Christmas unicorns & other yuletide oddities: A Sufjan-inspired Christmas production.

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This year, I set out to do something I’ve never done before: to write a Sufjan Stevens- inspired Christmas production.

I didn’t so much write a whole production, as I wrote a play, or more specifically, a series of sketches to be performed at our school’s Christmas concert.

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The idea of a Sufjan Stevens Christmas musical came to me at some point last year, and with the help of our brilliant music director, Graham, and several other talented staff members, the vision became a reality.  During the second week of December, “Christmas Unicorns and Other Yuletide Oddities: A Thought-Provoking Christmas Experience” came to life.

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The process.

Inspiration for the musical came from Sufjan Stevens’ two Christmas box sets.  The idea had been in my mind for a little while, but plans were put into action during the summer, on our return journey from the East Coast.  Brendon and I did some script writing in the car, and pinned down a few sketches that stemmed from a handful of Sufjan’s songs.  The script was finished with the input and creative insight of a few others, and we had ourselves a collection of six sketches, each named after and based on Sufjan’s songs.

This was mid-October.  I thought I was done, ahead of my own personal deadline even, and was prepared to hand over the script to another teacher to carry out and bring to life with her students.  It soon became apparent that the teacher I thought would direct the play wanted to step back a bit in her involvement, and that I would need to be involved in the directing role.  Thankfully, another teacher, Yvonne, who has an extensive background in drama, expressed interest in co-directing, and we began a crazy season of lunch hours abandoned to rehearsals in order to get enough practice time in with the grade six actors and actresses.

The day before the first concert, we saw the music and dramatic sketches come together for the first time in rehearsal.  The result was magical.

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The production.

The production was held in our school gym over two separate evenings, involving the entirety of grades K-6 (split up between the two evenings) along with the Gr. 8/9 band, which is comprised of over 50 kids.  It was a lot of people (and parents) to fit into our gym.

Overall, I was really quite amazed with how things came together.  Kids stepped up to the plate when it was time to perform, and fused with the music, I think we put together something really beautiful and thought-provoking.  We had our share of minor technical difficulties that arose on both nights, which was slightly stressful, but for the most part, people weren’t phased by them and the production went over well.  The chorus of crying babies erupting just as the soft-spoken Unicorn Kid delivers the most pivotal lines of the play was rather unideal, but we had better luck the second night.

The music… was amazing.  Graham did a ton of work rearranging the songs so that they would work for the band and the kids, and the variations sounded incredible.  A staff band, consisting of Graham, Codi, & Eric, accompanied the class choirs on their songs… it sounded unreal.  We have an insane amount of talent on our staff.

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My favourite part of the show was the opening song, Barcarola.  With Grade 6 actors & actresses singing from the risers, I got to take in the spectacle of the band & lighting effects (thanks Chris Kooman) from backstage and take a deep breath as the show began.

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My aim in writing the production was for it to be a venue for thought.  I think it’s important to think about why we do the things we do… specifically around Christmas.  Though they had their humorous lines, the six sketches raised quite serious questions around topics such as traditions, wealth, appearance vs. reality, family, Christmas spirit, happiness, and hope, just to name a few.  In many ways, it was not a play necessarily written for kids, but for the adult audience watching the play.

We got some very encouraging feedback on the production from parents and community members, praising the seamless transitions and teamwork within the production.  It was also neat to hear that the production was indeed quite thought-provoking for people.

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The post-play lull.

I didn’t anticipate the post-play lull that hit the day after it was all over.  In fact, I honestly hadn’t thought about life past the play.

I probably wasn’t completely aware of the amount that I became invested in carrying the play out… Things like blogging, baking, crafting all took a back seat during the month leading up the play, but I didn’t seem to care.  Although it involved a whole lot more than I thought it would, most of it was fun, exhilarating even. Upon the abrupt finish, I found myself with a lost sense of purpose for a few days.

Having a big of space to breathe now, it was quite an experience to reflect on.  With this being the first time I had ever written or directed a play, I was surprised at how smoothly things came together, and how fun & rewarding the process was.  It was neat to apply my creativity to a new realm I had never worked in before.

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Even though Sufjan wasn’t there (well, I like to think he was there, dressed in a disguise of sorts), I think he would be proud.

It was an incredible experience to work with this skillful team to bring a vision to life, and have it be successful in its mission to generate meaningful thought and discussion.

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Way to go, team.  It’s been a pleasure working with you brilliant folks.

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Toronto: Speechlessly good.

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The big city of Toronto reunited Brendon with his beloved Jays (go the Jays!), but most importantly with our dear Kiwi friends, Kyle & Bea. 

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Kyle and Bea road tripped through the States last summer, landing in Toronto in October.  We always knew a Canadian reunion was immanent, and were looking forward to this time for months. 

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While in NZ, we journeyed very closely with these two, sharing a meal together nearly weekly.  We’ve missed these times.  We hold these times and these people very dear to our hearts, and so sharing this time together in Toronto was very special.

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We were blown away by Kyle & Bea’s hospitality, and felt so thankful for the times and memories we could share together on Canadian soil.

Toronto was one of our favourite cities for the following reasons:

The Jays.

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At the age of 7 in 1992, young Breno went to watch the Jays play at the Skydome.  (Can you believe the child above is NOT mini Brendon??)

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He recalls having an epic moment of walking out into the staduim and seeing the grand expanse of the Skydome in front of him, and being overcome with a sense of awe. 

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Watching a Jays game was a must, so we went to 2.  Brendon watched the Jays game with the joy of his 7-year old self, shouting “Chicken hot dog” out at Colby Rasmus, who scored a home run while we were there. 

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It was cute seeing how happy he was when the Jays beat the Red Sox 6-1.  Brendon was so proud of his Jays.

The boutiques. 

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Oh my goodness.  The boutiques.  I kind of have a thing for cute design shops.  You know, the ones that carry a mix of cool stationary and prints, locally-made jewellery, home decor items, and potentially even some unique but practical household items?  I find them very inspiring.  Anyways, Toronto is FULL of amazing shops like this.  In all of our travels this summer, I didn’t come across a city that even compares to the volume of inspiring boutiques and design shops we encountered.  Bea was kind enough to do some scouting ahead of time and map out their whereabouts on an adorable set of cue cards, which detailed some extremely well-thought out routes for day trips around Toronto.

The beaches. 

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Toronto has beaches, people.  And being a bit beach-deprived this year, I was all over them.  We took the ferry over to Toronto Island (which is worth the excursion just for the views of the city), found ourselves a nice beach and enjoyed a glorious afternoon in the sun.  They’ve got a great, little organic cafe over there on the island too.

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Sugar Beach is another place beach lovers should be aware of.  This adorable slice of paradise is located directly beside the Redpath Sugar Factory.  The wofts of caramelized sugar that float by are heavenly, and the pink umbrellas are super cute, aren’t they?  And so what that it’s man-made?  It’s super cute and super accessible.  If you work downtown, you can totally beach here on your lunch break.  I mean, I would! 

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We walked to the beach nearby Kyle & Bea’s place, and took in the peaceful glow of the evening light on the Lake.  Amazing to have a gorgeous body of water so accessible from multiple places.

The coffee. 

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Toronto’s got a solid coffee scene.  Favourite spots included:

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Te Aro- a Kiwi-founded coffee company.

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Crafted Coffee (Te Aro), where a brief Transcend reunion occurred.

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Sam James- discrete espresso bar set up with a few locations around the city.

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White Rabbit (they serve a generous affagato)

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The parks. 

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The way that Toronto does parks was something that really struck and appealed to us.  And the parks are SO accessible.  Green space is very well & purposefully used.  It was neat to see the local parks well-utilized by people of all ages, and for various purposes. 

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Bicycle polo.  Wood fired pizzas.  Mud pits.  Community fire pits.  Skateboard park.  One evening while strolling through Dufferin Park, we happened upon a hipster “storytelling” gathering around a fire pit. 

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Toronto’s slogan “A City Within a Park” is such a neat concept.  Though perhaps their green space is not as plentiful as other Canadian cities, it is extremely well utilized.  Located within the heart of Toronto, one can pop in to grab a coffee at a reputable cafe, then walk a couple blocks and enjoy their coffee.  We think Toronto is on to something with their parks.

The street art. 

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I have yet to visit a city that displays and celebrates street art as much as Toronto does.  There is inspiring street art everywhere, and often in places unexpected. 

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Kyle & Bea’s friend Jeff was commissioned to paint this bear, among many other pieces featured downtown. 

The car-lessness. 

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Toronto is a city where one can definitely live without a car.  We didn’t use our car once during the week we were in Toronto, and loved it.  Our feet, and the occasional use of the subway or streetcar got us any place we wanted to go.  It was a wonderful way to be able to get to know and feel the heartbeat of this vibrant city.  

Other Toronto gems:

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Soma Chocolate- A local chocolate-maker who produces produces bean to bar chocolate.  Go there.  And pick up a Stratus Bar.  Do it.  It could change your life.

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Kensington Market- an eclectic, multicultural gathering place of artisans, vintage shops, cafes, & cultural food vendors.  There’s a definite vibe and energy to Kensington Market, and it’s a good one.  

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Electric Mud BBQ.  Not quite the same as Kansas City BBQ, but with a southern feeling and all the meat and mess of any of the best BBQ joints of the deep south.

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Blackbird Bakery- a relatively new bakery located in Kensington Market, which specializes in delicious, artisan breads.  Brendon recommends the Toronto Sourdough.

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Fat Pasha- we enjoyed a mind-blowing Jewish feast of colour and flavour on their enchanting backyard patio.  

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Bluegrass Brunch- what could be more enchanting & cozy on a Sunday morning than enjoying a family-style brunch while listening to bluegrass tunes?

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Smock- an inspiring cafe/children’s art space.  

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Kid Icarus- an inspiring stationary/design shop located in Kensington Market.  I visited numerous times.  I couldn’t get enough.

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The Distillery district- I totally could have spent more time wandering the red brick streets and perusing all the cool shops tucked away in the Distillery district.

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Toronto, why do you have to be so cool?  Keep this up and we could easily be persuaded to move there… it’s currently Brendon’s retirement dream to live in a condo in downtown Toronto and attend every single Jays game.

We absolutely loved our time in Toronto, especially because of who we got to share it with.  Thanks, Kyle & Bea for showing us an AMAZING time in your super cool adoptive city.

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Survival guide: Making it through your first winter [back in Canada].

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We dare not say that winter is drawing to a close, but we can say that we have (mostly) successfully made it through nearly 5 months of winterous conditions.

Our first winter back has been both better and worse than anticipated- worse because of how extreme the weather has been.  The number of extremely cold days has been more than the yearly average, and along with this, Red Deer has also experienced a record snowfall this year.

According to Environment Canada, 1924 held the record November-December snowfall with 104.9 cm — until this year.  This record was broken in December 2013 when 109.9 cm of snow fell upon Red Deer soil. FYI, the average November-December snow is about 36 cm, which says something about how extreme this year was!

Overall, though, we have found that if you keep yourself busy and distracted, and surrounded by good people, the winter is bearable.

So here you have it: Breno and Mel’s guide to surviving your first Canadian winter (or the first one in a little while).

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Top of the list: Enjoy tasty food with friends.  Often.  We highly recommend the Cuban Pulled Beef.

Footwear

Invest in a few good pairs of Eastern-European footwear.  Some Albanian boots for outdoors, and some Lithuanian felt slippers for the indoors will do nicely.  The winter season is long and harsh, so treat your lower extremities right.

The Flying Canoe Festival YEG

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Take in a winter festival.  Or two.  The city of Edmonton celebrates its wintriness with a multitude of festivals throughout the winter months.  Skating, tobogganing, outdoor patios, snow and ice sculptures, warm beverages and live music are just a few of the wintery delights you are likely to encounter at such events.  This year, we made it out to The Flying Canoe Festival, which we highly recommend for the blending of the outdoor/indoor venue, excellent music, and spirited ambience.

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Find some lovely adventuring companions, and head off to explore some new territory!  The Rockies make an enchanting setting to pay a visit to in the winter months.

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A pair of snow shoes will make the explorations that much more fun.

Winter tires are an absolute must and will save you (probably multiple times) from getting stuck in the snow or ending up in the ditch on the side of the highway.  Don’t even think about it.  Just do it.

A remote car starter lessens the sting of the frigidness when jumping into your car on those -30 degree mornings.  Another excellent (and recommended) investment!  Keeping a blanket in the car to spread across your lap is an alternative option.

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Dawn a pair of cross-country skis and traverse a local park, river valley, or golf course!

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When it’s a “warm” day of at least -10 degrees, grab a child and take to the slopes via a crazy carpet, saucer, or sliding device of your choice!  The GT snow-racer gets our vote for ultimate control and performance.

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A cozy pair of mittens (and some Paleo Chocolate Cake topped with pomegranates) have the ability to make the winter months much more enjoyable too.

Moisturize.  Alberta winters are harsh on the skin.  There are some lovely local products that can help out with this.

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Choose a ‘winter beverage,’ whatever it may be, and enjoy it frequently.  By the fire is best.  Or by candle-light.

Seek out opportunities to enjoy some live music.  This activity needs not require one to bundle in multiple layers.

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Try not to get too hopeful when you experience a warm day.  Uttering the word “spring” prematurely could result in major devastation, so it’s best not to say this word aloud until at least April or May.  And try not to get too discouraged when the snow piles tower over you.  Take it all in stride.  Remind yourself that winter is a season (though a long one.)

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Take time to look closely and admire winter’s beauty. Don’t spend too much time fantasizing or reminiscing about beaches, but DO call to mind the days of NZ winter when it was sometimes warmer outside the house than inside.  Be thankful for central heating.

By following these suggestions and guidelines, you can take the sting out of winter and thrive amidst the brisk temperatures.

On the NZ music scene.

We havn’t talked a lot about the NZ music scene, but over the past three years in NZ, we have had the opportunity to get to know some great musical artists and take in some pretty awesome gigs, so we thought it was about time we shared some of them with you.  Considering NZ’s size of just over 4 million people, they have a pretty solid offering of musical talent.  Here are just a few of our favorites…

Paper Cranes

Paper Cranes are a new up-and-coming Auckland band.  Without knowing it at the time, we sat next to them at church several weeks ago.  I especially love their first single, Little Darling.  Have a listen here.

Great North

I first met Rachel Donnell while I worked at Henderson North School.  After attending one of her gigs, I came to the realization that she is also an extremely talented bass player and vocalist.  Rachel and her husband Hayden are the lead vocalists and musicians in the folk band Great North.  We have since seen Great North play three times live now, and have enjoyed each one of their shows very much.

You can check out several of Great North’s songs here.

Family Cactus

We’ve seen Family Cactus, a Wellington band, play live twice now, and quite enjoy their music.

Listen to their song Kingmaker and other good ones here.

I especially enjoy the music video for their song, Whole and Red- nothing too fancy about it, but a good taste of what they are like to see live.

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Watercolours

Listen to up-and-coming NZ artist Watercolours’ song Night Swimmer here.  Though not yet available on iTunes, I’ve been itching to get my hands on this album.

Lips

Originally from NZ but now based out of Brooklyn, Stephanie Brown, aka Lips, recently won New Zealand’s top songwriting prize for her song Everything to Me.

Other NZ artists who have been making it “big” overseas these days have included Kimbra, Gin Wigmore, and The Naked and Famous.  And you can’t forget Flight of the Concords.  If you havn’t yet seen the video for their song Feel Inside, which features contributions by a number of NZ music artists, it is definitely worth a watch.