montreal Alouettes, the Montreal Impact, Youppi from the Habs, and Rico, Dreams Take Flight's own mascot. And after the kids have changed into their DTF gear, they get the chance to sit in the cockpit of an actual military helicopter, an SQ police motorcycle, and even an authentic F-18 fighter jet, along with hobnobbing with the various mascots, getting autographs from visiting members of the Alouettes, and doing some pre-breakfast snacking on some mini cupcakes.

The anticipation heightens even further around 5 a.m., when the groups have to pass U.S. Customs and wait in the roped-off area that is deemed as U.S. territory. What surprises me is that the kids, who are at this point separated from their parents, don't exhibit any signs of homesickness. They are genuinely eager to go on their very first airplane ride ever and the fun that awaits them at Disney World. Just before 6 a.m., the lights in the hangar are turned off, the buzzers sound off and all of a sudden, the massive hangar door opens (with the help of the mascots present) to reveal the A320 Air Canada aircraft that will be used to take all the kids and adults down south, all to the loud, massive cheers of everyone present (and some of the adult escorts get caught up int he moment, and get a little choked up with emotion).

The one thing that always amazed me whenever I participate in a Dreams Take Flight trip to Disney is the faces of the kids throughout the stages of the entire day. It's of amazement, excitement, fascination and dazzlement. I see it when a child in our group gets to "drive" a car for the very first time at the Tomorrowland Speedway; when they zap funny aliens at the Buzz Lightyear ride; when they experience their very first fast-paced ride such as Splash Mountain, Big Thunder Mountain Railroad or take control of the spinning teacup ride; when they get to invade the Main Street emporium store to shop for the Disney souvenir(s) of their choice (stuffed Mickey Mouses and Mickey Mouse ears are the favorites); when they catch the dazzling spectacle that is the nighttime fireworks show at Cinderella Castle; the wide-eyed look they get when they meet in person such Disney characters as Mickey Mouse at his domain at the Town Square Theatre on Main Street (pictured above), or such Disney princesses as Cinderella, Sleeping Beauty, Belle from Beauty and the Beast, and Rapunzel (who was so interested in our white DTF windbreakers, that our group leader Popi graciously gave hers to the long haired beauty, and insisted that she keep it with her compliments). The magical thrill they get from meeting these characters up close and personal (after seeing them on TV and the big screen) and how much it means to them always brings me close to tears, and I have to hide behind my digital camera, constantly taking pictures.

When we return to the aircraft for the flight back home to Montreal, the majority of the kids are clearly exhausted (but in a very good way) and by the time they get to their seats, are tucked in with their exclusive Dreams Take Flight blankets and custom made pillows (which they get to take home) and have their seat belts fastened, they immediately fall asleep, with visions of a great day at the Magic Kingdom replaying in their minds. When the plane lands in Montreal around midnight and returns to the hangar where we departed from earlier that day, the smiles on the kids' faces remains transfixed. The parents are extremely grateful to everyone for taking the time to give them an unforgettable day, and the adult escorts and group leaders graciously accept their deep felt thanks.

About a month and a half later, the adult volunteers, the kids and their families get together for one final time at the hangar for the annual Christmas party. The kids are treated to inflatable bouncy castles and slides, entertainment, goodies and of course, a visit to Santa, where they receive a special Disney/DTF gift package from good ol' St. Nick and his assistants. It's a festive time for the kids and their adult group escorts to share magical (and photographic) memories of that special day at Disney World, and sadly, to say goodbye.

As I left the hangar as the party concluded just before 2 p.m. on that Saturday in mid-December, I walked to my car at the Air Canada base parking lot with a light, bouyant feeling in my step, with a satisfied feeling that I helped to show a group of special kids the time of their lives in the place where dreams come true, and -- as always -- I had a great time doing so. Mission accomplished.

And as I passed the base's radar tower (which for me was always the beacon to the world of Dreams Take Flight, from monthly meetings to the actual flight), I took comfort in the fact that we'll be back together the following March to start the process all over again for the Montreal chapter's 19th flight to Disney World, and show another select group of physically, mentally and socially challenged children what a magical day is all about in the Magic Kingdom that is Walt Disney World.

This entire extraordinary experience would not have been possible without the incredible, dedicated people to volunteer their time, energies and effort to make each enormous undertaking that is a Dreams Take Flight trip such a major success. First of all, there's the Montreal Chapter's executive, made up of Brian Roscoe, Nick Papatheodorakis, Bev Cotton, Rene Potvin and Paul Bouchard. Then there's Jim Killin of L'Equipeur, who graciously donates the DTF gear for every participant (adults and children) every year. And there's the dedicated core of adult volunteers whom do a supreme service towards Dreams Take Flight's mission by trielessly doing everything from selecting the kids who go on the flight, to aiding the groups at the hangar on the day of the flight, to taking pictures and videos, to being group leaders and adult escorts that ensure the kids have that memorable day in Orlando (and yes, even the pilot who flies the plane and the flight crew volunteer their time).

And then there's the people who were close to my heart this year ... the people who made up DTF Group 4 , the eight special kids and their adult escorts, lead by our amazing group leader Popi, along with Isabelle, Kari-Ann, Gary, Patrick, Monique and Melanie. You couldn't find a more wonderful group of people to experience such a marvelous day for everyone involved.

...And finally, a special shout out to "Bubbles", a longtime DTF group leader, whom I was informed learned a hard lesson in Disney Parks mathematics this year. Basically, if your group has one less admission ticket, someone ain't getting into the park!

Looking forward to flight #19 (and the road to the milestone 20th anniversary flight).