Saturday, October 29, 2005

In The Ascendant

She began struggling soon after they left the trailhead but they had discussed that before setting off and agreed it would be slow and steady. They rested often of pure necessity. She was not able to push herself at anything resembling the pace they were accustomed to, or thought that they were. Her chest felt constricted, but nothing like the iron-clamped feeling of suffocation of more recent vintage. She could, she supposed, thank the daily Aspirin therapy for that. And as far back as she could recall, at least back when the children were teens, her legs, under physical duress, had become cramped and heavy through a steep ascent.

They hauled themselves to another of the many ledges so far encountered. They levered themselves, tugged at tree stumps and outcrops, made the ledge and continued up the winding trail. The small black dog crouched to leap the next ledge, but they ordered her sharply to wait. She’d had no trouble clearing most, but she was not as agile as she once was. They would lift her over this ledge, fearful of the prospect she might miss and surely slide straight down the mountainside. Then the Apricot toy, 8 pounds of canine testosterone. She murmured reassuringly to him, bent forward, was taken aback to see him shrink at her intent, trembling.

A month earlier, her husband had been so debilitated from an undiagnosed bladder infection which had thrust his enlarged prostate into intemperate action they felt certain their expedition would be thwarted. That was then; now he offered his outstretched hand, but she refused, seeing him poised so tenuously on the rising rockface. Breathing tightly with each stride she gained short-lived momentum, disciplining herself to observe, to note to memory as many details of the trees, underbrush, mountain stream slipping by them as possible.

More long stony crags to mount, and yet more. She recalled when she was so much younger, fearing to walk upright on the long sloping expanses of rock. Then, she hadn’t been averse to advancing crabwise on all fours, ditching any semblance of dignity. Now, she rose steadily, albeit at a pitifully slow pace, completely upright. Stopping often to catch breath as cooling breezes wafted over them, they half-turned to glance behind at the steadily unfolding, breathlessly vast march of mountain tops.

Although they drank nothing themselves, they offered water often to the little dogs struggling with the effort, tongues lolling. At one juncture a young woman with a yellow Labrador paused briefly on the trail below them to rest. As she resumed her climb and easily passed them the toy Poodle snarled and frantically barked his idiotic willingness to beat hell out of the Lab. The young woman laughed wryly in response to her observation that people-legs did not rejoice in such unreasonable demands.

There’s scant shade at this elevation, but the little black dog still winds her way for brief rests under the timid shade of scrub oak and spruce growing in stubborn defiance of prevailing winds and cruel winters. When they finally, in a triumph of disbelief, reach the first peak, they stop, shed backpacks, and perch quietly in surveillance of the lofty scene spread around them. They observe the ribbons of white-grey clouds in the peaceful sky and they breathe pure mountain ozone. Her husband identifies a few of the taller peaks. From her backpack she withdraws doggy treats and prevails upon the lanky black one to abandon her scant shade. The dog accepts a cookie, hauls it to the shade, eats it and wearily repeats this little performance several times. The tiny dog sits beside the woman, devouring one cookie after another.

When they begin the descent to the Col she recalls her bemusement the year before at the spectacle of an elderly, slight and dapper man reaching out his hands to encourage a tall, robust grey-haired woman clad in an ankle-length denim dress and puffy-white tennis shoes. The sight of the drop-off to the trail descending to the Col looks formidable. She descends now carefully, first on her arse, until, gaining sufficient courage, she continues upright again. A short walk on the Col brings them to another ascent, and they rise the remaining four hundred feet to gain the second peak. In the process they file carefully through narrow passages and up winding pathways shouldered by boulders, lungs searing, legs leaden. Then unaccountably a short hike through thick forest where they had seen two very inebriated, giddy young men beside the tent they’d plopped in a scant clearing, two years previously.

At the second summit they look back, down upon the first peak they’d left. They feel happy, and are glad to stop and talk to a muscular young man wielding a hiking pole in each hand who is doing the circuit in the opposite, more difficult direction. The young man appears amenable to the exchange of hiking tales, although it’s more than clear he doesn’t need the rest. He obligingly regales them with his accounts of the really difficult climbs he’s managed through the course of the week, this being the easiest, the last one. They’re familiar with most of the climbs, which they had also managed, years ago. The balance of their day’s adventure will be on the descent, and there is relief in that knowledge. They anticipate the gradual descent of one smoothly massive rock face after another, one switchback following another on the circuit’s completion.

They look for the yellow markers arrowed on the rock, or the rock mounds urging them toward the right direction. They know they’re truly on the descent when they reach the spine, the final ridge with its dizzying fall-away sides. They call to the dogs to stay beside them, which they appear willing enough to do as they carefully search their own way through the many little rocky traps awaiting the unwary. Finally, the plunge into the forest thick with old yellow birch, maple, white pine, large smooth-barked beech, hemlock. The path winds through thickly tangled roots, fallen rocks, the air damp with mould, but not unpleasantly so. Her knees feel wobbly, her footing uncertain. His legs are fine, but his toes have been badly battered. Another hour and they would surely be out, although they’re slightly surprised that their progress is still slow, they’re unable to proceed as speedily as they’d anticipated, going down.

As he scrambles his way down slightly before her, the black dog pacing him, he suddenly shouts, begins to run while calling to her to stop where she is. Bloody damn! They’ve stumbled across a hovering stacked vortex of wasps. How is that possible? While he swoops to lift the dog in a vain attempt to shield her, the woman lifts the tiny dog and struggles with it off trail to bushwhack alongside the trail. When they re-connect he is still pulling wasps off the little black dog, off his hands and chest, cursing the determination of the angry swarm.

For the balance of the descent the little black dog runs on with renewed determination, setting a pace they cannot match, obviously intent on maintaining a safe distance between herself and the stingers - glancing back occasionally to ensure her troupe is following the leader.

Wednesday, October 26, 2005

Family Adventures

Our marriage is two years short of a half-century. (Not now, fellas; that was written several years back.) I’m not certain what sounds better (or worse), fifty years or a half-century. When I turned fifty, aeons ago, I joked I’d passed the half-century mark; thought it was amusing. Until I hit sixty. I remember how grateful I was to my husband when, just before my 58th birthday when I was thinking I would be turning 59, he said no, just 58. I was thrilled; it was the best possible birthday gift. I thought I might be sliding into senile dementia, believing I was a year older than I really was. Funny thing is, I’m not really, not really-really that old. Actually I’m not old at all. If I were, I would feel old. I’d look old. I don’t. Either feel or look it, that is. Fact is, age isn’t a factor in my life at all, even though I was so glad to regain that errant year, if only to grab another year’s experiences and experience. I still have a letter he wrote to me when we were fifteen, and I was away for a week at a summer camp. The mangled syntax recalls his voice soft with the mush of goofy puppy-love. The sentiments that of a boy reaching beyond himself into manhood. I have another letter, one I wrote to him seventeen years later, when we were 32, had three young children, and he was away at a conference-workshop for a week. My letter informed him among other things, that our youngest child had just lost another tooth and he was totally focussed on finding a dinosaur egg, because one of the other children in his grade 1 class had sworn his father told him there were plenty around for the picking. When we were young, I would call him ‘honey’ and ‘dear’, and this used to irritate my father no end. No bees buzzing around him, no antlers on that one, my father said. What? I’ve always loved him madly. Even when he was a callow, a truly callow youth, and I had my doubts. I’ve never hesitated to tell him that I love him. Except once, that I can recall. That was about a decade ago one September, when we were canoeing the Bowron Lakes circuit in the Cariboo Mountains of British Columbia with our youngest son, a biologist. Took us nine days to canoe the circuit; lake to lake to river to lake to river to lake. Spectacular environment, surrounded by mountains. And cold, at the three thousand foot level. It rained every bloody day. Rain down below, but on the mountain peaks, there appeared a spreading cone of snow. Even our son was discouraged and he’s the original Outdoorsman. I wasn’t, oddly enough. Discouraged, I mean; we were well geared for the weather and despite the rain managed to dry our tent and sleeping bags in occasional sunny, windy periods. True, all that paddling from one lake to another, one camping spot to another did weary me. And the incessant portaging. At that time of year there weren’t all that many others and they were mostly adventurous young Europeans, whose paths we would occasionally cross. Getting the food out of harm’s way each night was a joy. Most sites had a long ladder which you would position against a tree, haul the food pack up and hoist it between two trees on the ladder-like shelf placed for that purpose. Remembering, of course, to lay the ladder back down. Sometimes, rarely, a camping site devoid of handy trees would boast a large iron safe for the food pack. The safes looked rather the worse for wear, having suffered obvious insults from irate bears. We often looked up the mountainsides through binoculars, hoping to see a grizzly (at a comfortably safe distance). On one sandy beach we once came across the sharp hoofprints of a moose, and mingled with the prints those of a wolf. Eeech! Before we’d set out on this adventure, I had asked the outfitter if pepper spray might be a good idea. Earlier, we had watched a mandatory safety video to give us an idea of what we might encounter on our journey and warnings about grizzlies loomed large, as did my resulting worries about them. The outfitter looked at our son, looked at me, then told him not to worry. He could always outdistance his ma should we venture across a hungry grizzly. Very encouraging. At some portages we did see others clanking along, sporting bells to warn off bears. More harm came to people from other sources, however. At one juncture we watched from shore as several people were taken out of the circuit via a parks patrol boat and we conjectured hypothermia. Another time, a couple smashed a wonderful (borrowed, as it happened) cedar-strip canoe on a snag by treacherous rapids in a bottleneck of one of the rivers, and they were brought out. On that same stretch of rapids we managed to manoeuvre successfully enough, but dusk was fast falling and we knew we’d have to take the first available campsite. We did, and what a site. From hell it was. The only place on the entire circuit where we had to clamber up a formidable bank to get to the tree-blown campsite, hauling the canoe halfway up a ledge to secure it for the night. Clambering up and down that bank for potable water was fun, as was washing; us and the dishes. This site had welcoming hosts as well, hordes of mosquitoes and blackflies - again the only site we came across thus equipped. As we were grumblingly settling up for the night and cooking dinner, we heard the backwash of paddles rounding the bank in the dark and hailed a brace of Austrians who happily accepted the invitation to join us and share the meal my husband was cooking. Funnily enough, we loved all the meals he cooked and he detested them, ate only enough to keep him going while we wolfed everything down. He doesn’t care for pulses and legumes, and we’re wild for them. Two days later, that same young couple ‘rescued’ us after a particularly difficult day-long paddle, another storm in the offing, dusk falling and no camp site. When we finally reached one it was theirs and they invited us to share, offering us hot, sweet tea to revive our flagging spirits and aching, frozen limbs. Oh, that allusion to the one time I decided I didn’t love my husband? Well, the last day of our circuit found us (me) exhausted and eager to re-establish permanently on dry land. We had paddled down the Bowron River, come too close for comfort to a moose cow and her calf (to my way of thinking; my husband and our son kept paddling determinedly toward it, curious to see how near they, we, could approach before the cow reacted), then entered the last, vast lake and, determined to reach our destination in as little time as possible, we were paddling smack through whitecaps in the middle of the lake in high winds. The wind took my words into the ether as I screeched at my husband to paddle alongside the shore and he refused, feigning deafness. We survived, somehow we survived. Much as we did three years earlier when we alpine-camped on Long Mountain about three hours’ drive from Vancouver, near the Stein Valley. We were just two years shy of 60 then, and although we’d often mountain climbed in the White Mountains of New Hampshire, (cheerily singing ‘I Love to go a’wandering, along the mountain tracks’ when the children were younger) and I always carried a small knapsack, I’d never before been geared to climb with a full-size backpack containing sleeping bags, inflatable mattresses and clothing. Light by comparison to what the others carried, but a new experience for me. At one point, when we were climbing over a rockfall of square boulders each the size of a car (named, improbably, the "Gates of Shangri-La"), and the top of my pack almost bounced me onto rocks below, I truly wondered at my sanity. When we’d gained height close to the mountain peak, a blue-green, clear glacial lake just below us, it seemed worth the effort. Kind of. The scramble down to the frigid lake to wash (wash, hah!) or retrieve water for cooking was not one of my favourite activities. At the far end of the lake, stretched the glacier which slowly melted into the lake; its soft, distant thunder lulled us to sleep that night. The tent on a shallow slope, (the flattest part of the mountainside we could find) we gradually nudged the edge of the tent through the night. Next morning we took a day climb, coming across other glacial lakes, another glacier abloom with red algae, and an altitude which afforded us a view of unending mountain peaks across the Stein Valley. The afternoon sun slowly disappeared as a thunderhead appeared in the distance. We took the hint and hurriedly retraced our ascent to seek shelter in our tent. When the storm hit it was fierce, the rain pounding our innocent little shelter, winds howling mercilessly around the mountain. We survived that one, too. Cripes we survived lots. But life is an adventure, right? We used to wake up really early on week-ends when we lived for a while in Tokyo, so we could take the subway, take a bus, take a train all for the purpose of exiting the city. We’d see intrepid Japanese bent on the same kind of adventure as we, but they dressed like western big-game hunters, really getting into the spirit of things. At the half-way point in our transportation web we would meet up with other members of Friends of the Earth, a friendly, casual group comprised of 50% Japanese, 50% Australians, Germans, Brits, Canadians like us. Typically we’d set out for a forested mountain. On occasion we would see teahouses set into mountain niches; we would see signs warning to beware of monkeys; we would see stone lanterns set aglow between bamboo trees; once we came across a giant Gingko tree reputed to be two thousand years old; once a shrine with a gigantic pair of sandals said to have been worn by a Buddhist monk who had walked from China to Korea to Japan to deliver his divine message. That’s dedication, that’s determination, that’s no mere hike. Years ago we drove from our base in Atlanta on our way to Gatlinburg, Tennessee, where we meant to enjoy snowshoeing in the Great Smokies. Close to our destination we reached the national park whose highway would lead us to Gatlinburg. We’d been that way before without incident, but this was winter in the mountains and where below it had been raining, up above was sleet and snow. I cursed the park rangers who could have stopped us, but did not. We began to see cars ahead of us sliding on the icy road. I had never quite known fear like that before, certain that there wasn’t much to keep us from sliding right off the edge of that mountain into the abyss. Big help, there were two park vehicles ahead, rangers trying to get people to turn back. Turn around on that narrow, icy road, the good Lord help us all. We tried, got stuck, our son got out on the road to push, and I became an hysterical babbling idiot, intent on being as big a help in such situations as usual. We finally got down, took another route and lived to experience excellent snowshoeing conditions, even dipping under a frozen waterfall on a wondrous winter trail, surfeit with giant tulip poplars laden with snow. Our latest adventure? Gatineau Park has become our adventure venue of late. Oh well, we needn’t even venture that far, relatively speaking. Aren’t we fortunate, we have a wonderfully wooded ravine accessible by walking across the street where we live. Adventures? We’ve got them.

Monday, October 24, 2005

The Story of our Lives

Our little black poodle whimpers and twitches. The feel of my hand reassures her. She falls back to sleep. I do not. Not so my husband; even after submitting to the nightly urgencies of his prostate, he slumbers. And I recall, and cannot sleep, even when I don’t seek out these memories.

Before she plunged into the abyss, before the dementia closed down her awarness, I heard her mumbled satisfaction that her children had turned out well. Odd that, for we never heard anything remotely like satisfaction from her lips when it might perhaps have meant something to us. Perhaps we have, some of us, turned out well, despite having been sucked into the vortex of her anger in our formative years. Her unpredictable, bitterly incendiary nature, her untranslatable curses frightened and silenced us.

My sister is four years younger than me. I’ve a memory of my mother with this baby sister, of watching them together on a bed, my mother fussing over the baby, my longing to share the imagined closeness. But I'm a nuisance, and I'm sent away. When I was seven, my parents rented a cabin with a few friends, somewhere along Lake Ontario. By then I also had a brother. On the shale beach, my sister tossed a stone at our toddling brother’s head. Both children were carried off, shrieking. In the days that followed, I found comfort in solitary hours clambering among boulders lining the lakeshore. There I dreamed, limbs wet with spray, watching clouds take whimsical shapes, rotting fish hurling themselves at the rocks, gulls shrieking overhead.

I recall being taken to Massey Hall when I was about five, where I saw an array of seated people holding musical instruments on a stage below the balcony where I sat. My father, I was told, was the tuba player. At that distance I could not recognize him behind the gleaming brass behemoth. Fact is, I could hardly see him, he was dwarfed by the instrument. I was shamefaced, hearing someone snigger that observation.

Some time after the birth of her third child, my mother succumbed to what was termed a nervous breakdown. She was placed in a rest home, I was sent to live with my mother’s oldest sister, in Hamilton. I adored my gentle aunt. But I was miserably humiliated when my cousin’s friends called after me: ‘Reeta, Reeta, kiss my feeta, down the streeta’, to gales of laughter, shared by my cousin, after which I refused to play outdoors.

My father worked for Fashion Hat and Cap on Chestnut Street in Toronto. I was taken there once. I watched, fascinated, as my father operated his hissing press, steam-moulding shape into one hat after another at dizzying speed. He showed me an orange that had been left beside the steam press, transformed into an exquisitely desiccated golden orb.

My father once gave me a book entitled Palaces on Monday, published to commemorate the Moscow subway system. As money was scarce, I had few toys. I was, however, sent to an after-hours parochial school where over the years I learned the language, history and culture of my people. I had a head-start on the language, listening to evening kitchen-table discussions with my parents’ landsmen, friends - immigrants like themselves. They spoke of starkly devastating political events beyond my comprehension. Their energy and passion fascinated me. That they seemed to defer to my father pleased me.

My father instructed me carefully: remember: you are Canadian, Canadian first, everything else follows from that, he said. He told me also that when I reached his age there would be peace in the world, there would be an end to all wars among nations. People would be accepted as equals among equals. There would be no discrimination, an oft-heard word in my parents’ conversations. By then I knew he had been sent to this country by a benevolent society, when he had been found wandering the streets of Warsaw, an orphan.

Before I began kindergarten at a school on Manning street, where I saw a stained glass window of a little Dutch girl with the word “Kindergarten” inscribed on the door, and I felt a startling recognition of the word’s meaning, I suffered a child’s accident. Intent on fulfilling the task entrusted to me, I rushed down the stairs from our flat and tumbled, hotly clutched coins and milk bottle shattering about me. My mother’s younger sister took me to the hospital where I shuddered as a doctor wound plastered strips of cloth around my arm, building a cast. Trying to lift it, I discovered my arm had become inert, impossibly leaden. I wept in the certain knowledge that I would never walk again. I stayed overnight at my aunt’s apartment on Queen Street. That night, as I lay on a makeshift bed, my uncle molested me.

My mother had a friend who taught her how to curl my hair into sausage ringlets, with strips of rag cloth. I loathed the process and the curls, and once, when my mother was pulling my wet hair around the rags, I blurted my nasty secret of what my uncle had done. There was silence. I shook with fear. She tugged my hair, and forbade me to ever again utter such disgusting tattle.

Horse-drawn wagons were a frequent, celebrated event. They were not seen as often as the small, square cars and trucks trundling our streets. Children lingered, watching the iceman hack at large ice blocks, awaiting flying chips. Hoisting small blocks with large rounded pincers, he hauled them from wagon to kitchen iceboxes. Once, it was rumoured that a horse had panicked and smashed into a car – blood and guts everywhere. In my bed, seeing myself cold and unutterably alone in a dark casket buried in damp, wormy earth, I wept in a frenzy of grief.

When I was thirteen, there was a fourth child, born before term, its arrival hastened when my mother slipped down cellar steps carrying a basket of laundry. She screamed that it was my fault. Later, I accompanied my mother to a clinic for the baby’s post-birth examination. The wizened, swaddled baby was thrust into my arms to be borne home, while my mother shopped. A year later, my tiny brother was transformed into a serviceable pretext, enabling me to meet my friend at innocuous places like area parks or libraries. He would even walk me in the early evening to my parochial school classes across from Christie Pits, wait until they were over, and walk me home again. Our clandestine meetings went undetected for some time.

Public school had never been a felicitous experience. I was convinced teachers thought ill of me and I resented them, envying the achievers, those who had the teacher’s ear and concern. Though the stigma of charity breakfasts and school showers was never imposed upon me, hand-me-down clothing and broken footwear mortified me. Finally, in high school I recognized my ability to comprehend, to respond to learning opportunities.

When I was thirteen, my mother found a summer job for me on Spadina Avenue, in the garment trade. The following summer I worked at a metal-toy factory, while my boyfriend worked at an arborite factory on the same street. Near the conclusion of that summer my mother warned I would have to look for a permanent job and I understood with regret that I would not be returning to school.

Finally, my parents were introduced to the idea that I was ‘going out’. My mother made no secret of her antipathy toward my boyfriend, accusing him at every opportunity of some wretched mischief. His father’s ill repute a likely goad. Still, once our relationship was acknowledged, he was there, every evening, and his presence grated upon my parents. We ambled on long neighbourhood walks. On weekends we chummed with peer groups and went to teen dances where we held one another and dreamily danced to lyrics we knew were dedicated to us personally. I would call him ‘honey’ and ‘dear’; endearments I had never heard anyone else utter, and which earned my father’s derision. When we were eighteen we were married. We wanted a simple ceremony but our parents insisted on a traditional wedding where all their friends would be invited. I wore an ill fitting, borrowed wedding dress. We were awkward participants at our parents’ social event.

We rented our own little flat and divided housekeeping. Several years later we bought a small house in Richmond Hill. When we were twenty-two I retched one morning before leaving for work. The pregnancy was confirmed by a doctor on the very day that I joined my mother at a Mother’s Day luncheon, a yearly event organized by her social club, with featured speakers who lectured on third world poverty; urged action on world disarmament; addressed the empowerment of women. I whispered to my mother that she would soon be a grandmother. She turned away from me.

I worked until I was eight months’ pregnant. I ignored all the dreadful stories of childbirth difficulties people eagerly offered up for my edification. After our baby was born my mother volunteered to stay a week to help with the baby. I refused. Instead, my husband took time off work and we learned, together. In year-and-a-half intervals two more babies followed. With three children in tow, life felt uncomplicated, fulfilling and busy. I was reluctant to release the children, one by one, to school. I volunteered to a school reading programme. We joined Cubs and Brownies. When the youngest was six, we all had bicycles. Although the children’s were new, mine was built from parts their father scrounged. He taught me how to ride it.

We moved to Ottawa when the oldest was twelve. We discovered Byward Market, the Experimental Farm, the Gatineau Hills, and Ottawa Neighbourhood Services. Soon we were equipped with cross-country skis and left long tracks in the snow of the greenbelt where our house was located. Then came ice skates; he taught us all to skate on the Rideau Canal. We snowshoed at night under the light of the moon, stars winking overhead.

Gatineau Park became our summer obsession. We hiked a myriad of trails. We picked and hauled home wild strawberries, garlic, raspberries, blackberries, and poison ivy. We climbed Luskville Falls for fun and spectacular views and bore home bucketsful of blueberries for preserving. When our youngest child was fourteen his father, despite my doubts, bought a canoe, and we explored the park’s lakes, our children echoing the loons’ calls.

We attended concerts at the National Arts Centre; the children began music lessons. We visited the National Gallery; their father started painting. The specimens at the Museum of Man inspired a focus on science and a collection of butterflies ensued; dace, sticklebacks and tadpoles filled an aquarium.

My mother visited and stayed several weeks. She enjoyed the Sparks Street Mall, the Experimental Farm and the Parliament Buildings. While she rested in the afternoon, and the children were at school, I would sequester myself in the basement family room and pound out stories about wistfully sad children.

When I was young I suffered agonies of boredom and embarrassment shopping with my mother at little stores along College or Dundas Street. My pain was particularly acute when she stopped for interminable chats in languages unknown to me. When I was older I was puzzled when my mother marched in peace rallies.

My mother was 84 and I was 62 when she died of frontal-lobe dementia. Her memory slowly faded and became nothing. Her body gradually ceased its critical functions. Before her memory completely evaporated, conversations were surfeit with repeated declarations. One: ‘I was a good mother’. Pause. Affirmation required. Finally: ‘I love all my children. Equally’. My sister and the older of my brothers looked after her, feeding her as one would an infant, wiping her trembling chin, changing her diaper, wheeling her into the sunshine on the hospice grounds. When last I saw her she had no idea who I was. She had become a wraith. Yet one of the nurses laughingly declared that she would recognize my sister and me anywhere as our mother’s daughters. My younger brother flew in from Halifax and although she didn’t recognize him, she slyly informed him that her husband, who had died thirty years earlier, would be dropping by that evening.

Our daughter drops our grandchild off at 7:30 every weekday morning. She romps with our little dog, we read stories together, she has her breakfast, and then her grandfather walks her to the stop at the foot of our street to catch her school bus. Occasionally, my husband rushes up the basement steps from his workshop and pulls me into the kitchen to dance to the music of our youth. Our terms of endearment have altered, but not our need of one another.

Several years after my mother’s death I took possession of a photograph. It was a European studio portrait of my mother and her younger sister in 1920s flapper dresses, arms comfortingly wrapped about one another. Heads inclined toward the camera, they appear shy, expectant, trustingly vulnerable. The world awaited their debut.

Saturday, October 22, 2005

Svend Robinson - Again!

Oh, say it isn't so! I'm certain not to be the only one in Canada who hoped never to have to read about, hear about, witness the actions of Svend Robinson in the House of Commons again. The man is an outright menace, and he's intent on returning. Canada's gadfly of uncommon causes. He calls himself a social activist, but his attention to, and actions on behalf of social causes are rather selective and self-serving. The man is an oblivious egotist of the highest order. Spare us, please do. Svend, go away somewhere really nice where your particular brand of self-adoration can be understood and admired for what it truly is. Your bedroom, lined with mirrors might be a good starting point.

Everyone likes a good laugh, it's true, and even parliamentarians can be excused for providing comedic moments from time to time in their sometimes-zeal for attention. Svend leaves everyone else in the dust. He takes himself seriously, however, and evidently fully believes that the Canadian public at large does so, also. He could never see himself as an embarrasment to public office, even to the well-being of same-gender couples and activists, but he is, he is. There was a time, perhaps a decade ago, when the full extent of his narcissistic self-occupation was not yet fully revealed, and he did have the respect of many people, myself included. That day is long gone.

Entirely apart from stupid behaviours carefully choreographed for the camera and the serious ingestion of the public back home, such as his querulous trip to China, his offensively childish trip to Israel and the Palestinian Territories, his last venture into the public eye should have been enough to make anyone else step back completely and permanently from said public eye.

I'm sure there are plenty of people who love their life-companions and would wish to give their significant others, be they husband/wife, boyfriend/girlfriend, boyfriend/boyfriend, girlfriend/girlfriend, anything their little hearts desire. I know that I often wish I could give my husband, our children, opportunities, good health, material gifts which might conceivably make their lives so much better than they are. But I cannot, other than what I can manage with what I already possess. Svend, on the other hand, thought nothing of pocketing (stealing; his word for his transgression was 'pocketing') an ultra-costly bauble for his boyfriend. Why, to begin with, anyone in their right mind would equate love with the possession and gifting of an improbably-valued gem, is beyond me to begin with.

Yes, we had the spectacle of Svend Robinson purloining a $64,000 diamond ring from a public display of expensive items, meaning to gift it to his boyfriend. How would he explain to his friend the manner in which he was able to obtain and pay for such an expensive item, one would wonder? And if he confessed to his friend the manner in which it was obtained, would that be seen to be all right with his friend? Well, the ring was discovered to be absent from where it was supposed to be, but closed-circuit cameras (aha! gotcha!) caught the good Svend Robinson lifting the item, and when that came to his attention, he thought he had better return it, apologize (kind of) and explain his actions by saying he had been under great personal pressure. Poor Svend. None of us has experienced pressure, just him. Those of us who do experience pressure often do so as a result of having too little of the stuff that ensures a decent place to live, food for one's family, access to good health care.

Svend Robinson, the selfless social activist thought it would be appropriate to be able to give his friend a very expensive trifle as a token of his love. Aren't people who do things like that outright thieves, crooks, social deviants, given the fact that we have laws to protect private property? On the other hand, if we were smart enough to engineer trees to grow expensive baubles then everyone could just pluck whatever they wanted from the public domaine and we'd have no theft. Since we haven't yet mastered that little trick, we have laws to ensure that people behave themselves according to publicly, socially accepted standards.

Shed a few tears of public regret, claim fatigue and illness, nudge people into thinking that you're just a poor little misunderstood figure, and you garner sympathy you haven't earned, nor deserved in any measure whatever. No jail time, no parole, just a kindly probation for poor battered Svend.

But Svend loves the public arena, and the grander, the larger the arena the more it massages his ego. So, back to the federal election scene, it is. Out comes a new weapon in his armament of excuses. He is now bi-polar. Slightly. But, bi-polar, and hence not really responsible for his 'mood swings', but able to cope now that he understands what his problem is. Really, oh really.

Svend, don't do it. It's not only that we understand what a colossal hypocrite you are, finally, and at long last, but we just don't trust you, don't like you, and don't want to be manipulated by you yet again. Spare Vancouver Centre, spare the country at large, and stay home, be a good boy, eat your broccoli, and find another job. We don't want to pay your obviously inadequate salary any more.

You are truly an odious little wretch.

Thursday, October 20, 2005

He's On The Move

It started out with a workshop/conference in Sweden. He allocated two weeks for that. The conference took place in Umea, at the university there with their fisheries biology faculty and grad students. There were workshops and field trips. At the conference papers were given, including his. The conference closed with a three-day road trip north of Umea, going to streams and rivers very different than those he's accustomed to in British Columbia. But he did see big adult Brown trout and Atlantic salmon (over three feet long) returning to spawn and jumping up to get past a dam. He found that pretty amazing.

They also did a detour above the Arctic Circle, where they watched some reindeer. Pretty neat stuff, he said. He made some good contacts, learned quite a bit, and, he said there is a possibility that they may be able to collaborate on future research, provided they can get the funding. Not at all certain to happen, he said, but applying from different sources, something may come up. The research interests as well as the landscapes and climate are sufficiently similar to those in British Columbia, so it's possible that collaboration could result in fruitful data.

The Swedes, he said, were a great bunch of people, genuinely nice, doing some excellent research. He'd be more than happy if they worked on research projects together, although where he'll find the time, when he has his own quite specific research on the go at all times, is beyond me.

From Umea his small group from B.C. went to Stockholm and stayed over a few days. Among the highlights of that part of the trip was seeing the Vasa Museum, housing a large 17th century Swedish naval vessel, with two decks of cannon, which had sunk but hadn't decayed because the water was de-oxygenated. The ship was raised in the 1950s and preserved, as it was pretty intact. Very impressive. While there he rented a kayak and paddled around the downtown harbour and nearby islands. Some of the islands which were up to 3 km long are beautiful parks, also housing old buildings and museums.

From there they flew to London, where he stayed at a hostel. He looked around a bit, but not nearly as much as he wanted to, and plans to return for a day later on in his trip. He found London interesting, particularly the architecture, but people seemed frantic in comparison to those whom he'd seen in Sweden. He found London to be a rat's nest of streets, as well. Primarily it's the natural history museum he wants to return to. From London the flight to Rome was cheap, but left at an ungodly hour.

In Rome he booked into a hostel and then began poking about. Walking about he checked out the Pantheon, but there wasn't time to see the Coliseum and Vatican City, so that's another stop he'll make on his return. He left Rome after a day there for the real meat of his trip, Trieste, where he stayed for a week or so with a friend with whom he'd once lived in Vancouver. His friend is doing a post-doc at an oceanographic institute there. While in Trieste he visited a concentration camp which had held Italian Jews and Italian partisans during the Nazi occupation. He and his friend did some mountain climbing nearby. They stayed over in the mountains in an old WWII installation which had been converted to a mountain hut for hikers. In fact, he said, they found the mountains to be littered with bits and pieces of old WWII armaments. That didn't detract noticeably from the adventure of the mountains, which he found somewhat similar in vegetation to those he's more familiar with; the bedrock was a colour very different, but there was lots of pine and larch.

With his friend he also did a day-trip to Venice. A few days later he returned on his own to spend three days by himself in Venice. He was really taken with the old city, completely surrounded by water and canals. Venice, as we know, is threatened by the fact that it is slowly, inexorably sinking into the sea. It becomes flooded during the spring, and people are accustomed to walking about in foot-deep water in the downtown area. Premier Berlosconi has pledged to build seawalls at the cost of tens of billions of dollars to ensure that this world treasure is protected and its monumental art works preserved for posterity. While in Venice, he took a trip to the island of Murano and there saw a glass museum dedicated to murano glass, and watched glassblowing in progress. He's really impressed with the process, feeling it to be more versatile than pottery making which he excels at, himself.

After Venice he travelled up to the Dolomites in northern Italy to see two other old friends; Austrian men who had come out to Vancouver several years back to conduct their own research under his tutelage. The three of them went hiking and rockclimbing. Right down his alley.

He's now in Florence for a week. The architecture there has astounded him, most of all the basilica; huge, incredibly ornate and intricate. The old part of Florence, he said, is amazing, old churches everywhere, intricately carved. We'll have to ask him when he returns if he saw Ghiberti's great bronze doors, Cellini's "Perseus", Michaelangelo's "David". He's looked around at some of the ubiquitous antique shops, and art galleries.

Fantastic opportunities this trip has opened for him, and we're glad he's taken them seriously. Our outdoors-enthusiast scientist has many facets to his character and interests. Among other things he excels at is building furniture by hand, with the use of old tools and never a nail hammered into the finished product. That, and his lovely pieces of pottery, ranging from great nests of bowls to teapots and oven casseroles. He's a jewel in his own right. But then, what else would you expect to hear from his mother.

Wednesday, October 19, 2005

Life's Like That

Not too much can actually ruin my day, but things do happen that make me wonder why I'm still enthusiastic and optimistic, to be sure. I do get at least one dirty look, and there will be more, as I make my rounds of my neighbourhood street, collecting for the Canadian Cancer Society canvass (Heart and Stroke, Canadian Diabetes Association, CNIB, Arthritis Society, Salvation Army, March of Dimes; take your pick). Nothing makes me more annoyed than people who groan bitterly, living in my middle-class neighbourhood, that they're over-taxed and overextended. Those who declare donor fatigue anger me even more. Living our lifestyles, wasting money on items that seem to complement our needs, but are in fact negligible to them, and refusing to render a few dollars to a charitable cause is the ultimate in nihilism. We must have values and among them must be the recognition that those who live without want have an obligation to those who do live in want. The fact that the Red Cross and other aid agencies are lamenting what they recognize as donor fatigue in response to the dreadful earthquakes in Pakistan and India, is a dreadful situation. We gave for the Tsunami which hit Indonesia and Sri Lanka on 27 December 2004, we gave in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, and we must continue to observe our obligations, at home and worldwide. To do otherwise is to render us far less than we should be.
One more worry: what it was that caused my husband to experience stomach cramps during the night before. I don't think it was the Cornish hen, it smelled fresh and fine, but the asparagus had a distinctly odd smell about it. One more morning when I awaken, and wonder if our daughter will have an all-right day at work, or whether she'll have a run-in with someone, resulting in the spoilation of her day, which, when she picks our grandchild up after school, we'll hear all about, and grieve for her peace of mind. And ours. One more day where we do our best to entertain our granddaughter, wishing that there was a little girl her age on our street with whom she could play, confide in, and pass the time. Mind, we could always play Scrabble or Monopoly (she no longer allows me to read to her, insisting that she read to me, which she does rather well, but soon tires of doing), although I'd much rather be out in the garden. None of these things ruin my day, but they do take the dew off complete contentment.
I'm a senior citizen, living in the not-too-far reaches of Ottawa proper, in pretty good health but experiencing problems sleeping peacefully through an entire night. I'm not too thrilled that my recently-initiated baby aspirin therapy has resulted in constant heartburn. It's what Ivan Illich so famously described as iatrogenic illness so many years ago. When I pass you on the street you might wonder why I'm carrying that tiny dog, instead of walking it, but I intend to put it down once we reach the wooded ravine where we enjoy our daily walks. I am a "respectable" senior citizen, despite my casual walking clothes, my yappy dog and my flying hair. I know that most of the people I pass, even those I wave casually to have some opinions about me, some perhaps unflattering, but guess what? I don't really mind.
Sure, sometimes I feel that my biggest problem is that I'm not independent enough, that I enjoy my husband's company too much, his conversation, his comforting presence, and I'm simply loathe to give it up however temporarily for other pursuits like going out for coffee, lunch, bowling, you name it. I do have fears about the health and happiness of our children, and I think how wonderful it would be to find a cure for diabetes so our oldest child would no longer require multiple daily injections. I worry about his little brother living so far away in British Columbia, addicted to the mountains, summer and winter. If he had a constant companion to share his exploits and love of nature with, we'd worry less. Yes, we would.
Oh, I wonder also if I've offended an old friend, as I've not yet had an e-mailed response to our last communication. Perhaps I should be less frank in future, regardless of the fact that my opinion was certainly sought, on a certain sensitive issue. I think often of our near neighbour whose health is rapidly declining, and whose constant complaints result in his wife seeking time away as often as possible, and how it is that we tend to do the best we can in very uncomfortable situations, and our devices don't always work as well as we hope they might.
Am I stereotypical? I'm not entirely certain of that. Of all our neighbours there is only one woman with whom I can discuss a piece of world literature, or arcane and not too well-published things happening in the world around us. It was to this same neighbour, much younger than I, that I turned several years ago when I sought someone of like mind to accompany me to the anti-war demonstration in Ottawa. Now there's a story in itself. Our neighbour is married to a man of Egyptian descent, had in fact lived herself in Egypt with him for a few years. When I knocked on their door, seeking company to demonstrate against a war the U.S. meant to wage in Iraq, they are first refused. Ten minutes later she knocked on our door; her husband Mustafa, had said to her, what if he was tired, if I could manage to get out there in minus-20-degree-celcius weather on principle and commitment, then so should he. And thus it was that I had the pleasure and comfort of their company on that occasion).

I recall when I was still working and listening to the news in my small office cubicle, searching out co-workers with whom I could share my shock upon first hearing of the assassination of Indira Gandhi, then years later that of her son, Ranjit. No one knew to whom I referred, no one recognized those names. Then I was trully shocked. I harbour (well repressed) feelings about my coevals who take no interest in world affairs and literature. What a waste. I will discuss these and any other issues with anyone who might evince some interest. Do take up my offer, please.
If and when you see me hiking along in the ravine with my husband and our two little dogs, make the effort to return my greeting. It would make us both feel good. Mind, whenever we encounter teen-agers in the ravine, leaning over a bridge, smoking pot and trying to hide it, their responses are invariably good-natured and much appreciated. If you see me at the Salvation Army Thrift store, doing a little giving and also a little shopping, or at the Food Basics supermarket, and you see in me a stereotypical older woman, well, so what? Just do me the kindness of responding to my greeting, my smile. Believe me, it is genuine. I know we have different interests, varying backgrounds, worrying problems to face, but I know also that we have time for one another, for a brief greeting, to affirm that we have more in common than we do not.

Home Renovations

I know, you’re curious. You want to know how we managed fifty years of marriage. Harmony above all - we accept differences of opinion. We are committed to openness in meaningful communication. We trust one another implicitly. We have the greatest of respect for the consultative process. As an example, when children leave home, parents downsize, right? Gotcha! My husband, the contrarian, suggested we move to a larger house. Whaaat? Are you crazy? I asked him.

Soon after we moved into this house my husband, looking around at the expanse of the place, and contemplating the upstairs corner room with its balcony overlooking the foyer, opined it would make a great library. What? I squawked, we just moved in! He set about acquiring lodge pole pine and lined the walls. Next came the shelving, and after that the cornices, mouldings, all accomplished with the aid of century-old moulding planes. We unpacked all the books from their boxes in the basement. Voila!

This house started life as an open concept. I wasn’t all that enamoured of those huge two-story rooms, imagining my husband straddling a height-defying ladder to paint those endless walls. And his first acquisition post-ownership? Two formidable steel-pipe and wood-slab scaffolds. All the better to reach you with, dear heights… Where I saw unmanageable heights, he recognized scope for oriental screens and his 19th century paintings. At home alone, my husband set up the scaffolds, one atop the other, and unassisted, hung a rice-paper eight-fold screen in the high reaches of the living room. In the process the screen was punctured. It survived all these years only to be maltreated at your hands? He airily dismissed the misadventure and performed an admirable repair.

The open concept? My husband bought glass-paned French doors. Extra-large sizes between the foyer and living room, the foyer and the family room, the foyer and the dining room, the kitchen and dining room. Five stretched between the breakfast room and family room, three fixed and two swung open. Did we argue over this? Not at all, why would we? I did demur, it’s true, reminding him how much we appreciated that open look. But, he remonstrated, we can see through these doors!

This house has vast expanses of windows, many of them two stories tall. Hmm, my husband mused, wouldn’t it be interesting to have stained glass in there? Eeek! I shrieked reflexively. Well, the windows in our bedroom now reflect, full height and width, Tom Thomson’s ‘storm on a lake in Algonquin Park’, the Palladian windows in the family room a glorious forested winter scene. The library’s windows display a summer lake aside a wood, and the sidelights and Palladian window in the foyer are a kaleidoscope of exotic flora and fauna. Guess what? The heat of the sun on coloured glass is transmitted as heat. Great in winter.

Then he retired. Time to finish the basement. What for! We’ve got more rooms than we need for two people! The staircase downstairs was re-built in oak, plumbing done, electrical work, framing and drywalling. He read a lot of how-to books. We’re talking big, big floor areas. He brought home a bargain: mauve tiles at 6cents apiece. We’ve got a study down there (parquet flooring), another powder room and a huge studio where he set up his painting easel.

Nothing complements a house more than lovely colourful gardens. I adore gardening. No one goes near my gardens. What about delineating the beds and borders? Over my dead body. Massive excavation ensued: soil, dirt, clay and construction rubble. Seeing the driveway full of pallets of stone blocks and cobbles my heart sank. He chiselled the blocks and cobbles by hand, using a stonecutter’s chisel and hammer. Our house became a neighbourhood drop in centre. Now we’ve got a lovely courtyard from which to view our extraordinary gardens. The elevated borders make gardening easier, but the statuary, fountain, plinths and urns, and the café set make accessing some of the areas a contortionist’s delight.

What did I think of laying ceramic tiles in the laundry room, kitchen, breakfast room, powder room? Hey, maybe up the walls too. But dear that sounds like so much work! Little did I know. During this process the kitchen counters and powder room counters were ripped up, re-built, and also tiled. End result? Great, really great. Trouble was, he threw out one of his ankles somehow, don’t ask how. Bedridden for three months as his knee, his leg, and then finally the other became affected.

Since then, my friend, we’ve had the master bath counters re-built, laid with tile. The sinks replaced. The floor and walls laid in grey-white pink-streaked marble. The dining room now sports a cherry floor, the library and master bedroom rubberwood floors, the upstairs hallway exotic oriental strip floor, the main staircase retrofitted to oak. AND EVERYTHING LOOKS GREAT.

He’s indefatigable. He’s got black marble, more white-grey marble stored in the basement. More stained glass, too. Lots of work yet left to be done on this evolving house that is our home. I do the cleaning. See me in say, 40 years. We can discuss elements of successful longevity.

Tuesday, October 18, 2005

Here's a Story

When I brought him home, a tiny apricot poodle tucked into my jacket, my better half, truly my better half, did a double take then snarled "what is that?". A dog I said, a toy poodle puppy, isn’t he adorable? He said: "I don’t want a dog, I told you I don’t want a dog. If I had wanted a dog, I’d get a dog, not a little rat". I don’t know about the little rat, but my feelings were hurt. I forgave him because it wasn’t long before the little rat inveigled himself to grudging acceptance.

By the time he was two months old he was smart enough to jump into the little camera bag I use to carry him about out-of-doors. And carry him about I do, everywhere but the supermarket. He’s a magnet, a shameless flirt; both men and women are drawn to him and he doesn’t need much encouragement to clamber out of his bag into the arms of his admirers. Looking back at me as though to warn he could always take off with someone who has no problems appreciating his sterling qualities.

Riley Ace of Dogs I, unfortunately demonstrates a Napoleon complex, insisting on confronting every dog he has ever encountered, the bigger the better. With rare exception he wants to duel, teeth bared, fangs unleashed (he unaccountably turns happy cartwheels over the head of a long-suffering elder beagle we encounter on our ravine walks). Oh and cats, Riley adores cats and they return the compliment. He walks us faithfully day in day out in the ravine where all our dog-walking buddies are to be found. Where jaunts percolate with the imperative to monitor all the latest scents left upon anthill, tree trunk, upturned sod, stray root and twig. We know most of the dogs whose custom it is to take their people through the ravine, and they are stouthearted, understanding canines. True, at first the upstart’s yaps, yips and nips were regarded with canine incredulity at the lack of social grace and wit, but they’ve learned over time to bypass if not outright tolerate his bumptious behaviour.

He confided in me just lately how humiliating he thinks it is that he has to be dressed in a coat and boots. It impairs his sense of dignity he said passionately and none of the other kids, er dogs, are thus garbed. First of all, I told him, no one would think any the less of him but the fact is he’s awfully small, we have difficult winters and he needs the protection. Furthermore, I said, if he’s worried about dignity then he should think seriously about comporting himself in a more socially acceptable manner. He said he’d think about it.

Despite the above, he’s a trooper, an indefatigable outdoors dog. He has mountain-clambered in the White Mountains of New Hampshire, canoed in Algonquin Park, hiked endlessly in Gatineau Park.

When I cook chicken soup he knows for whom the chicken is destined and everything’s cool. Give him unadorned kibble? I cajole, I beseech, he regards me with derision. Why should he, when at dinnertime his kibble is salted with shredded cheddar and chopped red pepper?

Where does he sleep at night? Funny you should ask. Actually, at the foot of our bed. Well, that’s where he starts out after burrowing under the duvet. Wisely, he stays on my side of the bed. And moves stealthily through the night until he ends up a tight little ball snug against the small of my back.

Riley’s treasure-chest brims with toys. Plastic hamburgers, hotdogs and chops that squeak when bitten, stuffed animals of various types. Eventually Riley devised alternate uses for the stuffed animals. He selected one little pink pig and mooned and moaned, decrying unrequited love. At first we overlooked the whining and groaning and thumping. Then took away the pig. He adopted a stuffed bear. We absconded with this love-object; another took its place. We finally removed all the little offenders. Ergo: no lovesick displays, no whining, groaning, thumping. With his love interest gone he’s been reduced to racing around the house at somewhat less than the speed of sound, squeaking his plastic toys.

When his hair grows long enough to absorb his legs so he resembles a roving mop, I take scissors in hand and snip. The dreaded bath follows, reducing him to mouse size. No amount of towelling is sufficient to dry his reduced coat, so I rise to the challenge of chasing him, generating enough activity to dry him and exhaust me. And damn, I forgot what always happens when he gets so excited; he lifts his leg and lets go. I chase him with renewed vigour bellowing "Baaadd Boy!" and he scoots under the first available bed. Later, I refuse to acknowledge his presence and he creeps up to where I’m sitting, waits. I do nothing. He extends a tentative paw, forgiving me my transgressions.

Monday, October 17, 2005

Our Year in Tokyo

Tokyo is where I read "The Pillow Book", "The Tale of Genji" (the Shining Prince of ancient Japanese legend written in the 10th century), and "The Dream of the Red Chamber", an early Chinese novel, and where I felt the alluring mystique of the east enfold me in its gentle clasp. Camellias bloom in fall, azaleas in spring, and ornamental kale is planted alongside winter sidewalks. Jungle crows cawed atop the water tower and their black weight as they hopped on the metal rooftop of our house sheltered in its compound sounded like a grown man up on the roof. Feral cats slink along alleyways, and their kittens slip into gutter gratings before you can even begin to think of catching them. They feed on the refuse left weekly in a communal-gathering spot for garbage collection..

Initially, we lived at The Pegasus Apartments close to Aoyama dori. At night we joined throngs of pedestrians on tranquil autumn evenings. Bicycles, motorbikes, motorcycles are entrusted unlocked, to parking areas. We would occasionally ride our own bicycles on the wide boulevards along with so many others. In the streets, ancient bonsai sit on sidewalks adjacent cramped homes where there is no place for them. Their owners know their treasures are safe on public display. No one in Tokyo would ever dream of disturbing anything belonging to someone else. Similarly, beautifully decorated large pots sit out beside homes, and golden carp, befitting the size of the pot, swim lazily around and around their confines. At night the many 'downtown' areas scintillate in neon blaze. Strolling broad boulevards we pass impressive hotels, the Imperial palaces and upscale shops. Deeper into the city, constricted streets force vehicles to proceed with caution. Most residents live in crammed concrete apartment blocks. Futons hang out the windows of each tiny apartment contained within soaring buildings day creating an appearance of doilly-festooned facades. Firefighters garbed in white moon-man uniforms hand-pull wheeled gear into these unnamed, numbered streets. At intersections stand cobans, box-like structures manned by police, area maps on the walls. If in doubt, enquire. The police make it their business to know of everyone in their precincts; they conduct introductory enquiries at your door if you've just moved into a neighbourhood. Not in a threatening manner; polite and thorough in their questioning. Then they depart, never to be seen again. Oddly this leaves you secure in the knowledge that they are there to serve you and all the other residents nearby.

Traffic is heavy but accidents few, car horns rarely used. The Japanese harbour a mild horror of drawing attention to oneself. To speak loudly in public, to sound one's horn simply is not acceptable. When drivers stop for red lights, they shut the ignition, a holdover of the last war, when energy conservation was of utmost importance. . Most cars are a variant of cream or white. Black cars are driven by the Yakuza. Japanese taxi drivers are uniformed in cap and white gloves, wielding feather dusters to flick dirt from their vehicles. Should a few centimeters of snow fall in winter panic ensues, chains are fitted to tires, then removed shortly afterward, as the newfallen snow quickly melts in the generally benign winter atmosphere..

Buildings under construction or renovation are completely enclosed in scaffolding; engulfed in huge white tarps. Construction workers wear white coveralls, soft helmets and white felt boots resembling camels’ feet. Roadwork takes place at night, the restored surface opened to morning traffic. There is thus, no interruption of the ebb and flow of regular traffic throughout the day; other than for the fact that with upwards of fourteen million people within the city during the working week, it is inevitable that a huge number of vehicles will be upon the streets at any given time. So traffic, although it flows, does so slowly, and since the Japanese are not particularly good drivers, this is just as well, keeping traffic accidents to a minimum. Polite, restrained and reserved generally within society, many Japanese drivers become transformed behind the wheel of a car, and practise a sly and stealthy one-upsmanship of speedily overtaking and illegally passing at any opportunity on crowded roads.

Tokyoites are, however, polite and reserved otherwise how could such a huge population living in such a tiny geographic area conceivably get on in the amicable fashion that they do? The standard response, answering the telephone is "mushi-mushi?" No one can explain what it means. There is a collective quiet in the city, despite its size and habitation. The exception to the general hush is a melodic chime heard throughout the city at five o’clock. This is my signal to walk to a little corner store for the Maiinichi shinbun, a daily English/Japanese newspaper. There are street vendors hawking roasted yams. Impulsively, Japanese engage westerners in public discourse, happily grasping the opportunity to practice English.

Tokyo summers are unrelentingly hot and humid. Leaving air conditioned interiors, one recoils upon reaching the street as though slapped with a scalding, wet towel. Every block or so throughout the city large automatic dispensers vend hot tea, coffee or cold sport drinks. Tokyo is located in an earthquake-prone zone. And we experienced many shudders of the earth during our stay in that city. Most of them when we were indoors, but several when we were out of doors. It isn't a thrilling experience; the movement of the earth, and therefore everything that surrounds you seems to go on forever. Until it finally stops and you can safely exhale. In the front clothes cupboard of our house there was an earthquake backpack with necessities which we would grab in the event of a needed evacuation should an earthquake erupt of massive proportions. How would we know? I often thought, since we would most often sit there, sucking back our expectant breath, until the shuddering passed.

Daily food shopping prevails. One visits the fruit- and vegetable-monger, the rice shop, teashop, fishmonger, florist, hardware merchant. Shop fronts open to the street, are shuttered at night. Since leaving Japan I’ve never tasted fruit so sweet, vegetables or fish as fresh. The bustling, expansive markets near Ueno Park offer food and clothing in bazaar-like abundance. Our favourite week-end jaunt for shopping was Ueno, and there we would walk among the multitudes, marvel at the spectacle of food, particularly seafood, set out on banks of open stalls. Before we got our car, we would haul shopping bagsful of fresh produce back with us to the Pegasus Apartments. Fact is, the mass transit system in Tokyo is unparalleled for efficiency. My husband had no trouble figuring out the subway system, but when I wasn't with him I trusted myself only to the buses, or shank's mare. I did one hell of a lot of walking, terrifically far distances, and loved every step of the way, for I'd never be certain what I'd come across; each turn was an adventure. Speaking of turning. I figured out that if I always turned right, for example, then on the return trip turned left consistently I would invariably find myself back where I had begun. I didn't get lost too often, but when I did, I would use my very rudimentary Japanese to ask directions. Anyone I thus approached for directions would kind of panic, not recognize my attempts at language, but finally it would sink it and the person to whom I spoke would guide me gently on my way. Once, a young woman insisted on walking with me the entire way back to where I had started, obviously feeling a tremendous responsibility for this poor lost westerner.

Tokyo boasts singular districts of shops devoted to cookware, footwear, meats, fish, books, electronics, and motorcycles. Tokyo’s neighbourhoods resemble an assemblage of multitudinous villages. There are kissaten (coffeehouses) and soba (noodle soup) cafes; temples and shrines, parks and botanical gardens with ponds full of giant gold, silver, and orange carp. There was one of these temple/shrine/botanical gardens close to where we lived, and occasionally we would enter the gardens, walk among the artfully placed ornamental shrubs and trees, peer into the large pond with its huge gold, silver, orange carp, and admire the display of venerable bonsai set out on shelves in the garden. This place in particular was a favoured site for weddings and it was easy to understand why that would be.

In Yokohama we visited a doll museum. Close by we entered an antique shop and there I bought my very own Gosho Ningyo, a fat-faced, ornately dressed doll astride a hobbyhorse. Bordering the Pacific Ocean, Kamakura is a city of temples, one devoted to the Great Daibutsu, a towering bronze Buddha. Another temple is dedicated to a Buddha accredited as the protector of lost babies. Tiny replications of Jesu are placed around the temple grounds, many of them dressed in scanty little fabric garments. People leave babies’ playthings and clothing sitting before many of these little buddha-replications in poignant remembrance of babies lost in infancy, even fetuses lost in miscarriages.

We joined an international travel group; mostly Japanese, some foreigners (Germans, Australians, Brits) and traveled week-ends by bus to tea plantations, traditional Ryokan (inns) and once to Hamamatsu, where the kite festival takes place, rural communities vying against one another, manipulating giant kites, lines arrayed with knives. The winners, whose kite survives airborne, exult in their martial skills. With that same group we traveled the coast to Okuyama, staying overnight at a Zen Buddhist temple nestled in the hills and forests outside the village. There, bathers scrub themselves seated on little stools before entering the steaming communal bath. One sheds slippers for wooden clogs to enter the communal bathroom, balancing over floor-level toilets. Both the baths and the bathrooms are separated for the genders. We slept on futons in a tiny tatami-matted room and rose at five to participate in the morning service. I thought my legs would never recover from assuming the Lotus position. In the sprawling Temple buildings, one adjoining another, I discovered echoes of Umberto Ecco’s Name of the Rose. Following breakfast of miso soup, rice, raw egg and chai, we wandered the Temple grounds and heard, from an embankment towering above us a divine chorus of men’s devotional voices. As we followed a narrow dirt road down toward the village two tonsured monks in flowing robes passed in a Mercedes Benz, nodding at us as they sped on. These were two of the same monks who had offered special prayers for loved ones for a modest fee the evening before, at the temple.

We joined Friends of the Earth and took a series of subway trains, buses and railway trains, passing outlying communities, finally reaching trailheads where our group of twelve would ascend mountains to explore landscapes infinitely dissimilar to any we’d trekked before. We climbed mountain trails from the trailheads just outside small villages which seemed lost in time. During our hikes we came across giant trees said to be a thousand years old, near the top of one mountain. At another, we came across a temple near a summit, and beside the temple two huge sandals hung, in memory of a Buddhist monk who had trekked across Japan, and in whose memory thousands of Japanese take upon themselves similar yearly treks, from temple to dedicated temple. We hiked through bamboo forests, the odd green trunks thick with age, and stone lanterns standing under the trees along the trails, gave the entire scene a truly otherwordly atmosphere. During one hike we took part in a tea ceremony, a grave and beautiful affair.

To again stroll Omotesando on a Sunday, or Shibuya, or Giain Higashi dori; to promenade along the Ginza, or through Ueno Park under cherry blossoms; to see the Temple of the 47 Ronin where the earth shuddered underfoot, or the Asakusa Kanon Temple by the Sumeida River where the Floating World of the Geisha once flourished, is to dream.

Wednesday, October 12, 2005

Trieste Calling

Yesterday was his birthday, his 42nd birthday. He's our youngest child. As different from his siblings as it's possible to be. Each of our children have eighteen months between them; two boys, one girl. Their environment was similar, our attitudes toward them, our love and protectiveness, our sensitivity to their needs must have been similar, but parents always believe that to be the case. The truth is, we treat each of our children somewhat differently. They have their own inalienable personalities and we respond to those personalities, while loving and supporting them in every conceivable way. When they're happy we are; when they are miserable so are we; when life seems unkind to them we rail against the injustice of it. We love them unconditionally, even though our love sometimes takes a back seat to our perceptions of what they're doing. They have a remarkable facility of loving us back while steadfastly making their own way in the world, armed with the values we've foisted upon them, ready to face their futures, and we hope for the best.

Generational perceptions create barriers, and we can only sit back at times, observe, comment to one another, keep our metaphorical fingers crossed for good luck, and thank a kind fate that has granted us these beings to cherish. They're busy with their very own lives and we're a kind of addendum; there in the background along with their memories of time past as children, but they're pushing on to their future and their daily lives no longer include us, and this is as it should be.

This morning we had a telephone call from a telephone booth outside a huge tourist attraction near Trieste, a city of a quarter-million people. Our son calling. He's bunking in for this week with an Italian friend who used to be one of five-six people living with our son in a rental house in Vancouver. Jordan had borrowed his bicycle and biked out to have a look at this huge natural phenomenon. While we spoke the sonerous peal of church bells rang long and beautifully in our ears; loud, but not that loud it interrupted our conversation.

They'd gone on a week-end mountain-climbing expedition, slept over in an old army installation made over into a mountain hut for climbers. Scattered throughout the mountain, he said, were bits and pieces of rusting armaments, left over from WWII. He had, in fact, visited a concentration camp in Trieste where Italian Jews and Italian partisans had been incarcerated under Nazi occupation, and later presumably incinerated. The weather has been warm, and sunny, although this is northern Italy; actually bordering Slovenia. His friend accompanied him on a day-trip to Venice, and Jordan has decided to return on his own for three days - later this afteroon, in fact.

He'd found Rome to be horribly expensive, even though he stayed over in a hostel, and ate light food. He's returning for a few days, wanting to see the Coliseum and Vatican City, among other places. Before then, though, on his return from Venice, he will try to see if another old friend, an Austrian who had come to Vancouver to study with Jordan a few years ago, and who is now living and working over the border between Italy and Switzerland, can free himself up for a few days of cameraderie.

Jordan's Italian friend with whom he's staying in Trieste, is doing a post-doctorate with an oceanographic institute located near the Adriatic Sea. Jordan mentioned how different he found the bedrock to be, on the mountains, quite unlike what he's accustomed to, around the Rockies and Coastal and Interior Mountains in B.C. Lots of pine, though, and larch, which had already turned bright yellow, although the weather has been mild.

He also said he found people ate differently there. While our supermarkets are full of fruits and vegetables brought from afar, there the produce available is what's grown locally, so everything is the produce of the season. They're more self-sufficient, in that sense obviously, than we are, spoiled by the availability of such a great range of produce, little of which is actually produced where we live. He noted, from Sweden to Rome that there were not overweight people to be seen, let alone the morbidly obese whom we see so often on the streets in North America.

Energy conservation is more of a way of life there, a commitment of necessity. Italian cars are small and neat and zip around all over the place. People are everywhere on scooters, and on bicycles; fewer bicycles in Italy than in Sweden. People drive crazily there, he said, but despite that, he observed that they're good drivers, careful drivers, on the lookout for pedestrians who, from all I've heard, are also crazy in their disregard for safety, through road-crossings. Zipping about in their small cars on often too-narrow streets (reflecting the fact that these are very old places) drivers are not averse to driving up onto curbs and sidewalks to speed up their passage in the always-heavy traffic.

Speaking with him was wonderful, we each peppered him with questions and undoutedly kept him on the line too long. Receiving emails from him has been rather wonderful too; from Sweden, from Rome, but there's nothing quite like hearing the voice of a loved one over a geographic distance.

Tuesday, October 11, 2005

Oriental Dolls

Dolls are of undeniable interest to a great many people. They are objects of beauty, they are cultural artefacts, they represent the human form in miniature, and as such hold great significance to me. I admire them for their creative beauty, for the cultures and the time in history which they represent. I enjoy being in their presence, as one would enjoy looking around on the walls of a gallery of fine paintings.

Japanese dolls in particular represent an effort by an ancient culture to inculcate a love of history and native culture in its young. There are recognized groups of dolls meant for boys, and these are Boys' Day Dolls, brought out of storage on this particular occasion, once each year. The same is true for girls' dolls, also brought out of storage (these dolls are seldom kept on daily display; Japanese homes are cramped for space and cannot afford to maintain a constant display of objects meant to be admired and studied once a year) for the yearly occasion of Girls' Day. Boys' dolls typically focus on former emperors of note, and warriors whose exploits form part of the historical record in Japan. Miniature suits of armour, as well as horsed warriors are also on display at these times, often in their own carefully constructed glass cases, sided with Pawlonia wood. Girls' dolls are more concerned with the portrayal of an Imperial Pair (Hina Matsura), accompanied with their retinue of servers, maidservants and manservants, often with their own Imperial Palace settings.

Japanese dolls' faces and hands are formed of a layer of carefully polished crushed oyster (gofun), over a wood base, and this polished oyster resembles porcelain, typically used in the faces and hands of western-style dolls from Germany and France. The eyes are glass and set into the face. To denote royalty eyebrows are absent and above where they would normally be, and central to the top of the face are painted in two dots (reflecting Imperial custom). Features are delicately and carefully painting in the finest tradition of doll making. There are also some dolls whose faces and hands are fashioned of silk, instead of gofun.

There are also other types of dolls, bespeaking regional traditions of doll-making. Some that are entirely made of wood, and with stiffly ornate cloth pasted over the wood, for the traditional clothing in miniature of full-sized peoples' clothing. There are clay dolls, brightly painted, which represent other cultural geographic areas in Japan.

And there are dolls, rotund in shape, beautifully fashioned, which were given as gifts to the heads of aristocratic households which, to obtain their gift doll, custom decreed that they had to suffer considerable expense to move their entire households and retinues temporarily to the palace of their overlord. This custom grew from a need to beggar a lord's underlings lest they use their wealth to fund armies to overthrow their lord.

There are exquisite dolls which are posed to play traditional Japanese musical instruments, beautifully rendered in miniature. And dolls which represent No theatre, and traditional Kabuki dancers. The costumes of these impeccably-created dolls are made of fabrics loomed in miniature, specifically for the purpose of dressing these artefacts.

Monday, October 10, 2005

Thanksgiving Indeed

To live as we do is to be fortunate beyond the wildest hopes of so many people who live in this world. By a happy accident of birth we live in North America, although I've no doubt there are places in Europe, in the near and the far East where people are fortunate enough to live in a manner to which humans easily become accustomed. North America is the place I know best, although I've had the experience of living in Japan and can attest to their high standard of living, second to none.

We wake up on the Thanksgiving week-end in comfortable beds set in comfortable houses. We are assured of warmth, of interior rooms which do not confine us, of a choice of foods beyond the wildest dreams of so many who live in this world. Have a shower, go downstairs and prepare a breakfast, say for example: orange juice, a half melon, banana, french toast, sausages, coffee, tea. Decide to go for a walk in nearby woods to enjoy the fall colours, the aromas of oncoming winter.

Come back to your home, and admire the gardens surrounding your house, still bright with colour. Begin cleaning up those parts of the garden which you can, without sacrificing those still-blooming beauties. Relish the crispness of the day, the pleasure of working your body at the tasks at hand. Take a few photographs so you will remember what your garden looked like; view them in the grip of winter.

Decide you'll make a garden vegetable soup with fresh-baked bread for dinner. Start with preparing the bread dough; include some thyme and grated Parmesan cheese. You'll top this bread with olive oil, feta cheese, tomatoes from your garden, fresh oregano leaves and a grating of mozzarella cheese to cover everything. You've softened the lima beans, split peas and lentils overnight. Brown a jalapeno pepper, garlic cloves, onion, and add to them a yellow tomato and a red one, chopped, until they render down. That's when you make a gentle choux, then add filtered water and the softened beans and let it simmer, to fill the house with its budding aromas. A half-hour before serving, add chopped celery, carrots, squash, and sweet potato. Tear some fresh basil leaves into the bowls before ladling the soup out. Serve fresh raspberries and plain yogourt for dessert. Good fare for a briskly cold fall day.

Next morning you can bake a pecan-pumpkin pie, prepare a turkey, forget stuffing. Make a dough for cheese croissants instead. Do some oven-baked tiny potatoes, cauliflower, carmelized onion, cut-up corn on the cob. Prepare a tangy olive-oil and lemon-juice-laced mix of diced baby carrots, grape tomatoes, Vidalia onion and celery. Don't forget the cranberry sauce you've already prepared.

Did I forget to mention? While you were laying in bed first thing in the morning, you listened to the news about the dreadful death toll in the tens of thousands in Pakistan as a result of the earthquake which also affected India and Afghanistan...the deaths were fewer there, as the epicentre was in Kashmir. How about the monsoon rains in south-east Asia, and the many drownings and emergencies there? How about the ongoing persecution and killings in Darfur? And let's not forget starvation in Tanzania and elsewhere in Africa. Oh sure, there's also the newly-emerging internecine warfare in the Palestinian Territories, a bit of a break from the terror bombings in Israel. Right, there's the deadly animosity and the deaths accompanying that between Sunni and Shiite Muslims in Iraq.

Thanksgiving, yes. Definitely thanksgiving.

We know with some fair degree of certainty that armed militias will not invade our home and drive us out, away, or murder us. We know that we have a society built on order and good will, the rule of law and respect for all. We know that should we fall ill we have access to a well educated medical community, to area hospitals well equipped to heal our ills.

We live in a society - although far from perfect - which concerns itself with the welfare of those among us who live less fortunate lives. We do make attemps to ensure that our municipal governments, our provincial governments and our federal government take some steps to assist those in need. We send donations as individuals to our local food banks, to our hospital foundations, to our disease-prevention-and-treatment charities, to our local institutions like Shepherds of Good Hope and The Salvation Army. It is not enough, it is never enough, but we are aware, and we are trying.

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