Dirk Daring, Secret Agent

9781459806832-240x300By Helaine Becker

Darren Dirkowitz, a.k.a. Secret Agent Dirk Daring, has the stealth and cunning of the panther, the patience of the chameleon, the stillness of the serpent, and the strength of the spider. Dirk Daring is a master spy. But sometimes even master spies need help navigating Grade Five.

Helaine Becker has created a delightful hero in underdog, Darren Dirkowitz. Labeled a geek, Darren is practically a social outcast. Plagued with an evil stepbrother and infatuated with the prettiest girl in the class, there are just so many ways for him to have a bad day. When his secret spy journal is stolen and Darren is threatened with exposure, school-wide humiliation seems inevitable—were it not for the special skills of Dirk Daring.

Chock full of code names and encrypted missions, comic doodles and handwritten editorial comments, Dirk Daring, Secret Agent is a high-energy race car speeding to what looks like certain disaster. But underneath is a gentle and thoughtful look at the scary parts of being ten years old: Who will be my friend? Will people make fun of me? Will the bullies get me?

This is a highly imaginative and enjoyable read and the underlying message adds to, rather than detracts from the fun. Spoiler alert – the bad guys are punished in the end. But just who ARE the bad guys? Only Dirk Daring knows for sure.

Dirk Daring, Secret Agent
By Helaine Becker
978-1-4598-0683-2
Orca Book Publishers
October 1, 2014
208 pp
Ages 8-11

Back to School – Not

Right across the country, kids went back to school yesterday, except in British Columbia. Here, a half million students are getting an extra long summer holiday while their teachers are on strike. As in all disputes, there are myriad issues: class size, class composition, pay rates, benefits and a Supreme court ruling to name a few. I’m not an educator or a negotiator or a member of government so I take no sides. Except perhaps to say that we should probably be listening to the people who are actually teaching our children about whether or not we need another bandage on our post-war system, or whether it’s time to rip the bandage off and start again. No, I’m a writer, and I’ve noticed something unusual in our community these last two days.

There are kids on bikes all over the place. Well, obviously, the kids have to be somewhere. But why didn’t I see them all summer? There was no school then either. There are middle school kids at the bus stop, alone. I don’t usually see that either. The park was packed. (It was barely used all summer.) Mobs of moms chatted with one another, smiling, while a ten-year-old hopped on his pogo stick and a line of kids waited patiently for the slide. A dad played tennis with two tweens on the free court. I can’t help myself when I people-watch; I just have to make up stories about all the people I see. I’ll bet that dad was a lawyer or a businessman, because his shorts didn’t sit easily, as if they hadn’t been used much. He had a lousy serve but was grinning like crazy. Everyone I saw today was happy.

In no way do I want to minimize the terrible hardship and stress this strike is placing on families. It’s a disaster. But, we must remember that disasters have the potential to bring out the best in people. They are a time-out-of-time, with different rules, changed schedules and forced flexibility. They give us the opportunity to try new things. In a disaster, we can only concentrate on the things that are most important, letting all else fall away. I’m almost always surprised that what I thought was most important never is.

The kids will go back to school eventually. Our job is to remember the good, if any, that comes out of the changes we have been forced to make. It could be increased independence,  more unscheduled time to play, less time at work or learning how to accept help from friends and neighbours without feeling guilty.

We rarely take a time-out-of-time, as they seem a luxury beyond imagining. Most often they are forced upon us, and it’s hard to see them as a gift.  But we need to try, or the potential to learn something different – something precious – will be forever lost.

 

Gottika

 

9781770863910-HIRES-201x300By Helaine Becker

The masked creature with glowing red eyes that crawls over the cover of Helaine Becker’s new novel will fascinate fans of futuristic fantasy. Gottika is a modern retelling of the legend of the Jewish golem, a magical creature created from clay and mud whose very existence challenges how we think about ourselves.

 

Fifteen-year-old Dany is proud to be a Stoon, a peaceful people with a deep history and love of learning. Unfortunately, the Stoons live in the shadow of a city named Gottika, a fearful place where hatred, prejudice, and ignorance rule. When tensions erupt, Dany learns that his father has the power to conjure a golem to help their cause. Called Moishe, the huge creature of clay does help – and hinder – the Stoons. But can Dany’s father control him? In the powerful conclusion, Dany must confront difficult truths about himself, his family, and his world.

Becker’s fantasy stays true to the core of the legend, effortlessly drawing readers into the story. Alexander Griggs-Burr’s illustrations are a superb addition, edging the book into the realm of graphic novel. The chapters drawn in comic book style further the plot and ramp up the tension.

The juxtaposition of text and comics, combined with the talents of Becker and Griggs-Burr, ensure a broad audience for Gottika. Lovers of fantasy, myths and legends, action comics, a hero’s quest, and even Dungeons and Dragons fans will want to keep reading late into the night. And this story will continue to resonate the morning after.

Gottika
By Helaine Becker, illustrations by Alexander Griggs-Burr
Dancing Cat Books
978-1-77086-391-0
June 2014
240 pages
Ages 9-12

 

Turkey: The Last Post

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Anzac Memorial, Gallipoli

This is the centenary of the Great War. As we ponder the lessons that this pivotal global event taught us, without forgetting the current situations in Gaza, Ukraine, Iraq and Syria, one wonders if we have learned anything from the immense sacrifice of one hundred years ago.

One of our last stops in Turkey was at Gallipoli. It is the defining battleground for Australians and New Zealanders, just as Vimy Ridge is for my fellow Canadians. As luck would have it, most of our compatriots on the tour were from Australia, and seeing Gallipoli through their eyes was revealing.

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This is it: a narrow peninsula of hilly land between the Aegean Sea and the Dardanelles. It is strategically important as an entryway to the Sea of Marmara and eventually, the Black Sea and Russia. In a campaign that lasted just shy of nine months, Turkey held the territory against Allied Forces but at great cost. 100,000 men died. The campaign changed history, both for the Allies and for the Ottomans.

IMG_8334The Anzac Memorial is a moving tribute to those who sacrificed their lives for the cause. For our little group of travellers, it was made more memorable by the presence of what has come to be known as a “third generation survivor”. (The second generation facilitates the telling of the stories; the thirds are the ones who cherish and preserve the memories for the future.) This man’s grandfather fought at Gallipoli, and was one of the few who came home. He wrote his memories down in a small journal, which his grandson had carried with him from Australia. Piecing the battle together from the notes, we followed the grandfather’s path to Quinn’s Post, the place where most of his mates were killed. In the small cemetery there, we all helped find the gravestones of the soldiers of that regiment so that his grandson could take pictures of each and every one.

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The quotes on the Anzac Memorial plaques are telling. First, from Winston Churchill: A good army of 50,000 men and sea power – that is the end of the Turkish menace. Then from Joseph Gasparich, a New Zealand soldier: Sir, this is a sheer waste of good men. Followed by Memiș Bayraktar, a Turkish soldier: Countless dead, countless! It was impossible to count. And much later from Atatürk, formerly Mustafa Kemal, commander of the 19th Division in Gallipoli:

Those heroes that shed their blood and lost their lives… You are now lying in the soil of a friendly country. Therefore rest in peace. There is no difference between the Johnnies and the Mehmets to us where they lie side by side now here in this country of ours… you, the mothers, who sent their sons from faraway countries wipe away your tears; your sons are now lying in our bosom and are in peace. After having lost their lives on this land they have become our sons as well.

These beautiful words are chiselled in stone at the Anzac Memorial, as seen in the top photo. But I wonder – was there no way the Johnnies and the Mehmets could have become brothers without slaughtering each other first?

Historians can explain to us the complex geopolitical and religious alliances that were in play in 1914, creating stresses sufficient to allow the assassination of an Austrian Archduke to explode into a worldwide conflict that left 16 million dead. Maybe the world needed to change, and the assassination was merely the catalyst. But again I wonder – must changing the world be so colossally destructive?

Speaking of being destructive, I happen to live in an earthquake zone. The “big one” is going to be awful and it’s going to change my world forever. It’s way overdue, but that’s fine by me. Instead of the big one we get hundreds of small quakes that continually ease pressure points, hopefully avoiding total disaster. Would that people could do the same.

 

To Be Entranced

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Pause a moment to wonder about the purpose of a Sema Board.  Here’s a hint: the board is approximately three foot square.

A manhole cover? The lid for a very large flour bin? A decorative wall panel?

I cannot even say myself, for certain, but I have the benefit of context and so can guess. I saw the Sema Board in the Mevlana Museum in Konya, Turkey, home of the the mausoleum of Jalal ad-Din Muhammad Rumi, a Persian Sufi mystic. Rumi was also known as Mevlana, the founder of the Mevlevi order of whirling dervishes.

Now can you guess?

It is said that one day Rumi was walking through the marketplace and heard the hammering of the goldbeaters. The sound was rhythmic;  the hammers, to Rumi’s ear, were beating the dhikr, or Arabic rosary. It made him so happy that he stretched out his arms and started spinning.

IMG_7669The Order of the Whirling Dervishes believes that the fundamental condition of our existence is to revolve. Scientifically, they are probably right. From electrons on up, it is easy to find examples of circular cycles: in chemistry, astronomy, biology, physics, history and our own lives. And yet we often carve out linear paths for ourselves. Could losing ourselves in the choreography of the cosmos be helpful?

The mystic nature of the whirling dervishes was not acceptable to all, and in 1925, as part of new secularization policies, the Turkish government outlawed the practice. As is often the case in such situations, adherents kept the practice alive in secret. Thirty years later the restrictions were eased, and in the 1990’s lifted. In 2005, UNESCO proclaimed the Mevlevi Sema Ceremony of Turkey one of the Masterpieces of the Oral and Intangible Heritage of Humanity.

Several elements of the Sema Ceremony continue to whirl in my head. I offer them for your perusal, in linear form complete with bullet points, my preferred methodology for managing ideas that otherwise cause chaos.

  • In Rumi’s time, those wishing to become dervishes were given a cushion in a corner of the kitchen, which is where training took place. They stayed on the cushion for two full days, eating and sleeping in place, watching the training without participation before deciding whether to continue. I have never contemplated a life change so assiduously.
  • Training lasted a magical 1,001 days.
  • At the end of each of the four movements (selams) of the dance, the dervishes stop whirling. Each whirler crosses his arms over his heart and pairs with another whirler. Shoulder to shoulder, hip to hip, the two press into one another, ostensibly to steady themselves. But the symbolism of this connection resonates with me even more than the dance itself.
  • Masterpiece of the Oral and Intangible Heritage of Humanity? Check out UNESCO’s website. I love the idea that there is recognition for the intangible, for soul.

IMG_7564Back to the Sema Board.

A whirling dervish rotates on his left foot, using his right to push his body around the heart in a counter-clockwise direction. The whirler is meant to keep his eyes open but unfocused, allowing images to flow and blur. This is in direct contradiction to my daughter’s ballet training and the focused spotting required for pirouettes. Although I did not see this in practice, my guess is that the nail in the Sema Board helps anchor the left foot, connecting it to the ground while the world revolves crazily in front of the eyes.

I found a flat rock embedded in my patio and gave whirling a try. Without focus, I felt nauseous and disoriented. My perspective was skewed and I staggered as if drunk on the “choreography of the cosmos.” So I ask myself, when was the last time I was comfortable whirling? My father’s airplane rides? On an ice rink? Playing crack the whip?

When was the last time I could let go and be totally entranced?

 

A Roof Over Our Heads

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Cappadocia, Turkey

When visiting Cappadocia, it’s almost impossible NOT to imagine hobbit-like creatures living in the caves that have been painstakingly carved out of the rock. Hundreds upon hundreds of caves dot the area, and even the most unimaginative among us will begin to create stories about the inhabitants. Who are these people, and where did they come from? What do they look like? Why do they live in caves? How does their society work? Voila, instant fantasy novel.

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But Cappadocia isn’t a fantasy; it’s a real place with real people who just happen to live in fairy chimneys. I was invited to dinner by one of them. Seeing the trenches chiselled out for electrical wires and the makeshift wooden steps that led from one level of “cubbyholes” to the next juxtaposed with stainless steel appliances in the ultra-modern kitchen was interesting, to put it mildly. For this family, their rock home is their greatest asset, a part of their heritage passed down through the generations.

Cappadocia was the centre of Hittite power in the Bronze Age, then passed through the hands of King Croesus and Alexander the Great, among many others. It has belonged to Persia, Rome, Armenia, the Ottoman Empire and finally Turkey. The earliest Christians lived here, hiding in a network of underground caves when persecuted. This place is a living history that spans more centuries than my Western mind can comprehend. When added to the surreal landscape, Cappadocia feels peopled with ghosts.

But the real ghosts in Turkey are elsewhere, about a thousand kilometres away in Kayaköy. The very name of this place, the Ghost Village, is evocative. Its place in history is important, devastating, and unfortunately, predictable.

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Kayaköy

During the early twentieth century, Kayaköy was home to approximately 2000 Greek Orthodox Christians. In 1923, at the end of the Greco-Turkish War, IMG_7957all of the inhabitants were sent back to Greece as part of a “mutually agreed expulsion” between the two countries. The population exchange was based on religious identity, with 1.5 million Anatolian Greek Orthodox Christians sent home in exchange for 356,000 Muslims from Greece. Visiting Kayaköy now is an eerie experience. The crumbling, abandoned homes still show traces of cheery blue paint, left from a happier time. Secret gardens flourish in bedrooms.The church is empty.

(As a point of interest, I’m reading Louis de Bernières’ 2004 novel Birds Without Wings as part of the aftermath of my Turkish adventures. Kayaköy was the inspiration for his fictional village of Eskibahçe.)

All this has made me think about the different kinds of homes we live in today, and the number of people who have no home at all, whose roof is the sky or a borrowed tent. 10,000 years from now, what stories will the future tell of our homes, and our lives within them?

Curating Magic Moments

Ataturk, as depicted on the Republic Monument in Taksim Square, Istanbul. On one side Ataturk wears the military uniform from his early years; on the other he wears western clothes, as founder of the Turkish Republic.
Ataturk, as depicted on the Republic Monument in Taksim Square, Istanbul. On one side Ataturk wears the military uniform from his early years; on the other he wears western clothes, as founder of the Turkish Republic.
When I was a little girl my dad would, from time to time, call out, “Magic moment!” This was the cue for my sister and I to freeze for a photograph, because whatever we were doing at the time was apparently worthy of remembrance (to Dad, anyway). It wasn’t until many years later that I realized the term came from a song made popular by Perry Como in 1957. “I’ll never forget the moment we kissed the night of the hayride…” Okay, so times may have changed since a stolen kiss constituted a magic moment. But the concept has stuck in my brain.

I’ve just returned from a major overseas trip. It was exciting, interesting and thought-provoking. I’d like to write about it, but travel writing can so easily turn into a laundry list of visuals. I find I need time and distance for the true magic moments to rise to the surface of my brain. They aren’t just the ones captured in a photo, in fact, quite the opposite. These days, when every moment is captured by a smartphone, it’s the moments that linger without benefit of a visual jog that are truly magic.

Over the summer, I expect most of the memories of my trip will sift down to the bowels of memory to be lost in the murk forever. But if any moments survive time and distance to become magic, I promise to share. Here’s the first, inspired not only by some conversations I had in Turkey, but by current events in Iraq.

The Breakfast Boys

There was a young man named Hamza who worked the breakfast shift at our hotel in Istanbul. He was pleasant, cheerful and helpful, but I remember him most for the broad white smile that lit up his face. During the course of our morning chats, I learned that he was from Syria and had only been working at the hotel for fifteen days. Hamza and his brother had escaped the fighting in their own country and come to Turkey with the hope of raising enough money to bring their parents out to join them.

I remember searching his eyes, wondering what they had seen. My much older eyes had never seen the like, that I knew for certain.

Later, I asked our guide how the Turks felt about the conflict in Syria. The two countries share a border and Turkey is currently playing host to a million Syrian refugees displaced by the conflict, so there had to be opinions. My guide had compassion, but felt mostly worry. “Where will all those people go? And what will they do? We can house them and feed them for a while, but we do not have enough jobs for all.” Clearly, Hamza had been one of the lucky ones.

As for Assad, the hope was that he would win. “Don’t be surprised,” he said. “We don’t like him any more than you do. But he is the only one strong enough to keep the radical groups at bay. They are they real danger.”

We talked about democracy. We in the West like to talk about democracy. “Assad knows there must be change,” our guide went on, “but it will come more slowly than North Americans want. It cannot be imposed and it is not instant. But tyrant that he is, Assad will get it done. You are all so impatient.”

My short history has not taught me to take the long view; I find it hard to conceptualize the wave after wave of political, religious and cultural change that have influenced the evolution of Anatolia over the past 10,000 years. But the long view isn’t much help to somebody like Hamza, and as it turned out, his good luck didn’t last. When I returned to the hotel a few weeks later, he was gone. His brother had been deported, I was told, and Hamza didn’t want him going back to Syria alone. I wondered what the future now held for them, or for their parents.

“Don’t worry,” said the new breakfast boy. “I can help you.” He was Kurdish, he said, just come from the east. His grin was just as bright and hopeful as Hamza’s had been. I face none of their difficulties, yet rarely smile like that. I would not have presumed to take a picture of their smiles, but they will remain in my heart as a reminder whenever my puny frustrations get the better of me.

Books. Writing. Life.

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