Monday, April 29, 2019

Phone call

August 2017
My brother phoned me yesterday. Usually we only phone on birthdays and Christmas despite good intentions to do better than that. It was not good news.

He started by describing surgery on his wrist for a longstanding problem that had worsened in recent years, we had talked about this upcoming surgery on our birthdays (two days apart in early April) and so I thought he was calling to talk about the results.

Pre-surgery he was required to do a regular physical check-up, and it turned out that in his medical records was a 5-year-old diagnosis of liver cancer. Somehow that report was overlooked at the time. My brother has his suspicions about how that happened and it pretty much amounts to grounds for suing somebody, but that is kind of beside the point now.

At the time of the diagnosis the cancer was operable, but if nothing was done he had a prognosis of 18 months to live. Five years ago. Now it is not operable. He will do chemo for it but the prognosis is considerably dimmer than 18 months even with the chemo.

He has been healthy as a horse the past five years. He quit drinking, he ran, he lost a bunch of excess weight, he renovated his house and built a monster workshop/garage/guest apartment pretty much by himself. He still has no symptoms.

I'm kind of stunned. His first appointment with an oncologist is after I get back from kayaking. He is my youngest brother and I don't want him to die. I wasn't planning to go out west this year but maybe I should.

Sunday, April 28, 2019

Chowder supper

In a few days I leave for my kayaking trip. Also I signed up for a weaving course in the city which started this past week but I didn't go to the first class. My next class is scheduled for the night before I leave for the kayaking. I took this course once before and I know that the first class is mostly just talking about what we are going to do so I figured I could skip it, but the next class is when we actually start our projects so I can't skip that. I have prep work for that class, which is to wind a warp for my project. And also prep work for the kayak trip: I am responsible for two meals and of course all my gear. So I will be very busy the next few days.

I did take time to go for a chowder supper in the Harbour though. It was a terribly stormy night and I almost didn't go but I am glad I did. The folks in the Harbour were doing the supper as a fundraiser to pay for renovations on the community hall. A number of years ago the United Church closed the local Harbour church and gifted the church, the cemetery and the tiny parish hall to the community, with a small sum of money for repairs. That money has long since been spent but the need for repairs and upgrades continues. This particular fundraiser is to help pay for the recent addition of plumbing: a bathroom and a kitchen sink and hot water tank in a small addition to the hall.

While at the supper someone emerged from the bathroom saying, "My first flush!" We all took turns washing dishes at the brand new sink with the window looking out over the Bay of Fundy. The parking lot was blocked off due to extreme mud so everyone was parked on the road. One of the fellows told me about the outdoor faucet for anyone to use for drinking water. They got money from an organization that funds community emergency infrastructure to do that and it helped pay for the indoor plumbing. A win-win for the community.

The church is maintained as well, it is used for music concerts. A great little venue that local musicians are happy to play in.

The chowder supper raised over $600.00 and I had a good time talking to people I haven't seen in a while. I washed a few dishes but didn't try the new toilet; I wished I had though by the time I got home.

Saturday, April 27, 2019

Bad mother

[This photo has nothing to do with the blog post title]
The last time my book club met, we were reading Olive Kitteridge. It seems we were divided down the middle in our reviews, some readers raved, some panned. I was one of the panners. Ravers praised the complex character of Olive, the development of character, the exposure of how awfully she treated her son Christopher. But also how the author led them from dislike to understanding, maybe even respect.

The book annoyed me so much (one chapter in particular) that I had to go take a bath to cool off. Then I read that it had been turned into a mini-series starring Frances McDormand, so I went looking for that and ended up watching the whole series (4 hours) before our meeting. This is one time I thought the TV version was better than the book. In my view the author took a bunch of characteristics and smushed them into one character and called it "complex". Olive did not make sense to me. McDormand's interpretation of Olive seemed to be that she was somewhat autistic, and I could make sense of that. But I disliked the son intensely for being so judgmental. At one point he referred to his second wife's son by another man as a "piece of crap", and I thought: "takes one to know one".

In my book club one reader referred to Olive having abused her son so it was no wonder he was so screwed up. Each chapter is a kind of vignette, only a couple take place during Christopher's boyhood, and I didn't really see consistent evidence of abuse. While Olive admits to having hit Christopher as a boy I don't see that as evidence of abuse. For sure she was not anyone's ideal mother, but she loved her son and took care of him as best she could. A couple of times in the book someone says that it is always the mother who gets blamed for childhood problems, and I agree with that. Very rarely do we accuse fathers of abuse or neglect unless it is quite horrific. Mothers just have to be less than perfect to be up for judgment.

There were a few anecdotes of horrible behaviour on the part of our parents and I said, Yeah, my siblings and I tell those stories and laugh about them. One person who is a family therapist decried Olive's narcissism for refusing to hear her son out when he criticized her for being a bad mother, another member related how when her teenage daughter accused her of being a rotten mother (for not letting her do something or other) she retorted that yes she was an awful mother, now go to your room. I said that if my son did that I'd react the same way Olive did; after pouring one's heart and soul into raising a kid one is not keen to hear that the kid didn't appreciate it one little bit. The therapist thought the correct response was to be open to criticism and to apologize for the hurt caused.

Interestingly, one new member said that what struck him was the difference between how kids are treated in North America and in Europe; he described how kids are allowed to go everywhere and do almost anything with little restriction or apparent harm. It surprised him how repressive American parents are. Perhaps if parents felt free to loosen the reins a bit they'd be less inclined to oppress their kids. But gods help you if you aren't actively "parenting" every second of your life. Bad mother indeed!

I was a less (much less) than perfect mother, so perhaps I am overly sensitive on the issue. I think I come from a long line of less-than-perfect parents and there was a time when I was pretty judgmental about my own parents' mistakes and faults. Eventually I figured it out and moved on. But it bothers me when I see other people engaging in that, I feel like swatting them upside of the head for stupidity. As my father used to say, "Quit yer bellyaching!"

But I guess that qualifies as abuse too.

Wednesday, April 10, 2019


I was on my way home the other night with two women. They are volunteers who help a couple of Syrian refugee families adjust to life in this part of the world. One of them was talking about a young girl in one of the families—she thought the girl might be around 11 years old—and how tall she is. Apparently this is a concern for the adult women in the families. They feel that because of her height she should start wearing a hijab, like an adult Muslim woman.

The girl is reluctant, no one else in her class at school wears one and so it would make her stand out. She just wants to be like the other girls in her class. So it's an ongoing discussion. The two women I was with thought it was a shame to make the 11-year-old grow up so fast, to mark her as different in a world she just wants to belong in.

It must be hard for refugee parents to see their children resisting ages-old traditions, becoming less and less recognizable to them. The stress of making their way in a foreign land exacerbated by the strain of dealing with children who adapt so much more quickly to the new way of life.

Saturday, April 6, 2019

Old People Out On The Town

Last night was the last show in the Performing Arts Series that I volunteer usher for, it was a great concert of the Nova Scotia Symphony Orchestra. They come here every year. This year they have a new and younger conductor, he was very good (and not hard on the eyes!). I learned some things about classical music from his introductory remarks for each piece.

The first was an Octet composed by Stravinsky, then a Tchaikovsky piece written just for stringed instruments ("Serenade for Strings"). The conductor said that Tchaikovsky was the culmination of a classical trend toward bigger and more emotionally grand symphonies, Stravinsky was a return to smaller and more basic forms. After the intermission they performed an early symphony by Dvorak, before he became famous for his Slavonic Dances. My favourite Dvorak piece is the New World Symphony. It was quite delightful listening to this much earlier symphony and hearing premonitions of both the Slavonic Dances and the New World Symphony in it. The final performance was by a composer I'd never heard of with a name (I mislaid my program and don't remember what it was) that sounded Russian or East European but who was actually Irish-French living in England. He pre-dated the other three composers. I think his piece was called Appalachian Spring and it was quite spritely. The last two pieces included stellar performances on a grand piano, by a woman who I found out later is transgender. Which kind of explained her height and dramatic manner of playing.

I had previously arranged with a couple of the other ushers that we would go out for a drink after this show. We went to the new pub in town, a converted church. This town has a proliferation of alcoholic establishments, more coming every year it seems. When I lived here back in the '70s and '80s there was one tavern and another student place on the university campus. Both venues are still here but the tavern in town has become quite seedy. Most "townies" and students avoid it. But in addition there are now a cidery, a wine bar, four pubs and four licensed restaurants. There's another pub due to open this summer. All this in a town of maybe 2500-3000 people.

The converted church is an older stone building with a wood panelled vaulted ceiling. It feels more like a city kind of pub than a small town pub. One of the other ushers invited a fourth along and we got a high table for four. Later our two "bosses" came in with some young women, they waved to us and sat at the other end of the church. Just as well, they would have dominated the conversation.

As it turned out the fourth usher had a really interesting story to tell about herself. She was the youngest at our table, maybe a couple of years younger than myself. She came to Canada when she was six, her family escaping Hungary in the aftermath of the failed Hungarian Revolution. Her description of the harrowing escape from the perspective of a six-year-old was riveting. At one point she said her mother gave her and her younger brother slugs of brandy to knock them out and keep them quiet. She said her mother always denied that she did that but she firmly believes her mother lied.

The day of the escape her mother woke her up and told her that she didn't have to go to school that day because they were all going to the zoo together. Her six-year-old self was very disappointed that they never did get to the zoo. She remembers two train rides that day. At one point the conductors on one of the trains hustled the family and some other people off the train and into a baggage storage room at a train station, and locked them in. She couldn't understand what that was all about, standing in this small windowless room surrounded by luggage in the dark. But Russian soldiers had boarded the train and the Hungarian conductors were hiding all the people trying to escape. The brandy-drugging episode was at night just before they had to cross a field to get to the border with Austria. They waited at the edge of the field for it to be dark before they could cross.

They arrived at Pier 21 in Halifax after their long journey across Europe, but their father did not want to stay in Nova Scotia. There was a large community of Hungarian refugees in Toronto that he wanted to join, but he couldn't find a job in Toronto. They ended up moving to St Catherines, where our friend the storyteller grew up. I remember that the high school I went to in Toronto was smack in the middle of the part of the city where most East European refugees ended up, I met many Hungarian kids in my classes. If her father had found a job in Toronto, maybe I would have met her then. She found school very hard because she couldn't understand or speak English. But the turning point came for her when she actually understood a book they were reading. It was "The Little Engine That Could". The first song on the radio that she understood the words for was "Lipstick on Your Collar", but she didn't understand what the significance of lipstick on a collar could be.

Another memory she had was of going to the baths with her mother before they left Hungary. Budapest sits on top of extinct volcanoes and is full of hot springs. Over the centuries many public baths were built there. The one our friend went to with her mother was a Turkish bath, built by Turks when they occupied Hungary hundreds of years ago. She remembers the amazing blue tiles of the place, but especially she remembers that it was the first time she saw her mother naked. Hungary has a long history of occupation by various peoples, and a certain resulting resentment. Our friend noted this on her last visit there. She is disappointed with Victor Orban and doesn't know what will become of her country of origin.

It was a most interesting evening!

Wednesday, April 3, 2019

Grooming and Vetting

On Monday I took Hapi to the groomer. It was a 4 hour ordeal, Hapi and I were exhausted by the end. Things went a little better than the last time though. I think the groomer, Mary, is getting used to Hapi and is a little less afraid of her, so she was firmer and more confident around her. Also she changed the way she did some things. She used to blow dry Hapi in the bath area which has three walls, and Hapi looked and acted like a cornered rat. This time she did the blow drying on the grooming table where Hapi could look out the window. She looked more resigned than terrorized.

Mary uncovered a big black spot on Hapi's tail that was new to me and she couldn't identify ("maybe a hot spot?"). So on Tuesday I took Hapi to the vet to have a look at it. A quick internet search suggested some kind of dermatitis but I am so sensitized after Hiro's death that my mind goes to worst case scenarios. The vet (Natasha) thought it was more of a dermatitis thing and recommended washing it and keeping it dry. "Benign neglect" she said. We also discussed end-of-life options, euthanasia and such. She recommended starting Hapi on some kind of painkiller regime. Natasha also said I should be aware that some cancers have a genetic component and what happened to Hiro could very well happen to her.

The only thing Hapi doesn't like about the vet's office is the weigh scale. We did eventually coax her into standing on it for a few seconds, just long enough to get a rough estimate of her weight. I was overfeeding her during the winter since she spent so much time outdoors, and sure enough she had put on weight. So it's time to scale back on that.

My son is going to mail Hiro's leftover painkillers to me, Natasha said she could give me a prescription but she wants to do regular bloodwork to keep an eye on Hapi's kidney and liver health, since that is the most likely drawback to the painkillers. So I guess the next time we see her I'll order that up. Probably expensive but what can you do. Natasha said that I should see dramatic change in Hapi's disposition and activity level if she goes on the painkiller.

I do like this vet, she combines pragmatism and compassion in a nice way.