I spent a significant chunk of time in the first half of 2009 working on the concept / development of a hockey skills reality TV show. My job was to produce draft after draft of the concept and to lead the pitch of the concept to lawyers and production companies.
I didn’t say much about this at the time as I had a gut feel that it wasn’t going to go anywhere. And I was right. I thought I’d learn a few things and meet some interesting people. Can’t say that it was a terrific return on investment so maybe the learning is to listen more carefully to my gut.
I did get to wear Mike Krushelnyski’s championship rings one night in a bar. That was fun.
About nine years ago, I had a short but mind-blowing chat with a woman in the choir-of-my-past. She had gotten involved with a woman who was living at quite a distance from Toronto and I had just struck up an intense long-distance connection with a woman in Copenhagen. As one does, one tries to seek some common ground and I said to her, “It is hard, isn’t it? Trying to manage building a relationship, a connection, at a distance?” And she looked at me with a penetrating, quizzical expression and said, “Why does everyone say that, that distance relationships are so hard? Who ever said that moving in together or getting married was easy? It is just what people are used to, what they view as ‘normal’. But in fact it is very hard. But people are used to that pattern so it gets called ‘easy’. You and I know that it isn’t easy, either way. So follow your heart.”
She gave me a lot to think about, as she usually did, in our little mid-rehearsal chats.
I’ve thought about this a lot lately, and not so much in relation to the fact that I have, indeed, moved in with the lovely Knotty Girl and her (mostly) adorable children. That part is as hard/easy/magnificent/mundane/challenging/fun/exciting/surprising/normal/frustrating/puzzling/funny/beautiful as it is supposed to be. I’m thinking more about the reactions people have had to me appearing to have gone mad by moving a vast distance out of the city.
The established, expected “pattern” would be to live close to work and to stay within spitting distance of the city that I’ve come to love and feel nurtured by. But is that truly the “easy” choice, or just the “expected” choice? How “easy” is it to live in very dense proximity to strangers who behave in unexpected ways, to cope with traffic that is worsening daily, to have very limited access to greenspace, to have to plan carefully one’s route to across town and back to account for time of day, traffic, road closures, protests, events and water main breaks?
The breaking point for me, where the rose-coloured glasses filtering “easy” fell off my eyes, happened one day when Knotty Girl and I pulled up to the arena for a hockey game and were astounded to witness a man stopping on the lawn in front of our car, pulling down his pants and defecating right in front of us. He just did his bidness and pulled his pants up and walked on. That was the beginning of the end for me living downtown. It was no longer “easy” and I could no longer pretend that I found it to be so.
I am, after all, a country girl. I am used to having cows, horses or pigs poo’ing in front of me. Not people.
My gorgeous condo was starting to feel cramped by lack of access to the outdoors and hauling bags of heavy groceries and hockey gear up three flights of stairs no longer seemed as easy as it once did. In fact, everything about city living started to feel cramped. Space is entirely at a premium, be it space to put a vehicle or space to put a desk to work at. Even space at Starbucks, for those with laptops and that need for the unique focus that public space can provide, can be hard to come by.
I was raised in a huge, rambling, rickety farmhouse with seven bedrooms and two kitchens. We had 750 acres of land, much of which was at my disposal to roam, plow or play cops/robbers/army/spy or whatever, with or without my little buddies. The brickwork in the house was so weak in some spots, like “my” tv watching spot in the living room, that you could feel the wind blow against your ankles for six months of the year. But it sure was big. And there was room for everyone.
Is it “easy” to live far from the city, work, friends and hockey? Not always. Does it feel more “normal” to me? Yes, actually it does. We watch the weather closely, we plan and prepare for things (usually) in a more considered way. We are distracted by birds at the feeders, by the arc of snow blowing in clumps off the trees and glinting in the sunlight, by the size and proximity of the full moon against a black sky, by the wild turkeys and their crazy footprints across the snow on the ice rink. This feels preferable to being distracted by car alarms, traffic tie-ups, unintelligible arguments in grocery stores and sirens. We are responsible for solving a lot of our own problems out here, or at least being somewhat prepared for them.
A few months ago, as Hurricane Sandy approached the North American coast line, Knotty Girl and I spent about two hours getting ready. We gathered up all that might blow around on our property and stashed it safely. We shopped. We parked our cars out of possible treefall zones. We charged up all our flashlights and other devices. The weather models didn’t really suggest we would get hit hard but we’ve come to learn that weather forecasting is a less-than-exact science. It was best to be ready. And we were. I slept so well that night, having done all that we could think of to minimize damage and maximize continuity of lifestyle. We woke up to a few small branches down on the lawn. The hydro didn’t even go out.
My point is that we had some things we could do to make ourselves as prepared as possible. I don’t find this as easy in the city, especially in living spaces like condos. I did make sure that I had a gas fireplace and a gas stove in my place and hoped I could operate them if the hydro were out for an extended period. Hauling items up and down the three flights of stairs was a trade off for not having to rely on an elevator. The hydro did go out a couple of times in the nine years I lived there and I was grateful for having heat, cooking ability, and normal access to my abode. But I couldn’t make my neighbours take their patio furniture and flower boxes off their balconies so that these items wouldn’t blow through MY windows. I’d be rewarded with a door slammed in my face if I tried such a thing. I couldn’t make all my condo neighbours be mindful of allowing strangers into the property and many of us were rewarded with an expensive overnight car break-in spree a few years ago. Hell – the city can’t even make dog owners be accountable for dog poo and that problem seemed to get worse and worse in my neighbourhood over the years.
I apologize for the poo theme. One might think that I have a shitty opinion of downtown life. I don’t entirely. Let’s just say it lost its glamour for me and I’m feeling less claustrophobic and more able to make choices about how things happen out here, away from the city lights. Easy? Not entirely. Preferable? Yes. More deeply familiar to me? Completely.
(In August, I read and immediately saved this Globe and Mail column, which I found delightful and nostalgic. It has inspired this post.)
I have a scar on my left index finger from when I was about nine. My mother asked me to set up the MixMaster in its customary position on the kitchen work table. The Sunbeam MixMaster, the workhorse of 1950′s kitchen small appliances, was rarely far from usage. But our farm kitchen didn’t have enough counterspace to have all the truly useful appliances out and available. So, with each use, the MixMaster had to be set up and, afterwards, put away.
Today’s design wizards would have safety switches and braking systems to make sure that a child wouldn’t ever plug in a MixMaster with the power turned on. With their hand resting casually on the beaters. However, the machines of the 1950′s and the kitchens of the 1970′s were not designed thusly. And so, in my first solo attempt to set up the sacred machine, my hand got caught in the beaters momentarily. It was pretty scary, at the time, but no harm was done. And I have this tiny scar, a MixMaster war wound.
That is my only bad memory of the Sunbeam MixMaster. That, and the horrid, electric-motor-burning smell it made at the end of its useable life. I was in Toronto by then, living on my own in my condo, loving using my Mom’s MixMaster to get my Christmas baking done.
This photo was taken hours before it really gave up the ghost. This would have been 2008 and I put MixMaster’s birth date at about 1955. 53 years … not bad for a kitchen appliance.
Mom and I used that machine more than I can possibly describe. Endless batches of cookies, squares, bars, more cookies, fudge, candy … if it needed mixing, this was the machine to do it. Mom was pretty well known for her squares and cookies. Just recently, my cousin Steve has asked if I can make my Mom’s date squares. Perhaps no one can, Steve, without ye Olde MixMaster.
The MixMaster was also our mashed potato maker as it did operate as a very heavy hand mixer as well. Our family has a bit of a “thing” about mashed potatoes and I think the root/blame begins here, with the smooth operating MixMaster.
Mom baked endlessly before I came along, and carried on doing so long after I left the house, right up until her death in 1998. I secured the MixMaster for my own use shortly thereafter and used it, although not as consistently or regularly, until it self-selected itself out of active duty.
The Sunbeam MixMaster operates, rather cleverly, through the design of the bowls and a tiny plastic button on the end of one of the special beaters. The button gently turns the bowl as part of the motion of the beaters. When the MixMaster was in my possession, I always worried about one of the bowls or the beaters getting broken or somehow malfunctioning. So, when I saw this at a yard sale, I snapped it up “for parts”.
The same, but not quite the same.
The “for parts” mixer sat in a box, wrapped in old towels, and almost forgotten, for about 10 years. It was moved around through my various interim abodes. It was part of my collection of stuff that I paid Good Money to store while my condo was under construction. It just sat around in a box, waiting. And then, one day, when I needed it, “for parts” was there, 100%, ready for action. It has been operational for about seven months now, and it has had a decent workout.
I could have gone on like this for a while. “For parts” was doing okay, shuttling from one counter to another between uses, bowls precariously teetering on the stand as the mixer would be moved about. Lately, “for parts” has started to make me nervous. There is a little girl who likes to help. And this little girl has long hair and an intense curiosity about things that go “whirrrr”. Also, the other day, when I threw together some cookies on a whim, it seemed to struggle a bit. So, when out on an unrelated retail mission, Knotty Girl and I spotted this on sale at 40% off.
Very shiny new Sports Car mixer.
This is too heavy to shuttle around so it has to stay put in one place. The bowl can’t break and the single beater is more shielded away from small hands and hair. And it has a very good motor in it. So far, it has done a lovely job on cookie dough and waffles. I will report back, closer to Christmas, on the date squares (Steve).
“For parts” is in semi-retirement, specializing now in mashed potatoes. Right over my (and Charlotte’s) head, above the workspace in the kitchen, is the original – Mom’s MixMaster – now in a place of honour beside the mixing bowl that also forms such a big part of my baking memories with Mom.
Beside the equally sacred mixing bowl that I’m terrified to break.
As things go, I think this is a pretty appropriate evolution, don’t you?
(Anyone taking bets on the longevity of the KitchenAid? )
I don’t believe I’ve ever let a year go by without a blog entry before. Whoops. I’ve had my hands a little full, you see. Sorry about that.
A few weeks ago, I submitted this blog entry from 2010 to Cottage Life magazine, in response for a call for online writers. I received a rather curt response, informing me that the time of the lengthy narrative is over, or some such. It is interesting to note that, as e-reader devices proliferate, content is required to be shorter, pithier and … well … shorter. Or curter, I suppose, as the rejection note I received was only two lines long.
All this by way of suggesting that my blog entries will likely remain longer than the average online offering yet shorter than anything Tolstoy ever wrote. I know my readers can cope.
I wrote to Cottage Life to suggest that I am now living the life of a cottager-in-reverse and, further, suggesting that some might be interested in reading about this. I have only anecdotal data at hand, but it seems to me that there is a steadily growing exodus from high-den-city living to more rural settings. Perhaps I’m part of a trend that people might find interesting.
(Perhaps not, I can hear the CL editor saying, in a demonstration of the brevity he/she had been seeking. Insert here the sound of virtual paper being crumpled and tossed.)
In any case, Knotty Girl and I found ourselves, after 24 months of transitions, adjustments, crisies (real and imagined), and challenges, sitting quietly on our newly re-surfaced dock by the river Labour Day weekend, absorbing the quiet and still moments that remained of the Summer of 2012.
A year ago, our lives were in a state that was just one notch under chaos. My condo wasn’t selling, Knotty Girl’s house-sitting arrangement was due to end, and KG’s mother’s condo was also not selling yet needing to be emptied. KG’s mother, in her own health care crisis, was being shifted from nursing home to respite care to ???. All this left us squeezed and lacking in time and resources to make choices. And stressed.
I want to say that much of what we owned was in this storage locker but, in fact, only about 25% of three households fit in here. Did I mention stressed at all? We were practically sleepless and vibrating with anxiety from about mid-August to, oh, late September when all the various real estate deals were sealed and decisions had been made. After that, it was just the tiny matter of consolidating three households and getting all our remaining possessions moved. We had about 3.5 weeks to arrange it all. We, meaning me, actually as KG had her hands full with her mom’s health stuff (moving from hospital to hospice to nursing home all while we were trying to do this) and, of course, parenting.
It was important to keep Jay and Charlotte upbeat and away from this stress, so one thing Knotty Girl and I did with them a bit last summer was geocache. Here they are, just over a year ago, finding a cache near Flemington Park, I think.
They have matured so much in the last year, as you’ll see from a photo a bit later in this post.
So – there was a lot going on August/September 2011 and it makes this August/September feel like a breeze in comparison.
In the madcap rush of trying to do the best one can do given the information one has at the time, we wound up moving two hours out of the city. We found a red brick house on about half an acre of property in the Kawarthas, exactly 1 hour and 50 minutes drive from the campus where I teach. Oh … and it is on a quiet, picturesque, swimmable, fishable river. With birds and turtles and ducks and mink and fishies and beavers and deer and …
We like to call it “The PostCard”.
Props to our friends Rachel and Pam who live five minutes up the road for helping us find it and get organized at the destination end, and to Ginny and Heather for being instrumental in getting us moved, in so many ways. I have some photos of actual moving weekend, courtesy Ginny, that I’ll dedicate another blog entry to posting.
We have all undergone some transformations in the past year. As has the property itself. Here is what it looked like before we made an offer – and I draw your attention particularly to the “lawn” in these photos.
Not only was the actual property suffering a bit from lack of attention and care, we then went and did this to it. (This = Well drilling, November 2011).
Not only does our fabulous new and apparently healthy well provide us with endless water for household use, it literally fuels the heating and cooling of the house. This house is heated and cooled by water from the ground at a fraction of the cost of fossil fuels. We need electricity to run the units and to push the hot or cold air around the duct work. This was a huge factor for me in deciding to purchase. The house needed to be enough of a bargain to make the major expense of doing this viable. (It was.)
Of course, this system needs drainage and that took three tries to get it right. The first poorly executed attempt flooded our basement. On New Year’s Eve. Our poor yard. Our poor basement. Our poor nerves.
Shortly after the well (not the drain) was finished, it snowed. Quite a bit. And often.
The hydro didn’t go out nearly as much as I
hoped expected. But we were ready.
We tried to build an ice rink. FAIL. But we are trying again, post-Sandy.
Some of us really hoped that we had been good enough and that Santa would come (I guess we were, and he did).
We were visited by some adorable – and slightly unnerving – flying squirrels!
Sometimes, it was hard to tell what season we were in.
Someone was kind enough to let me know she likes my cooking.
Then, eventually, the snow melted, leaving us with this. Not sure if you can see it from this photo, but that is a big pile’o'dirt there.
And it was time to get to work on some landscaping and general neatening up to make the place livable.
On my bucket list was “seeing a pilleated woodpecker” – we’ve now gotten up close and personal with several!
Mid-spring, it was time to take Sophie for her annual check-up/ meet the new local vet / get shots, etc. The local vet is great, the waiting room is small, and this little package was hard to miss.
After a weekend’s worth of discussion, which involved me resisting and Knotty Girl campaigning, Joni came home. Colour Sophie “NOT AMUSED”.
Joni is happy in her new home!
Sophie tries to steal Joni’s stuff!
Joni used to like to come to work with me but she seems to have outgrown this for now.
Geometry lesson … mass over fulcrum … no, wait …
(For the record, Joni has pretty much demolished my clothing rack. )
Gymanstics! That’s what I like! Truce. Momentary.So, we threw down grass seed on all that dirt and watered. And waited. And watered. There are no photos of the watering and the mud. Maybe Bev has some as she and Dale and Taryn were up immediately after the landscapers left. She called it water sprinkler performance art. In any case, the (presumed) acquisition of a lawn created in me an urge for machinery. A tractor, to be precise. Apparently, there were a few in the ‘hood to choose from.
I went with something more conventional and am VERY happy with Agnes. Spring and summer were awesome – we had so many friends up to visit. We fished, we swam, we had coffee with snapping turtles … Two turtles blessed our lawn with their nests and we were so pleased to witness the results later in the season. Here is this Momma snapping turtle depositing her eggs. You just don’t see something like this every day – well captured, Knotty Girl!
Here are the kids strutting their stuff off the end of the dock. The wildlife has gotten pretty used to us. Check out the nonchalant duckie. Video and voice-over courtesy Knotty Girl!
We put up our Pride flag at the end of June and enjoyed it throughout the season. This particular flag is very special, being a souvenir from a Fundy Boy production. It sports Pride on one side and a Union Jack on the other! Note sproutage of the lawn, looking more green than brown!
The summer sped by and it was time to order firewood. I know I’m hard of hearing but so was the other guy on the end of the phone when I ordered it. He brought two bush cords – I only ordered one! The kids were fabulous helpers when it came time to stack this. I taught them to sing “I know an old woman who swallowed a fly … ” and after we went swimming and I taught them how to spit sunflower seed shells into the water. I am a bastion of edification.
All that firewood inspired us to construct a fire pit which I hope will get lots of use in future seasons.
We did plant a garden but much too late. Still, we did get piles of stubby tasty carrots, some hot peppers, one zucchini, four beets and about a bushel of green tomatos.
Too soon, it was time to head back to school.
For the curious, I go back to school, too. My rhythm has changed, obviously. I head down to the Big Smoke for several days in a row for teaching/meetings/hockey then head back up. My schedule will change each semester so – always an adventure! I try to take as much of what I need as possible to keep costs down. Here is my first week of sandwiches for lunch, in waxed paper, obviously.
Of course, in Toronto, there just isn’t space to teach the way I’d like to. Helping Jay With Some Geography. Knotty Girl captured us in secret from her office window.
Remember those snapping turtles laying eggs? Well, you know all that circle of life stuff. Several hatched and made it to the water! (Again, video courtesy Knotty Girl.)
The pictures and videos tell part of the story. So much more happened. So many friends came to stay and visit. So many small and not so small improvements were made and many more planned for. We learned that we never have enough time to do it all. I learned that sometimes it doesn’t matter.
I’ve learned that kids are amazing and challenging, sometimes at the same time. Great teachers they are, too.
So are cats, as it turns out.
I learned how hard I can be to live with sometimes. This is something you lose sight of when you live alone for a long time. I think I’ve learned to be less hard. Or at least, I think I know what “less hard” might look like when I get there. I think the 2010/2011 vortex scarred us both, differently maybe. We seem to be just emerging from all that chaos now, healing still and getting on our feet. It feels like a relief to let go of the anxiety.
I’ve learned that the WWBA from previous posts is really the Woman With Beautiful Soul but that is WWBS and that doesn’t sound as good. Nonetheless … as I write this, Post-Hurricane-Tropical-Something-Or-Other Sandy is on her way and there is no one I’d rather be in the PostCard in the woods with tonight.The wind is howling (apparently – I can’t hear it) but we are snug and settled here. A year and a bit ago, the world was going on as normal and our world was being turned on its head on a daily (hourly?) basis. Now, we are quite stable here while the outside world is getting tossed around. Funny how things shift. That is a lesson in itself. Wait five minutes (six months? a year?) and things can look quite different.
I head into Year Two of the PostCard, I feel like I can get back to more regular blogging, which I would love. I’ve missed it so.
It has been weeks, months, of managing space. Of living in limbo as Knotty Girl and I try to blend our lives in the midst of challenges that are completely unrelated to this blending. KG trying to manage her mother’s complex health and personal affairs. Me trying to get my head around my working life and trying to “vacation” while doing so. Me living partially in my staged, listed condo space, partially at KG’s temporary house-sitting space. One foot here, one foot there. As I type this now, I’m sitting in a local, newly discovered pub to accommodate a showing of my condo space.
Everyone who “knows” my living space of the last seven years seems to love it. Many of my friends have said, “If my life pointed me to living in downtown Toronto, I’d buy your place in a heartbeat.” That is sweet and heartfelt. However, the market is indicating something different. When surrounded by new, highly-amenitied high rise glass and steel towers, my little low-rise loft – lacking in the concierge, the marble foyer, the in-house gym - seems to lack the glassy cubicle coldness that the market seems to expect.
If only my walls could talk. I purchased the place from architectural rendering before the shovel hit the ground in May 2002. I waited, impatiently, in a 400 sq. ft. basement apartment until July 2004 to move in. The first six months were hell, with 57 items incomplete on the construction list, including two out of three sinks missing. Much of my valued stuff in storage had been wrecked through dampness and I thought I’d made a huge mistake with the whole thing. However, about six months in, everything seemed to settle a bit. I started to enjoy the magnificent space, the location, my neighbours. A community started to form in the building, paint got up on previously stark white walls, and the space started to really feel like home. Meals prepared and enjoyed. Rehearsals for plays and music performances. Laughter. Socks and underwear even careening off the ceiling fan from time to time. (Perhaps I should put that in the listing.)
I have called this space my “oasis in the city” and it has felt like this – a quiet, secure, healing place. There has been much to heal from, as there often is in an examined life. It has felt safe and protective, yet welcoming and communal. It is, as a space, special to me. The walls, now freshly repaired from nail holes and scuff marks, and beautifully painted, have wrapped around me, fitting whatever needs I have had, from rehearsal space to party space to gallery space to quiet reflective space to new love space.
Time passes and a home can be outgrown, as is the case now. There is no room for KG’s two children, not to mention a workshop and another office. To pass this space on, I want to reminisce, to help them “feel” it … to feel as comfortable, relaxed, open as I have felt – more comfortable than I could ever feel in a glass tower overlooking a cityscape. To help them feel the sense of community that they can help build anew, just by their presence in this space.
But listings don’t work that way, and some decisions are made with the cold reality of interest rates, square footage, and the fitting of furniture and placement of televisions. However, life does not work that way. A peaceful, quiet, light-filled space in a downtown location is surely worth some fiddling around with sofas and entertainment solutions.
In truth, with the staging, it feels much less like my space than it once did. I’m curiously enjoying the neat and tidy minimalist lifestyle. But I can’t cook big complex meals … or bacon. Everything I take out of cupboards or drawers has to be put back. None of the detritus of day-to-day life – receipts, pocket change, scraps of paper with shopping lists, odds and ends - can be visible. The place feels sanitized and so much less personal. This, however, is in an effort to help the next person visualize themselves in this space. Their colours, their art, their detritus. Their laughter, their love, their life. I know when this space finds its next occupant, it will respond to their needs as beautifully as it has responded to mine. And this thought makes me smile.
It is late evening, and I’m exhausted and frustrated. Grading deadlines are slipping by me as the technology I’ve relied on to exchange work and feedback with students is letting me down. I’m beginning to believe that the process whereby any young person in this age learns how to communicate is quite broken and, as a communicator, this leaves me despondent. My apartment is a disaster, from a hygiene standpoint, and I’m not really all that special myself at the moment. My dog is unwell, again, and that is frightening and expensive. After the grading deadlines are dealt with, there is another – slightly less intense I hope – wave of activity on the horizon. I fervently hope, daily, that the social connections and opportunities I’m missing out on will still be there when I’m in a more balanced place.
That is really the issue: everything is just a bit out of balance – some days, a lot out of balance. I’ve been through this before, and it does pass. I know that. When I was 17, however, this lack of balance felt profound and cavernous. Insurmountable. Unending. My father had shown up the summer previous, and after a five year absence, announced that he was selling the house and “moving us to town”. Just like that – he decided. It took a year to find a buyer and to negotiate the purchase of a house in town. My estranged parents did not speak to each other and avoided even being in the same room. There were opinions to share on potential homes, and instructions to relay between parties – parents, brothers, real estate agents, potential purchasers. I was the interpreter / go-between. My father, suffering then with a not inconsequential onset of early senility, had the habit of yanking me out of class, without warning, and hauling me off to look at a house “for your mother”. And … we were selling the most precious place on earth, as far as I was concerned. I’d lived on that farm all my life. Thus, the Great Move off the Farm in the summer of 1981 was the last chapter in what had already been a year-long, rather harrowing, squabbly saga.
We moved on Friday, June 5 and there was a party at a friend’s house that night. I remember getting very drunk and staggering home to a bed that was not properly constructed and subsequently sleeping at a 45 degree angle all night. My grandmother died, suddenly and unexpectedly, on Sunday, June 7. Or at least they found her that day. She didn’t get to see our new home.
My summer job had started. For the second or third year running, I was part of a traveling children’s theatre troupe, performing at day camps and libraries across our part of the province. Several of my friends were involved in this troupe as well. Long days of bouncing around in a van with no seats – certainly not meeting any safety code of any kind – and leaping out, setting up, performing, loading up and moving on. Some days, we had three locations to hit in quick succession. It was fun, but it could be gruelling, hot and monotonous.
Somewhere in the year leading up to that summer, my inner life had shifted. I became slightly more aware, without language or even strong consciousness, that I was attracted to women. I abhorred this knowledge, floating somewhere below my articulated thoughts. I remember looking at my hands one day and thinking, “God – please don’t let these be the hands of a homosexual.” Every time I had a thought like that, I pushed it very far down. I had deeply, deeply internalized the wrongness of these attractions. And, being a good student, I paid attention. I didn’t need external bullies – I bullied myself.
But, when you are 17, sexual energy is everywhere and it was certainly present that summer in our little theatre troupe. We had the two Ds – boys, my best friend A, J the older female chaperone “adult”, and me. The five of us, bouncing around the province in a VW van. I remember getting quieter and quieter as the summer unfolded, and I remember that the only top I wore for weeks was my orange hockey jersey from my winter rec hockey team. It has only just struck me now the protective nature of this choice – my jersey, which originated from the only group of women that included people like me. Even on the hottest, sweatiest August days, I would sit sullenly in that van, in my orange hockey jersey, watching the two Ds flirt endlessly and mercilessly with A.
Included among the many attributes of that summer is that it is the first time any of us ever witnessed A telling another person to “fuck off”, her frustrated response after the playful, raucous flirtation crossed some line or other.
I didn’t “get” the flirtation. I didn’t speak, hadn’t learned or understood, the language of it. The meaning of it. I understood the textual, obvious meaning, but the subtext of playful meaninglessness eluded me. It did not elude me that I was not included in this ongoing, electrostatic, summer-long exchange between these three people who were my friends. The exclusion became more painful than anything I’d experienced. I remember my frustrating inability to just be like them and join in, even lightheartedly. Girls didn’t flirt with boys directly and if I tried, it would be like sawdust. There was no energy in it. It was impossible. I withdrew, further and further. I was deeply angry, hurt, and confused.
Mid-August, we had a booking at the Pinery Provincial Park. There was to be an late morning show and then a “just before bedtime” show for the campers and their kids. Lots of free time before and after both shows. A and I decided to have our lunch in the woods and a “friendly” raccoon wandered over to check out our offerings. A, not having knowledge of wild things, tried to pet the raccoon and soon learned that one gets bitten when one attempts such a thing. Then followed a “search” for the specific raccoon which was rather ridiculous really. How many raccoons are there in the Pinery, anyway?
I had reached some kind of nadir of my despondency that day, and I don’t recall if there was a specific thing that happened to drive me there. We had brought our bathing suits and had planned to have a bonfire on the beach after the early evening show. There I sat on a log on the beach, with my orange hockey jersey on over my bathing suit, the sun setting across the horizon and my friends cavorting in the surf of Lake Huron. I sat there for a long time, watching. Finding the mystery of how people get connected to be too difficult. Simply not believing that I would ever be one of those people to experience a human connection. A sexual connection. I didn’t have or develop what it takes for this mysterious thing that clearly comes easily to everyone else. I wasn’t good enough, nor would I ever be.
Sunsets over Lake Huron are among the most beautiful on earth and I suddenly thought it would be a good idea for me to just get lost in it. Just swim until I no longer existed, and had become one with the Lake and energy of the sun. I remember clearly peeling off the protective jersey and wading into the cold lake water. I started swimming, right past my friends. Further. I kept going. Steadily. I could hear my name being called. I kept going. And the sun kept going down.
I was a very strong swimmer at 17, and quite a determined one in that moment. I had gotten a long way out before I heard splashing behind me. One of the D’s, the weakest swimmer ironically, had bolted after me which was quite an impressive feat, really. He grabbed my foot, I think, and then my arm. He yelled something at me, right in my face, in a scared, angry voice. He was struggling to stay afloat himself and that hadn’t been my intent. So I let him steer me back to shore and “save” me. If memory serves, and it does get a little foggy at this point, I think I put my hockey jersey back on and sat back down sullenly on my log while he sputtered and stamped around our bonfire. It was all a bit surreal.
Later that weekend, there was a kitchen table meeting with A’s parents and my Mom, discussing how to handle treatment for A’s raccoon bite. She was furious at me for making my big swim and she brought it up at this discussion. I had nothing to say for myself, as I recall, so the subject was dropped. No one ever brought it up again, as I recall. I remember accompanying A to the hospital for those horrid rabies shots. She tells me that I went with her for every single one. I honestly don’t remember that. I do remember feeling that the raccoon bite had made a more lasting impression on the adults than my big swim had.
Being a teenager is really hard. Emotions loom large and they all feel complex, entangled and frustrating. Suicide attempts happen in a larger context than simply “being gay” and “being bullied” although these things have enormous impact. Being able to talk about whatever it is that makes us feel apart and isolated, being able to really appreciate a healthy, whole reflection of ourselves, to see all the beauty each individual brings BECAUSE they are individuals, not part of a mass-produced mind-meld – these are important gifts that young people need.
For the record, I more than made up for the absence of teen flirting later. I was a late bloomer in that regard. And I’m very, very grateful that D swam after me that August evening in 1981. Because having too much work, an attention-seeking feline, an elderly canine, a beautiful girlfriend, a dirty apartment, a drawer overflowing with hockey jerseys, too many invitations and not enough time … these are all the blessings of a full, if not always balanced, life. And I am indeed blessed.
My family didn’t go on vacation. Ever. So the concept is quite foreign to me. Oh, I “get” it, intellectually. We all need a break, blah blah blah. But it isn’t in my programming, really.
I think my Mom would have been a traveller, given half a chance. She famously (well, famously to me anyway) hitchhiked across the continent with her best buddy, Charlotte, after they both graduated from nursing school. Whenever they ran out of money, they stopped and got nursing jobs for a few months, then carried on. What an adventure that must have been, exploring North America in the late-40′s, post-war era. They traveled together for over a year, I think. Across the prairies to Vancouver, down the coast to LA, through New Orleans and back up through New York City. That’s my Mom.
But … was it a vacation? Not really. It was an adventure. Soon, she married my father and started having babies. When I was four, and Mom had been married almost 20 years, she took me to Florida. We stayed for a week with my aunt and uncle in their trailer. That was the only vacation we ever took, and I only vaguely remember it.
Actually, now that I think of it, I remember being told something about a camping trip to the Pinery Provincial Park when I was still in a wicker bassinet. Hardly an experience that would have left an indelible mark.
My father used words like “tomfoolery” and “lazy bastards” whenever anyone took a day off work, so the concept of taking an extended break was certainly not in his programming, either. Those words also applied to Christmas and birthday celebrations but I think I’ve managed not to let his severe case of the grumps spoil my fun on those days. I’m not sure if it is a family farming culture thing – no time to rest! – or just my father’s peculiar inability to let go of his Protestant work ethic. But we didn’t go anywhere as a family, or plan anything like a trip or a “vacation”.
That makes it sound like we didn’t have any fun – we certainly did. There was card-playing, board games, lots of horsing around and activity with my brothers, including building our own ice rinks, fishing the local creeks, swinging from ropes into piles of straw in the barn, and breaking windows with errant baseballs. I spent a significant amount of time begging my mother to buy me, or let me buy, a mini-bike. Later, for me, there were organized sports (hockey, softball, swimming), music lessons and theatre projects. But … no vacations, per se.
My life looks a bit like this now, in fact. Busy – a lovely balance between work and play in my day-to-day life. However, now that I am better at recognizing the signs and appreciating the rhythm of modern life, I am faced with the indisputable fact that I Must Go Away From Time To Time And Shift Gears. The signs are clearer to me now than they once were: emotional exhaustion, lack of motivation, mild depression, disinterest, disorganization, lack of creativity. The rhythm, particularly of my primary job as a professor, couldn’t be clearer. This great gaping maw of time stretches from mid-June to late August, begging to be filled with interesting distractions.
What do I typically do? This year, my official obligations ended with my institution on June 18, a Friday. My first client meeting was scheduled for – wait for it – June 21, Monday. Now that I really think on it, there is something almost obscene about this. As with other years, I have sort of puttered through the summer, not really planning much, doing some work for clients, sleeping in, trying to relax and be less structured, spending some lovely time with friends, letting things unfold. But it doesn’t feel very “vacation”-like. I’m terrible at planning vacations in advance – I have no training, role-modeling or examples from my past to guide me – and I shudder at forking out the dough. Check with anyone I’ve been involved with for any length of time … they’ll confirm this in spades.
How does someone like me really go on vacation? I have learned that I can trick myself into it. In 2008, I took off by myself to Barbados and justified it as a “strategic planning retreat” for my business. I found a bed and breakfast with high speed wireless and spent a portion of every day drumming up new ideas and documenting a business plan for the next few years. Of course, I also got a tan and swam in the ocean a lot. This compromise – a working vacation – is about as close as I’m going to get to the real deal.
So, what have I done on my summer vacation at this last-minute cottage rental? I have:
- Developed a workshop (powerpoint and materials) on recruitment best practices for a client. First time I’ve prepared a session to be delivered by someone else. Very liberating.
- Developed a bio for a client to be included in a bid for a significant chunk of work. I love spin.
- Completed the first edit on the script for Fundy Boy: Back to Broadway. The original gang is re-assembling, I’ll be directing/lighting/running around. Rehearsals start late August for an October 1-2 staging. Be there!
Still to be completed:
- Working out operational workflows for two specific processes for a client, mapping out and justifying the recommended changes in processes.
- Creating a workplan for my two weeks of prep prior to classes starting at Centennial. Lots to do … very little time to do it!
Oh … I have also …
- Slept like a rock
- Gotten up early, with the mist on the water, and spent hours fishing on a silent, still lake, absorbing the sound of the loons
- Dozed on the floating dock, listened to audiobooks and gotten rather a lot of sun
- Re-connected with dear, long-time friends who also have a cottage on this lake and eaten steak and – mmmm – mashed potatoes and s’mores
- Gone swimming
- Spent some glorious time with Knotty Girl when she dropped by
- Bailed out the boat, in the pouring rain, so I can get back to shore for supplies (this was actually kind of fun although I’m very glad it had stopped raining by the time I’d returned)
- Pondered blogging and a re-entry therein
Still to come:
- More hanging out with Knotty Girl, and two more joyful and lovely fishing buddies who are arriving for the weekend
- More dozing on dock
- More fishing and swimming
- Some yummy cottage meals when the gang is here
- Perhaps some live action Scrabble playing and Balderdashing
- More blogging?
So, this business of tricking myself into vacationing actually works. As long as I feel I’m accomplishing something, I’m good to go. I think of it as the Protestant-work-ethic-work-around.
OK – I need to think about workflows now. Well, shortly. First, a dip in the lake … I may have gotten a sunburn writing this.
Once again, Mother’s Day rolls around and I find myself in a pensive, reflective sort of place. Looking back, or down as my colleagues would say from my standard perspective of 50,000 feet, a pattern emerges. Early May is always the end of two long semesters, and that always feels like the end of a marathon, emotionally. This year has been especially challenging, with the stress of a potential strike, and the sense of powerlessness one has to do anything at all, individually, to affect the eventual outcome. The deeper frustration at having no ability to affect the systemic issues that would cause such a disruptive and disturbing action to even be considered.
All that aside, teaching is a kind of parenting, I think. I recognized a while back that I engage with my teaching practice as a sort of parent/guardian/mid-wife/mentor/coach. I’m not interested in lecturing and I have no confidence at all in such a dynamic resulting in any “learning” of any kind. I’m constantly scheming about fun ways we can get groups of students involved in classroom activities that help them learn and practice their communications skills. Sometimes I think these are more fun than my students do. Also true of parenting, perhaps.
Where teaching – formal teaching – and parenting are different has to do with evaluation. In my experience, healthy parents love their children unconditionally. Without reserve as to their actual level of skill or knowledge. And here is where it gets emotionally tricky for the parenting teacher, because it is our job to evaluate, to judge. To assess whether skills and knowledge have actually been acquired and successfully demonstrated. Unlike some of the more quantitative skill sets, evaluating communications skills is tricky and somewhat subjective. There are some very good communicators who are not so good with funky details of applied English. There are extremely poor communicators who managed to ace all their quizzes and any assignments that did not involve eye contact, and thus will pass the course. There are students who hate anything to do with communicating who cannot understand why this is important or relevant in any way.
As a “parent” figure, I get a little attached to them all – and herein lies the danger for me. I don’t want to fail any of these, my pseudo-children. I feel affection for them – I find most of their quirky, undisciplined, messy, “sense of entitlement” selves endearing. I want them to succeed, to feel like they are successful. I hate being the judge. But I am. And, this past term, it was my job to fail roughly 20% of my communications class. It simultaneously breaks my heart and makes me angry.
I challenge anyone who thinks that teaching is a cushy, over-paid job to actually do it, full-time, for two semesters running. Then, we’ll talk.
I had an awesome good news story this term, though, and it taught me a lot. In the Fall 09 semester, a student came to me mid-point in the term and explained that her parents had arranged for her to get engaged in Dubai during the last three weeks of term. This young woman has aspirations of becoming a journalist someday and so she knew that this communications course would be important to her. However, her actual ability in this area was proving to be rather weak. Not “failing” weak, but weak. As it happens, the last three weeks of this course involve working in a team to research and deliver a presentation. Thus, if she was going to be out of the country, it would be impossible for her to complete the work.
We worked out a compromise. I gave her an “Incomplete” and offered to have her return to my class in Winter 10 (this past term) to complete the team project with another class. She did so, contacting me exactly on schedule and arriving in class exactly as I had asked her to. There was a change in her. In the intervening three and a half months, she had matured and she was clearly able to demonstrate and use the communications skills I had been mentoring her class through the previous term, even though her average at the time she departed was around 57%. Her team, under her leadership, rocked the final presentation. This was a revelation to me – that students, even weak ones, continue to “learn” the material AFTER the course is over. This makes me feel better about the 10 or 15% who SHOULD have failed, but didn’t because of the strength of their quizzes, the mid-term or their group effort. Maybe some stuff will sink in and re-surface later. One can only hope.
I’m sure I’ve told this story before – here it is again in a slightly different context. I’ve always been a bit of a language nazi. Good writing makes me swoon and bad writing makes me gag. This has been true since about Grade Six, I think. So, I was well-entrenched as the self-appointed language police in my household from an early age. When my oldest brother was living in Saskatchewan for a time, lightyears before the age of the Internet, my mother would pain-stakingly write him one page, hand-written notes, usually weekly. She would sweat and labour over each phrase. Her letters wound up reading a bit like this:
Harvest todday again, beans. Almost done here, going to Thomas place tomorrow. Combine jammed but it is ok now. Mae brought kool-aid, cherry, and a pie. Too hot but can’t wait. Bails dry soon but no time. John Deere had oil. Leaky again but Aubrey had the right hose and fixed. With clamps. Charlie got a new radio, Fred Woods says new fridge back-ordered. Made cookies. How are you?
Once, when I was about 16, I came upon her writing one of these, with her face wrenched up in serious concentration, the clicker end of her pen in her mouth as she thought. I scoffed, rolled my eyes and generally behaved like a 16 year old know-it-all who could critique the mechanics but missed, entirely, the depth of communication and love that was being successfully poured into each note. I feel ashamed when I think of this incident and I note, ruefully, that I do not have any such letter from my mother, even though I moved permanently away from home when I was 18, and 20 years would pass before her death. She would not bring herself before the language police again, and I don’t blame her.
But what I wouldn’t give for one of those letters.
I remember this incident often and it helps me be a better teacher. Clearly, for some people writing is extremely difficult. For others, it is easier. Put another way: some very good, talented, valuable, smart people are terrible writers. Being a good writer does not necessarily translate into being a good person. My role, my job, is just to teach a skill. Try to help each individual express themselves a bit better when they leave my course than when they started. If they reach a certain external standard, I have to let them move on to the next challenge. That is the best I can do.
Thanks, Mom … Happy Mother’s Day!
I ate breakfast late today. I know I’m not supposed to do that, but … there it is. I had a big pub outing after hockey last night and just felt unable to introduce more protein until after noon. Today’s egg creation involved frying mushrooms, onions, red peppers and ham together and then dumping eggs beaten with many kinds of cheese and a few dashes of Worchestershire sauce on top, stirring until set. The WWBA and I call this “Scrambled Eggs with Stuff”. The radio was on as I was doing this and Stuart McLean was reading one of my favourite Dave and Morley stories, Holland, about when Dave and Morley met. In that story, Morley made her version of “eggs with stuff” and they were not to Dave’s liking, nearly contributing to the end of their very young marriage.
Somehow, I’ve acquired two small kitchen whisks in the past number of years and I’ve started to use them, exclusively, for whipping eggs for “eggs with stuff”. That is what they are for, after all. Whisking things. Usually, I plop the eggs on top of some cottage cheese and maybe some romano, pelt the mixture with some Worchestershire sauce and get the whisk going. It sounds like it does on the cooking shows. Busy and thoroughly important, accented with high tinkly sounds of the metal strands hitting the glass. Today, however, I had a sudden aversion to making one more kitchen implement dirty for this task and, instead, used the fork that I’d already used to dish out the cottage cheese. My mother never had a whisk, after all, and this is how she whipped eggs for the pan. For that matter, this is how I did it until I got all cityfied and started using a whisk.
Beating eggs with a fork, in a glass mixing bowl, sounds totally and completely different than beating eggs with a whisk in a glass mixing bowl. I’d forgotten. There is a deep, gurgling, plopping sound caused by the fork lifting and dropping the mixture that is missing from the more treble sound of the whisk. There is still metal on glass, yet it sounds somehow more aggressive and forceful with a fork than with a whisk. It is, for me, a nostalgic sound, reminding me of my mother being both consciously instructive with me in the kitchen (“watch for egg shells in the mix, here, use a spoon to get that out.”) and unconsciously instructive as she tried to do as much as possible as quickly as possible. Scrambled eggs with stuff was fast, nutritious, cheap and tasty. Thus, also popular.
On a day like today, after a week like this week, the simple sound of eggs being whipped in a bowl to create “eggs with stuff” was profoundly grounding to me. A short plane ride away, a scene of unimaginable devastation is unfolding as a bottleneck of well-intentioned assistance sits, waiting to be deployed. It is gut-wrenching.
At work, the results of a mid-week strike vote have definitively answered precisely nothing, for anyone, on any side of the table.
As privileged and fortunate as my life is – and it is – I am aware that I am powerless in both of these situations. Once the donating and the voting is done, there is nothing I can directly and personally do to affect either of these outcomes. Sometimes I catch myself imagining jumping on a plane and taking control of the airport, directing the flow of traffic, or building quick on-the-spot teams for aid deployment. Or, bursting in on the negotiating teams with some new revelation that will solve all the threads of distrust and mis-information that have sprung up over years between management and the union. But, wistfully, I put those things away back when the day came to put away childish things.
So, I make eggs. And I remember that my good fortune springs not from my “stuff” or acquisition of “stuff”, but from all that I have learned and continue to learn, and all the mistakes I’ve made and continue to make. And I hope for the best. For everyone.
Meet Sophie. Isn’t she adorable?
There should be red carpet for me to pose on.
Bags-r-Us. Especially crinkly ones.
My PlayCat pose.
All in a day's play
Having Sophie around takes me back to two other times in my life. First, when I was little, I remember being “in charge” of the barn cats on our farm. This was a self-appointed position. I was probably four or five when I became kitty maven. I adored the semi-feral creatures and routinely spirited saucers of Mom’s precious Carnation Evaporated Milk, normally reserved for use in coffee, out to the shed for my furry friends. My Dad and brothers tried to discourage this, saying that hungry cats could catch more mice and rats in the barns, but I paid no mind to this absurd perspective.
There were usually between 10-20 cats at a time on the farm. The population would fluctuate. Cat Matriarch at the time was Sandy, an orangey-ginger cat who was likely mama to many of the others. She was pretty ragged around the edges, often appearing in the mornings with a chunk of fur missing, or a kink in her tail, or another scar on her ear. As rough as her non-domesticated life appeared to be, she was always, always, gentle and sweet with me. Immeasurably patient, never scratching or hissng or behaving aggressively, even if I got too close to any of her newborns. My main visual memory of Sandy is of her looking at me, sighing, and sort of half closing her eyes with a combination of exhaustion and resignation. She could always manage a purr for me, and some kneading.
Every year, there were several batches of kittens to be ooh’d and aah’d over. They would be born in the hay mow, well-hidden by clever cat mamas, to be discovered only after hours of patiently following the distressed-sounding mews. Or, sometimes, they would be born in a tool shed or implement shed, or in the garage behind the house. I was always on a mission to find the kittens, somehow thinking, god-like, that they needed my intervention. Not surprisingly, I also have very clear memories of cat mamas carrying their babies to and fro by the scruff of their necks, moving the latest kitten batch to a more secure hiding place, away from all self-appointed god-like creatures.
I decided, when I was five, that little wee tiny kittens don’t “meow”. They squeak out a syllable that sounds like”at”, like they are trying to say “cat” but can’t quite get the whole word out. If you listen to a wee kitten, you’ll hear it, perhaps – or maybe your inner five year old will be able to. I sat with multitudes of cats and kittens, for hours. They were my friends, out there on the farm, miles from other five year olds. I adored their serious expressions, their oddly squared-off noses. How some cats always look shocked or surprised or vaguely scandalized by the activity around them. Some will relax, some never do. The behaviour that I interpreted, as a child, as “playing” is really “learning how to stalk and kill things.” I liked being greeted by a flurry of upright tails. Watching a kitten transform from a cumbersome, innocent, slightly stupid fluffy ball into a sleek hunting machine was an amazing thing.
My Mom was very clear – farm animals, like cats and dogs, are not allowed in the house. Ever. Period. This wasn’t even up for discussion. The closest the cats and kittens got was the attached rickety garage out the back door of our house.
Some kittens lived, and some did not. Some were born strong, some were not. Some cat mamas were very good at raising their young. Some were not. I’ve buried a lot of cats, from new born to very aged. One of our cats, JB, a calico, got hit by a car. My Mom and I discovered this at twilight one summer’s evening as we returned from a dip in the pool at the local conservation area. Her body was intact and had stiffened but her face had contorted into a grotesque almost aggressive expression before she died. I felt responsible for getting her off the road and buried, so I forced myself from my state of shock and sadness into action, fetching a sheet of plywood veneer from the shed, sliding it under her body and carrying it carefully to a hole I’d dug behind the garage. It felt necessary, respectful, dutiful, sad … I remember I also felt scared, a bit, this one time. Something about the unexpected sudden death and the painful last look on her face.
I saw that same look again, some 20+ years later, when I had to have my beloved cat soulmate, Sid, euthanized. I understood, then, that this is just what happens to muscle structures in death and that it was my own anthropomorphizing that projected unwarranted meaning onto the expression.
Sid, like Sophie, was a child of the streets. A kitten foundling from my first summer in St. Catharines, we bonded. Our initial bonding probably had to do with me tucking him into my shirt to take him to work with me on my moped. (I was trying, unsuccessfully, to conceal from my university roomies that I had taken a kitten in.) He would peek out, just under my neck. He was an ornery guy, a sort of one-person cat. He grew from a tiny kitten into a 21 lb behemoth. It should be noted that at 21 lbs, he was not “obese”, just very large. A huge tom-cat head, giant paws. An industrial strength purr that could be heard throughout two floors of almost any house. The many adventures of Sid probably deserve their own blog posting, but safe to say that once he was gone, I found it really hard to imagine having another cat. He died in 1998, after we spent almost a year battling feline diabetes. He was quite done with the insulin shots and dietary restrictions, I think. He was 15.
Sid, wondering when I am going to take that stupid Christmas bell off his collar
In the intervening 11 years, I think I’d forgotten much about these creatures. I also think that my tendency to excess analysis and thought needs to be reined in by the presence of a creature whose needs are more clear, immediate and lacking in alternative agendas entirely. Needs for food, water, cleanliness, affection, attention and stimulation. These needs snap me back into a concrete reality because, suddenly, I am the sole source of these for this one fur-person. No analysis required.
I think Sophie is part dog. Last night, after falling into bed exhausted and turning out the light, I heard quite the commotion downstairs. None of it sounded damaging in a permanent way and I was too tired to get up to investigate. There were some crinkling sounds which I presumed originated from the crinkly bag I put on the floor for Sophie to enjoy. Then I heard some bounding up the steps and felt her land on the bed, still making crinkling sounds. “Whaa …?” On went the light. There she sat with her bag of treats in her mouth which she then dropped, pointedly, in front of me. The messaging was clear and unambiguous. “WANT TREAT NOW – PAY ATTENTION – PLAY WITH ME”. I wish all the humans in my life were this clear!